“Ulek Mayang or The Seven Exiled Sisters” by Nin Harris
Child of the tengkujuh season, the mid-afternoon thunderstorm raged.
The turbulence agitated the waters of the South China Sea and its piscine inhabitants while the fishermen and mercantile ships unfortunate enough to be caught up in its rampage did what they had to do to survive. The thunderstorm drew the attention of other entities as well, waking them up from the inertia of exiles.
Here beneath the waves, Tujuh ruled her own small kingdom. Even though she was the youngest of the seven exiled sisters, she was their inexorable leader in all things. She was a knife, sharpened to be used. She had sharpened the knife herself, waiting for the day when she could twist it in revenge. The storm heralded the arrival of that day. Echoes of waves that crashed a hundred miles above her head reverberated within her consciousness. She aimed that consciousness like a slim thread of light towards the battleground that hovered between sea and sky.
Her mark was a fishing boat, filled with young souls. More particularly, her mark was a fisherman who bore upon his skin the imprint of one she knew well.
One who needed to redress manifold wrongs against her.
A gust of noxious gases, an eddy of air that disturbed the atmosphere around her signaled the arrival of one of the aquatic Mambangs. Tujuh looked up at the liquid-shaped void that floated with intense purpose towards her, its shape moving from man to stingray to some unimaginable multi-limbed creation of the deeps. Tujuh inclined her head, allowing the shifting entity to approach, and to whisper into her multiply pierced ear that dripped gold and silver adornments. The ghoulish Mambang sang to her of the plight of a fishing junk directly above their heads, evoking images of the vessel’s pitiful struggle against the turbulent waters and the spirits who sought their undoing. It was nothing she hadn’t already tasted with her consciousness but it was pleasurable to hear it related back to her in the language of the Mambangs. It made the plan of revenge she was enacting within her head all the more real, made the frisson of anticipation that much more intense.
“Perfect,” Tujuh murmured. “It’s been too dull these past fortnights!”
She stood up from her throne and walked across the throne room to the adjacent Central Chamber. Balancing herself on the dais, she clapped her hands.
The long drawn-out notes of her voice reverberated along curved sea-green corridors, snaking their way into the ventilation system so that no one in the Istana could escape her words.
“A seven-man junk is right above our heads. Do we save, or do we spite? Do we humor, or do we hunger? Do we love or do we taint? Sisters, meet me in the Central Chamber!”
In every throne room that nestled within the multi-level aquatic Istana, her voice boomed, disturbing the tranquility (in whatever form it took) of the other six sisters.
Lima raised her neck from the velvet pillow, murmuring an acknowledgement of Tujuh’s summoning before burrowing her face into the pillow, seeking to nuzzle her way back into dreaming.
Lulled by the sweetness of her somnolent visions, it took moments before the implication of Tujuh’s words roused her completely from her fretful slumber.
Tujuh had caused them to be exiled from the Bunian Empire in the first place. Her ingenuity was matched only by the anger she kept forever banked beneath the surface of her calm features. Her lava-hot anger had grown over the centuries of never being elected Empress, of being cast repeatedly into exile, of being eternally deemed not good enough.
Lima was rather afraid of her sister, but so were all of them. In fact, Lima mused, even the Emperor had been afraid of Tujuh, and that was probably why they had been exiled.
“If only we hadn’t listened to her,” Lima murmured to herself before she was quickly distracted by the same images that distracted her frightening sister, conveyed to them through the messenger Mambangs. Above them the dreams, hopes, and fears of seven fishermen drifted, their personalities heady, their youth and freedom taunting the seven exiled sisters.
Sailors were considered fair game by Tujuh, who half-hated them for their lives, which seemed idyllic and uncomplicated to her cankered eyes.
Lima, on the other hand, always desired more. Her throne room was adorned with gem-encrusted skeletons which she watered with her tears at every fortnight. Lima looked at the skulls and hoped in her heart for a fisherman who could survive the atmosphere of their underwater istana, with the noxious gases that various Mambangs emanated, and the plants from an alien planet that her sisters nurtured in strange corners and thoroughfares.
