6. A DECLARATION
Vio wondered, as she and Samal walked home from the port where they left the old boat, what kind of welcome she would get from their parents. There was no one around when they reached the house, except Gora, who hugged them and told them to hurry and have a bath before supper.
Vio ran downstairs just as her parents were entering the dining-room, and they sat down at their places as if nothing unusual had happened at all.
“So did you enjoy yourselves?” asked Pepi, as they started to pass the dishes of food around.
“Yes,” said Samal and Vio together.
“How far did you go?” Pepi asked Samal. There was nothing strange in his turning to Samal rather than Vio for the story. He was very proud of his son. Vio agreed that he had good reason to be.
“We went up beyond the last villages,” said Samal, “to where the river banks start to get really wild.”
“Isn’t it dangerous up there?” asked Amapola.
“Not really,” said Samal. “Yon wouldn’t let us do anything dangerous.” He didn’t mention that they’d heard there were savages quite close by.
“And how about the level of the river? Has there been enough rain this year?”
“The crops we saw looked fine. The river’s not too full. Just right for sailing,” said Samal.
“It was lovely for sailing,” said Vio, unable to repress her happiness at the memory of racing to the Kingfisher Temple.
“And there was no trouble with Vio?” asked Pepi, in a half joking way, though Vio knew he was anxious to hear the answer.
“None at all,” said Samal. “We all got on well. And the Kingfisher Priestess asked her specially about her sailing.”
“Did she think it was all right for her to sail?”
“She thought it was good.”
Vio felt grateful to Samal for his support and their parents nodded as if they had never doubted the trip would go smoothly.
Vio was relieved at their change of attitude, and she made a point of spending some time with her mother in the next few days. While she helped her to smooth and fold lengths of fine linen cloth on the flat roof of their house, Amapola asked her when she was going back to the Palace.
Vio had wondered why her mother hadn’t asked her before why she’d stopped going to see her cousins.
“Do you know why I haven’t been going?” she asked.
“Gora told me Tankret was rude to you.”
“Yes, he was very rude. To me and Samal.”
“Tankret’s a bit better, you know,” said her mother. “A new doctor gave him some medicine that’s calmed him down.”
“That’s good,” said Vio. She wondered how long Tankret would take the medicine, but she didn’t say so.
“It’s Ibisia that’s worrying her mother now,” Amapola said. “She’s very unhappy and nothing seems to interest her.”
“What about her music?” asked Vio, because playing the flute had always been Ibisia’s consolation.
“She won’t play or sing,” said Amapola. “She’s listless. Why don’t you go and see her. Perhaps you can cheer her up.”
“I could try,” said Vio.
She told her mother she would go to the Palace and she meant to go, but she didn’t really want to, and she kept putting it off.
The place where she wanted to be at that time was the yard at the port where the group was starting work on the repairs to the new boat. Gora didn’t let her neglect her lessons, but as soon as she was free in the afternoon she ran down the wide road to the port and skipped through the alley behind the shorefront huts till she came to her goal. Everyone in the area stared at her, but she was used to that.
The boat was in a corner of the yard where Yon and his crew drew up their fishing boat when it needed repairs. It was upside down and had gaps in its hull, where weak timbers had been removed, but even so Vio could see how long and sleek it was, compared to the old boat they had been using. She could feel already how fast it would sail.
“Who did this beautiful boat belong to? How could they just abandon it?” she had asked Yon, the first time she saw it.
Yon laughed. “They’re the champions. They thought they deserved a new boat. This one needs a lot of work. You’ll see.”
“But you think it can still win?”
“Winning depends on the crew. This boat could still go very fast. I wouldn’t let you work for nothing. It’ll just take time.”
It was taking time, to sand down the timber, identify the parts that were still good and prepare planks of fine acacia wood to replace those that were rotten or too worn. The boys came on their free days and after school, all together or in pairs, sometimes working by torchlight into the night. One of Samal’s human friends, Soteps, who had some experience sailing in his father’s cargo boats, had joined the crew to make up their number when Yon was not there. Yon taught them what to do and helped when he could.
One afternoon when Vio reached the yard, a bit earlier than usual, Yon was there alone. He looked up from his sanding and smiled at her.
“Weren’t you going down river today?” asked Vio.
“Yes. But Adel’s wife has had her baby, so we’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Oh,” said Vio. “Poor thing. She looks so young.”
“She’s fourteen years old and she’s very happy,” said Yon.
“Well, I’m fifteen years old, and I can’t stand to think of having a baby.”
“Haven’t you always said you’d never have a child?”
“Yes, I have,” said Vio, surprised. “Did Samal tell you about the prediction?”
“Yes,” said Yon. “Don’t be annoyed. He sometimes worries about you and he wanted to talk about it.”
“So what do you think I should do?
“Get on with your life as if you’d never heard the prediction,” said Yon. “If something is going to happen, it will happen.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“I know,” said Yon, “and I like the way you’re doing it.”
He hesitated as if he didn’t know how to say what he wanted to say next, and Vio waited, watching him. When he met her eyes again, he had the same look of adoration on his face as he had the night he showed her the baby hippos. Vio thought she didn’t want him to go on.
But he did go on, speaking slowly and carefully. “I know you’re not interested in love yet, and I know you’re royal and far above me, but I love you and you’re the only woman I’ll ever love.”
Vio felt stunned at his seriousness. “I’m not asking you for anything. I just want you to know,” he went on, seeing Vio’s expression. “I hope we’ll always be close to each other. I would do anything for you, and I would never try to place any bounds on your freedom.”
