JONAH AND THE PRINCESS
Road weary and dusty, I finally trudged into Layang Layang, a small village of about thirty families. The industry here is mostly agriculture – cassava and coconut – the few tropical crops which managed to survive the Big Cloud.
Instantly, the villagers gathered around me; the adults to ask for news of the world, the children to ogle a Journeyman. My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I have not eaten for two days. My haversack and purse are empty. I must make preparations to earn my dinner.
“I will answer your questions tonight,” I answered the villagers curtly. I turned into the only guesthouse the small village possessed. It was the only two-storey building left standing. Once upon a time, Layang Layang had many, and taller, buildings. They lay in ruins around us now. The villagers were unable, or unwilling, to clear the debris away. This scene is repeated everywhere around the Peninsula.
Shown to my rented room on the second floor, I washed up. Then, with the aid of a small cracked mirror, I painted my face white as all Journeymen do before a Storytelling session. Using a black brush, I painted the corners of my mouth in a downward curve. It indicates that my story will be sad. No Journeyman I know has yet painted his mouth into a smile. Except one man… We have nothing to smile about.
Then I twisted my hair into a topknot and donned a rose-coloured robe. In addition, I donned the insignias of my temple upbringing—my leather tevlin with the wicked upturned spikes wrapped firmly around my forearm from elbow to wrist, and my boars-hair woven gartle with the ceremonial scimitar end wrapped around my waist five times.
Last of all, I slid a hairpin shaped like a pink lotus into my bun. Checking myself in the small mirror, I knew I looked like a girl with my small frame and smooth hairless face. Once upon a time, I despised this get-up, and the man who wore it.
I descended the stairs to the ground level and took a seat on a platform that had been hastily erected for me. I did not have long to wait, as my audience was already gathered in the small area. They gasped when they saw the pin in my hair. They had thought me an ordinary Journeyman, which is already extraordinary enough, but now they have an inkling that I knew, or at least had met, the Princess Bloom.
Wetting my throat with cold tea, I launched into the tale the audience was avidly waiting for:
THE PRINCESS BLOOM
The cities lay in ruins. Everywhere was raw blasted soil, forests without trees and seas without fishes. Several world wars and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons had tipped the earth’s natural balance. The world was waiting to die.
Still, Man, like cockroaches, refuse to bow out. We clung tenaciously to pockets of earth that could be ploughed, jealously guarded, murderously coveted. Faced with extinction, men turned to religion. We survived by clinging to the Princess Bloom. Or rather, the hope of the Princess Bloom.
According to legend, the Princess was a treasure that would unite the peoples and bring peace to the land, but it had been fought over, stolen, stolen again, and finally lost even before the last world war. Since most written records and histories had been destroyed in the wars, the Princess Bloom became an oral legend, passed down through storytellings, morphing like the monsters that evolved in the blasted Corridor. Until nobody knew anymore if the Princess was a myth or a reality.
Not just the commoners, but the rich and powerful also lusted after the Princess. They interpreted the Princess as a weapon of mass destruction. It was logical – what would unite scattered peoples and opposing factions more than a man wielding the most powerful weapon in the world?
It was rumoured that the Princess was hidden along the dangerous corridor between North and South, and many mercenaries over the years had searched for it, and lost their lives in the process. People avoided the abandoned ruins in the Corridor because nameless creatures roamed the concrete rubble and devoured any warm-blooded animal that was foolish enough to stay overnight in the open.
It was lawless times. The will to kill was the key to survival. In the few cities where men gathered, warlords reigned. In particular, two warlords, Zeo and Korm, wrestled for the territory of the Marsing Peninsular. They had exterminated all other opposition, and now only the two were left. But as the old saying goes, ‘The mountain is not big enough for two tigers.’
Zeo had established his base on the island of Sing in the south. Korm huddled in his fortress in the highlands of Gunung Korbu in the North. While the lords of the land rage their high faluting wars; still, the common man must eat, and trade to eat.
