CHILDHOOD

1.  THE PREDICTION

 

Vio first heard of her unusual fate when she was still a little girl. She was making mud houses in the garden, on a hot, lazy afternoon, when her nurse, Gora, called her inside.

“What do you want?” shouted Vio. “I’m busy.”

“You’re going to the Temple with your mother. Come and change your dress.”

“I don’t want to,” shouted Vio.

“Come on,” said Gora. “I’m not going to go on calling you. Your mother is waiting.”

Vio lay down in the mud.

Gora ran to her across the garden. “For mercy’s sake, child, what are you doing?” she exclaimed. “Why are you making yourself dirty?”

“Because I don’t want to go,” said Vio. “I don’t like going to the Temple.”

“It’s no good looking at me with those pleading eyes,” said Gora, pulling her up and trying to hide a smile. “I can’t help you this time. The Priestess wants to see you, and her wish is an order. Come, you’ll have to have a bath.”

Vio thought of running away, but Gora would grab her if she tried, and she was a little bit curious to find out what the Priestess wanted, so she took Gora’s hand and went in to the house.

Gora washed off the mud at the trough in the courtyard, dressed her in her best linen tunic with the red border, and braided a red ribbon into her dark hair.

“That’s my pretty one,” said her mother, Amapola, as Vio ran into the hall toward her. “Come, let’s see what the Priestess has to say.”

Amapola also had on a fine robe and the gold earrings she wore for special occasions. Gora, when she joined them, had combed her wiry hair. The three of them, with Vio in the middle, walked up the road to the high gate in the city wall. A breeze from the river lifted their hair and fanned the summer heat. It was cooler once they reached the shade of the paved street between the earth-walled houses, and Vio skipped and jumped, hanging on the hands of the two women, enjoying the sound of her reed sandals flapping on the flagstones.

The Temple came in sight round a bend, and Vio thought it looked pretty and after all she was happy she had come. She liked its thick round columns, and the golden statue of the Goddess on the tall roof of the porch, and the sacred beasts attending her, the Dog, the Bull, the Gazelle and the Kingfisher, which looked so alive although they were carved in stone.

Vio and the two women crossed the open square – the market was almost deserted at that time of day – climbed the steps and entered the Temple. When her eyes became used to the dim light, Vio saw there was no one else inside. She was very curious now about why she had been called and what would happen. She saw the gleam of metal as the Priestess, wearing her gold head-dress and girdle, came out of the shadows at the back of the Temple to stand in front of the altar.

Amapola and Gora bowed deeply as they approached her. Vio, without lowering her head, bent her knees quickly. The Priestess smiled at her, and stepped forward to put her hands lightly on Vio’s head. Before she could duck, the Priestess removed her hands again, but Vio’s head was tingling.

The Priestess calmly lit an oil lamp on the altar and turned to Amapola. “As I thought,” she said, “your daughter has been born with a special task to perform.”

“This will seem strange to you now,” she went on, addressing Vio herself in a kind voice, “but in time you will understand.”

“What kind of task?” Amapola asked.

But the Priestess didn’t answer. Suddenly her expression changed and became fierce. She drew herself up and held her arms above her head, in the same posture as the stone Goddess on the altar behind her. The lamp flickered and threw long shadows of both of them all round the Temple. Gazing into Vio’s now startled eyes, the Priestess chanted in the voice she used for the Temple rites, “May the Goddess bless you, Vio, saviour of your race and mother of the new child.”

Then she lowered her arms and turned away, disappearing again into the shadows behind the altar.

Amapola and Gora both called after her, “Please tell us more,” but she had gone.

Vio, recovering from the fright the Priestess’s dramatic appearance had given her, was feeling angry. It was not fair that she had been made to dress up and come to the Temple for this woman to treat her so strangely and give her a message that didn’t mean anything to her. She turned and ran outside, and at the bottom of the steps she took her sandals off and threw them as far as she could.

When her mother and nurse joined her they didn’t scold her as she expected. Her mother, who never talked very much, gave her a quick hug. A man who was crossing the marketplace returned her sandals, bowing as he recognised members of the royal clan, and Gora just thanked him and let her walk away with bare feet.

But Vio was still angry. After a few minutes she burst out, “What did she say all that to me for?”

“I don’t understand either,” said her mother, “but time will show us what she meant.”

“Did you understand what she said, Gora?” asked Vio. Her nurse could usually answer all her questions.

“Not exactly,” said Gora, “but the main thing is clear, isn’t it? When you grow up you’ll have a child and you’ll both do something special.”

“No, I won’t,” said Vio. “I won’t have any children. I’m not going to get married.”

“You’ll feel differently when you grow up,” said her mother.

Vio stopped and stared at her mother and nurse. Her expression was fiercely determined. “No, I will not,” she said. “You’ll see.”

 

 

2.  THE LUPAKA

 

Nothing changed in Vio’s pleasant life after that strange day. Her family was one of the highest in the town. Her mother, Amapola, was a sister of the reigning Queen of Kynopolis and her father, Pepi, a cousin in the second degree. They lived in a spacious house with thick earth walls and a courtyard, on the bank of the green river, with flowering shrubs and palm trees in the garden behind it, just outside the Fishermen’s Gate on the road to the port.

Vio had her own room at the back of the house, with a window looking out on the garden and the river, and she liked to decorate it with coloured stones and plants and pieces of driftwood. Her most prized possession was a whole snake-skin, with the dark markings still clearly visible in the flimsy transparent casing, that she had found on a bush in the garden. She loved to climb the stairs to the flat roof of the house in the evening, and watch the sun go down beyond fields and palm groves on the other side of the river.

She didn’t spend much time with her parents. Her father was kind but distant, and spent most of the day in his study, where rolls of parchment in niches lined the walls; his main interest in life was preserving the records of the royal clan. Her mother liked clothes and fabrics, and was often to be found in the workroom where two girls wove cloth for her at wooden looms. Vio sometimes went to sit there with her, and her mother was always pleased to see her, but didn’t have much to say to her. She went to council meetings at the Palace and helped to organise the royal concerts.

It was Gora that Vio went to with the questions her curious mind kept coming up with – “Did I come out of an egg?” “Why doesn’t the moon fall down?” – and Gora always had an answer and was always patient. Patient with her curiosity, not with her naughtiness, which she dealt with strictly and justly.

The blot on Vio’s happy life, or so it seemed to her for many years, was her brother Samal. He was two years older than her and big and strong, and he had what seemed to Vio a mean and silly sense of humour. He loved to tease Vio, and her violent reactions only made him worse. They had good moments, when he taught her games, like spinning a top or hopscotch, but mostly he didn’t have much patience with her.

 

At first Vio remembered quite often the scene in the Temple, with a tightening in her chest. She even dreamed of the Priestess standing over her, threatening in the candle-light. One day, after a particularly vivid dream, where the Priestess had been about to set fire to her hair with the candle and she had woken up just in time, she came into the kitchen for breakfast and found Samal sitting on the mat opposite her with a smirk on his face.

“What were you howling about last night?” he asked in a teasing voice.

“I was not!” said Vio indignantly.

“Yes, you were,” said Samal. “You were howling like a dog. Were you dreaming of having your marvellous child?”

“Samal!” exclaimed Gora, nearly dropping the plate of porridge the cook was handing to her. She put it down in front of Vio. “Why ever would you say a thing like that?”

“I heard you and Mother talking,” said Samal. “It’s true, isn’t it? Vio’s going to be the mother of a special child?”

