From the author: Merchants and colonisers. Balloon boys. Technology brought home to the Straits of Melaka to turn the tides of history.
The name of the ship was clearly a joke, Johari reflected as he cleaned the cannons. The cold iron was a curious gray, from alloys that were produced from new refinement processes. Pure Arabian steel, the sayyida kept saying, even though the ore actually came from various places all over her trade route to build the ship.
Still, the ship was beautiful, and the sayyida had spared no expense on the interior design – wood-carvings on the masts and pillars, comfortable cubby holes for the sailors, and the architecture was paradoxically airtight and airy to mimic houses at home, even though the air was cold. Johari pulled his pashmina shawl around him even more tightly. The sayyida had given the entire crew such wraps, part of presents for their loyalty to her in traveling so far from home.
He finished the last flare canon and moseyed to the canteen. The ship’s cook – the sayyida refused to travel without the woman who had made food for the crew the entire voyage, and Johari knew they had a history beyond it – was busy in the cooking corner, splashing water and herbs into a wok on the small, controlled fire stove. Puan Ching had not been pleased at the restriction in fire size, and learning how to control the stove had been a trial to her. But for her art, she persevered, even though the crew suffered for it.
“Puan Ching?” Johari asked hesitantly.
“Yes?” she asked back, not bothering to look up from her loudly sizzling wok.
“When will lunch-”
The wok foomed with flame. Johari took a step back.
“What was that?”
“Er….” Johari re-considered the question.
“Johari, are you bothering the cook?” Nakhoda Harun asked from behind, making Johari jump.
“No, tuan!” he stammered.
“Come on, then. You don’t really want to bother Puan Ching right now, do you? She’s playing with fire right now, and it’s not nice to bother people when they do that.” Nakhoda Harun grinned down at Johari, his teeth pearly white against the dark brown of his skin. Johari could see that the nakhoda had newly trimmed his moustache at the behest of the sayyida.
“You always make her sound like she’s so dangerous,” Johari ventured, wanting to be at ease with the nakhoda. Harun had traveled for a long time with both the sayyida and Puan Ching, to the point where he called the sayyida the more affectionate, informal Cik. This was Johari’s first journey with the sayyida, ostensibly to earn his fortune, but more to escape home, and he desperately wanted to get into Nakhoda Harun’s good graces.
“She’s not as harmless as she looks. Come, let’s go to the open-air deck for a breather. If the ship bursts into a fiery conflagration, I want the chance to jump off.”
“To our esteemed friend and relation, Captain Francis Light, upon whom we have bequeathed the Island of Pinang, well-wishes of good health and prosperity from this hand of Sultan Abdullah Makarram Shah III, ruler of the Kingdom of Kedah. Peace be upon you in this year of 1202, 4 Thw al-Qi.
“I write-” and here its recipient winced at the sight of the royal ‘I’, a reminder of who he was dealing with, “-to remind you of the terms of secession of Pinang to the East India Company, wherein under Bab 4, Syarat 23, it is stated that whenever Kedah is under threat from its enemies, the East India Company will rise as a friend and swell the ranks of the army of Kedah.
“As of this writing, the borders of Kedah to the north are once again menaced by our neighbours across the Pattani River. Although Kedah bears the people of Singgora no ill-will, the inhabitants house an army of Siam that prepares to strike within the month.
“Thus, I ask the East India Company to fulfill Bab 4, Syarat 23, and send aid as needed. Laksamana Amanjid Taksin, who bears this letter, will confer with you on the extent of aid that the Kingdom of Kedah requires.”
A servant boy, white-skinned with light brown hair, brought in a tray of coffee and kuih, and set it down on the writing desk with a nervous glance at the sun-brown man at east in the chair opposite. Thomas had not quite acclimatized himself to living among the Malays yet, and for that, Francis was a bit sorry, thus kept the boy in his Suffolk House residence.