Vio remembered the old woman in the village up river, telling her to find a man who would love her but not rule her, and she wondered if Yon had told her he loved Vio. The thought came to her, suddenly, that she might never find another man who would love her as generously as Yon could. But at the same time she was sure she couldn’t make any promises to him, or any man, at this time of her life. Or maybe ever.
She had to say something, give him some kind of answer, so she stammered through a little speech. “It’s very kind of you. You are my best friend in the world after my brother, but I don’t understand anything about love. Maybe I never will, I don’t seem to be like other women. You must know it has nothing to do with being a royal, I never think of that. I too hope that we will always be close to each other.”
Yon smiled, a bit sadly, Vio thought. Then he said, as if he wished he didn’t have to, “There isn’t anyone else you’re thinking of, is there?”
“If you mean that stupid Jalkan,” said Vio, guessing what was worrying him, “of course not. I just need him to lend me a horse.”
Yon gave her a long look. “I guess you don’t understand anything about love yet,” he said. “Just remember, whatever you do, whatever happens, I’ll be there to help you if you want me.”
“Thank you,” said Vio, and went to start work on the boat. Their silence was broken soon after by the arrival of Samal and Anil, which was a relief for Vio. She truly had warmer feelings for Yon than for anyone except Samal and perhaps Gora, she admired him and enjoyed his company, but she wished he hadn’t complicated their friendship with this talk of love. Why did he have to be so serious? Why did he have to use words like “only” and “always”? Wasn’t it enough to be happy now?
Then she had one of those moments that sometimes came to her, like when she had foreseen that Tankret would cause trouble, and she saw that the future would not all be as happy as the present. Bleak times would come. And the thought that when that happened she could count on Yon’s love was comforting.
7. A FULL LIFE
Life in the present was not only happy but also very busy. Over the next few moons, the boat reached the stage where they could turn it right side up and start caulking, with palm pulp, all its seams, the old and the new. The timber also had to be prepared for the planks that would give them small decks fore and aft, and Yon was working on a specially reinforced hull section where the socket for the mast was to go. Vio went often to help with the caulking, and each time she arrived at the yard and saw the fine lines of the boat, which seemed to be waiting for its chance to fly, her heart beat a bit faster.
All the boys except Jalkan spent hours each day at the yard. The blisters they got on their hands at the beginning healed, and they were proud of their workers’ calluses. Jalkan came down sometimes, wielded a tool for a few moments, and then stood commenting on the progress of the work. The unfriendly silence of the others finally penetrated his conceit, and one day he arrived at the yard with an old man in craftsman’s dress and introduced him as the carver Mesil.
“I don’t have much time to spend here with you,” he said, “so I’m giving you Mesil as my contribution.”
The old man winced at the way Jalkan spoke of him, as if he was an object to be disposed of, and Samal asked him politely what work he did on boats.
“I can make you a figurehead,” said Mesil. “If you want it.”
“We hadn’t thought of it,” said Samal, “but it’s a great idea.”
“Can you carve a kingfisher?” asked Vio.
“I can,” said Mesil, smiling at her, “and it will be almost as light as the wind.”
So the yard became even more interesting to Vio. She loved to watch the figure of the soaring bird take shape out of the solid block of wood. It occurred to her one day to ask Mesil if Jalkan was paying him well for his art, and Mesil smiled wryly and said, “Well enough. But it’s his father that’s paying, to keep the spoilt brat’s hands clean.”
“Who wants clean hands?” said Vio, looking at her own grubby ones.
“Not the artists, maybe” said Mesil, “and you think like an artist.”
Vio didn’t understand exactly what he meant. She asked Gora at her lesson next day and Gora said that artists were people that loved beauty of all kinds and were more interested in making things than in social conventions.
“Then I could be an artist, I suppose,” said Vio. “Do they study the kind of things you’re teaching me?”
“Some of them do. The more you know about the world, the better you can see the wonderful patterns under its surface. Don’t you want to go on studying?”
“Oh, yes,” said Vio. “But no one else seems to be learning about the history of the Lupaka, or the magic uses of plants, or your kind of anatomy, let alone the Lupaka language. At school Samal only studies human writing and all kinds of calculations.”
Gora sighed. “I’m teaching you all of woman’s lore as I learnt it,” she said. “It may be no use to you in this world that’s being taken over by the merchants, but it is your heritage. I wish I could have passed it on to your cousins too.”
“Don’t they want you to?”
“They don’t have the aptitude for it,” said Gora. “And by the way, why haven’t you been to see Ibisia, as you promised your mother?”
Vio hesitated. “I feel uncomfortable at the Palace,” she said. “When I watch the family, specially Tankret, it’s as if I could see a different scene behind the one I’m actually seeing, and something bad is happening there. I must have too much imagination.”
“It may not be your imagination,” said Gora, quietly. “I am also seeing bad things in the future.”
“Then what is it?” asked Vio. “Is it a warning and I’m supposed to do something about it?”
“You will know if you can do anything. If you have the gift of sight you’ll have to get used to it. Just let those shadows be and don’t let them spoil the life you have now.”
So Vio finally returned to the Palace. She was afraid Ibisia might be angry with her for staying away for so long, but her cousin hardly reacted to her arrival. She was sitting in the roof room, looking out through the arches, but her face showed only exhaustion, not the pain of the last time Vio had seen her there. She looked years older.
“Ibi,” said Vio, shocked at her appearance, “it’s me, Vio.”
Ibisia turned her face toward her. “Hello,” she said, and then looked down at the floor.
“Ibi, what’s the matter? Are you ill?”
“I don’t think so,” said Ibisia, making an effort, “but I feel very tired.”