“I am not,” shouted Vio. “I’m never going to have any children!”

“You can’t escape destiny,” said Samal, mocking. And Vio picked up her plate of porridge and threw it at him.

Samal didn’t dodge quickly enough, and the porridge stuck to the side of his head and trickled down on to his shoulder. Samal looked angry for a moment and then he started to laugh. Vio stopped frowning and laughed too.

“You should be ashamed, the pair of you,” said Gora. “That’s good food you are wasting. And you might as well stop quarrelling if you’re on the same side anyway.”

“What side is that?” asked Vio, a bit huffily. It seemed to her that Samal was always against her.

“Children against common sense,” said Gora.

“I’m not a child,” said Samal, who was ten.

“Then don’t behave like one and stop teasing your sister,” said Gora. “I never want to hear you mention the child again. And if I find you listening behind closed doors, you will be very sorry.”

“Ah hah!” said Vio.

“And as for you, little miss temper, you’re not getting any breakfast,” said Gora.

It was a long time till lunch, but Vio managed to steal a biscuit from the larder at mid morning.

Gradually the incident at the Temple faded away from Vio’s mind. Neither her mother nor Gora ever spoke to her about it, and when the family went to the Temple for festivals she saw the Priestess only in the distance.

Then one evening, when Vio was old enough to think, and she and Gora were sitting quietly in the shade of the palm trees in the garden, Gora interrupted a comfortable silence to ask her, “Do you remember our visit to the Priestess when you were small?”

“Of course I remember,” said Vio. “She scared me. Though actually I haven’t thought about it for a while.”

“Well, do you have any ideas about it now.”

“I’m not going to have children, so it’s meaningless,” said Vio.

“All right,” said Gora, smiling, “but what do you think she meant, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” said Vio. “I can’t see why the Lupaka would need saving, to start with.”

“So you think she meant the Lupaka?” asked Gora.

“Yes. Who else? I’m a Lupaka, aren’t I?”

“You’re a hybrid,” said Gora. “A mestizo. You belong to the royal clan.”

“All right then, the royal clan. Why would we need saving? You can see the future sometimes. If you don’t understand, how could I?”

“I can sometimes read people’s fate in the stones,” said Gora. “People are mostly quite simple. But it’s much more difficult to read the future of a race. Lately I see dark shadows over the future of us all. I can’t see clearly what they are, and it worries me.”

“I don’t know why you should worry,” said Vio, who was not fond of problems. “Our race is doing very nicely. We all live very well.”

“Not all,” said Gora mildly. “You know there are poor descendants of the clan.”

“Well yes, I know,” said Vio. “But nobody bothers them. And if it does mean the Lupaka, they’re living safely in the forest. You’ve always told us no one can invade that place.”

“I expect you’re right,” said Gora; and though Vio knew Gora was still worried she preferred to let the subject drop. Gora was the closest friend she had, her tutor and teacher in everything since she had stopped needing a nurse, but she sometimes wanted Vio to concern herself with things that didn’t interest her.

 

Vio’s life was truly privileged. Like other members of the royal clan, she and her family spent a lot of time at the Palace. Vio and Samal were close in age to the Queen’s children, so they had grown up as part of the inner family. However, they were free to come and go, while their cousins were practically confined to the Palace building.

And they were not even supposed to go everywhere inside the Palace, though Vio had persuaded her cousin Ibisia to explore with her till she knew almost every corner of the building. It was built of stone, with a porch and a wide entryway, and a great hall for councils and feasts occupying the whole of one wing. Passageways led in the other direction to bedrooms, and sitting rooms, and storerooms, and shrines to the Goddess and the sacred animals, and kitchens for cooking meals and medicines.

All the kitchens were out of bounds to children, and the day Vio and Ibisia were caught in the larder off the main kitchen, sampling the preserves, there was a serious row. Everyone knew it was Vio’s fault, because Ibisia was a pale, timid child who would never dare to be disobedient on her own, but to be fair the Queen punished both of them, by banning them from a holiday feast. Vio took her punishment calmly, but Ibisia was upset, and refused to explore again till a couple of years later, when something almost worse happened.

They heard a strange sound behind a door off one of the stone corridors, and Vio tiptoed up and opened it. The male cook was on the bed there with one of the Queen’s maidservants, both of them with almost nothing on and very excited. They stared at Vio, and they looked terrified. Vio stood staring back long enough for Ibisia to come up behind her and glimpse the scene over her shoulder; then she recovered from her shock and hurriedly shut the door. They kept the secret to themselves, and no adult ever mentioned it, but for a long time they were afraid that some kind of vengeance would catch up with them.

After that they would just sit and talk, or play games, or Ibisia would play her flute. Luckily she played well, and Vio, though she was not particularly musical, enjoyed listening to her, because like the princess she was, Ibisia simply expected Vio to be her audience. There were stairs up from the hall to a big, light room on the Palace roof, with wall paintings of birds and animals and a view over the town, and that was where they liked to sit. From there the town was a spread of flat roofs, with dark gullies criss-crossing it which were the streets. The stone wall surrounding it was as high as the houses, and higher at the points where the three arched gateways – the Dog Gate, the Boar Gate, the Fishermen’s Gate – broke into it. In the middle was the open space of the market square where the Temple also stood, and from the Palace the golden head and raised arms of the Goddess on the Temple roof could be seen above the houses.

A wide arched doorway opened from the roof room on to a terrace with its own outside stairs and a stone altar, where rites could be performed in full view of the townspeople, and this always reminded Vio that the royal family was separate from everyone else. The Palace had fine furnishings and ornaments, and servants carried out all the family’s wishes. If you had to be imprisoned, Vio thought, the Palace was not a bad place for it. But nothing could have persuaded Vio to exchange her freedom for her cousins’ luxurious life.

 

There were poorer members of the royal clan too. Some of them lived in the country as farmers, and in bad years, when there was not enough rain, they had a hard time. Vio knew also that there were mestizos like herself living a workers’ life at the port. Lately she had come to understand that they were the illegitimate children of men of the clan and their descendants. But as far as she knew their lives were ordinary and peaceful enough.

She still couldn’t see why her race, or clan, would need a saviour, or even less how she herself could save them, but after her talk with Gora she found herself thinking about possible problems they might face.

The next time she went to the Palace she studied the royal family, wondering what could happen to threaten them. She saw a typical, peaceful afternoon scene. Her aunt, Queen Katelia, was serene. At that moment she was reclining on soft cushions in her sitting-room, at the centre of a group of clansmen, who were amusing her with family gossip. Uncle Melops, the Queen’s consort, stood near her looking large and prosperous and satisfied. Ibisia, Vio’s older cousin, was smiling and graceful. Tinina was a pretty child still. Only their brother Tankret looked grumpy, as he always did. With a flash of surprise at her own imagination, Vio found herself thinking that if trouble was to come from within this family, it would be from Tankret.

It was odd, thought Vio, that Ibisia and Tankret could be sister and brother. Ibisia had grown out of her childhood pallor and shyness, and was sleek and beautiful with her creamy hair, and dignified though modest in bearing. Whereas Tankret was a lump, with hair low down on his forehead and ungainly limbs. There could be no better illustration of the superiority of the royal women.

Everyone knew, Vio thought, that women were superior, and she herself had always been happy she was born a girl, but somehow the distinction was not always as clear as you might expect. Among the Lupaka, of course, it would be unmistakable.

