SAMAL

11. VICTORY

 

 

There were no immediate repercussions. Vio knew neither Jinis nor Jalkan would forget the insult to their family pride, but for the moment they did nothing to avenge it. Perhaps because the merchant class was not as strong and threatening as it had recently appeared to be. Most people, especially at the port, were still loyal to the Queen. The merchants were not ready for violence. They couldn’t even agree among themselves on what they wanted, Pepi said. Some wanted a share of power, while others, including Jinis, wanted to get rid of the Queen and the royal clan.

Samal and Vio were pleased they could concentrate on sailing with a clear conscience, knowing that it helped their family’s reputation. The day after the quarrel with Jalkan, the crew had to face the problem of how to replace him. Of course he wouldn’t go on sailing with them now.

“Why don’t we try to persuade Yon?” said Keni.

“That’s what I’d like,” said Vio. “But would it be fair? His own crew are counting on him.”

“Then who else is there?” said Keni.

“I know people who’d like to join us,” said Soteps, “But they haven’t had much experience. They’d be a risk.”

“What do you think, Sami?” asked Keni, since Samal hadn’t said anything.

“I hoped one of you would think of it,” said Samal. “We should get Tankret to join us.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Vio said, “But that’s crazy. He’s never sailed, and what happens if he has a fit of rage?”

“He doesn’t have fits any more,” said Samal. “And he’s very strong. He’ll be so happy he’ll behave himself, I promise. We’ll just let him row.”

“You want this to be the royal boat?” asked Anil?

“If that’s all right with all of you, yes,” said Samal. “Not officially, of course, but it would make the family look good.”

“Then we’d better win,” said Anil, and they all agreed, laughing.

It didn’t seem so funny for a few days after that, as Tankret failed to control his oar and his great strength made the boat swerve in all directions. Then he got the hang of it, and pulled well; and the pleasure on his ugly face as he watched for her directions gave Vio a glimpse of why Ibisia was so patient with him. He was an overgrown baby.

 

When the day of the race finally arrived, Vio’s crew was a precision unit. They watched the other boats as they sailed down to the starting point, beyond the built-up banks of the port. Most of them were like Yon’s, ordinary fishing-boats, but their crews were men with bulging arms and torsos and years of experience on the river. Yon and his men waved to them and they waved back. The champions were the rivals they most had to fear. They had only seen them in the distance before, tacking expertly up river. Studying them, Vio noticed that several of them were hairier than usual and had long ears. Port mestizos! Vio felt an immediate sympathy with them. Their new boat was slim and sleek and seemed to glide with no effort from the crew.

“It looks challenging, doesn’t it?” said Samal.

“But its figurehead is a bull,” said Anil. “Bulls are no good in the water.”

“And what about a crocodile?” said Soteps, as a strange boat pushed off from the bank ahead to join the fleet.

The boat was an unexpected arrival. All the crews were turning to stare, surprised. It was big, and its timbers had been blackened, and the figure of a crocodile with a gaping mouth rose at its bow. Vio and her crew heard the shout “pirates” go up all round them. The men on board the boat were rough, with long, matted hair. The person standing at the mast, they saw as the boat came purposefully up beside them, was a woman.

“You have company at last,” said Keni to Vio.

“Good,” she said. “The pirates have some sense.” She waved to the woman, who grinned and waved back.

And then one of the oarsmen turned his face in their direction, with a defiant stare. Jalkan.

Vio’s first thought was that he had chosen an intelligent way to take revenge, and expected to beat her, but she immediately realised he was not there in a sporting spirit. His face was full of hate. Samal and the others had become tense.

“You’ll have to watch out for them,” Samal said to Vio.

“I will, don’t worry,” said Vio.

The boats had reached the starting point, in a rough line across the river. The horn sounded and the race began. Samal and Vio had the sail up in moments, and the Kingfisher drew away. The boats had to sail twenty spans down river, turn at a comparatively narrow point, and race back up against the current to the Bull Temple. It soon became clear that the Kingfisher and the Bull, the champions’ boat, both built for speed, had a great advantage over all the other working boats. By skill in tacking, several of the fishing boats, including Yon’s, kept up with them till beyond the Temple, but by the time they came to the turning point, the Kingfisher and the Bull were out on their own. The boats seemed to be equally fast, the crews equally well co-ordinated, and if it hadn’t been for the presence of the pirate boat the race would have been sheer excitement for all of them. The pirate boat was nowhere in sight. It was too heavy to keep up with them, Vio thought. And Jalkan must know that. So if he didn’t intend to defeat her by winning the race, what did he intend to do?

That became clear when they came towards the bend into the Temple straight. The pirates and Jalkan had turned their boat round and were moving slowly up the middle of the stream against the strong current. As the Kingfisher approached, with the Bull on her left, the pirates speeded up into the bend, as if they were ahead in the race, and went on turning across the Kingfisher’s bow, trying to push her toward the right bank. But Vio shouted to the oarsmen to pull sharp left, and jumped to help Samal turn the sail. The manoeuvre worked, only just, but it worked. The Kingfisher shot past the pirates on the left, with a hand’s breadth to spare.

Vio righted their course and they sped ahead, crossing the finish line half a length before the Bull. The crowd waiting on the quay and banks cheered wildly. The crew yelped and laughed with relief. Tankret especially was grinning like a madman, until the pirate boat sailed calmly past them and then his face was transformed with fury. Samal told him to take it easy. The pirate crew, led by the woman, were cheering Vio, and Vio couldn’t help laughing. Jalkan must have paid them well for what they’d done.

Then she saw Jalkan’s face, and she suddenly felt cold inside. For the first time she was really afraid of what he might do to hurt her and her people. He was a man possessed by hate. And she had defeated him again.

But now it was time to go ashore and receive the crown of victory at the Temple. As the boys rowed to the quay, Vio thought over the last moments of the race and understood something.

“The Bull let us win,” she whispered to Samal. “We couldn’t have made up the time we lost dodging.”

“I know,” Samal whispered back. “But if they want it that way, we’ll keep it to ourselves.”

Karek, the captain of the Bull, held out his hand to help Vio jump to the quay, and as she took it she saw clearly his likeness to the men of the royal clan.

“Why did you let us win?” she murmured to him, as they walked up to the Temple.

He glanced at her and saw it was useless to lie. “Because we couldn’t let those bastards get away with what they did. And because we’re on your side. This victory will be good for you.”

“Thank you, kinsman,” said Vio. “But next time I hope to beat you fairly.”

“We’ll try it soon,” said Karek, surprised and pleased.

Vio, as captain of the winning boat, stood in front of the Priestess on the Temple steps and was crowned with a wreath of lotuses. Karek also received a garland for second place. The Priestess recited a prayer for prosperity and happiness, and Vio and Karek turned to the crowd, which started to cheer. The two crews joined them on the steps and Vio took Tankret’s arm and held it high. The cheers went on and on.

Finally Vio and Karek turned away and entered the Temple to offer their wreaths on the Bull’s altar. Tankret, carried away by the new experience of success, followed them and tripped over an uneven flagstone in the dim light. He swore loudly once, and then restrained himself, but Vio couldn’t help feeling the little incident was a bad omen. The dark stone Bull seemed to gaze at her severely from his altar.

