THE END OF THE ROYAL CLAN

17.  THE MALE IS GREATER

 

 

For a few more moons the changes at Kynopolis appeared to go no deeper. In spite of all she had learnt about it, Vio felt the town was still itself, the home she recognised. She was constantly aware of tension, however, in herself and in the air.

The group of friends, the old boat crew, had taken to meeting in the evenings at Samal and Vio’s home. It had always been their natural meeting place, and now it was a haven. They played games and told stories to distract themselves from worry, but they often discussed what was happening in Kynopolis as well. It was impossible not to; no plans could be made without wondering whether the royal family would be overthrown and what that would mean in their lives.

Yon came when he could. His allegiance to Samal and Vio was clear, and he was from a poor family. The poor were not involved in plots. Anil and Soteps, the other human members of the group, were from rich merchant families, and were embarrassed at first when they all talked about the deepening divisions in the town. Finally Samal said, “Look. We know you are our friends. What the merchants do is not your fault. We don’t expect you to tell us any secrets. We’re glad you’re here with us.”

“Thank you for saying so,” said Anil. “We’ve been feeling bad. You and your family have always been good to us.”

“Yes,” said Soteps, “and we’d do anything we can to help you. If we have any news that could be useful, we’ll let you know.”

“But don’t get into trouble for us,” said Samal.

“Don’t worry,” said Anil, “we can look after ourselves. My parents are not in the plot anyway. They don’t want an upheaval.”

“Nor are mine,” said Soteps. “And they admire you and Vio.”

“So there is a definite plot,” said Vio.

“Yes,” said Anil, “there’s a group that’s planning to get rid of you, but we don’t know any details. They’re sworn to secrecy. They’re not even supposed to say that much, but Jalkan told me. Showing off as usual. His father is one of the leaders.”

“Of course,” said Vio.

“Have you decided what to do if the situation gets really bad?” asked Soteps.

“I have,” said Keni, the other royal, who had been sitting quietly through the conversation. “If fighting starts I’m going to escape to our smaller farm down river. They’ll hide me there, and if the worst comes to the worst there’s always a boat.”

“You’ve got it all thought out,” said Samal.

“Yes. I intend to survive this crisis and have a life somewhere. It goes without saying that you and Vio are welcome to come with me.”

“Thank you,” said Samal, “but I couldn’t leave. There’s the family, and Tinina.”

No one answered. They had all forgotten momentarily that Samal was bound to Tinina and the queendom. It didn’t seem real, thought Vio, but, horribly, it was.

“What about you, Vio?” asked Anil.

Vio wanted to say, “And I couldn’t leave Samal,” but she knew he would protest. “I don’t know yet,” she said. “I’ll wait and see. I may be needed here and I’m sure I’ll find a way to escape if I have to.”

“I don’t doubt it,” said Keni, smiling. “And there’s always Yon to help you.”

“Yes,” said Vio, “there’s Yon.” And she wondered why she suddenly felt cold inside.

 

Then Purgator came back.

He appeared at the Bull Gate one day, with three companions dressed in the same dirty robes and with the same wild eyes and hair as himself, and immediately starting preaching in the streets of the town. Melops expected him to come to the Palace and give him news of Katelia, and when he didn’t appear he sent for him. Vio was present with Tinina at the meeting, and when Purgator approached with his companions she recognised one of them as the man who had taken Tankret away.

Melops invited them to enter the Palace, and Purgator refused. He invited them to sit down in the porch, and they refused that also, standing with defiant faces on the steps.

Melops restrained his natural anger and said, “Please be so kind as to tell me how my wife is prospering.”

“Your wife,” said Purgator, with a sneer in his voice, “is prospering in obedience to the God the father.”

“And her health?” asked Melops.

“Her body is weak,” said Purgator. “She understands that the body must be chastised.”

“Won’t she come back to see us?” asked Tinina hesitantly, to Vio’s surprise. At least the girl had enough feeling to miss her mother.

“She will not,” said Purgator. “Do not expect to see her again.”

What could Melops say? It was obvious that no plea or threat could touch Purgator. The men of God were turning to leave, without even saluting Melops. Vio decided to ask a question:

“Is my cousin Tankret with his mother?”

“Oh no,” said Purgator, with a nasty smile at her. “He is in a quite different place. His health is excellent. We have had no trouble with him at all.”

And they stalked away.

 

A cloud of sadness fell over the Palace again after that. It was one thing to be missing Katelia because she had decided to follow a man of God, but a different matter to realise she was being ill treated, or was perhaps already dead. And Tankret, so it seemed, was being kept in good condition. What did they intend to do with him, Vio wondered. Would they bring him back to cause trouble?

Purgator and his men were going round the city telling people they must wake up and worship the father God before it was too late to save their souls. The Goddess, they said, belonged to the darkness. Females were darkness, males were light; and it was men that should have the power in this world.

This message was, of course, very useful for the merchants, who supported the preachers in their work and told everyone that the new God was on their side and wanted them to take the place of the Queen.

Vio soon clashed with Purgator personally. The weather was stuffy and the atmosphere at the Palace, where she was spending the day, was depressing, so she had taken two servant girls with her and gone to bathe in the pond near the stadium. When she came back, Purgator was standing on the stone bench just outside the Dog Gate, surrounded by a small crowd, nearly all men.

“For too long we have worshipped the mother,” he was saying, in his loud, harsh voice. “What is the mother’s power? Nothing but the warmth of earth.”

He looked ridiculous to Vio, standing there so thin in his shabby robe, with his straggly grey hair stiff with dirt. Did he think God the father was like him, she wondered. What a world, if so.

Almost without meaning to, Vio found herself answering him. “And She whose face is seen among the stars?” she said. “Who rules the seasons of our lives?”

Purgator turned to her. His face was twisted with fury.

“Illusion!” he shouted. “The kind of nonsense that’s keeping us in ignorance. The male brings all that is of worth.”

Vio could see there was no point in trying to talk to such a madman. She beckoned to the servant girls to follow her through the gate. But Purgator jumped off the seat to stand in her way.

“The father will be obeyed,” he roared, staring at Vio’s face and breasts with a hate in which it was easy to see disguised lust. “Women will learn to stay in their place.”

Purgator had come so close to her, Vio could smell his foul breath. She let him see clearly in her face how she despised him, and swept past him holding her robe aside. The people who were gathering round made way for her. She could see they were not all on his side, though many of them were imitating his frown.

 

After this encounter, Vio felt there might be very little time left to enjoy the privileged life she had. She decided that before she lost her freedom, since that could easily happen, it was time she went beyond flirting and discovered what love with men was all about.

It was not so easy to decide who her lover should be. She knew it would cause trouble if she became involved in that way with one of the clan men, and in spite of flirting with them she was not truly attracted to any of them. She thought of Yon, but she knew a relationship with him would be much too serious. She would not be able to end it once it began, and what she wanted was an adventure, almost an experiment.