 

It was Gora who told the stories of the Lupaka to the children while they were growing up. They sat on the reed mats in the roof room at the Palace, and listened, enchanted, as she described the Navel, the settlement where the Lupaka had lived since the beginning of time. Modest wooden houses stood in circles around a Temple that was like a hill of stone with mysterious caves inside it. Powerful Priestesses performed strange rites and foresaw the future; and great artists who were also seers made images of their gods. Doges ensured that justice reigned among the people. They were all musicians, and made fine wooden decorations for their houses and seasonal jewellery from the forest plants.

Vio listened to Gora’s descriptions over and over again and always wanted to know more. She asked how people chose names for their children, and Gora said, “mostly from stars and plants”. She asked what colours the girls liked to wear, and Gora said “the colours of the flowers and leaves of the forest”. She wanted to know what furniture they had, and Gora said they mostly sat on chairs and ate from tables. She knew so much about the Navel, it was as if she could walk the streets there and enter any house and feel at home. The Temple, too, she had visited often in her imagination, and felt awed by its dark interior.

Gora also told them how their own dynasty was founded, when the first brave explorer, Polon, found his way to Kynopolis from the Navel. The people of the town had always worshipped the Dog among their gods, and even had a prediction that a dog-man would come from far away to change the course of their history, so when Polon appeared he was welcomed as a prodigy. Some peasants found him sleeping in a field, and when they saw his strong, hairy body and long nose and toes they fell on their knees, gasping with awe. He woke and reassured them, and they led him to the gateway in the city walls that was called the Dog Gate, because of the fierce dog carved in relief on one of its pillars. There a startled sentry asked him to wait, while he sent a message to the Palace.

The Queen herself, proud Kantalisia, came out to meet him, escorted by tall courtiers who held a canopy over her fine, dark head. She was extraordinarily beautiful, with golden-red skin and slanting eyes outlined in black. She and Polon looked at each other and fell in love, and she led him back in triumphal procession to the Palace, with the crowd that had gathered cheering as they passed. Kantalisia expelled her human consort, and lived with Polon happily ever after. So Gora said.

In spite of Polon’s fabulous origin, Kantalisia was careful never to give him any real power; there was never any doubt she was the ruler, and she ruled well, increasing the territory and wealth of Kynopolis. Their eldest daughter became Queen after her. And all of them, Gora said – all the children listening to her story – were descended from Polon and Kantalisia and could be proud of their inheritance.

 

The marriage of Kantalisia and Polon was several generations in the past, but the Lupaka blood was strong, and almost all their descendants showed some sign of their mixed inheritance, in the long, sharp features, the lilting gait or the extra hair. The royal clan believed that mixed blood was an advantage, that plain humans like their subjects were weaker and less intelligent. For a long time now they had married only among themselves, not wanting to further dilute the blood of their Lupaka ancestor.

Gora was pure Lupaka. She had come alone from the Navel, one of the adventurous spirits of her people, driven by a desire to see the world beyond the dense forest where they lived, and had been invited by Vio’s grandmother to look after Amapola when she was little. She had been with their family ever since. She was small and wiry and had a wrinkled face, and she laughed often, so that people forgot to be shy of her penetrating eyes. Vio, of course, was used to Gora’s odd appearance and usually took it for granted; occasionally, however, her teacher’s angular body and the hair on her hands and the long ears that framed her thin, alert face surprised her with their strangeness. Gora said that when she first came to Kynopolis many people were afraid of her; but they had soon discovered that she was a very clever doctor and there was hardly a house in Kynopolis that she hadn’t visited to bring healing and advice.

 

 

3. YON

 

As time passed and Vio and the other children became adolescents, they no longer wanted to spend a lot of time sitting and listening to stories. There were more interesting things to do in the hours they had free from lessons. Samal was attending the boys’ school in town, mixing with the boys from the merchant families, as was the custom for the sons of the royal clan. It was supposed to give them understanding of each others’ interests and way of life, and in a general way it did.

The clan girls did not go to the human girls’ school, because their parents were afraid they would meet human boys in town and fall in love with them. Gora didn’t like this distinction; she said girls shouldn’t be treated as if they were weaker than boys, and they were not getting a proper education. The future Queen and her sisters were given a special education at the Palace, and Vio knew she was lucky to have Gora as a tutor. She was studying with her, as well as the history and science of Kynopolis, the Lupaka knowledge of the stars, and music, and medicinal plants. And the Lupaka language; Gora was happy to be able to speak to her in her own language.

Since Vio had no sister, and Ibisia was confined to the Palace, there were no girls to join her in the activities she liked. It was at that stage that she discovered the advantages of having an elder brother and stopped quarrelling with him all the time. When he teased her, she took it as a joke, which was how he meant it. Samal, in any case, was not someone it was easy to be annoyed with for long. He was good-looking, tall and strong with dark, curly hair, and he was amusing and kind. He brought his friends home, and they often let her join in their sports. When they went sailing, specially, they liked to take her with them, because she turned out to be clever with boats. It seemed the wind was always on her side.

They usually had several small reed boats moored where the garden behind the house sloped down to the river. They were not very solid boats, rafts really, and if they collided with each other or with the river bank they were easily damaged and sometimes fell apart. Then, while they waited for their generous parents to get the rafts replaced, the friends had to make do with swimming as a sport. They were all good swimmers, but Vio could hold her own with the boys when they raced.

It was while they were in the water together, with almost nothing on, that she was able to study the difference between royal and human bodies. As children they had run around naked, and she had learned the difference between males and females long ago. Now it amused her to see that while Samal and Keni, his friend from the clan, were getting hair right down their fronts and a lot on their backs as well, their human friend Anil had hair only in a few special places. And Anil’s legs were longer. She herself, like all females, had less body hair, but her nose was long and her ears had long lobes inherited from the Lupaka.

 

Samal’s friends invited him to their houses, too, and sometimes Vio was included in the invitation. The first time she went to Anil’s moon day party, she was curious to see what a human house was like. Anil’s house was on the market square, one of a two-storey row. On the outside it looked ordinary, but inside it was spacious and had fine wooden furniture, including tables to eat off, and colourful carpets covering most of the polished floor.

Anil saw Vio looking at the carpets and asked her, “Do you like them.”

“They’re beautiful,” said Vio. “Does your mother get them made here?”

“No,” said Anil. “Father collected them on his journeys. He’s bringing them in to sell now.”

Vio thought that Anil’s father must be good at selling things. This house, though much smaller, was almost as luxurious as the Palace, and most of the things in it looked new. Some of the Palace furnishings were old and almost shabby.

“My sister would like to meet you,” said Anil. “I’ve told her a lot about you.”

“I’d like to meet her too,” said Vio.

Anil called Seso and she came to be introduced. She was a pretty girl (pretty in the short-nosed, human way) with fair skin and reddish hair. “Come and sit in my room,” she said to Vio. “We can talk better there.”

So they went upstairs, and Vio was quite relieved to find Seso’s room comfortable but untidy. She moved a heap of robes off a divan under the window, and told Vio to sit there.

“I have to tell you I envy you,” she said, sitting on her bed opposite Vio.

“Why?” asked Vio, surprised.

“Because you go out on the river and have fun with the boys, and no one keeps telling you to behave like a lady.”

“They sometimes try,” said Vio, laughing, “but I don’t listen. Why don’t you come too, with Anil?”

“He wouldn’t want me to and my parents would never let me. They say outdoor sports are not for girls. And I’m bored with the school gymnasium.”

