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The winds were cold on the third day as they sailed for Akai. They were cold, but they blew. No omen birds flew across, their blue streaking telling others to turn back. No, Masuna had to face his destiny. He could never love his fate.
Was this fate? Or perhaps it was something worse, something more devious?
But what can be more devious than fate?
He watched Akai come up closer before him. He had taken on a bronze breastplate with the face of a fierce tiger on its chest, still wore the colorful tampi and bahag he had been given by the Dragon Guard. His trusty kampilan was sheathed into a hardwood scabbard instead of a breakaway rattan one. Sug, the trusted warrior of Sri Batumingaw, had given him a kalasag—a long vertical hardwood shield. Just as well, he was in his full regalia.
Nothing covered his upper head save for his crimson pudong, headwrap. He had oiled his hair, braided it with the small gold ornaments that he still had, kept it tied now instead of long and flowing.
Mito had been similarly given armor, though he also wore a large kupya, a peaked helmet, with a veil that obscured his lower face. He was more than happy to walk around it. Instead of a sarong, however, he wore the long habay-habay, that burlap-sack like undergarment that reaches shins. That should provide enough armor for him, that’s for sure. He also wore an bamboo breastplate, but he wore a colorful textile shawl around on top.
“I will not enter Akai without guardians denoting my stature,” Sri Batumingaw had said, and Masuna had no choice but to understand. That is how the Road of Royalty goes in the Sword Isles. If you had nothing to show for your strength, then you are nothing at all. Even would be ascetics and wandering swordmasters had their peerless skill in the arts of enlightenment and swordsmanship to show for who they are, despite having themselves shed off the glamour of materiality.
And so Masuna went along with it. Mito was not too miffed either. He was laser-focused on his goal.
While on the boat, Masuna asked his would-be younger warrior: “What will you do once the Moon-Haired One is dead?”
Mito paused from the ball of burnt rice he was eating. The pause was long—Masuna knew that this indicated deep thought. Which of course, amazed Masuna.
Then, just as Masuna was about to say something else, to break the strange tension of the silence, Mito said: “I’m going to kill that guy.” And he turned and pointed at Sri Batumingaw, completely straight faced.
Masuna turned to look at Batumingaw, who had his long sarong on and dark brown breastplate. Standing upon the fighting deck of the karakoa, he had his long hair tied up onto a tail high above him, and then kept in place by a headwrap that worked like a bandana. His features were soft, fleshy, gentle. Staring at him, Masuna realized that this was the same kind of gentleness that hurt the worst. This was the gentleness that was tenderness. It was like ice—something he had only seen relatively recently, on a trek to Mount Darag, one of the tallest mountains in the Gatusan region. It was like ice in the way that it was beautiful to look at, but when touched the cold will pierce through you quicker than any lance.
Masuna knew that he looked at someone whose gentleness was a weapon. In the same way that tenderness was the blade of the beating heart. In the same way that tenderness was the very thing that eviscerates us and pares our soul down to its core.
Masuna’s heart beat an erratic rhythm. He paused and touched his chest.
Sri Batumingaw saw Mito pointing at him and he sighed. He dropped down from the fighting decks and onto the prow of the ship where the two warriors of Batumingaw stayed. He did it too with a flex of his martial art, so that when he landed on the deck he did not rock the boat, and he fell down with all the grace of an egret landing upon the cold waters of the lakes.
Masuna saw Sri Batumingaw noticing this and placed a hand on Mito’s. “Do not point. That is foolish and disrespectful.”
“My mother told me not to point at the forest, or at late night, because we do not see everyone with our paltry eyes that does not encompass the fourteen worlds,” said Mito. “I am afraid of the gods and spirits that live among us that we cannot see, but not of something that we can see.”
“The blade of the living cuts more than the blade of the unseen,” replied Masuna.
“I do not agree, swordmaster.”
Batumingaw arrived, then. “Yes? Why do you point at me? You’d best be getting ready. The city of Akai approaches quickly.”
Before Masuna could say anything, Mito stared up at Batumingaw and said, “After the Moon-Haired one is dead, I will kill you.”
A moment of silence. The sloshing of waves and the spray of the salted sea filled the absence, peppered the tension. Masuna exhaled.
“I supposed they do not call you the Datu Slayer for nothing,” Masuna said. “Forgive him. He is… predisposed to certain violences.”