There was a groom at Tankret’s stable, a young man whose only job was to keep the horses fed and healthy, since no one but Vio rode there any longer. He was dark and slim, with a mobile, sensitive face, and he loved the horses. He talked to them and they seemed to understand his words. He had saved the legs of Tankret’s red stallion, almost crippled after his flight across the stony waste. Watching him stroke Storm’s neck one day, Vio suddenly thought she would like him to caress her too in that sensual way.

She invited him to go riding with her, and they went far away from the town, to a grove of palm trees with a pool of water in the middle of it. They lay down to rest beside the pool and Vio turned to him and gave him a clear invitation with her eyes. He hesitated, but she knew that was because she was royal and not because he didn’t want her, so she held out her hand and touched his chest. Then there was no more hesitation.

They returned several times to the palm grove, and made love in the stable, too, when it rained and they couldn’t stay outside. Vio learned a new kind of pleasure, more intense than any she had known before. She liked Kirops, too (that was his name), and was enchanted to discover he was a kind of wizard with plants as well as with the horses. By moving his hands, he could make the reeds at the pool sway and the palm branches dance.

But he had too much heart and he fell in love with her. After a couple of moons, the adoration she saw in his face began to alarm her. She didn’t want a serious relationship, and she was afraid he was dreaming of a future together.

So one day, as they returned to the stable, she said, “I won’t be coming any more after today. Please try to understand me.”

He looked as if she had hit him. “But I thought you loved me,” he said.

“I do love you in a way, but not as I think you want me to. I’ve never loved anyone like that. Maybe I can’t. And I have other things to do now. So it’s better if we don’t meet any more.”

“I wish I could die,” he said.

Vio knew he wouldn’t die, but she felt a bit guilty for hurting him so badly. And because she had to admit to herself that for her it was harder to give up Storm than to give up Kirops. Obviously she couldn’t go to the stable any more.

Soon after this Vio, Samal and Anil sailed up the swollen river, to get away from the tensions in the town, and in spite of the cool air and the risk of rain spent the night on a beach. Another boat drew up while they were sitting round their campfire, and the captain asked if they could use the fire in return for sharing the fish they had caught to eat. The friends agreed. The fish was delicious, and Vio watched the captain, as the firelight flickered over his handsome scarred face and tough body, and thought he was a very attractive man.

In the morning, as they prepared, after a dry night, to leave the beach, he approached her and said quietly, “Will you go sailing with me some time?” It was a challenge and she accepted it. He picked her up from the river-bank one afternoon, in a smaller boat than the one he usually sailed, at a point near the cremation ground where they were unlikely to be observed. Making love on the boat as the water rocked it was a new and enjoyable sensation. The man was much older than her, and Vio knew he was interested only in giving and receiving pleasure, without involving her heart or his. They didn’t have much to talk about, but Vio enjoyed the sense of adventure he gave her, which was a change from the worries that surrounded her, and she met him again twice.

“Am I being very bad?” she asked Gora, when she told her about her love affairs. It was too difficult to keep such an important step in her life from Gora.

Gora sighed. “You had to discover the love of men some time,” she said. “I’m surprised you didn’t do it before. And you aren’t going to have much time for such relationships now either.”

 

As usual, Gora was right. Pepi called Vio to his study a few days later.

“I gave up long ago trying to interfere in your life,” he said, “even when I don’t like what you’re doing. Gora explained to us that a girl with a destiny like yours has to be allowed to grow up in her own way. But now I am asking you, as a responsible person, to behave more wisely.”

“What do you want me to do?” asked Vio.

“Stop seeing this boat captain.”

“ I didn’t know you knew,” said Vio. “I mean, I thought I’d been discreet.”

“You have been fairly discreet. The person who told me happened to see you with him on the river, and will not pass it on for the clan’s sake. It seems there’s a rumour at the port, but we can deny it.”

“Why does it matter so much? Is it because of Purgator?”

“Of course it is,” said Pepi. “You should know that. He’s preaching that women are darkness and lead men away from God. He says the women of our race are worse than the humans and the Palace is a den of wickedness. People are listening to him and if he starts to preach against you personally it will be very unpleasant.”

“All right,” said Vio, realising immediately that her father was right. “I hoped no one would know I was meeting the man, but I suppose that was foolish. From now on I will behave modestly. I don’t want to make things any more difficult for you if I can avoid it.”

“I’m glad you understand,” said Pepi, with a loud sigh. “I can’t understand why you would want such a relationship, but I appreciate your giving it up. We’re all giving up something.” And he continued, as though the words escaped him, “Though I doubt whether anything can save us any longer.”

Vio was dismayed at his gloominess. Pepi was not easily depressed. “Oh, what will happen to us all?” she exclaimed.

“I don’t know, daughter. No one knows, except perhaps Gora and she won’t tell us. Whatever it is, we must face it with dignity.”

 

Vio was in the Temple square, listening to Purgator preach, when the Priestess finally decided to leave the Temple and confront him. She blinked as she came out into the sunlight, and walked with her hands held out in front of her, as if to protect herself from a fall, to the top of the steps. Purgator was looking towards her and stopped shouting in mid sentence, and there was an angry murmur from the crowd as they turned to see why an expression of furious astonishment had come over his face.

“Wretched servant of darkness,” Purgator yelled. “How dare you show yourself here?”

The look of helplessness had fallen away from the Priestess. She stood erect, seeming much taller than she was, and held up her arms like the wings of a powerful bird.

“I serve the light,” she said, and her firm voice carried all over the square. “The light belongs to the Goddess, the Mother of us all, and this is her citadel. It is you who have no right to invade it with your lies.”

“The lies are yours,” shouted Purgator, “and no one is listening to you any more. Look at all these men around me. They know now my God is real and your Goddess is a sham.”

“You may lead those men astray, but you cannot destroy the Goddess. She is our ruler and in the end she will prevail.”

“Lies, lies!” Purgator waved his arms at the crowd. “Tell her who’s right. Shout ‘God the father’!”

A faint and ragged shout rose from the gathered men.

Purgator waved his arms again furiously. “Tell her!”

This time the shout was louder, but he had to repeat the command twice more before it became a full-bodied yell, and by that time the Priestess had turned and walked calmly back inside the Temple.

 

 

18.  WOMEN ARE DARKNESS

 

Purgator’s message of male superiority was winning over more and more people. Vio understood better now Gora’s concern over the years about the decline in women’s power. In the world in which Vio grew up, it already seemed natural for men to be the masters of their households and women enjoyed less freedom of movement than in the old days of the great Queens. But the women were respected, and studied whatever interested them, and contributed to public debate. Suddenly, it seemed, their voices could no longer be heard. There was no Queen to reassure them of their importance. The legitimate Queen was a weak woman who had abandoned her city, and her only living daughter was a foolish girl.

Anil and Soteps told Vio that most men in the town no longer hesitated to support the merchants in their claim to take over the state. They were men, and had the backing of the preachers of the new religion. They wondered how they could have gone on for so long allowing a Queen to reign over them.

Not everyone was convinced so easily that they should worship a father God and turn their backs on the Goddess. Many people’s instincts still told them that the Mother is the source of life and joy. But they were becoming afraid to show their devotion to Her, because Purgator’s men were preaching that her faithful followers would be punished, in the world to come if not in this one.

