“The great king Jaris Akai,
Wearing armor and sarong and bahag and pudong,
Stands before the great island of Siga
Thus monikered for the flames that that smoked gold.
He raises his hand,
Weary, weary, from years and years of violence
He unsheathes his kalis, and waves it across the island
And claims it for himself:
’From here shall rise the greatest of kingdoms.
From Siga’s golden smoke shall the great bones of an impenetrable empire be exhumed
May the ancestors rejoice in the glory that I shall bring them
May the Lunar Goddess, Ruler of All That Is, Light and Dark,
the Most High and without equal, bless the words that I speak
So that I may bring truth to them
For none deserve it as much as I, the great Sultan, God-King of Maharajahs, bringer of glory
Conquerer of Worlds.”The Song of Jaris Akai, the Tarsilas of the Lunar Empire
Jambangan was alight in the distance, as they approached. Its center was carved onto the side of the island of Siga, a god.
Learn, for a moment, for knowledge is power: in the Sword Isles, there are precisely 5 polities that are considered the largest and most influential. One must keep in mind that the thousand thousand islands that make up the Sword Isles is a breeding ground for a thousand, thousand kingdoms, and so there are. But over the years, over the centuries, of violence and trade, there were five that led the charge.
This is, of course, not to discount the strength of the other kingdoms and polities. The grand polity of Ibalnong, for example, has taken up their founding demigod’s profession of hunting monsters, and Ibalnongnon are peerless monster hunters because of it. The majestic polity of Sinuku have traveled far and wide, and it is them that have brought the reputation of Sword Isles mercenaries and warriors to the great Southeastern Continent, and have named those that come from the Sword Isles “the most violent and war-like of them all”.
Akai itself, even with its burgeoning state and beautiful Flower Pearl Flame City of Jambangan, is constantly rivaled by two other Sultanates: the grand Golden Temple-City of Sonyoh to the islands East, and the great Sultanate of the Flood Plains, Dagindara, to the West, upon that holy island of Kalanawan, the island of wetlands and flowerfields, home to the Central Pillar that binds the fourteen realms together as a sword piercing through the universe.
But the five most powerful states in the Sword Isles are thus: Virbanwa, with its conquest as its element, as its soul, inherited from the demon alien invaders. Ba-e, the oldest of the polities, having lived for a thousand years, now thoroughly influenced by Baikhan traders and missionaries, with pagodas and large complexes and geomancies. Apumbukid, a confederation of settlements that all work together to both protect the great holy mountain of Apo Dayawa, and also trawls the Sword Isles to uphold Hiyang with Nature, transcendent and enlightening harmony or oneness. Gatusan, a Rajahnate in the central isles, where 999 Chiefdoms look up to and recognize a single Rajah as their overlord, which in the time of this telling is Rajah Batara Ambasi, who leads the great nation of Kangdaya, the Dawn Eater State. Whispers go, however: Batara Ambasi is soon to ascend, to become the first God-King of Gatusan, the first proper Hari.
Then, finally, there is Akai, a Sultanate currently led by the great Maharani, the great Sultana, Yarashgara XII, the Twelfth of her name, direct descendant to the Pastel Flamebearer Jaris Akai, bringer of striving and divinity, lover of the great Bayi Sihkandag, first Priestess of the Lunar Goddess Baginda Sumongsuklay, and herald of the Lunar Faith of Iman into the Northern Sword Isles. Upon Siga, the great Pearl Flame Flower Island, they built fluttering Jambangan, Place of Flowers, for when Jaris Akai (who arrived upon the island of Siga upon a metal vase) built it upon an upriver plain, they were given the island by the great god of that flowerbed, who was named Jambangan.
And so Jambangan was built. It was a lowly city at first, and did not have much to its name. During its earliest years it was nothing but a trading settlement between the burgeoning Sonyoh Empire (not yet an Empire at that time, and still subject to the great Naksuwargan Empire) and Put’wan, once almost rivaling Ba-e in its power, led by the impressive Sri Bata Shaja.
Eventually, many Put’wanon left after a great war and schism that forced the warriors of Put’wan to leave. This war has been lost to time and memory, but all songs find their way to be sung.
Many of the Put’wanon that left flocked to Jambangan, water lilies making their way to the sea. They pledged allegiance to Jaris Akai, and Sihkandag converted them into lunar warriors, the best of their kind, those that would give their lives for the Lunar Goddess.
