Mynah found Lei in an isolated clot of an estuary town, in a valley mostly sheltered from the acrid squalls of the cursewinds. Nearly a year of searching and there they were at last: sitting on an upturned crate at the end of a jetty. A lone sampan bobbed in the water, among the bristling mats of hyacinth and drifting rubbish.
Lei wore a full-length cloak, stitched with wards against the cursewinds. The lower half of their face was masked by a grey strip of cloth. A broad cone of a hat sat on their head, casting their eyes in shadow.
“I want to go upriver,” said Mynah, pushing her own scarf higher up her face until the fabric grazed the curved tier of her lower eyelashes. The rest of her face was obscured by the large hood of her mantle.
Lei eyed the sword at Mynah’s side, the hilt completely bound in strips of cracked red leather and the blade hidden in a crude wooden sheath. Her sword was not like the common golok or parang knives that everyday folk carried; if Lei saw even an exposed inch of the hilt or blade, they would recognise it at once. After all, they had been the one to forge it.
More importantly, Mynah didn’t want them to recognise her and then try and escape again, not after all that time spent looking for them.
“There’s nothing upriver. Only swamps.”
She resisted the urge to knock the hat off their head. Instead, she dropped three square copper pieces, all engraved with rare wind-resistant sigils, into their lap.
Lei shrugged, pocketed the coins and gestured at the moored sampan.
Mynah sat at the prow while they stood at the back, steering with a bamboo pole. The boat nosed against the sweep of the current. The river was broad and syrup-hued, swamps unfurling on either side, squat mangrove palms framing the banks with their stiff fans.
“This is far enough.”
They didn’t stop rowing. “This is nowhere.”
“Exactly where I want us to be,” said Mynah. “Lei.”
They froze. Slowly, they pulled off the scarf covering their face. The hat fell back to reveal short, feathery hair sheared close to the scalp. Shadows pooled beneath their eyes; ill health had carved the former roundness of their face into stark ridges and sockets.
“That wasn’t the best of disguises,” said Mynah.
“Took you long enough to find me.”
“I followed both the river and the rumours. People talked of vanishing coins. A hermit living in the swamps. Things falling to pieces. Forgeries. The evidence of windtapping.” She stared at Lei, who refused to meet her eyes. “The General has been looking for you.”
“Oh.” The bamboo pole dug a little too vigorously into the water, sending spray into Mynah’s face. “Of course you didn’t come on your own.”
“She would have placed a bounty on your head if I hadn’t begged her to let me find you first.”
“I’ll make sure to fall on my knees and thank you when we go ashore.”
Mynah took a deep breath and swallowed her anger.
An ash-grey heron soared overhead. Lei’s gaze snapped upward at its trajectory, the swift eclipse of its flight skimming across their face. Trapping birds had been their favourite pastime; they snared kingfishers and shrikes and orioles and hornbills with their many clever clap traps and mist nets. Each time Mynah returned from the General’s many battles, she always had a new bird in a cage waiting for her.
“Why did you leave?” Mynah asked. She did not add, without saying a word to me.
“First, tell me what happened when I left.”
“You know exactly what happened.”
“I want to hear you tell me.” Lei’s mouth curled into an imp of a smile. It had been a long time since Mynah had seen that smile. And even longer since she’d caught it with her own lips.
So she told Lei how the General’s florid armour had shattered and how her once magnificent kelewang sword turned into a kerengga-infested branch. Shields reverted to coconut husks. Knives and spears and the complicated whirring slings that Lei had once conceived became river stones and shards of bamboo. The entire forgery of the General’s arsenal, Lei’s life work, crumbling into nothing.
Lei mopped their forehead with their sleeve. Mynah heard muffled laughter.
“I don’t think—” she started to say when they dropped the pole and leapt overboard. The boat disintegrated.
One moment she had been sitting in the creaking sampan, and the next she was leaning backwards into water. She windmilled her arms, stirring herself to the surface, which was littered with the remains of dozens of rotting planks. The boat had been another of Lei’s forgeries.
