Kestallen, tuluvanye

by Ploi Pirapokin

They were once six.  

A father, the gem smith of kings and the king of gem smiths, renowned for bending an ivory metal that glittered more than gold and diamonds combined, drawing Western Kings over turbulent seas for sapphire collars fashioned into diadems and tiaras with such delicate versatility, drawing envy from even the dwarves. 

A mother, the devoted matriarch, who donned a bouffant, smooth, and shellacked around her head like a dark algae-enveloped bascinet.  

A name bearing-son, heir to their newly prominent house, not royal by blood but by relevance. His father and mother appeared overjoyed at first, believing their name-bearer abstained from hoarding precious stones without soon realizing his greed for what those stones brought home, their slight sniffles bowled down rice terraces into the valley. 

Not least in the hierarchy, three identical triplets, serene-smiling sisters, born consecutively one after the other, the ones who willingly hoist their family’s name on their shoulders. 

They’re telling you their story now, with no one to remember. 

The people in their City of Gold compared them to the new moon at dusk, with their bright, pearly skin accentuating their feathered brows and upturned noses, a guiding beacon among a sea of ochre-toned masses. They said, the Saccchikatras strode down streets’ chins-up, for clawing themselves out of dark metal mills, forging their riches from their own hammers and sweat, thumbing weavers, cobblers, and wheelwrights with more silver than they deserved. 

One day when the children were still in school, their father perished in a freak incident. A misfortune, really, because no one could have predicted a macaque from their garden knocking him out with a turtle, mistaking his bald head for a rock suitable for shattering the shell of the reptile. Such instances were common of the time in the primitive East where animals reigned, and nature commanded those who were slain or stayed. And instead of buckling under the pressure of having lost their head of house, the five left of the House of Saccchikatra remained within their walls, raising taller gates to tuck their palace away from prying eyes. 

Those employed by them, who entered when roosters crowed, and streamed out when dotted owlets screeched to begin their hunt, blew their noses, and gurgled the same refrain: Where would the Honorable Lady Saccchikatra, saddled with untrained and unversed adolescents, go? She still has a chance, poor pretty thing, to remarry, and reinstate her gold and status elsewhere. Somewhere West, where men excused women who had lost their mate so abruptly. That way, they could start afresh, and punt away the grief and petty jealousies tethering them to the City of Gold, giving the rest of us a chance to weld and solder too.   

Then, after the lunar year of mourning was completed, the Saccchikatras opened their doors to everyone’s surprise, and welcomed all to a midsummer wedding. The most jocund of celebrations, with hundreds of roast suckling piglets, foot-tapping melodies, and ivory goblets dipped into fountains flowing with rice wine. Their first born and only son, Htay, had found romance and glory in Lady Shizuka of the venerable Baba house, from a peaceful island nation off their shores, lionized for their leaf paintings and lacquered armor. Everyone believed, and Htay’s sisters feverishly hoped, that this union would rejuvenate their house’s name, and set aflame inside of Htay to rise and meet their father’s legacy.  

Everyone knew their brother was not equipped for grit. His hands shook clenching every tool, and between his finger and his thumb, every trinket came undone. He drew gem dealers, metal workers, and appraisers to their doors, owing them shares of silver he overpromised by relying on his father’s legacy, on the backs of their workers forging ornaments they never kept.  

He was nothing like their father, and how could he be? A khim without bamboo sticks to ring a note, no matter how fancy, or polished, or tightly tuned, can never fill a void with harmonious tones. Soon, his antics and mistakes spored all over their city like white mold, and the people—oh, they pointed and mocked him, the halfwit heir who lacked the skill and foresight!

Yet, no one possessed a heart brittle enough to scoff at the women of the House of Saccchikatra, no, not the devoted matriarch, the serene-smiling sisters, and their new radiant in-law, Lady Shizuka, because luck had abandoned these hardy women who had refused to find fortune outside of their city. People called them the Unwilling: those too stubborn to venture West, and as with most stories featuring nobles who hang onto their legacies over a more compelling destiny of countless opportunities and eternal blessings, their attempts to stay will always end up fractured by the very thing they should’ve forsaken. 

Their house unraveled because of her.  

They called her a little leech in her dialect so that she understood, shackled in their dungeon, knees knobbly from digging into rugged limestone; Plingnoi when she was nothing more than a loamy, pregnant fledgling, Htay had brought home ripe, her loose-slacked sarong riding up her gravid rump and pomelo-heavy breasts swinging freely uncovered like migrant peasants running onto unpaved roads for a quick piss, before racing back to their bourgs in the outskirts of their city. They had always disapproved, outright frowned at their eldest brother dumping his seed in a fieldling, though wasn’t it Plingnoi who really welcomed his load? The easy little leech had spread her legs on purpose, tacked herself to their family lineage by bearing three descendants in their name, three half-blooded children who, at this very moment, were hostages at their lavish abode.  