He picked up the porcelain cup and assessed the admiral. Then he smiled. “I’m so sorry, Admiral, but this is a request that will take time to process,” he told his visitor. In an English aside, he whispered to Thomas, “Tell Mrs. Palmer to bring in Mr. Fauzan to cook tonight’s dinner.”
The large bird alighted on the steel ropes that held together the open-air deck of the ship, demanding attention from the figure that approached. It flew down to the railing proper, croaking in pleasure as it saw Nakhoda Harun waving a specially-made piece of jerky. Several of the crew clustered around, waiting expectantly.
Smooth hands stained with ink reached for the package tied to the bird’s halter. Thin lips pursed. Harun removed the bird’s halter, to signal that it could rest for the time being, and the bird preened, waiting for its thanks. He tossed it several pieces, a game of theirs, until it gave up and flew onto his shoulder instead to snap at the bag in his hands eagerly.
Nakhoda Harun patted the messenger bird in welcome. It was a carefully-bred genetic accomplishment of several generations of seabirds and falcons. Trained to cover vast seas in record time between specific outposts, it was one of the sayyida’s most expensive purchases, but the crew was deeply appreciative. Through it, they could keep in touch with family, as it flew to different outposts, where guardsmen wrapped up the letters into a single packet and tied it to the bird’s halter. After it had rested, it would fly to its next stop, until it felt it had enough and went looking for its moving outpost.
The anxious faces on deck dared not crowd closer. On by one, they received letters, a single missive each, as exhorted, to keep the load on the bird light. They gave thanks to the sayyida, then bowed to the bird.
Its specie was technically called in various languages the Ocean Falcon. But the crew called it Undan Berkat, the Pelican of Blessing.
Lu Gen Wei jian-zhang raised his long-scope up again, trying to discern the shape through the clouds. The ship’s engines were keeping good time. It was almost unbearably noisy more than three decks below, but outside, the furious turbines sounded like cicadas that refused to sleep.
This was not quite what he had hoped for when he had asked for a promotion. To be commander of a vessel was a great honour, and he was eager to serve, but he had not quite expected this much distance between himself and his employer. He envied his former superior’s new circumstances, and found himself missing games of checkers and chess.
The Dao Yi was not very large, but it was very fast, due to the new steam engines, and also surprisingly easy to steer. Aside from essential personnel, the bulk of the crew – if they could be called that – were mechanics and engineers, who spoke to each other in stilted, halting phrases, relying on their few multi-lingual shipmates to communicate certain ideas effectively. Often, it was easier to scribble on paper and point to the technical drawings of the ship. Then they would nod, foreigner or not, and get to work. It was a miracle of cross-cultural engineering cooperation.
He considered himself lucky to be in charge of a new crew that feared their employer too much to be querulous. When the crew were free, they would escape the noise to above deck. He would watch them cluster until they were comfortable. Some never strayed from their comfort zones, but most were willing to take a chance through their more integrated colleagues.
For a few moments, he let his thoughts drift, and wondered what Fei xiao-jie was doing. Raucous laughter jerked him out of a tender recollection, and he smiled at the new game some of the crew had invented. They were not alone, and soon, they would be home.
To His Royal Majesty, Sultan Abdullah Makarram Shah III of the sultanate of Kedah
From Charles Grant, Director of the East India Company
I must say I am astonished that such an illustrious ruler as yourself would make a request for military backing. I regret to inform you that this particular clause of your contract with Captain Francis Light is devoid of validity as the Company had had no information regarding the secession of the Prince of Wales Island to the control of the Company prior to the signing of the Contract. With regard to protection, the East India Company already maintains a coastal guard in the waters surrounding Kedah as a show of good faith, which Your Lordship accepted prior to signing the contract.
The East India Company is first and foremost a trading corporation; thusly, any and all artillery support on hand is required to protect the vessels and ensure the welfare of our outposts as a first priority. In local politics we maintain a neutral stance in order to avoid ill will from any party with whom we may already share trade, unless one party poses a threat to the ideals to which the East India Company espouses and to our trade partners.
