“Let us sail therefore, to the ends of the earth! To the jaws of the world, to the great meeting place of cloud and waves, so that we may kill and raid heaven itself, and seize its thunderclaps! If the maiden does not speak with me, if the maiden does not agree to my hand in marriage after thus, then I shall call out her callousness. I shall make known her horrible, horrible core, and leave her in the pyres that deserve her, for she does not honor my wishes.”Datu Sumangga, Heaven Thunderclap Seizer, of the great Buwol Epics
The next day, Binayaan, Patima, and Gurang Huna were visited by the Sultana’s men.
Bakong knew nothing but stories of the great royal guard of the Sultana.
The Lunar Palisade, composed of the Lunate Knights, first of their kind, wielding spears and kris. The grand wall that protects royalty. At any given time there are 180 of them. The Lunate Knights are made up of the most elite fighting men of the Akai Sultanate, taken from every territory, every settlement that swears allegiance and recognizes the Maharani’s overlordship, across the Footsteps of the Gods.
These were faithful vassals and knights of the Sultana herself, not just conscripts created to make a standing army. They answer to nobody but the Sultana, and thus they enjoy the benefits of being a vassal to the Sultana bring: their own royal compound in Jambangan’s vast flower rivers, part of weapons and spoils from grand lunar conquests, and the ability to partake in the Sultana’s table when they feast. More importantly, they could marry any of the nobility in Jambangan and raise their own stature, and secure their descendant’s future. It was a profession that many longed for, especially in the bloodthirsty Sword Isles.
To become a warrior of the Lunar Palisade was an entirely different story. Only the Sultana could choose who becomes a Lunate Knight, and they must be personally chosen. They could only be chosen in the field of battle, most commonly after a site of a great battle, and the Sultana is very picky about who guards her. She chooses only the most peerless of warriors, and she chooses those that are most beautiful, though the ugly have a position in the Knights as well as long as their sword can match blades with the Sultana herself.
Not just that, but even if they have proven themselves to be peerless in combat, in violence, they are very often trained even more, under the pale wan of the moon. They are trained in poetry, in writing, in botany, in basic healing (nothing of the esotery of the priest-healers), in Sarimanok riding, in gun techniques, and in the special Lunate Knight martial art: The Darkness-Piercing Kris.
Finally, unless allowed by the Sultana, they were never to leave her palace without wearing a tiger mask: with eyes bulging, and tusks spiralling out of the wicked grin. The mask was made of hardwood, painted, and decorated with palm leaf and hair taken from slain ritual boars and tigers.
There were three of them that arrived by the front of the house. Each of them had at least 20 servant-warriors, each one wearing either a white sarong or short trousers. Many of them were barechested, while others wore vests. All the servant-warriors wore white headwraps.
The three Lunate Knights that arrived wore their tiger masks. The one in the middle was lithe, narrow, feminine in stature, and wore a boar mask adorned with Sarimanok rainbow feathers. The one to the right was short and stout, but muscled, and wore a boar mask without frills. The one to the left was large and wide, built like a fortress, with a boar mask that resembled a lion in its ferocity.
Outside, throngs of folk from every culture, crowded around the compound, eager to find out why the Lunate Knights have arrived at the visitors district. Bakong didn’t know it at the time, but this kind of happening was not that rare. The folk here were simply drawn inherently to any kind of big drama.
The one with the rainbow feathers raised a palm leaf scroll. “The great Lunar Sultana, Maharani of Gods, Minor Cakravartin, Yarashgara XII, hallowed be her name—and may her blade cleave the earth like the moon crescent—asks for the great Invincible Gun Princess Putri Binayaan, principal of bullets, to travel to the Temple Palace and partake in a meal with her.”
A grand invitation. Binayaan being invited into a personal meal by the Sultana. Whispers through the crowd, like the ripple of waves against a still pond.
Bakong and Binayaan exchanged looks. Bakong’s face betrayed worry, poisoned with excitement. Binayaan nodded. “Well, let’s see if we can do what we came here for then.”