Masuna steeled himself, like he always did. He felt his heart skip a beat, a missed wingflap of an eagle. Then, Batumingaw smiled, and he felt his heart skip another. Batumingaw’s earthy eyes turned to Masuna, and he noticed then just how much like lotuses his eyes looked like.
Masuna then noticed how Batumingaw’s softness was not cold, here, away from Put’wan.
Batumingaw spoke: “I would like to see you try,” he said.
Mito knocked on his helmet. “With all this armor you’re giving me, I’m sure to do just that. Watch out.”
“Is there anything I can do to make it so that I’m not included in the bloody path of your axe?” asked Batumingaw. Masuna gauged him, then. He stood differently here, as well. He was less imposing, less like a cutting blade. As Masuna grew in the arts of the Kawal, rather than the Blade Gospel of the Sword Saint, he’d learned continually that some people are either sheathed or unsheathed in social situations. When they are sheathed, they are reserved, they are in a new situation, they are gauging their options. When they are sheathed they have the capacity to become a new person.
When they are unsheathed, they are cutting, they are deadly to the touch. They are slicing with their words and they are in their element. They are confident and strong. For Masuna, it was simple: he was sheathed when speaking, talking, conversing with kings and gods. He was unsheathed when he was in violence, summoning blades of violence, cutting with certain death, embracing the principle of the slashing blade.
Batumingaw was sheathed, here. A potential for a new person.
As Masuna gauged him, Mito had been pondering. Then, he said, after tapping his chin: “If you keep giving me a job and a house to stay inside, I might consider it.”
“For a child as young as you to be forced to fight and survive for their own sake in this cruel world is the curse of the gods,” Batumingaw said, crossing his arms.
Masuna blurted out, without thinking, “That is the way of it now, at the Seventh Star Era.The violence rises ever higher. There is nowhere safe anymore. We must take care of each other.” A gauging strike. A sword thrust with a probing step.
Batumingaw turned to Masuna again, eyes piercing. In the sunset, his hair looked even redder than normal.
“Then let us take care of each other.”
Mito nodded. “I’m taking that as a yes. I will consider it,” he reached behind him and tapped his trusty axe. “The blade of my axe seeks blood of nobles and royalty evermore, however.”
“I respect it,” Batumingaw said.
“Have you any more rice cakes?” asked Mito. Batumingaw only smiled, and nodded, and gestured for Sug to bring Mito to the back of the karakoa where they kept their food stores.
Masuna watched Mito disappear, and then he said, “You seem at ease.”
Batumingaw’s blade returned, then. His eyes steeled, his hands—which seemed to soften, turned into fingers that invited another’s to intertwine with them—curled into cruel claws. “Remember your place, Masuna Kulisat.”
“I only speak the truth,” another probing slash by Masuna. Out here in the sea, the power dynamics were flattened, at the mercy of the waves and great dark beneath. “I have noticed you are less tense than we were at Put’wan. You are… performing less.”
Batumingaw stared, then. Masuna unsheathed, staring back.
“You grow bolder out here in the waves,” Batumingaw noticed.
“The social structures that bind us is an ever-sheathing construct. Out here in the great expanse we are all equal in the eyes of the sea lords.”
“Spoken like a true Gatusanon,” replied Batumingaw. But then there was an awkward lull, a silence. Masuna gauged, again, that Batumingaw did not know what else to do after he had been blown open like this.
Masuna turned around to see the sea laid before them. The sunset deepened, turning the great blue into an enticing purple. The skies turned orange, bordering on red. The clouds were blackened swords. It would take three more days before they would arrive in the city of Jambangan. The Footsteps of the Gods, where the mahamandala of Akai is, is notoriously large, and the island of Siga, where Jambangan is, is far away from the island of Put’wan. He knew for a fact that Bakong was safe for now, but he didn’t know how he would be able to face him.
“Forgive me for speaking out of line,” Masuna said.
Batumingaw’s eyes sharpened and he said, “Remember your place, kawal.” His tone was defensive already.
Masuna continued anyway. “Why do you hide who you are?”
At that moment, the entire world faded away. Sug and Mito were far behind. The servants that manned the karakoa had disappeared. Even the drummer who beat on the boar-skin drums had turned into a faint thrum, the unheard heart sound of the trichiliocosm just for a moment. The world melted into a dichotomy of red and blues: the sea and the sky, the waves and the karakoa, Masuna and Batumingaw.