After that, Akai grew in power. In a decade, it was trading with the Middle Kingdom: majestic Baik Hu and its dragonlords. In the decade after that it brought home ivory seals, and Yarashgara, first of his name, was named Wang of the area, back when there were still ten kings that fought over the Sultanate.
There are still many kings of course in the Sultanate, in the same way that there are many lords in Gatusan. The difference is that there is only one Sultan, one Maharajah (Maha- being an intensifier, “the greater”, with Rajah meaning lord or king), similar to how there is only one Overlord in Gatusan, that Overlord being the Rajah, with the only thing being greater than the Rajah being the Hari, the God-King. You might find the strange semantics confusing, but nothing is ever easy in the Sword Isles.
But enough of that, the winds of change fly by and bring the coldness of time with them. Time does not dull Jambangan’s flame, as it burns into the night.
Bakong watched as the great city grew in size, closer, and closer. She wanted to step back, she wanted to be able to fly, to be able to drink in the entire city on its own, to be able to swallow the flames that reached the heavens. It was early dawn when they arrived: the sky was still that prophetic indigo hue. However, the Jambangan sprawled: boats of various sizes, from various kingdoms across the seas, anchored and floated on the mostly calming tide, but the number, the immensity of the quantity of boats absolutely choked the seas. The docks of Jambangan were still alive with a sort of muted activity: the kind of activity wherein newly awakened fishermen and merchants and traders began the day. They drank water, chewed on betel nut, or some other dried delicacy.
Jambangan went up, built onto the side of the island, climbing and almost covering the entirety of it, leaving less than a half behind the city as forest and wood, as was the agreement with the old flower god. Just as well, of course: the Sultana and the various kings very commonly traveled into those woods, known as the Siga Forest, to hunt as was the popular pastime for aristocrats and royalty.
A marvel, Bakong knew. Kangdaya had similar grandness, but Jambangan reveled in majesty, danced in grandeur as a priestess danced for the gods. That is to say: tranced, furied, and convicted.
It proved its grandiosity with itself.
It was majesty.
Grand pillars crowded its island base, piercing the sky. The roofs of cottages overlapped in tiered layers as it went up the side of the island, like houses hanging from gardens, arrayed like orchids. A river cut a path through the middle, feeding into the ocean. The great flower river of Siga, which flowed from the mountain in the middle of the isle.
As the sun rose on its path across the center of the world, a mirror within the grand mosque atop the great isle reflected the sungleam, creating a miniature sun within. What did they use it for? Bakong wouldn’t know, and she would be itching to know later on.
“There it is,” said Binayaan, as the group of them crowded about the fighting deck. The rowers of Binayaan’s war barge stumbled awake. They ate some power food—some taro preserved in salt—and then began rowing again, the last push. Somewhere, a crewmate furled the sails, and another crewmate threw an anchor over. “Grand Jambangan.”
“Have you been here before, sister?” asked Bakong, staring with awe as the sun continued its rise, stroking the indigo world with orange. Bakong’s heart hitched at the sight, it was the first and most beautiful sunrise she had ever seen, and ever will see. Nothing will compare to this first sight of hers. With the sea sparkling beneath, the grand vista of the Jambangan city, and the ancient sun, that star of day, of dawn, rising to greet them. That day star that brought with it orange and yellow swords to pierce and bleed violet morning.
“Of course,” said Binayaan, grinning, as she polished her arquebus. “Where else do you think I met Patima?”
Patima sighed. Bakong turned to her. “I am a singer from the city, yes,” she said. “I was training to become a court singer too, until Binayaan whisked me away, like a noble prince to a young princess.”
“It was a bit like that, wasn’t it?” Binayaan smiled again, and this time she showed her canines.
“But I am no princess,” Patima said, laughing a bit, watching as Jambangan grew larger. “I was simple commonfolk wanting to move up the social ladder of class. That wretched, wretched thing.” Closer still, Bakong could see the stray pagoda now, the giant temples that seemed like a mix of the main mosque and the spirit houses that were so familiar and common in Gatusan.
“And look at you now. Kadungganan. Honor. Prestige itself.” Binayaan shrugged. “Don’t tell me you’re not happy with this arrangement.”
“I never said I wasn’t,” said Patima. “But my heart does sing of home, sometimes.”
