2. Loneliness precedes love, in the same way lightning precedes thunder. To be lonely is to say: “I am incomplete. I need someone to complete me.” To find love one must first be incomplete, in the same way for there to be thunder, lightning must first streak.On Love and Loneliness, by Makinaadmanon Kinabudhiang Hunahuna
Bakong must admit that she would be wrong to say that she hadn’t missed the constant nagging of Bangahom. As she, with Sam’baha, ascended an intricate flight of stone stairs, flanked by gardens of flowers, with crimson and pinks and purples and oranges and yellows burning the green leaves. It was beauty. Of course it was. How could it be anything else?
Aunt Puasa’s longhouse was grand and large, and connected with annexes that made it look like a cross. Servants ambled about the underside of the house, speaking and sharing and conversing. Others sparring with rattan sticks. Not all servants, then.
Standing by the ladder that led into the porch of the longhouse was Bangahom, standing straight, hands behind her like a true demonservant, but her grin still that slasher smile. She wore, now, a skirt wrap, decorated with intricate dragonflower brocades, which went about her body all the way to just below her shoulders. She then wore a shawl around that, pure white, like the flowing sashes of foreign gods. Hanging from her forearm, like a shield, was her sarok.
Beside her was another person. Bakong had to narrow her eyes as she approached them and arrived closer to them. He… didn’t look like a demonservant. If anything, he seemed too mundane, too mortal. A black-haired, caramel-skinned bamboofolk, wearing silk trousers and vest. He had an undyed headwrap. He was young, Bakong could tell, perhaps 18, 19 harvests? His hair was shorn short, the sides completely shaved off with flame, and a messy tuft dangled over his forehead like forest leaves. When he smiled his eyes almost disappeared.
The boy bowed as Aunt Puasa and Bakong walked by. Bangahom, of course, didn’t.
“Why are you bowing?” asked Bangahom.
“I am a servant,” replied the boy, and his voice was soft, lilting, with a tinge of hoarseness. He smiled at Bangahom, and Bakong could see flames shooting out of her eyes.
“Yes but you are yawa.”
“No. I am a sorcerer. I am not yawa.”
“If you are a sorcerer why do you bow!”
“My power is nothing to the power of my master,” replied the boy again, whose smile never left his eyes.
Bakong sighed. She put her hand on Bangahom’s shoulder and laughed. “There you are. You just up and left us.”
Bangahom turned and shrugged. Bakong realized that she didn’t bow all too much, now. “I was called away by… well, let’s just say The Harimau Sorceress is a strong magnet. I did not even know I was being called until I’ve arrived here!”
“Let us talk within,” Aunt Puasa said, without looking at them, as she poured water from a porcelain jar to clean her feet before walking into the longhouse.
Bakong looked at Bangahom. “Next time, tell us before you leave.”
Bangahom bowed, slightly, to Bakong. “I shall, lady.”
Puasa’s longhouse living area was large, long, and flanked by windows so large and wide that people could walk out of them. This was ideal, of course: cool ocean breeze wafted in, chilling them, even with the humidity and the sun-strikes. As they moved over to the silk pillows and sat, a comforting cold wind went about them. Not a chill wind, but a refreshing one. A wind that, really, one can only truly find in the tropical regions of Gubat Banwa, where the sun passes over directly, and so the sun spirits and the wind spirits dance and procreate and create music from heat.
Decorating the walls and the back side of the main living area were rows of large bronze gongs—agung—and mobs of porcelain jars. A showcase of power and wealth. Before the bronze gong was a raised bamboo platform with silken pillows and chairs. In front of the platform was a wooden table with an intricately filigreed and decorated legs, each one depicting a dancing earth serpent.
Bakong sat beside Sam’baha, and Bangahom sat to Bakong’s right. The servant stood beside Aunt Puasa, who sat as well. He took her spear and brought it to an intricate adornment that worked as a sword and spear hook-mounts. Below the spear was a kris—shorter than the usual kalis—still held within its scabbard, which was silver and filigreed with flowery designs that depicted the flowers that bloomed on the moon.