Masuna turned to face the prince.
Batumingaw snarled: “I’ve half a mind to decapitate you where you stand.”
“My violence is greater than yours,” Masuna replied. “I am a greater swordsman than you.”
“You over reach.”
“Parry me, then,” Masuna said. “Tell me why.”
A moment, a silence. The salted spray of the sea threatened to swallow them both.
“You are a very severe man, Masuna Kulisat,” Batumingaw said. “I am stuck with you for three more days.”
“It will go by quickly.”
“You are showing who you truly are, bit by bit, Masuna.”
“Is that not what you wish, Batumingaw?” asked Masuna, violating the faux pas of never speaking in second person to those of higher stature than you. “Or is all you want a sword that does your bidding?”
“You will allow me to wield you?” Batumingaw asked back.
“Only if I know the hand of my wielder,” Masuna answered. “You know that every sword has a dancing soul.”
“Then know me,” and Batumingaw reached out and slapped Masuna across the face.
At that moment, the world returned. As if the pure realm they had been tossed into had been dispersed by the force and answer of Batumingaw’s strike. It was a weak, open palm strike, however. Masuna did not even step back. He took the palm completely, his face turned to his left.
“You strike with your left palm,” Masuna replied.
“Watch your mouth before I shut it for you.”
“Once a sword is unsheathed it will continue to cut,” replied Masuna, but Batumingaw had already left him, travelling back to where Sug was.
Mito returned a few moments after. He noticed the redness on Masuna’s face. “The aristocrat did not seem happy with you.”
“That is just as well,” replied Masuna. He breathed out, circulating the air within him, letting it calm him. A common tactic he had learned fighting with the Dragon Guard, where calmness was one of the most important aspects of being a guard. “But the prince will find himself yet.”
Masuna watched as Batumingaw walked over to where the alcohol was. Sug asked what the problem was, but Batumingaw ignored her. He took a jarlet of alcohol and made his way to the fighting deck once again. Masuna sighed.
The next few days did fly by quickly, swifter than lightning. Often, Masuna and Mito would doff their armors to help the servants rowing the boat, especially during the patches of the sea that was rougher. However, the winds were in their favor at this time of moon. Just a few moons after harvest, when the trade winds led sails naturally to the Footsteps of the Gods. During this tradewind, many ships from Baik Hu, Virbanwa, and other Gatusan polities would travel to the Footsteps of the gods to trade and raid. In truth, raiding was just as prevalent as trading. It was nigh-indistinguishable, even: to raid was to gain trade goods and captives to barter and exchange for in the high markets of Akai. Every three moons after harvest was the peak of the Jambangan Markets, so much so that many traders and raiders who depended on a lot of their prestige goods to come from Jambangan considered the three moons when Jambangan was at their most commercially busy as the “Moon Market Season.”
* * *
At the end of the fourth day of sailing, after they had stopped by a satellite island off the coast of one of the closer islands to grand Siga, Mito noticed a rippling about the water.
“Wait! One of Batumingaw’s warrior-servants, a young man with narrow eyes and hair tied up named Kabagtak, looked up at Mito who continued with: “Whirlpool!”
Kabagtak leapt out from his rowing position, danced up the mast and over to where Batumingaw sat in a lotus position. “My lord, your servants have noticed a rippling in the water!”
“Veer away, then.”
The boarskin drummer—a large woman named Halup-a—yelled out and began beating the drums in a steady yet quick rhythm. The rowers set to work. The karakoa turned to dance away from the rippling in the water.
Masuna—who was not in rowing duty at that moment—noticed very soon however that the rippling did not make a whirlpool. He turned to Mito, who was rowing as he watched the rippling, and he yelled out: “Ready your blades!” Masuna was used at this point to the constant sea wars and raiding. He had encountered these before, once, out on a tour of duty following around Binayaan and Dagna, the priest-shaman.
Batumingaw—who had not spoken with Masuna for all this time—leapt to his feet and unsheathed his kalis, though hesitantly at first. “Kawal! What is the situation? Why must we unsheathe our blades?”
“That is no whirlpool!” And the rippling broke. Humanoid creatures with the coral-pink skin leapt out of the churning waters. At least five of them, wielding weapons of jagged coral and bleeding obsidian, sailed across the air, propelled by the force of their breaching. Their hairs were twined by fish bones, their armors were the ribs of whales and sharks.