Our father has boarded a ship headed West, their niece and nephews had said. 

Every parent knows which child of theirs would make it, and which child of theirs was weak, which child of theirs needed assistance, and which child of theirs could be pushed. If a tigress gave birth to a cub without stripes, they were consumed immediately because no stripes in the wild drew a target on their brood, but the Saccchikatras were not animals. Htay was their stripeless kitten, the same kitten who nestled under his sisters’ blankets to comfort them while they cried for their father. What kind of family would they be if that type of frailty subjected him to a lifetime of sheltering, and they were nowhere to be found? 

They believed, as all women of their stature believed, that second wives, concubines, and mistresses—women who chose to pursue men who were betrothed, or already wedded—should prepare themselves for what coming after another meant. Standing ten toes deep in front of Plingnoi’s cell, narrowing their eyes to tease the lump hunched over in the corner, they shouted at her, the same way they had shouted at their niece and nephews earlier. Lies! Are you crazy? Htay would have needed seats, permission from the dockmaster, bachelor equerries, pennies for change, and no sane minion would procure all of that for a man who had matters to tend to and a family to provide for, a man who had no reason to abandon us. 

They would’ve been alerted, please, the House of Saccchikatra owned the docks; shipmasters paid them to drop their anchors, not the other way around. Not to mention, a man as famous as Htay would have been identified, black hair swooped to one side revealing his flat ears, the only man who copied courtesans in the City of Gold. So how could a whole, free man evaporate into thin air? This was a mystery the little leech knew the answers to, and they would force her to undo her curse by any means necessary.  

Their family should’ve waved farewell to their blessed assets, twenty suns ago, when Htay confessed that he had no longer loved his first mate, as though a frivolous, fleeting emotion like love was considered the bedrock of any match. Htay’s alliance with Lady Shizuka wedded their fertile lands with her father’s strong warriors, who tended to the rice with respect and care for the earth using regenerative methods—improved from slash-and-burn fieldling ways—by spacing seedlings further apart and planting natural pests near the soil instead of poison to cure their fields of weeds. And if their mother didn’t banish Htay from their palatial abode then, for dishonoring such an amenable, virtuous, and aristocratic free woman, there was no hope of it now, not even if the gagged little leech, bound with her hands over her head, summoned his lifeless, frozen body in front of them. 

Twenty suns ago, upon returning with the little leech, Htay had struck a deal with their family and Lady Shizuka. His first mate, unable to produce heirs, would raise Plingnoi’s children as her own, though they all knew Lady Shizuka, self-professed as barren, had vomited at the nightmare of her precious womb being halved by a philandering tavern salamander, a salamander they were related to, ergo, did that brand them as salamanders too? Of course not. Their sister-by-law had surprised them all then, by loosening her creamy shoulders, and saying: Our offspring do not ask to be a part of this Earth, and if I could teach them how to bear the weight of both our families’ duties and honor, then let me relay them the wisdom of our houses.  

Plingnoi nodded along and folded at Lady Shizuka’s feet, a pitiful scene to view: A lofty, upright woman cupping the girl’s ears, her thick hair cascading down her brown shoulders in ripples like after a frog leaps off a lotus leaf and breaks the pond’s black veneer, shielding her tears; and who knew if the little leech was weeping because she had discovered in the flesh her Htay possessed a mate after all, or if she was relieved by Htay’s first mate’s benevolent offer that made her a wealthier woman. 

Htay had promised Plingnoi an inn by the gates’ entrance, a separate, steady stream of riches to trade for silk robes, plague-placating medicine, and ladies-in-waiting; a parallel life among the shadows, while their mother had purred and rubbed the little leech’s belly with her swollen, wrinkled fingers as though the ashy, mud-logged parasite’s only value was to carry their rightful heirs.  

Plingnoi eventually popped out three babies. 

A son, their earnest eldest nephew and grandson, Chakrit, who quivered at the thought of eating ant eggs because did that mean they were murdering entire colonies?  

Next, tumbled out a daughter, their gold-willed niece and granddaughter, Kanyarat, endowed with such fierce and untamable muliebrity in her wide hips, and robust rump, independent of any lotion or potion their physicians could brew.  

Lastly, a baby boy, their youngest nephew and grandson, the cheeky Tarak, whose grin bewitched even the strictest of nursemaids into releasing him from the softest of beatings. Plus, these babies deserved their affections. Even if they were half hers, they were half Htay’s too. Which was why, up until the children were four, their family had plucked them out of the little leech’s clasps to scrub them clean of clay before bed, depositing them with their tutors during the day to study. Plingnoi might be damned, but her children would be reared in their love-brimmed household, shown etiquette, and language, and governance, the ways of their lands and station. 