 

For some time after this, however, nothing but good luck seemed to come the way of the royals. Katelia and Ibisia recovered their good humour, and began to appear in public, walking with their maids to the temple, and they charmed everyone. Samal suggested to Tankret that he should build in the Queen’s name a stadium for the traditional sports of running and wrestling.

An area outside the walls, between the Dog and Boar gates, was flattened, and work began on building stone tiers of seats all round it. So that the stadium could be used in the mean time, wooden grandstands were erected. It was inaugurated in the presence of the Queen and her daughters, escorted by Melops, who looked relieved and proud. Athletes came to race from near and far; and Tankret won the wrestling contest on that day without any cheating at all. He became a popular figure.

The Kingfisher and the Bull raced against each other over the same course and the Bull won. But Vio challenged them to another race, and the Kingfisher won, fairly this time. The race between the two boats became a regular event, with people betting on the outcome. Other crews were inspired to streamline their boats for racing, and joined in the contests. Vio was thrilled to see women on the boats.

Another woman rode in a horse race, and women began to appear in the stadium as well, first a pair of them and then more. They raced against each other and against the males too, and one of them, Agilo, a tall, sinewy woman from a remote country place, won the open race at the new Gazelle Games for the Third Moon Festival.

Vio thought the good old times might be returning.

 

 

12.  SAMAL

 

Vio celebrated her sixteenth moon day. For the first time that day she felt really interested in her appearance. She wore a long green robe, piled her hair on top of her head, and got Gora to paint her face lightly. Her hazel eyes sparkled and her long nose looked both delicate and regal. When she entered the front hall, there were loud exclamations from family and friends gathered there, especially the boat’s crew. Yon, who had hesitated to come, lowered his eyes as if it hurt him to look at her.

I’ve caused so much trouble as a woman already, Vio said to herself, and it’s only now I’m beginning to feel like one.

“And is this beautiful young lady the Vio that sails with us?” asked Anil, as she joined the crew. “Will she still want to play around with boats?”

“Of course I will, you idiot,” said Vio. “But I’ll get dressed up sometimes too. I’ve decided it’s fun. The food is in the garden.” And she went to greet her relatives, playing her role as hostess. The party was a success.

 

Gora said she’d better learn to make herself up, and to prepare the paints and potions a woman needed.

“What potions?” asked Vio.

“There are some to snare men,” said Gora, “but perhaps you won’t need those. And some to stop you getting pregnant, and some to put off ageing. You won’t think now that you need them but learn them anyway.”

Vio felt she was entering new territory, but once she’d made up her mind to go ahead, she knew she belonged there. She felt very much at home indeed.

“I’m teaching you all this,” said Gora, “because it’s part of our tradition. But you’ll have to be careful how you use it. This is not a good time for women.”

“How can you say that?” exclaimed Vio. “Haven’t you seen what’s been happening lately? Women are doing all kinds of things.”

“Yes,” said Gora. “It’s nice to see, but I’m afraid it won’t last.”

Vio realised that she had spent too little time with her old nurse over the last few moons. Gora visited many houses in her work as a doctor, and people talked to her about their problems and worries. She knew what was happening in the town; and at the same time she used her divining techniques.

“What have you been seeing, Gora?” she asked. “Are the dark clouds still there?”

“The dark clouds are there and they are bigger and darker than ever. I recognise faces among them now.”

“Jalkan?” asked Vio.

“Jalkan. You have not got rid of him. And Jinis is just biding his time.”

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Vio burst out unhappily.

“I am not blaming you,” said Gora. “Fate is at work. There are other clouds too.”

“Tankret,” said Vio, remembering an old insight.

“Yes, Tankret. Don’t be deceived by the change in him now. He is not working for the Queen, as Samal thinks he is.”

“Samal is too noble,” said Vio. “He can’t understand treachery in others.”

“Dear Samal,” said Gora, sighing. “You’re right. And Tankret is not exactly a traitor. He doesn’t understand anything except his own selfish desires. And he likes the treatment he’s been getting lately.”

“Oh, dear,” said Vio. “It’s Ibisia we should make into a heroine.”

“She wouldn’t let you,” said Gora. “She is like her mother, too weak and nice to be a Queen.”

“And the clan are behaving badly still, aren’t they?”

“Yes. Katelia should be keeping them under control, but she doesn’t know how. They’ve been taking land from the peasants. And of course people blame the Queen too for the high prices the merchants are charging. The merchants tell them it’s because of Palace taxes.”

“Do you think this means the end of the royal family?” asked Vio.

“It will mean the end of the Queens,” said Gora.

“What went wrong?” asked Vio.

“What is wrong is obvious,” said Gora. “It’s why it’s happened I don’t understand. It’s as if the Goddess has decided to let us do our worst.”

 

After this conversation, Vio looked at her world with changed eyes. She lost her happy excitement in the victories of the royals, and sailed in the races just for the fun of it. Sometimes she took risks, letting the boat lean over almost on to the water, that made Samal frown at her, though for her they were part of her understanding with the wind.

Her mother was surprised and pleased when she asked to have more fine clothes made for her. She liked to spend time in her room, dressing up in them and painting her face in front of the polished stone mirror set in her wall, and hanging gold or silver earrings in her long, fine ears. She recognised that she had a beautiful face, and looked forward to seeing the effect of her beauty on other men. She didn’t want to cause the kind of pain she had given Yon, and perhaps, if she was honest, Jalkan as well, but she knew, without knowing how she knew, that her charms could give her an advantage in a kind of game that she would enjoy playing.

More often now, she had moments when she glimpsed future events. In her mirror faces would come and go behind hers, too fast for her to seize their features clearly, though she thought some of them were Lupaka. Sometimes they seemed to smile, but more often they brought with them a sense of doom that Vio didn’t understand and had to make an effort to shake off. And Gora’s dark clouds were there too, closing in. A happy image that appeared several times, quite clearly, was a tall tree, unlike any that grew at Kynopolis, with a mass of yellow flowers. Vio had no idea what that might mean.

At the Palace, Ibisia had also discovered she was no longer a girl but a woman, and Vio’s new interest in clothes gave them something to talk about again. They spent happy moments together trying on each other’s robes, and Vio taught Ibisia some of Gora’s recipes for face paints. She didn’t teach her the potions; she knew they were not for Ibisia. Ibisia was receiving her own training now, lessons in law and ceremony that she would need when she became Queen.

Tankret, when he noticed this, protested.

“Why is she studying law,” he asked his mother at lunch. “She’s not going to need that. Can’t you see the people want me to rule them?”

“Ibisia is my heir,” said Katelia.

“Ibisia loves me. She won’t stand in my way,” said Tankret, beginning to get annoyed.

“Oh dear,” thought Vio, seeing how Melops tensed and glowered. “It’s starting again.”

But Samal distracted Tankret by saying, “Eat up, the wrestlers will be waiting for us.”

“Right,” said Tankret, smirking. “They’re waiting for a beating, eh?”

Ibisia’s tutors were kept out of Tankret’s sight, and peace continued for a few more moons.

 

The slide toward disaster began in a way that Vio had never imagined.

“Let’s go and sit in the garden,” Samal said to her one evening after dinner.