The Zeovites craved the sweet vegetables that can only grow on Korbu, far above the poisoned plains. The Kormites sigh for the nutrient-rich fish which would only breed in the bays of the island of Sing.
The only way to keep the populace happy was to send emissaries to trade. These were mercenaries who valued their life as little as the coins they received with each journey from north to south and south to north. Each trip is always counted as the last, and for many of them, it usually is. They were called Journeymen.
Journeyman Jonah was one such mercenary.
At the mention of Jonah’s name, the audience oohed. The children stopped fidgeting and began to pay attention. The elderly sat up and stared at me with gimlet eyes. With painstaking accuracy, I described this despicable man:
At 20 years old, Jonah had been selling his body for three years. His future stretched ahead of him – bleak… and short. When he was in a town, he spent it either stone drunk or getting into fistfights and losing his money. So mostly, he preferred to keep to the lonely outposts along the North-South Corridor that only the journeymen knew. His frame was haggard from malnutrition, his hair and beard unkempt; his skin darkened by the ill sun that peered through the Big Cloud.
Hisses and boos greeted my description. Layang Layang was like all the other towns, nobody liked to hear evil of Jonah. Irritated, I kicked the metal donation plate placed at my feet and coughed meaningfully. Then I excused myself to get a drink.
The audience fidgeted. They wanted to hear more, even though I had maligned their favourite journeyman. As I sat down again, one of the children piped up, “Do you know Journeyman Jonah personally? How come you sound so sure about what he looks like?”
The question brought me back to our first meeting. Even then, he had seemed like my nemesis. It was nine years ago, I was a cultured and respected acolyte being groomed to serve in the Central Sing Temple. Jonah trudged into Sing one day and changed all that.
“The first time I met Jonah was the first time that, after the Big Cloud, a journeyman painted on a smile. I still remember that night. The Town Hall was packed. Jonah walked in with full facepaint on. But instead of the Mourning Face that all journeymen wore, he had painted on a smile. A smile! But, beneath the garish lipstick, I could see that his mouth was anything but happy. He looked reluctant to tell his story. His hair had been combed and oiled into a topknot, and in it, he wore a strange ornament. A hairpin with a pink lotus.
Everyone in the Hall wanted to hear what Jonah had to say; and if he had nothing worthwhile to say, we were going to tear him from limb to limb. That was how furious the townspeople felt about his audacious Smiling Face. In a hoarse broken voice, he launched into his unbelievable tale:
“I met the Princess Bloom. She is not what you think. She is not a weapon, not an artefact, nor a goddess. The Princess Bloom is a beautiful flesh and blood woman. She lives in the wasteland. The very elements themselves protect her. The flesh-eating beasts avoid her. She eats what she cultivates, and somehow, vegetables and fruits grow for her from the poisoned ground.”
How did Jonah meet her, you ask. He claimed that he was travelling through the Corridor when he heard a commotion. There were the barks and growls of feral dogs and, suddenly, he heard a woman’s voice. He thought it was a Songhe, a sacrificial maid, although they seldom venture so far inside the Corridor.
As we all know, there are women in the wasteland. It was not only the journeymen who roamed the Corridor. From the time the Big Cloud descended, after the men and animals died, and new mutated species evolved to make the Corridor uninhabitable, Songhe had been selected by the Central Temple of Sing and sent into the wastelands to appease the ghouls therein. Originally, females mutated from birth were set apart by the Temple Servitors to be sent as sacrifices into the Big Cloud, and there were many of them. Over time, even widows, female orphans and those without male relatives were sent out.
They were given a day’s worth of food and a warm cloak. Then they were brought by guards over the rickety bridge connecting Sing to the Peninsula. Another hour’s journey and they would arrive at the first signs of ruins. There, the guards would leave their female charges with their ‘blessings’. These blessings were delivered as blows and kicks, because the women were usually terrified out of their wits and clung madly to their guards. Songhe never return. Still the spirits were not appeased, the Corridor remained unsafe. So, the sacrifices continue.
