When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic.
If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she's drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed.
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At the beginning
On the shore
The storm was shattering.
Lightning struck a tree. The trunk split with extraordinary violence, but there was an inevitability to its destruction.
So, too, with her. As she was sundered in two, there was no surprise—only pain.
She heard herself crack, the ichor in her veins boiling, but then all noise was drowned out by the roar of the storm. In days past she had summoned lightning at a thought; the rain came and went at her command; the waves churned at her whim.
But those powers had been taken from her. Now it was she who was at the mercy of the elements, tossed about like a toy. She fought to hold on to the broken parts of herself, but they slipped out of her grasp.
Insensibility seized her. She was dragged down into darkness, not grateful, and yet relieved.
When she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was the dark bowl of the night sky.
Faint stars were scattered across its curved surface, and a full white moon rode the clouds. The air smelt sweetly of rain, but the tempest had passed.
Now a hush held the world in the palm of its hand. A low voice rumbled through her bones, monotonous and familiar. It was the voice of the waves, running up the shore and receding.
She felt as if she had awakened after a deep, revivifying sleep. She could not remember what had happened before, but that she had suffered she did not doubt. All distress had passed with the storm, however. She felt pleasantly empty—weak, wrung out, but calm.
The sand whispered against her as she rose unsteadily to her feet. Before her was the sea. Behind her, the dark mass of the jungle loomed out of the night like a drowsing beast, only half-asleep.
She felt her way across the shore, going slowly, for her limbs felt new to her. The beach was scattered with the debris of the storm, and she tripped on a piece of wood, grazing her knee.
The silence of the world began to frighten her. She felt alone, abandoned by all she had known—even her own self, for she could not remember what she was called. Trees lined the shore, graceful assemblies of coconut palms and casuarinas. But when she addressed them, they did not answer.
She longed for a friendly voice, the touch of a hand she knew. She had been asleep for so long. If only someone would tell her what had happened . . .
Her foot knocked against something solid. This log seemed different—solid, but more yielding. She crouched down, reaching out, and felt warm flesh, the jutting edge of bone. The body was breathing. It stirred at her touch.
The girl opened her eyes. They gleamed as they caught the light of the moon, and they held the same look she must have on her own face—a look of recognition and relief. “Muna.”
“Is that my name?” said Muna, but she was not really questioning it. She had known at once that they belonged to each other. “I have forgotten yours.”
“I was called Sakti, I think,” said the other. “Help me up, kak,” she said, calling Muna ‘“sister,”‘ and from then on that was how they addressed each other.
Six weeks later
The island of Janda Baik, the Straits of Malacca
The forests of Janda Baik were imposing even in the full glare of daylight. In the half-light of dawn they were something else altogether-an extrusion of another, inhuman world, beyond terror or awe.
The forests blanketed a large part of the island, but the villages clung to the coast. The people of the island went quietly in the shadow of the jungle, avoiding its notice. What came to pass in the jungle was the business of witches and spirits.
Of course, such business was precisely Mak Genggang's stock-in-trade. In appearance she was like any aged village woman to be found bent over cooking pots in a kitchen or selling vegetables in a market. Her manner, which combined warmth with an imperiousness that would not have been out of place in a palace, would not distinguish her from any other matriarch in her batik cloths.
Yet her appearance was deceptive. As everyone in Janda Baik knew, Mak Genggang was the foremost witch of the region, first among the magicians in the polities along the Straits. The King of Siam himself was said to have sought her counsel; she was renowned among practitioners of the magic arts in China and India; and she counted among her friends England's Sorceress Royal, who presided over the magicians of that distant country. Mak Genggang's name was known even in the Unseen Realm-the hidden world where the spirits live, next door to our own.
Despite her great powers she was a kindly woman, but as with many strong people who are not often afraid, it did not come naturally to her to take thought of the fears of the weak. It had been she who insisted that Muna and her sister Sakti depart at the start of the day, before the sun had quite risen.
"Magic is always strongest at a border," the witch had explained. "Whether it be between jungle and village, or earth and sea, or day and night."