There were moments the Saccchikatra sisters thought they had recognized unholy magic through the gaps in their days, but they had no proof of the breadth of Plingnoi’s theurgy. When the children were still suckling on Plingnoi’s breasts, she sang a lullaby that subdued their fevers, lulling: Kestal-len, tulu-van-yeh. Kestal-len, tulu-van-yeh. Kestal-len, tulu-van-yeh. The beguiling jingle was cut short into a cheer, encouraging the children on waddling from their crib to their bedroom door, at ages far too early for any baby to stand tall without a corner to brace themselves on. Plingnoi never applauded their first utterances of “Ma,” nor when they defecated inside of the perimeter of their honey buckets, nor did she express any wonder or admiration when their tutors reported that they had caught the children mimicking their servants sweeping and mopping; stiffening their crooked elbows and swaying at the same time, at an age where children only blew bubbles through their two front teeth. Plingnoi attached herself to the ends of dining tables, beside their mother’s shins, and smiled. As long as her children were fed, wiped, and cocooned in bed, she seemed pleased. Such naïve sentiments! In an evolving land, well-fed, well-wiped, well-slept children do not grow up to be lords, ladies, and heads of households without routine, instruction, and discipline. They had to lead or be led. Kestal-len, tulu-van-yeh transformed into a greeting for both welcomes and farewells when Plingnoi handed her children off to their tutors, or any of the Saccchikatra women, including Lady Shizuka. The term pacified them, or else they’d roll their heads and wriggle out of any clutch that wasn’t Plingnoi’s, and as soon as she uttered, Kestal-len, tulu-van-yeh, the children would slacken their spines like live shrimps immersed in fermented sorghum, dazed and sleepy. 

Lady Shizuka, on the other hand, painted Chakrit colorful wooden blocks of different shapes, and watched him pull apart the pieces before uniting them together into spheres, pyramids, and cubes. She tapped Kanyarat on her mouth gently whenever the girl tried to bite her ears—little thing was teething, and immune to every newborn parasite and disease—burping through the night. Lady Shizuka fed them cured goose liver sausage instead of fatty pork to maintain a consistent heartbeat for each child, even though Tarak tried to trick her and their cooks by sliding his tongue over chewed food, hiding his little luxuries. They were clever, curious, and strong children, assuming the physical health of their father, and none of the indolence exampled by the little leech. 

Much later, their first sister suspected that the little leech had merely gone along with them over the years, because what kind of varmint could accept a tradeoff as disheartening as this? No mother would forgo the chance to steady her eldest son on her chest, bounce her sweet girl on her knees, and miss every culminating moment that led her youngest baby boy, in his deep sleep, to curl their head into her own bosom, their first sister had offered.  

She’s never protested nor lashed out, their second sister added.  

No, Plingnoi must have calculated this exchange from the start, muttering her incantations and it was simply a matter of time before she mustered all her fieldling magic to smite them—Htay, to be most precise—for this injustice. They should have predicted this. A temple does not have an orientation unless its steeples are pointed at the heavens, and no one would have suspected Plingnoi for Htay’s disappearance—there had been no sightings of him for two moon cycles—if he had allowed her to tend to their children all this time. 

Lady Shizuka’s long, unblinking eyes emerged in their minds as they dug deeper into Plingnoi’s movements leading up to her detention. They uncovered their ears to the whispers of their townsfolks, traders, and merchants’ who swore they spotted their fieldling innkeeper retreat into the stunted forests of fig trees further East of their province, to dance with demons, or whatever it was she did up there away from them that meant their chamber pots overflowed for days, and left their floors strewn with dry hay their horses snorted at. Until two moon cycles ago, Plingnoi materialized at the tavern, round eyes bloodshot, and spilling precious spirit as she served them drinks. She had asked if anyone spoke the wisdom of the woods, because a gust of wind puffed out a phrase she once remembered mouthing: kestal-len, tulu-van-yeh, but she had no recollection of its meaning or who had spoken those words to her, and some lecherous greybeard yelled, ah yes, if you ask me, I shall come. Then everyone hooted and cheered: It is an ancient language spoken by your ancestors, little leech. They are asking, come where, my precious? On your chest, buttocks, or pretty face? 