Bakong nodded, knowing what she meant.
Binayaan stepped forward and said, “We are glad and honored to have been invited by the Sultana herself. We will honor the grand Maharani’s request: is it fine if I go with my own entourage?”
“You can bring up to two more,” replied the rainbow boar masked one.
Binayaan bowed low, bowing as if the Sultana was before her. A proper obeisance, if not a bit too over the top. “Very well. I thank the Sultana again.” She turned and nodded at Gurang Huna and Patima, who knew immediately of what she was thinking. They walked to her side, walowalo snakes bundling together.
The Lunate Knight with the rainbow feather whistled, piercingly loud, with a little piece of bamboo. Like lightning, the clouds parted, and a giant rainbow raptor descended from above, its feathers iridescent. It was the height of two Lunate Knights. As it descended, the crowd parted to make way for it—they didn’t shout or scramble, they were used to sarimanok descending from upon high. Its tail feathers trailed behind it like the ends of a fire, burning brightly, needing no sun to be brilliant.
It crashed onto the ground. Bakong felt the reverberations of its impact, the ripples of its landing, the consequences of divinity.
“Come,” the Lunate Knight said. “We shall travel by rainbow raptor.”
Binayaan turned to Bakong and said, “Play nice while I’m away.”
Bakong let out a breath.
Then, Binayaan, Patima, and Gurang Huna ascended—aided by the Lunate Knight—onto the sarimanok’s saddle, and then in the next lightning instant they were streaking through the sky, a rainbow shaped into a bird.
After they broke their fast, taking part in rice porridge (lugaw, rice was a bit easier to find here in Jambangan due to Akai’s extensive trade networks; of course Bakong was used to eating rice as she was royalty), Bakong made her way up to where Guro Karakasa was training underneath a pavilion crowned by white flowers of five petals. Bulanbukad, they were called. Lunar Blossoms.
“Guro,” she bowed low.
Karakasa thrust forward with his spear, slapped the bottom of the spear with his push dagger in the other hand, causing the spear to twirl about, and instead of following up that maneuver he twirled the spear to his side. “Hello, Little Moon. You’ve come of your own volition to train, I suppose?”
Bakong was silent, but it was affirmation.
“I can hardly blame you,” replied Karakasa. “Things are moving too fast. You’re already here in Jambangan, to be married!” Karakasa moved beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Worry not. I will be with you every step of the way.”
“Thank you, Guro,” she bowed low. “I must ask you to continue to train me. I will need it, I think.”
Karakasa watched her for a moment, his frog eyes seeing the universe in her heart. He nodded, then pat her shoulder. “Come, then. Take this spear. Let us finish your spear drills and move on to Unbinding.”
Bakong was a fast learner, thankfully. All that bound up violence, being ready to release. Her hands were guided, perhaps, by the burning gahum in her blood. The spiritual power she inherited from her demon mother. She did not have divine blood, her blood was infernal. Her blood was avernus. It was Sulad, corruption. How can someone that is born from corruption bring cleansing and harmony into this world?
She did not know. She looked down at her demon arm. So much sorcery, so much spirituality within. Why was she learning just the martial arts? Why does she not learn the truths of sorcery? The Zenith Art? She had Bangahom for it. She might as well.
These were the thoughts that were a whirlpool in her mind as she sped through the drills of Karakasa.
“Good,” said Karakasa after the sun was at its zenith. “Let’s go in for some food and afterwards, I’ll teach you the secret of Unbinding. Something you cannot truly teach other people.”
Bakong nodded in understanding. She was understanding the truth of her being. But was she really just going to give it all away to marry the Lunar Prince?
She’d long made her mind on that, of course. Marry the prince to fulfill what her father wished for her. That was her focus for now. Whatever else she’d need to do, she’d do after marrying the Lunar Prince.
As they ate, with Karakasa and Sam’baha and Bangahom talking about wanting to visit the merchant district of Jambangan tonight, Bakong’s thoughts wandered to her mother. Should she wish to dream again? Her mother only talked to her during the darkness of her sleep. Can she not appear now, and give her direction? She sighed.