Aunt Puasa still sat with her breastplate on. “Forgive me if I have to keep wearing this,” she said. “Image is important.”
“Does it not get hot?” Bakong asked, referring to the breastplate being made of metal. It looked like it was of Baikhan make.
Puasa shook her head. “You get used to it. And besides, the winds are almost always fresh enough.”
Bakong nodded. “So it was you, Aunt, that called for Bangahom?”
“Well, not me exactly, but my servant here, Lambitung. When I saw Binayaan’s grand barge, I was convinced you had arrived. And lo, I was correct! It was Bangahom that gave me the idea, actually, as to where to find you.”
“And find us you did,” replied Sam’baha.
“I found you back in your enclave, actually,” Puasa clarified. “I simply followed you around. I didn’t want to interrupt your intimacy.”
Bakong blinked. Sam’baha just shrugged. “I appreciate it, Warlord of the Lunar Sultana. I did not know that you are related to the Princess.”
“There are many things you do not know about me, I’m afraid,” Puasa replied. “And you will do good to keep it that way. Nothing well happens to those that do.”
A lull in conversation. Tea was brought in—foreign, from Baik Hu—along with betel nut, spiced with local cinnamons. They drank and chewed. “Now,” Puasa continued. “I have watched you, Bakong, and have concluded that your skill in the martial arts are not yet up to snuff. It will be impossible, then, for you to fulfill the task that my sister has given you.”
Sam’baha raised an eyebrow. She turned to Bakong, who nodded at her.
“My mother, the Goddess of the White River, has given me what seems to be an insurmountable task. But I am convinced to do it.”
Puasa chewed. “And why are you convinced to do it, particularly? It is a task from your mother whom you have not met before in most of your years of life. For all intents and purposes she is dead to you.”
“It is less for her,” replied Bakong, who—in her head—was just happy to have a semblance of a relationship with her mother. “And more for who I am, after leaving the bukot. I have seen the suffering people undertake, not just in their daily lives, but for the sake of duty, and sometimes even for the sake of myself. Masuna, my kawal, of the Rajahnate’s Dragon Guard, has been left behind, to languish or strive, in my stead back in Put’wan, for the 87 Swords of the Star chase after me like the a comets’ tail.”
“I understand your words, young one,” Puasa nodded, a tinge of sageness. “Many people have had to contend with it, to be true and sure. And so what do you seek to do about it?”
“The White Goddess has given me some of her wisdom,” Bakong continued, looking down at her tea, which was tinged azure. The tea was steeped pukingan, a beautiful indigo flower. You would know it as blue pea flower. “There is a burning want in my heart to find a way to alleviate such suffering for the people.”
“A want that only an aristocrat can have,” Puasa said, scoffing.
Bakong did not understand yet what that meant, so she kept going: “She told me that the only way was to become Hiyang. Find the state of enlightenment, of oneness with those around me.”
“Concordance,” Puasa said. “Become Concordant. That is: true harmony and alignment with the Diwa, the flow of nature, the essence of all things. Enlightened Oneness.”
Bakong nodded. “However I am unsure as to how to achieve that on my own, much less how to help others achieve it. Therefore to glean more of my mother’s wisdom I follow in her steps. She has told me that I must face the Hero of Prophecy and kill him, so that I may save the people.”
“Perhaps that goal is aligned with what you wish to achieve,” replied Puasa, sipping on some of the azure tea. “You see, the Empire of Virbanwa has long been in Dissonance. All they have done is expand their war machines, create their technologies, and preach a destructive dogma that ends with only their people exploiting the land. If you have seen the great city of Ananara, it is surrounded by shanties.”
“Shanties?” asked Bakong.
“Aye. Places of poverty, cobbled together villages where they work and work and toil for a surplus of grains and rice to sell, to export, of which they don’t profit from but rather, the Batara Lakan and his closest vassals do.”
“How horrible,” said Bakong, and she did nothing to mask her emotion.