Lima now stood up with a catlike grace. She fixed half a dozen jade kerongsang to the opening of her silken kebaya of pale yellow, upon which had been embroidered a hundred and twenty-seven seed pearls with silken threads that evoked the incandescent sea-life that existed deeper down than their home, suspended as it was within the currents of the Middle Sea. Lima then pulled her hair forward in a slanted gesture, fixing the sanggul to the side of her head with long, sharp pins of polished bronze.
Lima yearned for a suitor from above the sea, one who could be brought to her throne room. One who would remain by her side for as long as she lived, for while the Bunian were long-lived, their lifespans were finite. If there were such a mate, her throne room would then be filled with flowers and corals from the nearby reefs. The skulls could be kept below, in their treasure chambers, as she contented herself with a living, breathing man who would not die.
Hisham held on to the oars, shouting to his siblings as they struggled with the sails. The monsoon was ferociously strong, turning the afternoon into night. The skies were a dark, ominous gray tainted with the color of turmeric yellow. The sea that had yielded no catch for the whole afternoon suddenly seemed to be roiling around them. Schools of fish agitated in turmoil beneath the surface. His lover had taught him well, and had taught him to discern the difference between that which was of his world, and that which was not. This storm was not entirely normal, and there were unseen entities fretting the surface of the waves, exacerbating the push and pull of the current. He blinked once as a net was cast out into the midst of the frenetic activity of the waves.
He called out, “Mat Som! What are you doing? We need to head home! Can’t you see how angry the sea is? Can you not see how unnatural it is?”
“We also need our catch for the day, or Mak Jah will scream all night long!” said Mat Som, his eyes intent upon the net as though in anticipation of a large catch. Hisham muttered under his breath in prayer, an invocation half to the God he worshipped, and half to one he knew could save him, if only there was time. If only there was time.
“Are you out of your mind? Can you not see that we are close to annihilation here? Astaghfirullah!” Jaafar, the eldest brother shouted out before he started reciting Quranic verses in deep panic.
Rashid, the third brother, pulled Mat Som back, collaring him as the winds howled around them. They watched in dismay as the net disappeared into the waves, the rope that connected the net to the fishing junk tugging at them with a force stronger than it should have possessed. The winds blew viciously, the gale taking on taunting voices, ugly voices. Shadows gathered around their boat with the intensity of a million unseen eyes. Hastily, Rashid and Jaafar started counter-tugging at the net, trying to wrest it free of the sea.
“Mat Som, what have you done! You have angered the Mambang Laut at a time like this! We are doomed!”
The net swirled within the circle of the school of fish, the circle moving faster and faster, until they could see it was no school of fish at all, but a gigantic eye that moved upwards. Ali screamed in fear, for he was the youngest.
“Hisham! Is that the Mambang Laut?”
“Yes, Ali, it definitely is! Hold on to me, little brother!”
The brothers held on tight to each other, uttering their prayers under their breath, Ali almost sobbing out his ayatul kursi, and Rashid repeatedly saying his dua kalimah syahadah, as if in preparation for death. Mambang Laut came out of the water, his goat-head scowling at them, the net dangling from the tip of his nose.
His azure eyes fixed upon them as one scaled fist ungently scooped the boat while the other fist smashed down on the waves, the force causing the junk to lurch to one side, water rushing down onto the boat to engulf them. Hisham stared ferociously at the Mambang, in his panic trying to remember the manteras he’d been taught for such a moment. They slipped his mind as he met the malevolent gaze of Mambang Laut. If only there was time, his lover could come to him, could save them all. If only, if only.
“God help us all!” Ali screamed and sobbed as his eldest brother gripped him tight.
The Mambang smiled as his fist closed around them.
The Central Chamber was not precisely at the center of the Istana, but it was adjacent to Tujuh’s throne room, while the other sisters had constructed their own abodes on different levels of the curving palace. Tujuh’s throne room was the grimmest amongst the seven throne rooms of the exiled Bunian princesses. Her throne was constructed from black pearl and the bones of dead fishermen, polished until they shone with the dull luster of uncut gems. The walls of her circular-shaped throne room were obsidian, studded with diamonds that evoked the glittery stars at night. On the wall lay the dried remains of flayed corpses, the human tithes proffered by the sea with every storm during the tengkujuh season.