But then she remembered: Aunt Puasa. That was the person her mother had told her to follow. Her old Aunt, the White Goddesses’ sister, known also by Binayaan, once a warrior of Kangdaya. That was her course now. Suddenly, she had a target again, to her relief. Focus on Aunt Puasa first, before the marriage, before the cleansing. Everything can come after that.
Sam’baha spoke: “Bakong, are you okay?”
Bakong paused, looked up at Sam’baha. Her hard eyes pierced into her. Bakong nodded, allowing a small smile. “Yes. I’m fine, just playing out the drills in my head.”
“She’s a quick learner, you know,” Karakasa said. “I’m going to be teaching her Unbinding already.”
“That quickly? Huh.”
“But her fundamentals are still not anything to boast of unfortunately,” Karakasa said, shoving some rice into his mouth. “Maybe you can help with that, Sam’baha? Peerless Warrior of the isles, great Kinabantugan, greatest warrior in the Sword Isles.”
Sam’baha grinned.“Don’t wear it out.”
“Everyone has been singing it, right?”
Shrugging, Sam’baha replied: “If it is what the people call me, then I will not contest them. But it is not a name I have chosen for myself.”
Bakong thought for a moment, and then said: “Do you think you are worthy of that moniker? ‘Greatest Warrior in the Sword Isles’?”
Sam’baha inhaled for a moment, then ran a hand through her hair. “No. Not yet, at least.” She smiled, then.
“Unbinding is hard in theory, but in practice, you must imagine that it becomes a bit like breathing. Other nations have other terms for unbinding. In Baik Hu, for example, they call it the Lightfoot Art. Chingkung. Witness, what it is like, to breathe, with your soul recognizing a different truth.” Karakasa exhaled, and as he did, he pushed himself from the ground with the smallest of movements. He flew up, as if upon strings lashed onto heaven.
“And while you’re here, you cannot let yourself be lashed to momentum! You are unbound. Unbinding Form 2: Midheaven Catch.” And Karakasa’s trajectory moved mid-movement, impossibly, suddenly, moving toward the ground, pulled by invisible wires.
He landed on the ground without troubling the dust. “Just like that.”
“How do I do that?” Bakong’s eyes were wide, almost glistening with wonder. “That was amazing!”
“A shift in paradigms, which can only be brought about by the following things, aligned with the Heaven Rending Art: proper thinking—meditation as others would say, proper physicality, and proper breathing.” Karakasa turned to her and went into the Heavenspear ready stance, spear above him, ready to thrust down, and one leg slightly raised. “This stance was ridiculed by other martial art masters for being too ‘unstable’. Of course, what they didn’t realize, is that the Heaven Rending Art is not made for catching blows, we are made for unbinding ourselves from such blows. The stance that I have been teaching you all this time has been a practice of all three practices already. Proper physicality from balancing yourself, proper breathing from perfecting your stance, and proper thinking in not letting yourself be too grounded.”
Bakong took up the stance. She did feel lighter as she took it upon herself. “Finally,” spoke Karakasa, without breaking the stance, shadowing Bakong. “You must learn the great truth, as spoken by the first practitioner of the Heaven Rending Art: ‘no Overgod in heaven, let us strive’. Thus internalize this truth: no gods, no rulers. No one inherently deserves to lord.”
A belief that Bakong herself had been internalizing long since she left that banwa, Tinuboan. No one deserves to be a lord. Servants and slaves are not necessary. This is why she has been looking for enlightenment. Is this enlightenment? Is this the path that she was always destined to walk down?
Her foot lifted from the ground.
“There.” Karakasa was solemn. “You have internalized the truth. Do you understand what the truth means?”
“My thoughts do not. However I believe my soul does,” Bakong replied, and it was the correct answer.
Karakasa nodded. Bakong floated higher a bit more. “Try jumping,” Karakasa said.