Purgator had as yet no official power, but everyone was sure it was only a matter of time. The royal family would be expelled from the Palace, the merchants would take over, and Purgator’s rules, which he said were his God’s rules, would become law. In the mean time, since no one was attempting to defend them from Purgator and his threats, people generally thought it was wiser to obey him. The court of justice still sat at the Palace, but few people bothered to take their quarrels there any more.

Many women, however, were unhappy with the new restrictions placed on them. They were not supposed to go out in the streets alone. A companion, preferably male, was to be with them even when they went to the marketplace. Girls had to give up studying any art or science not related to their role as housewives and mothers; their school was closed. And of course they were no longer to take part in sports. Gora told Vio that in the houses she visited as a doctor all the women complained about how difficult their lives were now they couldn’t move around freely, and how bored they felt sitting inside. But their husbands didn’t listen to their protests.

 

For a while, after the talk with her father, Vio tried to obey Purgator’s rules. When she walked to the Palace, Gora accompanied her. She went neither to the port nor to the marketplace. Although the period of her relationships with the young groom and with the captain had not lasted quite three moons, Vio felt as if she was returning to her normal life after a long absence and finding everything changed. She wondered how she could have been so obsessed with her own feelings and so blind to what was happening in reality. And to the effect of her actions on the people close to her.

Samal had behaved distantly towards her for a while, but Vio thought he was absorbed in his own worries. Now she explained to him as well as she could why she had wanted her adventure with the captain, Relis, and Samal said he still didn’t understand but it was over now and they needed each other’s support more than ever. So that was all right again.

The breach with Yon was much more serious. Vio had asked about Yon when she joined the group of friends at their evening meetings, and they had always said, “He’s busy,” or “He’s gone down river.” Vio had found it strange he was never there, but she had not wanted to think about it. Now she asked Samal, “Does Yon know about me and Relis?”

“Yes,” said Samal, and he looked angry for a moment. “I don’t know how you could do that to Yon.”

“Why ‘do that to Yon’?” asked Vio. “I’ve never promised him anything.”

“I know,” said Samal, “and I know you don’t love him except as a friend. But he loves you, and you know it. And the worst of it is, Relis is Karek’s neighbour. People saw you on the river with him and understood what was going on and told Karek.”

Vio imagined what Karek’s reaction would be and suddenly felt miserable.

“I think Karek thought Yon and I were a couple,” she said. “Otherwise I don’t know why he’d have invited just us to his house that night.”

“Of course he did. All of Yon’s friends thought so, although he would never have told them any such thing. What you did has been humiliating for him, as well as painful.”

“I suppose it won’t help if you tell him for me I’m sorry,” Vio said.

“What are sorry for?” asked Samal. “That you had an affair or that Yon is hurt.”

“That Yon is hurt,” admitted Vio.

“Then that won’t help him, will it? I won’t tell him anything.”

But Vio was truly sorry that Yon was hurt, and thought how contradictory life is and how difficult it is be faithful to different kinds of loves. She missed Yon very much. And it was now she really needed him, as an escort and protector for her walks in the town, and he was not there.

 

Two terrible incidents showed Vio, in case she still had any doubts, how powerful the prejudice against women had become in the short time since Purgator was in the town.

When the Gazelle Games came round, Vio covered her head modestly and went to sit with Samal and Anil in the family stand. Work on Tankret’s stadium had continued and the stone grandstands were nearly completed. Purgator permitted sport as a manly activity, and it was taken for granted that all the competitors would be men.

The wrestling was quite exciting, and the running and jumping contests were won by the city’s favourite athletes. When the last race was called, Vio was thinking it had been an enjoyable day, in spite of the circumstances. It was the open race, which the woman Agilo had won the year before.

Suddenly Agilo was there, on the track in front all the gathered people, in her short racing tunic and with her head and shoulders bare. She walked defiantly to the starting line, her head held high.

After a few moments’ complete silence, the crowd roared. It was a terrible sound, a roar of vindictiveness and hate. Vio could hardly believe the people of Kynopolis could make such a sound. The men in the race had drawn back to the side of the track, and Agilo stood alone at the starting line. Suddenly a stone flew toward her. It missed, but others, from a pile of fragments left by builders, came closer. One hit her, then more. She didn’t move. Vio stood up, not knowing what she wanted to do but unable to watch the woman face her enemies alone. Samal and Anil pulled at her arms to force her to sit down again.

“You can’t do anything,” Samal muttered. “She must have known what would happen.”

“Maybe she’s right,” said Vio, starting to cry. “Maybe life isn’t worth living if they take away from you what you love.”

“Then that’s her destiny,” said Samal, “not yours.”

Luckily for Vio, other women in the family stand were upset enough by the spectacle to be crying too, so her sympathy for Agilo didn’t mark her out as a rebel.

Agilo had fallen to the ground. The men, both the athletes on the track and the spectators on the stand near them, went on passing each other stones and throwing them at her until her body stopped jerking and twitching. The race was cancelled and the three friends left the stadium, without waiting to see what would be done with her body. At home Vio vomited.

 

The other incident was just as horrible. This time Vio was alone in the crowd in the marketplace; she had given up trying to follow Purgator’s rules. She borrowed from Samal a robe with a hood, of the kind the merchants had made fashionable, and disguised herself as a man. She knew the risk she was taking, but she couldn’t stand not being able to move around and keep in touch with what was going on.

At the time when Purgator invaded the city with his preachers, three wandering transvestites had been staying at the Temple. For worshippers of the Goddess, such people were Her spoilt children and brought good luck, so they had always been welcome wherever they went. But when Purgator saw them in the street, with their powdered faces, scented hair and effeminate way of walking, he screamed at them that they were demons, scum, unworthy to be alive. Terrified, they took refuge in the Temple and didn’t dare come out again. The Priestess fed them from her dwindling stores. Her own situation was so bad already, their presence could hardly make it worse.

But they got tired of being shut up in the Temple and decided they had to leave the town. They washed their faces and cut their hair and draped their robes in a masculine way. They came out of the Temple in a group and started to descend the steps, apparently hoping they wouldn’t be noticed, though their gait gave them away. Vio was listening to one of Purgator’s men preach on the duty of destroying evildoers, and she wanted to rush and shout at them to get back inside. But they were too far away, and it would have harmed her without saving them, so once again she did nothing.

The transvestites were recognised immediately. Someone shouted “Bunfaces,” which was what they were known as, and the crowd turned menacingly toward them. The transvestites froze with terror, staring at the faces full of hate as if they couldn’t believe what they saw, and that moment of inaction was fatal for them. Young men ran and cut off their retreat to the Temple. Another group, arriving in the square with staves in their hands, ran straight at them.

It was the first time Vio was seeing the True Order Guard, recently formed by Purgator to enforce his new regulations. The leader of this group was Jalkan. They started beating the defenceless transvestites with their staves. They fell on the steps, and Vio couldn’t see them any more because the crowd of men closed in on them. She hurried away, before someone could ask her why she wasn’t joining in the massacre, and a massacre it was, because all three transvestites died of the blows, with their skulls smashed in, she heard later.