“Magindara!” Yelled Masuna, and he leapt up. With his kalasag now in tow, he took on his Kawal-Sword Saint stance. He slammed into one of the magindara, sailing across the air to strike at Batumingaw.
“Raiders!” Yelled Halup-a the Drummer, and the rowers bolted to their feet. Their oars turned into weapons. Other magindara leapt up from all around them—they had been tailing their karakoa like shadows. They fought, as any warrior-servant worth their salt would.
Mito unsheathed his axe and went to work, hacking and slashing. His axe cleaved and cleft, lopping heads and arms, though the magindara were numerous, and their blades quick. Gashes and cuts materialized soon enough as Mito maintained his melee, fighting with the stamina and crazed force that only a child with nothing to lose would.
Masuna threw the magindara that he had collided with onto the fighting deck, and Batumingaw stepped forward to cut with his kalis. Masuna saw him breathe out a gust of air, and as he did, the bells that hung about him rang and and jangled, creating a melody that pierced through the pall of violent chaos and created a song.
Sword Poetry, thought Masuna, as Batumingaw’s sword seemingly danced on its own. He leapt over to two more magindara with whale-bone spears that had slammed into the fighting deck and he cut at them with two clean cuts. No movement wasted.
Masuna struck the ground and clacked his kampilan against the kalasag. Its bright cracking sound echoed across the water, a common kawal technique. He uttered a sudden prayer: “Lokapala guide me!” And he took on the stance of a fierce god, kampilan raised high above him and kalasag thrust out in front of him. He wielded his kampilan with his pinky and pointer finger outstretched, as if to make horns with his hands.
Five more magindara slammed onto the deck beside him, scratching and clawing, swinging wildly with coral krises. The magindara’s fish tail doubled as a serpent-like coiling when upon harder land.
Their gills, Masuna thought. Weak points. Two magindara launched at him, and he ducked low. He blocked one with his shield, diverted that one’s trajectory so that it sailed over him, and his kampilan bit down twice in a circular double-slash, catching the other magindara first by the eyes, and then at the gills. Three more leapt towards him, and he twisted—crossed legged stance—avoiding the one’s coral spear, parrying the other’s kris, and then punching the third with the brunt of his shield. The parry turned into an upward slash, diagonally cleaving the one with the kris. He stepped forward, uncrossing his legs, his foot pinning the sword of the magindara he had punched, and he pulled his kampilan back, savagely slicing that one’s gills, tearing it from his body.
The third raider’s coral spear bit into Masuna’s armor from behind. He retorted quickly, he turned again by crossing his legs, double-slashing as a parry, knocking the spear down, and then slamming his shield at the exposed head of the magindara who had over-reached. That magindara flew backwards, and Masuna uncoiled his stance with such force that he twisted in the air, bringing his sword with him, and cut down like a whirlwind of steel at two more magindara that had leapt out of the waters.
Two more magindara struck out of the water, carrying the heads of servants they had skewered upon their spear. They were leaping in and out of the waters to try and harry the warriors of the barge, though they were not attacking the barge itself.
They’re after the trade goods. An old-fashioned sea raid, then, Masuna thought, and his heart beat in anticipation. His adrenaline rushed through him. He was unsheathed, and he was alive.
One magindara was decapitated, and the other was cleaved down their shoulder. Their bodies fell away; Mito stood behind them, carrying his giant datu-slaying axe. He did not have any armor on, so he had a few wounds, cuts from the magindara. Masuna rushed to him and uttered a prayer, touching his thumb and his index finger together, stretching out his pointer, middle finger, and little finger. A mudra of potence. He uttered the healing spell and touched the wounds.
The coral infestation sloughed off of Mito, like a snail poisoned upon a tree. “The coral blades infect you, turning you into a coral demon. The healing spell will staunch the wounds and grant you vitality, but it will not completely heal them.”
“Underhanded tactics,” Mito spat, yet he nodded gratefully at Masuna. “I thank you, but the magindara do not seem to be diminishing.”
“Their captain must be slain,” Masuna said, turning around toward the prow just as a larger magindara, with four arms and two fish-tails, leapt out of the water and slammed onto it, breaking off the dragon head. On each arm he brandished a wide-bladed chopping sword made of coral and shark teeth.