“How could you not feel tired,” Vio burst out, “shut up in here all the time? I’ll persuade Aunt Katelia to let you come out with me. We’ll cover your head and I’ll take you to see our boat and…”
“Don’t,” interrupted Ibisia suddenly, in such a desperate tone that Vio didn’t finish what she was saying. “Even if Mother would let me,” Ibisia went on, “Tankret would be too upset.”
“But what does it matter if Tankret is upset?” said Vio. “He has no right to spoil your life.”
“He doesn’t mean to,” Ibisia said. “He’s not well.”
“Mama said he’s been taking medicine.”
“The medicine has stopped his attacks. He’s quieter now. But he still needs me when he gets depressed. I’m the only person he listens to.”
Vio felt impatient with her cousin’s helplessness, so to provoke her she asked her a question she knew must be on her mind. “And what will happen when you become Queen? You won’t be able to give in to him then.”
“I don’t want to think about it,” said Ibisia, and bowed her head again.
She looked so miserable that Vio immediately regretted her tactlessness. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have asked you that. There’s plenty of time till that happens and we’ll all grow up, won’t we?”
But Ibisia refused to speak to her again.
On Samal’s moon day the whole sailing group was invited to the midday meal in the garden of the family house. Vio told Anil to bring his sister, Seso, but he came without her, saying she was not well, and Vio didn’t ask if that was the real reason. She couldn’t make human family behaviour her business, and she was used to not having women friends her own age.
Gora and the cook provided plenty of tasty food, and Pepi passed round a bottle of palm wine. Watching Jalkan bowing to Pepi and exaggerating his thanks, Vio suddenly understood that Jalkan felt at a disadvantage in this royal house, and was acting the man of the world to cover his awkwardness. He was gallant to Amapola too; he called her “lovely lady,” and kept passing dishes to her during the meal.
After they had eaten, Samal suggested a checkers tournament in the garden, and the adults retired to their rooms. Pepi said a warm goodbye to Yon, and saluted Jalkan much more formally. Jalkan looked resentful, and for a moment Vio thought he was going to leave, but he pulled himself together and played the game with fierce concentration. He drew the straw for ruler, and he had his side jumping from square to square on the board. Vio thought what a formidable opponent he could be.
One day Vio woke up thinking of the Priestess, wondering how it felt to live in the cramped space at the back of the stone Temple, especially now she must be getting old. It was the first time she had thought of her as a woman, rather than an imposing, even frightening, sacred figure, and she decided to go and see her.
She went in the early afternoon, when the Temple was empty. Vio thought the statue of the Goddess on the altar looked lonely, and for a moment the whole place was filled with a wave of desolation. Then the Priestess, in an ordinary robe, came from her room behind the altar and signed to Vio to sit beside her on a mat. Vio felt shy of her now she was there, and didn’t know what to say.
“What can I do for you, my daughter?” the Priestess asked.
“I was wondering what it’s like to be the Priestess,” Vio said.
“That’s a good question to ask,” said the Priestess. “It’s a privileged life. I am always aware of the presence of the Goddess and my fortune in looking after Her.”
“Even shut up in the Temple like this?” asked Vio, and thought she could have phrased her question more politely.
The Priestess smiled. “Even so. It wouldn’t suit you at all. Your destiny is quite different.”
“Do you still think I have a destiny?”
“I know you have. But don’t worry about it,” she went on, seeing Vio’s frown. “It won’t be like anything you can imagine now.”
“I didn’t come to ask about that,” said Vio, realising that, in part, she had. “I wanted to see how you were.”
“That’s very nice of you,” said the Priestess. “I will always be happy to see you. Your friend Gora gives me news of you. You couldn’t have a better guide.”
And while Vio thought about how she was being watched over, the Priestess stood up and blessed her.
8. THE PRICE OF A HORSE RACE
On top of her other activities, Vio had a new passion. She didn’t mention the horse to Jalkan again, because she knew her eagerness would make him feel important, and she was afraid he would decide to disappoint her. He was mean enough to do that. But finally he came to the boat yard one evening and said, “Tomorrow afternoon I’ll fetch you from your house to ride the mare.”
Vio decided to ignore his bossy tone, and said she would be there.
He came late, but she had expected that and kept calm. Gora looked at her questioningly as she left the house with him, but she ignored the look. Gora hadn’t liked Jalkan when he came to Samal’s party; and Vio had not told anyone at home, except of course Samal, about her horseracing plans. There would be time to deal with any opposition when she was ready.
They walked quite a long way, across the town, out of the Boar Gate and into a flat, green area with big houses at wide intervals. Finally they came to a wooden structure beside an oval track of the kind used for footraces, but bigger.
A man came out to meet them and bowed low to Jalkan and then to Vio, saying his name, “Kral.”
“This is the girl that wants to ride,” said Jalkan, cutting off Vio’s attempt to greet Kral.
“Shall I bring out the mare?” asked Kral.
“Of course. Get on with it.”
Kral went inside the shadowy building, and led out a very beautiful animal. The mare was black, with a white star on her forehead. Her coat shone in the sunlight, and she paced lightly, as if dancing, as she approached. She was taller than Vio had expected, and seemed to be enjoying her strength.
“Oh, you beauty,” said Vio, and she stepped forward to put her hand on the mare’s neck, though she was a little afraid.
The mare looked round at her, and gave her a playful shove with her fine nose.
“She likes you,” said Kral.
“Doesn’t she like everybody?” asked Vio.
“She doesn’t like me,” said Jalkan, as if he was proud of it, and Vio thought that showed how sensible the mare was.
“She’s not friendly to everyone but she’s well behaved,” said Kral. “You’ve ridden before, haven’t you?”
“No, I haven’t,” said Vio, “but I’m sure I can.”
