Always entreat the spirits for peace, but do not let the sharp edges of your arrows dull or your sword arm grow weak.
— Unattributed Putangarit proverb
Jutting from the horizon were the largest boats Sig had ever seen. It was noon when the children with the sharpest eyes first spotted the Lyssan kingdoms’ ships. ‘They’re coming,’ they cried.
Soon, even the elders with their weak eyes could see the blots against the sky. Sig thought the ships would arrive soon, but as the sun fell lower and lower in the sky, they only grew in size. So too did the crowd, which had gathered to watch the arrival, grow. The wooden planks of the freshly constructed berth dipped below the waterline as the press of Ko Mangaal’s many families grew tighter and tighter.
The sea-locked city had ground to a standstill as families set aside their day’s work to attend the historic meeting. For the first time since Sig could remember, Ko Mangaal’s canals were not choked with boats criss-crossing through the city in the bustling fervour of trade. The waters, and the stilt-houses that overlooked them, were eerily quiet as the whole citizenry had migrated to the docks. Some of the nomadic families—like Sig’s own—who lived on moored fleets surrounding Ko Mangaal, had moved their houseboats into positions on the open sea that afforded them a view. Everyone else crowded the berth for a chance to see the bayu foreigners close-up.
Fortunately for Sig, he was tall. Standing on his toes, he could still make out the details of the kingdom ships as they came closer. They were unlike any boats Sig had ever seen, larger even than the foreign warships he and his father had treated with in the past. Besides the monumental scale, the ships each had two sails—both displaying the Lyssan standard of three rearing horses. The sides of the ships bris- tled with row upon row of oars. The size of these monsters! There must be hundreds and hundreds of people aboard, Sig thought.
Sig saw the truth of this soon enough as the setting sun glinted off the famous metal armour of the bayu.
‘Metal men of the sea,’ shouted a man of another family.
The crowd around Sig laughed a forced, too-loud laugh. Nerves were fraying.
At last, Sig saw his father’s houseboat, a large nera, launch to go meet the ships. Its square sail was hitched to catch the meagre morning breeze and his father manned the tiller at the back of the boat. Sig laughed to himself. The nera large? No. Not compared to the bayu monsters out there. Those ships make our kapak warships look like a child’s bath toy.
As the emissary to the Lyssans, his father, Pulanimakithisig— chieftain, father of Makithisig—had been tasked with going out to meet the bayu soldiers. Sig should have been on that boat too, but he’d been given another job—an important job, though it didn’t feel like it.
‘When their ships arrive,’ his father had said. ‘You must look for signs of treachery among our people. They will not be able to hide their true feelings when they see those soldiers.’
It had turned out to be an impossible task.
Everywhere Sig looked, he saw rancour writ plain on the faces of the assembled families. Even among Sig’s own family—the Midandaal, who were the diplomats that treated with the Lyssan kingdoms—he saw one grim visage after another. In other families, he saw outright hostility, particularly among the elders. The only ones unaffected, even excited, were the children. They swam out past the wharf’s long fingers to escape the crowds and be the first to spy the kingdom soldiers.
As the sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, Sig’s family boat reached the twin bayu ships. Sig could just make out a few of the bayu clambering down a rope ladder to descend onto the nera. Sig’s father had told him it would be thus. They would receive the Lyssan captain on their boat as a show of good faith and hospitality. Sig still felt as though he should be aboard, meeting their allies side-by-side with his father. He was the Midandaal heir. It was his bloodright to continue the tenuous peace that had existed since the Lyssans had conquered Ko Mangaal almost a century past.
‘Bayu filth,’ an old man hissed nearby. Sig recognized him, but his name wasn’t forthcoming. He was from the Putangarit family, the largest family still left in Ko Mangaal since the rebels had fled from the city. His right arm ended at the elbow, a fishing wound that had become infected and required amputation, if Sig remembered correctly.
