“‘Love does not belong to just you. Love belongs to all. Love is abundant. Where can you find love? In the petals of the trees, in the sighs of the wind as they dance about trees’ boughs, in the cackle of bamboo as they clatter against each other. Love is nature, and nature is love. If you wish to ever achieve Hiyang, in this life or in your next nine lifetimes, you must learn this lesson. Even the edge of the sword, or the point of an arrow, is imbued, charred, scorched, shattered with love.’ Thus was the teaching of the Sage of Cleaved Ironwood.
‘Who taught you those things?’ asked Makinaadmanon Unkindled Smokeless Flame, as the Sage of Cleaved Ironwood sang atop his bamboo dais. Her eyes were pale, and her hair fell as if a strangler fig had sprouted from her.
‘My greatest proclamations are not taught to me. They are things I gleaned directly from observance.’ The fool did not know that he spoke to a Makinaadmanon, sages who hold Hiyang to their hearts like cutting secrets.
‘Then you learned them from the world, from nature, you ingrate, you dolt!’ She pointed her finger, and the Sage died. ‘Love does not belong to us at all. Love is a precious gift, a shining star. With the star in our hands: we cannot give such a thing to ourselves! We can only give it to the ones that come after us. Love does not belong to us. We are too late for love. We have loved and lost. We have loved and lost.’”
– Teachings of Makinaadmanon Unkindled Smokeless Flame.
Masuna was not slow. Of course not. His name bore the meaning: Shining Lightning, and like lightning he was unpredictable. His hand shot out and disarmed the balaraw in a quick action, too quick for everyone else to see. At the end of the movement he was standing, indignant. His face was stoic, but did anyone else need to see his face move to realize his anger?
He had flipped over a guardsman working for some datu. A kawal, just like him. Just as he was. The guardsman groaned before rising, rubbing a sore spot on their wrist. No bruises. To be a sword is to control one’s own blade.
“Forgive me,” said Masuna immediately, bowing low and covering one cheek with one palm. But his apology was deflected, rejected, like lightning finding no earth to meet. The spears of the other kawal were suddenly all pointed at him, so close that he could hear the vibrations of each blade: the spirits dancing in glee when immersed in violence.
“You–” it was the guardsman that he flipped. She adjusted her breastplate. “–have been summoned by Datu Batumingaw, on accounts of disruption of Banwa Put’wan.”
Masuna stood again, betraying nothing with his face. He had gotten extremely good at that, over the years. He had long internalized that to be his best skill, better than his prowess with the sword, his aptitude with the shield, his skill in the martial arts. His ability to look as if he had kept calm, letting nothing go. If the mask cracks, things will spiral out of control.
And he is the only thing he can control.
Don’t break, don’t break. He whispered this to his sword, to his shield, back when the hibiscus petals reminded him of his youth, of the time he first died. And so now he cannot break. He cannot break even if he wanted to. The consequence of resilience.
Of course, The Sword Isles was not above exerting violence to control. It was on the cusp of that, the cusp of empire, of degradation, of ruin. Sword Isle settlements had sheriffs, personally appointed by the lord of the settlement.
Back now, to this present time. Put’wan. He realized he had nodded and was now walking up a stone path into a compound fortified with stockades painted red. The compound had a single large town house in the middle, houses befitting datu, royalty.
This town house was thirty meters in length, built upon thick hardwood pillars. The pillars were tall enough to be used as a communal area: and it was. Various commonfolk-–servants of the datu that lived here—went about cleaning tables, wiping down the pillars with oil, decorating wooden filigree with palm leaf origami. Attached to the side of the town house was an annex kitchen that was half as long as the town house. The town house itself had a sort of veranda surrounding it, where Masuna saw some children playing with wooden tops. Golden cords adorned with push-daggers hung from the children’s shoulders, and they wore intricate and heavy bahag. All men, of course. Girls were either brought up to become weavers or singers or priest-healers, or kept within special enclosures to be eventually used to create political connections through marriage.