“There’ll be mosquitoes,” said Vio.

“They’re not too bad just now. I want to talk to you.”

She followed him round the house, into the garden that sloped down to the river, and sat on the grass with him, watching the water flow smoothly past the bank as he gave her the news that she immediately knew would destroy her world.

He began by asking her, “Are you still so set against marriage?”

“Certainly,” said Vio. “Why?” And then she glanced at him and guessed what he was going to tell her. “Are you going to get married?”

“I think so,” said Samal.

“Well, you’ve always been a good boy, haven’t you?” said Vio, affectionately. “You’re still young, but if you like the girl I suppose it may as well be now. We’ll still do things together, won’t we?”

“Of course,” said Samal.

A hesitation in his voice told Vio that there was something more troubling to come.

“Who is the girl?” she asked.

“Ibisia. They want me to marry Ibisia”

Vio went cold all over. “That’s mad,” she burst out. “Who wants you to marry her?”

“Katelia and Melops. And Papa and Mama have agreed. So that Ibisia can become Queen without any protests. The people like me.”

“The people love you,” said Vio, “but that’s not the point. What about Tankret?”

“I’m Tankret’s friend. They think he’ll accept me as Ibisia’s consort.”

“And what do you think?” asked Vio.

“I know he’s fond of me. It might work.”

“Sami, listen to me,” Vio pleaded. “Tankret adores you because you bring him what he wants. All his successes are due to you. But just because he’s so sure you’re his friend, he’ll be frantic if you say you’ll marry Ibisia. And there’ll be no one to control him. Without you, no one can manage him.”

“I don’t see why he should be so upset.”

“Sami, don’t play dumb. He’s never given up the idea of becoming ruler after Katelia, and he’ll think you’re taking his place. And he’ll be jealous, too. Ibisia is his special ally.”

“I don’t think that will matter, Vio.”

“So you’ve decided to do it. You’re just letting me know.”

“I suppose so, yes. I have to try to help to save the queendom.”

“But…” said Vio, and stopped. She knew it was useless. Samal couldn’t see what she saw, and he would do what he considered his duty. She remained silent, and Samal didn’t know what else to say either, because he got up and went into the house. Vio went on sitting in the garden as it got dark, ignoring the stings of the mosquitoes, turning the situation over in her mind, and the more she thought the worse it looked to her. Unhappiness would come to everyone. She even felt a little bit sorry for moronic Tankret, who would see his world collapse too.

 

The next day Vio went to the Palace, intending to talk to Ibisia. She knew Ibisia would obey her parents if they insisted, but with her help they might persuade Katelia and Melops that the marriage plan was dangerous. Ibisia had always tried to avoid offending Tankret. But Vio got another surprise. Her cousin, when she joined her in the roof room, was looking happy and lively.

“Vio,” she exclaimed, getting up to meet her. “Has Sami told you the news? I’m so happy. I’ve always liked Sami, and now we’ll be sisters, won’t we?”

“Yes, dear,” said Vio, hugging her. It could have been a happy marriage, she thought, if the times had not changed. Ibisia and Samal would have made a fine royal couple and they would all have gone on being friends. She liked Ibisia.

“You must help me design my wedding robe,” said Ibisia. “It must be really special.”

“Of course,” said Vio, and her heart was sinking further every moment. “What colour do you think the border should be?”

They discussed robes for a while, and all the time Vio was thinking, But this is madness. And yet she couldn’t break into Ibisia’s eager mood to say what she had come to say. It would be useless, anyway, and only turn Ibisia against her. Only at the end of their talk, when Vio was leaving, she asked, quite casually, “Does Tankret know yet?”

“No,” said Ibisia calmly, as if it was of no particular importance. “We thought we’d let him know with everyone else, when we announce it at the High Sun Festival.”

Vio ran home to talk to Gora. Gora was in her kitchen, preparing some medicines. She looked at Vio, who was on the verge of tears, and told her to sit down. She wouldn’t let her speak till she had given her a bowl of herb tea, and then she said, “I know what’s upsetting you. Samal told me too.”

“Is he mad?” asked Vio, though she was feeling a bit calmer. “Are they all mad? How can they be so blind?”

“What you are feeling,” said Gora, “is helplessness in the face of what we call destiny. You can see but they are behaving like puppets.”

“Is that supposed to console me?” asked Vio.

“No,” said Gora, “It’s something you’ll have to get used to. And at the moment it’s your love for Samal as much as your vision that’s telling you he’s trapped.”

“But if people woke up in time, couldn’t he be saved?”

If,” said Gora. “But that’s the point. It doesn’t look as if they will.”

“They’re like butterflies flying into a storm,” said Vio.

“Exactly like that,” said Gora.

 

 

13.  TANKRET

 

In the mean time life seemed to continue as usual. Vio didn’t try to discuss the marriage with Samal again. Samal saw Ibisia only with the rest of the family. He spent most of his time with Tankret, who practised his wrestling against anyone who would take him on. Vio didn’t much like wrestling, but one day she wanted to spend some time with Samal, even though they were finding it difficult to talk to each other, and she told him she would like to watch a fight.

“Are you sure?” asked Samal. “What you see may not be pretty.”

“Never mind,” said Vio. “I have a strong stomach.”

But sitting on a worn bench in the town gymnasium she wondered if she had been wrong about her ability to stand the sight of physical violence. The crowd surrounding her were rough-looking people, all human (the clansmen were too snobbish to come to a place like this, she thought) and nearly all men, and they looked as though violence was what they wanted. There were some women in the crowd too, and Vio wondered what sort of woman would watch wrestling, until she remembered that someone could be asking the same about her, which made her smile at herself.

Tankret quickly flattened the first contender, a young man who looked too thin to have much strength. He was carried away unconscious. Tankret was huge, not fat but bulging with muscles, and more ungainly to Vio’s eye than ever. He moved very fast, however, and his whole strength went into every blow, whether with fist, heel or head. He was frightening.

The next man who offered to fight him was obviously a sailor, with a weather-beaten face and torso and scars on his face and shoulder. He was strong, and for a moment Tankret looked surprised at the blows he received – almost, thought Vio, as if the child was going to come out of him and say “It’s not fair” – but he soon reacted and grabbed the sailor in a strangle-hold. The sailor managed to break the hold, but Tankret took advantage of the man’s own impulse to send him against the stone wall of the gymnasium and the sailor came back reeling, with blood streaming from his nose. Tankret’s face was a grim mask now, and he started hitting the man like a mindless demon. When the man was too exhausted to defend himself any longer, Tankret picked him up, squeezed him as if to expel all life from him, and threw him away like a straw doll.

The spectators applauded their hero wildly and Tankret raised his arms with a proud and carefree smile. Samal went to the fallen man and felt his pulse. Vio was glad that Samal did not seem to be enjoying the performance. This also must be part of his effort to save the royal family. She watched as the sailor stirred and Samal helped him to sit up; then she waved to Samal and slipped away.

 

Tankret had also decided to learn to ride. One day Samal told Vio to go with him to the stables of the “royal horses”, and she found Storm there.

“Do you recognise her?” asked Samal.

“Of course,” said Vio. “So Jinis didn’t want her any more.”