“AH! FRESH MEAT AND WEAPONRY!” He hissed, his teeth jagged, sharklike. “THE MOON BLESSES US TODAY!”
“Speak their names and they shall arrive,” Masuna said. He stepped forward. “I take it you are the captain?”
“I AM LAXAMANA KAUDR, AND I HAVE COME TO TAKE WHAT IS NOW MINE.”
Batumingaw’s voice echoed from over them: “Prove it then!” Masuna turned to see Batumingaw, clothes tattered and broken, hair now flying in the wind free of its knots. He seemed like a burning flame. A Flaming Prince. In both hands he brandished a kalis. His eyes were lit with valor and violence. Masuna saw his collarbones, his untattooed arms, the tight bright crimson cloth—like blood—binding his chest. “If what is on my ship is rightfully yours, kill me! I am the captain of this ship!”
The four-armed magindara captain raised his scaly arms, pointing two of his coral-shark teeth blades at Batumingaw. “SAY YOUR NAME SO THE VERY GODS OF THE DEEP CAN HEAR!” Laxamana Kaudr hissed. “ SO THAT WHEN I TAKE YOUR HEAD AND YOUR SOUL THE GODDESS OF THE SEAS CAN TAKE YOU AND REMOVE YOU FROM THE WHEEL OF REINCARNATION!”
Batumingaw stole a glance from Masuna.
“I am Kawilankayu! The Queen Flower Aflame! The Princess of the Blaze!” And at that moment, her hair did seem like flame. At that moment, Batumingaw of the Lonely Stone burned away, giving way to the Queen Flower Aflame.
And at that moment, Laxamana Kaudr surged forward.
“Together now,” Masuna muttered, and Mito immediately understood. With a flex of their art, they leapt up, winds and muscle and breath carrying them up to the fighting decks. Laxamana Kaudr clashed with Kawilankayu, who met all four blades with two of her own. Laxamana Kaudr of course had the upper hand, the benefit of having more appendages. Two of his arms slipped past, but Masuna and Mito were there, parrying the other two away.
Kawilankayu took the chance, bowing low and then slicing up. Her blades crashed against the scales of Laxamana Kaudr, but her movement was more a distraction than anything. With the combined movements of the parry and the double-upward cut, Kawilankayu moved her blades into a circular motion, summoning actual flame, throwing the second sword onto Laxamana Kaudr’s torso, and then with her now free hand performed the hand gesture for FLAME. With a word belonging only to the oldest of Ashinin priests, she uttered: “Firebird!” And her eyes did spark with fire and a hawk of flame did erupt from her hands.
It was point blank: the firebird engulfed Laxamana Kaudr and scorched his scales.
Mito, sensing blood, much more like a shark than Laxamana Kaudr, took the opportunity to cleave at the Laxamana’s chest, and blood spilled out. Heavy, ink.
Howling, Laxamana turned and cut down at Mito. Masuna tried to get his shield in the way but the quadruple slicing blades were lightning, and Mito was cut. Once, twice, thrice. The Laxamana’s howling turned into laughter. His fourth blade fell towards Mito’s neck; Sug’s blade was there, barring the fatal blow.
With a quick movement, Sug kicked at Kaudr, pushing him back to the edge of the fighting deck. Masuna and Kawilankayu sprinted forward, circling around to flank the Laxamana; Masuna’s blade bit into Kaudr’s side, but Kaudr’s retaliation honored Masuna. Two quick twisting strikes, Masuna was not fast enough—or was too committed to his own strike—to block, and the blade cleaved into his armor, a gash on his thigh, an all-too close graze on his cheek.
Kawilankayu did the same, but the Laxamana retaliated just as quickly, disarming Kawilankayu of both her blades, leaving her with fists bubbling with the anticipation for flame. Without her blades, Laxamana Kaudr flicked two of his wrists, and two blades whipped out, steel lightning. Two deep gashes onto Kawilankayu’s arm and abdomen. She stumbled back, and the Laxamana pressed: he advanced and struck a steel whirlwind.
Kawilankayu’s defense was desparate, her armor taking the brunt of it, but cuts materialized on her cheeks, her collar, her forearms and biceps and her abdomen.
