Gurian, Philippines, 1766
Mud caked the jungle path, wet from the morning rain. Slippery. Dangerous. With each step Juliza took, she slid. She slogged on, even as the leathers of her sandals felt like they would tear each time she lifted a foot.
The air hung heavy with mist, laden with animal sounds: monkeys howling, snakes slithering, bird wings flapping, insects humming. Shafts of light pierced the tree canopy overhead, illuminating moss, vines and ferns, some as tall as Juliza. The dozen warriors who’d accompanied her on this hunt fanned out with silent footfalls. They were bare-chested and decked with weapons—spears, bows and arrows, small machetes at their hips—advancing and circling in an ever-tightening noose.
Trickles of water crossed hoof prints, and she knew that her quarry would be found ahead.
She heard that unmistakable sound of horn against tree trunk. The warrior beside her nodded and made a little motion with his hand, like an arrow being fitted into a bow to be released at its target.
Juliza drew a quiet breath, pulled an arrow from her quiver and fitted it in her bow, her eyes searching, her ears listening. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest. Up ahead, a wall of trees, bent and gnarled from centuries of growth, protected her prey.
And then she saw it – a gleaming black devil, scraping its horns against the trunk of a gigantic balete tree. A wild tamaraw. The deadliest of wild buffaloes. Ill-tempered and fast.
Her hands trembled. If she looked clumsy, she could be forgiven as this was her first hunt. More than anything else, Juliza, crown princess of the Gurian Sultanate, wanted everything to be perfect, and nothing short of a quick death for this animal would do.
Now sixteen, she had never gone on a real hunt before, but she had shot arrows at targets on the ground, on trees, on horseback. She had a good aim, and she would need it today.
The creature saw her and blinked. Perplexed, then agitated. Its pupils dilated with fear and distrust; its nostrils flared with anger and a building rage. It lowered its head, the tree trunk forgotten now. It pawed the ground, glaring at Juliza with its good eye, the other socket empty, having previously been gouged by another arrow sometime in the past.
Nock the arrow, pull back, let the arrow sail at its mark.
Juliza thought through these steps, but her arms would not cooperate. She stood there just watching, paralyzed, until she heard a sharp, “Princess, now!” from behind her. Then she moved, her arms thawing, her fingers operable again. She raised her bow and arrow, aiming for the animal who now went beyond pawing and snorting, and was collecting himself so he could make short work of the girl standing just ten man-lengths in front of him.
The tamaraw launched itself just as Juliza released her arrow into its chest.
The beast didn’t stop. Juliza fitted another arrow. This was no longer just a hunt, but her fight to stay alive. She would have to be the vanquisher or die trying.
Just as she raised her weapon to eye level, the tamaraw seized up in mid-air and bellowed as it crashed and fell. Its last challenge on earth filled the jungle.
Juliza’s knees buckled. She let herself melt to the ground, her bow limp in her arms. Sweat drenched her tunic. Grime of the climb covered her legs.
“Well done, Princess,” a warrior said.
She looked into Koda’s dark eyes. “You had your arrow fitted in your bow,” she accused.
“I swear, I didn’t.” His dark eyes held hers. “I knew you’d get it.”
She raised her chin. “It just took me a while to get there.”
Koda knelt beside the beast. “He’s a giant, nothing like I’ve ever seen before.”
Juliza stood up and brushed the dirt off her legs. The other warriors started to work on the carcass, gutting it and cutting it into quarters. One warrior whistled and a horse came running out of the trees to stand obediently by his side. They would take care of transporting the meat back to the palace.
Koda and Juliza started to head back the direction they’d come, downhill to the lowlands and the coast. After a few minutes of silent company, Koda stopped and looked back into the jungle, then glanced at Juliza.
Her breath caught in her throat.
One moment, they were just walking companionably, and the next moment, he grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the path. He pressed her against a tree, wet and rough against her back, and kissed her.
How she had yearned for him all day, and now, he held her in his arms. She couldn’t get close enough to him. She gave him full access to her mouth and her heart. He was the vanquisher, and she was the vanquished.
“Juliza,” he said, between kisses, “you scared me, you know? Next time, I won’t promise not to fit an arrow, not when a beast like that is charging at you.”
“But I was fine, wasn’t I?” she said, brushing his long hair from his face.
“You were more than fine,” he said. As if to make his point, he kissed her again.
Her blood flowed like molten lava through her veins.
Their romance had begun a year ago, after the Spaniards ambushed his family. His parents were killed and he had survived.
How do you comfort someone after such a horrible tragedy? She followed him to the top of a cliff not as princess, but as his childhood playmate and friend. At first, she just crouched beside him, not speaking. Then, when he started sobbing, she touched his arm. He turned to her with anguish, revealing a long-hidden desire for her. They clung to each other and had not let go since.
