“I have to admit to something,” said Dakila. She fidgeted her fingers as she looked at the High Queen. Dakila switched her eye gaze between the Queen and the oak floor. Her stomach churned. She wanted nothing more but to get this confession over with. Being alone, in the queen’s estate room, wasn’t helping.
“Yes?” said Queen Tanicala. She sat behind a bamboo desk that had ornately carved patterns lining its legs and sides. The patterns looked like ocean waves and matched those carved into the chairs that encompassed the room.
“I lied,” said Dakila.
Tanicala gave no response. Her expression remained cold and reserved.
“I faked the Omapoy Study.” Dakila gulped. She’d been carrying around that lie for months and was relieved that it was finally out. She had lied because she was tired of being the black sheep of the family. Her parents, her cousins, and her aunts and uncles were accomplished Portalline scholars. The crown jewel of the family was, of course, her cousin, Queen Tanicala.
Tanicala was the most accomplished scholar on the Isles and Dakila had always wanted to be just like her. Unfortunately, Dakila was not gifted with scholarly abilities and struggled to achieve anything worthy of note. She had thought that by faking a scholarly proof she would achieve renown but it turned out that she got more than she bargained for. A lot more.
Still no response. The High Queen stared back at her younger cousin, silently as if contemplating Dakila. Ocean waves crashed against the nearby shore, exacerbating the silent tension. Dakila wondered what was going through Tanicala’s head. She should be angry but she seemed calm, almost meditative. This only unsettled Dakila more. What was she thinking?
“It doesn’t matter,” said the Queen after several long moments.
Dakila’s mouth dropped and she sat quietly. “Doesn’t matter?”
The Queen had committed significant resources to further researching Dakila’s study because it implied new uses for Portallium that would allow the channeling of heat in addition to weight by skilled adepts. Dakila couldn’t believe that it simply didn’t matter that she lied about this discovery. Throwing scholarly resources at a faked study was tantamount to treason, especially when they needed every scholar working toward finding ways to level the playing field against the Adarans.
“I said it doesn’t matter,” repeated Tanicala with elevated volume.
A pit formed in Dakila’s stomach. So much for moving past the lie. She had wanted to be free of the guilt. She had wanted to be a scholar like her cousin but not if it cost her country the war.
“But if the study is fake then this is all pointless,” responded Dakila.
“Why are you telling me this now?” asked the Queen.
“You know why. I mean to resign my post,” Dakila said.
“No, I mean why now?”
“Because, well, because I feel guilty. And because I can’t possibly lead a research team into new discoveries about something I know doesn’t exist.”
“You feel guilty do you?” said the Queen’s tone transitioning to red hot anger. “Do you realize that I staked my reputation as High Queen on your promotion? Do you know how many enemies want to see me de-throned? Our country stands on the brink of invasion and I gambled everything on your breakthrough.”
Dakila broke eye contact, looking dimly to the floor. I never realized that this promotion was that costly to her. I thought she was simply doing me a favor.
Queen Tanicala continued, “This was supposed to be the single biggest breakthrough in decades, and you are telling me now that it is all fake.”
Dakila pondered this. She should have told Tanicala before the promotion. It would be an embarrassment that would damage her political credibility. This lie was bigger than she could have imagined.
She raised her eyes to her cousin. “I am sorry my Queen.”
“Your sorrow won’t change the fact that I just committed nepotism by promoting my cousin, my own flesh and blood, to the position of High Scholar, the most important post in Portallis. And I did it on the back of your brilliant research career, which mirrors my own. Now you tell me that not only have you lied to me but you made a liar out of me and, in doing so, compromised my office.”
Tanicala was infuriated and stared angrily down at her cousin. Dakila blinked back tears as her eyes welled. How could I have done this? Dakila said, “I resign as High Scholar. Please, reinstate Matanga.”
“I cannot reinstate Matanga.”
“Why not? He was the most brilliant scholar in Portallis. Surely he – “
“Matanga yielded no results in over two years. He will not be reinstated. I am past the point of no return.”
“But surely for the sake of the Queendom – “
“You should have thought of that before you lied,” Tanicala cut her off. “Matanga’s writ of execution has already been signed, and it is on your hands. I cannot withdraw it now.”
A look of shock shot across Dakila’s face. “A writ of execution?” she said. “How could -”
“I needed to make a point,” said the Queen, cutting her off.
“Doesn’t that seem a bit extreme?” asked Dakila. She knew her cousin could be cruel but to execute a High Scholar? That seemed extreme even for Tanicala.
“Who are you to question the High Queen? We have many enemies within our own walls, Dakila. Some would hold Matanga’s scholarship as a challenge to my own. More than that, his failure to find anything useful for the war was treasonous.”
“But we need our scholars now more than ever. Without scholarship and research we will be unable to unlock Portallium’s true potential. We will again be a Penal Colony.”
Fire lit up Tanicala’s eyes. “You think I don’t know that? I am the High Queen. How dare you speak to me this way.”