Rest assured that we would provide you assistance insofar as our resources are not stretched beyond their limitations and it is to our misfortune that we cannot grant assistance beyond what we have already provisioned for the coasts of the Kingdom of Kedah. In the future we will make provisions to further the mutual interests of the colony of Prince of Wales Island and the Kingdom of Kedah through whatever means necessary.
Ching Seow Fen tsked at the young woman sitting at the writing desk, as she set a tray down on the only free corner. Several letters sprawled across the surface, and rustled gently when picked up for proper arrangement. Without looking up, Fei siew-je picked up a teacup and held it up to her servant expectantly.
The old cook shook her head. She had watched the willful little girl grow, and followed her across the worlds and waters, but she doubted she would ever understand the extent of her charge’s ambition that led to where they were now, in a ship’s cabin, almost bombarded with letters from all over the known world. So she said nothing, and poured tea into the cup.
If Fei siew-je felt the heat of the freshly boiled water through the porcelain, she gave no indication. She laid the letters neatly side by side, picking one up to squint at the handwriting, all the while, holding the cup aloft, waiting for the tea to cool down.
“Fei siew-je, the tea will get cold-”
“Did you know, Seow Fen, that there is an British colony in the Straits? As if the Dutch in Melaka weren’t bad enough.” Fei siew-je brought the teacup to her lips.
Seow Fen considered this for a moment. Fei siew-je held a grudge against any gwailo, ever since her forced engagement to one, but she ordinarily avoided them, except for lucrative business deals. Still, the Straits were home to Fei siew-je, although she was fast running out of ports to comfortably stop at, due to the burgeoning number of gwailo.
“Knowing you,” Seow Fen sniffed, “you will find some way to deal with this, and make a profit from it at the same time.”
Yap Siew Fei smiled. “I do like making money.”
Tun Muasif, Bendahara of Kedah, was troubled when he met with the Temenggung and learnt the distressing news from the border. The Englishman had lied, and Kedah would receive no help from the East India Company. Bendahara Tun Muasif knew how the decision had plagued the sultan for weeks, whether or not to trust the white-skinned foreigner that had come to their shores asking to lease the island of Pinang.
It had not been easy, helping his sultan make the decision. Even Captain Light’s offer of a ship to patrol the coasts of Kedah had been disquieting. The East India Company’s reputation seemed ill-earned; how could they have monopolized trade to the West with little military might? Traders from all over had passed through the Straits of Melaka since sea-faring had been invented, and none of them could claim the same kind of monopoly – not that they wanted to; it was more trouble than it was worth.
Bendahara Tun Muasif sighed as he prepared to meet with his sultan. It would not be a good meeting.
The ropes that held balloon to basket creaked, and Johari patted them to ensure they held firm. He glanced at his co-pilot, who was blowing into the furnace that enabled them to stay aloft.
Samy was his age, and they were among the youngest of the crew. They were also the lightest, making them ideal for the mission – at least, that is what they understood. For the last two weeks, the sayyida had drilled them incessantly in how to speak, stand, stay silent, and dress, and in what to say, do, and wear. They had been given instructions they carried in their heads, and new clothes they kept in waterproof leather bags to wear when they arrived at their destination.
“Do you think people will believe us when we get back home?” Samy asked. His Malay was soft-spoken for a commoner, Johari thought, especially for one who had never been to school.
“You mean, when we land in the palace grounds with a giant balloon?” Johari pointed out. “I’m just hoping no one shoots us down first.”
Samy choked on a nervous laugh. “As-sayyida did send a message to the Seberang Prai outpost for the Sultan. He should be expecting us.”
“And if he doesn’t believe the letter at first, he will when we land. Where’s the long-scope?”
Johari took the long-scope from Samy and peered over the side of the basket. “We should be there in a day and a night. The dawn tomorrow, I think.” He squeezed the long-scope. “I’m nervous.”