 

The only thing left for the royal clan to try was to marry Tinina to Samal and declare her Queen. Vio knew the spectacle of a royal wedding would mean nothing to the people of the city now, and nothing silly Tinina could say or do would help, but the clan was determined to make this final effort.

And sacrifice Samal, Vio thought. It was useless appealing to Samal himself; she already knew how he felt. He would go through with it because he had given his word and nothing else made sense to him anyway.

“Is this Samal’s destiny?” Vio asked Gora.

“Samal is the best kind of man of the old order,” Gora said. “He will share its fate.”

“Can’t you stop this?” Vio asked her father. “I know you and Mama don’t want Samal to marry Tinina.”

“It’s too late. I can’t break with my people now,” said Pepi. “And you know Samal is determined to marry her.”

Amapola said nothing. Her eyes were often red with crying.

After the marriage date was announced, Samal’s friends also came to the house to try to persuade him to change his mind.

“Why must you make this useless sacrifice?” asked Anil.

“It’s my duty,” said Samal, and the way he said it didn’t sound pompous but simply sincere. “What else could I do, anyway?”

“I’ve already asked you to come with me to the farm,” said Keni.

“Or come with us” said Anil. “We’ll hide you. Vio too, of course.”

“Thank you,” said Samal, and Vio echoed him, “but I can’t run away.”

“Look,” said Soteps, “it’s not our business to advise you, but don’t you think, if you really want Tinina to be queen, it would be better to marry her to a fully human man?”

“To one of Purgator’s young men? They wouldn’t accept.”

“Someone like Jalkan wouldn’t,” said Anil, “but there are others who are not such fanatics. At least it would look as though the clan really wanted to change.”

Samal was silent for a moment. Then he asked, “Have you all been thinking about this? You think it might work?”

“Yes,” said Keni. “I mean of course we don’t know, but we want you to have a chance.”

“Thank you for trying to help,” said Samal, “but it’s not the answer. The clan can’t change to suit Purgator. We’ll go down as we are.”

Samal’s friends realised there was nothing they could do, and they were very sad. They went on visiting him, to talk about other things, and all the time it was as though they were saying goodbye. Vio knew, because she felt the same way.

Yon didn’t come, or if he did Vio didn’t see him.

 

 

19.  INVASION

 

Vio continued to go out to spy, although she was aware that with every day that passed the hate in the town toward her clan became more extreme and that she herself, as both a royal and a woman, was in special danger from the fanatics. She was as careful as possible, staying in shadow whenever she could and keeping well covered in Samal’s cape; but in the end she had a narrow escape.

She had been listening once more to a preacher in the marketplace. By now Purgator’s men were openly telling the people it was their duty to rise up against the corrupt and dissolute royals. This preacher – the man who had led away Tankret – was particularly outrageous in his accusations against the family. At one point he called Ibisia a slut, and Vio was so shocked she raised her head suddenly and the hood on her cape slipped back from her face. She immediately bowed her head again, but she knew that in that moment a man had seen her.

She slipped away, down a narrow street, but soon heard footsteps coming after her. When a voice shouted, “Halt!” Vio began to run. Thankful that in her wanderings with Yon she had learnt all the alley-ways and passages in the town, she turned a corner and jumped through a dark doorway inside which steps led to a flat roof that was used as a shortcut from one street to the next. Her pursuers ran on. Lying on the roof, she watched them return, angry, with Jalkan leading them, and pass by again. She shivered, although she was hot in the cape.

Then her heart leapt with fright, as a young man appeared on the roof. He held up his hand to reassure her.

“I’m a friend,” he said. “I was watching you, but it happened too fast for me to warn you. Thank the Goddess you’re safe.”

“Who are you?” asked Vio.

“A friend of Gora. Come with me.”

Vio followed him down into the street on the other side, and he led her quickly to Anil’s house not far away. Anil’s sister, Seso, was happy to look after her and still envious of her “adventures”, whose seriousness she didn’t seem to understand; and Anil walked back with her to her own house at dusk.

 

Soon after this, Pepi and Amapola decided to leave their home and join the family at the Palace. Their house was particularly vulnerable, isolated outside the city wall, and they felt, besides, that Melops needed their support. But it was a hard decision to make. It was a lovely house they were leaving, full of the family’s happy memories. At dinner, the night before they left, they discussed only practical details, such as how to transport Pepi’s scrolls. They were all careful not to say what each of them was thinking, which was that they would not be coming back.

Vio went up to her room after dinner and looked round at her possessions. If she was going to another home, she thought, she would want to take almost everything with her, from the snake-skin, still coiled round a tall candle stand, to her mirror which had revealed to her so many dreams and fears. And her robes, the red, the green, the blue. But she was not going to a new home. She had no idea whether or where she would ever have a home again. She decided to take with her only two simple flax-coloured robes, a shawl and some of the face paints and creams Gora had made for her. They would help her to face the world. She put them, adding a new pair of sandals, in a reed basket, and she was ready. She looked into the mirror one last time, and saw the yellow tree that had appeared to her before, reaching into the sky, and for no reason that she could think of she found it comforting. She went up on to the flat roof to watch her last sunset from the house.

Amapola was standing there, with tears streaming down her face. Vio went up to her, but she didn’t know what to say to comfort her. She put her arms round her. Then Pepi appeared, and embraced both of them. The sound of Samal laughing with a friend came up from the garden. Vio said a prayer to the Goddess for all of them as the red sun slid down behind the horizon.

 

Most of the clan had already gathered at the palace, bringing possessions and provisions, and it was beginning to look like a besieged army camp. People were sleeping on the floor in the main rooms, and outside in the courtyard, round the well. Those who had been attracted by Purgator’s beliefs were sorry now for their foolishness, and the clan was united in facing their enemies. Not everyone had come. Keni for one was not there; he had left a few days before for his chosen refuge in the country. Vio wondered why more of them didn’t try to hide or run away, but when she asked they said there was nowhere to go. Their attitude was fatalistic, like Samal’s. They would go down with their people. The men, however, were preparing a last defence, and were practising their skill with fists, knives and spears in the great hall.

Pepi and Amapola were given Ibisia’s room. Vio and Gora joined Tinina, who rather huffily made room for them on the floor.

“The bed is mine,” she said. “I’m going to be Queen, you know. Please don’t touch my robes, Vio. You should have brought more of your own.”

“I have all I want,” said Vio, and Gora said “I like sleeping on the floor.” Tinina didn’t bother to answer.

Samal slept with the men in the hall. It was uncomfortable and there was not much chance for private conversation. But Vio and Samal managed to spend some time together each day, mostly trying to see the funny side of their situation. They observed the awkwardness of some of their clan uncles with spears in their hands, and in spite of everything they laughed.

People could still come and go from the Palace, though few from the town dared to visit them. The guards at the gate, once the protectors of the royal clan, now mostly watched them with hate. But Vio noticed that one of them, an older man whose face was familiar, appeared to be sympathetic toward her, and she decided to speak to him when she found him alone. She had nothing to lose by it.