Masuna followed the kawal as they prodded him to walk up a set of wooden stairs. The stairs were also intricately decorated with filigree depicting dragons swallowing stars. Masuna had an eye for detail, he could see all of this. Of course he could, he had to. Having ignorance blot his vision is a path that leads to death.
He’d gone down that path before.
His feet stepped onto the polished wood of their porch. He walked up to the doors–-which were open, and the door frame was similarly carved with bas-relief sculptures of a hero slaying one thousand kurita (the demon of a hundred arms)—and was commanded to wash his feet. Before he did, he saw the man sitting upon an extravagant throne made of silk pillows and adorned with swords and spears.
Masuna washed his feet—a common house visiting ritual in the Isles—and then one of the guards shoved him inside. He didn’t stumble. He walked up like a prisoner to the textile silks placed before the datu. Up close Masuna could smell the oil of his hair, the scent of his perfume.
Masuna was a man of courtesy. As a sword, he could not imagine anything else. He performed the proper greeting ritual: both hands across his chest, he bowed, one foot in front of him, the other before him, slightly raised off of the hardwood floor. He made sure his palms faced him, covering his cheeks.
After bowing, he squatted low, looked to the floor. Never look at a noble in the eyes until they say so. Such a thing was a worse offense than killing gods in the forest.
“You may look at me.”
Masuna noticed their voice to be a strange kind of light. Maybe hoarse. A kind of… forced depth. He would know, he of the sword.
Of course, our Shining Lightning never betrayed a command, unless it forces the sword to bend. He looked up at him, at the datu. His hair was tied up into a high ponytail; it looked like the tassels upon an embellished ceremonial kris.
He was beautiful.
That was the word that struck Masuna: beautiful. The immediate kind, the one that doesn’t let you decide if it truly is or not. And Masuna has had to admit that that was what he thought. Masuna has practiced to never lie to himself. The whole world lies to you, why would you add your own voice to that chorus?
But whether the datu was beautiful or not had no bearing in his current situation.
“I have been told,” said the datu, looking at a palm leaf scroll on one hand. “That you were inciting unrest upon the ports. Is this true? There was trouble in the docks today.”
Masuna thought for a moment. He wasn’t sure how to answer. Was he ever sure? To be sure how to answer is like saying you know all of life’s secrets. “There has. And I suppose, datu, that I was a part of that same altercation.”
“Then explain yourself.”
“The tale tarries long and is better served over some betel nut and alcohol.” Masuna said this looking at the ground, with the sharpness and perfection of a twenty-times folded blade.
Masuna heard the footstep of the head kawal. The woman. “Watch your tongue, warrior!” She was supposed to say something more, but the datu interrupted her.
“If! If that is the case,” interjected the datu. Masuna saw the feet of the kawal stop, and then shuffle back to where she first stood. “Then I shall have my servants prepare us a table. Tell me your story, warrior. And tell me your name.”
“Masuna Kulisat,” replied Masuna, respectfully. As respectfully as he could muster, looking at the light brown eyes of the datu, glowing in the moonlight. “That is my name.”
“Shining lightning,” said the datu. “A name that begs for stories to be told about him.”
“What is a name but something one decides describes them well enough?” replied Masuna after a moment of thinking. He let his words fly: he had gone through enough that day. “I cannot ascertain the destiny brought about by such a name.”
“Who knows? Perhaps you will grow into a proper karanduun? A hero whose exploits are sung about in grand feasts.” The riposte of the datu, who leaned to one side and caressed an arquebus with a barrel that exploded into a naga head. “Is such glory amenable to you?”
“I am not defined by the songs of others,” replied Masuna, and he saw the datu’s eyes harden. A flame stoked with charcoal. “I am a sword that sings its own rhapsody, its own harmony, its own dirge.”
“You are to be used by others, then? Like a whore.”
“If that is what you deem me to be then that is what I must be.”