Jonah continued his tale, “When I crept nearer to the scene, I saw a breathtakingly beautiful lady surrounded by four to five snarling dogs. She did not look frightened or angry. They yelped at her but she spoke to them. Her tone was calm but not commanding. ‘Be reasonable,’ she pleaded with them. ‘If you are hungry, I can give you food. Don’t behave so roughly.’”
And just like that, they calmed down. It was unbelievable. She walked away and they followed her. So did Jonah. That despicable mercenary knew that he had stumbled onto a mystery, a mystery that could earn him money he could never even dream of. Like a wolf, he trailed her secretly to a cave. That night he neither ate nor slept. He had to keep vigilant against the creatures of the dark. But none came close to the cave. He stayed at his post for several days. In his words, “I witnessed… miracles. This lady walked past the mouths of beasts. They snarled and salivated, but none dared maul her. With my eyes I saw her heal the broken wings of birds just by laying her hands on them. I was stung, bitten and went for days without food nor sleep because I was so fearful of losing sight of her.”
Finally, Jonah fainted. When he woke up, he found myself in the woman’s cave. She had found him when the crows came to peck at his body, she had taken pity on him and brought him to the cave to nurse him.
Although the opening of the cave was small and dark, inside it was wondrously spacious. A clear river ran through the middle of the cavern. It was so clear Jonah could see to the bottom of it. This is miraculous because we all know that the waterways in the Peninsula flows with poisoned water. In the cave were three modest huts. They looked disused, as if the original occupants who built and lived in them had left a long time ago.
In the middle of the stream was a gazebo. The woman would stand in the gazebo and look down into the stream. The waters hissed and bubbled as she stared into their depths. Jonah puzzled over what she saw in the watery depths. After witnessing all her supernatural acts, an extraordinary idea came to him.
“Lady, are you the Princess Bloom?”
“What is that?” she had asked innocently.
“The magic relic left by our forebears that would unite all peoples and bring peace to the land.”
She had giggled. “It sounds very ancient and dusty. I can’t be your Princess. I am hardly twenty years old.”
Jonah was disappointed. He questioned her about her past. She could not remember how she had come to the wastelands but she remembered being raised by three elderly aunties. They were the ones who had found this cavern and built the huts. I suspect they were part of a group of Songhe.
“Even as a child, I was able to heal animals and grow food when my aunties could not,” she explained. “Please don’t ask me how I do it. I might as well ask you why you cannot. My aunts tried to teach me about the world. They explained about the Big Cloud, about cities where many people – men, women and children, lived. But I was a simple child and could not understand much. My aunts grew old and passed away. They were all very worried about me, how I would continue to live on without them. Finally, my youngest aunt dropped a rock into the stream here. She said the rock would guide me in making decisions. So I would look into the stream and concentrate hard, and the stream would show me things.”
Jonah grew terribly excited. Without a doubt in his simple mind, he believed the rock at the bottom of the river to be the Princess Bloom. Thereafter, he searched and searched the stream with his eyes. It was so crystal clear that he would have spotted any rock in it, but there were no stones or even pebbles in the riverbed. So then, he decided on the next best thing – he would go into the stream and search with his hands and feet. Except Jonah could not swim. He was born under the Cloud; none of us who were born in this generation know how to swim. How could we? Since all lakes and rivers were poisonous.
The Princess, for that was what Jonah had come to name her in his mind, tried to dissuade him. But what do you expect of a weak-minded fortune-hunter? He was gripped with strong avarice. Nothing and no one could stand between him and his prize. Rolling up his sleeves, he got in.