“But that’s awful,” said Vio. “We live under a Queen. Women are supposed to be free to do what they like.”

“Maybe in the royal clan it’s different,” said Seso. “And my grandma says she used to swim in the river, but my parents don’t take what she says seriously. They just want me to get ready to be the wife of a rich man.”

Vio felt sorry for Seso and didn’t know what to say, there were so many protests in her mind. But at that moment Anil came to fetch them to play human checkers, on the board inlaid in the floor of the entrance hall; so they went downstairs, and Vio didn’t have another chance to talk to Seso, except as she was leaving, when she said to her, “I hope to see you on the river soon.” Seso just smiled and raised her eyebrows.

After that day, Vio looked more closely at what other girls of the clan were doing, and realised that none of them were as active and adventurous as she was either.

 

Vio was reminded of her difference from the boys the first time she bled from between her legs. Gora had prepared her for this, but all the same she was surprised, and her body felt strange to her.

Amapola said, “That’s good. It means one day you’ll have children,” but one look at Vio’s indignant face told her this was not the way to reassure her.”

Gora said, “Don’t worry, it won’t stop you doing anything you like to do.

You’ll soon learn to deal with it.”

“But why do only women have to deal with something like this?” asked Vio.

“Because only women can create life from inside them,” said Gora. “That’s why they’re closer to the Goddess from whose womb everything is born.”

Vio was satisfied with this answer, and didn’t object when Gora and Amapola said she should go to the Temple to receive the blessing for her new stage in life. Again she stood in front of the Priestess, who lifted her hands to bless her as she recited the prayer for the occasion:

Lady white as sweet milk that feeds us,
Lady red as fierce blood that drives us,
Lady black as old bile that rots us
and sends us to rest,

today your daughter
puts on the second robe
and enters the sisterhood
of the crimson sap.

In your service
let her shed blood wisely,
let her knot blood strongly
in her womb.

Gora and Amapola stood on either side of Vio, holding their gifts of flowers and fruit, and at that moment Vio felt close to both of them and proud of entering the community of women to which they all belonged. She remembered the prediction the Priestess had made in that same Temple, and she was glad no one had referred to it. What we’re celebrating happens to all females, she thought. It’s nothing to do with me being special.

The bleeding soon became a normal part of her life.

One important human friend was not someone connected with the royal clan nor with Samal’s school. They met him one day on the river, and he immediately took on the role of their helper.

It was a lazy afternoon like many others, and four of them were drifting downstream on two rafts, close together, letting the current and the wind in the small fibre sails do most of the work, correcting course occasionally and talking about horses. Horse-racing was a new sport in the town, and Vio thought she would like to try it.

“But there aren’t any girls riding the horses,” said Keni, who was in her boat.

“Why should that stop me?” said Vio.

“Who would give you a horse?” said Samal. “Papa spoils you rotten, but I don’t think he’d go that far.”

“You know people who have horses,” said Vio. “Find someone who’ll let me ride.”

“I might know someone,” said Anil, the fourth of the group; but at that moment the Bull Temple came in sight on the right bank of the river and they forgot horse-racing.

“We’d better turn back,” said Keni, because their parents had settled on the Bull Temple as the limit for their excursions downstream.

“Do we have to?” said Vio. “It’s so peaceful.”

“All right,” said Samal, who usually acted as their leader. “It’s still early. We’ll just go round the next bend.”

They had disobeyed the rule quite frequently, because round the next bend there was a grove of palm trees at the river’s edge, and they liked to moor in their shade and cool off before turning back. It had never seemed to be a problem that the river was a bit narrower at that point and ran a bit faster. They were quite strong enough to pull away and the wind usually helped.

This afternoon as usual they tied up the boats and sprawled across them to relax. Vio splashed water on herself to enjoy the sensation of the breeze drying it off. But suddenly the breeze became a strong wind and the sun disappeared. Vio shivered.

“Come on,” said Samal, immediately wide awake. “Let’s get out of here.”

They pushed off from the shore and started paddling, but when they were out in the stream they found they were unable to move in the direction of the town at all. Threatening clouds were rising in the sky, and the wind blew harder and harder, almost directly against them.

“We’ve been really dumb,” shouted Anil in Samal’s boat. Vio could just hear them across the water.

“Right,” said Samal, “We should have seen the storm coming.”

“Who cares anyway?” yelled Vio, who was struggling to get her boat to tack. “This is fun.”

But she was after all a bit scared when her sail swung round and her little boat began to spin in the water. The wind, apparently, was not her friend today.

“Take the mast down,” shouted Samal. “The sail’s not helping.”

“I know it’s not,” muttered Vio, but when she tried to lower the mast, it wouldn’t come out of its socket and Keni couldn’t free it either.

They both let go of the paddles as they struggled with it, and they drifted quite a long way downstream. Samal was doing better. At least by pulling on the paddles he had kept his boat stationary, and Anil had got the sail down. They were shouting at Vio and Keni, but could no longer be heard above the sound of the wind. Rain had started, too, and was rapidly becoming a downpour. Then there was a horrible crack, as the mast collapsed with the straining sail and tore the floor of Vio’s boat, and water started to rush in.

“Another boat gone,” thought Vio, and she was preparing, rather scared, to jump into the choppy water, when she saw a sturdy fishing boat coming upstream, the two sets of oars at its sides bringing it slowly but steadily toward them. A man was standing by the mast, pointing at them, and the boat changed direction slightly to come straight at them.

Keni shouted “They’re going to run us down;” but Vio saw what they meant to do.

“They’re going to pick us up,” she said, and balanced as long as she could on the sinking raft.

She and Keni had just lost their foothold and started to swim when the bigger boat reached them and they grabbed the oars the fishermen held out to them. They were hauled aboard and lay panting for a moment on the deck. Then Vio looked up and saw that all the men on board were staring at her. They had not expected to pick up a girl, and in her wet clothes she could just as well be naked.

“Look where you’re going,” shouted their captain, and the men turned back to their rowing.

The captain, their saviour, was a young man with dark skin, short curly hair and very white teeth. He said severely to Vio, “You shouldn’t have been out here. It was stupid. You could have been killed.”

“I know,” said Vio. “Thank you for helping us.”

He grinned at her suddenly and she grinned back as well as she could, because she really wanted to burst into tears of relief.

“Can you help my brother too?” she asked, remembering Samal, who was still rowing frantically on the same spot.

“I’ll tow his boat and they can help row.”

So that was how they returned to the town, pushing slowly against the wind and rain, the fishing boat low in the water with its extra load of people and Samal’s boat bobbing behind. The boys took their turn at the oars, and Vio decided to make friends with the captain, because he was somebody who knew what he was doing, and he had not hesitated to scold her, and she liked the look of him.

“What’s your name?” she asked him, pushing her wet hair off her face.

“Yon. What’s yours?”

“Vio.”

“Since when have you been playing around with boats, Vio?”

“For years.”

“And are you often so careless?”

“I suppose we are and we’ve just been lucky.”

“Have you lost a boat before?”

Vio suddenly felt ashamed. Serious sailors didn’t throw boats away, only spoilt brats like her and her friends.

“I’m afraid we have,” she said. “We are just playing. We’ve never really learned to sail properly.”

“I could teach you,” said Yon; and then looked surprised that he’d said it. Vio knew he was thinking that fishermen didn’t usually expect people of the royal clan to be friendly.