“You insult me,” said the datu immediately. “You insult me with your bravery. Come, let us drink, little whore. You speak as befitting your name. The most beautiful swords usually have the most useless, blunted edges, drinking nothing but ceremony.”
The datu rose to his feet, and Masuna noticed that he walked upon steel clogs. Paruka, to be precise, for there is no word in your language that approximates it well enough. Paruka are usually wooden clogs with tall heels, but these were made out of steel. No doubt to truly hone in the truth about their being, about their wealth, about their standing in this world. These kinds of physical declarations cement one’s own spiritual power upon the grand web of the golden web tapestry, of course. So it was to be expected, of course.
Masuna took into account the rest of the datu, drinking him in as if he were a spirit he had forgotten to give thanks to. He wore an elephant hide breastplate over a full abaca weave mail that covered most of his arms. Masuna could not ascertain whether the datu already had his tattoos, as was custom for Gatusan polities. As was custom for full blooded warriors, for indomitable braves, for those who had something dear to them that they had to protect or keep hidden. Not only that, but they wore a voluminous azure bahag underneath a beautifully brocaded silk sarong, the silk seemingly coming from Baikhan shores.
He wore the jewelry that was at this point expected of any Gatusanon noble. To not exhibit such jewelry was a hint of weakness, both physically and spiritually. And in the isles, spiritual power was valued like iron slag: that is, more than gold. The datu had numerous golden bangles and anklets, and from their ears hung Garuda ear ornaments, depicting the feathers of a great bird god. They even wore face paint: crimson paint around the eyes.
Face paint was not strange for men, of course. And it was especially not strange for Masuna. However, as the datu rose to his feet and turned, they met gazes. Like a mistake. But was it truly a mistake? The moon smiled at them, laughing silently, in its crescent form. A bow readying to launch fated arrows at those that did not choose to play its games.
After all this, he wore the zenith sign of the masculine role, of the male sword: the crimson headband made of expensive silks and cloths tied about his forehead, with the tails of it dangling loosely like an ever-bleeding wound. The pudong, one of its many variations (the other kind is often described as a turban or a headwrap, your language does you no good).
Masuna rose to his feet and followed. They walked through a veranda that showcased a beautiful garden being maintained by garden-servants. Ornamental flowers and trees from other nations sprouted and blossomed, and the fragrance was the kind that snuck into one’s soul. The smell of flowers that creep up behind you during silent meditations, the smell of jasmines, but not quite. The smell of dead loved ones watching over you to make sure you’re okay.
Eventually they entered into another smaller house connected to the main townhouse through a veranda and a small catwalk. It was a single-roomed cottage still built upon the thick hardwood pillars of the townhouse. The windows were opened wide, and in the middle was a low table. A porcelain jar had been placed in the middle of it, and two ceramic jarlets were placed on opposite sides of the square table. On opposite sides of the table were silken sheets.
“Leave us,” said the datu to their kawal. The kawal nodded, turned, and closed the door behind her as she left.
“You must trust me,” said Masuna.
“You do not have your weapon,” said the datu, sparing him a glance. It was true: Masuna’s kampilan had been taken by the kawal for the meantime, but they could not keep that forever. That was his property.
“The extent of my skill exceeds my blade.”
“I am sure it does. I suppose you have not heard of me?” He turned and gestured for Masuna to sit. Masuna did. A proper lotus position, with both hands on his knees. The datu did the same, though by virtue of stature, he sat more laxly, without care for standing straight. The datu was tall, Masuna noticed: taller than him when he walked upon his paruka.
“I do not even know your name.”
“Your boldness was charming at first, Shining Lightning.”
“I pray the novelty has not worn off yet.”
“I will say when it does,” replied the datu. A servant walked in from a different door and poured alcohol into both jarlets. They spoke nothing but reverence and labor, and left without looking at either Masuna or the datu.
“Thank you,” said Masuna to the servant, but the servant did not look back.
The datu took a sip. “You may refer to me.”