“Excuse me if I offend you,” she said, “but I would like to ask for your help.”

“Tell me what you want,” said the man, in a neutral voice.

“It’s difficult for me to go outside,” said Vio, “and I don’t like not knowing what’s happening in the town. Could you pass on to me any important news?”

“I’ll do that,” said the man, and turned away, because another guard was approaching.

He didn’t speak to her again, and Vio thought he’d decided not to help her. Then one morning he signalled to her as she crossed the courtyard. She detoured to walk near him, and he said “An army is coming to Kynopolis on the river.”

“Are they close by?” asked Vio.

“They must be by now. The patrol boat saw their boats coming and raced down to give the warning.”

Vio rushed into the Palace, grabbed the first cape she saw lying in the entrance and ran down to the port to find out if the invasion was truth or rumour. There would be time enough to alarm the rest of the clan later.

A crowd of port people, both fearful and curious, were watching as an army of tall, brawny, bronzed men disembarked on the quay. Their boats were heavy and black like pirate boats, but strangely shaped fore and aft, and the men themselves were bigger than the people of Kynopolis, and looked primitive and fierce. They wore short tunics of a dark brown cloth and carried heavy knives and shields.

And these were men, she thought, the creatures Purgator and the merchants were calling superior. Perhaps their father God was like this, one of these tough, aggressive brutes. They looked dangerous too, and she wondered fearfully what they wanted with Kynopolis. They had made no move to attack the crowd at the port.

One of the men yelled an order and they fell into formation, about sixty of them, and started marching up the road to the city gate. The crowd followed, Vio among them. No one was paying any attention to her, the spectacle in front of them was too absorbing. Two files of True Order Guards were standing across the gate, with their weapons held high. It looked as though a battle was about to begin, and the crowd halted and started to turn back in alarm. Vio stood her ground and was soon in the front row of the spectators. What happened then was something she could never have imagined.

The marching men also halted, and raised their weapons to the guards in a formal salute. Then both sides lowered their arms and broke formation. From the middle of the strangers’ army two figures stepped forward to stand in the space between the sides. One was a huge, red-headed man with a messy scar where one eye had been, and the other was Tankret. He was wearing the same short tunic as his fellows and his muscles bulged like theirs. He was hairier than ever.

From between the lines of guards at the gate, two other figures advanced, Purgator, with a grimly triumphant expression on his face, and Jalkan’s father, Jinis. Some of the other rich merchants also came through the gate and stood watching the meeting of the four leaders.

Jinis held out his arms in the offering gesture. “Welcome to Kynopolis,” he said. “Your weapons and our wealth will combine to make it a city more powerful than any we know. And with the blessing of our father Purgator, we will all live long to enjoy our success.”

He turned to Purgator, who raised his arms to the sky and blessed the army in the name of God the father. The men shouted “Praise him,” and cheered.

“Come, let us enter,” shouted Jinis, when the cheers died down, and he turned and led the way, with Purgator beside him, through the gate. Tankret was leering round with a self-satisfied grin, and Vio shrank back, though she knew he couldn’t see her. When the strangers had gone through, the True Order Guard followed them, with their weapons harmless in their hands. Kynopolis had been handed over to a foreign army without a single gesture of defence.

 

The procession took the road to the marketplace; Vio slipped through the gate after them and ran by back streets to the Palace. When she entered the courtyard an irate cousin came toward her and yelled, “So it was you! How dare you steal my cape!”

Vio looked at his angry face and started to laugh, and then found she couldn’t stop. Someone called her father, and he took her by the shoulders and shook her and her hysterical screeching turned to nervous gulps.

“What’s the matter?” Pepi asked. “What has happened?”

“No one… told you?” gasped Vio.

“No one has told us anything. We’ve heard shouting in the streets.”

“Kynopolis… invaded… ships… Tankret with them… Jinis and Purgator welcomed them into the city,” she said more clearly, as her breath returned.

Pepi led her inside (she threw the cape at the cousin), and she told him all she had seen.

“So that was what they were waiting for,” said Pepi when she finished speaking.

“Why?” asked Vio. “Do you think they didn’t trust the people of the town to get rid of us?”

“They want to be sure they can control them once they’re in power.”

“And are people going to let them hand over the town just like that?”

“I would like to think not,” said Pepi. “They hate us, but I don’t believe they’re all cowards.”

 

Pepi turned out to be right. Citizens who were still faithful to the Goddess and the Queen, and some of those who had been won over by the merchants, too, turned against the rebels when they saw that their town had been betrayed to a strange army. They quickly organised a defence, and for some days there was fighting all over the town. But the invaders were better armed and trained, and it didn’t take them long to suppress their opponents. The figure of Kanipal, the red-haired ogre, seemed to be everywhere, battering the town into submission. And there were townsmen fighting on the invaders’ side.

The spontaneous fighting gave the merchants and Purgator the opportunity to get rid of men and women who were still their enemies. People had been informing on their neighbours, for gain or from fear of the new God, and the True Order Guard went from house to house and killed known devotees of the Goddess or friends of the royal clan.

Vio didn’t leave the Palace again. She had no wish to witness the killing, and what she had seen of the invaders allowed her to imagine only too well the cruelty they would be capable of. When the stories started to come in, from spies and from friends still faithful to Gora, she felt as if she herself was being stabbed in the heart, many times over.

One of the worst stories was the massacre of the port mestizos. There was no way they could hide; their identity was too well known. They all gathered at Karek’s house, together with human relatives and friends who refused to desert them. They piled stones in the courtyard, and when a band of foreign soldiers and enemy townspeople surrounded the house, they used them as weapons. But of course the soldiers overran the house, killed most of the men in hand to hand combat (they also lost several of their own), and murdered some of the women and children. Vio remembered the little girl who had stood at her knee, and the little boy she had held in her arms, and the scene was unbearable to think of. She could only hope they had been among those that had escaped.

Because it was also said that some of them had managed to run away while the fighting was going on, and a boat had taken them down river. Vio hoped it was true. She wanted to hope also that it was Yon’s boat. Gora’s informers told her that Yon had not been seen in the days before the attack at Karek’s house, but Vio was sure he would have done something to help defend his friends. Unless he was already dead in some other fight. There was no news of him at all.

Vio hoped with all her heart he was alive and well somewhere. She missed his friendship, and it was terrible to think that she had not had a chance to make peace with him before it was too late.

The invasion of the Temple was the darkest moment. It seemed that even those evil savages hesitated to violate a Goddess sanctuary, in spite of Purgator’s urging, but finally they took the step. In previous days, rough men from the countryside had arrived in the city, not understanding too well what was happening but ready to defend Kynopolis. In the streets the army ignored them, since they looked stupid and harmless, but one morning they all gathered on the Temple steps. Except for a few cudgels, they were unarmed, but the sight of them infuriated the soldiers. A band of them charged the men with their knives, leaving the steps strewn with dead bodies, and in the heat of the moment they rushed on into the Temple.

After they left there was silence. No one dared to go into the Temple until the True Order Guard appeared. They didn’t hesitate, and came out carrying between them the bloody body of the Priestess, and threw it on the ground in the marketplace. It lay there all day; then, during the night, it disappeared. Vio hoped someone had been brave enough to carry it away for proper burial.