Mynah swam to the swampy edge of the river, her layered clothes dragging her down with each stroke. When the water was shallow enough, she set her feet down and stumbled toward dry land.
Instead, she sank into the soft sediments, which slurped up her ankles, then her knees and thighs and waist. The mud was warm and thick and smelt of rotting vegetation. She grabbed at the fronds of the nearby mangrove palms, but they broke off the trunks easily. Thorns dug into her hands and she cursed.
“The tide will recede in an hour’s time. The sun will dry the mud. Then you’ll be able to get out.” Lei was standing on firm ground. They had stripped off their cloak, their loose shirt and trousers covered with mud.
“Sometimes I row passengers across the estuary.”
“It’s a forgery.”
“One of my last ones.” They looked wistful. “My days of tapping into the cursewinds and forging my way through life are over.”
“Lei,” said Mynah, “I need to talk to you. Help me out.”
“I don’t think so, Beloved Warrior of Jelasin. Did you really think I’d let you catch me and bring me back to your General?” Lei dropped into a squat so they were eye-level with her. “By the way, I found something of yours.”
For the first time, Mynah noticed her sword at their feet. They picked it up and peeled away the strips of leather wound around the hilt. The arc of the blade was scrawled with grooves shaped like leafy vines, curlicuing their way along its entire length, right to the end of the hilt. Lei had designed this for her specially. When the blade struck flesh and blood slid through the grooves, scarlet hibiscuses blossomed from the metal. Petals rained red as she swung her sword through the many battles fought for the General. It was Lei’s rather savage idea of a joke, but eventually, Mynah’s own skill and reputation and the many bloodstained, flower-strewn battlefields led the General to name her ongoing exploits of territorial expansion as the Hibiscus Campaign.
Lei stuck the sword into the ground. “Don’t you want to know why your sword didn’t disintegrate along with the rest of Jelasin’s weapons?”
Mynah had wondered. But she had long stopped asking about the exact workings of Lei’s windtapping, of the craft of their forgeries, for they would never divulge their methods.
“It’s because I made it for you, out of myself.” They traced the twirl of the groove. The edge of the blade nicked their thumb and a drop of blood swam through the curving steel channel. A tiny red bud twisted out of the metal. “I plucked a handful of my hair out—remember when my hair was still long? —and wove a thread from the cursewinds into it and forged it into a sword. As long as I’m alive somewhere, this sword will retain its forged image and essence.” Lei rose from the ground. “But that also means I knew you were coming today.”
“Then why let me get on the boat with you?”
Laughter kneaded the smudges under their eyes into strange winged shapes. “How could I not? I hadn’t seen you for so long.”
They started to walk away.
“Why did you leave?” she shouted.
They didn’t even turn around. “No reason, really. Just like there was no reason for me to stay. I left because I left and that is all.”
Before Lei, Mynah had once been a local warrior girl, tasked with protecting her village, which sat at the edge of General Jelasin’s territory, and so was constantly plagued by border pirates and pillaging soldiers from neighbouring warlords.
There had been a raid and a skirmish one day, and unexpectedly, the General and a band of her fighters turned up.
Never had Mynah seen a more glorious sight than the General with her hardwood shield and the pronged steeples of the iron headpiece rising from her skull.
Later, she approached the General, dropped to her knees and crossed her arms over her chest, and declared that she wanted to join her army.
General Jelasin, dirt-smeared and blood-soaked, peeling off the poorly-warded carapace of her wind-eroded armour, looked down at Mynah and pinched her chin, tilting her face upwards. She smelled the lingering heat of battle on the General’s skin as well as the reek of open wounds.
“I have three rivers to cross by sundown and I’ll be riding straight into the cursewinds all day. You can’t even defend your own home without my help, village girl.”