Wincing, Kawilankayu yelled: “Sug!” With a nod, Sug ran to behind the drumming Halup-a, kicking away a few more magindara on the way, and then fished out a long dragoon pistol. She chucked it at the bleeding Kawilankayu, just as the Laxamana unleashed two double-strikes.
Masuna, fighting through the pain, leapt over the Laxamana’s tails, slid underneath one of his stray blades, and came up just in time to catch both double-strikes with his kalasag. His kalasag shattered, the last double strike caught him by his arm, deep-gashes. He let out a pained bark.
Kawilankayu caught the dragoon pistol—thrown at such a force that she had to twist in mid-air to keep it in her hand—and she summoned the firebird again with her bullet. Right at the Laxamana whose bloodlust and violence forced him to over-reach.
The firebird went through the Laxamana Kaudr’s head, the bullet of the dragoon pistol exploding into the piscine skull.
Laxamana Kaudr’s body fell limp onto Masuna, who caught him with both hands.
The drumming beat stopped. The magindara looked up; seeing their captain dead, his soul now taken by the sea gods, the sea raiders leapt back or slunk back into the waters, deep into the waves.
* * *
The island of Siga loomed in the distance. The sun had disappeared now, and their only guiding light was the last horns of the moon. They had timed it, of course, so that they sailed during the night when the moon was out. Sailing when the moon went hunting is never a good idea: that is the time for demons and witches.
They healed their wounds against the night sky.
The rowing servants of Batumingaw—what was left of them—rowed slowly, as instructed by Masuna, who took over when Batumingaw (now, Kawilankayu) collapsed after the fight. They were more than happy to oblige. Sug was in charge of keeping everyone in line. Masuna ordered her to grant the servants proper spoils, to which the servants perked up to at the least. Those that survived received a coral kris, or a shark-toothed spear, or a mail made of sorcerously-hardened seaweed. Some even used whale-bone lances as oars. There were many too that died, or were taken as captive. They belonged to the sea, now.
Underneath the fighting deck, they laid both Mito the Datu-Slayer and Kawilankayu down on textile cloth.
“Here,” said Sug. She was there, as Masuna knelt before the two of them. The warrioress gave Masuna pots of herbal remedies. “We’ve had them packed from the Put’wanon balyan.”
Masuna opened it and smelled inside. A deep earthy flavor, with a pinch of zest. It was not pungent, but rather, smelled rather similar to coconut oil. “Good,” said Masuna. Balyan herbal remedies were different across the polities of the Isles, but in general there were common herbs and flowers that could be found across the isles.
“The balyan told us that that is a periwinkle-fireflower mixture, steeped in springwater.”
“A strange mixture,” replied Masuna, who was still grasping at the little that the Priest-Shaman Dagna had taught him about remedies. “Unique to Put’wan, I’m sure.”
“The remedy is supremely effective.”
Masuna took a good slop of it with two fingers, breathed into it, ran it over a candleflame, and then uttered: “Hilom, hilom.” Quiet, quiet. The wounds flared. Masuna administered the mixture, which had been ground into fine paste. Both Mito and Kawilankayu were out cold, having sustained numerous cuts.
Masuna saw to it that their wounds were dressed, covered up by the herbal paste and then secured by strips of cleaned palm leaf and cotton. Mito had worse wounds than Kawilankayu, but Kawilankayu was breathing slower than Mito. After all the wounds were dressed, he performed his healing spell once again upon them.
“I fear all of Mito’s exploits would lead him down the path of an early death,” Masuna mentioned as he finished dressing their wounds and letting burnt incense sticks mixed with cinnamon and heartleaf (shaped like a heart, the heartleaf’s god wafts through the smoke it makes when it is burnt, administering healing properties). He stood.
“So will you,” Sug said, watching Masuna stand. Masuna himself had sustained multiple wounds as well.
“It is nothing,” replied Masuna. “I have suffered worse wounds. Conditioning against these things is the most basic training of a kawal, after all.”
Sug nodded. “I would know. I was trained in that art as well. The art of the eight direction guardian. However you… your vitality is more.”
“I have simply weathered more blades,” Masuna said, and his voice was very tired and old.
“You are already on the path of an early death,” said Sug, giving Masuna the small pot of herbal remedies. Masuna had almost forgotten, having been so accustomed to healing others up. He took some and addressed his own wounds, though without the same care and thoroughness as Mito’s or Kawilankayu’s. He winced at every application.