During the night, also, the golden statue of the Goddess on the Temple roof turned black.

 

 

20.  AT THE PALACE

 

Up to now there had been no attack on the Palace. No one had any illusions that the defence the men of the clan could put up would be successful against the foreign soldiers. It was only a matter of dignity. The regular guards that had stood at the gates had been removed, and replaced by foreigners who let no one in or out. It would have been easy for them to invade the Palace at any time. Vio felt as though the clan were all pigs being fattened for a feast, the feast of the Palace massacre.

Standing on the roof one evening, breathing the cooler air of sunset, she saw squat, malevolent Jinis in the street below, laughing with a friend as he stared up at her. Then she understood that this harrowing wait was Jinis’s way of taking further revenge on her and her family. All their enemies must be taking pleasure in knowing how they suffered as they waited for the end.

When the clan had first gathered at the Palace the council had discussed the possibility of a mass escape and come to the conclusion that it was hopeless. There were too many of them, and they had nowhere to go. A few people, lone men and couples, had left without saying anything. No one blamed them. They hoped they were safe at their homes in the countryside or had managed to escape from Kynopolis altogether.

Another council of the clan was held. All the speakers, men and women, agreed that there was nothing left to them but to face their end with dignity. So many people were finding the strain unbearable, that the council decided to ask Gora to prepare suicide tablets. These would give them some control over their death, even if they swallowed them seconds before being impaled on a soldier’s knife.

Gora had been expecting this request, and she had all the ingredients she needed to prepare the tablets. Vio helped her, grinding plants and minerals to a powder in a mortar and mixing them with the contents of one of Gora’s old vials. They didn’t talk much lately, because there was nothing to say. Both of them knew now the end was inevitable and would come soon.

Vio had a surprise, however, on the day when the tablets were distributed. She stood in line like the rest of the clan in the great hall, to receive her tablet from Gora’s hand. Gora explained to all of them the deadliness of the poison. They should wrap their tablets carefully and keep them in their clothes, she said. Once they put them in their mouths, there would be no going back. People nodded; it was what they wanted.

When Vio held out her hand, Gora only pretended to put the tablet in it. She whispered in Vio’s ear, “You are not going to die.” When Vio asked her later what she meant, Gora refused to say any more.

 

A new stage of the ordeal began one morning when a messenger from the merchants escorted Tankret to the Palace. The messenger was a man that Vio had seen before, in Jinis’s company. He was harsh and arrogant and wore a fine white, blue-bordered robe of the kind that only royals had previously used. With him, in his guard’s uniform, was Jalkan, who had the usual sneer on his face.

They strode into the great hall, with Tankret strutting between them, and told Pepi, who hurried to meet them, to call the clan together. Everyone came running.

“I am Olkit,” said the merchant, rudely shoving Melops aside and facing them from the Queen’s end of the hall. “Your time will soon run out, and I for one will be living here in your place. But first I have brought your kinsman to rule over you for a while. That was what we promised him and no one should be able to say we don’t keep our promises.”

He smiled nastily and Jalkan, on the other side of Tankret, was trying not to laugh. Tankret had obviously no idea of their real intention, and was grinning all over his face, actually drooling with pleasure. Olkit and Jalkan held his arms high, and Tankret waited for applause. When none came, he clapped his hands and cheered himself. He had become not just mad but almost mindless, Vio realised.

This was confirmed when Olkit went on speaking and Tankret gave no sign of understanding his words. “Of course he’s been a disappointment to us,” Olkit said. “Purgator thought the town would welcome him. A royal male to replace the useless females. But no one wants him, they say he’s mad. It’s true. He’s very strong but he’s no use to us as a soldier. He doesn’t even recognise who he’s supposed to fight. So I’m happy to leave him to you. You will look after each other.”

This time Jalkan burst out laughing, a horrible, loud, mean sound. He caught sight of Vio and bowed ironically toward her, laughing louder as he and Olkit walked out. At the door Olkit turned to say, “By the way, I must inform you that Queen Katelia is dead.”

This last announcement caused such grief that for some time everyone ignored Tankret. The news was not unexpected, but to be sure that Katelia had died, in exile and ill, perhaps regretting her decision to follow Purgator, was still a blow. Melops sank to the floor and covered his face with his hands. Samal went to sit beside him. Vio couldn’t imagine what he found to say to give him strength, but Melops soon got up and went to comfort his daughter. Tinina looked stunned. It didn’t occur to her to turn to Samal.

Tankret suddenly yelled, “I’m hungry!” Everyone turned to stare at him. “I’m hungry!” Tankret shouted again, and since no one came running with food, he jumped at the nearest group of his relatives and started flailing his arms at them. Someone ran to the kitchen and came back with flat bread and dates, and Tankret began gnawing them like a wild animal.

Vio wondered how ever they were going to live with him, but Gora told her not to worry, his needs were simple and easily satisfied. Gora was right. As long as he was fed he had few other demands, and Gora sometimes put a tranquilliser in his porridge, to keep his temper down. It was true that he was going through their stores at an alarming rate, but he probably wouldn’t be there long. No one would be there long.

Occasionally he was a bit more lucid, and then he wanted to be treated as a prince. A group would form round him in the great hall, where he summoned them with shouts, and bow down to him, touching the floor with their heads. He would smile in a satisfied way, and mutter, “Very good, very good. I’m the ruler now.” And soon he would forget and walk off or call for more food.

One day he recognised Samal and became flustered. “Where’s Ibisia? Where’s Ibisia?” he shouted.

“She’s gone,” Samal said simply.

Tankret’s face puckered and he sniffed. “Gone!” he said. “Poor Ibisia.” A tear actually trickled down his face.

“I pardon you,” he said to Samal. “I don’t know what you did, but it was very wrong. Very wrong. We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Vio could hardly imagine the effort it took her noble brother to say “Yes,” but he did say it and Tankret nodded.

The scene was not repeated and after that he never seemed to recognise anyone in particular. He flinched sometimes when his father came near him, but never called him by name. He became more childish, and if he saw anyone occupied in any task, such as cleaning the floor or making a fan, he would go and grab the tools or spill the water. The Palace servants had left, so the clansmen and women were doing these jobs themselves, and they spent a lot of time dodging Tankret. The kitchen door was kept firmly closed against him.

The manoeuvring became more intense after the clan decided to go through with Tinina’s wedding. It was she herself who asked to be married.

“I’m the Queen now, aren’t I?” she asked Melops in Vio’s presence.

“Yes, you are,” said Melops.

“Then I should be married, shouldn’t I?”

“That has been the custom,” said Melops.

“Well, we should go on with it,” said Tinina peevishly. “I was supposed to be married already. Why shouldn’t I be a proper Queen? ”

Vio could see that even Melops, in spite of his persistence in keeping to the royal conventions, thought it was grotesque for the marriage to take place in the circumstances. But he hesitated to cross Tinina, who in his view was now the Queen, and Samal agreed to go along with it.”

“How can you?” Vio asked him.