Kral looked worried, but at Jalkan’s urging he adjusted the mare’s halter and helped Vio to vault on to her back. He showed Vio how to give her the necessary commands, and said, “Go slowly now, won’t you.”
“Yes,” said Vio, who was momentarily terrified at feeling so much power under her. But as they walked round the track, she began to exult in it, and to share the mare’s impatience at their slow gait, and she pressed her sides, as Kral had shown her, to make her go faster. Trotting was a shock, but an involuntary kick from her feet made the mare canter and that was all right again. She twined her fingers in her mane, and found she could sit comfortably to the rocking motion. As she turned at the end of the track, she saw Kral and Jalkan waving to her to slow down, but instead she kicked the mare’s sides again and the mare started to gallop. And Vio fell off.
It was a long way to the ground, but she fell on her side and got up right away, sore but able to walk. Kral and Jalkan ran to her. The mare had stopped and was looking at her as if to say, “What did you do that for?”
“Are you mad?” shouted Jalkan as he came up, and Vio was surprised to see that he looked really worried.
“It wasn’t very sensible,” said Vio, “but now I’ll start again at the beginning. Do you think I can learn to ride well, Kral?”
“I’m sure you can,” said Kral.
“Then help me on again,” said Vio, and she made the mare walk sedately back to her stable.
“Doesn’t she have a name?” she asked as she slid off her back.
“Why should a horse have a name?” asked Jalkan.
“Her name is Storm,” said Vio.
The only time of day when Vio could fit in riding practice was in the early morning, and she had to get up in the dark and walk to the stable by dawn. Soon Kral started riding back with her on one of the other horses in the stable, as far as the city wall, so she didn’t have the long walk after her training as well.
At that stage Jalkan had work to do for his father and didn’t come often to the stable, which was a relief, because when he was there he always behaved as though he owned the mare, Kral, and her as well. But Vio was so happy riding she felt grateful to him, and at least it wasn’t difficult to know what to talk to him about, as it had been before. He stopped laughing at her, and once he asked Kral, “Do you think she’ll be good enough to ride in a race?”
“She’ll be good enough,” said Kral, “but whoever heard of a girl racing?”
Jalkan didn’t answer, but a look of understanding passed between him and Vio.
Gora, of course, knew that Vio was up to something new. One day when Vio missed breakfast and slipped late into the room where she had her lessons with Gora, Gora asked her where she went at such an early hour every morning.
“I’m learning to ride horses,” said Vio.
“And what is the reason for this new interest?”
“I know that wasn’t part of your woman’s training,” said Vio, “but nor was sailing, was it? And you understand that. It’s a bit like sailing. The mare I ride is as strong as the wind. I love it.”
“It must be dangerous,” said Gora, but Vio just laughed, and Gora smiled too. “Are you not going to tell your parents about it?” asked Gora.
“I don’t want to worry them at the moment,” said Vio. “Let them think I’m at the port. They seem worried lately anyway.”
“Those dark clouds are getting closer,” said Gora. “Just try to be careful.”
“All right,” said Vio, feeling a bit guilty. Being careful was not part of her plans. But, from the expression on her face, Gora knew that.
In the evenings Vio went to the boat yard and did her part in the caulking. Yon was there less often lately and even seemed to be avoiding her, and she missed him, though she understood he must be hurt. With Jalkan she was never at ease. He interested and repelled her at the same time. But at the stable they had become allies, as Kral was brought round to the idea of her riding in a race.
Finally the organisers of the Bull Festival announced there would be a horse race as part of the celebrations, and Vio and Jalkan decided the time had come.
Jalkan’s father, the gem merchant Jinis, was not happy at the idea of putting his mare in the hands of a woman. He came with Jalkan to the stable to see her, and Vio hated him on sight. He had all Jalkan’s arrogance without being handsome, in fact he was quite short and coarse. But Vio restrained her temper and smiled at him politely.
“You do realise this is an extremely valuable animal, don’t you?” said Jinis.
“She’s a darling,” said Vio, patting Storm’s nose.
“Woman’s nonsense!” exclaimed Jinis; but Kral, to Vio’s surprise, backed her up. “It’s not nonsense, if you’ll excuse me, sir,” he said. “The relationship between horse and rider makes a difference.”
“So you also think the girl should ride?” bellowed Jinis.
“I think she’ll do as well as anyone, sir,” said Kral. “She’s certainly brave.” Vio could have kissed him.
Jinis snorted. “I’m not convinced,” he said. “If she wasn’t a royal I wouldn’t even think of it. How about your parents? Will they allow you to make such a show of yourself?”
Again Vio didn’t react. “They’ll let me ride,” she said.
“They will,” said Jalkan.
Jinis glanced angrily at his son. “What if she makes a fool of me by coming in last?” he said.
“Storm couldn’t come in last whoever rode her,” said Vio.
“Storm, eh!” grunted Jinis, and he turned on his heel and stamped away.
Jalkan said to Vio, touching her cheek, “He didn’t say no. We’ll win, you’ll see.” And he ran after his father.
Vio understood later how Jalkan had persuaded his father to let her ride the mare. At the time she didn’t want to think about it; it was enough for her that she was going to ride in the race. By now she had often raced Kral around the track at Storm’s stable, and felt confident of her ability to handle the mare and any problems that might arise during the race. She and Storm understood each other perfectly.
A longer track had been prepared in the fields behind the Bull Temple, with wooden stands for the spectators. Vio and Kral rode Jinis’s two racehorses down to the stable there the evening before the race, so they would be fresh in the morning. Vio was happy when Samal appeared with Anil and Keni, to wish her luck and see Storm. They had never been to the stable, because they didn’t want to get any closer to Jalkan. They asked Kral a lot of questions and seemed to envy Vio.