Samy nodded in agreement, although Johari wasn’t looking. “I asked as-sayyida if she’ll give us shore leave once we’ve delivered the message.”
“What did she say?” Johari asked, folding the long-scope and handing it back.
“She said yes, of course.”
“Huh. So what will you do with your shore leave?”
“I’m going to visit my family.” Samy patted the furnace. “Tell them all about this adventure.”
“Are they in Kedah?”
Johari sat down on the floor moodily. “Terengganu.”
“Have you heard from them at all?” Samy knew only a little of Johari’s former life, through what he had seen of Johari’s education. He knew Johari had been the son of an elite family, but never got the details.
“Not since I left home, and joined as-sayyida’s crew.” Johari tried to remember how long it had been.
“You should at least write. It is good to keep family.” Samy smiled reassuringly. “But if you have nowhere to go for shore leave, I’m sure my family will welcome two intrepid travelers home.”
Johari smiled back.
“But first, we must go to this one hawker I know who makes the best pasembur in Kedah.”
“Friend, I hate to contradict you but the best pasembur is in Melaka.” Johari grinned, already dreaming of the smells of foods sold on the docks.
“Oh ho! If we’re talking the best ever, then…”
Temenggung Rajanathan Mohan squinted at the morning sky, having just finished subuh prayers. The missive the Sultan had received had set the guards on edge. Expect visitors from the sky, indeed. Fortunately, this didn’t entail more guards, since they were expecting only two people.
He yawned and stepped out of the surau, preparing to head back to the main palace. The path was comfortably lined with smooth pebbles that massaged his feet as he walked.
Ten steps in and he heard a shout, knew what it was for, and his head almost snapped backwards to see a large basket, attached to a great orb of cow skin, just as the letter described. A youth leaned over the side of the basket, waving frantically.
“Asalamualaikum, tuan!” the boy shouted. “Where can we put down the balloon?”
“Front courtyard!” the Temenggung yelled back, forgetting his manners. He ran to the palace, through the hallways past bewildered servants, and out to the front garden. “Everyone move!” he bellowed at the gawking guards. He waved at the floating basket, feeling quite removed from his own body in surprise.
“Samy! You can lower us now,” Johari called, heaving a sandbag anchor over the side.
“Working on it,” Samy grunted as he pushed the lever that would close off the furnace from the balloon. He had been working all morning, lowering the balloon enough for Johari to see where they were going, and yet high enough so they wouldn’t be noticed, and now this was as low as they could go while staying aloft. When the balloon didn’t seem to want to go any lower, he fanned the opening, trying to push in cool air, not that it helped, considering how humid the weather was. “We might have to jump.”
“I am not jumping,” Johari retorted, and threw out another anchor. “Tuan! Would you mind pulling us down?”
After a lot of shouting, guards tugging at the ropes of the anchors, and telling people to calm down, Temenggung Rajanathan found himself looking down at the two messenger-pilots, who knelt respectfully before him. “Are you Johari and Samy?”
Bendahara Tun Muasif came running. “Are these the two skyfarers? I wish I hadn’t missed the sight!” He stared down at them. “They don’t look like much. Are you sure it’s them?”
“Do you want to wait for another two boys in a basket with a balloon?”
“I suppose not. Come on, then.”
Bathed, groomed and freshly dressed, Johari felt better than he had in the days spent almost free-floating in the sky. He had declined the clothes the royal staff offered, as he had been told, even as it irked him to do so; he hadn’t been brought up to deny gifts. The staff were impressed by the finery that the sayyida had furnished him with. He walked through the hallways led by a retainer, and soon, Samy also joined him, smiling brightly and looking proud in his new clothes.
The Temenggung was waiting for them at the door of the throneroom. “Ready?”
They glanced at each other, and nodded.
“In you go then.”