Binayaan nodded. “So does mine. And, of course, Sam’baha’s.”
“We are from the same polity, datu,” Sam’baha said, as she turned and then pulled herself up to sit on the railings of the fighting deck. “Of course we would miss the same place.”
“What will you do when we dock, Patima?” It was Bakong that asked, ever interested, ever curious.
“Binayaan and I have talked about it,” she said. “She, along with Gurang Huna and I, will be travelling to the Sultana herself. She has invited Binayaan to a meal.”
Sam’baha smiled. “Wow… look at you, little royalty of royalties.”
“I need you to shut up or else I’ll make you eat sharks.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Sam’baha said, shrugging.
“Ah, I was also about to say,” Binayaan turned to Bakong, “That your demonservant might not be well received in Jambangan. Your demon will be cleansed, as is part of their divine striving, you see. But I see that instead Bangahom has chosen a good form.”
Bangahom appeared, seemingly out of thin air. “If I need to wear a shawl and a wrap and a veil to fit in, then I will.”
“I have an extra,” said Patima. “I can grant it to you. You will need it. We can never be too safe, of course.”
They were at the docks now. The barge was perfectly anchored and stopped so that it never hit any other boats that were docked there, which was quite a feat. The docks were so choked that Bakong feared how they would be able to travel on land.
As she thought that, Jambangan porthands went about and constructed a quick rope bridge for them to cross, replacing the gangplank. It was a sturdy bridge, built with the sea’s salt water in mind, made of abaca, intensely durable.
Binayaan went first, followed by Sam’baha and Bakong, and then finally Patima, Gurang Huna and Bangahom. The last of them was Guro Karakasa, who had only awoken when they docked. He was still rubbing morning dust from his frog eyes.
The seven of them came upon the wooden docks that jutted a long way out into the sea, long enough for a whole fleet of boats to be able to anchor near it. This early on, the people were just about leaving their houses, to begin whatever they needed to do. It was in the middle of the farming season, right when the rains are about to begin, so they were finishing up the crop in the swiddens. Siga had to do swiddens, but at that point only a small fraction of Siga were swiddens. Most of the food and crop came in through trade. Especially from Kalanawan settlements.
Bakong knew this, Sam’baha told her before hand. And it was just as well. Bakong noticed that most of the people that went out had the look of sailors, of traders: greedy, sharp eyes, golden bangles and bracelets, gold-pegged teeth. They wore light clothing and vests so that it didn’t matter if they were soaked with water. Many of them were loading items onto boats. Many of them didn’t even seem to be Siga natives: they were Baikhan traders (who wore cloth shirts and pants and sandals; Siga natives did not wear pants nor sandals, they did everything on foot while wearing bahag or short trousers), some were even Baikhan scholars, wearing silk scholar blouses and flower brocaded robes over that, sporting large open sleeves.
Others were Iyamat pirates (they wore grand bamboo plates, stolen no doubt from samurai, and wore silk flower brocaded bandannas). Others still were Sonyoh diplomats (not too unlike Siga natives, though they wore flower brocaded and textile sarongs and head wraps, and sleeveless breastplates with gold patterns showcasing tigers), others Dagindaran mercenaries (who wore metal breastplates and peaked helmets and longer trousers, and carried around arquebuses along with body-length shields). They were of all kinds of folk as well: many of the Sonyoh diplomats were macaquefolk, some Siga natives were mouse-deerfolk, wearing silk jackets, and many more from Iyamat were antfolk peasants, mandibles clacking. Of course, bamboofolk outnumbered them, as they always did, as bamboo is more proliferous than fauna. Bamboofolk with their strange hair colorings and their gold-pegged teeth and their sometimes sharper than usual ears.
Truly, the diversity of it all was so overwhelming, filled with kingdoms from every corner of the world, that I will leave you to also be fazed by the dazzling whirlwind of names and definitions and titles. I shall let your mind wander, your soul shall be restless, let the notes of my song fill you with curiosity, be the flame upon your feet to keep striding forward.
“Are we at the center of the world?” Bakong asked, having never seen this much diversity in a single place.
“Essentially.” It was Guro Karakasa, who coughed a few times afterwards to get rid of the newly awakened grime. “Jambangan is a veritable trading empire. It is where all places, both north and south, converge. It is the center of the world.”