The stream was swift, Jonah was immediately sucked to the bottom and tumbled head over heels. (I wish he had died then). Water entered his mouth, his nose. He did not know which way was up or down. The current carried him away, out of the cavern and shot him out over a high waterfall. He was half dead by the time he crashed to the bottom. His body smashed against rocks and he swallowed more water. But you know how it is with vermin—they don’t die easily. Then, Jonah felt slim arms pulling him.
The Princess had followed him even though he deserved to die from his own stupidity. When he went over the waterfall, she had even risked her own life and dived in. Then, she had to haul his ass, sorry, his body through the current and to the shore. He could have drowned her! How could you have even one kindly feeling for an abysmal moron who almost drowned the only hope of mankind? For a second time, the Princess had to nurse the fool back to health. I fully understand her feelings when she spoke to him after he woke up:
“The river said you must return to your place.”
“No! I was wrong to try to remove the magic rock without your permission. I am sorry. Please let me stay.”
“Why do you wish to stay? You have been away from your home for a long time. Don’t you wish to return?”
“I have no home and no family to return to. Please let me stay with you.”
“Why would you wish to stay, out in the wastelands where there is no future for you?”
“If you do not wish me to stay here with you, then you must return with me.”
The Princess had smiled wistfully. “The river said that I must remain in my place.”
“What nonsense!” Jonah had yelled. “How can you let rocks or water decide your future? If you wish to come, then come with me!”
Putting on his most solemn tone, Jonah had said, “You can save Sing. You can purify the pools and cleanse the land.”
“What about Korm?” she asked.
Jonah was worried. “Are you waiting for an emissary from Korm? Is Korm destined to be the victor and Sing the slave?”
She sighed. “Why has the land changed, the animals changed, but people’s hearts are still the same as before the Big Cloud?”
Jonah told the Princess all the good things about Sing. The warm aroma of baking bread in the mornings; the hustle and bustle of the marketplace at noon; the many types and colours of clothes and jewellery (surely women love these things). Jonah was wrong about many of the details—he was not a city man—so he concluded that was why she rejected him.
She’d listened politely throughout, but each time, she’d pressed him, “What else? Why do you wish me to return with you?”
Did I tell you that Jonah was a moron? I wasn’t being precise. He was an emotionally stunted, blind and mentally deficient fool. “She seemed to be waiting for an answer I could not give,” was all he could say about that encounter. She’d answered him, “It is late, so we should rest now. I will give you my answer tomorrow.”
What do you think happened the next morning? Very naturally, she left. God had decreed that Jonah should be the first man to discover the Princess, but even God had to repent and acknowledge that he was the last man for the job.
Jonah knew she had left for good because she took the light with her. You see, the cavern had always been well-lit. Jonah had thought that there were cracks in the cave roof that let in sunlight and air. But, that morning, the cave became dark and musty, and that’s how he knew that the Princess had gone.
Having lost his one chance of redeeming his sad mediocre life, Jonah continued to cling onto hope and searched for her. Although his tracking skills were well-honed, it was as if the Princess had disappeared from the face of the earth. He would have died in the Corridor if a company of Sing guards had not finally found his pathetic ass.
THE TEMPLE SERVITOR
The townsfolk had been clinging to Jonah’s every word while he was describing the Princess, the very emblem of hope and redemption for a world waiting to die. But he ended his story with these strange words, “The Princess Bloom will not save you.”
At this, the crowd surged forward and sought to tear him apart. Jonah had spoken heresy. He had blasphemed the Princess Bloom, he had spit at the very foundations of our faith.
He would have died that day if Temple guards had not come to drag him away. They brought him into the innermost parts of the Temple, supposedly to let him rest. But I know for a fact that his room was locked and the key taken away.
The most senior Temple Servitors came to quiz him about his unlikely tale. I, Clue, was the scribe at these sessions.
Huang Mu Xi, our fatherly Head Servitor, asked Jonah, “Did this woman say she is affiliated with Sing, or with Korm?”
“Neither. She said that we are still as ravening and power-hungry as the people before the Big Cloud.”