‘We wouldn’t need their help if they’d never come in the first place,’ the man continued. He hawked and spat into the sea.
Many of the old man’s family members edged away from him, as though trying to physically distance themselves from his sentiment. But not all. Some nodded along and added their own non-verbal, grumbling discontent. Sig made a mental note of the malcontents.
Spying on my own while my father is at the most important meeting our people have ever had. It grated on Sig. Every other chieftain was aboard Sig’s family nera. Many had even brought their eldest sons and daughters, their heirs. From the sideways glances of his aunts, uncles, and cousins, it was clear that they were also surprised that Sig was not on the nera with his father. Pula knows best, Sig thought sourly.
While Sig had been scanning the faces around him, he had missed the adjourning of the meeting. The two bayu warships and his father’s nera were making the final approach to Ko Mangaal’s virgin quayside. All but the bravest of the crowd fled backwards as the giant warships prepared to dock. Sig watched the frantic activity as the sails were furled and armoured warriors gathered at the sides of the two ships to glare down at the assembled crowd and the thatch-roofed houses of Ko Mangaal behind them.
Unafraid, Mangaal children were swimming around and under the ships, inspecting them and kicking off their sides. Some of the bolder among them even waved up at the surly soldiers above.
The Midandaal nera nestled into a small space between the two behemoths, drawing even with the docks. Pulanimakithisig and the other family chieftains led the Lyssan leaders off the boat.
At the edge of the dock, in front of the assembled crowd, Sig’s father spread his arms wide and spoke. ‘My people! Lyssa sends four hundred of her best warriors to quell the uprising of the traitorous rebel families.’
The crowd roused itself into a collective furor.
So few. Sig’s father had requested twice that number. Even as he silently wished for more, Sig knew that four hundred bayu soldiers would already cause enough problems. Never in their peoples’ history had more foreign soldiers been a good omen.
‘Settle! We must be grateful. The rebels are a pox on our land. They burn settlements across the islands in a misguided effort to return our people to the sea. They would see Ko Mangaal destroyed and the Mangaal become insular and estranged from the rest of the world. With so many of Lyssa’s warriors, we will drive the rebels from the islands and crush them in battle. We will put this insurgency down with finality.’
As his father went on, Sig’s eyes drifted to the arrayed bayu leaders. They all wore resplendent—though heavily worn and battered—metal armour. The captain was clearly the stocky olive-skinned man with the ragged black beard standing directly by his father’s side. He was marked by the golden pauldron over his left arm.
As far as appearances went, the rest of the leaders were an assorted group. The one thing consistent about them was their size. Even though Sig had met bayu in the past, he was always struck by their height. He was considered tall among his people, but even the woman at the captain’s left was near to Sig’s equal in height. As his father continued to speak, the bayu gazed blankly at the crowd. Idly, Sig wondered if any of the pale giants spoke the Mangaal tongue.
As the fear of the warships faded, the families pushed closer to Pulanimakithisig, the other chiefs, and the bayu leaders. Elders were now addressing Sig’s father with their concerns directly. It was the way of their people to bring their problems forward at the outset, lest they fester like an infected wound.
‘Pula of Midandaal, you know these bayu well, no?’ asked an elderly fishwife of a small but respected family.
‘I do,’ Sig’s father said.
‘Why do they care about our war? Why don’t they swoop in like carrion to crush the weakened victor beneath their mail fists? They’ve done as much before.’ The crowd murmured their agreement.
‘Wise Mother, you are right to be cautious,’ Sig’s father said, making a show of nodding and conceding the point. ‘The Lyssans value our lands and our waters, which they call in their tongue the Nisi Archipelago. They know us to be loyal and faithful allies of their kingdoms. Ko Mangaal, our home, which the rebels would see destroyed, is a valuable jewel of this province. They need the tithes we pay in exchange for protection against the scourge of coastal raiders. They need our fish and our fruits to supply the warships that patrol these coasts. Understand, Mother, the bayu value order over chaos; they would see this war ended and lawfulness restored.’