“It’s only a rite,” he answered her, sadly. “I won’t touch her, of course.”

So the clan moved busily around, preparing marriage robes from the cloth in the Palace store rooms, concocting wedding dishes with the ingredients they had to hand, all the time keeping out of Tankret’s way.

 

 

21.  THE END OF THE ROYAL CLAN

 

On the day of the wedding, Vio woke early with a strong sense of foreboding. It was impossible for the Palace to have any secrets and they had always been aware that this wedding might provoke a nasty reaction in their enemies; but Vio knew now that what was coming was the end. One look at Gora’s face told her that she felt the same.

“I feel so helpless,” whispered Vio, so as not to wake Tinina..

“Just be as calm as you can,” said Gora.

“Is this how you always feel?” asked Vio.

“Lately, yes. There have been better times,” said Gora, with a shadow of a smile.

“And will there be again?”

“Yes.”

“For Samal too?”

“Don’t make me say it,” said Gora.

Vio went in search of her brother and found him in the top room, where new mats had been laid for the feast, looking out over the roofs of the town. She sat down beside him in the arch of the doorway, and for while neither of them spoke. Vio could tell he also knew it was the end.

Then Samal said, “You mustn’t be so sad, Vio. I always knew what I was doing. I don’t really mind dying.”

“But you should!” Vio burst out.

“Why?” asked Samal, smiling. “This place will go on” – he waved his hand at the town – “but it won’t be my Kynopolis any more. I have played my part.”

“But there are other places,” said Vio, wishing she could just accept what he said and not make him feel worse by insisting.

“For you there are,” said Samal, as calm as ever. “Promise me you will get away. Whatever happens, you must get away.”

“If it makes you feel better, I promise,” said Vio.

They stood up and hugged each other. Vio broke away and ran down the stairs so he wouldn’t see her crying.

After that the rest of the clan was up and about, busy with the final preparations. Gora gave Tankret a strong dose of tranquilliser with his breakfast gruel, and he collapsed on some cushions in the roof room, snoring.

Vio and Gora dressed Tinina in her wedding robe, which was pure white with a gold border, and painted her pretty, empty face.

“I look beautiful, don’t I?” said Tinina, staring at her reflection in her stone mirror, which she polished every day to admire herself. “I’m sure there has never been a more beautiful royal bride. Ibisia wouldn’t have looked nearly as nice.”

“Ibisia was beautiful,” said Gora a bit sharply, which saved Vio from saying something worse. “You are pretty in a different way.”

Tinina pouted. “Well, I am the Queen,” she said.

“You are,” said Gora, “and today you will show us how Queen Tinina can behave.”

Vio wondered what exactly Gora meant. Tinina thought she was paying her a compliment, and she smiled complacently again.

At the arranged hour, other women of the clan came to the room, and they all escorted Tinina up the stairs to the terrace. This was where weddings were traditionally held, in full view of the townspeople, and the clan had decided to keep to the old custom, though to do so amounted to a challenge to their enemies. Tables had been set in the roof room, with crisp snacks in dishes. The men and women of the clan were gathered there and on the terrace, all dressed in the finery they had managed to improvise, the women wearing the jewels they had brought with them when they took refuge at the Palace. Vio knew they all had somewhere, tucked into the folds of their clothes, the tablets Gora had made for them, and the men probably had their knives as well. Tankret was still sprawling on the cushions, completely dead to the world.

Samal, thin and handsome in a rust-coloured tunic with a long white cape over it, was waiting at the stone altar on the terrace, which was heaped with cooked offerings to the gods. Pepi and Amapola were close behind him. Vio joined them as Tinina, led by the hand by Melops, took her place opposite Samal. From where she stood she could see the faces of many of the people who had gathered to witness the latest attempt of the clan to carry on as though they were still ruling. There was a crowd in the street below, many sneering, some merely curious, a few, Vio thought, hiding sorrow.

It was usually the reigning Queen who acted as Priestess at her daughter’s wedding, but in the absence of Katelia Melops’ sister Lunan, who was a priestess at a temple in the countryside, had taken her place. She was tall, with a long, thick plait of greying hair, and she looked very dignified. She stood facing the town across the altar, with Tinina on her left and Samal on her right. She lit the oil lamps on the altar, then raised her arms and chanted a prayer to the Mother, asking for blessings on the marriage. At the end of the prayer the clan started to sing, in wavering voices, the hymn to love. Lunan took Samal’s hand in her own and was reaching for Tinina’s to join them together, when there was a sudden loud disturbance in the courtyard below.

The singing faltered and Lunan lowered her hands, letting go of Samal’s, while a band of rough soldiers, led by gruesome, one-eyed Kanipal, leapt on to the terrace from the outside stairway and surrounded the group at the altar. Vio saw two of the older women of the clan fall as they bit their tablets; but the soldiers were not ready to attack yet.

Kanipal strode to the altar and stood facing the Priestess. He leered at Tinina, and said, in barely comprehensible speech, “The wedding will go on. But I will be the bridegroom.”

He waited for Lunan to continue with the ceremony. Soldiers were holding back Samal and other clansmen who wanted to attack him. Lunan remained silent and erect, and after a moment Kanipal shouted an order to a soldier, who grabbed her and pushed her off the edge of the terrace.

Kanipal snatched up Tinina in his arms and ran down the steps. In those few moments Vio had time to see a look of excited submission come over Tinina’s face, and she couldn’t even pray for her safety.

Immediately the fighting began. Samal was one of the first to be killed, falling over the edge of the terrace when a soldier impaled him on a spear. Vio wondered if he had bitten his tablet and felt less pain. She doubted it; it would probably have seemed weak to him to lose consciousness. Was Samal really dead, and how could such a senseless thing happen? She began to feel numb, unable to take in the horror going on around her, while acting on impulses she was hardly aware of.

She backed up against the wall nearest her, and watched as Melops fought one of the soldiers with his knife. He killed the man, but another stabbed him in the back. Most of the clansmen on the terrace were quickly killed, being no match for the soldiers and their weapons; but Vio saw her father slip away through the roof room, leading her mother by the hand. She hoped he had finally decided he had given enough for the clan.

Before the soldiers could go inside, a strange figure emerged. Tankret, puffy and red from the effects of the drug, with his fringe of long hair matted, and dressed in a shabby robe no one had told him to change for the wedding, stood menacingly in the doorway.

“Traitors!” he yelled. “What are you doing invading my Palace?”

For a moment the fighting stopped. The soldiers were startled, but then they relaxed, some of them actually laughed. Three men went for him. Even so, and although he was wrestling them with his bare hands, he almost got the better of them, but one of them managed to stab him in the side with a knife, and he fell.

The soldiers rushed inside over his body. Vio was the only person left alive on the terrace. Only two of the dead were soldiers and there were as many women as men. No mercy here. Gora slipped out on to the terrace and took Vio’s arm.

“Hurry,” she said. “We must move now.”