Mynah refused to budge. She ground her knees into the dirt. The General laughed and walked past her. Her fighters trooped after her, mounted their horses, and Mynah watched them recede into an apparition of dust.
Something prodded at her foot and grazed her exposed ankle. It was made of iron, wrought into twisted spires of sharp lace. A shard of the General’s headpiece, black with blood and rust. She picked it up and cradled it to her chest.
It didn’t matter where Mynah went or who she asked: nobody could or would fix the broken headpiece.
Except Lei. That first time she met them, they were in the middle of a quarrel with two men.
One of the men hurled a small pouch at Lei, who dodged easily. Sand spilt out when it struck the ground. “That’s what happened to the coins you paid me!”
The other man grabbed Lei’s arm. They yelled and tried to shake him off. Mynah didn’t hesitate. She surged forward, broke the man’s grip on Lei and flung him to the ground. Lei seized the opportunity to leap behind her.
The men saw the parang in Mynah’s hand, and the braids wound around her head, turbaned in black and grey patterned silk like a reticulated python, which marked her as a trained fighter.
“Why are you protecting that cheat and swindler?” shouted one of them.
“Don’t listen to them,” Lei shouted back. “They’re the swindlers—swindling you of the truth and soiling my reputation.”
Mynah raised her knife, its oiled edge glinting. The men backed away, probably remembering the ease with which she had thrown one of them down.
“Thank you,” said Lei. Mynah studied them curiously. They didn’t cover their hair or arms like most did. The travel cloak they wore didn’t look well-warded, but they didn’t seem afraid of exposure to the cursewinds.
They stooped to pick a pebble from the ground. In their hands it lengthened and softened like wet clay, grew a tiny head with a beak and pinprick hollows for eyes. They caught Mynah’s hand and pressed the tiny stone bird into her palm. “Here.”
It felt warm. Feathery. Nothing like stone at all. She almost expected to feel a tiny drum of a heart.
“What?” Lei stared at Mynah. “Not good enough? I can do far more.”
Before she could say anything, they scooped a fistful of dirt from the ground, squeezed their palm shut and then unclenched their fingers to reveal six square copper coins, which again they thrust into Mynah’s hand. Everything Lei plucked from the ground, whether dirt or fallen twigs or dead leaves, they turned into copper figurines, miniature trees, silk handkerchiefs, lucky charms, which they forced upon Mynah until her hands and pockets were full.
She held up one of the coins. “Are these real?”
“Only as real as I am. My forgeries are useless without me.”
Mynah remembered the sand from the man’s pouch. “Did you cheat those men, then?”
Lei ignored the question. “I can tap into the cursewinds and draw out scraps of the old magics. It’s how I make false things.” They slipped their hand around Mynah’s arm. She stiffened at the firmness of their grip. “They usually last long enough for me to get away.”
“You got caught this time.” It was useless to shake them off and she didn’t want to use force.
“Did I? Or am I the catcher?”
Mynah reached into her satchel and unwrapped the broken headpiece. “Can you fix this?”
Displeasure folded taut lines across their forehead. “That belongs to Jelasin. Why do you want to fix it?”
“As an offering and a plea to let me join her fighters.”
Lei’s laugh was splintered with scorn, but still they took the broken headpiece. Their face blanched, and for a moment their skin tightened and turned translucent, revealing skeins of maroon and black capillaries, like knotted threads in their flesh. The iron turned elastic, growing new branches and barbs. When they were finished, the headpiece had completed itself into a ring of spines, which rose at two separate points into a pair of branching antlers.
“I’m tired,” said Lei, sagging against Mynah. “You’ll have to take me with you. And anyway, my forgeries are useless without me, as I told you earlier.”
She steadied them. “I’m going to see the General.”
“Then I’m going to see the General too. Besides, I’m indebted to you for saving me.”
Looking at Lei’s brazen smile, the chin tipped in challenge, Mynah didn’t feel like they owed her a debt in any way. If anything, she had the strange feeling that they had seen her coming from a long way off, and that she was well and truly snared.