I tried to hide my anger, but could not silence my sharp intake of breath at his criticism of our Temple.
One question that the Head Servitor returned to again and again was, “What is her secret weapon? How do you think she can help Sing to win the war against Korm?”
Jonah had looked bewildered. I grew impatient with this man’s stupidity. He said, “I did not know we were at war with Korm? I knew the citizenry are wary with each other, but isn’t it more like wary respect than hostility? The common people trade with each other and even share secrets like how to grow vegetables in the lowlands, and how to nurture lifestock in the highlands.”
Huang Mu Xi pulled his chair closer. I leaned in. “Is this woman… Is she perhaps guarding the weapon that caused the Big Cloud?”
Seeing Jonah’s surprise, the Head Servitor nodded his head. “Oh yes, there are more of these weapons; the historical records say so, but they do not record where the weapons are hidden. Perhaps that is the woman’s secret?”
Huang Mu Xi took out a map. “Show me the whereabouts of this cave that she lives in.”
Jonah took the map obediently, but the illiterate fool could not pinpoint the location of the cave. “If I am there, I will know how to find the cave. But this flat piece of paper… it does not tell the position of the sun, the shadows cast by the rocks, the smell of animals’ spoor. How can I navigate?”
Of course Huang Mu Xi did not have the time to attend to all of Jonah’s rambling. It fell to me to document his random words and self-recriminations. I meticulously recorded his half-crazed behaviour. In his constant raving about the Princess, one thing became clear. He did not see the woman in the Corridor as a revered legend come to life or as a super weapon. He saw her only as a flesh and blood woman – one he was head over heels in love with.
In one session, he grasped my robe and, with snot running out of his nose, he wept, “Clue, I never told her. I should have told her. When she asked ‘Why do you wish me to return with you?’ I should have told her the truth. But I didn’t know it then, because I was a fool, a fool! I should have told her, ‘I want you to come with me because I cannot live without you.”
Everything about Jonah was repulsive – his uncouth accent, his non-existent personal hygiene and his size. Jonah towered over me, us. His arms and thighs were corded with muscles, and scars crossed and crisscrossed his chest. I weighed a good ten kilos less than him and this put me vastly out of sorts.
Most of all, I had no patience with his self-pity. Instead of solutions, he sighed and moaned all day long. If it wasn’t my task to keep track of him, I would not have spared him a second of my time.
When the priests had gleaned everything from Jonah that was useful, Huang Mu Xi called me for a private meeting. “We need to send our representative with Jonah, someone who is young and fit enough to withstand the rigours of the Wasteland.”
With a sinking heart, I knew who he was hinting at. I was the youngest among the servitors. Ahh, how I rued that meeting. Seeing these fat and pampered priests who lived all their days in the comfort of the Temple sending me into the jaws of death!
Huang Mu Xi carried on, complacent that I would not dare to protest. “You must make sure to learn the location of the cave and the mystery rock in the stream. Persuade the woman of the Corridor to come to Sing, by courtesy… or by force.”
Having wetted my throat with beer and been denied dinner unless I resume the story, I climbed back onto the storytellers’ dais. Everyone was all ears again.
I left with Jonah for the Corridor on the explicit instructions of the Head Servitor. A troop of soldiers accompanied us. The tale fed to Jonah was that the troop would give us protection along the journey and form a guard of honour to show due respect to the Princess of the Legend. But I knew the truth – they were sent to carry back the weapons and the Princess with them. They will bind her and bring her back to Sing as a slave. They will loot her cave, and if they do not find the cache of weapons, they will torture the information out of her.
The fool, Jonah, did not suspect a thing. All he could think about was rejoining his lover. He was ecstatic, jiggling in his shoes.