The answer rang hollow to Sig, but the fishwife seemed more or less appeased.
Movement in the corner of Sig’s eye caught his attention. The one-armed old man—the malcontent elder from earlier—was eagerly pressing forward. And yet, the fisherman didn’t look intent on airing his grievances through verbal dribble. His only hand clutched a slender gutting knife at his waist.
Sig felt a roiling in his belly. He turned to one of his cousins. ‘Cousin Jaglo, may I borrow your spear?’
Jaglo quirked an eyebrow. ‘Sure, Sig. Something wrong?’
‘I hope not.’
Sig took the proffered spear and began edging forward, towards the front of the crowd.
Pulanimakithisig caught sight of his son, and his eyes brightened.
He turned to the bayu leader and spoke in the Lyssan tongue. ‘Ah here comes my son, Makithisig.’ The distress on Sig’s face must have been plain. ‘What’s wrong, Son?’
The one-armed fisherman, who was still a few paces ahead of Sig, surged forward.
‘Death to the bayu!’
With deceptive speed, the old man lunged for the Lyssan captain. Sig’s spear caught the man in his upper thigh. The fisherman fell to the wooden planks, dropping the gutting knife just short of the captain, whose own shortsword was half-drawn from its scabbard.
Sig’s father, caught unawares, was quick to regain his composure. ‘Allow me, Captain,’ Pulanimakithisig said, gesturing for the bayu leader to sheath his sword. He walked forward to where the old man was bleeding and writhing on the planks.
His father paused, turning to address the crowd. ‘Eldest son Makithisig’s throw was guided by Kha Tu. Does anyone speak for this man?’ he said, gesturing at the would-be assassin.
He looked at the old man’s Putangarit family, standing clumped together near the front of the crowd. All were silent. He turned behind him to look at the Mula chieftess of Putangarit, whose face was flush with anger.
‘That traitor is no uncle of mine, Pulanimakithisig,’ she hissed. ‘Be done with it.’
Sig’s father bent over the old man to retrieve the gutting knife.
The one-armed man was still twisting in pain, thrashing and raving. ‘The bayu will turn on you! Ko Mangaal is an abomination. Our people must return to the water. Death to the—’
With the indifference of cleaning a fish, Pulanimakithisig sunk the gutting knife into the man’s throat. He loosed a final gurgle before going silent.
SIG’S HAND SHOOK. He thought he could still feel the heft of the spear. He replayed in his mind its path as it soared through the air, landing with a muted thud in the assassin’s flesh. He felt anew the rush . . . the thrill, as the one-armed man was brought down.
All his life, Sig had trained with knife, spear, and bow—as was fitting for a Mangaal family heir—but never had he felt the surge of excitement from taking down an enemy in the heat of combat. He was silently wary of the feelings bubbling up within him, the fervent wish that it had been him and not his father to strike the mortal blow.
‘Sig,’ his father said, bringing him back to the present. ‘Are you listening?’
Wordlessly, Sig stood and began to pace the width of his family’s nera, beneath the awning that covered the centre of the boat. ‘Four hundred marines is more than enough. We could’ve dealt with the rebels on our own. They are Mangaal and that makes them our problem.’
His father sat cross-legged on a multi-coloured woven mat, smoking crushed gamut leaves out of his worn wooden pipe. He was frustratingly impassive, watching Sig through the billowing clouds of smoke.
Sig knew his father’s ways and waited in tense silence while the chieftain inhaled deeply. At last, he exhaled and lowered the pipe, ‘Son Makithisig, what did you see today on the faces of our families?’
Sig sighed. Answering my question with a question. Expected, but still infuriating. ‘I saw hatred, fear, and mistrust.’
‘And is that what you feel?’ his father asked.
‘I feel . . . that we should not have involved the bayu.’
The chieftain shook his head. ‘You know of my work, yes?’