Enam and Dua had a joint throne room verdant with off-world herbs, flowers and trees that grew in a humid environment with an atmospheric composition that was optimal for the Bunian but deadly for humans. The atmosphere in the Istana was sustained and amplified by the sisters’ combined power of sakti as well as the steam-engines that they tinkered on endlessly together.
Empat’s throne room was connected to the dining halls, and was forever fragrant with the heat from the oven and the stoves. Trays of delicately steamed kuih adorned the foot of her throne in loving tribute, made by the crimson-skinned Mambang Dapur who toiled night and day in the kitchens. The steamed delicacies were filled with brown sugar and succulent white shavings from young coconuts. Other savory treats were stuffed with minced chicken or prawn, delicately spiced and seasoned. Every now and then, Empat would step down from her throne to partake of these delicacies while one of the servitor Mambangs would pour out a cup of steaming jasmine tea for the Princess, flower petals delicately infusing the tea with the balmy fragrance of equatorial nights.
Satu’s throne room, on the other hand, was pristine. Her throne was made of diamond and pearls, with a lush white rug made from the fur of arctic foxes thrown across its chilly surface for her comfort. Satu’s attendants were all wingless pari-pari, stolen from their sisters in the aerial Bunian Empire of Kayangan. The pari-pari had all been artfully modified by Tujuh so they could live in an artificial underwater environment. They were not the only beings stolen from the Bunian Empire. Down below, in their underwater stables, a herd of Garuda grazed on the greens that grew in a constructed meadow, flourishing in a carefully managed blend of essential gases and a sakti-derived heat source.
The Garuda had belonged to the seven sisters who lived in their own little istana in Kayangan, a world of floating wooden palaces and gardens linked by slender walkways of bronze and silver that were polished to a luminous sheen daily by the winged pari-pari of their world. Once upon a time, when their world was celestial and pristine. Once upon a time, when Tujuh had been the brightest amongst them, and elected as their representative for the Imperial throne. But the Emperor, when e came into es majority said that there would be no more wars between the various Bunian houses, and that e would put a stop to the killing. Everyone acquiesced, relieved as they were that they would not be made to compete for an honor that they did not particularly desire – not when being an Empress of the Bunian Empire meant dying after one’s term was up.
Tujuh however, was enraged at what she thought was “cheating” on the part of the Emperor, never mind that es eyes were weary and heavy-lidded since e took it upon emself to stop the continuous bloodshed amongst es kin. And so these countless years of exile had begun. They had been pardoned before. Once, and then twice.
Each time, Tujuh found another way to have them cast out.
Her sisters had ceased to care, leaving Tujuh to make the important decisions. One throne room was as good as another, they surmised. But here, oh here, beneath the waves, it was not so easy, not so convenient, they moaned in private. Perhaps next time, they could conspire to be exiled to a more congenial spot.
But that would of course, require a pardon.
Lima looked at the seven fishermen sleeping side by side in the Central Chamber. They had been dried and dressed in silken suits of bright yellow while still unconscious, turmeric smeared across their foreheads, and garlands of flowers around their neck, draped elegantly down to the middle of their recumbent torsos.
“Do you think these fishermen will live?” asked Satu with avid curiosity.
Tujuh shook her head. “Not their bodies, but we have no need of those,” she said decisively.
“Tujuuuuuh!” Lima said, her voice plaintive, her eyes urgent.
“What is it, Lima? Why must you always speak as though you are a teenager?” Tujuh said, her snappish tones causing all of the sisters to flinch.
“Please let them live this time. At least most of them. It’s so lonely down here. And boring! Why did you have to attempt to kill the Emperor? Could you not have destroyed one of es war engines instead? To be exiled. Here! It is beyond endurance!”
Lima was not above being manipulative. Every now and then it didn’t hurt to remind Tujuh that all of this was, in actual fact, her fault.
She was rewarded by her younger sister’s flinch of acknowledgement.