“Would you really?” she said. She found class distinctions a bore, and she knew her brother felt the same.

“Samal,” she called, “Yon says he’ll teach us how to sail properly.”

“So he thinks we need lessons?” said Samal, pretending to frown, and they all laughed.

“So that’s decided. You’ll teach us,” said Vio, holding out her arms to the rain that was still streaking down; and they arranged to meet before Yon went down river again.

 

 

4. THE COUSINS

 

Vio and Samal were apt pupils and taking sailing seriously made them apply the experience they already had with better results. Vio was amazed at how precisely Yon could make one of their little boats respond to his hand, and how he used every breath of wind to go where he wanted, and she watched and copied him till she had almost the same control herself. When Yon was satisfied with her performance, and the boys’ too, he said they were ready to go on to a bigger vessel, and he found an old fishing boat at the port for them to try; and the lessons began all over again.

Pepi, Vio and Samal’s father, asked them why they were spending so much time at the port, and they told him about Yon. Pepi wanted to meet him, so they brought him to the house one evening after their sailing practice. They could see that Yon was feeling nervous, and Samal teased him as they approached the house, “We don’t actually eat people in the clan.”

“But you always take people like me straight to the kitchen,” said Yon, and he was only half joking.

“Our parents probably have prejudices like all of them,” said Vio, “but they do treat people properly. You’ll get on with Father, I know you will.”

Yon just grinned at her, and Samal pushed open the front door and led them inside. Gora was sitting in the hall, and she also smiled reassuringly at Yon and said “Father’s in his study. Come.”

Pepi turned around from his bookstand as they entered, looked intently at Yon for a moment, and came toward him with both hands held out in the friendly greeting. Vio could see Yon relax.

“So you’re the sailing teacher,” said Pepi. “You must have a lot of patience.” And he directed a mock frown at Samal and Vio.

“I know what you mean, Sir,” said Yon, smiling, “but they’re such keen students it’s a pleasure to help them.”

“I hope they don’t keep you away from your work,” said Pepi, and Vio knew the question was a test of Yon’s seriousness.

“No, Sir,” said Yon. “I have to earn my living. But our fishing boats are not out all the time. It’s my free time I spend with them.”

“You aren’t married?” asked Pepi. “No, you wouldn’t be, you look too young.”

Yon smiled again. “Some boys do get married by my age,” he said, “but I don’t feel ready for a family yet.”

“Very wise,” said Pepi. “There’s plenty of time to get involved in that predicament.” He frowned again at Samal and Vio and everyone laughed.

Gora brought in a tray with cups of herb tea, and Pepi motioned them all to sit down on the cushions in the middle of his study. He asked Yon for details about his fishing trips, no longer testing Yon but because he was interested, and Yon told him about the different fishes and the changes in landscape toward the sea. Vio and Samal were fascinated too.

 

In the mean time their parents didn’t allow them to neglect their cousins at the Palace. Vio felt bored playing checkers and guessing games, which were children’s pastimes compared to their training on the river, and she found it more and more difficult to talk to her girl cousins. They had almost nothing in common any more. Vio hated to imagine what it would be like, now they were older and must be curious about the world, not to be able to go outside except occasionally to the Temple, or make friends with anyone who was not a close relative.

“Did Kantalisia never go out of the Palace when she was a girl?” Vio asked Gora. She was a great admirer of her brilliant ancestor.

“Of course she did,” said Gora. “Things were different then.”

“But what has changed?”

“At that time women were strong,” said Gora. “Now they’re getting weaker and weaker and the Queens don’t know what to do without their consorts.”

“So actually Katelia isn’t a proper Queen?”

“I’m afraid not,” said Gora, “though she thinks she is and so does Melops.”

“And were all the girls more adventurous at that time?”

“I’m sure they were. You wouldn’t have been the only girl on the river in Kantalisia’s time.”

“So what has happened?”

“The men are taking over,” said Gora. “I don’t know how it’s happened, but the men are taking over. It’s not healthy.”

“Is that one of the black clouds you see?” asked Vio.

“That’s the biggest of the black clouds,” said Gora.

 

Ibisia, the elder of the two girls (she was a year older than Vio), was not looking well. Her naturally fair skin was pale and dull, her green eyes had no light in them and her cream-coloured hair hung limply. One afternoon the two of them sat in the roof room at the Palace, gazing out at the town through the arch that led on to the terrace. Vio suddenly noticed Ibisia was having trouble breathing and her eyes, fixed with longing on the horizon, had tears in them. She was startled; Ibisia always behaved so perfectly and was so controlled.

“What’s the matter, Ibi?” she burst out, and then she was afraid her concern had been the last straw. Ibisia was struggling not to cry. Vio kept quiet and looked in the other direction. Neither of them were girls who enjoyed emotional scenes.

After a few moments, Ibisia said, in a carefully controlled voice, “I’m a bit tired, that’s all. Things have been tense here lately.”

“What’s going on?”

“It’s Tankret. He refuses to go to school any more, and quarrels all the time with Papa, and says horrible things to Mother and makes her cry. And he’s unkind to the servants. He even hit one of them the other day.”

“What do you think is wrong with him?” asked Vio.

“Sometimes I think he’s a bit mad,” said Ibisia, and in spite of the effort she was making there was a sob in her voice. “He says Mother must leave the throne of Kynopolis to him because girls are useless.”

“But that’s absurd,” said Vio, shocked.

“I know. But I suppose he’s jealous because people make more fuss of me and Tinina. He’s probably more sensitive than he looks.”

“Why do you excuse him?” asked Vio, fiercely.

“I have to try to understand him. He’s my brother. Don’t tell anyone I told you about it, will you? He’ll probably get over it.”

Vio promised not to tell anyone, though privately she thought Tankret would not get better; and a short while later she and Samal both witnessed a scene that convinced them he must really have gone mad.

They were sitting on mats round the low table in the family dining room, as they had done so often before, but the relaxed and happy atmosphere of their childhood was missing. Katelia tried to keep them talking, about a concert she was planning at the Palace, but Tankret interrupted so often, belching and complaining about the food, that she gave up. Vio watched Tankret, who was sprawling rudely on the cushions, pushing his sisters away from the food, and thought how ugly he was, with his pouting lips and heavy head and chubby limbs. And he was hairy. He had bristles coming out of his ears and nose and poking from the sides of his tunic. But the top of his head was smooth; the long hair was at the sides and back. Vio thought that actually he made her feel sick.

“What are you staring at?” he yelled at her suddenly.

“I’m not staring at you,” said Vio. “I’m sitting opposite you so I have to look in that direction, don’t I?”

“You’re staring,” yelled Tankret again. “You’re staring, you’re staring, you’re staring,” he yelled louder, and started to tremble with rage.

He’s really crazy, thought Vio, and she said nothing because she was afraid of making him even angrier.

Samal had always got on with Tankret by playing rough games with him but not letting him go too far; Samal was several years older and stronger and Tankret appeared to respect him. So Samal said, “Come on, that’s Vio you’re talking to. Why should she stare at you? She knows what you look like.”

“She’s rude,” shouted Tankret, sitting up straight. “You’re rude. Neither of you has any right to treat me like this. I’m superior to you. When I’m the boss round here you’ll see.” And he grinned nastily.

There was a shocked silence round the table. Vio looked at Ibisia, meaning to signal that now she understood her, but Ibisia didn’t meet her eyes. Her face was flushed and she was looking at the floor. Katelia looked distressed, Melops furious, Samal astonished. Tinina appeared uninterested, perhaps because she didn’t understand the seriousness of her brother’s taunts.