“He sold her for a high price. He’s too busy to bother with racing now.”

Vio put her arms around the mare’s neck and Storm nuzzled her in return. Vio felt like crying. She wished everything in life could be as simple as the love of a horse.

“Do you like her?” asked Tankret, seeing her hug the mare. “You can have her if you want her. She’s too tame for me. I like a horse that plays up. Watch!”

And he vaulted on to the back of a tall, coarse, chestnut stallion, which reared up and pranced, snorting, in circles.

“How often does he fall off?” Vio asked Samal.

“Every day. But he doesn’t get hurt.”

“Crocodile skin,” said Vio, using a port expression. She couldn’t help wishing he would fall off and cripple himself. That, she thought, would remove the threat that was hanging over them.

 

But nothing changed, and the day of the High Sun Festival came round.

The whole royal clan gathered at the Palace, to celebrate the anniversary of the meeting of their ancestors Polon and Kantalisia. Vio wore one of her new robes, green with a red border, and was kept busy greeting her clan aunts, uncles and cousins and receiving their compliments on her appearance. Her elegance surprised them all, she realised. They must have told each other she would never grow up. All the women of the clan were in colourful robes, and the men in fine linen tunics. As a group they were good-looking, Vio thought, with the long, mobile faces and graceful gestures they inherited from the Lupaka. The more human-featured ones were handsome too, well-formed mestizos. Only Tankret, out of the whole clan, was monstrous.

A ceremony was performed at the altar on the terrace, to thank the Goddess for her blessings and pray for her support for the clan in the coming year. Katelia tended the flame in the golden bowl and recited the prayers with dignity. A crowd had gathered in the street below, and when Katelia released the blue doves, signalling the end of the ceremony, they cheered loudly. The royal family had not been so popular for many years.

They went back downstairs to the great hall, and took their places on the mats while servants carried in the dishes for a feast. Vio sat down with her family at the Queen’s end of the hall, opposite Tankret, so that she could watch his reactions. Samal was at Melops’ left, Ibisia on her mother’s right, with the rest of the family close by. The clan was hungry, and Katelia gave the signal for them to start eating.

Just as well, thought Vio to herself. If they’d made the announcement first, all this food would have been wasted. She asked herself, then, if she was being too fearful; but one look at Tankret’s stupid face, as he chomped on a piece of meat with his mouth open, renewed her feeling of alarm. She couldn’t eat anything.

When most of the dishes were empty and people had washed their hands in bowls of water brought round by the servants, Melops stood up.

“Katelia has a very important announcement to make to you,” he said, as the voices died down.

He helped Katelia to her feet, and she held out her arms to them all, offering happy news. “This is a particularly auspicious day,” she said, “to announce the engagement of my daughter and heir. Ibisia is going to marry Samal.”

People began to applaud and shout congratulations. Samal and Ibisia stood up and acknowledged the applause. Ibisia and her mother exchanged embraces, Samal was given a hearty hug by Melops, and then Ibisia and Samal held out their arms to each other. But at that point Tankret erupted.

Vio was watching him when he heard the announcement. He was looking contented and well fed, and not at all curious about what Katelia was going to say. It took a while for the words to penetrate the haze in his head. Then his expression went from confusion, to disbelief, to indignation, to ugly, white-hot fury in a few moments. He gathered himself together, like a wild animal about to spring. Without thinking, Vio jumped up and screamed, “No!” but it was too late for anyone to react. Tankret leapt, roaring, toward Ibisia, shoved his mother aside, and grabbed his sister by the arm.

Ibisia went deathly pale and pulled her arm away. Tankret transferred his attention to Samal, who was trying to grab hold of him, and gave Samal a blow on the chin that laid him out. Melops tried to intervene, but Tankret hit him in the stomach and he collapsed without breath. Tankret had not become a champion fighter for nothing, thought Vio, watching the scene as if in slow motion and with a strange lack of feeling.

Before anyone else could try to stop him, Tankret picked up Ibisia in his arms and ran down the middle of the hall, trampling on the remains of the feast, and out into the courtyard. His chestnut stallion was tied up in the shade of the wall. Vio didn’t see this part, but the first guests who followed him out of the hall reported that Tankret slung Ibisia across the horse’s shoulders, vaulted on himself, and galloped away with her. The guards were surprised at the sight, but they opened the gate at his order.

Confusion had broken out inside the hall. Everyone was shouting; many were weeping. Katelia was sobbing, Samal and Melops slowly getting up, still stunned.

Vio suddenly heard her father’s voice, “Help me, Vio.” Her mother had fainted. Vio helped Pepi pick her up and carry her outside through the agitated crowd to lie her on the steps. Someone handed Vio a palm fan to give her some cool air.

Amapola opened her eyes, and Pepi said, “Samal’s all right.”

“I want to go home,” said Amapola, and Pepi and Vio slowly helped her up and led her away, supporting her between them.

No one spoke for a while, then Pepi said, “Your mother didn’t want the marriage. I should never have let Katelia convince her.”

“I didn’t want it either,” said Vio.

“I know,” said Pepi. “I thought it was Gora’s fears affecting you too. I will listen to you all in future.”

Vio wondered if the future would give him a chance to do that, but she didn’t say so. Her parents were upset enough.

She and Pepi returned to the Palace later in the evening, when Amapola had recovered and was resting in Gora’s care. The feast had been cleared away. Many men and women of the clan were still there, to keep the Queen company as she waited for news of Ibisia and Tankret. Melops had sent guards and servants out in all directions into the countryside, on horseback and on foot, leading one group himself.

The whole of that night they waited, and there was no news. Late the next morning a rider came in and reported that he had found the chestnut stallion, running loose in wild terrain down river, but seen no sign of Tankret or Ibisia. Katelia had become a timid, helpless woman again, and wept silently nearly all the time. Melops returned, looking ten years older overnight. Of all of them, thought Vio, he should have known what a risk they were taking with the engagement, and she was unable to feel sorry for him. Samal had also returned with a search party and was sitting by himself, with his head bowed. Vio didn’t know what to say to him.

To escape the tension in the hall, she climbed up to the terrace. The wide view of roofs, river and fields momentarily raised her heavy heart, until she realised there was a crowd down in the street, staring at her. It was not the same crowd as the day before, or if they were the same people their mood had changed entirely. They looked disapproving, even aggressive toward the inhabitants of the Palace. Tankret’s flight with Ibisia must have been seen, and the word had spread. But were the people really so fickle, turning so fast against their idols of the day before, or had Jinis and his allies, whoever they were, already stepped in to take advantage of the situation? In any case, Vio didn’t like the look of the crowd, and she went back inside.

The day passed with no further news, and some of the waiting relatives went home, slipping away without saying anything to Katelia. What was there to say? Vio lay down and slept on the mats in the roof room, as she had done sometimes as a child. The next day also went by, very slowly. Members of the family wandered in and out, aimlessly.

Finally, at dusk, someone shouted outside in the courtyard, “Tankret’s coming,” and a moment later he limped into the hall, followed by the guards that had found him. He was barefoot and filthy, he had a bump on his grotesque head, and bruises were visible down one arm and side. He grinned a bit sheepishly at the relatives still waiting, as if half expecting a welcome. His smile turned to a peevish frown when Melops shouted at him, “Where’s Ibisia?”