“Well, all right. Their bodies will not be able to survive in our atmosphere, not for long,” Tujuh said, her voice speculative. “So let’s see what we can do – for your pleasure. And, perhaps, for mine.”
Tujuh extended her hands and closed her eyes. “Sisters, I will need our combined sakti to do this. Please hold my hands. We should make a circle around these men.”
Smoke rose around them as Tujuh called upon the Mambangs from the entire Istana.
Mambang Laut returned, his grotesque goat-head purple with glee while his two cerulean tails scraped their scaly edges along the polished dark marble floor. Steam rose around them as he entered, turning the entire Istana into a hothouse that would benefit the off-world blooms and plants they cultivated. Tujuh made a pulling gesture with her outstretched hands, which were clasped by Lima to her right, and Empat to her left.
As she did, she sang her song, her voice caressing the ears of her sister, the plaintive refrain causing Mambang Laut to shudder in reflexive terror. As the melody snarled its way through the chambers of the Istana in eddies of sound, the fishermen were pulled out from their bodies, their translucent souls staring down at their unconscious forms in terror and in grief. Tujuh smiled, the dulcet tones of her voice weaving in and out of beat and pause, exhalation and inhalation. Drunk on the aural magnetism she was creating, she almost gasped as the twenty-four Mambang Dapur came forward with seven bodies made out of keropok lekor dough. The scent of pounded, seasoned, and steamed mackerel fish sausage invaded the room. The more fastidious Satu and Tiga looked away in distaste, grimacing at their sister.
“Was this the best you could do?” Satu asked, her nose wrinkling, her tones downcast in profound dismay.
Tujuh raised an eyebrow and said sardonically, “I am afraid I did not exactly specify the casings for the souls. Perhaps I should have delegated that task to Empat.”
“I don’t mind this, not at all,” said Empat with some enthusiasm as the other sisters groaned.
Releasing her hands from those of her sisters, Tujuh pointed at all seven of the translucent souls, one at a time, even the youngest, whose wails of spectral terror ricocheted against the smooth haunting quality of her song. Enam gasped in motherly distress, but she was too late. All of the souls were now trapped within seven evenly shaped man-sized keropok lekor.
“Really, Tujuh. Could you not have waited till we found more suitable containers for their souls?”
“No, really I could not. Timing is important right now. We are rather delicately situated on the cusp of opportunity, my loves,” said Tujuh.
“I hate it when she gets oblique like this,” Tiga said, before muttering some choice curses in a soft grumbling monologue that everyone ignored.
Tujuh shrugged, and turned to the patiently grinning Mambang Laut. “Return these bodies and their boat to their homes, Mambang Laut!”
“But…what are we to do with these keropok lekor?” Lima asked in dismay, baffled by Tujuh’s decision, and the grumblings of her other sisters.
Empat quietly licked her lips, eyeing the man-sized keropok lekor with a look of avid curiosity while her other sisters stared at the trapped souls in consternation.
Against her will, Tujuh felt herself overcome by mirth. She giggled a little as she chanted, “Fry them, feed them, frisk them, and they will be your companions.”
The Mambang Dapur carried all seven of the fish-dough bodies down to gigantic woks filled with boiling coconut oil.
“Be patient, and you will get all that you desire,” she said to her sisters. Implicit was the knowledge that what Tujuh desired was dramatically different from her other sisters. But she had many plans to hatch now, and the frying of the bodies would create enough pain and torture to attract attention. So much pain was surely worth much gain.
Mambang Laut set the junk on the beach several paces away from the village before disappearing back into the South China Sea.
All seven fishermen were still dressed in ceremonial yellow, with the flower garlands around their neck. Their still forms filled the villagers who found them with grief, their grand adornment agitating in the villagers a superstitious fear. Their bodies were brought back to their home with much sorrow. Mak Su, their mother, collapsed on the mengkuang mats and howled, her hands slamming repeatedly against the mats in anger and in loss.
Khairah, their sister, wept quietly until she noticed that Jaafar’s chest was moving up and down. Mak Jah noticed the very same thing at the very same time.
