The Yellow Tree is a novel for adolescents, with a matriarchal slant. The story involves two races of people: the Lupaka tribe, who are descended from wolves, and the humans of the city of Kynopolis. The city’s royal clan are hybrids, partly Lupaka and partly human.
Kynopolis is an imaginary place, not far from the southern shore of the Mediterranean, in an unspecified but extremely ancient time. A priestess of the Goddess predicts a special destiny for the girl Vio, but she is lively and rebellious and has a privileged life as a member of the royal clan, and she refuses to believe her world will change.
But as time goes on, conflicts begin to appear in the ordered society of the town, with its Queen and its Goddess religion. Within the royal family, a monstrous son, Tankret, grows up challenging his mother’s right to rule. The merchants begin to conspire against the royal clan, and are supported later by the fanatical “holy man”, Purgator, who rages against the Goddess and against women.
Vio has spent her childhood (when she is not having lessons with her nurse Gora, a wise Lupaka woman with magic powers) sailing on the river with her brother Samal and his friends and in other ways flouting convention, but as crisis approaches she gives up her wild ways – including her love games – and plays a responsible part in the defense of her people. Their enemies are stronger, however, and she is forced to escape, with Gora, as friends die and the life she has known collapses around her.
Vio and Gora make the long and dangerous journey on foot to the Navel, the town deep in the jungle where the Lupaka have lived since the beginning of time. Vio finds it difficult to adapt to the limited way of life of the Lupaka, but believes she has found her place when a marriage is arranged between her and Sirion, the young genius who embodies all the tribe’s talents. However, Sirion is coming to believe the true divine power is male, not the Goddess (which horrifies Vio), and casts Vio off when her past catches up with her, and he learns she has had lovers before him. Jalkan, the young man from Kynopolis who betrays her, in revenge for her refusing him, is followed by a band of fighters intending to sack and destroy the Navel.
Vio is banished to a dilapidated and mysterious palace near the town, and from there she directs its defense. With the help of a secret device in the temple, the invaders are destroyed. Friends have also found their way to the Navel from Kynopolis, and Vio settles down to a happy life devoted to restoring the ancient customs and Goddess culture of the Lupaka, with her daughter, Sirion’s child, the fulfillment of the prophecy of her 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.
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?”
“Since when have you been playing around with boats, Vio?”
“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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
There were no immediate repercussions. Vio knew neither Jinis nor Jalkan would forget the insult to their family pride, but for the moment they did nothing to avenge it. Perhaps because the merchant class was not as strong and threatening as it had recently appeared to be. Most people, especially at the port, were still loyal to the Queen. The merchants were not ready for violence. They couldn’t even agree among themselves on what they wanted, Pepi said. Some wanted a share of power, while others, including Jinis, wanted to get rid of the Queen and the royal clan.
Samal and Vio were pleased they could concentrate on sailing with a clear conscience, knowing that it helped their family’s reputation. The day after the quarrel with Jalkan, the crew had to face the problem of how to replace him. Of course he wouldn’t go on sailing with them now.
“Why don’t we try to persuade Yon?” said Keni.
“That’s what I’d like,” said Vio. “But would it be fair? His own crew are counting on him.”
“Then who else is there?” said Keni.
“I know people who’d like to join us,” said Soteps, “But they haven’t had much experience. They’d be a risk.”
“What do you think, Sami?” asked Keni, since Samal hadn’t said anything.
“I hoped one of you would think of it,” said Samal. “We should get Tankret to join us.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Vio said, “But that’s crazy. He’s never sailed, and what happens if he has a fit of rage?”
“He doesn’t have fits any more,” said Samal. “And he’s very strong. He’ll be so happy he’ll behave himself, I promise. We’ll just let him row.”
“You want this to be the royal boat?” asked Anil?
“If that’s all right with all of you, yes,” said Samal. “Not officially, of course, but it would make the family look good.”
“Then we’d better win,” said Anil, and they all agreed, laughing.