“I don’t know where she is, the naughty girl,” he said. “I punished her. She should have known she belonged to me, and instead she wanted to get married. I had to punish her, didn’t I?”

“Where did you leave her?” asked Melops, controlling his anger and panic. Katelia was sobbing out loud and the rest of the clan held their breath.

“That was the first night. The next day she was not well. I put her on the horse to go and look for water, but he saw a snake and bolted and I dropped her. He ran a long way with me, and I couldn’t stop him, but in the end I fell off too. Look at my bruises.”

“Where was it you left Ibisia?” Melops repeated, and Tankret tossed his head, irritated. “She shouldn’t have left me, the silly girl,” he said. Then, saner for a moment, he went on, “She fell off near a shrine in a gully. I was too sore to go back for her. I didn’t know the way. I hit my head when I fell.”

Melops’ ordered two guards to take Tankret away and shut him up in a cell at the back of the Palace. He asked if anyone present knew of a place like that, a shrine in a gully down river, and no one did. But someone called an odd, shy cousin who liked to explore the territory of Kynopolis and had been all the way to the sea, and when he heard the description he said he had an idea where the place might be. It was quite far, he said. Melops sent him with a group to search for it. Samal wanted to go but Melops persuaded him to wait at the Palace in case Ibisia was brought in from somewhere else. It was already dark and the search party was on foot, so Vio knew there would be another long wait.

At last, when day had already broken, the group returned, carrying Ibisia on a stretcher they had made of two branches and their capes. They laid her carefully on the stone floor of the hall. Her clothes were ripped, her face and body were beaten till she was hardly recognisable, and there were thorns all over her. She was scarcely breathing, more dead than alive. Vio saw Katelia throw herself on the floor beside her daughter, and Samal kneel beside her with deep sorrow in his face, and she ran to fetch Gora.

They returned to the Palace with Gora’s medicine chest. The men, except Samal and Melops who were standing at the entrance, had left the hall, and some of the women were bathing Ibisia’s bruised body and removing the thorns from her flesh. Her torn robe had been thrown aside and she was lying on a pallet covered with a clean cloth. She was still unconscious. The women looked up when Gora approached, and made room for her to kneel beside Ibisia.

Gora felt the bones of Ibisia’s skull and pushed up her swollen eyelids to look at her eyeballs. Then she turned her on her side and ran probing fingers down her spine.

“There is very little I can do,” she said. “She is too broken, outside and inside. Finish washing her and put this ointment on her wounds, in case she can feel pain. I will give her a potion to see if she remembers herself for a moment, so you can say goodbye.”

“The blue vial,” Gora said to Vio, when Ibisia was washed and covered with a white cloak. Vio nodded, and passed it to her after Gora gently pried open Ibisia’s bruised jaw. She poured the contents of the vial drop by drop into her mouth, and sat back to wait for a response.

After many moments had passed, when Vio thought Ibisia would never wake up again, her eyelids flickered and opened. Katelia controlled herself and knelt over her daughter to smile tenderly at her, then Melops. Gora beckoned to Samal, who had been hesitating on the edge of the group, and he also knelt beside his lost bride. Vio was sobbing quietly, as was everyone else in the room. Ibisia looked into Samal’s eyes and for a brief moment there was joy in her own. Then her eyes closed again and she gave a little sigh and stopped breathing.

Some of the women started wailing. Melops led Katelia gently away. Samal stood looking down at Ibisia with an expression that Vio didn’t understand. The men returned to the hall, and someone arranged for more candles to be placed around the body, and for a group of white-robed musicians to come and sing the mourning songs. As the hours passed, Vio sat near her cousin on the floor, or got up and wandered round the Palace, thinking as little as possible, simply sharing the family’s grief.

At some point during the night she heard a servant tell Melops a strange man wanted to see him in the courtyard, and, concerned, she followed him outside.

The man who was standing there was as thin as a pole and wore a ragged grey robe. He had long, matted hair and staring eyes. He was saying to Melops, “I was passing through this town and I heard of your affliction. I believe there is a way in which I can help you.”

“What do you mean?” asked Melops.

“Your son is disturbed in his mind and soul. You cannot keep him here with you. Give him to me and I will take him to a distant place so you will have peace.”

Melops made a gesture of disbelief. “You think you can control a madman?” he asked.

“I am a man of God. I have a gift for bringing calm to people,” the man said. He stared at Melops with unblinking eyes.

Melops hardly hesitated. “Very well, take him,” he said. “We will be in your debt.” And he called a guard to lead the stranger to Tankret’s prison.

Vio quietly followed them round the building. She saw the soldier pull Tankret out of his cell. He was exhausted now, and hardly able to stand. The man put his hands on Tankret’s shoulders and glared fixedly into his eyes. After a short time Tankret limped tamely away after his new guardian.

Vio felt worried, not for Tankret, who had no more right to pity from anyone, but because she was suspicious of the motives of the “man of God”, whatever that might be. She didn’t believe he had taken Tankret because he wanted to help her family. And whatever the real reason was, she was sure it meant danger.

 

 

14.  PURGATOR

 

Ibisia’s body lay for a day on a bier in the Palace entrance hall. In the circumstances it seemed unwise to display it in the courtyard so that the people of the town could also take their leave of the heiress. For members of the clan it was distressing to see the bruised face sunk among white cloths in the flickering candle light.

Then Ibisia was burned at the royal funeral site beside the river, and her ashes were scattered on the water. A crowd from the town came to share the brief rite with the royal family, and their attitude was respectful. Many people appeared to be sincerely grieved. Vio stood beside Samal as the flames took hold of the body, wishing she knew what he felt behind his expressionless silence. She felt terribly sad herself, and aware that their lives had changed in a frightening way.

As they turned to leave the site, Vio looked up at the statue of the dark Goddess on her pedestal above the pyre, surrounded by funeral palm branches, and she asked her silently, Is this what you want? The answer came quite clearly in her mind: I am not desire but necessity. I am also called peace. Vio felt comforted, though she knew it would be a long time before she understood what she had heard.

 

That evening Yon came to their house. “I’m sorry,” he said to Vio, who came to meet him in the hall. “I got back from fishing today and heard about Ibisia and Tankret.”

“Sami will be glad to see you,” said Vio, leading the way to Samal’s room, “but don’t expect him to say much. He’s closed up.”

“That’s natural,” said Yon.

Samal’s eyes lightened when he saw Yon, and he returned his hug warmly. Yon said, “I never thought anything so dreadful could happen. You must be stunned.”

Samal said “Oh. Well, I expect it was fate.”

There was a moment’s silence, then Vio asked Yon, “What are people saying at the port now?”

“Everyone is sorry, for Samal and for the Queen. And some people still think we should support the royal clan. But…” Yon hesitated.

“But?” said Vio. “Tell us. We need to know.”

“It seems a lot of people feel that a family that can produce a monster like Tankret has no more right to rule. Tankret has played right into the hands of Jinis and his friends. They’ve been busy lately, stirring up dissatisfaction, telling people in the marketplace that their country needs better, stronger leaders.”