“That is but one of the many sins of Virbanwa. They have farmers flagellating themselves out of a misplaced sense of piety for sins they have not committed, resolving to follow in the suffering that Yumao—the God of Fated Ends—followed as penitence. Their aristocrats force workers to work purely for their own profit. They have erased all the gods and cultures of the settlements and polities they have subsumed under them, folding them into a hegemonic view of a single nation. Trust me, if I were to enumerate them here then I would be able to write a book, and create new epic poetry.”
Sam’baha watched Bakong’s eyes become as steel. It was almost endearing. The resolve in her eyes was one still unquenched by the waters of bureaucracy and mercantilism, of politics and power dynamics. Sam’baha wanted to protect those eyes, she wanted to guard that flame. If she cannot guard her own, then let Bakong’s fire be undiminished.
“Then I will kill the Hero of Prophecy.”
Puasa grinned. “Why?” It was an almost mocking grin. One that invited questioning. Go on, tell me why.
“Because…” Hesitation is defeat, Bakong. “Because then maybe I will be able to minimize suffering, somehow.”
“And you think killing the Hero of Prophecy will do just that? Do you think continuing this endless cycle of violence will be the only true way of ending the horrible torture that we have all endured, for millennia?”
“Then what must we do? We cannot simply leave the Hero of Prophecy and allow them to do what they do.”
“Why do you think that? Why do you think killing the Hero of Prophecy will minimize suffering?”
“Because of what you have said! The Hero of Prophecy is an agent for Virbanwa, are they not? And what you have described is a horrible blight upon the Sword Isles if it comes true.”
“You have not even seen this suffering, child!”
“I do not need to see suffering to try and stop it!”
Aunt Puasa’s grin did not leave. “Then you must become hungry.” She turned and asked for fried noodles to be served to them, and a servant immediately went.
Sam’baha blinked. “The Lunar Warlord is funny.”
Aunt Puasa turned back to Bakong, and her eyes were slits of diamonds. “You must become more than what you are. You must become violence. You must perfect the arts of war. You are not there yet. You are not sharp enough. You must be whetted until you are nothing but a cutting blade. Heed the specificity of my words: cutting, not killing. A sword only used for killing is useless. To perpetuate violence by inflicting it? Folly. Becoming violence to stop? That is divinity.”
Bakong blinked, she tried to find words to say, but found her tongue tripping over itself. What can she say to that but to understand? What can she reply but with affirmation, that she knows what she must become, what she must choose to be, and that it is something that she knows will be almost impossible for her? “Why is this something I must become? Can I not speak with peace and diplomacy, and achieve things through peace?”
“Fool,” said Aunt Puasa as her servants delivered a large plate of fried noodles upon a porcelain plate, and then distributed three porcelain bowls amongst them, complete with forks. “Thank you dear,” she said to her servant, and then turned back to Bakong. “Fool!” She forked some noodles into her mouth and slurped them up. Her servants filled up Bakong and Sam’baha’s bowls as well. “Eat.”
Both Sam’baha and Bakong blinked, looked at each other, and then shrugged. They went on to eat.
“Fool,” Aunt Puasa said again after swallowing the noodles. “You know who taught that doctrine? The Virbanwans! That is exactly what they want you to do. Diplomacy, peace talks, those are all soft powers. Their hearts are hard. Once a person’s conviction is steel, there is nothing that can bend it but a conviction that is stronger, more pliable, one that strikes harder. If you come up to a warrior with a steel conviction with nothing but an appeal to their heart then your words will be parried away by the strength of their resolve! Those in power want you to think that the best way to solve problems is through peaceful means. Do you know why? Because it means they can ignore you.”
“Then violence is the way?” asked Bakong. Curious, Sam’baha looked around the room. She saw the servants and guards that stood about the living room clearly in harmony with what she was saying, but also amused. Here she is again, with the fires of her truth, their faces seemed to say.
“Of course! But that word has been tainted by those that hold power! And so we must approach it with a sword of a different name. Justice.”
“Righteous violence. It is violence all the same, but those in power would rather you not say it is violence against them. Who else preaches peace but those that have the power? Because the peace benefits them, and no one else.”
