The king’s voice broke the silent atmosphere. Sven, who did not take his eyes off the wanderer, prepared for any situation that may arise, turned his gaze to the king and bowed, respectfully.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said.
“Take care of this before it reaches anyone’s ears,” ordered the king. The king’s order was also a warning to everyone present.
“I will do as you command,” said Sven.
Everyone looked down, not willing to meet the king’s gaze. The air was tense, and Eugene was confused. She turned to see a black horse’s head peeping through the curtains.
Kasser beckoned Abu without surprise at this peculiar event. The black horse shrank into a leopard and Abu sauntered in gracefully to sit down next to the king.
Kasser looked at his people. “Leave,” he said to everyone, “Everyone leave except the man.”
Warriors and courtiers obeyed and left the tent, leaving only the wanderer. Eugene was surprised. It was not common for the guards to leave the king unattended and alone, but Eugene soon realized the reason.
It is because of the Hwansu, she thought.
Not all of the Hwansu were as strong, but Abu could take down several soldiers down in a fight without a doubt. The warriors knew that well so they could leave the king unguarded without worry.
“You called Abu so that they would leave?” asked Eugene.
“If I were to order them to leave, they wouldn’t,” said Kasser, “Especially the guards. This is much less of a hassle.”
Kasser knew the warriors would have protested with “It’s our duty to die protecting Your Majesty!”. Kasser sometimes didn’t know who was protecting whom, there were no warriors stronger than him anyway.
“Did I make a mistake? Is it a taboo to talk about the wanderer’s tattoo?”
Well…” said Kasser, contemplating. He turned to Abu. “Abu,” he called. The leopard raised its head to heed its master’s call. “Besides me and Eugene, subdue any other human in this tent,” ordered the king.
Abu flicked its long tail in answer. Then the enormous cat placed its face on its paws and sat there indifferently. Eugene looked at Abu, and the wanderer, in confusion.
“Abu is not attacking the wanderer,” said Eugene.
She studied the young man who had not moved. Even though everyone else had left the tent, the young man kneeled with his head bowed. The tattoo on his upper bare body felt bizarre.
“Is Abu unable to see the wanderer?” asked Eugene.
“No,” said the king, “However, it seems that Abu does not recognize the wanderer as a human.”
Seeing Abu, Eugene guessed how the larks would have reacted seeing the wanderer, too. “Your Majesty. Did you already know all about this?” Kasser nodded.
“How long have you known?” she asked.
“Well…,” said Kasser, “I had read about it in one of the scrolls in the secret library in the Palace of the Holy City. There is a great deal of knowledge there. And as royals, the knowledge is imparted down to the next generation of kings.”
“Who else knows about this?”
“The other kingdoms, probably. There might be several people who would know about this as well.”
“If you make it public, great confusion arises. Everyone gets curious and will figure out how to escape from the larks. It will be chaos. People would throw away their livelihoods for something like this.”
“But it’s something that can save people’s lives. Why aren’t you trying?”
“When I first found out, I was of the same opinion,” said Kasser, staring at the wanderer. “But when I first caught the wanderer, I knew why they never share that method.”
Eugene followed his gaze and looked at the wanderer. The wanderer didn’t protest or beg or make any sort of excuses. The wanderer almost seemed to be patiently waiting for the inevitable death.
“There must have been countless attempts in the past.”
“Mm.” Kasser nodded. “You won’t be able to figure it out anyway, but if the people find out about the wanderers, it will only cause unnecessary confusion and panic,” he said coldly.
“I don’t know how great a secret it is, but they are the ones who refused the choice to save many people,” said the king. He looked at Eugene. “Collecting old books was a very useful hobby. It is commendable that you saw the tattoo and guessed right away.”
Eugene laughed humbly. She had never told him why she paid so much attention to the technique. She was unsure of why she did it.
“Even if you failed in the past, do you have any plans to try this time? You never know if you might succeed,” she said.
“These are those whom the Sang-je has designated as sinners. I don’t feel the need to do so, if it means going against the Sang-je,” said Kasser.
“I don’t understand,” said Eugene, “Why does the Sang-je persecute them? They disturb the order of the world, with such abstract expressions, how could he treat human life in such a manner… don’t you think it’s brutal?”
“Well,” murmured Kasser. He did not really sympathize with the notion like Eugene. “The words of His Holiness are always abstract. It’s the will of god.”
Eugene snorted and bit her lips to restrain herself. “That is indeed why I don’t like priests who think they know everything and make God an excuse for their foolish whiles.”
Kasser laughed in amazement. “That is surprisingly disrespectful for an Anika.”
Eugene glanced at him and looked at the wandered again. He might have been listening to them all this while, but he hadn’t moved a muscle. He knelt there with bowed head.
“You said he didn’t even open his mouth, why is he gagged?”
“Don’t let the wanderers’ hands and mouths free. This was the message Sang-je sent to me as an official request.”