Tankret broke the silence to go on shouting, “Because I am going to become the ruler of this country, make no mistake. And then I will do what I like and you will have to obey me. And you will be the ones who are imprisoned while I am free.”

He started to yell at Samal, “Get out! Get out!” but at this point Melops stood up and yelled at his son in his booming voice, “Shut up!”

Tankret was startled and subsided back on to the cushions. “But it’s not fair,” he went on in a changed voice, like a petulant child. “Why should they run around the town and sail boats on the river and I’m shut up in here. They should be kept inside too. Tell them they must stay inside,” he shouted at his mother, his voice rising again.

His father got up and was coming toward him, obviously meaning to hit him, and Tankret shrank down again. Melops stood over him for a moment, threatening, and returned to his seat.

Tankret, now completely cowed, huddled up to his sister Ibisia, muttering “It’s not fair. It’s not fair, Ibi, is it? You know it’s not fair.”

Vio was astonished to see Ibisia’s hand go out and caress his ugly head. Tankret became quiet, as if he had been sedated, and the two of them sat there in a private trance while the others, with very little appetite after what had happened, finished their meal.

 

 

5. JALKAN

 

Vio and Samal talked about the scene they had witnessed at the Palace, over and over again.

“But how could he have become such a monster,” asked Vio on one occasion, as they sat in the garden, lazy after a big lunch. “Was he born like that?”

“He must have been,” said Samal. “He hasn’t been ill or had any serious accidents. And he was strange even when he was a child.”

“Do you think it’s because of the Lupaka blood?”

“Why should it be. There are strange humans too. He looks more human than Lupaka, just swollen and angry.”

“And who taught him to challenge the Queen and say he’s superior to the women in the family?”

“That’s just his greed and selfishness,” said Samal. “He’s like a big baby.”

“A dangerous baby.”
“Probably.”

“But what can we do about it?” asked Vio. “Don’t you think we should tell Father and Mother?”

“We’ve been over this before,” said Samal. “We decided to wait till they say something, didn’t we?”

“Yes,” said Vio, “but they might not.”

“If Tankret goes on like that they’ll find out. We don’t have to worry them. And you know how difficult it is to talk about problems at meals. They don’t like it, and we feel rude.”

Vio knew this was true. The main meals were the only times when the whole family sat down together, and the unspoken rule was that the atmosphere should be kept pleasant.

“Yes,” she sighed. “Isn’t there anything we can do then.”

“I can’t see what,” said Samal. “Our presence would only make him worse for now. We’ll have to wait and see. Maybe the other day was a kind of attack and he’ll get better. What could we do anyway? Come on, let’s go down to the boat.”

The decision to stay away from the Palace and hope that Tankret would grow out of his craziness was the right one, but it was also what they wanted to do. The problem was more than they could deal with and they loved their freedom.

Vio was aware of this, and sometimes when she was happy out on the river she thought of Ibisia with pity and a little start of guilt.

But then, she thought, why should I feel guilty? Her brother hates me and she loves him. What could she do with my sympathy?

And still, every time she remembered the way Tankret and Ibisia had sat huddled together, like allies against the rest of them, she felt a pang of worry.

Gora, who always knew when something was worrying her, asked her what was on her mind. She listened intently while Vio told her about Ibisia and Tankret, and at the end of the tale she sighed deeply.

“There is good reason to be worried,” she said. “What you have told me fits in with what I see in the divining stones. But there really is nothing you can do. Enjoy your youth. We’ll deal with trouble when it reaches us.”

Vio was quite happy not to worry about the future, and she returned to her boats with a light heart.

.

There was a new member of the group. Anil had remembered Vio’s plea for someone to lend her a horse, and he talked to Jalkan, the son of a very rich human merchant who owned some horses. Jalkan came down to the boat to meet the group. He was tall and strong and good-looking, with the arrogant expression that well-off humans often had. He stepped on to the deck without being invited, and stared at Vio.

“Are you the girl that wants to ride in a horse race?” he asked.

“I am,” said Vio, staring back at him.

Jalkan lowered his eyes first. “You look strong enough I suppose,” he said. “I could talk to my Father about it.”

“I thought you already had,” said Vio.

“Not so fast,” said Jalkan. “He’ll take some persuading. What will you give me in return?”

“What do we have that you want?” asked Samal, moving to stand beside Vio.

Jalkan looked at Samal’s serious face and visibly decided to behave better. “I thought we might come to an agreement,” he said with a forced smile. “My father is expecting a new horse; it’ll be arriving by boat any time now. I’ll persuade him to let your sister ride it, and in return you let me go sailing with you. I’ve played most sports but I haven’t tried sailing. I thought it might be amusing.”

The group of friends didn’t hide their disgust with his conceit, and Jalkan suddenly realised it.

“Have I said the wrong thing?” he asked. “Or are you all royals and this poor human revolts you?”

“We aren’t all royals,” said Samal. “Anil is human, as you know. So is Yon, our teacher, who’s not here today. None of us are bothered with such distinctions, anyway.”

“That’s what you say,” said Jalkan, “but I’ve never met a royal yet who didn’t feel superior.”

“Well, you have now,” said Samal. “Vio, do you want us to accept his offer? It’s you that wants to ride.”

Vio knew, even then, that she should say no, but her desire to ride a horse was too strong. “Yes, if you think it’s a fair exchange,” she said.

No one in the group was willing to disappoint her by saying no, so it was agreed Jalkan would sail with them. Vio was worried that he would be a nuisance and the group would be angry with her, but after that first meeting he was less aggressive and sometimes pleasant. He was not friendly to Yon, whom he apparently considered a servant, but Yon was not bothered and ignored Jalkan too. Jalkan very quickly became a competent sailor and his strength was useful in managing the old fishing boat Yon had found for them to use.

 

Since Pepi had met Yon and approved of him, there had been no more limits on how far they could sail as long as Yon was with them. Before the cooler weather came to an end, Yon suggested they should sail up river further than they had ever gone before, taking provisions for a few days and sleeping on the beaches.

“Will your parents be happy with that?” he asked.

“No problem,” said Anil and Jalkan, and Keni and Samal nodded.

“Good,” said Yon. “What about you, Vio?”

Vio was sure her mother would want to forbid her to go, but it annoyed her that Yon seemed to think they could go without her, and it annoyed her even more that Jalkan was sneering at her, so she said, “Of course they’ll let me,” and glared at the other boys, daring them to contradict her.

None of them did, though Samal raised his eyebrows. They decided to set out in three days’ time.

The reaction at home, when Samal told their parents at dinner about the sailing trip, was worse than Vio had feared.

“Vio’s not going of course,” said Amapola.

“Yes I am,” said Vio.

“But you can’t,” said Amapola, looking astonished that Vio would even think of it.

“You are not going to spend nights away with a crew of boys,” said Pepi.

“But Yon’s there,” said Vio.

“Yon is not much older than a boy himself,” said her father. “You’re not going.”

They were so definite in their refusal that Vio could see it was useless to argue with them, and she left the table, breaking a family rule, and went up to her room without eating. Samal came up later and tried to console her, but she wouldn’t listen to him.

“I’m going,” she said. “I have to go. If they won’t let me I’ll just go anyway.”

“Yon wouldn’t take you,” said Samal, “and Mama and Papa would never trust you again. Is it really that important?”