“They’re right, it does, but the merchants wouldn’t be any better,” said Samal. “The people should think carefully before they support them.”

Vio remembered the crowd she had seen from the terrace after the news of Tankret’s flight with Ibisia reached the town, and she felt sure that thinking carefully was not something they were likely to do on their own. They needed the royal family to respond convincingly to the disaster.

 

Katelia, however, did nothing to reassure her people that all would be well. In her place, Vio thought, she would have been up on the terrace speaking to them, promising a new start. But Katelia was more helpless than ever, almost crazy with grief at the death of her daughter and the loss of her mad, wicked son.

Vio went every day to the Palace, to show her support to Katelia and to spend some time with Tinina, who was now the only daughter and the heir. She had never liked Tinina much, and Tinina’s behaviour now did nothing to change her opinion of her. She was no longer a child and understood what was happening, but she appeared to be almost untouched by her sister’s death, and unconcerned about the future of the clan. She was, however, interested in clothes, and Vio found herself dressing up with her as she had with Ibisia, but without any of the enjoyment she had felt with her older cousin.

 

A whole moon passed with no relief for the family’s sadness, and then another man of God appeared at the door to the Palace. This man was even taller and thinner than the one who had taken Tankret away. His eyes were wild and moved back and forth all the time in his face, and he had black stumps of teeth in a cavernous mouth. When Vio saw him, arriving at the Palace for her daily visit, she felt disgust and fear. He was sitting on a mat in the porch, and Katelia was sitting opposite him, also on the ground, fascinated by what he was saying. She didn’t even see Vio, who waited to greet her.

“We are born with nothing,” the man intoned in a harsh voice, “and we leave this world with nothing. And between the two our path lies through a region of shadows. Why should we become attached to shadows?”

“Are our children shadows?” Katelia asked.

“Of course they are,” said the holy man. “Nothing we possess in this world is solid. Nothing here is of real worth.”

Vio wanted to answer him back, to tell him not to talk nonsense to a woman in distress, but the hopeful look on Katelia’s face made her keep silent.

“Then what is of worth?” asked Katelia.

“Only God. Only God our father who made us to serve him.”

Vio stepped quickly past them and ran up the stairs to Tinina’s room. She was horrified at the man’s blasphemy. God the father who made us! The Goddess made us to be her children and to enjoy her beautiful world. But at that moment she had recognised the repulsive man of God as one of the figures that sometimes hovered in her mirror, and she knew that nothing she could say or do would affect his power over her life and her friends’ lives.

In the days that followed Katelia was calmer. Vio knew that the intruder was coming to the Palace every day, seeing Katelia now in her private rooms, but she avoided meeting him. Then one day at the midday meal, Katelia broke the silence that usually accompanied their meals to talk about the man and his teaching.

“His name is Purgator,” she said. “He comes from far away and he is a very wise man. God the father has sent him to me to heal my sorrow.”

“God the father?” asked Tinina, without any real interest.

“Yes. We have been wrong all this time. God is male.”

Tinina shrugged. Vio said nothing, because if she opened her mouth she would say too much.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” said Katelia, “but I can’t go on living as I have up to now. I wish to renounce the world and all the evil that is done in the name of happiness. I wish to retire.”

“What do you mean, retire?” asked Melops, who was as surprised as the rest of them by this announcement.

“I am giving up the queendom,” said Katelia. “I will follow Purgator to the remote place where he lives and spend my life praying to God.”

No one knew what to say. Melops reacted first. “Take time to think about it,” he said. “Let Purgator go on his way now, and if you still want to follow him a few moons from now, you can send word to him to fetch you.”

“He says the call comes once only,” said Katelia. “And I am ready now. What do I have to live for here?”

Melops looked devastated. “Who will be Queen, then?” he asked. “Tinina is not ready.”

“I cannot concern myself with such things any longer,” said Katelia. “Do as you think best.”

“Then will you empower me to be your regent for now?” asked Melops. “You may change your mind and return.”

“I will not change my mind. I leave Kynopolis in your hands. In any case it is more fitting for a man to have the power.”

 

Vio knew that Melops didn’t like this idea any more than she did, but he was obliged to take charge of the city. He persuaded Katelia to stay and give her blessing to Tinina’s engagement, so that the people of Kynopolis would know a young woman was growing up to take her mother’s place. Vio didn’t even wonder where they were going to find a bridegroom for her in the few days Katelia was willing to wait. She knew Melops would expect Samal to perform this duty, and she knew Samal would be incapable of refusing.

“Don’t you wish at least you could say no?” Vio asked him before the announcement was made to the clan. “Haven’t you any plans for your own life?”

“Not really, Vio,” he said. “Since Ibisia died like that, I don’t care any more what happens.”

“Did you love her so much then?” She had never dared to ask Samal this question.

“I wasn’t in love with her. But we had always been friends and marrying her was a good thing to do. I hoped it would work out. Now nothing makes sense any more.”

“I know,” said Vio. “Everything is falling to pieces and we are not in control of what happens at all.”

Samal looked at her gratefully. “I’m glad you understand,” he said.

“Oh, Sami,” Vio said, “I do understand, I always have. I just wish so much you could be happy.”

“And I wish you could be happy too,” said Samal.

So understanding was restored between Vio and her brother, which was a consolation to both of them.

Vio asked Gora if she thought Samal could be happy in the future with Tinina.

“You know the answer to that as well as I do,” said Gora. “If they ever do get married, which is not likely the way things are going, how could he be happy with that cold, selfish girl?”

“Oh, dear,” said Vio. “I hoped what I was thinking might be wrong.”

“You must trust your intuition even when you don’t like what it tells you,” said Gora.

The engagement of Samal and Tinina was made public, and Katelia followed Purgator into the wilderness. The word of her departure spread in the usual swift way, and people were standing in the streets to watch her, thin and pale in a simple white robe, walk a few steps behind the man of God through the Boar Gate and into the distance. Vio stood on a corner, listening to a group of citizens discussing the madness that had got into the royal family, until they realised a royal was listening and hurried away.

 

 

15.  WHAT CAN’T BE TAKEN AWAY

 

Vio had not given up her outside activities and, in spite of all the sorrow and the worries, there were still happy moments in her life. She had taken Tankret at his word and decided to consider Storm her own, and often in the early morning she ran to the royal stable and took the mare out for a ride. Trotting or cantering as the light spread and the sun rose in the sky, on the narrow paths between fields and among palm trees, aware of Storm under her responding to her slightest wish, she felt glad to be alive.

After the tragedy of Ibisia’s death the boat racing contests had stopped, but the group of friends, all or some of them, still sailed from time to time on the river. They had all left school by now. Keni was looking after his father’s farm, Anil and Soteps were learning their families’ trades. Samal, his official entry to the royal house postponed and his betrothed too young to be interested in him, was often idle. He took to spending a lot of time on the river, with whatever friends were free as crew, and Vio accompanied him whenever she could.

On one special afternoon, Vio, Samal and Yon took the Kingfisher out alone. They performed the tasks of sailing her with a minimum of effort, easily becoming a team. They sailed down beyond the Bull Temple, and round the bend to the stretch of faster water where, long ago now, Yon had saved the others from being swept down river, if not from death. They turned in under the tempting palms and Yon jumped on to the bank and moored the boat to a trunk. He jumped back on board, Vio laid out on the deck the dates and pomegranates she had brought with her, and they sat down to watch the water flow and the light change slowly as evening drew in.