Bakong pondered upon this, sipping tea and eating fried noodles. The food was tasty, of course, butt she simply couldn’t focus on it properly as her thoughts fell about her like weeping cypress strands. There is much she has to learn, and there is more that she must know to fully grasp the situation that she is in. However, with a steely look on her face (which, Sam’baha saw, and she couldn’t help but smile; Bakong really did wear her emotions on her sleeve), she resolved to be able to help alleviate suffering in any way that she can, and she will not do it with the limp diplomacy of the aristocracy, but with the force of power of the people.
“I understand, I think,” Bakong said, in between sips of noodles. “I know what I must do. I will become strong in the arts of violence, and I will become an entity powerful enough to face the Hero of Prophecy and win against him in single battle.”
“Good! Good,” said Aunt Puasa, her eyes shining almost like a cat’s. She looked like an elder tiger, just now, hungry, stalking her prey, except her prey wasn’t Bakong. Her prey was the entire world. “Remember that not all violence is physical. Hells, the violence that the upper classes inflict upon us is purely societal. You can gather an entire group of people to fight on your behalf, but that is shirking your responsibility. Therefore perfect the violence you have taken upon you, so you may inflict it yourself, and it may be inflicted upon you, and no one else. Carry that boulder of burden.”
They ate a bit more. Bangahom was quiet, Bakong realized, through all of this. Though she and the boy servant of Aunt Puasa—Lambitung, Puasa had explained his name was—stood by the side, quiet, neither of them apparently needing to eat Bakong understood that Bangahom didn’t have to—she was yawa. But the boy made Bakong uncomfortable by the second.
“You will not eat?” asked Sam’baha, seemingly hearing Bakong’s all too loud thoughts. Lambitung smiled sweetly, innocent, and shook his head, covering his cheek.
“I do not need to eat,” said Bangahom. “And besides, it is out of our place to eat without being invited by the Harimau Sorceress. She is the more powerful demon here, and she holds us in thrall.”
“Ah, right, right, the hierarchy of atrocity,” Aunt Puasa said, turning to the two. “Come, come, and let us eat.”
“Thank you, lady, but I am not hungry,” said Bangahom and Lambitung at the same time. Bangahom turned and scowled at Lambitung, as if he had personally said something to offend her. Lambitung stared straight on, with an almost smug smile on him, ignoring Bangahom’s scalding gaze.
“Speaking of demons,” said Bakong, turning back to Puasa. “Aunt, if I may ask, why does my mother seek to kill the Hero of Prophecy?”
Aunt Puasa put down her bowl of noodles and scooped a few more from the porcelain plate into it. This was, what, her third bowl? She replied, simply: “Spite.” She squeezed some calamansi into the noodles, picked off the seeds, and then kept eating. “That is the simple answer. Do you want to know the longer answer?”
Bakong nodded. Sam’baha resisted the urge to say: “You invited us to eat here so we both don’t have a choice in the matter and of course we would want to hear it, we’re already in the midst of a conversation.” Such thoughts popped up often when conversing with those of the upper classes.
“Witness, in the far far past, before even the Seventh Sun Era, before the Sakara Period in the Addawa Calendar. As Gods and Giants and Demons warred in a war to “end all wars”. A lie, of course. There! Upon that ivory throne, upon a holy mountain, within a castle so naturally fortified by rocky outcroppings and loose crimson leaves and intense foliage and shrubbery. The walls are made from dredged coral, washed out crimson, creating vast labyrinths. The castle is a castle is a temple is a palace.
“A great war was waged there: the warbands of Sumpoy, the great Slaver of Souls, launched an attack against the great Coral Mountain Castle. His warbands rode upon skeletal chimeras, wielded weapons of sharpened ivory and unalloyed flowers, wearing petals and blossoms and pistils for armor, for as you know flowers are the symbols of death in the Sword Isles. The warbands and datu that answered to him were all trained in one way or another in the Violent Arts of Death. They were feared across the Sword Isles, for their Martial Art was one of the few arts that could truly bring death to the gods. This is doubly true for Sumpoy, who wielded an ivory blade made from the bones of the First God of Deaths, steeped in the Sea of Milk and Wine. Diwata of death dance upon its blade, and death diwata do not dance! They mourn. This blade was known simply as Puraw, unpainted, and it was hidden as a blossoming jasmine that wrapped around Sumpoy’s neck, like a thorned choker. It is upon Ivory, that accursed bleached bone blade, does Sumpoy keep all the souls of the underworld in thrall.