“Datu Batumingaw,” said Masuna, a cautious tone in his voice. Measuring, like a prowling tiger. “Forgive your servant, but I am not well versed in the datu’s exploits.”
The datu nodded. “Nor I yours, but I suppose we will get to know each other eventually. However, that is not the reason why I have brought you here, to this drinking room.” He sighed and placed the jarlet onto the wooden table. “Speak.”
An owl hooted outside. Usually a bad omen, but Masuna thought nothing of it. Owl omens can be ignored when within the houses of particularly powerful warriors.
There, illuminated by the soft lights of the palm leaf torches, Masuna told almost everything, making sure to omit any too personal anecdotes. By the end of it all, Masuna had told the length of the story, but half of a truth: that he was supposed to escort the veiled maiden, princess of Kangdaya’s Rajah, to Jambangan to be wed to one of the Lunar Princes, but things have begun to be complicated with the introduction of Makagagahum and the Hero of Prophecy.
“Oh dear,” said Datu Batumingaw, his voice hitched. Masuna wondered if the datu was young, just a few years past his childhood. “An altercation of grand proportions.”
“Laying everything that has happened all out here has me realizing how absurd it all sounds, like a conjunction of the stars that never move in the skysea,” said Masuna, and he drank alcohol.
“I am glad you are at least perceptible of your own story. That tells me there is a nugget of truth to it.”
“I seldom lie,” replied Masuna.
“I believe you. If that is the case, then, you are on the way to Jambangan?”
“I… must. I think.” As he spoke, Masuna realized that he had not yet made up his mind. He had been too complacent. He hoped that this would not be a point of weakness for the datu. “It is either Bakong or my family… I cannot choose.”
“From the way you mention the binukot, it seemed that you loved her.”
“I do,” Masuna said, and his voice was quick, sharp, and cutting. As fitting for a sword. “I still do. I love her the same way you love the sun for rising in the morning: it is not a questioned kind of love, it is not an evaluated kind of love. It is a kind of love that burns perpetually, the kind of love that reminds you of a flame in the middle of the sea, the flame that you never saw ignited, but exists anyway.”
“That is a deep kind of love, shining lightning. But you cannot marry her now. She belongs to the Lunar Prince.”
Masuna drank alcohol. “Love, like the flame, does not end when it meets a wall, or a river. It continues to burn until it is spent and nothing is left but the embers that dissipate into the night sky. Often mistaken for fireflies, but love is often mistaken for something more beautiful rather than for what it truly is. Yet who are we to question fire?”
“Your flower language confirms to me that you truly are from Kangdaya,” said the datu. They finished the alcohol in their jarlet. “Take it as a compliment, shining lightning. I do not give out much.”
“I will cherish it,” said Masuna. He said it to be polite, but he felt that he would let the words burn in his heart for as long as he could remember it.
“So the commotion in the trade port today was because of the whole Hero of Prophecy, no? Then I must report this to the Sarripada right away. You have been most helpful.”
Masuna leapt at the chance. “You are the son of Datu Halwan, then? The Sarripada of Put’wan?”
Datu Batumingaw paused for a moment. His eyes narrowed. Masuna felt his heart flip. “Aye,” replied Datu Batumingaw. “What of it?”
“Then your brother, Datu Sangamid. He went out of his way to try and steal Bakong from Jambangan. I stopped him, as was my duty, of course.”
Datu Batumingaw paused for a moment, thinking about the suppositions and implications of such an action. The silence was somewhat savory for Masuna. He could almost taste it. He did not often have a hand over nobility.
“I see,” said Datu Batumingaw. “Then I suppose it will not be too much to ask for you to keep quiet about it?”
Masuna nodded. “I will. Provided that you do something for me.”
Batumingaw scoffed. The savory taste in the air was split apart. The taste was instead replaced by that humid, static taste of when lightning strikes a dewy plant beside you, the gods venting frustrations. “Do not think that is enough to blackmail me. And how dare you. Begone from my sight.” Batumingaw began to rise.