He rested his forehead against hers. “I have something to tell you.”
“What is it, my love?” She nuzzled his cheek.
“I have to leave on the next full moon.”
“On a hunt?”
“No. On a long raid.”
She glanced up and frowned. “How long?”
“Two years.” He averted his eyes.
Dread settled in her stomach. “I will issue an order immediately. You won’t have to stay away that long, not if I can help it.”
“Juliza, you don’t understand.” His eyes pleaded. “I have to do this. I can help others weaken the stronghold of the Spanish tyrants.”
“Just the other day, you said you never wanted to be parted from me,” Juliza reminded him. “Was that a lie?”
“Of course not. But I am of age and must prove myself a man.”
She hadn’t pushed him away yet, but retreated somewhere he couldn’t reach. “You mean you have to go on this irrational quest to bring back your parents’ lives when you should really move on?”
He flinched as though she had slapped him. “You don’t know what it’s like to lose your parents.”
She relented then, tried to pull him back into her heart. “I don’t, but I know it hurts. I don’t want to lose you, Koda. Warriors that go on these long expeditions rarely come back unscathed. Stay on the island, safe with me, my love. As soon as I come of age, I can change the laws and we can marry.”
“I’ll be back then. I’ll only be gone two years.”
“Two interminable years!” Juliza’s voice rose. “Two years of longing for you, waking in the morning and thinking I would see you. Rushing out of bed to the window, to catch a glimpse of you in the gardens, where you would be waiting for me. Only to realize it’s a dream, for you’re nowhere on the island.”
She continued. “And when I’m in my studies, I’ll look out and dream of you, thinking how the hours will tick past and I will see you again in court, as you and your uncle report to my father. We will pore over maps and you will say something clever and wise, and my father will commend you to your uncle. We shall exchange glances and brush against each other as we mull our political options.
“But that, too, won’t come to pass. The day will just turn despairingly into the night. All I’ll have is a frustrating night tossing and turning, wishing I could see even your shadow.”
Koda’s expression gentled. “In two years’ time, you will be free to marry of your own choosing. We will marry then. Right now, all we have are secret moments.”
“If you love me,” she said, “you will choose to stay.”
“You know I can’t do that. If I stay, you won’t want me. I won’t be able to live with myself. I will always wonder if I should have gone.”
“If you leave,” she said, “I can’t promise you anything. I might even marry someone else.”
“You don’t mean that.” He tried to put his arms around her, but she pushed him away.
“I hear the others,” she lied.
“Juliza,” he pled, “let’s forget I said this. Let’s go on as we were. We’ll make the most of our time together, and we’ll get past our differences. You’ll see. At any rate, let’s not quarrel. I can’t bear for you to be angry or sad.”
Juliza studied his sculpted cheekbones and strong jaw. But the hurt was too great right now to curb her impulse. “No,” she said. “I think it’s best if we cut it off right now.”
He looked stricken with fear. She reveled in her power to hurt him, even though a part of her knew she was being ridiculously petty.
“Juliza.” He reached for her.
She spoke her next words precisely. “I am your princess, and I command you to leave me alone.”
He closed his eyes, as though reeling from pain. When he opened them, his cold expression made her flinch. “Princess.” He bowed and turned away.
Juliza leaned against the tree trunk and took a deep breath. Did she just say what she thought she did? Did it mean she wouldn’t see him any more today? Or forever? Would tomorrow bring an apology and a sweet reunion?
She watched him walk down the path, handsome and lithe, and already, she yearned for him. She wanted to shout his name, to tell him she had made a terrible mistake. Would he please forgive her? Of course they could be as before he left, and she would promise to keep him in her heart until he returned. Then they could marry.
But the words froze in her throat. And besides, she really could hear the others coming down the mountain.
When she returned to the palace, he was not at the evening council. Only her sultan father and Koda’s uncle pored over the maps. For a long time, she stood by the window, waiting for Koda to make an appearance, but he never did. Not that day, nor the next, nor the following week.
She saw him once, in the garden, too far away to talk to. He gazed at her as she stood framed by her bedroom window. She thought about signaling that she was happy to see him. If she had, he probably would have been by her side immediately on some pretext or another.
But she just gave him a cold nod and withdrew. When she changed her mind and wanted to give him a smile after all, he had left the garden.
The day he joined the others on the long expedition, she didn’t go to the harbor. She sat stubbornly at her desk in the schoolroom, listening to the day’s lessons. As the 50-man outrigger vintas sailed, she turned away from the window.
Later, when she ran out to the cliff, she could no longer see the multi-colored striped sails. She could only feel her heart break, while tears – hot, swift, and never-ending – ran down her cheeks.