Bakong, still focused on the meditation of no Overgod, pushed herself from the ground with her other foot. Her momentum brought her drifting up, and she immediately lost her stance, her posture, and she became a fish out of water. She flailed, and she drifted upward for a few more moments before her unbinding failed, and she plummeted to the earth, bound once again.
Karakasa did not catch her. She slammed onto the dirt of the compound. Thankfully, earth, soil, not hard rock cobblestones like royal compounds would have.
“You’ll get there, soon.” Karakasa said. “But do you understand what that adage, what the Heavenly Perfect Meditation means?”
Bakong landed on her demon arm. It did not throb. She felt the pain in her shoulder, however. She turned to her Guro as she nodded. “I think so, but my understanding is halfway. Fractured. Is that the way to express it? I feel and understand it in the depths of my soul but the words to express my understanding does not form.”
“That is just as well,” Karakasa said. “That is understanding. It precedes realization, which will come in time, one must simply live. One thing you must know, however, is that no one is a lord. There can be no lords. That includes you, and your sister, and the Lunar Prince that you will be married to.”
A truth that Bakong felt, a dagger biting into the small of her back, keeping her hostage. “I know and understand that,” she said. “I just do not know how to go about it.”
“You cannot,” Karakasa said. “It cannot be done with a single person, a single hero or heroine. It requires the vastness of us, to fix a system that has become so convoluted and entangled that it does no good for those underneath them. Servants and slaves stolen away from their families, datu that are born into roles that they do not wish… do you not think there is a better world possible?”
Bakong bit her lip. Her innate answer was that of course a better world was possible. Yet, she could not. She was still a blind cat picking her way through darkness. She did not know what a better world would look like. Does that mean she actually wished a better world was possible? Or did it mean she knows that it could be done but she does not care if it will happen or not? After all, she is a noble, royalty. She has been served her entire life.
“Even aristocrats have problems, which is how you know it’s broken,” Karakasa said, and Bakong realized that he had not once changed his stance. His Heavenspear stance was perfect, and despite seeming like something that should be as unstable as a flower, he was solid as mountains. “You, for example, Bakong. You are nothing but wealth, to strengthen allegiances or to form them. The more beautiful you are, the more valuable you are.”
Bakong could not reject that as truth. Her father did not even once come to her seclusion. She knew Masuna better than she knew the Rajah.
Masuna. A stray thought. Lightning striking again.
“These things are part of training of a Heavenspear, in the Heaven Rending Arts,” Karakasa said. “No gods, no rulers. Lightning is unfettered. Nothing binds us, and with that realization, we transcend. Keep it in mind.”
And with that, the Guro Karakasa broke his stance, placing two feet on the ground. Something changed in the atmosphere: electricity vanished. “You should go around and see the city, grand Jambangan. It is one of the largest metropolises in the isles, second only to Ananara… and perhaps ancient Put’wan.”
“I can take her.” It was Sam’baha, who sat in a lotus position upon the veranda of the town house. “It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled about Jambangan. It would do me good.”
Karakasa nodded. He clapped his hands. “I am going to rest.” He pulled a betel nut chew box from his pocket and began chewing as he made his way towards the town house.
Sam’baha smiled at him, and then she vaulted from the veranda of the town house and onto the ground. “You must have tired the guro out, huh?”
Bakong blinked, and then shook her head. “N-No. At least, I don’t think so.”
“Relax, I’m fucking with you. Change your clothes, put on a shawl and a sarok.”
Bakong nodded. “I shall. Wait, where’s Bangahom?”
Sam’baha paused. She was chewing betel nut too. She shrugged after a moment, after a cold chill wind went through them. “I’ve no idea. They’re not in the town house.”
“She must have gone out a bit,” Bakong said, thinking still. “I don’t worry much. Bangahom is Bangahom. They can handle themselves.”
“She’s a demon-sorceress, right?” Sam’baha grinned, showing off a crimson crescent. “If anything, it is Jambangan that should be scared of her.”