“Are you staying here?” asked Samal, when they were ready to leave.
“Yes,” said Vio. “I’ll sleep with Storm.”
“Did Papa and Mama say you could?”
“They didn’t say no.”
“I suppose they’ve given up trying to control you,” said Samal.
“I suppose so”, said Vio, suddenly feeling sad. “Are they coming tomorrow?”
“No. Mama says she couldn’t bear to watch.”
“And Yon?” asked Vio, a bit wistfully.
“He went down river today,” said Samal.
“But you’re coming, aren’t you?” she asked
“Of course,” Samal said, and Anil and Keni said “We wouldn’t miss it.”
Vio slept in her horse’s stable, as the other riders were doing. She slept badly. As soon as there was a gleam of light in the sky, she got up and ran down to the river. The water was cold when she dived in, and cleared her head, and in the dawn light she asked herself for the first time in many moons where she was going with her passions and her wilfulness. She did not like the answer she saw. Learning to ride was one thing, but it was quite another to make an exhibition of herself as she was going to today, in front of people who might think badly of her family because of it. She could see no wrong in a woman racing, but other people would. And much worse than that was that she was indebted to Jalkan and his father. And she thought she knew how they would want her to repay that debt.
Jalkan was at the stable when she returned. Vio, still seeing with the clarity of the morning, realised that behind his possessive manner and his pride in being seen as her patron there was also something as near to affection as Jalkan was capable of feeling. The knowledge did not please her; it made her feel worse. But she pulled herself together, put on the wide tunic that Gora had devised for her to use in the race, so she would not be too uncovered, and led Storm out on to the track to exercise her.
Storm had always won the practice races at her stable track, without ever having to make a real effort. Now Vio saw, as she watched the horses she was going to compete against, some of which had come from quite far away, that none of them had a chance against Storm. There was one beast that was as tall as Storm (most of them were smaller), but it was thicker set and had a heavy gait. Rather than making her feel better, the realisation that the race was bound to be a victory for her made her feel angry. The whole thing was pointless.
She was still feeling angry a couple of hours later, when it was time to go out and race. Jinis was at the stable, frowning, but he wished her luck.
“You are nervous,” said Jalkan, giving her a leg up on to the mare. It didn’t help that he touched her, but Vio gritted her teeth. This had to be got through, and then she would be free of him.
“A bit,” she said, “but I’m going to win.”
“Of course you are,” said Jalkan.
The stands were full, and people were lined up all along the track. They gasped when they saw that a girl was riding the big black mare. Some of them gesticulated and shouted; Vio shut her ears to what they might be saying. She saw Samal and the rest of the boat crew waving near the starting post, and felt comforted.
As the horses lined up at the start, Vio suddenly had a wild urge to lose the race on purpose. It would punish Jinis and Jalkan for their arrogance and be more of a challenge than winning. But then she thought that she couldn’t do that to Storm, who loved to race and trusted her.
Then they were away, and Vio’s joy in riding took over. One of the little horses, a grey, proved faster than it looked, and for a time the two of them were out ahead of the bunch together, galloping side by side. But when they came to the last straight, Vio told Storm to give it all she had, and she pulled away and finished the race three lengths in front of the grey horse.
The crowd was cheering and jumping, and Vio felt a momentary satisfaction in her victory. Jinis and Jalkan came out on to the track to meet her. Jinis was actually smiling and Jalkan helped her down from the mare and hugged her in front of the crowd. That was the end of Vio’s contentment.
Samal and their friends joined them at the stables, and Jinis welcomed them.
“I hope this will be the beginning of a fruitful association,” he said.
“I don’t know if Vio will want to go on riding in races,” said Samal.
“She’s proved she could do it, eh?” said Jinis, and Vio thought whatever he was he was not stupid. “Well, maybe it’s better if she doesn’t go on. It’s not a woman’s sport. We’ll meet soon in any case.”
Samal just bowed. “Vio,” he said, “we came down in the old boat. Do you want to go back with us?”
“Oh, yes,” said Vio, “that’ll be the perfect way to rest after all this excitement.”
“But there are other races to watch,” said Jalkan.
“Please excuse me,” said Vio. “I’m tired. I got up very early this morning.”
“Yes, Kral told me you didn’t sleep much,” said Jalkan indulgently. “All right. I’ll see you soon.”
Samal bowed again to Jinis and Vio did the same. Jinis just nodded, but he was not annoyed at her leaving. He ignored their friends.
A crowd had gathered near the stable to get a better look at the girl rider. Samal and the others had to surround her and lead her through, so that people couldn’t touch her. She heard some guffaws, and references to her long ears, and someone shouted “Shameless royal”; but most people were cheering her, even calling her a heroine. Then the horn blew for the start of the next race, and the crowd ran to the track.
There was an arch of palm fronds in front of the Temple, and flowers adorned the porch and steps. People were carrying offerings of fruit to the Bull altar inside. The boat was tied up at the quay, and as they pushed off Vio thought how peaceful everything looked and how happy she was to go back to the river. But all was not well.
“What have you promised those people, Vio?” asked Samal, as they started to row up river.
“Nothing,” said Vio, blushing as she always did when Samal raised his eyebrows at her in that teasing way. “But they seem to think I have.”
“They think you’re going to marry Jalkan,” said Samal, and the other boys made rude noises.
“I can’t help that,” said Vio. “I won’t, of course.”
“He’s not going to let you go so easily,” said Samal.
“He likes me, but he doesn’t really care.”
“Oh yes, he does. You’re a royal, and for his family an association by marriage with us would be important.”