Low-born men compared fieldlings to weaver ants, resourceful, and capable of constructing impermeable nests from pleating leaves over silk seams joined by larvae, while also folding new leaves elsewhere in case their old nests died or were damaged by storms. Like ants, fieldlings festered in the countryside and rarely settled on one strip of grass for too long, but unlike ants, fieldlings left behind no nest, no trace, nor sign of life. Backwatered, tawny, and superstitious, these savages resided deep in the forests and lived twice as long as men, yet, despite sharing similar features: ten fingers, two nostrils, and two steady legs, they were simpletons unscathed by the lure of fortunes, too unsophisticated to desire fame, and a legacy. High-born men claimed most fieldlings kept to themselves, scavenging tree bases for mushrooms, roots, and herbs. If they were lucky enough to stumble upon a whole, undisturbed ant nest on the undersides of a mango tree or a coconut palm branch, a nest unharvested by royal foragers during their misty, short-lived winters, they’d toil together to collect each gelatinous egg, translucent as brined fish eyeballs. Plingnoi maintained she could talk the ants into surrendering their nest to her, the sorceress! Even if she could, she would have needed an extra branch or five to rattle the silk-fortified citadel of angry red, many-legged soldiers; multiple hands to catch the damned thing, then hang it from the end of a stick and shake it all above a hog-sized pot of water while fending off violent nips from a forcibly exiled mob, so tell us, if it wasn’t unseen magic, how did she survive on her own for years, feasting on such rare and luscious sustenance even they were deprived of? 

Who knew how Htay met her, a fieldling so barbaric, who chewed exposing her gums and picked at food with her fingers, with her wide, ravenous mouth only good for sucking you know what, because how else could she have persuaded a nobleman to sink his remaining gold into a mangy estate? Yes, Htay, the only son of Aravir, from the once-esteemed House of Saccchikatra, had succumbed to sweeping rooms, breaking up inebriated fistfights, and drowning himself to sleep with rice beer. That fieldling is an enchantress, because surely, princesses would lap a man that broad, potent, and unblemished, without even demanding a betrothal, and couldn’t Htay just pay her off like the rest of them? Common street whores who traded nothing but their bodies often harbored patrons, and pensioners in other towns, men who paid for their upkeep like prized mares, and Plingnoi was far too voluptuous for a forest dweller, so who really knew how many husbands she had ran through, or how many children she’s littered the countryside with, in attempts to find better and better nests to lay larvae.  

No one knew the true circumstances of Plingnoi’s begetting, and even if they did, their mother said, they wouldn’t dare repeat their speculations out loud, because full blooded fieldlings like Plingnoi, forsaken by her own birth mother, well, there was no power stronger than the curse of inheritance, scorched carmine coursing through her veins that cycled through her every breath, until she atoned for the vicious entrapment of her mother’s doing. Villagers from her primitive, secluded forest borough remembered Plingnoi before her bloodletting days, roaming outside of the temple steps with no one to collect her. They’d all forgotten if the fieldling had survived, that sniveling sorry-sight, muddied by tears and dust from wiping her eyes with her tamarind-hued uncovered arms, until the women of their municipality spoke, in hushed hurried tones, of a necromancer, who had turned her back on farming, and instead, roasted fetuses snatched out of hostile wombs, sometimes even orphaned newborns, and painted their blackened foreheads with a gold leaf to do her bidding—no different than the control Plingnoi had wielded over Htay and her three children. Village women had visited her mother’s stilted timber shack, yes, many times, for ointments to flatten their hernias, teas to ease their bowels after a low-yield summer harvest, and on occasion, a sweet smelling concoction of katurai, ma fai, and river hemp to silence their loud, snoring husbands, just long enough for a good night’s rest, but no, they never noticed pickled human heads in jars as they were told, nor a wrapped infant in palm leaves, nor whiffed any salty exotic meats crackling over open fire, no. Only Plingnoi, perched in the center of her mother’s cramped home, lowering her gaze, listening to their complaints and concerns keenly, surrounded by pitchers and vessels teeming with withered flowers, dried fruit, and dog fur. 

The Saccchikatra women told Plingnoi they’d free her once she answered, where is Htay? Rattling the iron bars, they motioned at their armed squads, strapped with arrows, to shove her head through a hefty restraint, a suffocating jade cangue sanded by men of the Rosewood Peaks Tribe, rendered to clamp down destructible spells she might conjure.  

When a babe grows up without love, the babe grows up not knowing how to love but to conquer, their mother continued, and I prayed, oh how I prayed, for Htay’s devotion and idiotic obsession to consecrate you. He chose you, didn’t he? Perhaps fieldlings could never transform into good, docile mates, and what were we to expect from a capricious beast like you, surviving on your own all this time? We tried our hardest. We loved you. We gave you an honorable life, sheltered, fed, and bathed, but oh, poor Lady Shizuka, how she suffered! She followed Htay from bordering brothels to gambling parlors to tea houses, balancing jugs of white spirit over her tiny crown, enticing them to toss silver into the inn like a bondslave, to keep our rooms packed when the winters were hard. Where were you? 