Mynah clawed her way out of the swamp once the tide shrank. Her sword was still stuck upright in the ground where Lei had left it. When she pulled it out, its shape wavered, but held firm as it shimmered in the late afternoon light.
Lei was long gone. They hadn’t even given her the chance to explain herself. Perhaps she had been too slow to speak. When they were both in the sampan together, all she had done was bite her tongue in angry silence, trying not to show how wronged she felt beneath her composed exterior.
Macaques gibbered in the trees. A fishing eagle shrieked somewhere near the river. Mynah found a human-made trail threading through the vegetation, which eventually led to a stilted hut with an attap roof woven from palm fronds.
This had to be where Lei had been staying. There were clay jars of clean water and palm sap vinegar against the walls. A mat on the floor. Stores of dried fruit and salted fish. Nobody home.
She thought of Lei again, of the time when they were both part of Jelasin’s army. In between the many expeditions of the General’s Hibiscus Campaign, when they had time together, they would go to the marketplace and buy skewer after skewer of roasted meat to quell both their enormous appetites. Lei always fought for every last bit of food and Mynah would furiously point out to them the unfair amount they had eaten and yet afterward, no matter how annoyed they were with each other, Lei would always clutch Mynah’s arm as they walked. The angrier they were with each other, the more ferocious Lei’s grip would be.
Mynah went back to the estuary town, but nobody had seen Lei loitering around the docks, gnawing on sugarcane sticks and waiting for passengers to ferry across the river.
So she returned to Lei’s hut near the swamps. She cleaned the hut and patched the holes in the roof. Every night, she lit a fire. She ate through the stores of food and replenished them. Herons flitted ghost-like past the window. Lei did not return.
Days and weeks washed in and out of the estuary with the morose lull of the tides, until it seemed to Mynah that Lei’s absence was as stubborn and as alive as their presence had once been, something that she had to wrestle with every night. Lei would not return because they didn’t want to. So she set out again, wandering through the towns that fringed the river all the way down to the coast, searching for them, leaving whenever there was talk that the General was near.
One night, Mynah slept by the sea. Her lungs were scrubbed raw by the salt in the air, yet every breath she took was free of the ruined smell of the cursewinds.
When she woke, the wandering city of Kasihan had snuck up on her and was slowly settling around her in a bustle of flapping silk and curt hooves. People passed, their footfalls thundering past her ears. Tents were being hoisted into shape.
It had been many months since she last walked between the whispering walls of Kasihan’s warren of tents. But now, General Jelasin had found her.
The city had unnerved Lei when they had first ventured here years ago. Mynah, on the other hand, had loved the swish and swell of the tents, as though she was enfolded in the heaving epicentre of a flock of wings. There were intricate wards sewn into the tent fabrics, and the silks mellowed the howl and scrape of the winds into a background susurrus. She used to marvel at how the whole expanse of tents could be dismantled within hours, divided into loads to be transported by horses and buffalo. Kasihan could disperse into the night, only to reconvene into a different morph of a city in the morning, in any place the General chose.
Mynah rubbed the sleep out of her eyes as she rose. She knew the way to the General’s tent.
The General was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Spread before her was an embroidered tapestry of her territory: a landscape of rivers and jungles, limestone mountains and eroded windlands. Pearl-topped pins and glass bead clusters for towns and settlements. The General had been working on this for years. Stitching and unpicking the boundaries of her territory as they changed. Tiny red flowers dotted the borders of her land.
When Mynah and Lei first arrived at Kasihan, Mynah had held up the antlered headpiece to the General, who examined it, before allowing her to set it upon her head. Not long after, when she had proved her worth in battle, the General declared her as her Beloved Warrior of the Hibiscus Campaign.
Now, however, the headpiece was long gone: the illusion of its structure broken once Lei had fled Kasihan.