Sig nodded. Recently, his father had undertaken a diplomatic
mission that could have sweeping repercussions for the Mangaal people. The Lyssan kingdom of Samacia had once occupied Ko Mangaal—a stretch of years, decades past, from which his people were still recovering—but they had long since left them to their own devices, their warlike gaze turned inwards towards the neighbouring kingdoms in their own continent. Now, Sig’s father worked to further sever the connection to the hated bayu. Their only dealings would be a trade agreement, wherein the Mangaal farmers continued to supply rations for the kingdom warships, but in exchange for Lyssan gold ors, not as a tithe from the conquered to the conqueror. The Mangaal people would—at least nominally—have their independence and the Lyssans would have their provisions without fear of insurrection upsetting their precious supply lines.
The present civil war threatened everything the Midandaal chieftain had worked towards. The brokered agreement was still young, and the only reason the Samacian queen considered letting Ko Mangaal secede from her vast empire was that the city was simply beneath her notice. The queen had never even implanted a governor to oversee her interests, instead relying on the threat of Samacia’s naval strength and, in the past, hostages to keep the payments flowing.
Sig’s father puffed on his pipe. ‘If the rebels disrupt our shipments to Lyssa, they will show that we are not a unified people, risking everything. The kingdom will come crashing down on us as they did a century ago.’ His face twisted in remembrance. Sig’s father had lived through the Samacian occupation as a boy. ‘I have no illusions about our relationship with Lyssa. Even if we become “allies,” we must tread carefully. If the Samacian queen needs to send her soldiers to aid in putting down this . . . internal affair, then we must allow it.’
‘Even still,’ Sig said. ‘This is not their war.’
He sighed, beckoning for Sig to sit down. ‘You are strong, Son. You will be a noble leader of our family. Everything I do is to bring honour to your name. But you are young. Our people have known peace for almost a hundred years. You have never seen war. You have never seen the waters turn red as the tigaya gnaw on the corpses of your cousins, slain by rival families. You have never seen the makeros turn their powers on their kinsmen, incinerating their flesh and boiling their blood. We must grasp every advantage we are offered, even if it comes in the form of foreign soldiers. There is no honour in war. Only the victors and the slain.’
‘Then why fight at all?’ Sig said, bristling slightly. He was a dutiful heir and would normally soak in his father’s wisdom, but today, with bayu in his city and war on the horizon, he found himself annoyed at his father’s unnatural calm. ‘Why not join the rebels and throw off Lyssan rule for good?’
His father’s expression darkened. ‘I will answer, but never ask me that again. I will not tolerate doubt in my own family.’ The chieftain took a breath, composing himself. ‘We do not fight the rebels simply because we are obedient servants of Samacia. We fight the rebels for our city, for Ko Mangaal, which the rebels would see sunk. They think to return our people to a nomadic life at the expense of our home, which unites our people. But that is a path backwards. They want isolation, when such a thing is no longer possible. Like it or not, our world has grown and the Mangaal can no longer hide from sight.
‘And, yes, we also fight to avoid the merciless retribution of the Lyssan kingdoms that, for now, fight by our side. Remember, when I was a child this city was filled with Samacian soldiers. I’ve seen what they are capable of. We cannot match them in strength; only in diplomacy can we find lasting peace.’
Sig heard the warning in his father’s voice and didn’t press the issue further. ‘I understand, Father.’
Pulanimakithisig unfolded his long legs and stood up, his posture lightening as though he hadn’t just issued such grave warnings. ‘Let’s go eat, Son. Your cousins took down a boar on the island and I think I can smell your mother’s pig stew now.’ His father snuffed out his pipe before striding out of the covered interior of the nera.
In truth, for honour or not, Sig wanted nothing more than for the fighting to begin in earnest. He looked down again at the hand that had thrown his cousin’s spear, feeling a buzzing anticipation in his chest. If we’re to fight alongside them, four hundred Lyssans will be plenty. They have to be.
He followed his father out.