Masuna took the opportunity when he saw it. He was not some passive being, he was not lightning waiting to strike. He was lightning striking. And so, as Datu Batumingaw rose, Masuna’s hand shot out, gripping Batumingaw’s wrist in an act of blasphemy.
His hand was like caressing a flower. Tender but also wrong.
Masuna trained as a balyan under a priest-healer of indeterminate gender as part of his spirit-focused training to become a Royal Guard of Kangdaya. This was not common across Sword Isle settlements, only to the largest polities, those that trade directly with the grand and ancient empires of the various continents.
Men usually did not take that portion of training, the spirit-focused portion, but Masuna chose to opt into it. His thankfulness to the datu of Kangdaya was too large to not give it his all. And so, he resolved in his heart to be able not to just protect from physical threats, but also to learn as much as he could from spiritual threats.
The priest-healer of indeterminate gender was named Dagna, a beautiful man, much more beautiful than most of the women in the Sword Isles, whose eyes shone indigo, a dying river flame under the setting sun. During his time as a prentice priestess-healer, or balyan, Masuna was referred to as Kulisat.
He only became lightning when she became a woman.
He was referred to as a woman, and practiced at least one woman’s art: the art of dance, which was integral anyway to training as an alabay. Thus he perfected the sword-dance, that intricate waltz, that violent beat.
Kulisat finished her training but did not become a balyan. Instead, she stepped off from the ladder of training before she had to climb a strangler fig to reach the heavenly balyan and establish a permanent relationship with a singular spirit, their familiar, known commonly as daetan. Kulisat took the name and returned to finish swordsmanship training. Before Kulisat left, Dagna told her that she already had a spirit ready, and that if she wished to receive it, all she needs to do is finish her training and climb the Sacred Strangler Fig.
Kulisat left and became Masuna Kulisat, and decided that these two roles are roles he could do. It didn’t matter, of course: his soul even before this had been turned into a sword. And swords do not have gender roles.
All this to say that Masuna knew all too well when someone was not acting the gender they wished to portray themselves as. Masuna was smart, but he is often more brazen than intelligent. The sword is only as sharp as it is whetted, and it dulls over time. A sword is poised to look as clean and as intelligent as possible, but is only really used for the brashest of tasks.
So he spoke, sword gripping flower.
“One other thing, Datu Batumingaw,” said Masuna.
“How dare you touch me—” his gaze could pierce his liver, and that made Masuna’s heart drop again.
“You are not a man,” said Masuna.
A pindrop silence. This kind of silence in the midst of the night was the prime kind of silence for spirits to arrive and thrive and play about, causing a chill to pass through a small throng. But that did not happen here. No, instead, the heat intensified.
And as that heat reached a boiling point, a fulmination, Datu Batumingaw’s kris—bejewelled and tasselled like his ponytail—flashed out of its intricate dragon sheathe and struck at Masuna in a maneuver he knew all too well. This is Sword Sorcery Weaving, he realized, recognizing the looming weaving motion as the sword flashed forward, as if it were trying to pull a thread to cause Masuna to fray.
He had not trained in the Sword Sorcery Weaving, but he did know just enough to be able to counter it. He had trained with the fabled Sam’baha of Opong, who was a prodigy with all kinds of Martial Arts. He wasn’t, so he had to pick up on it quickly, and often painfully. Him becoming a sword had helped him acclimate to many kinds of ways violence is inflicted, however, and soon it became second nature to him.
Masuna’s hand flashed into a deflecting gesture, then he stepped diagonally to the left, pushing Batumingaw’s wrist away. Batumingaw’s left hand was not idle: it was alive. But so was Masuna’s.
Their hands struck at each other, viper lightning, a series of checks and counterchecks, a blur of slaps and counters and deflections, Masuna focused on keeping the edges and the tip of Datu Batumingaw’s kris away from him, while trying to find an opening for a disarm.