Sakti's face had twitched. Muna had known just how she felt. Left to herself, Muna would not have set off any earlier than noon, when the sun would be high in the sky, its light inescapable.
"We will be guided by your judgment, of course, mak cik," Muna said. "But will not it be easier for us to see our way if we leave later in the day?"
"The sooner you are off, the better," said the witch firmly.
They had risen at dawn, when it was dark, and the sky was still a deep blue when they arrived at the edge of the jungle. Under the trees lay a shadowy world, full of mystery and discomfort-leeches, snakes, dangerous beasts . . . and magic. For through the jungle lay the shortest route to the Unseen Realm, the abode of djinns and spirits, whence all magic ultimately flowed.
"If we put you on a ship to England, it would be a year before you saw its shores," said Mak Genggang. "But the Unseen Realm borders all mortal lands, and it will take you no time at all to get there through the jungle. Any fool who wanders in the forest risks stumbling into the world of the spirits, if he does not take care."
Muna had heard all the usual stories of such fools, and the grisly ends to which they came. The tales were not such as to light in her any flame of desire to model herself on their heroes. "But is it safe to go this way, mak cik?"
"Of course it is not safe," said Mak Genggang impatiently. "But it would not be safe for you to remain here either. I shall make a path for you, and if you walk briskly, you will be in England before the Sorceress Royal has sat down to her breakfast."
The ceremony for the opening of the path was a simple one. Mak Genggang did not chant, nor work any great magic, so far as Muna could tell. She merely bowed her head, muttering and prodding the grass with a stick, as though she were searching for something she had lost.
Muna drew her shawl closer around her, shivering at the chill morning air. There must be more to the witch's activities than was apparent to unmagical eyes, for Sakti watched Mak Genggang with interest, seeming to forget her apprehension at the journey ahead.
There were only three of them at the forest's edge. No one else in Mak Genggang's household had been told of their departure. Of course Muna saw the need for discretion-it was no one's fault but their own that they were being sent away in secret.
Yet she regretted that she could not bid everyone good-bye. Like most persons of importance Mak Genggang boasted a numerous following, though hers was more variegated than was usual. In her substantial wooden house, set back from the rest of the village, resided a shifting population of witches, apprentices, servants, slaves, bondswomen, poor relations, strays of all descriptions and even a number of lamiae.
These last had alarmed Muna when she had first joined the witch's household, but use had accustomed her to them. They were not unlike mortal females-which was perhaps not surprising, for lamiae are nothing more than the spectres of women who die nursing a great grievance. The chief point that distinguished them from other women was their predilection for consuming the vitals of humans; they were particularly fond of infants. Those who lived under Mak Genggang's protection were tame, however, observing strict codes of proper behaviour. They were inordinately fond of gossip and prone to quarrelling among themselves-but these were foibles shared by most of the witch's dependents.
Yet Muna had grown attached to her fellow servants in the weeks since Mak Genggang had found her and Sakti wandering confused upon the shore, and taken them under her protection. Muna thought wistfully of the girl who slept on the pallet next to hers. She had often wished Puteh would not insist on repeating her conversations with a certain well-favoured youth in the village when Muna wished to sleep, but now she would miss that excitable voice buzzing in her ear. And she would miss Kak Lena, who reigned over Mak Genggang's kitchen. She had promised to teach Muna Mak Genggang's recipe for sambal (a secret as jealously guarded as any of the witch's magic spells), but Muna would never learn it now . . .
"Why do you sniff?" whispered Sakti, with what for her was unusual percipience.
"It is nothing," said Muna, embarrassed. She flicked her tears away with her shawl. "Only-I was thinking of everyone, you know! Aren't you sorry to leave, adik?"
"No," said Sakti. "You know I have been longing for something to happen!"
Muna sighed, but she had not really expected any other response from Sakti. She did not doubt they were sisters: how else could Sakti have known her name the moment they woke, though they remembered nothing else of their past lives? Certainly they looked alike-though Sakti was the prettier, with larger eyes, longer lashes and a clearer golden skin-but they seemed to share no other point of resemblance.
It was supposed they had been lost at sea during the storm-such a storm as Janda Baik had not seen in living memory, devastating crops and drowning several fishermen. But neither Muna nor Sakti could say what village they were from, nor name their family.