Scarcely a few days had passed when we suffered our first casualty. We were laying over at night, exhausted by the day’s trek in the hot sun and poisonous air. A stifled scream woke the company. The captain of the guard started shouting. I felt a hand gripping my arm – it was Jonah. He put a finger to his lips. He wanted me to go with him quietly. He had found the tiniest of caves in the craggy rock, just a crack actually. He folded me into it and squeezed in after me.
We waited out the long night of hysterical screams and random gunshots. By morning, we learned that half the company had been slain or dragged away by the carnivorous behemoths of the valley. The Captain’s corpse was discovered a hundred yards away from the camp. His throat had been ripped open and his life blood had flowed out and stained the surrounding rocks like a rusted palette.
Without a leader, the guards were disoriented and fearful. Jonah suggested they carry the bodies back with them to Sing for a dignified burial. They were more than glad for the excuse. I ranted and commanded them to continue escorting us, but their fear had become their new captain – they did not heed me at all.
I was sorely tempted to turn back with them. But the thought of the terrible Huang Mu Xi waiting for me at Sing was a strong deterrent. I determined to press on with Jonah. The night’s ordeal had not made a dent on the fool’s armour of idiocy. As we set forth again, all he could talk about was meeting his Princess again.
On the twentieth day on our journey, when all our supplies had run out, we found her. Or rather, I suspect she took pity on us and allowed us to find her.
Who did I expect the Princess to be? All Jonah spoke about were the physical aspects of this supernatural woman. And, indeed, she was every bit as beautiful and ethereal as Jonah had described. But there was something else. I, I who had been trained from childhood in the spiritual disciplines and the glorious history of the Temple, saw the truth beneath the flesh. How strange it is, that in this most savage and bestial of lands, there exists a light so bright it would lead the combined peoples of Sing and Korbu to the redemption generations have died waiting for?
“Why have you come back?” the Princess addressed Jonah. Her tone was at once hopeful and timid.
All right, here was the part where he would give his grand confession of love, I thought. Once again, I underestimated the depths of boorishness this fool was capable of. He blurted out, “The Servitors of the Sing Temple are very interested in you. But I don’t think they are kind men. I came to pass you a warning. You must flee. You must hide. I will… I will protect you with my life.”
The coward! Where were all the flowery phrases and declarations of undying love that he had spilled out to me back in Sing? My fist itched to put a dent in his thick skull. But I was here on a mission, and it was not to play Cupid for a man who could not speak the three simple words, “I love you.”
Jonah did not have the manners to introduce me to the lady, so I had to introduce myself. “Milady,” I interrupted, “Do not just listen to Jonah. I am Clue, a servitor from the Central Temple of Sing. Let me tell you the purpose of my visit. As you know, we have been through the Apocalypse. Yet a remnant of Man survives. We are allowed to survive for a purpose. Our redemption is not complete. It is not hope that Man needs to work on now—it is a moral conscience. Korm does not have a temple, they have given themselves utterly over to sin and corruption. Therefore, on behalf of the Sing Temple, I have come to invite you to labour with us, to teach the people of God how to be civilised as we were before the Cloud.”
She smiled and welcomed me. And I will forever remember the first hospitality she extended to me. She handed me a hand-carved wooden cup filled with the clearest liquid. It did not have the strong odor of wine or other distilled liquids. A cautious sip informed me it was water, and yet water like I had never tasted before in my lifetime. I knew this was what water was like before the Cloud.
Well, I thought I had been good, even holy (although in the Temple we were never encouraged to think that we could actually attain holiness), but in her presence, I knew all my goodness were like dirty rags. During the days that followed, our sweet rambling metaphysical discussions purged my carnality and cleansed my soul. I stopped filling up my journals. I stopped investigating the stream and the magic rock which Huang Mu Xi had so solemnly charged me with.
As my illumination in the presence of the Princess grew, my irritation with Jonah increased even more. Her wisdom and insight flowed over and around him like incense at a butcher’s table. He remained as brutish as the creatures who occasionally roamed close to the cave. Incredibly, he maintained that the Princess was not a woman to save, but to be saved. For that, he wanted us to stay in the Corridor, hidden from civilisation, forever if necessary.