Through the streets of Jambangan, then.
Give me a moment to wax about the cold and lonely islands. The great islands of violence, here in the center of the world, where from any distance you can see the distant ghost of the majestic Apu Dayaw, the Kalis That Skewers The Cosmos, are a beautiful and vast place.
The Sword Isles are also a cold and lonely place, no matter what the scribes and poets tell you.
Unlike the grand empires and nations of the Continent, where pagodas rise built upon the sweat of slaves, where grand palaces stretch from river to river, where cities blanket lands as far as the eye can see, the places here in the Sword Isles are unbound naturalism. Of course, there are still those things: majestic temple-cities built deep in the forests, as imitations of the grand mountains of the world, or as imitations of the blossoming flowers that birthed thought and reality. Grand palace-cities that have entire waterway systems within them stretching inland all the way to the shores. However these are created with consent of divinity, of the anitu, the spirit societies that live alongside us.
However, Sword Isles settlements are integrated deeply into the world, not separate but rather, included. Town houses flanked by trees, decorated with foliage, choked by flowers. On top of spirit houses, pagodas, temples, there is the ever present mountain—each island has one—the stairway to heaven. For every city blanketing flatlands, there are five more enclaves blending seamlessly with rocky outcroppings, riverbanks, hibiscus groves, stretching up the river, deeper and deeper.
To live in the Sword Isles is to live on borrowed time.
There is an intense understanding of the state of cities, of settlements, in the isles. Settlements in general are only allowed to be founded with the express consent of the diwata that live within the island’s flesh. Oftentimes that consent comes from the priest-healer of a community, speaking with the spirits. Other times it is given to the community by the diwata parent of their leader, of their datu. Wherever it comes from, it requires consent.
The Folk of the Sword Isles give and take.
What reverence has wrought is that the islands are “untamed”. This is a term the Baikhan imperials, civilizationist sages, Pale Kings, and Virbanwans would call it, but it is wrong. The islands are not “untamed”. The islands are not for taming. They belong to divinity; they are sacred. Nothing is more sacred. The gods dance over and under tree boughs, across the clouds, underneath the waves and deep, deep into the abyss. Nothing is more sacred. Travel the grand inner lands of every island, upon foot, or upon horse, or even upon sarimanok, and you will be walking upon living, undulating temple grounds.
You can scarcely imagine it: trees bearing flowers of every color, always bursting with fruit, always ripe for harvest. Multicolored brambles that choke the dense forestry, flowers and coconuts carried down by perfectly clean rivers and tributaries. The forest itself is cosmos, of 14 layers, with each layer flowering with its own race of flowers, like the universe is permeated by various spirits. Corpse flowers on the ground, orchids in the air, hibiscuses and fungi dangling in between. The branches of the trees, oh the branches of the trees they meet and embrace and create temple structures and cathedrals! Crocodiles lumber through mangrove swamps, which are poisoned olive to viridescent to verdigris. Cloud rats dance upon hanging bamboo, bearcats rest upon tree crooks, monkeys leap and jump and dance and sing like the gods that they are. Monitor Lizards stalk the darkness of the forests, hunting deer and mouse deer and wild pigs, which flee and bound for the flatlands, for the plains, where the only way the sky touches the land is through the mountains in the distance. Herons watch and step through the wetlands, untouched by agriculture, and then take to the skies to dance with monkey-eating eagles and quicksilver falcons.
The land breathes, it undulates. It is the flesh of living gods. We do not take from the living. We only take from the mortal.
Do you witness? Divinity? These are all gods: the sky, the sun, the flowers, the trees, the bamboo, the rivers, the lakes, the swamps, the fruits, the coconuts, the rats, the monkeys, the crocodiles, the bearcats, the lizards, the deer, the herons, the falcons, the eagles. These are all gods.
That is what Bakong sees, as she crosses a bridge of hardwood painted red, built over the river of Siga. The river, choked with flowers, extends up, up, into the hinterlands of the forest, and even from where she stood she could see divinity.