“They have come to assault the Coral Mountain Castle, to end the life of Sumpoy’s mortal enemy. Devi Puraw, the White Goddess. Your mother. For millennia, Sumpoy and Puraw have been locked in constant war. Sumpoy and Devi Puraw loved each other—I would know—but their prides were too large, and so love and hate was a dichotomy unknown to them.
“During that time, Devi Puraw lived in Coral Mountain Castle with another supremely powerful being. The Elder God known as Makagagahum, the Almighty. Once a powerful God on his own right, he was tainted when the Virbanwans came, but that will not be until another millennia. For now, at the time of this story (stories are but captured time after all, and is how we paint time in the first place, as visual art paints space), he is Almighty, a God of Power and Hegemony.
“Devi Puraw loved Makagagahum, but not in the way she loved Sumpoy: that is to say, so much to the point of hatred and despair. Makagagahum won her, in the same way datu these days would win brides: by raiding unsuspecting harbor principalities and hinterland kingdoms. Devi Puraw’s beauty was unmatched across the Sword Isles: her moon hair was a signifier that her lineage traced back to Batara Chandrabulan, the great Moon God. And what else is more beautiful than the moon?
“She let him, of course. It was an all too mortal stint: Devi Puraw, having been spurned Sumpoy’s admittance of love (a win for her, in their little game), sought out someone else, and Makagagahum was power and strength. And so Devi Puraw fell in love, but this love was light and shallow, like a candleflame.
“It was Devi Puraw that gave Sumpoy the details as to how to properly steal her away. Unfortunately for Makagagahum, Sumpoy’s skill in the Violent Arts of Death was only matched by his burning love for Devi Puraw. Sumpoy bested the God of Power, and would have sealed him away within Ivory, if it wasn’t for his pride. ‘You are unworthy of becoming my slave,’ Sumpoy had said, and then took Devi Puraw away upon crimson flowers.
“Now Devi Puraw has lost their game, and for millennia has lived in the White River of the great Underworld, held in thrall to Sumpoy. Sumpoy takes good care of her, and actually allows her to leave, but she loves acting as if she’s a fucking slave.” Aunt Puasa retched. “However, Devi Puraw’s strength has been lost to the currents of time, and she refuses to show her face to Makagagahum again. The gods in general, at turn of the Eighth Star Era, at the end of the world, the Festival of the Longest Night, have begun to move their slaves. That is to say, you and the Hero of Prophecy.”
“We are nothing but slaves to them?”
“Fret not, slaves can yet liberate themselves, if they kill their masters. You are an important one. By killing the Hero of Prophecy, you will cease Makagagahum’s headstart. An important part of the war, for if Makagagahum gains headway into this world, then that is the end of us all. Virbanwa will rule, the Millennium Kingdom shall come, burn away all chaos, and there shall be peace. Not the kind of peace you would want, but it is a peace nonetheless.”
“Their game has begun, then,” said Sam’baha, leaning back.
Puasa turned to Sam’baha. “One Without Equal, what have you learned about the Eighth Star Era?”
Sam’baha shrugged, and then looked up at the ceiling. “That it is the final era, as sung by the great Sage of Violence Namulak Nuwara. All Violences shall come crashing down, and the most violent of them all shall stand victorious.”
Puasa grinned even more. A wicked, rictus grin, a grin belonging to demons. She leaned closely, and her face almost covered the entirety of Bakong’s vision. Within her eyes, Bakong heard Puasa say: “The Thunderbolt streaks across the sky. Only violence can save this world. Find Glory Beyond Heaven.”