After paying a representative of the port chief (who was still asleep at that time) their proper anchorage fees, they were guided by a datu—a slender man with a pencil thin moustache but a kindly demeanor named Datu Mijak, a vassal of the Sultana—into the great streets of Jambangan. At that point, the city was coming alive, as most settlements in the Sword Isles did during the morning. It was always alive either at the coldest point in the morning, or during the coldest points in the night. What fools would they be to be working in the middle of the hottest point of the day!
Deeper in, as they wove through throngs of merchants leaving houses and cottages and moving toward the port—no doubt where they did their trade, half of it upon the water’s edge and the other half upon the water itself—Bakong realized that the “center of the world” was an underestimation. As they walked through some complexes, she could see various compounds with Naksuwargan architecture, with their stone walls looking like mandibles of insects reaching to heaven. Others had makeshift pagodas built within stone walls, with guardian lion-dogs standing in front of circular doors, Baikhan culture. These stood alongside the grand cottages and fences of local make, of those common across most settlements across the Sword Isles: cottages standing atop stilts.
The streets and alleys of Jambangan soon became fully crowded and choked as they pressed on deeper. More people waking up and going about their daily tasks. Others were bringing swords with them to cut swiddens, others tridents and nets to fish in rivers and the sea, others still went out to eat food, grabbing what they could before going back to begin on their weaving. Even more walked about carrying blacksmith’s tools—these people usually walked around with two or three other prentices, and wore golden jewelry that hung to them, lightning clinging to gods—with hammers and tongs and a chopping sword. They were making their way towards blacksmith sheds, which were built in appropriate areas.
Looming over it all, Bakong could always see in her periphery, the grand temple-palace complex of the Sultana. Grand lunar white spires piercing the sky—it was said this white stone was moonstone, and so to Bakong it seemed like these spires were the stones trying to return to its mother. The temples were of grand domes with complex geometric patterns. These were made of a complicated mix of hardwood and moonstone, an intricate dance of local items and foreign architecture.
Iman, the Lunar Faith, was not local to the isles, of course. It was brought in by Bayi Sihkandag, greatest of the Lunar Priestesses, a Prophet. Her name, Sih, was connotation that she was descended from the First Prophet, the Prime Seer, grand warrior priest Diraj Munir, hallowed be his name, who was given the mandates of the Lunar Faith by the Majestic Messenger Jivrail. These are the songs they sing, and we join their choir. They worship the Moon, for the Moon is the brightest thing piercing the dark, and thereupon that shadow-piercing-light was the great Lunar Palace of Baginda Sumongsuklay.
Soon the streets were filled with people peddling wares, children playing about, others practicing their martial arts in Sultana-mandated Martial Pavilions (which were always placed behind strangler figs), since with the growth of density in Jambangan they had to have proper places to practice.
And while Jambangan’s central city was dense, this was not all that Jambangan was. I’ve said that Jambangan stretches all the way into the island of Siga, covering almost half of it, and this is true—other enclaves and segmentary cities stretch further up river, and even into those river’s tributaries. These were all Jambangan.
Such a segmentary style of city is common in the Sword Isles, of course. Travel was so easy with the constant rush of water and resources so abundant in every region that such density as one would see in the border continents wasn’t needed.
A paradise, really.
So it was: that humans inflict violence even in paradise.
They arrived soon enough in a compound prepared for them.
The compound itself was four walls of hard stone. A kota, as the locals would call it, a stone fort. These kota were already existent during even the burgeoning stages of Akai, but when trade intensified and violence boiled loudly, these kotas increased in number, and they have become popular ways of creating enclaves in Jambangan.
Jambangan was one of the only settlements in the Sword Isles that would not be vacated.
Let me sing a song of context: which you no doubt have already known at this point, the Sword Isles are exceedingly abundant with resources, more resources than anyone else can realize and will ever realize. There was no need to fight over land. Scarcity of resources, of land, was not a thing. Instead there was a scarcity of men. Of folk. Of manual labor.
And so the wars fought in the Sword Isles are a violence of men. Men are captured, women are married with to create larger connections of men. Men to create houses, to farm swiddens, to create vast warrior networks (standing armies were not a thing, but various datu and their followers would stand together to create armies that could inflict much violence). In the isles, Folk was power.
What this did mean is that when raids were inflicted, houses and such were burned down, but people were not slaughtered. People were always captured. Similarly, since that is how people know things will go down, most folk do not stay to protect their settlements (itself borrowings with the consent of the divine) and retreat deeper into the island itself, which has natural outcroppings and bulwarks.