“They are still alive!” exclaimed Mak Jah, who prodded Mat Som in the belly. The body seemed to exhale suddenly, but Mat Som never regained consciousness.
“Mak Jah! Look at Hisham!”
Mak Jah and their mother, Mak Su, stared at the third brother, Hisham. His eyes opened but rolled back in his head. His mouth shaped a word. Khairah moved her head close to his mouth so she could hear. He exhaled. His mouth shaped another word.
“What is he saying, Rah?”
“Ibu, I think he is repeating Puteri Bunian again and again.”
“What? Whatever does this mean? The Puteri Bunian?”
Mak Jah frowned. “The Puteri Bunian have got your sons, Su. We’ll need to call for the Pawang. We will need to offer something to pay for it. You can have my wedding bracelet.”
“No, Jah, I cannot do that. Your beautiful bracelet is far too precious a memory of your Harun!”
Mak Jah shrugged. “The sea took my Harun twenty years ago. If this bracelet he gave me as a wedding gift will bring our boys back, that will be good enough for me.”
Mak Su hugged Mak Jah very tightly, her eyes red-rimmed with grief and with fear.
The Pawang had always been something of an enigma to the village folk. E lived on es own in a hut on Bukit Merpati, and es long white hair grew to es knees. Es face was smooth and clean-shaven, es brow high and intelligent. They whispered about the dark arts that kept the Pawang looking young, rendering es features otherworldly. They wondered at es regal serenity and the gentle sway of es walk. E was rarely seen in the village but was always available when needed, for a cost. And that cost was something that held the memories of the villagers. Whatever was most dear was what the Pawang coveted. What was most dear became es domain.
When Mak Jah had placed the wedding bracelet in the Pawang’s hand, e had turned it over and pursed es lips, listening grimly to the account of the seven captured fishermen.
The Pawang began to make preparations, quietly calling for the bilal from the village mosque to be present. Fighting with the Bunian Princesses was not going to be easy, and it would not be the first time the Pawang’s magic would ally itself with the powers of the Holy Quran in order to attain their goal. The Pawang smirked silently as e contemplated the challenge presented by the seven sisters.
The keropok-lekor fishermen were taken up after they had been deep-fried. Their skin had a strange, wrinkly texture, tinted the grayish-brown hues the sea took on when the clouds were overcast. Their eyes were sad and trapped within faces that seemed to be frozen in expressions of wrinkled agony. Tujuh was well-fed from their cries from the depths of the boiling woks.
Tujuh pursed her lips in dissatisfaction at their appearance. She clenched her fist while chanting mantras under her breath. Their skin smoothened and took on the soft kuning langsat hue that they had possessed in their original bodies. Their faces gained elasticity, and their eyes blinked, tears raining on soft cheeks.
Lima was ecstatic, while Empat quietly smacked her lips as she looked at the men.
“I will take the youngest!” said Enam in a protective voice while beckoning Ali to her in a motherly gesture. The boy walked towards Enam’s beckoning hand in mechanical movements.
Tujuh nodded her assent, assigning Mat Som to Empat, and Jaafar to Lima, who cooed over her acquisition, immediately placing a bejeweled tengkolok on his head.
Tujuh selected Hisham for herself. She hummed a little as he walked towards her in juddering footsteps. She watched him struggle with avid eyes. He was not able to bring himself forward on his own steam. She controlled all seven brothers. The headiness of that control flowed through her veins like sweet nectar from Kayangan. She pursed her lips at the savor of Hisham’s soul, knowing to whom that soul belonged.
There would be a bartering to be made at some point, Tujuh reflected. Everything else was merely…decoration.
But Hisham’s soul was a strong one, and his will struggled against hers, as she pulled him towards her with the new song she was weaving out of her voice and multiple strands of air and spirit. His eyes fixed upon hers in silent rage. His will battled against hers. Tujuh stepped back, faltering against the force of his rage, recoiling against it. He had an unusually strong soul. It tugged at her own consciousness. It terrified the seventh princess – she was not ready for that final confrontation with the being who had a prior claim on Hisham.