He could not find it, so he tried to force it, to pressure Batumingaw into making that mistake. He moved diagonally again, to the right this time, pushing away a quick wrist cut, and countering with his own elbow check to that arm, only to find himself outmaneuvered.
A laceration manifested across his right cheek.
It was a cut that Masuna endured, however. When the blade came free from his flesh, he took the opportunity and managed to use two hands to take hold of Datu Batumingaw’s wrist. He twisted, corkscrewed his legs: bringing Datu Batumingaw with the movement of his body, flipping him over and onto the ground.
They were silent, however. Far too quiet. Before Batumingaw hit the ground, Masuna knelt and caught him, his other hand already gripping his kris and pulling it, disarming Datu Batumingaw successfully.
Blood dripped from Masuna onto Batumingaw’s face. Batumingaw’s eyes were wide, seeing himself be disarmed in that quick skirmish.
They were in a dangerous position: Masuna above Batumingaw, keeping Batumingaw from falling onto the wooden slat floor with a single hand. Sweat beaded both of their brows.
They stayed like that for too long. More blood from Masuna’s cheek dripped. Dropped onto Batumingaw’s lips, staining it red.
“You are a woman,” said Masuna, and he was out of breath.
“You are delusional.”
“I am a woman too. I would know,” said Masuna.
Batumingaw looked into Masuna’s eyes then. There was a realization, suddenly. That was the thing with the spirit-touched, you can always see it in their eyes. That off-ness about them. All those touched by spirits partially do not belong to humanity any longer.
“Let me go before I kill you,” said Datu Batumingaw.
“Killing a Royal Guard of Kangdaya? I would advise against it. Especially a Datu of Put’wan.” Masuna knew all too well: Put’wan was once the most powerful kingdom in the Sword Isles, matched only by Ba-e and Tundun. But that has all faded now, turned into a pale golden shadow. But every Put’wan ruler has had delusions of grandeur, every Put’wan datu hearkens back to Put’wan’s golden age. Too many rumors of Put’wanon uprising against Kangdaya have made the Put’wanon a suspicious folk in Gatusan’s paramount polity.
“Pestilent devils,” Batumingaw looked away, exposing her neck. “Then let me go.”
Masuna sighed. He let Batumingaw down to the ground. The Datu propped himself up on one elbow and wiped away the blood from her. “So what do you want, then?”
“Your barge,” replied Masuna immediately, sitting back and leaning against one of the many pillars that surrounded the room. “A safe means of travel to Jambangan.”
Batumingaw sighed. “And that will buy your silence?”
“I was right, then?” pressed Masuna. “You are not a man. You are a woman masquerading as a datu.”
“Speak it that loud and I will cut your tongue. I have worked and bled to be in this position. I will not let you waste it away.”
Masuna sighed. “I will not. Be at ease. Provided that you give me what I ask.”
“I will,” said Batumingaw, rising to his feet and wiping away sweat with a handkerchief. He watched Masuna’s wound bleed, and gave him the silken handkerchief. “Here. Take it. It is not good if people see you bleeding.”
“It can be easily explained away,” said Masuna, taking the kerchief anyway. “You are the head of this house, not I. They will believe you, great ruler, and not me.”
“Yes, but now you hold the rest of my life at the palm of your tongue.”
“I am skilled with it sometimes,” said Masuna. “To be a true sword, all parts of you must be sharper than sharpness.”
“Shut up, whore,” said Datu Batumingaw. “Go, then. I will fulfill your request. Tomorrow.”
Masuna smiled. He rose to his feet and bowed low anyway, returning to formality. “The servant thanks the datu.” When Masuna straightened up, the wound on his cheek burned like fire. Batumingaw had slapped him. The sound reverberated, but it was carried away by a sudden gust of wind that blew through the night.
“I did not allow you to speak. You can only speak when allowed.”
Masuna bit at his lip.
“Now go. I will find you.”