“It is said they cast a curse with their mouths and draw a strange pattern with their hands to suck in human energy. If you are cursed by the wanderer, your soul will float forever after you die,” said Kasser, “Or, so they say.”
Eugene interpreted his explanation in a different way. She didn’t know if it was because she had come from a world which didn’t believe in silly curses or the explanation just seemed a tad bit stretched. The Sang-je’s request seemed outrageous, intended to humiliate or bind the wanderers unnecessarily.
She muttered, looking at the young man, whose hand was tied behind his back so very tightly and his mouth gagged. “Still, could we loosen the gag a bit?” she asked.
“It should be okay since you are here,” said Kasser, “You are an Anika powerful enough to change a lark into a tree. You are the very will of God. What curse can touch the will of God, anyway?”
As Eugene and Kasser looked at each other, they failed to notice the wanderer react. Eugene, then turned to the wanderer.
“I am curious about this tattoo inscribed on your body,” she said to the wanderer, “You don’t have to tell me how to avoid larks. Are there any techniques you know other than those drawn on your body? Anything is fine.”
There was only silence as reply.
“I came across the information that people known as shamans know how to practice it,” she continued, “And Mara’s denomination also uses magic. What does your technique have to do with them? Is it a different sort, entirely?”
There was no response, not even a twitch from the wanderer. Eugene sighed. It was useless. She felt like she was talking to herself or the air. The lack of response was so great that it was frustrating and disappointing. Why is it that the people who know the answers to important questions would rather die than answer them?
But she felt sorry for the wanderer’s predicament. He was young. It was likely that he was forced into the training and then brainwashed with secrets to keep. Even if protecting the said secrets meant death.
“Your Majesty,” said Eugene, “I know it’s a difficult request, but can’t you release him?”
Kasser said nothing for a moment. “Eugene…,” he said, with a tone she knew meant rejection of the request. But she really wanted to convince him. then called her with an embarrassing face.
“It’s not like he has done anything wrong,” she said hurriedly, “He’s not cursing anybody even when we loosened the gag. You said that the wanderers do not answer any questions. That means you tried to attempt to arrest the wandering tribe. Does Your Majesty really believe they curse people? Have you ever questioned His Holiness Sang-Je and his words? Maybe they aren’t always right!”
Eugene knew that her words were very dangerous. Not everyone was faithful to the church, but the Mahar was at the heart of the idea. And Sang-Je was pretty much considered a god. Eugene had blurted out these words and she waited for the king’s wrath. But he just heaved a weary sigh.
“If only I could do something about it,” said Kasser, “But too many people have already seen the wanderer.”
“Then don’t execute him here!” said Eugene, “Take him to the capital.”
“And after that?” asked Kasser patiently, “If I take him to the capital, I have to send him to the Holy City. It’s better for him to be executed here. Only a few wandering tribes survive when they arrive in the Holy City. Most of them are abused on the way and they die, miserably.”
Eugene felt helpless and frustrated. She also felt repulsed by the unfairness of it all. But she couldn’t think of any way she could save this young wanderer.
“Why do you want to save him so badly?” asked Kasser.
Eugene couldn’t answer instantly. There was really no specific answer to a question like that. It was a matter of humanity and compassion. And nobody wanted to hear about empathy in this world.
“Because he is young,” she said after a while, choosing her words carefully. “I feel that everyone should be given a second chance and some form of protection when they are young. It seems cruel to execute a child on mere prejudice.”
Eugene was amazed at herself. She shut her mouth. There was a strange sound coming from the wanderer kneeling a few steps away from them.
Kasser leaned forward and stood up from the chair. The wanderer who had been kneeling with his head bowed raised it slowly. His face was streaked with tears. He was crying. He grimaced and cried, tears flowing freely from his eyes.
Both Kasser and Eugene were surprised and shocked. The wanderer opened his mouth.
“Adrit,” said the young wanderer.
Kasser gasped. He was stunned, so was Eugene. They couldn’t believe that he had spoken. His silence had been so loud and unyielding that the wanderer finally having spoken caught both Eugene and Kasser off guard.
“Adrit is my name,” said the young wanderer, in a clear voice.
Eugene glanced at Kasser and then looked at the wanderer. “Did you change your mind?” she asked, “Are you willing to answer my questions now?”
“Yes,” said Adrit.
“Wait!” said Kasser. “The tent is not soundproof. People can hear this conversation.”
“Then what do we do?” asked Eugene.
“For now, we’ll have to send for the warriors to watch him,” said Kasser, “Until we figure out a way.”
“Before I call the warriors,” said Kasser, “I will ask you one thing.”
Adrit wasn’t crying anymore. His gaze was clear. He raised his head boldly but did not meet the royal couple’s gazes. Eugene was reminded of him crying a few minutes ago. A young boy, terrified of the situation he had landed himself in.
“Why did you approach us?” asked Kasser.
“I came to get water,” said Adrit, “During the active season, I had stayed here before and took a short detour.”