“Beloved Warrior,” said General Jelasin, her penetrating gaze catching Mynah’s. “You’ve been away for many months. I thought perhaps you too had deserted me.”
“I’ve not found Lei.” Mynah knelt before the General. Her unplaited hair fell across her face, reeking of oil and salt. “As I promised you I would.”
The General looked back down at her embroidery, a brief smile on her face. “Why would a catching a deserter be more important to me than having my Beloved Warrior of the Hibiscus Campaign at my side?”
“But Lei created all the weapons that helped us in the Campaign.”
“I have enlisted the service of others. Less-skilled windtappers than the deserter, but they will suffice.”
Mynah’s eyes drifted to the General’s blade that rested on the floor by her side, mapping its crooked spine, the swerve of its hilt. An unremarkable weapon, unwarded, bound to last only a handful of skirmishes before it decayed in the cursewinds. The General depleted her armouries at great speed, especially now that Lei was no longer present to replenish them.
“It seems,” said Jelasin, “that you don’t know why they left.”
“Don’t you know how they tap into the winds? The price of harvesting those old curses blighting the winds?”
She didn’t. Lei had always refused to tell her.
“You serve the General,” Lei had said. “And I serve the General. You’ll be her sword and her shield and her Beloved. And I’ll do what I do.”
“Most windtappers don’t live long, with the way they wreck their own bodies to channel those ancient magics,” the General continued.
“—has outlived the average lifespan of a windtapper and done extraordinarily well. But all their forgeries must take their toll eventually.”
Mynah’s throat went dry. How did she not know this about Lei?
But she already had her answer: her single-minded flinty devotion to the General and the Hibiscus Campaign had made her oblivious to Lei’s suffering over the years. How much had the General taken from the both of them?
“If they had not deserted,” Jelasin went on, “I would have let them live the rest of their days in peace within Kasihan.”
“Perhaps they didn’t know better, my General,” said Mynah. “Let me go and look for them again. This time I’ll bring them back.”
“The Hibiscus Campaign is finished, Beloved.” General Jelasin picked up her needle and began unpicking the flower-dotted boundary of her northern territory. “You will now help me take back the territory we lost in your absence. As for the deserter, I have issued a bounty on their head.”
Every year, the reward on Lei’s head doubled. The General’s grudge only festered with time. Mynah had long fled Kasihan. Lei had once told her that Jelasin gave her purpose, that in her chest sat an unyielding compass instead of a heart, and that all directions would always spin home to Jelasin. Once upon a time they had been right about this. She remembered the betrayal she had felt when Lei left, and yet here she was, following their lead. She cut off her cherished braids and disguised herself in order to infiltrate the skittish circles of bounty seekers, who traded rumours with each other on Lei’s whereabouts.
She ended up shadowing a group of bounty hunters across the vast, howling sprawl known as the windlands. The remnants of old curses that had been used as weapons in the ancient wars were strongest here, and so the winds were at their most corrosive, scarring trees and whittling away at rocks. The ground was powdery with the ashes of all things ground down by the cursewinds.
Two of the bounty hunters sickened and died during the journey through the windlands. Mynah tracked the remaining two along a stony trail winding up the flank of a bald mountain.
When she finally caught up with them, they had already found Lei sheltering in a network of caves. The two bounty hunters had their wind-burnt knives brandished, their cloaks tattered, the fabric wards weakened.
Lei was on their knees, blood trickling from a forehead wound. They looked sicker than ever, nothing like the exuberant and fiendishly clever windtapper who had once imagined into existence the most vicious and ostentatious weapons.
Mynah gripped the hilt of the knife at her side. Rage nearly split her skull in two. Lei spat blood but still managed to curse the two bounty hunters.
One of them laughed. “If you create a hoard of weapons like what you made for your General, we won’t turn you in.”
Lei dug their fingers into the rocky ground, scraping loose gravel together. Sand leaked from their loose fist. When they unclenched their palm, the gravel had consolidated into a misshapen apricot. Their face was bloodless, a scrawl of taut veins running down their temples and cheeks to their neck. The effort had nearly drained them.