There are a scant few places that would be defended until last breath. Ananara, Kangdaya, Ba-e, Put’wan, Asinan, Kabuluan, Ibalnong, Sinuku, Kutawatu, Pannai, and of course, Jambangan. These were the only places that had more permanent defensive fixtures. Stone walls, swivel guns, moats, the like.
Of course, sometimes, this would fail, and it would cause a more severe mass exodus from such a place. One example is Put’wan, who fell in the Wars for Gold, and many of its nobility and aristocracy, bringing with them their vast followings, came to Akai. To Siga. To Jambangan.
They settled into the kota easily enough. It was a stone compound with a single main town house, partitioned into five different rooms. A number of cottages were built on each corner of the square fortification., creating the 4 + 1 pattern of divinity encapsulated into a square.
Bakong was, of course, given the largest room in the main house. As was customary for the highest noble, for the greatest aristocracy. Bakong was considered higher royalty by din of her being the daughter of the overlord of the Gatusan chiefdoms. Binayaan and Sam’baha were given other the other rooms, and so was Guro Karakasa. Gurang Huna was content with one of the servant houses, and so was Patima, though Patima lived in Jambangan.
There was a shared communal space underneath the town house, and was outfitted with a hardwood table set atop a bamboo platform and dais. They had servants with them—mostly Binayaan’s—who went into the kitchen annex to cook some food.
“Ah, finally,” Binayaan said as they congregated together on the table. They sat on textile fabrics, geometric brocades. “Actual good food!”
Bakong took a moment to witness the afternoon sky turning into that hue of indigo. The wind was cold again, without the terror of the sun. It was not yet monsoon season. It was coming soon, she knew. The air turned in this particular way when she was in her seclusion whenever it did.
“Bakong! Get in here,” Sam’baha called out, a bit to Bakong’s surprise. Something in her belly flipped, being called by her name. She turned and walked and sat on a stool.
Bangahom was already there, eating on a chicken leg, to which Patima chopped her hand. “Ow!”
“The spirits must partake first,” Patima clarified.
Bangahom blinked. “I’m a spirit!”
“No, you are a physical demon. There is a difference.”
“All right, all right,” Gurang Huna raised his hand. “Spirits, ancestors, we thank you for having given us this food. May our exploits bring us merit in thine eyes.” Then, Sam’baha took a plate filled with rice, raw fish, and a handful of vegetables—all unsalted—and made her way into the spirit house that stood nearby. The spirit house had a few wooden idols within it, laureled with flowers, and kept alight with a small wax candle that let out a fragrant scent. She placed the food in the small platform that jutted out front of the spirit house.
When that was done, Binayaan nodded, and everyone went in. Fried fish, eels, squids, rice, vegetables in fish sauce and vinegar. A saltrock stood in the middle of the table, and when anyone needed salt, they would pick up the saltrock and strike it with a blade or another rock, and salt would fall in flakes to the food. They were all served on plates of shining porcelain.
“Yours?” Bakong asked as they supplied the porcelain plates. Binayaan nodded.
“Well, technically, father’s,” Binayaan replied, a cheeky grin on her face. “But mine now.”
In the middle of it they served a certain soup on an earthenware bowl, with waves and Kasuratan—the writing system used across the isles—inscribed upon its neck and sides. A beautiful crafting. The soup was sour and spicy, made from a confusion of leaves, taro, fish sauce, black pepper pellets, and chicken pieces. To the commonfolk, this was a veritable feast. For Binayaan, this was just dinner.
However, Bakong saw that the number of food was not just for them. As they ate, Binayaan’s warriors, those that rowed her boat and served as guardians, also partook of the food. Not just that, but even the servants partook of that same food from the same table. They simply ate somewhere else because there wasn’t enough space in the bamboo platform.
They supped and ate. There was a tranquil silence as they ate. Binayaan and Bakong ate with spoons, golden, prestige goods. Here in the Northern Sword Isles royalty very frequently ate with spoons, while other commonfolk would eat simply with cleaned hands. Faster and easier to maneuver food into your mouth in that way.
The tranquility was framed by the crackles of embers. It was a ritual, as they ate.
They were here, at journey’s end.
And as with all ends, it was simply another name for beginning.