Vio didn’t answer. It was the first time she had come up against a prohibition in such an unbearable way, and she didn’t know what to do. All she could think of was to appeal to Gora, though she expected her to take her parents’ side.

Gora tried at first to reason with her, but soon realised that Vio couldn’t even think of not going on the trip.

“But why is it so terribly important?” Gora asked.

Vio was surprised at the question. She had to think for a moment, and then she said, “It’s who I am. I can’t be stopped doing things that matter to me. No one has a right to decide for me.”

Gora smiled wryly, and said, “Do you expect your parents to accept that?”

Vio suddenly had an inspiration. “You could tell them that the prediction makes me special and they should let me enjoy life while I can,” she said.

Gora sighed and her expression became sad. “You must not try to exploit the prediction, you headstrong girl,” she said. “That’s tempting fate. But it is true you have to find your own way in the world. I will speak to your parents.” And she added, muttering to herself, “Some time they’re going to have to accept it.”

 

Vio didn’t know what Gora said to her parents; but it must have been convincing because they told her, through Gora, that she could go on the trip. Her father didn’t speak to her again before she left, and her mother was crying as she and Samal set out, but they let her go.

For the first hour on the river, Vio wondered whether her victory had really been worth it, because she loved her parents and didn’t like to see them so upset. But then the joy of leaning into the wind, and watching the water rush away under the hull of the boat, took over and she began to feel at ease. She was where she wanted to be.

They sailed all day, and by evening were far into lonely territory, covered in rough grass and shrubs, that the group of friends had never seen before.

“Is this still Kynopolis?” Samal asked Yon.

“It is. Kynopolis extends for miles on both sides of the river, for a long way yet.”

“And does anyone live here?”

“Yes. There are some small villages a bit further on.”

“Do they know about the Queen?” asked Vio.

“Oh yes. They take their crops to market in town. They pay their tithes and the Queen’s patrol protects them from the savages further up river.”

“Is it far to where the savages live?” asked Anil.

“People say it’s very far. Where they live it’s wild forest.”

“Have you ever been up there?” asked Samal.

“No,” said Yon. “It’s not a place to go for fun.”

“Will we see the savages?” asked Vio.

Yon laughed. “I hope not. We’ll stop on the next good beach. It’ll be dark soon.”

Round the next wide bend was a sweep of golden sand with tall palms behind it. The sun was setting beyond their trunks and an intense, sweet light lay over the earth and water. Swallows were swooping and diving all round them.

They brought the boat up on to the beach, and waded ashore with their provisions. While the sun slipped down behind the horizon, and a fiery glow briefly lit the sky and faded into dusk, they collected fallen palm branches to build a fire, and Yon squatted, spinning the fire-stick to make a spark.

“He’s taking a long time, isn’t he?” said Jalkan to Vio, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Why don’t you do it yourself then?” said Vio indignantly, and Jalkan looked offended. Vio knew he thought making fire was a servant’s job.

A little coil of smoke rose into the air and then a series of sparks, and the dry palm fronds easily caught fire. By the time night fell they were sitting round a crackling hearth, toasting the flat bread they ate with their salted meat. A pitcher of river water and a bag of dates completed their meal.

“Tell us a story, Yon,” said Keni.

“Why does it always have to be Yon that tells the stories?” asked Jalkan.

“Because he knows the best ones,” said Vio.

“Do you want to tell one, Jalkan?” asked Samal, fair-minded as always.

“We want Yon!” said Keni and Vio together.

“Give Jalkan a chance,” said Anil, calmly.

“I would like to hear his story,” said Yon.

Jalkan’s eyes were screwed up with anger, and he sent Yon a furious glance, but he controlled himself and began, “Long, long ago…”

Vio was surprised at how well he told his tale of brave warriors conquering a tribe in a far off region. His voice rose and fell with the events he narrated, and she could almost hear the spears flying and the blows of clubs on shields. His hawk-like face glowed with excitement in the firelight, and Vio thought how handsome he could be when his expression was not conceited.

They all applauded when he finished, and Vio asked, “Where did you learn that story?”

“From my uncle,” Jalkan said. “He heard it on his travels. There’s more to the world than Kynopolis and the royal clan.”

No one responded to the challenge in his words; they were feeling too relaxed. They played a guessing game until they started to fall asleep.

Vio went to lie down at the place she had chosen for herself at the end of the beach, far from the boys, which should please her parents, if they knew. Images from Jalkan’s tale returned to her mind, and as she looked them over she realised it had been all about the violence of men. He had never mentioned a woman fighting, or a queen in whose name the warriors fought. This worried her, but she felt too tired to think about it, and she was about to curl up in the sand and cover herself with her shawl when she heard Yon’s whistle in the palms to her left.

“What?” she called softly.

“Come. Quietly, so they don’t see you.”

Without hesitation, she crawled to the palms and stood up when she came to Yon’s feet. He explained, “I couldn’t call all of you. The hippos would run away. Come and see.”

The night was not completely dark, and she easily followed Yon a short way along the river bank to where a band of hippopotamuses were feeding in the reeds. Two baby hippos were gambolling among the plants, as gracefully as hippos ever could.

Vio was enchanted. “Why are baby creatures always so special?” she exclaimed. But when she glanced at Yon, she saw he was not looking at the hippos but at her, with adoration in his eyes.

“Come on,” Yon said. “You must get your sleep.” And he led her back to the edge of the beach.

Vio couldn’t get to sleep right away. The moon came up, and she lay looking at it, and the gleaming path it made on the river, and pictures of Jalkan’s sharp, handsome profile and Yon’s dark, loving eyes alternated in her mind. Finally her eyes flickered shut and sleep overcame her.

 

When she woke early in the morning, she saw Yon standing in the river with a spear and net. She wanted to run and join him, but for the first time in her friendship with Yon she hesitated. Then she saw Jalkan watching her from the boys’ end of the beach, and she turned and walked across the sand toYon. Jalkan ran and joined them at the same time, asking her loudly how she had slept. Vio knew that the fish would be scared away, and signed to him to be quiet; but Yon said, “That’s it for this morning. The light’s too strong already,” and came out of the water. He had three nice fish in his net and the group revived the fire and cooked them for breakfast.

They were all feeling lazy still, and sprawled on the beach after they had eaten.

Jalkan sat down beside Vio, and asked her, “So how does it feel to be the only girl with all these males?”

“I’m used to it,” said Vio. “I don’t really notice it.”

“Maybe you should,” said Jalkan. “You’re getting to be a big girl.” Vio didn’t like the way he looked at her as he said it.

“Has your father’s new horse arrived?” she asked, to change the subject.

“I wondered when you’d ask,” said Jalkan. “The boat came in a few days ago. It travelled well and the groom says it’s well trained. You’d better come soon and try riding it.”

“Is it a male or a lady horse?”

“A mare,” said Jalkan, laughing in his superior way. “Will you be able to get on with another female?”

“Of course,” said Vio, allowing her anger to show, but Jalkan just laughed again.

After a while they picked up their things and waded back to the boat.

“You want to go further up river, don’t you?” asked Yon.

“Yes,” they chorused.

“There’s strength in us yet,” Samal said, and they laughed.

A few miles upstream they came to the first of the villages Yon had mentioned. It was just a few reed huts under the palms. Naked children were playing by the water, and women waved to them as they passed.

“My foster mother lives in the next village,” said Yon to Samal and Vio, who were standing with him at the mast. “Would you like to meet her?”