“And what are we supposed to get out of it?”
“Money of course. Jinis is the richest man in town.”
“I’ve been careless, haven’t I?” said Vio.
9. BAD BEHAVIOR
Vio didn’t go back to the stable again. She missed Storm terribly, and she knew the mare would be missing her too, although Kral was kind to her. For some days she didn’t see Jalkan, and she even thought her worries might have been unnecessary. Perhaps he too had been interested only in her winning the race. But then he came one evening to the boat yard. Vio and the others greeted him without warmth.
“I’m sorry I haven’t come before,” he said. “I was away on business for Father.”
“Don’t worry,” said Samal. Vio said nothing.
“Well, are you rested now?” Jalkan asked her. “When are you coming back to the stable?”
“I don’t want to go on racing,” Vio said.
“But you want to ride, don’t you? I’ll learn too and we can go riding together.”
He seemed to believe so sincerely that this would make her happy, that Vio felt a little bit sorry to disappoint him.
“They need me here to help with the boat,” she said. “It’s not long now till the race.”
“So I guess I’ll have to join you here,” Jalkan said. “Has Melis finished his job?”
“Yes, come and see,” said Anil, and he led Jalkan behind the boat to where the beautiful figurehead lay waiting to be mounted.
Vio stood for a moment wondering what she was going to do. Yon was standing near her, and she couldn’t resist glancing at him to see what he thought. He was looking at her with fondness, and amusement too, and Vio felt tears come to her eyes. Why had she been so foolish? She turned back to her work on the boat, sanding planks. After all, she said to herself, the situation can’t be so serious. I’ll find a way to deal with it.
But a few days later it became even more serious. Her father was waiting for her in the courtyard after her lessons, and asked her to come into his study with him. He waved at her to sit down, and she saw he was holding a letter.
“Do you have an idea what this is?” he asked her.
“No,” said Vio, though she had an idea, and she didn’t like it.
“It’s a marriage proposal,” said Pepi. “For you. From Jinis.”
“Do you have an understanding with his son?”
“No. We’re just friends.”
“You’ve given him a reason to think you have, obviously,” said Pepi. “A man like Jinis doesn’t send a proposal if he expects to be refused.”
“But I couldn’t possibly marry Jalkan, could I?” asked Vio.
“Why not? Because he’s a merchant’s son? I thought you were against class differences.”
“I am,” said Vio. “But he and his father are so conceited. And they think so much about money.”
“That’s how they’re becoming so powerful,” said Pepi. “And they want us to make way for them. If they can take us over by peaceful means, like Jalkan marrying you, all the better. But if they can’t, they’ll find other ways to get rid of the royals. They’ve been stirring up the people against us.”
Vio thought of Gora’s “dark clouds”, and of her own premonitions of trouble ahead. She had seen her father looking tense for some time, and older too. But she had been too wrapped up in her own interests to ask him why.
“Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?” she said. “I’d have been more careful.”
“Would you?” asked Pepi.
“I hope so,” said Vio, making an effort to be honest. “But I might not. Am I really destined to cause trouble?”
“Among other things, it seems,” said Pepi, and he smiled ruefully, but kindly too.
“But what can I do?” said Vio. “Do you want me to marry him?”
“Not if you hate the idea,” said Pepi. “I don’t like the boy myself. But we’ll have to be very tactful. I’ll tell Jinis we’re not ready to get you married yet. There’s no one else you want to marry, is there?”
“No,” said Vio.
“So that should keep us safe for some time. Then we’ll see what happens. Maybe they’ll find another girl.”
Vio didn’t know what her father wrote to Jinis, but it couldn’t have been too discouraging. At least, Jalkan had not taken it as a refusal of his proposal, and now his behaviour toward Vio became more possessive than ever. And her obvious distaste when he put an arm round her, or touched her face, didn’t bother him either.
“How can he not see I don’t like him?” Vio asked Samal.
“He thinks you’re behaving correctly,” said Samal. “Nice young women don’t let themselves be touched until they’re married.”
“That’s absurd,” said Vio. “When I fall in love, I’ll want to touch and be touched. Even if I don’t get married.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Samal. “And I can just imagine what kind of trouble you’ll cause.”
He was teasing her, but Vio knew he also believed what he said. It made her feel sad that her brother, too, saw her as a trouble-maker; but she cheered up at the thought that anyway she was not going to fall in love for a long time, if ever.
Finally the Kingfisher was ready to be launched. The crew – all of them, Vio, Samal, Anil, Keni, Soteps and Jalkan, with Yon helping them – pushed the boat gently to the river’s edge and cheered as she floated in the deep water of the port. She was long and sleek and pale, and the kingfisher statue gleamed at her bow. Her oars were on board, her new sail was lying against the mast, and the ropes were ready to be worked. The old craftsman, Melis, who had been invited to share the occasion, chanted a prayer for her safety on the water.
The young people boarded the boat and looked to Yon for directions. Yon sent Samal to the sail and the other boys to the oars, and then he said, “From now on I’m no longer your captain. It’s better if you learn to sail her yourselves as a crew.”
“So who do you think should be our captain for the race?” Samal asked.
“I think it should be Vio,” said Yon. “She understands the wind better than anyone. But it’s up to you.”
All of them shouted their agreement; all except Jalkan, who said nothing, but Vio could see he was not pleased. Vio, however, was thrilled that Yon had shown so much confidence in her, and she gave him a joyful smile. He smiled back, openly, and she could see he was her easygoing friend again.
They took the boat up river. Everything went smoothly, and there were only a few patches, which could easily be cured, where dampness appeared at the seams between the planks. When they turned back, Vio shouted, “We’ll try her for speed now.” Yon grinned. They all bent to their tasks, and the Kingfisher lived up to her name, riding the water on wings.