For a long time no one spoke, and then Vio said, “It’s funny. I feel like the girl I was on the day when Yon fished me out of the river, and at the same time I feel years and years older.”

“An awful lot has happened,” Samal said. “But we’re not that much older really.”

“Nothing else important has happened to me since I met you,” said Yon. “But I know what you mean. We were innocent then.”

Vio looked at him. “And we’re not innocent now, are we? No one who has their eyes open can be innocent now. Too many bad things are happening.”

“I wish they didn’t have to happen to you two,” said Yon. “I wish you could have gone on being as happy and sure of yourselves as you used to be.”

“I expect we were very selfish,” said Vio.

“No you weren’t,” said Yon. “You were always generous. It’s not your fault that Tankret turned out to be mad and people like Jinis have decided to bring your family down.”

“Tell us what you’ve been hearing,” said Samal. “What’s going on at the port?”

“There are still people on your side,” said Yon. “They’re willing to give Tinina a chance, especially since she’s going to marry you. But the merchants have won over a lot of people, at the port as well as in town. They’re saying it’s time the city got rid of the decadent royals. They want a government of men who will make Kynopolis strong and wealthy, even if it means war. People find that exciting.”

“People like violence,” said Vio, remembering the audience watching Tankret fight.

“A lot of them do,” said Yon, and Samal added “I’m afraid so.”

“So the merchants are more powerful than they ever were?” Vio asked.

“Yes, they are.”

There was another silence, and Vio could feel the threat hanging over them as if it was a rotten roof. Then she shook herself and looked at the reflection of the palms in the water, which was turning white as the sun descended, and their beauty brought her back to the present. At the same time, Yon said, “I know I don’t have to say it, but I want to. I will always be on your side. Any help you need, just ask.”

“Thank you,” said Vio. Samal just put his arm briefly round Yon’s shoulders.

“I suppose we should be getting back,” said Samal. “It’s getting late.”

“All right. Eat the last piece of pomegranate,” said Vio. “And you, Yon, finish up the dates.”

The last of the fruit disappeared and they went on sitting there.

“I hope you won’t mind me asking, Vio,” said Yon after a while, “but do you understand now that old prediction about you and your child saving your race?”

“Not really,” said Vio, “except that, if it means the royal clan, I can see now why my race would need to be saved. But I’ve no idea how I could do it or if I’ll have a child.”

“But you’re not so dead against that as you used to be?” asked Yon.

“I can’t afford to be, can I? I’ve had to realise that life is not a game.”

“So serious and submissive! I’m astonished,” said Samal, with his warm smile, which they hadn’t seen very often lately.

“Oh, shut up,” said Vio. “I didn’t say anything about getting married, did I? I’m as against that as I ever was.”

They all laughed.

“Come on,” said Yon. “We’d better move.”

They pushed off and set sail up river, but when they reached the Bull Temple the sun was about to set in a blaze of light. By unspoken agreement, they brought the boat alongside the quay and moored her again, then sat watching as the dark red disk went down beyond the horizon and the flame colours in the sky turned to pink streaked with rust and died away. Yon started to sing a hymn to the mother sun, and Vio and Samal joined in. Vio felt her soul swell inside her till it burst out and she became the space around her, from the dark water where the reflections were fading up to the top of the sky where little wisps of cloud were still glowing with daylight.

She came back to herself when Samal and Yon called her name loudly, several times. As they made their way carefully up the river in the dark, she thought that no one, ever, whatever happened, could take that evening away from them.

 

 

16.  WAITING AND WATCHING

 

No one in the clan had asked Vio lately when she was going to get married, because there had been too many other things to think about. She was, however, past the age when marriages were usually arranged for young girls. Her mother was sitting in the kitchen one day when Vio came down to breakfast, and as Vio spread fruit preserve on flat-bread she asked her gently, “I suppose you haven’t changed your mind about getting married, have you?”

“No,” said Vio, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to marry, and anyway it doesn’t seem to be a good time to be thinking of weddings, does it?”

“I suppose not,” said Amapola, “but it would be nice to have you settled.”

“Settled!” exclaimed Vio, putting down her bread, and Amapola had to laugh at her shocked expression. “And just out of curiosity,” Vio went on, “who were you thinking of marrying me off to?”

“One of your clan cousins, I suppose,” said Amapola, “though I don’t know which. I don’t know who could manage you.”

“I can manage myself,” said Vio, starting to eat, “even if I do make mistakes.”

With an unusual show of affection, Amapola got up and kissed her. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “I know you have to do things your way. I hope it will make you happy.”

Vio couldn’t even imagine being married to anyone in the clan. They all seemed so limited and dull. If she had to get married now, Yon would be the only person she could think of as a husband, but she didn’t have to. Looking into her mirror, she sometimes thought she glimpsed in the future a man she would feel passionately about, a man who would challenge and kindle her. There was pain in this vision, too, but it wasn’t clear enough for Vio to be concerned about it.

She didn’t want to marry, but she did feel like flirting. After the tragedies at the Palace, a kind of reaction had set in. A few men and women of the clan had been infected like Katelia by Purgator’s preaching, and withdrew from social life, but many of them spent their time at the Palace, eating, listening to music or playing games, as if they wanted to defy the threats to their privileges, even to their safety.  They rarely mentioned the merchants’ conspiracy; they all wanted to forget it. Melops took no part in the games, though he was always a generous host. He looked sad and without hope. No one knew even where Purgator had taken Katelia. The place was not within the boundaries of Kynopolis; Melops had had a discreet search made. Tinina flitted around like a silly child, telling everyone she was going to be Queen.

Vio, on the days when she felt like practising her female charms, dressed up in a fine robe, painted her face, and went to join the fun. She found some of the older, married men quite willing to flirt with her and more interesting than the boys of her own age. They teased her back and looked at her in an exciting way. Some of the wives began to hate her, but that amused her too. When the men tried to get her to meet them in secret, she laughed at them.

She knew she wasn’t behaving well, but she couldn’t understand why people would bother to take her flirting seriously. Her own serious feelings were involved in concern for her immediate family, especially Samal, and in her efforts to understand what was happening in the town.

 

At that time she started to walk the streets and marketplace, with a shawl over her head to disguise her royal features, and listen to what people were saying. Yon was right, she soon found. More and more people were becoming convinced that the city needed a change of rulers.

One day she stopped at a market stall to buy fruit, and took her time choosing it so she could hear what the two women beside her were saying.

“What do you think he was like when he was a baby, that Tankret?” one asked.

“He must have been a monster even then,” said the other. “You could tell from looking at him.”

“They should have got rid of him then.”

Vio felt like interrupting them to ask how the family could have got rid of him, but she kept quiet and the other woman answered for her.

“It’s a bit hard to get rid of a child, isn’t it, with everyone watching what you do. No,” she went on, “it’s just as well he did grow up, because now we can see what to expect from that family. They have to go.”

Another time she stood on a corner as if she was waiting for someone and listened to the conversation between merchants sitting on the steps of a cloth shop.