She humoured him. She knew he was not holy; that even at his best, he could only be described as loyal, like a dog, really. He was too cowardly, cynical and devoid of ambitions for himself and even less so for mankind.
However, she still hoped for him. I could see it in the long quizzing glances she sent his way. Why does she keep trying with that deadbeat bum? Excuse my language.
I urged the Princess, “Come back with me and educate the masses. I will protect you. What can you do here in the wastelands? When your destiny is to save Sing?”
Jonah would pace restlessly during these discussions. He skirted us like an agitated hyena, torn this way and that by urges and fears that he could not even explain to himself.
Then, one day, the Princess came back from her walk with a strange report. She had seen a monster, but it was unlike every other monster in the valley. It was bigger than two men, had a grey hide that shone in the sun and, instead of legs, it crawled slowly on its belly. It made a terrible noise and smelt even worse.
Disquieted, Jonah and I followed the Princess. We crouched behind rocks and witnessed the monster crawling slowly through the valley. Jonah became ferocious. “This is no creature of the wild,” he hissed at me. “It is a metal monster sent by Sing to hunt the princess.”
With a sinking heart, I had to admit he was right. I had seen a picture of one such monster before. It was a drawing made of men carriers before the Big Cloud. I never thought that such relics existed in Sing, or that the historians could resurrect one to life. But here it was.
Huang Mu Xi must have realised that I had failed his mission. But, instead of giving up, he was still intent on hunting down the Princess. And this was the new servant he had sent on the mission.
“How do we kill it?” Jonah asked, clasping his hunting knife fiercely.
“We can’t,” I answered bleakly. Indeed, the creature looked invulnerable.
We could only stalk it impotently. It rumbled on impassively, heading straight for a fire-ant hill that stood as high as a man’s chest. Not slowing or deviating from its course, it rolled over the nest, completely destroying it. We watched as the furious fire ants swarmed over the monster. There were thousands of them. When the first wave of ants had reached the top of the creature, still more poured out of the ruins of their nest.
The creature ploughed on, totally impervious to the ants’ stings. But then it suddenly picked up speed, and then weaved erratically. Finally, it rammed into a boulder before coming to a whirring halt. A new sound rose above the creature’s mechanical rumbling and hissing. It sounded like human screams.
The head of the creature suddenly dislodged from the rest of the body. We saw that it was actually a kind of door. Two men now erupted from the aperture. They were completely covered in the scarlet fire ants. Their screams were unnatural, keening like a dying animal. They staggered out of the doorway one after the other and fell several feet onto the ground below. Not waiting to get up, they rolled and rolled in agony on the dust. But the fire ants seemed to be plastered to their bodies, so determined were they to exact their pound of flesh in revenge. Slowly, the men’s movements ceased. They lay completely still on the floor.
We crept away. I told my companions, “I recognise that mechanical monster. It is not alive.”
“Where did you see these pictures?” Jonah asked.
“In the history annals of Sing kept in the Forbidden Library at the Temple,” I replied bleakly. Unknown to Sing’s citizens, Huang Mu Xi must have gotten his hands on the last of these carriers that were used in the wars. He must have sent it out into the Corridor in search of the Princess Bloom.
“They haven’t given up, have they? They will hunt my princess until they have her prisoner!” Jonah tore at his hair agitatedly.
We took turns to be on lookout for the rest of the day, in case more carriers came. While I was taking my turn, I heard Jonah’s raised voice. He was yelling at the Princess. Then, silence. Fearful now, I abandoned my post and rushed back to the cave.
I will never, for the rest of my life, forget the sight that greeted me. The brute’s clothes and hands were covered in blood. So much blood. Like a beast, he had killed the Princess, the woman he had sworn to protect, Mankind’s last hope!