“I know this,” Masuna said. “I have had to become too acquainted in my line of work.” He finished dressing his wounds with a healing spell.
“You must preserve yourself,” Sug said. “It is the only way to truly protect those around you.”
“I am but a blade,” Masuna said. “That is all I must be. Blades sometimes break.”
“I do not see it as you,” Sug replied, leaning onto the one of the pillars of the war barge. “I think a true kawal must be a shield, an armor, one that can be repaired, one that must stay a while for the one they cling to, that which they love.” Sug turned to look at Kawilankayu. “What is it that you love, Masuna?”
“My family,” he replied, without a beat. “There is nothing I love more. There is nothing I can love more. They brought me into this world and they have given me my ways to protect and love myself.”
“I see. So that is why you have chosen to kill the one you love instead of staying by her side?”
“I cannot risk it,” Masuna said. “The only reason I fight is because I know my mother and father work back home. The only reason I have honed myself into a blade is because of all the sacrifices they have made for me. I… I would die for them than for my princess, if given the chance. If forced to choose.”
“Do you not think that is dangerous, to have that much gratitude for someone?”
“No. I think we do not have enough gratitude in this world. My sole wish is to be able to continue my family’s line. To grant them a family that they can be proud of. A son that they will look down upon with love, even as they become gods in the sky.”
“You are lucky,” replied Sug. “Nay, your parents are lucky. To have a son such as you.”
“They are good parents. They deserve a son pious to them.” Masuna winced again as he applied heat to the paste remedies. “And what do you love, Sug?”
“I am loyal to my prince,” she turned to Kawilankayu. “Batumingaw.”
“She is no longer Batumingaw.”
Sug exhaled. “I knew ever since I saw her that she wanted to be Kawilankayu, but the dictates of her mother made her do otherwise. She must do what her mother wishes, else she be destroyed. Kawilankayu does not wish to be Batumingaw, but she has no choice. She must be Batumingaw.”
“She is Batumingaw because her mother seeks the Put’wan throne, is that it?” Masuna inquired.
Sug only nodded. “When outside of Put’wan with those she knows she will never see again, she often dons Kawilankayu. Her preferred form. She is a musician, as woman’s profession. And she wishes to be a weaver. She only fights because she has been taught to be a man.”
“Her mother does not deserve piety, then,” Masuna said. “To deny your child their wishes is dissonance and dishonor.”
“But that is the way of it in Gubat Banwa, is it not?” asked Sug. “One must claw your way to the top by any means necessary, whether your claws be that of gold or cat.”
Masuna and Sug stood in silence. The silent rhythm of the rowing outside replaced the fierce drumbeats of the fight just before. “I do not think that is the only way of it.” Masuna said, which was followed by another silence, to the backdrop of the waves lapping at the barge.
“We near Jambangan, City of Flowers,” said Sug. “What do we do?”
“We pay the anchorage fee and go to a guest house,” said Masuna. “Then we let them heal for a bit. Their wounds are deep, but once we get our hands on some Bukad-Bulan, lunar blossoms, then their wounds will heal much faster than before. Bukad Bulan are a common lunas (that is, panacea) in the Dragon Guard. Just the right amount applied and ingested will shorten the healing process from moons to a matter of days.”
“Is that why the Akainon are so potent?”
“Probably, though from what I’ve heard from my mender teacher, you cannot abuse it too much, else you find that you cannot breathe as lunar blossoms blossom from your mouth and eyes and throat.”
“I see.” Sug nodded. “I appreciate your help, Masuna. Despite the ferocity of my lord.”
“When we arrive in Akai, do we continue referring to her as Batumingaw?”
“We will have to. Unless she forsakes her mother, she will ever have to be the Lord known as Batumingaw.”
Masuna looked at the still face of Kawilankayu, then. Her hair seemed more crimson, now. Not just a tinge. It flared about her like a flaming halo. Her skin the color of lightly burnt coconut flesh, as if she was supposed to be a veiled maiden but that destiny was burnt away in flame.
Like a sword, Masuna cleaved through Kawilankayu. He sighed, then.
“Your own Lady is supposed to be there in Jambangan, no?”
“Will you kill her?”
Laxamana is a common term for admiral, a commander of a fleet or a naval squadron. The term is used throughout the Sword Isles.