 Plingnoi could have pursed her lips, propped her feet up on pillows, and never lifted another finger in her life, but no, that little leech hexed their Lady Shizuka with fever, chills, recurring nosebleeds and purple goosepimples, repeating that dratted incantation over and over again, Kestallen, tuluvanye, if you ask me, I shall come, kestallen, tuluvanye, if you ask me, I shall come, before Lady Shizuka buckled over and died. Upon cleaning her body, their healers noted a constellation of warts, and a monstrous sized spleen, tender and bruised. Htay may have splintered Lady Shizuka’s heart, but Plingnoi strung out her suffering, bartering with demons, right until Lady Shizuka saw her surrogate children almost finish school.  

Tears trickled down Plingnoi’s cheeks as the cangue’s weight dragged her closer to the dirt. 

You could have left us, their first sister roared. Gone home to your flowers, fruit, and fur. 

You should have left us, their second sister added. Gone home to your inn at the end of our lands. 

You would have left us if only you could convince yourself life would be more convenient without our silver, our stature, and our Htay, their third sister concluded. As if Htay would’ve allowed you to snatch his children away. 

They were no longer tolerating the lying leech. She, like them, had swallowed the acrid mixture of duties and responsibilities, of scouting the lands for a living, of clenching one’s teeth to endure scorn and disregard for positions unbefitting of their talents, stature, and acumen, a drink that singed their throat to their bottoms, after losing everything that brought upon them security and peace. Whereas their father’s death was an accident, Htay’s was an evadable catastrophe. One cannot choose their kin, but they can choose who they lay with. As grown and experienced nobles, they vowed that their children, yes, even their niece and nephews who rightfully despised them at this instance included, would never have to suffer from a broken household again. They’d rather cup their ears from a cacophony of disagreements than to face silence, emptiness, an unfillable void sucking every dream and desire into its pith and shredding it all. 

Their second sister bared her teeth, and twisted her backhand, elevated. A slap ricocheted off the tiny cell walls, until their third sister joined in and in between their, We trusted you, and Didn’t we give you a beautiful life? and The very least you could have done was to keep him, that was your only task, since you already lured him to stray! How hard was it to ignore his continued infidelity and conform to his happiness using his silver and his land? Their voices clattered and echoes muffled the sound of their mother, shouting, the jade cangue stays on, for the truth must come out! 

Plingnoi rustled.  

It’s time we took out the gag, their first sister said. Any sorcery will be dealt with immediately. She flicked the closest arrowhead aimed at the little leech, while the second sister peeled apart the knotted muzzle. Tell us, for the last time, what did you do with Htay? 

Nothing. I’ve told you a hundred times, he left, Plingnoi moaned, and since you do not believe me, let me show you.  

No one could comprehend her language, but a familiar wetness surged through their bodies, akin to dipping themselves into the river on a sunny afternoon. They witnessed an amber ant the size of a fingernail, tapping its legs on bare skin, rotating its pelvic girdle readying to bite… A rooster cry, then wings flapping overhead, and a babbling brook nearby jolts them to… Htay’s bulbous nose ahead of their faces, his nostrils cavernous and flaring in ecstasy, warm waves of sunlight cushioned their limbs in molasses, lulling them asleep… Their hand, was it their hand, squeezed a larger, milkier hand—Htay’s?… Crickets leapt by, smacking their calves… I’m no longer in love with her. I promise you, I will… Tanned, shrunken women lined against a wall of peeling wood, pleading, oh mother of nature, may no harm come to us for asking, while extending their arms to clink an alms bowl… Chakrit yowling, scarlet and syrupy, long as an arm, his umbilical cord chained around his neck… Tummy tall Tarak, peering from a slit in the door, into a cool, jasmine-scented bedroom, the whorl on his head perfectly spiraled from the center, squealing, Mama! Mama! but he never turned around… Their boisterous family, engulfed by pipe smoke, laughing like chimes, until they tilted their heads at… A blubbering maiden, whose thin-mustached husband was whacking her with such hatred it lit up his eyes like flaring embers, who wouldn’t listen to their pleas, until… How did they know these two were mates? They knew, and knowing that prickled their stomachs… Same thin-mustached man splayed on the floor, water pooling from the middle of his pants, and Htay, instantly decrepit, melting over him, shrieking… I’m sorry, Missus. I know he’s fathered your children… no, that wasn’t their Htay, he’d never beg, the voice belonged to someone more tinkly, a girl’s… Kanyarat’s grin blotted from her face, her high cheekbones and half-moon eyes wilted… Mama, Mama, you must leave. No one will blame you. We can go West, we can start… Foamy waves rocking a ship, white sails billowing in the sky… A feline and yet elegant man with a dainty nose, white hair, tucked behind his pointed ears… Kestallen, tuluvanyeMy sister, I cannot join you… Bells rang, clinks of metal— 

No, Enchantress, be gone from our midst, their mother bellowed. She waved her arms. A squall of arrows pierced the little leech, blood blossoming from her chest, stomach, and thighs. 