I lost my mind. For twenty years in the Temple, I had trained with my tevlin and gartle. I was the weakest among the disciples, but tevlin and gartle combat depends on skill, not size. I went for his throat first. Angling my arm upwards, I slashed with the tevlin spikes, but Jonah’s reflexes were quicker and he jerked to his right—my left, where I was ready for him. My knee was already up, ready to drive into his groin but once again, he danced out of my way.
I thought he would retaliate but, incredibly, he turned away. I howled at his insult, and leapt on his back. A gnat might as well hope to bring down a bull. He swatted me away. Again and again, I lunged at him with strength borne of fury.
At one point, he growled with a weariness that seemed to come from the depths of his spirit rather than his flesh, “Stop it already!”
Taking advantage of his pause, I aimed my tevlin deliberately at his eye. The spikes would have dragged his eyeball out of its socket, but he flinched at the last moment and instead, they tore at his eyelid. Blood spurted out and he roared with pain. He struck out blindly and the blow pushed me over a huge boulder. I tumbled downslope, hit my head and lost consciousness.
When I came to, he was gone. Thinking back, he could have killed me as easily as he had killed the Princess, but he did not. And, with all my superior intellect, I had not paused to question ‘Why?’
‘Why did he kill her? Why did he not kill me?”
These are questions I will never have the answers to. Because after I failed to kill him, he disappeared into the hostile hills. The Princess’ sacred remains were nowhere to be found.
With the Princess dead, there was no reason for me to tarry in the Corridor. I made my way back to Sing, past the dread creatures, enduring the noxious air and lethal rays of the sun. Finally, I stumbled back into town, a skeletal shadow of the prosperous Clue who had set out on his pilgrimage half a year earlier.
In Huang Mu Xi’s evaluation, I was a failure. I had not succeeded in bringing back the Princess, nor the Big Cloud weapons and not even Jonah, the last witness of the salvation legend. I could have stayed on in the Temple as a cleaner or a kitchen server, but my time in the Corridor, and especially with the Princess, had changed me irrevocably. I could no longer be complacent, play temple politics, obey the warlord and the servitors. The old Clue had died.
What was there left for me? To leave the Temple and set up a stall in the marketplace? To find a woman and settle down to husbanding? Ahh, never in all my growing years had I envisioned the day that I would sell all my possessions, acquire a knife, and wander out into the wastelands to live or die under an open sky, as a Journeyman.
Plunged in self-disgust, I turned my head slightly and spit to the side of the dais. The audience grimaced in distaste, but coins clinked busily into my collection plate. They liked my story.
I stayed that night in Layang Layang. The next day, I stocked up on grain, dried ikan bilis and salt. I kept my back stoically to the mountains in the north. But, by midday, I turned resignedly to face them. They have become my unlovely friends. On the one hand, I dread them because I know that one day I will die in their embrace. On the other hand, I cannot run away. My destiny is now irrevocably interlinked with these heartless rocks, like a thin vein of limestone being crushed beneath hulking granite.
As the first cool breeze of dusk blew down from the north, I set off. Somewhere beyond those ridges, overshadowed by a towering peak and nestled in a hidden valley, is the last hope of Mankind. The best way to protect Man is to deny him hope; until Man is ready to be saved.
Yes, the only way to save the Princess is to proclaim her death. Jonah and I have given our lives to do this. Do I regret? All the time. I regret the soft mattress in my little back room in the Temple. Never rising to Senior Servitor. Cosy Saturday evenings with mates in the tavern. Most of all, I regret the fate that threw me together with that loathsome Jonah.
Why does it have to be his bulk that protects her in the wilderness and my tongue to protect her in the cities? But, in the end, I understood the Princess’ wisdom – it was not she who needed saving. It was him; it was me. There is no weapon to rule mankind, there is no miracle to cleanse the Cloud. There is just grace for Jonah and me. Grace upon grace for Sing and Korbu. Until we unite to protect Man’s hope, we live under the Cloud.