Framed against living temples, Bakong could hardly believe she would be awed by the structure of Jambangan, but still she was.
The grand, grand Jambangan, place of flowers. A single river cuts through them, and it is choked by water lilies and floating bulanbukad, those graced lunar blossoms, which have fallen from grand moon-charred trees upriver, up the mountains of Siga.
Follow the lilies, they flow into the river mouth, which explodes into the ocean, the great highway of every culture in the Sword Isles and beyond. The thing that binds them together.
In the sea, at this time of day, the merchants and traders are wrapping up. Trade was done mostly in sea-markets—fleets of vessels travel to foreign ships, junks from Baik Hu and Sonyoh and Naksuwarga—and they trade directly there, upon the water. Other merchants that have already arrived here, like those merchants from Baik Hu, stay and mingle with the local peasants and merchants, trading what they can, learning what they can, as there is still a few more moons to go before the winds of the Northern God blow once again and they can sail back up to their great hegemony.
Most of the commonfolk live by the shore, and a bit upriver. Those merchants and nobles enjoy the cooling shade of the trees upon their houses, into which most of the city is nestled. Commonfolk live by the cliffs, by the beaches, by the sand, where they have to trade and trade and trade evermore to keep Jambangan one of the most powerful cities in the Sword Isles.
Bakong and her group were in that upriver nestling. Still close enough to see the sunrise turn the sea into stars in the morning, but far enough that they were shaded by overgrown hibiscuses and magnolias. The majority of the richer merchantfolk were here. Higher upriver, Bakong could see the grand stone walls of the royal palace compound, and the spiraling flower-bulb roof of the Lunar Temple. Flowers, once more. The birth of souls.
Even here, the streets were dense. Merchantfolk mingled with farmers and traders and warriors and blacksmiths, many of them peddling wares for visitors from under their houses, even more spending their time in their own sheds, crafting and weaving and cooking. Warriors of the various datu that lived in Jambangan stood around and waited and watched, and made sure their datu, their beloved master was safe. Off in the distance, throngs of merchants and traders were congregating within another wall-less house to lay bets and cheer on their favorite raptor in a cock-fighting ring.
“Come,” Sam’baha said, and faster than lightning she gripped Bakong’s wrist as if she were wielding her sword. Bakong felt her breath leave her as Sam’baha brandished her, brought her down river (which was filled with dugout canoes and sampans) to the stony portion of the beach that overlooked most of them. They stood within a vacant bamboo shed, though the blaze of the sun had calmed down by now, giving way to cooler ocean zephyrs. A number of warriors lounged here, drinking alcohol or writing something on palm leaf strips to send messages back to home or to their loved ones, very often both. “Witness, Bakong. The Azure Markets.”
Bakong grinned as she saw, up close, the trade and merchantry being carried out in a flurry, in a dizzying speed and magnitude. Junks traded parasols and jade and porcelains and silks in exchange for rice and gold and civets and pearl and water buffalo horns. All of this being carried out by flotillas of Jambangan’s own karakoas and outrigger boats, interlocking together, gangplanks becoming links, a floating city rivalling other cities created at the spot in the morning.
Those that wished to rest would travel onland and drink upon sheds, or eat, or mingle or what have you. The trading went on for most of the day, Bakong realized, although she realized that as the sun reached its peak the trading died down, and as the sun set, the trading was replaced with drinking and merrymaking. Warriors gambled with spinning wooden tops, with crocodile teeth, with fists and feet.
It was so alive, and in such a grand scale too. Bakong could see the Azure Markets spanning most of the length of the beach.
“You’ve been here before, right, Sam’baha?”
Sam’baha nodded. Her hair flailed in the wind, like sea weed, bound only by her headwrap. “Before, a few number of times. Its part of every Gatusanon’s… let us say, tour of duty.”
“Well, if that’s the case, thank you for bringing me here,” Bakong said, staring out into the Azure Market still.
Sam’baha smiled and nodded, although she too stared out into the Azure Markets.