There was no one left in the roof room either; they had all fled downstairs with the soldiers after them. Gora led Vio to the darkest corner of the room where there were two big chests, told her to get inside one of them and climbed into the other herself. The chest smelled strange, and Vio knew Gora had put powerful spells on it. She could hear more fighting downstairs, and screaming. Another band of men must have entered the Palace by the front door and cut off some of the escaping clan. Soon she heard footsteps on the stairs and in the room itself.

“There’s no one left here,” said a townsman’s voice.

“Then where did they all get to?” asked another, familiar voice. Jalkan! In spite of her numbness, Vio felt terror; but Gora’s spell was strong. They didn’t look in the chests.

“Here they are,” someone called from the terrace. “On the terrace and a lot of them fell off.” Jalkan evidently went outside to see for himself. “Samal! Melops!” he shouted. “The big bastards! A good job!” he said, as he came back.

“It’s a pity for this food to be wasted,” someone else said.

“Help yourselves,” said Jalkan.

There was a noise of chewing and trampling for some moments, and then the footsteps receded again down the inside stairs.

Vio and Gora stayed in the chests for what seemed like a very long time. At first they went on hearing blows and screams from below, but then there was silence. When they emerged, they had to stretch their arms and legs until they could move normally again. The bodies were still lying on the terrace and the roof room was strewn with scraps of food from the altar and the tables. The wall paintings were splashed with blood.

They went cautiously downstairs, but there was no one alive in the building. The True Order Guard had finished its slaughter and gone. Some people had got away, they realised.  The men and women here were not the whole clan. Pepi and Amapola were not among the dead.

Many dead bodies, however, were lying on the stairs, in the great hall, in the entrance, and in the big kitchen. The hunt had been fierce. Some had been bashed on the head or stabbed, while others, who must have bitten their tablets, were apparently unharmed. The jewels the women had been wearing had gone. The dishes cooked for the marriage feast had been eaten, and the clay pots smashed on the ground. The flagons of wine, all that had been left in the Palace cellar, were empty. Screams seemed to echo still in the ominous silence.

While they were looking at the bodies, trying to work out who might still be alive, they heard voices at the Palace door. They shrank back into the shadows in the hall – it was nearly dusk – and saw entering a small group of humans led by Anil.

“Vio!” he called loudly. “Vio, are you there?”

Vio came out of the shadows and ran to meet him. “I’m here,” she said. “How did you know?”

“I didn’t know, I only hoped,” he said, giving her a quick hug. “No one saw you leave. You weren’t among the bodies.”

“So people have been here looking for us?”

“Some friends came just now. They found Samal.” Anil blinked away tears.

“Yes,” said Vio. Her feelings were frozen.

“I came to search again and help you escape,” said Anil. “It’s good that Gora’s with you. Come on. We must hurry.”

“What’s happening in the town?” asked Gora as they left the hall.

“They’re celebrating in the market-place. The soldiers and the True Order Guard are all drunk. Purgator is furious, but they don’t listen to him. Only when he tells them to kill.”

“Come on!” said one of Anil’s friends, and they all slipped quickly across the courtyard, through the Palace gate, and round the wall in the direction of the Dog Gate. Darkness was closing in fast.

“Where are we going?” Vio asked Anil as they walked.

“We’re taking you to a hut outside town. The people there love you. They remember you going there with Yon.”

“Did Yon tell you about that?” asked Vio.

“Yes. Quite a while ago. I remembered and I thought they might help. I’ve talked to them.”

“So you haven’t seen Yon lately?” asked Vio.

“I haven’t seen him for a long time,” said Anil. “I’m afraid he must be dead. If not, he would have been in touch. He would have been here to help you today.”

“Yes,” said Vio, but she couldn’t think about Yon being dead. There was too much to bear already.

They passed through the Dog Gate and Vio said a wordless goodbye to Kynopolis. They went down a silent alley between the poor mud huts outside the wall, and right at the end they saw a house a little apart from the rest with a lamp burning inside its one room.

“That’s it,” said Anil. “You will be safe there for tonight.”

A skinny, ageing man came out of the door as they approached, followed by his wife. Vio recognised her as the grandmother of the dead baby. The man said to Vio, with a formality that sounded odd in the circumstances, “Welcome to our poor home. All that is in it is yours.” And he stood aside for Vio and Gora to enter.

In better days his generosity would have brought tears to Vio’s eyes, but now she thought all her tears had dried up, forever. She answered the man with equal courtesy, “I thank you. I need only to rest a little, and my companion, Gora, as well.”

“But then what are you going to do?” asked the man, his genuine concern overcoming correctness.

Vio didn’t know the answer to that, and she turned to Gora.

“We’re going on a long journey,” said Gora.

“Do you know where to?” asked Anil, from the doorway. “If not, I have an idea for getting you away.”

“You can get us away from the town,” said Gora, “but after that I know where to go. We will return to where I came from.”

“To the home of the Lupaka?” asked Anil; and Vio thought, Of course, why didn’t I know it?

Gora answered her unspoken question. “I have known for some time now you and I would be going to the Navel,” she said. “But you had to live your life here to its end.”

“I don’t want any other life,” Vio exclaimed, suddenly catching a glimpse of the pain behind her numb feelings.

“Quiet, girl,” said Gora. “Rest now.”

Anil’s friends passed the old man a basket and a water bottle, then joined their hands to salute Vio and Gora and walked quietly away.

“Don’t you think you should eat something?” asked Anil.

“No thank you,” said Vio. “ Just some water.”

She drank the gourd full of water the old woman held out to her and lay down on a clean mat that had been placed for her against the back wall of the hut. Gora gave her a few drops of a potion she had in her pouch, and for a little while she listened to the voices as Anil, Gora, and their hosts  – with a younger man who joined them – made plans for the morning.

Then the sleeping draught began to have its effect on her. Neither asleep nor awake, she saw herself walking once again up to the walls of Kynopolis. There was shouting going on inside, and she heard the echo of footsteps all around, but she couldn’t see any people. No one noticed her either, and she made her way to the marketplace. Here, suddenly, she could see the teeming figures. A holy man who resembled Purgator was lying dead on the stones. The Temple was deserted, the figures on the roof broken, but on the steps a man in a brightly coloured, gaudily decorated tunic was haranguing a crowd of idle, vulgar men and women. Vio couldn’t hear his words, but she knew they were ugly. With a great effort, she forced herself to return to the hut where in her real life she was lying on the ground; but immediately she sank again into another half-waking dream.

Again she walked up to the wall of the town. The Dog figure on the pillar at the gate was partly effaced and there were gaps in the stones. She entered and the streets were silent. The Palace was a heap of fallen rubble. As she made her way toward the marketplace, a rabbit looked out at her from its burrow at the base of an old earth wall; she looked round and the town was full of rabbits. There was no one in the marketplace. The Temple still stood, but its walls were leaning, and part of the roof had fallen in. Vio peered inside, and the stone statue of the Goddess was standing on the altar, weather-beaten but still raising its arms to the sky. Vio felt strangely comforted, and, as she let go of her fear, she was lifted by a warm wind and carried away to drift over the ruins of the town, swooping and circling like a lazy bird, watching while the sands of the surrounding desert blew in and covered what was left of Kynopolis.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*


6 + three =

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>