“Aren’t you afraid we’ll beat you?” Keni asked Yon when they were back at the port.
“I’m sure you will,” Yon said. “Our boat’s just an old fishing tub. We only sail in the race for fun.”
“Then sail with us,” said Vio, and the others agreed. Except, again, Jalkan.
“No,” said Yon. “My place is with my crew.”
Jalkan walked beside Vio as they returned to town, and before they reached her house he drew her aside from the others.
“I’m glad to see Yon knows his place in the end,” he said. “I don’t like you being so nice to that fellow. He’s just an ordinary fisherman.”
“He’s not ordinary at all,” said Vio, choking back all the other retorts that came to her mind. “And he’s our friend.”
“Well, I want you to be more careful of the friends you make from now on.”
With that, he left the group, saying good night only to Vio.
Vio felt like screaming with anger. No one had ever tried to interfere in her friendships, and she would never have allowed it. And now this conceited fool expected to choose her friends for her! How could she ever have thought for a moment he was attractive? He was an ugly, arrogant, insufferable moron.
Pepi and Amapola had been looking strained for some. One day when Pepi failed to appear for lunch Samal asked, “What’s going on Mama? If there’s something serious, don’t you think we should know about it?”
Amapola stopped pretending to eat. “You know there’s a movement to push the royal family aside,” she said. “That’s no secret, everyone’s talking about it. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and we’ve always come out on top, but this time the people who want to get rid of us are strong, and the royals are weak. Katelia doesn’t know how to show her power. Melops is very worried. He’s asked your father and other men of the clan to plan a response.”
“What kind of response?” asked Samal.
“We hope violence won’t be necessary,” said Amapola sadly. “We have to find a way to make the royal family popular again.”
“How can they be popular if they never show themselves?” asked Vio.
“That’s one thing they’re discussing. But at the moment, with Katelia helpless, Ibisia sick and Tankret behaving like a demon, it’s better if they’re not seen.”
These were strong words from Amapola.
“So Tankret’s playing up again?” asked Samal, after a short silence.
“Yes. He wants to fight all the time now. And he’s very strong. The guards at the Palace are tired of warding him off.”
“Why haven’t you told us before?” asked Samal.
“You’ve been so busy with the boat,” said Amapola. “And your father and I thought it was better for you not to be involved.”
“I feel terrible,” said Vio. “What I’ve been doing must have made the situation worse.”
“Offending Jinis has not been helpful,” said Amapola, “but otherwise you, both of you, are the most popular members of the clan. You’re friendly to everyone and people love sportsmen – and sportswomen, it seems.” Amapola was smiling.
Vio felt an enormous relief. She was not just a problem for her people after all. Samal was grinning too.
“We’ll organise more festivals,” he said. “We’ll keep the people on our side with sports.”
After this conversation, Vio and Samal felt it was their duty to spend time at the Palace with their cousins. They decided that even if they were treated rudely they would not be offended, but go on trying to be friends. Melops, who saw them arrive at the Palace, welcomed them and said it would do the children good to see them.
The first thing they heard, however, as they climbed the stairs to the roof room, was Tankret yelling. In the room were Ibisia and Tinina, cowering in a corner with one of their maids, two of the Palace guards, strong, bronzed men in short tunics, and Tankret. It was only a few moons since she had seen him, but Vio was impressed by the change in Tankret. He had grown taller and lost his fat; he looked formidable in the wrestler’s cloth he was wearing. He also looked as mad as ever, but fiercer and less peevish. His low forehead under the smooth cap of hair was wrinkled in anger, and he was hitting out indiscriminately at the guards, who parried the blows, shouting, “Fight me, you bastards, you cowards! I command you to fight me!”
Vio could see Samal wanted to intervene, but he restrained himself. She also felt they had been away too long to have the right to get involved. They watched helplessly. Finally the maid with their girl cousins got up and ran out on to the terrace, disappearing down the outside stairs. In a few moments Melops leapt up on to the terrace and stood in the doorway. He seemed to swell with fury.
“Enough!” he shouted, and Tankret turned to him. “You are the coward, attacking these men who can’t respond. You leave me no alternative. Come, fight me.”
He moved into the centre of the room and the guards stood aside. Tankret hesitated for a moment, whether because Melops was his father or because he had been a champion fighter, Vio couldn’t guess. Then he assumed a cocky stance, and stepped toward Melops, aiming blows at his chest. Melops easily dodged them and hit Tankret on the arm. Tankret looked as if he didn’t believe it and tried again to hit his father, with a series of fast punches. Again Melops side-stepped and this time hit Tankret in the ribs. Tankret’s mouth fell open in surprise, and in that instant Melops hit him on the chin. Then he charged his father like a mad bull, aiming with his rock-hard head at Melops’ stomach, flailing with his arms at his face and neck. Melops calmly deflected the blows and gave Tankret a chop on the back of the neck, not with all his strength but enough to lay him out on the floor, unconscious.
Ibisia started to wail, but Melops said, “He’ll be all right. You keep away from him.” He pointed to Samal, “You look after him.” Then he went through the doorway and down the steps again, without looking back.
Samal and the guards picked up Tankret and carried him out on to the terrace to lie in the fresh air. One of the guards fetched cold water to pour on his head and the other checked to make sure no bones were broken. Soon Tankret opened his eyes and looked at Samal, who was sitting beside him.
“Hi, Sami!” he said. “What happened?”
“You had a scrap with your father,” said Samal.
“Did I? I must have been a naughty boy. I’m feeling better now.” He shook his head, winced at the pain, and grinned.