Panicked, Tujuh pulled at his soul-string with a clenched fist and watched as his lips struggled to remain shut. She contemplated the long hours she would have to spend in subduing this man. Unfortunately, her reverie was interrupted when a gust of cold wind that carried with it the recitation of a powerful summoning mantera entered the Central Chamber.
“Tujuh, I am scared!” cried Tiga, the gentlest of all seven of the sisters. She was the only one with an unadorned throne room, who chose to spend her days on a plain golden mat, reading or meditating in an attempt to attain dharma. Now, she screamed as the winds buffeted her. Now, she covered her ears with her unadorned hands.
All of the seven fishermen moved backwards as the loud clarion call of the azan reverberated within the hexagon-shaped Chamber.
Tiga sobbed and ran to Satu who hugged her sister, rubbing her back in a soothing movement.
Tujuh’s face went still.
“I should have asked Mambang Laut to bury them in the depths of the sea!” she shrieked in rage.
“Sisters! Prepare yourselves. We must do battle with the humans. At once! Call the manta-rays to bring us to the surface. Satu! Ask the pari-pari to summon the garuda to fly us to their home!”
All of them, even gentle Tiga, readied themselves. No one argued with Tujuh.
The Pawang had composed two manteras of propitiation and of summoning to deal with the seven princesses. E prepared emself by calling upon the djinns of the earth, the jin tanah. E also asked all of the men and women of the village to arm themselves with air yassin and parangs, for a battle was coming.
On the beach, E arranged the seven prone bodies as prongs within a circle E drew on the sand, with bronze platters filled with flowers and colored uncooked rice grains placed at right angles from the bodies. From a burner, sweet incense burned, its smoke filling the space, lulling the fears of the villagers, drugging them with its drowsy sweetness.
In front of the recumbent and unconscious brothers stood Mak Jah, Mak Su, and their grim, silent sister, Khairah. At dusk, the assembly performed their solat maghrib on the beach while the Pawang stood silent in the middle of the seven bodies, watching, waiting.
When darkness fell, the wind brought the invisible garuda with their precious cargo. Only the Pawang could see the seven Princesses. They were dressed for battle, their songket sarong tied up around their calves, and with bronze goggles framing and sheltering their eyes. The Pawang’s eyes rested on Tujuh momentarily, and e scowled.
The Pawang blew hard. In a single gust of wind, es breath revealed the shape of the attackers to the villagers. The villagers were prepared for this — most uttered the dua kalimah syahadah even as they cried out in fear. Most recoiled inwardly but did not halt in action against the attack of the seven Bunian princesses. The princesses had bronzed-tipped talons affixed to their fingers and a glowing keris in each hand. They were aided by the sharp-beaked garuda, who screamed as machetes cut into their feathered flanks, and as the jin tanah pulled at their feet with their worm-like tentacles.
The battle raged on all night between the villagers, the djinn, and the seven sisters with their garuda, aided by the invisible Mambang Langit who attacked the heads and shoulders of the villagers. Five men of the village died. Fifteen others were wounded in the battle to retrieve the souls of the seven brothers.
The Pawang did nothing, watching with a quiet intensity as the assailants, invisible to the rest but not to em, tired themselves out. E watched as more villagers died than the seven brothers they had meant to save. E kept es counsel.
Two hours before dawn, the Pawang called upon Khairah to sing the song that e made to subdue the seven sisters. The smoothly woven and plaintive refrain of the Pawang’s song, augmented by the deep sorrow in Khairah’s voice slowed the unholy visitors, almost lulling them.
Ulek dengan jala jemala
Ulek mayang diulek
Ulek dengan tuannya puteri
Ulek mayang diulek
Ulek dengan jala jemala
From the clearing beneath the wooden house of Mak Su, seven village girls dressed in the same saffron yellow of the seven brothers emerged, carrying their precious cargo to the site of the battle on the beach. They danced around the assailants, as another group of seven women brought trays of steamed glutinous rice dyed in hues of green, yellow, and fuchsia. The rice was accompanied by a spicy beef rendang laced liberally with holy water.
Empat gasped as the odors of the propitiation reached her nose, while Tiga and Satu were entranced at the dancers who danced in an unearthly manner that was entirely familiar. It reminded them of the home that had banished them more than once.