“Of course,” they both said, and Samal added, “We didn’t know you came from up here.”

“She lived at the port while I was growing up,” Yon said. “When her husband died she came to live here with her daughter.”

“What happened to your own mother?” asked Vio hesitantly. Yon had never spoken about his family before.

“She died of a fever when I was little,” said Yon. “These people were our neighbours.”

“I’m sorry,” said Vio, not knowing what else to say.

“There’s no need to be,” said Yon. “They gave me a happy childhood.”

The next village was a bit bigger than the first, but it was still just a collection of huts with the river in front and some fields hacked out of the woodland behind, where men and women were bending over their hoes.

“Whatever are we going in here for?” asked Jalkan, as Yon folded up the sail and directed them to the oars.

“We’re going to meet some of Yon’s family,” said Samal.

Jalkan wrinkled his nose, but when Samal asked if they all wanted to go ashore he said nothing and followed the rest.

The water was deeper at the edge this time, and they could jump from the boat to the bank without getting wet. Yon led them into the village, to a dilapidated hut where an old woman was sitting on a log in the shade, staring into the distance. Yon called her, “Mother”, and as her eyes focused on him a joyful smile lit up her face. Vio felt moved, and when Yon introduced her as the girl he had told her about, she joined her hands in the gesture of respectful greeting. The others came forward and did the same, except Jalkan, who just stood where he was and said “Hi”.

The old woman signed to Vio to sit beside her. “So you’re the brave girl,” she said, in the accent of the port. “That’s good, what you’re doing. What do we have a Queen for, if women have to stay at home?”

“Oh!” exclaimed Vio. “How nice to meet somebody who thinks sensibly.”

Her friends laughed, and Yon said happily, “I knew you’d get on.”

“They’re both children,” said Jalkan, but no one paid any attention to him.

The old woman’s daughter, Salo, had come running from the fields, and she told her to bring some honey wine for them. Then she continued to address Vio. “Keep your free spirit,” she said. “Don’t let any man rule you. Love you but not rule you.”

“I won’t,” said Vio, and the old woman smiled at her fierceness.

“She doesn’t need telling,” said Samal ruefully. “She’s bad enough already.”

Salo came back with a pitcher of honey wine and a cup she offered to each of them in turn. Vio found the sweet liquid delicious and said so. Only Jalkan refused the drink, with a rude wave of his hand, and there was a moment of awkward silence. He’s really unbearable, thought Vio, and looked at Yon to see if he was hurt. Yon calmly winked at his sister, and she offered the cup to Keni, who drank it, and the moment passed.

Yon gave his mother and sister the latest news of friends at the port, and they returned to the boat.

“How could Jalkan be so rude?” muttered Vio to Samal as they went.

“That’s the way his people are,” said Samal. “Yon understands that.”

“What kind of people are those?”

“Newly rich human merchants. They want to feel superior and powerful.”

“Whatever are we doing with him then?”

“Isn’t you that wants to ride their horse?” said Samal, raising his eyebrows at her, and Vio blushed. “You don’t want to give that up, do you?” Samal went on.

“No, I don’t,” said Vio. “Sometimes I think I’m really awful.”

Samal didn’t answer, and Vio thought of the old woman, and the loving, honest spirit that shone from her, and she felt ashamed. But she still knew she wouldn’t give up the chance to ride the racehorse, and she decided at that moment she would play the part of Jalkan’s friend, with just enough warmth to keep him interested in pleasing her, until she’d got what she wanted from him. It would not be too unpleasant, because after all he was nice to look at.

 

They slept on another wide beach, beyond all the villages and fields. On the bank there were not only palms but also tall forest trees, and the countryside looked lonely and wild. During the night another boat came in, and the men from it dropped down on the beach to sleep, between Vio and the rest of her group. She studied the situation but decided not to worry about it; it wouldn’t occur to anyone the body lying here was a girl, so she went to sleep again. Waking early, she found Yon had come across to guard her and was lying nearby.

Yon talked to the other crew, who were collecting palm fruits to take to market – and seemed unable to stop staring at Vio once they had seen her – and found out that the Queen’s patrol boat had seen savages on the eastern shore, outside the territory of Kynopolis but not a day’s journey from where they were.

“Isn’t that unusual?” asked Yon.

“They’ve been seen more often lately,” said the captain. “They haven’t threatened anyone, but you can’t help wondering what they’re up to.”

So they decided to turn back.

“But we’re still going to spend another night on the river, aren’t we?” asked Vio.

“We are,” said Yon. “What I think we should do is go down to the Kingfisher Temple and stop there. And on the way we’ll sail this boat as if we were in a race.”

That plan pleased everyone. They were soon united in preparing the boat to fly, tying down their packets and clearing the deck. Yon sent two pairs to the oars; Vio, to her satisfaction, was to manage the sail with Yon, who also co-ordinated their movements.

The wind was blowing from the side, hot from the earth, and skill was required to catch it in the sail so that they sped along boisterously. Once or twice the sail died, and the oars had to take over, but mostly they tacked smoothly enough. Vio exulted in the games the wind played with her, and the way she was able to anticipate its caprices. Even when they met a big transport raft on a bend and had to dodge it, she felt confident of her ability to control the boat. She was quite tired however – they all were – when the Kingfisher Temple came in sight.

They moored at the stone quay, and sat on the deck to rest. Yon looked at them all and said “You’ve learnt to sail well.”

“Didn’t you think we would?” asked Vio.

“You’re better than I expected. What would you think of competing in the boat festival?”

“That’s just for fishermen,” said Jalkan.

“Are you afraid they’ll beat you?” asked Samal, and Jalkan didn’t answer.

The others were enthusiastic, and started to talk all at once.

“There’s just one problem,” said Yon, interrupting them. “You need a faster boat.”

We need?” said Vio. “What about you?”

“I’ll be racing with my own crew.”

“How will we manage without you?” asked Anil.

“How will we get a boat?” asked Keni.

“One of you can be captain. You’ll need someone else for the crew. And there’s an abandoned boat I can get you to repair. You’ll almost have to rebuild it.”

“But we don’t know anything about building boats,” said Keni.

“I’ll help you. But you’ll have to do most of the work. I have to go fishing.”

“You’re trying to see if we’re capable of taking this seriously, aren’t you?” said Samal.

Yon just smiled.

“Well, are we?” Vio asked.

They looked at each other for a moment and each said a very definite “Yes”. Only Jalkan seemed to have reservations, Vio thought, but it didn’t matter. She knew the rest of them could be trusted.

“Yes, we are,” she said to Yon, and Yon nodded.

They made plans for getting started on the new boat, and decided to aim at competing in the next big festival, before the end of the year. Then they went ashore to visit the Temple, a simple stone structure with a fresco of birds on the facade. The Priestess received them graciously, saying she was honoured to welcome members of the royal clan. She noticed Jalkan’s frown and added, “And their friends”.

She was particularly interested in Vio. “Why does a young girl choose to sail a boat?” she asked her. “Does it make you happy?”

“It makes me feel free,” said Vio. “I like to play with the river and the wind.”

“The river and the wind are creatures of the Goddess,” said the Priestess, smiling. “It’s good to make friends with them.”

She gave Vio the Kingfisher blessing, then blessed the rest of the group too.

“We’ll call our boat the Kingfisher,” said Vio, as they returned to the quay. “It will be light and it will fly.”

“And it will be at home on the water,” said Yon.

They slept that night on the bank and went back to the town the next day.

 

 

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