“It’s a long time since you’ve been here, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes,” said Samal. “Last time I came you told me to get out.”
“Did I? I don’t remember. I wish I could get out with you.”
“I’ll take you,” said Samal. “I’ll talk to your father and I’ll take you out.”
That was the beginning of a new stage in all their lives. Vio wondered how Katelia and Melops would react to Samal’s promise, but they were desperate enough to decide to change the rules and allow Samal to take Tankret into the outside world. Samal’s plan, he told Vio, was to make Tankret, too, into a sporting hero, and perhaps help give the royal family a new lease of life.
10. A BREAK
Vio wished she could bring Tankret’s sisters out into the world too, but Tinina was an insipid girl who seemed to have no interests beyond her own comfort, and Ibisia was slow to recover from her listlessness. Vio continued, anyway, to visit Ibisia and try to cheer her up.
“Aren’t you happy that Tankret’s so much better now?” she asked her one day.
“He’s probably not really better,” said Ibisia. “It’s the bang on the head that made him forget some things.”
“A bang on the head may not be recommended as medicine,” said Vio. “But if it worked so well why quarrel with it? You must be happy that he’s leaving you in peace now, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so,” said Ibisia. “I miss him a bit too.”
“But he hasn’t gone away.”
“No,” said Ibisia uncertainly. Vio felt quite impatient with her, and she was relieved when finally she arrived at the Palace one afternoon and found her cousin playing the flute.
Most of the time her thoughts and her energy were taken up with the Kingfisher. The crew met early every morning to take the boat out, sailing up river to be out of sight of the other crews, who practised near the port. They tacked and turned, in different weather and wind conditions, and their co-ordination became more precise each time. Even Jalkan bent his strength to merge with the rest, following Vio’s commands with no more than the occasional frown. Once or twice, when they worked the sail together, she even felt something like the complicity with him that she had when they were preparing for the horserace.
But don’t get carried away, she reminded herself (as if she could!). All the time you thought you were using him, he was using you too. You thought he wanted you, and he did, but more than that he wanted a royal bride. And now you’re the one that’s paying.
Being captain had made Vio pay more attention than ever to the wind. Not just to guess its whims and enjoy its strength; she needed knowledge to catch it and coax it to carry the boat smoothly even against the wind itself.
There was nothing in her studies with Gora that could help her in this, so she asked Samal if at school he had come across any calculations that could be applied to sailing. It turned out there were, in fact, studies of wind force and resistance to currents. They were of little practical help, but Vio found some insights in them.
One day when they were returning quietly to the port from a brisk sail up river, Vio and Samal were sitting on the deck discussing a particular calculation. Jalkan came and stood beside them. Vio knew he was becoming irritated, but she was not prepared for what he interrupted them to say:
“When you’re my wife you won’t need to know all this stuff. Women are not made for studying.”
He was so sure of himself, and spoke so conceitedly, that all the rest of the crew reacted with sounds of protest.
Samal was the first to speak. “Who says she’s going to marry you?” he asked, keeping his voice as neutral as he could.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. My father asked for her hand, and your father wouldn’t dare say no to him.”
“I believe my father answered him that Vio is too young to think of marriage yet.”
“Right. But that means she’ll marry me when he decides she’s ready. And it’ll have to be soon. She’s nearly sixteen years old, isn’t she? Who ever heard of sixteen being too young.”
Vio was telling herself she must be careful, she mustn’t offend him, she owed it to her family to avoid making the crisis worse. But her anger at being discussed as though she was a thing, a dummy to be married off at the will of others, combined with her loathing of Jalkan, was too strong for her. Without even knowing what she was going to say, she burst out, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in the world.”
Jalkan looked as if she had hit him, unbelieving, then indignant, then irate. The murmur of approval from the other boys in the boat increased his fury.
“Then what have you been doing all this time, behaving as if you were engaged to me?” he exclaimed. “All those times you’ve been alone with me!”
“I thought we were friends,” said Vio, more quietly as she remembered she was also guilty of misleading him. “I suppose our customs are different from yours.”
“Oh yes, of course, your customs. You’re a royal. Well, let me tell that won’t mean anything much longer. You should have jumped at the chance I gave you.”
“Being a royal has nothing to do with it,” said Vio.
“Ah, no, I forgot. You love fishermen, and your father too. Well, you’d better go and marry that slavish Yon, because after this no one else will have you. My father will see to that.”
But this was not a threat that worried Vio, and the insult to Yon was too much for her. “How dare you speak of Yon like that,” she shouted. “You conceited, spoilt, snobbish, boring lout!”
Again there was a murmur in support of Vio from the boys, and Samal said, “You understand nothing about friendship. You also have missed a chance with us.”
Fortunately they had reached the port, and as soon as the boat was within jumping distance of the river wall, Jalkan leapt off and strode away.
“What shall I tell Papa?” Vio asked Samal, as they walked home.
“We’ll talk to him together,” said Samal.
Pepi was coming in as they arrived, and they followed him to his study.
“Well?” he said. “From your faces something bad has happened.”
“Vio had to break with Jalkan,” Samal said.
“Tell me what happened,” said Pepi
Samal described the scene to him, and Vio could see that Jalkan’s arrogant behaviour made him indignant too, though he only sighed.
“So that’s that,” he said.
“What will you tell Jinis?” asked Vio.
“What do you suggest I tell him?”
“Maybe that I’m disobedient and quarrelled with Jalkan. And it’s not your fault.”
“And add the disobedience of our daughters to the sins of the royals? No, I won’t tell him anything. You’re well out of it. If there are repercussions we’ll deal with them.”