Dakila was silent. She stared blankly at her cousin.
Tanicala composed herself. “We do need scholars. We need real findings if we are to turn the tide on this battle. You will take this position Dakila. And you will find results.”
Dakila said, “Or I’ll be executed too? Like Matanga.”
Tanicala stared at Dakila, pondering her words “No. I won’t sign the writ for my own cousin. But the Adarans will gladly do so after they invade our Isles. Or our enemies here if they finally manage a successful coup.”
“But don’t you see? I’m a fake. I can’t possibly do what you need me to do.”
“That may be but you’ve got the position now so you’re stuck with it. I suggest you learn quickly how to be useful.”
The door to the room burst open with a sharp bang. Dakila jerked her head to see who was intruding on their private conversation. Behind the door stood a large, muscular man with long hair. He wore a red cloak over a silver tunic.
General Sabacan, commander of the armed forces of Portallis.
Beside the general stood a tall, lean warrior with a strange snake tattoo across his right cheek. Dakila did not recognize this man. He had a loose red vest and white long-sleeve shirt. He carried a spear in his hand and had bandages on one of his legs.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Tanicala. Her eyes wide and her tone strong. If Dakila knew anything about her cousin, she did not appreciate being interrupted.
“My Queen,” said Sabacan. His demeanor was calm and poised. “There’s been an ambush. We’ve been hit. The Adarans attacked our largest shipment of Portallium from the mines.”
“What? How could this have happened? We needed that Portallium.”
“I know, my Queen.”
“How could you have allowed this to happen?” Tanicala’s face was red hot.
“We doubled the guard on this shipment, and even assigned three of our military adepts. This hit was different. The Adarans used a specialist.”
“A specialist who took out three adepts?”
Dakila rubbed her fingers together in her pockets. It was rare that adepts were deployed as guards so this shipment must have been unusually large. This type of hit would be a significant casualty for the empire not only because of the lost adepts but because of the Portallium. They needed it now more than ever to build their defenses against the Adarans.
“There’s a silver lining to the story,” said Sabacan. “This is Bacunawa. He survived the attack. Perhaps it’s better if he tells you himself.”
Tanicala and Dakila turned their gaze to Bacunawa. He had bruises across his arms and face, but didn’t appear to be permanently injured. Dakila had to force herself to not stare at the strange snake tattooed on his face. This man was odd-looking.
Bacunawa said, “My Queen, these men did not fight like Adarans. They fought like guerilla fighters. I believe they are mercenaries working for the Adaran Empire. The specialist they used, he had to -” Bacunawa paused. “Well, he had to offload the entire shipment of Portallium into the ocean in order to disable the adepts.”
Dakila gaped. Who in their right mind would throw away that much Portallium? Wouldn’t that subvert the entire point of the mission?
Bacunawa said, “There’s more. Once the Portallium was gone we were as good as dead. Their snipers were too effective against us without our massbinding. However, one of the adepts, Palawa, she jumped over the edge into the ocean.”
“So she got away then? Were the Adarans able to catch her?” asked Tanicala.
“They didn’t need to your majesty. She caught them.”
Dakila’s eyes widened. She stared, shocked at the warrior. “Could you say that again?”
“She caught them. She returned to fight them…as a Sarangay.”
Dakila and Tanicala gasped. Dakila’s heart skipped a beat. Could this be true? She’d read about Sarangays in her studies but they were supposed to be creatures of legend. The ancient Portallines had told stories of them but they didn’t write any of those stories down, so all that was known was what was passed down by oral tradition. Well, except one. Her own ancestor, Liwana Alalay, was said to have become a Sarangay during the Revolution but no Portallines had witnessed it. It was only a rumor passed through Adaran prisoners, and that was over one hundred years ago.
“That’s quite a bold claim. Do you have any proof?” asked Tanicala.
Bacunawa paused. “No, I don’t your majesty. Except perhaps that I’m still alive.”
“I trust my man’s honesty” said Sabacan, cutting off Tanicala.
Rather than respond in kind Tanicala only glowered at him.
Her cousin could be cruel and impulsive and few in the country would stand up to her.
Sabacan was one of those few. He exuded strength and power. The people loved him and, more than that, the army loved him. He could mount a coup if he had sufficient cause. Dakila wondered why he hadn’t done it already. It was probably because he was an honorable man. He also needed to work with scholars and adepts if there was any chance of defeating Adara. In turn, Tanicala tolerated Sabacan because she needed him. She couldn’t afford to lose the support of the army.
“Very well,” said Tanicala. “Suppose you’re telling the truth. How could the Adarans have defeated a Sarangay?”
“They didn’t,” said Bacunawa.
“Do you take me for an idiot?”
“They didn’t defeat her, your majesty. The Sarangay had them beat. But, before it could take out their captain, it just disappeared. Seemed to flame out.”
Disappeared? Dakila pondered this. “If the Sarangay state is real, your majesty, then the properties of achieving such a state would be highly unstable.” Dakila said. “We would lose too many of our people.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” said Tanicala. “I am perfectly aware that this would be the case if it is indeed real.”