The throneroom was not very large, but the windows made it an airy space, filling it with sunshine.
Sultan Abdullah Makarram Shah III sat on his throne, and he beckoned to the boys entering. They slowly walked until they were two meters away, then bowed formally. “Asalamualaikum, Tuanku,” Johari said.
“Good morning, Tuanku,” Samy rejoined.
The Sultan nodded, and they kneeled.
“Ampun Tuanku, we were asked to ensure our employer’s missive was received,” continued Samy.
“It has,” Bendahara Tun Muasif replied. “And true to the letter, you have arrived. What is it called?”
“A hot air balloon, Tuan Bendahara,” came the prompt, if slightly quavering, reply. “The hot air, heated by the furnace in the basket, lifts us up.”
“And will your employer be arriving in a similar device?”
“No, Tuan Bendahara, it is like a ship, but one that flies using engines, built by the scientists of Arabia, called a rohani, because it travels between earth and sky.” Samy relaxed a little. This was familiar ground to him; he understood how to explain these things.
The Sultan smiled graciously. “We had heard of such incredible advancements made in the Land of the Faithful.”
“Ampun Tuanku, our employer asks for safe harbour in Seberang Prai. In return, she will demonstrate the rohani’s capabilities for the Kingdom of Kedah, and offer aid in the efforts to hold off the Kingdom of Siam.”
The Sultan narrowed his eyes. Temenggung Rajanathan averted his, remembering full well the latest skirmish, while Bendahara Tun Muasif raised his eyebrows. “Tell me about your employer.”
Samy opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out, and he glanced over at Johari in a panic. Johari felt his mouth go dry, but he nodded, and began to recite the carefully-crafted words that had been drilled into him in preparation for this question. “Ampun Tuanku, our employer is Yap Siew Fei, from the Dutch-infested Melaka, who travels in search of knowledge, from the scholars of the Middle Kingdom to the vidvams of Bharat. At her command are four written languages and nine spoken ones, three merchant vessels and men and women of all places and trades. She descends from the court retainers of Princess Hang Li Po, and claims the lands of the Straits of Melaka as her homeland.”
Samy almost whistled in admiration at how smoothly the words rolled out of Johari. He’d delivered them like a true poet, although they both knew who had really written those words.
“Peranakan,” the Bendahara muttered. He had never really liked the communities of Chinese descendants.
“Better than British,” the Temenggung pointed out. “That Francis Light has done nothing for us, despite the gift of Pinang. Even now, he welcomes more Englishmen to consolidate the colony.”
The Sultan’s face didn’t flinch. Samy and Johari exchanged glances. They knew what to say, but neither quite wanted to be the one to say it. Samy, however, looked so nervous, Johari plunged in. “Ampun Tuanku,” he began, hoping he wouldn’t get into trouble for speaking out of turn. “My employer heard of your recent trouble with Siam and the broken contract between Kedah and Captain Francis Light. She wishes you to know that she has dealt with the British before, and knows how easily they break faith, especially now as they seek to expand beyond their island. She begs you not to concede territory to them, and to watch them closely, for they are known to take advantage of the goodwill of others. She has witnessed what they have tried to do to the great kingdoms of Bharat, and offers her services in protecting the sovereignty and prosperity of the Straits Kingdoms.”
“You speak well for a servant,” Bendahara Tun Muasif said curtly.
“Tuan Bendahara, our employer taught us well,” Johari replied defensively, remembering why he ran from home.
“You have done good work,” the Sultan said before the Bendahara could say anything more. “You may go now.”
The two boys prostrated themselves. “Ampun Tuanku.” They stood up and backed away ten paces before turning for the door.
It was early evening when Lu jian-zhang received a surprise visitor. “Fei xiao-jie?” He wasn’t sure how she had arrived and wasn’t about to ask. “I thought you would want to stay hidden for as long as possible.”
“We’re not at the Straits yet. Almost, but not quite. You will dock at Seberang Prai.”