Mother! They staggered back. She didn’t tell us yet, how could you— 

We will ask her spawn again, but swiftly. Come, she won’t submit to her wounds yet. She turned on her heels and scampered up the steps out of the dungeons with their squad marching in unison behind her.  

They pitter-pattered along the underground hallway, clutching onto the belts of their robes, wiping perspiration from their hairlines with their silk sleeves. Serpents carved into their wide doorframes, high ceilings, and tightly coiled spires blurred past them, thawing into one giant polearm, swinging above and around them before striking. Upon escaping into sunlight, they trailed after their mother across grassy mounds to their palatial abode, the familiar landscapes of their compound hissing, a reverberation of the sound of air rupturing out of organs being punctured by metal points, skin tearing upon impact, and how would Plingnoi survive this? What did she show them? Were they complicit? Servants and handmaidens bowed as they ran past, puzzled looks etched on their faces, and the sisters realized, as though they’d been strip-cleansed by force and submerged in cold water, and throttled from their nest, that anything they articulated or enacted from this moment on, could recoil and separate them, severing them in quarters.  

Their mother clung onto traditions she believed ensured their survival, at their expense. It had succeeded all this time, did it not? Her first-born son, the one that could do no wrong, their eldest brother, the one they were meant to revere, the carrier of their family lineage was gone, the very thing they had placed their pride on when they greeted their guests, their family friends, their servants, and what virtues were they truly imparting onto the next generation at this point in their history, they couldn’t justify. Plingnoi stole him from them. Then she stole their heirs from them. Then she tried to spellbind them into inhabiting her spirit, thrashing and lashing around and at anything inside of her skin, as though the women of the House of Saccchikatra had not marred their own insides out, wanting better—but Plingnoi, she never thought about the future! They had laid their eyes on the little leech, her mouth dry and stuffed, groaning and wriggling to free herself from their doing, and shot her from committing further sabotage. No one stopped to protest. Dared to refute. They couldn’t shake off the soaking, tacky sensation, even though they’d reached the double doors of their residences. They turned to one another, stupefied, wondering where it was where they lost their original impetus—to find out where Plingnoi had kept Htay, and to haul him home—and how did they become the ones unwilling to listen? 

Plingnoi’s children—their niece and nephews—had informed them, at first, when the Saccchikatra women rounded them at dawn, their mother’s shadow looming over their juvenile bodies in bed; hands wringing a club so tight her knuckles blanched, that they knew nothing of Htay’s departure, save for the reasons he might’ve harbored. Chakrit spoke first, standing up to block his younger siblings from being beaten, flimflamming about a Southeastern merchant, who had arrived at the inn searching for his wife, a chambermaid for some nobleman, because he’d seen her a full sun cycle before she had bequeathed him with splotchy searing warts, and their nephew convulsed—neck reddening as he gulped larger breaths, before doubling over and hacking his lungs out.  

Kanyarat’s eyes narrowed, and she offered in one note: They had found said chambermaid, who was terribly ashamed, shaking at the prospect of revealing to her mate that she had been forced against her will, and resigned from her position at their house, only to return to the City of Gold in search for new masters to serve.  

Their niece and nephews had all straightened themselves into a row, arms linked, inhaling the viscous, sour smell of urine pervading the air—Tarak had wet himself—darting their gaze from their mother to their sisters, and an eclipse from some unseen moon and sun crossed Kanyarat’s wide face. Tarak wiped his fuzzy brows, and cleared his throat to finish their story. The chambermaid pointed us to many other chambermaids, scullions, laundresses, riders, I mean, a torched repertoire, one of the Western King’s concubine’s child, a cupbearer younger than me, and we didn’t want to believe it, but we vetted a gardener and her daughter, all smeared by the same disease, all withdrawn from their positions to escape back to the hamlets they hailed from, and all trembling and convulsing at the thought that they had heard, from this Southeastern merchant’s mate’s very gob, that the nobleman’s own mate had keeled over and perished from this mark he gave her, like a shooting pigeon, for the enchantress to execute.  

Kanyarat patted her younger brother’s back softly, gesturing for him to continue with a sad smile. We wouldn’t have blamed it on one lecherous wretch if it these tens of people didn’t exhibit identical symptoms, flaring exactly at the same time, but Papa 

If it is even true that your father was exposed for messing around with the help, then tell us, why did your mother not show any warts? Their eldest sister demanded. 