Dakila dropped her eyes to the floor. Tanicala stared at Sabacan who locked his gaze with hers. There was a pause in the conversation.
Sabacan shifted his head to look at the downcast Dakila. He pivoted the subject of the conversation, “Dakila, you are recently promoted to High Scholar. I congratulate you.”
“Thank you General,” said Dakila, raising her head. This man was a good diplomat. Perhaps that was why others loved him so much.
“Your proof must be truly brilliant to warrant such a promotion. I am no scholar myself but I very much look forward to its – practical implications.”
“Practical implications?” said Dakila.
“Of course, if our adepts can bind heat with Portallium, just think of the impact that will have on our military and our economy.”
Dakila froze. This would make things difficult. How could she possibly follow through on the promises her study had implied? At least now the queen was in on it.
Tanicala said, “The use of heat is somewhat difficult to put into practice General.”
Sabacan raised an eyebrow. “Oh? I thought this breakthrough was extremely promising, to warrant such a radical promotion.”
Oh boy, Dakila really had put her cousin in a bind. She should have thought this through a bit more. Tanicala was trying to cover Dakila’s lie. Dakila had to help, but what to say? “There are also other pressing research considerations that we must also consider.”
“What else could there be but your proof? We need something to turn the tide or we’ll be invaded. This latest incursion by the Adarans only makes that even more clear.”
Dakila sat quietly, unsure of what to say. She rubbed the back of her neck and turned to face her cousin. Now they were both between a rock and a hard place.
Tanicala’s brow furrowed with a studious look. Dakila’s cousin was brilliant to say the least but even she would have trouble with this one. Tanicala’s face erupted into a wry smile. Dakila knew that look. Whatever it was her cousin was thinking it would not be good.
Tanicala said, “Truth be told General, I’ve assigned Dakila to a secret research assignment that I’d prefer remain a secret.”
“I am the Commanding General of the Portallines. I think whatever it is, I need to be looped in, especially if it means putting off much-needed research into Dakila’s proof.”
“Yes, I was going to tell you General. I only assigned this task to Dakila today, and it really must remain a state secret.” Tanicala turned her head to look at Bacunawa.
“I see,” said General Sabacan. “You are dismissed Bacunawa.”
Bacunawa saluted the general. He turned his body one hundred and eighty degrees and walked out of the room. Sabacan watched him exit and turned to face Dakila and Tanicala.
Dakila was in for it now. There was no assignment. Tanicala was making this up on the spot, which mean that this could go very badly for Dakila. What was her cousin thinking?
“It is true that Dakila’s proof has many important ramifications,” Tanicala lied. “However, there is one line of research that is radically more promising than Dakila’s proof.”
Wow, she was an excellent liar. It must run in the family.
“What could that be?” said Sabacan.
“Please know that when I accused Bacunawa of being a liar it wasn’t anything personal,” Tanicala lied again. “It’s just that his claim of seeing a Sarangay is precisely tied to Dakila’s research.”
General Sabacan touched his throat. “She’s researching Sarangays? But they’re just a -” he paused. The General had caught himself before reversing his own position.
“Yes, General, they’re just a legend.” said Tanicala. “A legend that can win us the war just as they won us the revolution.”
“How promising is this research?” asked Sabacan.
Tanicala eyed Dakila. “You can ask her yourself General.”
Sabacan turned to Dakila. Her turn to lie. She gulped. Oh boy, the pit just gets deeper and deeper.
“Think of what it would mean for Portallis if we had an army of Sarangays. Even a single Sarangay could turn back a fleet of Adarans. We would be unstoppable.”
Dakila continued, “It’s not going to be easy but I’ve got a few ideas. I’ll need to interview your man, Bacunawa about what exactly he saw. It may provide some clues.”
“Yes, of course, Dakila,” said General Sabacan. “You have my full support.”
“You are dismissed General,” said Tanicala as if the General needed to be dismissed. He was powerful enough that he came and went as he pleased.
The General bit his tongue as if holding back curt words for the queen. He turned to walk out the door.
An idea popped into Dakila’s head as he was exiting. “Excuse me, but did you say they dumped the entire load of Portallium in the ocean?”
Sabacan turned to look behind him. “Yes, I did.”
Tanicala looked annoyed.
“Well, if it’s all just sitting there. Shouldn’t we try to recover some of it? I mean, as exciting as the Sarangay is and all, we still need that Portallium.”
Sabacan scratched his head and shuffled his feet on the ground. This was the least confident she’d ever seen him look before. At least this was one small token victory she could give her cousin.
Sabacan coughed. “Umm, I suppose you’re right. I’ll get on that right away,” Sabacan turned around to exit the room.
Dakila looked at her cousin Tanicala, who smirked widely. Tanicala said, “Excuse me, general.”
Sabacan jerked his head. “Yes?”
“You may take Dakila with you, so she can examine the circumstances of this Sarangay report,” said Tanicala.
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