Tiga sobbed in homesick sorrow, and gave up the fight altogether, narrowly missing a death-blow by one of Hisham’s cousins. Satu pulled Tiga to her side, protecting her sister against their would-be assailants with weary swipes of her taloned fists. Lima crawled towards the prone body of Jaafar, wistfully palming his face as the song invoked her.
Tujuh shuddered as the last of the sakti she held clasped beneath her fingers escaped her and she slumped. She looked up and beheld the eyes of the Pawang, and knew what she saw. But then, she had always known that the Pawang was no human.
“I know who you are!” she said, standing her ground even though she had been blindsided from her carefully choreographed plans. The Pawang nodded at her with a cold smile, the celestial light in es eyes binding Tujuh’s will.
“Will you do as we want, then?” the Bunian Emperor asked, es eyes twinkling with barely suppressed anger and a deep possessiveness.
This was love then, Tujuh realized, belatedly. This was love that had blindsided her own plans. She had misjudged the extent of the Emperor’s investment in the seven brothers.
“Will it always be as you want, Your Imperial Majesty?” she asked with a half-sneer, frustrated rage apparent on her face, unwilling as she was to give up her claim.
“Not always,” the Emperor said, “but for now, will you return those seven fishermen to their mother?”
“What will we get in return?” asked Tujuh, challenging the Emperor with her eyes, which were as hard as es, beneath the celestial light that now glowed from both of them. She could not give up. She must not give up. Not now. She owed her sisters a better living. She owed them a lot. She pushed against es binding as hard as she could with her own indomitable will.
The Emperor looked at the garuda who had been filched from the aerial kingdom. E sighed, exhausted at the dance, and of their continuous battles over the centuries.
“You may return to Kayangan, my cousins, but be prepared to be answerable for your actions there. As usual. Now, do what you must, for it is wearying to be amongst humans. Even more wearying to be amongst you.”
Tujuh nodded with satisfaction.
“I accept your terms,” she said quietly, before clapping her hands loudly to alert her sisters. All listened as her voice sang like a bell,
“Let those from the sea return to the sea!
Let those from land, return to the land!”
In a quieter voice heard only by the Emperor and her sisters, she sang,
“Let those from the skies return to the sky!”
Thunder rolled across the sky like a gigantic stone mill as a canopy of clouds crumpled their way across the firmament. The thunderstorm hid from view the seven garuda flying upwards with the seven princesses. The Mambangs returned to their domain in the skies, the sea, the kitchen and the earth.
The Bunian Emperor stayed behind.
As dawn broke, Mak Su kissed each one of her progeny on the forehead before retiring to perform her ablutions for the subuh prayer. In the meanwhile, the Emperor made sure that Khairah remembered every detail of the song that would ensure that every generation of Terengganu fishermen would be safe from the attention of the seven rogue sisters.
E knew that the sisters would be exiled once more, and would continue to be exiled by every succeeding Bunian Emperor or Empress, when e finally figured out how to retire from es position without being murdered by es kin.
Tujuh had never missed an opportunity to wreak havoc, not in five hundred years. E thought it was a pity – were it not for her latent cruelty and anger issues, Tujuh would have made a fine Empress.
As the sun rose in the sky, the entire village was silent. The exhausted villagers slept off the night’s battle. This was not entirely of their doing, for they had a far more powerful guardian than they would have ever guessed.
The Bunian Emperor pursed es lips as e walked through Hisham’s home. Everyone was asleep, from Mak Jah, to Si Comel, the calico cat. E entered the bedroom shared by Mak Su and Mak Jah, pausing to look at the weary gray-haired women who slept with their hands clasped. E placed the wedding bracelet gently on Mak Su’s chest.
E had one final stop to make.
Walking into the main room of the wooden house, the Bunian Emperor knelt to place a tender kiss on Hisham’s lips before leaving the now-peaceful home to climb atop a cerulean garuda that waited to return em to the Bunian Empire.
Nin Harris is an author, poet, and tenured postcolonial Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romance, and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and The Dark.