She is a fieldling, Auntie. Kanyarat retorted. She’s immune to mortal afflictions.  

Now now, their mother had boomed, spit whittling at the edges of her dry, cracked lips, don’t you dare speak ill of your father! How can any you trust these underlings? They’re deceivers, in debt, without an honorable syllable to their name, and you wouldn’t know how many men a laundress beds to entrap him with child, especially a soft-hearted nobleman assumed to takeover hectares of land with a legacy as high born as a royal gem smith, good grief, how are you sure it was him? Did he not, in fact, feed you three ingrates? Badger us to swab your bottoms, hunt far and wide for your imported dresses, pants, and shoes, and egged you each to hop in the gardens with us? You love your aunts don’t you, or do you secretly resent us, like we imagined, a tickling sensation like a sneeze we’d suppress, a courtesy, when eating in the grand hall with foreign dignitaries we invited to show you more of the Earth, until the itchiness consumes you and you must excuse yourself to scratch out the demons from inside? Did you hate Lady Shizuka too, after everything she’s sacrificed? She cared for you as her own, didn’t even flinch when your mother birthed each of you, nor raised an eyebrow, nor let any of this gnaw at her very fiber, because it was tedious and heart wrenching to see her mate, a mate whose marriage to her, spectated by hundreds of scores of guests, in a celebration that imprinted our city on the map, running out of the house erected for just them to a squalid, unkempt hutch to pump and grunt on the side, during the twilight hours of the day, becoming a spectacle for the lowliest of uneducated swine.  

That was their reckoning. More guards were ordered to patrol the turf outside of the children’s balcony, swap shifts in scouring the perimeter of their room, and bolt their doors, after their niece, Kanyarat, was discovered storming out of the outhouse and climbing onto the roof of the shack to pelt their men with pebbles she had stored in ripping thatched floor beds apart. The children had always known about their true origins, but the women of the House of Saccchikatra insisted, that even if their niece and nephews were part fieldling, they were also part Sacchikatra. They contained strains of both; a connection to nature, to fieldling magic, magic that just spooked the Sacchikatra women into mutes, but also to an inheritance envied by every family within the City of Gold, an inheritance that improved their lives and settled their scores. They could do anything they wanted simply by existing, wasn’t that enough? Chakrit had a penchant for scripture, dreaming about annals he’d record, and that ideal was rooted in their lands, not the brutal land of his mother’s. Kanyarat, though lacking the graces of a lady, mirrored her mother, what they had all imagined Plingkoi looked like when Htay met her, juicy and succulent boned, built to breed hundreds of progenies, something the sisters envied, for they were too slim and angular to doll out heirs safely. She could attract many fine suitors, if she simply heeded to their tiny requests to braid her hair, cross her legs when she sat, and close her mouth, something even the most fair and beautiful fielding had no access to. Tarak yearned to direct a battalion of his own, and while no one wished their youngest would encounter on-field combat, the position required tact, strategizing, and courage, rallied even at the most harrowing, moonless moments, unlike his mother who surrendered to them upon their arrival at the inn. Once their mother was escorted to the dungeons, their nephews and niece scourged them, a betrayal no one expected. They had all turned their cheeks away from Plingnoi’s uncouth nature when they should have been inspecting her spawn more closely. 

The guards separated into two columns on either side, letting the Saccchikatra women in.  

Where is Htay? they tolled, robes flung to the side, their mother fissuring a tad, her voice shrill as she asked again, where is he, where is your papa, you three, we know, he is not worthy, but he is still ours to keep, tell us where he is and we’ll let you go with your mother, set sail at dawn, and we will not chase you.  

Their niece and nephews were clustered on one bed, black hair stringy and matted on the backs of their necks, their lashes lined with crust from dried tears, and faces puffy from weeping. They were enclosed by armed guards with bayonets leveled at their chests, as though they were powerful sorcerers, emboldened by their dirty blood to fight back, capable of igniting a shield so blinding, to slip out from their grips like silt, and materialize on board of a ship with enough weapons to threaten an entire army, impervious to arrows and spears.  

We have told you a hundred times, he’s gone, Tarak mumbled. 

How? The women of the House of Saccchikatra cried. 

He took Lady Shizuka’s seat, Chakrit began. We told you this. Mama had arranged for Lady Shizuka to sail West, to the Undying Lands her ancestors had ventured off to, the same healing heavens her own mother promised she’d seek, before returning for her. We don’t know what happened, why she never doubled-back, but Mama spoke of her brethren, the ones who had journeyed there in the first and second age, whose hair have turned white, and had ears tapered into sharp edges, who live nourished with purpose, shelter, and song, a healed people, safe from war and torment. 