“That’s a tight fit. Why not Binlang? Wouldn’t that be more convenient?”
“I did not buy this ship so my captain could worry about navigating difficult courses,” Fei xiao-jie sniffed. “And there are British colonials there now.”
He grinned. Her supercilious manner always amused him, because he and a few others had traveled with her long enough to know she only pretended to be obnoxious. But he understood the decision, and made a mental note to tell his navigator of the next leg’s course. “Would you like some tea, xiao-jie?”
“I would, and then we must talk. I have plans, and I need this ship.”
He escorted her to his cabin and sent for hot water while she made herself comfortable on the chair usually reserved for him. “How long will we be at port?”
“I’m not sure. It depends on what happens at Binlang.”
“You’re being cryptic again,” he told her smilingly, selecting a mix of tea leaves.
“I can’t be clear if I don’t know what will happen,” she said, with annoyance.
“We’ll at least get two weeks, yes?” He handed her a teacup. There was a knock on the door, and he answered it, coming back to the table with a fresh pot of hot water.
Her eyes crinkled with amusement. “We will need that much time to ensure we’ve sampled all the homeland’s food.” She drew out a map from her sleeve pocket and laid it on the table. “Now then.”
“That’s not one of ours,” Captain Francis Light mused as he looked through his telescope at the vessel approaching. “And I don’t recognize the design. Is it approaching our harbour?”
“No, sir,” the lieutenant in charge of the makeshift fort replied. “It appears to be headed towards Seberang Prai.”
“I see.” That worried him. “Any idea what kind of vessel it is?”
“Not built for cargo, that’s for sure. It’s too fast.”
“It’s also chugging smoke. Good God, is that a steam engine? I heard some fellows in Arabia were developing steam technology of their own, but I never thought to see it out and about so fast. And on the sea, too.”
“You better have some troops on hand just in case.” Captain Francis Light lowered the telescope. “And prepare cannons, too. I really don’t like the looks of that ship.”
Throughout the day, people sporadically paused in their work to watch the ship that roared in the distance, ever closer, until it docked in Seberang Prai’s harbour, a silver enigma.
Johari and Samy ran to the wharf as soon as they saw the Dao Yi approaching. They ate little meaty snacks while waiting for it to dock and finally throw out its gangplank. They thrust their hands into the seawater to wash the sauce off their fingers, wiped their hands dry on their trousers, and hurried over.
The sayyida came breezing down, radiant as usual. Her kebaya was a fine gray silk from China, trimmed with black floral patterns, although she had the sleeves specially designed to be large and loose, like true Chinese robes. She held her hands out to them, and they ran forward to kiss the ink-stained fingers.
“You made it. Alive,” she said in a rush of earnestness, her fingers wrapped around theirs tightly. “I am so proud of you! Did you get to meet the sultan?”
They laughed and grinned, happy at her obvious pride in them. “He says he will speak to you, ya sayyida,” Johari said. “He didn’t say much, but he looked curious.”
“Very good. Have you seen your family, Samy?”
“Yes, ya sayyida, and the whole town is gossiping about retaking Pinang island. And now people are watching the skies to see if more baskets of boys come showering down!”
This made her laugh, so she took them out to lunch.
To Captain Francis Light, representative of the East India Company upon the island Pinang, which you have erroneously called Prince of Wales Island, after a man who has never set foot upon its soil and likely never will. I hope this letter finds you in the best of health, as you will require it in the days following this day of 14 Safar, in the year 1203.
As the new lease holder of the land you are currently living upon, I am empowered to ask you to remove any and all military personnel, which are superfluous for the protection of the coasts of the Kingdom of Kedah, to an alternative outpost along the Straits of Melaka. Whilst your settlement may remain if it is too inconvenient to remove, please bear in mind that it is now under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Kedah, and while I welcome the business opportunities that the East India Company has to offer, it is highly inappropriate for land that has hitherto belonged to the people of the Straits to remain under the bureaucracy of foreigners.