“Like this?” Lei said as they hurled the apricot at the nearest of the bounty hunters. The fruit burst mid-air into shards of glass, gouging scarlet trenches into his face.
Mynah sprang into action. With one long leap, she had crossed the space to where the bounty hunters were. She cut one of them down and, while the other fumbled with her weapon, her knife swooped through the air again. The remaining bounty hunter fell, clutching at her throat. Mynah’s blade, eroded by the cursewinds, shattered.
Lei slumped against the wall of the cave. They raised their eyes to Mynah and managed a ghost of a grin. “The bounty goes to you then.”
Mynah knelt before them. The enormous relief that crested in her made her feel light-headed. But also present was her lingering resentment and the sharp longing that had never gone away after all these years.
Lei kept on goading her. “How much is the reward on my head anyway?”
Mynah remained silent as she took their wrist and draped their arm around her neck. Lei snarled and tried to pull away, but she didn’t let go.
“You’re really going to deliver me to your General?”
“I’ve left the General’s army.”
Lei glanced at her. It had been such a long time since their face was so close to hers. “You would never. You live for Jelasin. You’re her Beloved. She gives you purpose. Unlike me.”
“And yet I became a deserter like you. I, too, carry a bounty on my head.” She pushed the hood of her cloak back to show how she’d chopped her python braids into an uneven drape of hair. “I thought we knew each other better.”
Lei looked away. “If only we could give each other up, turn ourselves both in. We’d be rich.”
Mynah lost her temper as she hauled Lei to their feet, even as she gathered as much of their weight as possible in her arms and against her own body. “You always let that senseless mouth of yours run around all the things you don’t want to say. You never take me seriously, especially when I most need you to.”
They stood there awkwardly for a moment. Outside, the winds were picking up, grinding at the mountain, pulsing with the rancour of the old wars. Lei’s eyes fell to the broken knife that Mynah had been using.
“The sword I gave you—”
“I burned it.”
It had hurt to do it, to throw the sword into fire and sever the only link she had with Lei. The magic smoked away, and the sword lost its image. For a moment, before it was completely engulfed in flames, Mynah saw a wad of charred hair that Lei must have pulled from their own head a long time ago to make the forgery. “Using it would only have drained you further.”
“You have no right to be here,” said Lei at last. “I didn’t ask you to save me.”
“If you don’t want to see me again—” Mynah paused. The words were heavy and sour in her mouth. “—then I’ll go. But at least let me take you away from here before others come. Let me stay with you a few days until you recover.”
Mynah pulled her warded cloak over Lei and herself. They had to leave. Bounty hunters had circles of intelligence that she couldn’t fathom, and they tended to hound each other, waiting for their rivals to fail. And then there was the General, whose bitterness would seek them both out, unstitch all her territory to unearth them from wherever they were.
But she couldn’t afford lose Lei again. That was all she knew. Against her body, Lei’s weight was wary and too light, but familiar. The elbow burrowing into her. The careless posture.
“I should have known,” said Mynah at last. “I shouldn’t have backed away when you told me to back away. I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t have been so ignorant as not to see that the General was draining you, that you were suffering. I should have—”
“Mynah,” said Lei, “Where are we going?”
“Down the mountain. Three days from here, there’s a river. And upriver, at the edge of the palm swamps, there’s a house that has been waiting for you to fill it. For three days or three months or three years, or however long you’ll have it.”
“I know that place,” said Lei, and Mynah recognised the yielding in their eyes, that worn rag of a smile.
Nicole Tan is a Malaysian immigrant, spec fic writer and exhausted single parent living in Aotearoa New Zealand. Their work has appeared in Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Umbel & Panicle, and the Year’s Best Aotearoa Science Fiction & Fantasy Vol. 2. Sometimes you can catch them on Twitter @moxieturbine