“She was only good for dressing up, our Queen,” said one. “When things got tough she just walked out.”

“She must have gone mad like her son,” said another. “Walking off into the wilderness with a beggar.”

“I used to have a lot of respect for the Queen,” said an older man. “In her mother’s time things were different. She knew what was going on in this town and she looked after us.”

“Well, times have changed,” said the first man. “We merchants can make a better job of ruling the town than these people.”

They all muttered agreement.

Once Vio heard someone call Katelia “poor woman”; and once when she was sitting on the Temple steps she overheard some younger people arguing about the royal family and saying it was sad that Samal, who was so brave and kind to everybody, should have to share their fate. Then someone mentioned Vio herself. “That madcap,” said a young man, with admiration in his voice, “she’s not like the rest of them, she goes her own way.” That wasn’t so bad, Vio thought. They didn’t hate her.

 

There were parts of town where Vio preferred not to go by herself, where it might even be dangerous for her if she was recognised, and she asked Yon to go with her. Yon could go where he liked. He was sturdy and strong and looked like the fisherman he was, with crinkles at the corners of his eyes from the glare of light on water. They gave him a humorous expression, and he laughed often, as he always had, but behind the humour Vio could see seriousness and sadness too.

He was glad to accompany her, and they spent many hours in the streets and alley-ways of the town, observing and listening. One day they walked through the settlement of mud huts outside the Dog Gate, and Vio was horrified at the dirt and squalor. Children with swollen bellies sat listlessly in the dust of the alley-ways, and a smell of shit hung in the air.

“Why are they so poor?” she asked Yon.

“Most of them have been turned off the land they were farming,” he said.

“By members of the royal clan, I suppose,” said Vio.

“Yes.”

“Then we deserve to be got rid of.”

“You’re not all like that, are you?”

Their presence in the settlement was very noticeable, but Vio wanted to see all she could. They walked to the end of an alley, and from one of the last huts they heard wailing. A bunch of neighbours had gathered at the entrance. Vio told Yon to ask what had happened, and when he reported that a baby had died, she removed her shawl from her head and went to the door of the hut.

Everyone turned to look at her. “I’m very sorry about the baby,” she said. The people were too astonished at her presence to say anything, but there was no hostility in their eyes. Vio stepped inside and looked at the child lying on a ragged blanket in a basket, shrivelled and skinny like a baby bird. It had never had a chance of surviving, she thought. She removed the gold pin at the shoulder of her robe, and handed it to the older woman sitting beside the weeping mother. “I hope this will be of some help to you now,” she said. And she turned and stumbled out before she started crying openly.

“I wish I had something to give all those people,” she said to Yon when she could speak again, and they were approaching the Dog Gate.

“That would be impossible,” said Yon, smiling at her, “but fate chose those people for you to give something to. And you did. Right?”

“Right,” said Vio.

 

One night they went to the port. Karek, the captain of the Bull, had asked Yon to bring Vio to his house, and she was happy to accept. Since their sailing contests had stopped, she had been missing her meetings with her port relatives.

Karek greeted them warmly at the door and led them inside. The whole crew of the Bull was there, with their wives and families and other neighbours too. Many of them were mestizos, with their Lupaka blood showing in different degrees. A little girl came to lean on Vio’s knee, when she sat down, and Vio could see in her long face and shining dark eyes a distinct likeness to her own. Were these people also in danger, she wondered. Did the port people see them as related to the detested royals?

Karek was watching her, and she decided to ask him, “Karek, most of you are related to my clan. Does that mean you’re in trouble too?”

“We don’t really know,” said Karek. “We used to think we were just the same as anyone else round here, but lately some people are treating us like we were the enemy.”

“But that’s absurd,” said Vio. “You aren’t responsible for the abuses of the royal clan. In a way you’re their victims too.”

“You know that,” said Karek, “but most people don’t reason. They’re saying it’s a matter of race. We must be mad like the royal family, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Of course I excuse you,” said Vio. “That’s terrible. And it makes me feel guilty.”

“Why should you feel guilty? It’s not your fault, and anyway the royal clan is not as bad as they’re saying by any means. Those others would be worse. We want you to know if there’s a clash we’re on your side.  If we can help you or your brother, just let us know.”

Vio couldn’t answer. She wiped away tears, and when the little girl beside her saw her cry she burst into tears too, which made everybody laugh. Karek’s wife, Aralo, brought palm wine and cakes, and they started reminiscing about their boat races, and it turned into a happy evening.

It was late when they left Karek’s house and set out with a group of his friends toward the town. As they turned into the main street they met a trio of drunken youths coming toward them.

“The dogs!” one of them shouted, and they charged the group, which included several small children. The women dodged. Vio picked up a little boy, who was trembling. Yon and the other men caught the attackers and kicked their legs from under them, and they were so drunk they fell in a heap, struggling to get up again. The mestizo party ran then, the women panting and some of the children crying, till they were at a safe distance.

“Does that happen to you often?” Vio asked, when they stopped. She put down the little boy and he smiled shyly at her.

“No,” said one of the Bull crew. “We were unlucky to meet those particular hooligans. But let Yon take you home quickly now.”

“What about you?” asked Vio.

“We turn off here. We’ll be fine. Good night.”

They all shouted “Good night” and Yon and Vio walked on fast.

Vio was upset. “I forget how ugly ordinary people can be,” she said. “How can they hate the mestizos like that just because they’re a bit different?”

“Ignorant people hate anyone different, don’t they?” said Yon.

“It’s frightening,” said Vio. “It makes no sense.”

“Does life make any sense?” asked Yon. He was smiling and Vio knew he was teasing her.

“Maybe not, but I want it to,” said Vio, loudly, and her words echoed in her head till they reached her house and Yon said good night.

 

A few days later the Harvest Festival came round, and Vio went with her family to the Temple. Differences seemed to be forgotten on that day. People of all kinds and classes were gathered in the stone building and on the steps, celebrating the abundance of life. Vio was inside the Temple, near the altar. When the Priestess held up in her arms the straw doll representing the ripe crop, and the congregation shouted with joy, she felt her soul swell in her again, and she knew that life did make sense, even if she couldn’t understand it.

 

After that Vio went to visit the Priestess again, and the Priestess invited her into her private chamber. It was even barer than Vio had imagined, with nothing but a pallet to sleep on, a mat to sit on, some scrolls and a low altar. But the small statue of the Goddess on the altar was the most beautiful she had ever seen, of pale stone with fine hands and a very sweet expression.

Vio looked at the Priestess and saw the same kindness in her face. The woman held out her hand and touched her cheek, and Vio burst into tears.

“Yes, I know,” said the Priestess, “you’re crying for me and for everyone at Kynopolis, not just for yourself. It’s not easy to see as you see, young as you are.”

“I wish I could do something,” said Vio, sniffing.

“You’re doing all you can,” said the Priestess. “You’re a good girl.”

“But why…” said Vio, looking again at the gentle, loving figure, and she couldn’t go on.

“She has other faces,” said the Priestess. “But this one will always be there, behind all the dark clouds, waiting to shine out again.”

“Will we see it?”

“You will see it. I may not. But She is with me all the time.”

 

 

 

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