I understand that the removal of such forces will be a great undertaking, and am willing to permit one week’s grace before I arrive to assume governance of the island of Pinang. Any attempt to resist the smooth transfer of administration will, in sum, result in a violent eviction.
Captain Francis Light wrote an urgent letter to Director Grant in India, loading it once more with arguments for full military support in all West Indies colonies, punctuating it with observations of the vessel sitting in the strait between Seberang Prai and the Prince of Wales Island, attaching a copy of the letter he had received from the so-called new governor of Pinang. He ordered his troops to stand ready for an attack.
As if in response, to make the English troops even more nervous, the Dao Yi ominously began to encircle Pinang Island. It docked in Seberang Prai every few hours for the crew to enjoy proper meals. Lu jian-zhang could be seen standing at the prow of the ship as it rounded the island, watching any activity of the English. The day before Fei xiao-jie was due to take over Binlang Yi, the Dao Yi docked and the crew took shore leave.
Laksamana Amanjid Taksin withdrew his ships, but stayed on one that remained at a certain distance from Pinang Island, to witness more closely the confrontation between Francis Light’s and Cik Yap’s forces. Cik Yap had also requested that a ship stand by to deliver medical assistance.
Sultan Abdullah Makarram Shah III, accompanied by Bendahara Tun Muasif and Temenggung Rajanathan Mohan, traveled to the formerly sleepy seaside town of Seberang Prai, and ensconced themselves in a house that had a clear view of the harbor and the island.
Yap Siew Fei dined on a delicious meal prepared by a local Baba that night, accompanied by Johari and Samy, who elected to stay rather than take shore leave, even if it meant sleeping on the floor in front of the sayyida’s bedroom door.
Sometime the next morning, after she had had a bath, dressed in fresh clothes, eaten a delicious breakfast, and paid her respects at a local temple to Thean Hou in thanks for an excellent voyage and to beg favour for the day’s doings, Yap Siew Fei boarded the Dao Yi again to inspect the island of Pinang (after a brief put-down of her two messenger boys who wanted to come along). She sighed when cannons began to fire at her ship, but was not surprised.
“Fei xiao-jie!” Lu jian-zhang shouted over the commotion. “Take cover!”
She threw him a withering look, then drew a little mirror from her sleeve and caught the flash of the sun in it.
“There it is!” Samy shouted, pointing at the sky. “Rohani! It’s the rohani!” Johari and Samy waved at the shadow that loomed closer from above.
The rohani broke through the clouds. It was not very large, but Johari and Samy thought it looked larger than what they thought it felt like from within. Its sides were the same sleek lines as the Dao Yi, and sailors waved through the glass of the windows all along the hull. Along the bottom, vents roared and blew a wind downwards as the rohani lowered itself, causing housewives and servants to run out and hurriedly collect drying laundry.
The front of the ship’s hull was lined with glass, within which Nakhoda Harun stood firmly right at the front, peering down with a long-scope and occasionally shouting orders to the men and women behind him. He gave a friendly little salute to the crowd cheering beneath him.
On a gesture from him, the rohani surged forward towards the island. Out the sides, cannons groaned out of their stationary positions and pointed downwards.
Yap Siew Fei stabbed a finger in the general direction of wherever it was she guessed shooting was coming from, even as Lu jian-zhang, now at the navigator’s wheel, steered the ship out of range. She held onto the side of the ship as it swerved away, and made a mental note to stand on deck one day when the Dao Yi was going very fast, for entertainment.
The cannonade that resounded from the rohani as it fired on the makeshift forts on Pinang Island shook everyone who watched. Two shots, first. The Dao Yi continued to circle the island, and Yap Siew Fei pointed out further targets. Two more thunderclaps, a third, then three in succession, before it fell silent and the Dao Yi finished the circumference of the island.