Only a few mortals have permission and safe passageway there, Tarak continued, craning his neck to meet their eyelines, and Mama gave up her seat for Lady Shizuka because she was dying. Everyone knows Lady Shizuka did Mama a kindness, a deed she could never repay her for— 

Enough about this drivel! Undying Lands, how preposterous, their mother said. The only way to exist as immortals in this day and age, is living through name and character, the very name you three intend to, with your grubby, greedy little hands, annihilate.  

You know she asked her, Lady Shizuka did, Chakrit chipped in, she asked if Mama would come with her, leave it all behind. The heartbreak. The constant betrayal. The duties and responsibilities. Mama couldn’t do it. She worried about us, you know, how you four might handle us. But she lied to Lady Shizuka, easing her of her ailments. She said, if you ask me, I shall come. 

You promised us, Grandmama, that you’d bring Mama to us, so we trust that no harm has befallen her, Kanyarat growled, as though she had reserved her voice to ask for what was owed. We didn’t ask for our dimwitted Papa, heir to Grandpapa’s legacy, and land forged from Grandpapa’s skilled hands, to reject Lady Shizuka, and father us. Even if we told you the name of the ship, what dock they rolled up their anchors from, who he spoke to, and what time they left, it wouldn’t change a damn thing. Who knows if Papa even made it? If they even knew he wasn’t chosen? What must change however, is how you treat those who choose to stay.  

How did they overlook the little leech’s sorcery and solely rage at their father? She had succeeded in cursing them all, and the fall of the House of Saccchikatra would now forever, be infected by her existence. She made them see, no, know, as sure as the sun rose in the East and set in the West, that they inflated Htay. No matter how much they bolstered him, how frequently they mopped and polished after him, he still took more and more and more, and it had always been easier, like scraping their nails over an insect bite on their leg, to cast their disappointments elsewhere. They imagined, in that very instance, heavy footsteps rebounding the hallways, and a croak from someone familiar breaking through the doors, their frames splitting open, thwacking a guard or two, and a voice beseeching them to let them go, we don’t need them, I’ll thrive without, and behold, it would have been their Htay, reeking of sweat, or moist hay from being sandwiched under his armpits, a faint musk permeating from the pores of his body, and him imploring for forgiveness. I’m sorry, so sorry, I was drunk, foolish, and lost sight of my purpose. 

Had he ever asked for their forgiveness, all of them, the women, tainted by their duties and responsibilities? Their mother would have been ecstatic, expunging the past day from memory, from court annals, from their history. They thought they heard, from the din of their confrontation, amidst the spaces their guards shuffled to lower their bayonets, their niece and nephews unsticking their limbs from one another, Plingnoi speaking with them, yes madams, give us some more silver, and we’ll never see you again, but no, she can’t, not pinned in shards of a jade collar that shattered upon impact of their doing in some damp, dingy cell. Was this the only fate for ants who refused to leave their dying nests? Ants too arrogant in their refuge, believing that their barriers, their armaments, fended them from their attackers? Or was there another path, more arduous, that required diving deeper within to what they were really protecting, and if it was worth saving at all? Kestallen, tuluvanye. Not with three of their surviving descendants, seizing their future by the blood that gushed through their veins, and not while they still lived, would they topple over and admit that they had failed.  

Eventually, Plingnoi healed from her wounds, and their mother naturally departed their lands for another one, enshrined in a pagoda constructed to face the East, for that wishful day Htay ever found his way back to explain himself, even though none of them, not even his sisters, yearned for his return. They vowed never to forgive him, no, not after they had observed their mother dwindle and diminish her light, her flame, her will to cast a mold strong enough to cast even the most corrosive of hearts, of characters, and of hereditary impulses into new ones, more porous, malleable, and shiny. The sun rotated around their Earth many more times before Plingnoi, as if she had always known, prepared her children, the future heirs of the House of Saccchikatra, for her passing, and she departed the way she came, who knows how, but slinking back into the forest, gnarled and twisted trunks covered the path now, with no one left to tend to their burnings.  

They became six once more, although the current age of Sacchikatras would only carry their name proudly after you’ve heard the third age tell their story first. For there is no power in a story without its origin, without those who could remember what it was that was worth repeating, and what memories deserved to be remade, rewritten, and retold over which ones were never erased.  

About the Author

Ploi Pirapokin sits on the board for Khōréō Magazine, Hivemind: Global Speculative Fiction Magazine, WP NOW,  Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conferenceand the Ragdale Foundation. Her work is featured in Tor.com, Pleiades, Ninth Letter, Gulf Stream Magazine, Sycamore Review and more. She currently teaches at the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, WritingWorkshops.com, and the University of Hong Kong.

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