"The shock has chased these things out of your mind," Mak Genggang had said, "but you will remember in time and then we will find your people."
But they did not remember, though the days passed, turning insensibly into weeks.
The lapse of time had not worried Muna. It was inconvenient not to have memories, to be sure-yet life under Mak Genggang's protection was comfortable. Muna had been set to work in the kitchen, and since in the witch's household the art of cookery was as highly developed and esteemed as that of magic, she had found the work of absorbing interest. She had made friends among her fellow servants, and rapidly become part of the life of the house.
As for her sister, Sakti had been singled out by Mak Genggang from the outset for her remarkable magical gift. She had been elevated to the rank of apprentice and relieved of the greater part of her domestic duties so that she might devote her time to the study of magic.
Muna herself lacked any magical facility, but she was not exercised by this. Magic hardly seemed to make Sakti happy. To be admitted to Mak Genggang's lessons in magic was accounted a great honour-noblemen and princesses had eagerly sought the privilege-but Sakti did not value her good fortune as she ought. Hers was a restless temperament and she chafed under the burden of Mak Genggang's authority.
"The old woman is a tyrant!" she said to Muna. "I don't see how you can bring yourself to bow and scrape to her, and say yes, mak cik and no, mak cik as you do."
The truth was that Muna was fond of Mak Genggang. The witch could be overbearing, but it was natural that one so old and powerful should believe she knew what was best. But to say this to Sakti would only annoy her.
"I find that the fact she is a powerful magician is a great incentive to courtesy," said Muna mildly. "Besides, we are indebted to her. She was under no obligation to take us in."
Sakti could not deny that the witch had been kind. Mak Genggang had shown no impatience for their departure, as the time passed and they remained at her household. As for Muna, she knew there must be people wondering at their disappearance-family and friends waiting for their return-but since she could not remember them, she felt no urgent need of a reunion. She should happily have remained with Mak Genggang indefinitely . . . if not for the curse.
She glanced at Sakti's waist, but the evidence of the curse was concealed by Sakti's sarong. The recollection of the wound made Muna soften towards her sister. Why should Sakti regret to leave a place that had served her so ill? Muna could only hope that England would suit her better.
Mak Genggang straightened, tossing her stick away and clapping her hands. "There! That will keep you as safe as you can hope to be in djinn-country. And I have laid speech-magic on each of you, so you ought not to have any difficulty speaking with the English."
The path unfurled before their feet: a silver rope of light, winding across the grass and into the jungle. Sakti and Muna regarded it in some doubt. Mak Genggang's businesslike manner did not quite suffice to persuade them that to stroll into the Unseen World was nothing out of the ordinary way.
"What shall we do if we encounter any spirits?" ventured Sakti.
"I have taught you spells for defence. You will not have forgot them all, surely?" said Mak Genggang.
"You should not have need of them in any event, so long as you keep to the path. Few spirits will offer to molest you if they know you are under my protection," said Mak Genggang. "You must be discreet, however. The Queen of the Djinns has never minded what we do here in Janda Baik, but she has quarrelled with the English, and that has made her particular about who may travel between her realm and England. But if you are quick and quiet there is no reason she should ever know you have passed through her lands.
"You had best get along," she added, when Muna and Sakti still evinced an inclination to linger. "I have other business to attend to-and we don't want the English to come and find you still here. It would be just like their wickedness to surprise us! Go in safety, and give my regards to the Sorceress Royal and her young man. And mind you look after your sister!"
It would have been natural for the witch to have been addressing Sakti, since it was Sakti who had magic and was best equipped to defend them against the various perils of the Unseen. Yet Mak Genggang looked at Muna.
"I shall watch over my sister, mak cik," said Muna. She hesitated. "Thank you. You have been very good to us!"
They set off. Muna did not mean to look back, for she had a suspicion she would disgrace herself if she did. Yet she turned despite herself.
Though they had only advanced a dozen steps into the jungle, already the crowding trees obscured her view. Through the gaps between the boles, she caught a glimpse of the witch still standing there-a small, upright figure, deceptively frail, shading her eyes with one hand.