Johari and Samy started the cheers, and they howled and capered at seeing the rohani triumphantly fly over the island with no forthcoming retaliation.
“Congratulations, Fei xiao-jie,” Lu jian-zhang said to his employer, who stood silently at the prow. “You have won the island.”
She said nothing for a long while, her hair whipping in the wind from the rohani. “Let’s collect the ground troops, then, and finish this.”
When she stepped foot on the island, she felt distance from her body, still shaken at how quickly everything had happened, and walked so briskly, Johari and Samy almost ran to keep up.
Behind her trailed an escort of soldiers carrying appropriate firearms, and docking after her ship were surgeons and doctors, running to search and rescue. The boys’ eyes darted everywhere, taking in the blasted structures and forlorn flags flapping in the wind. The forts were destroyed, pieces of wood and stone and fires scattered everywhere, and despite the hum of the Dao Yi, the island was too quiet. Samy muttered a quick prayer. Johari tried very hard not to stare at red stains on the gray and black landscape.
The rohani hovered above, and Nakhoda Harun’s face was grave as he assessed the damage done to the locals’ houses. There were broken sampans and torn fishing nets everywhere, and even from his height, he could see the wary faces of the fishermen as they emerged from the forest inland and picked through the wrecks of their homes.
Suffolk House still stood, the pepper plantation surrounding it fairly intact. The attap roof looked quite ruffled, and the windows were blasted in. She pushed open the unlocked door and cautiously entered what she supposed was the parlour.
Johari reached out for her sleeve. “Ya sayyida.” When she turned to him, he said, “Let me go in first. Samy and I will search the house for you.”
She nodded, and the two boys made soft scuttling noises as they ran in, light on their feet, from room to room, looking for its inhabitants. But her eyes wandered over the sitting room, taking in the dust-covered furniture, wood splinters and broken porcelain on the floor.
There was a shoe in the corner, sticking out from behind a cabinet. With a foot still in it. Curious, she walked over and peeped behind the casement.
The boy was asleep, curled into as tight a ball as he could manage, arms covering his face. She reached over and dusted off his hair, revealing the sandy-brown under the gray dust. He woke up with a cry, his large blue eyes staring at her wildly.
“I will not harm you,” she said to him softly in his language. “Are you hurt?”
The boy Thomas spoke little, and had few answers for her. When she was done questioning him, she left Johari and Samy to feed him properly, although neither of them spoke much English. “That’s good,” she said unsympathetically when they protested. “You can learn from each other.” They fell silent, seeing the grim lines on her face.
She spent the rest of the day inspecting the whole island, collecting damage reports, hearing the grievances of the locals, and questioning the British soldiers. There were few casualties, cold comfort for the day’s events.
Captain Francis Light was nowhere to be found.
Samy and Johari finished their rice, and folded the banana leaves towards themselves in satisfaction. Thomas glanced over and took his cue to do the same. Johari felt a bit sorry for the boy, remembering the time when he himself was friendless. Samy was indifferent; Thomas was an orphan, but he was still white. They awkwardly exchanged phrases, stumbling on conversation and cross-cultural snags.
Thomas looked to the distance, where a harbor was being built on Pinang. Then his gaze wandered up to the rohani that had landed on top of a hill, no longer quite as imposing. “What is she called?” he asked.
“Rohani,” Samy answered slowly, making sure Thomas got the pronunciation.
“Just that? Ro-ha-ni?”
“Al-Rohani Antara,” Johari said shortly.
Johari shook his head. “Antara,” he repeated. “Because…” he said in English, then hesitated. He patted the ground they sat on. “Earth.” Then he pointed up. “Sky.” He flattened his hand and wiggled it a little. “Antara.”
“Yes.” Johari almost sighed in relief.
He looked at his new crewmate, then to his good friend, and back up at the rohani, which was resting in preparation for another voyage.
He was starting to understand why as-sayyida had chosen that name.
This story originally appeared in Expanded Horizons.