It didn’t seem so funny for a few days after that, as Tankret failed to control his oar and his great strength made the boat swerve in all directions. Then he got the hang of it, and pulled well; and the pleasure on his ugly face as he watched for her directions gave Vio a glimpse of why Ibisia was so patient with him. He was an overgrown baby.
When the day of the race finally arrived, Vio’s crew was a precision unit. They watched the other boats as they sailed down to the starting point, beyond the built-up banks of the port. Most of them were like Yon’s, ordinary fishing-boats, but their crews were men with bulging arms and torsos and years of experience on the river. Yon and his men waved to them and they waved back. The champions were the rivals they most had to fear. They had only seen them in the distance before, tacking expertly up river. Studying them, Vio noticed that several of them were hairier than usual and had long ears. Port mestizos! Vio felt an immediate sympathy with them. Their new boat was slim and sleek and seemed to glide with no effort from the crew.
“It looks challenging, doesn’t it?” said Samal.
“But its figurehead is a bull,” said Anil. “Bulls are no good in the water.”
“And what about a crocodile?” said Soteps, as a strange boat pushed off from the bank ahead to join the fleet.
The boat was an unexpected arrival. All the crews were turning to stare, surprised. It was big, and its timbers had been blackened, and the figure of a crocodile with a gaping mouth rose at its bow. Vio and her crew heard the shout “pirates” go up all round them. The men on board the boat were rough, with long, matted hair. The person standing at the mast, they saw as the boat came purposefully up beside them, was a woman.
“You have company at last,” said Keni to Vio.
“Good,” she said. “The pirates have some sense.” She waved to the woman, who grinned and waved back.
And then one of the oarsmen turned his face in their direction, with a defiant stare. Jalkan.
Vio’s first thought was that he had chosen an intelligent way to take revenge, and expected to beat her, but she immediately realised he was not there in a sporting spirit. His face was full of hate. Samal and the others had become tense.
“You’ll have to watch out for them,” Samal said to Vio.
“I will, don’t worry,” said Vio.
The boats had reached the starting point, in a rough line across the river. The horn sounded and the race began. Samal and Vio had the sail up in moments, and the Kingfisher drew away. The boats had to sail twenty spans down river, turn at a comparatively narrow point, and race back up against the current to the Bull Temple. It soon became clear that the Kingfisher and the Bull, the champions’ boat, both built for speed, had a great advantage over all the other working boats. By skill in tacking, several of the fishing boats, including Yon’s, kept up with them till beyond the Temple, but by the time they came to the turning point, the Kingfisher and the Bull were out on their own. The boats seemed to be equally fast, the crews equally well co-ordinated, and if it hadn’t been for the presence of the pirate boat the race would have been sheer excitement for all of them. The pirate boat was nowhere in sight. It was too heavy to keep up with them, Vio thought. And Jalkan must know that. So if he didn’t intend to defeat her by winning the race, what did he intend to do?
That became clear when they came towards the bend into the Temple straight. The pirates and Jalkan had turned their boat round and were moving slowly up the middle of the stream against the strong current. As the Kingfisher approached, with the Bull on her left, the pirates speeded up into the bend, as if they were ahead in the race, and went on turning across the Kingfisher’s bow, trying to push her toward the right bank. But Vio shouted to the oarsmen to pull sharp left, and jumped to help Samal turn the sail. The manoeuvre worked, only just, but it worked. The Kingfisher shot past the pirates on the left, with a hand’s breadth to spare.
Vio righted their course and they sped ahead, crossing the finish line half a length before the Bull. The crowd waiting on the quay and banks cheered wildly. The crew yelped and laughed with relief. Tankret especially was grinning like a madman, until the pirate boat sailed calmly past them and then his face was transformed with fury. Samal told him to take it easy. The pirate crew, led by the woman, were cheering Vio, and Vio couldn’t help laughing. Jalkan must have paid them well for what they’d done.
Then she saw Jalkan’s face, and she suddenly felt cold inside. For the first time she was really afraid of what he might do to hurt her and her people. He was a man possessed by hate. And she had defeated him again.
But now it was time to go ashore and receive the crown of victory at the Temple. As the boys rowed to the quay, Vio thought over the last moments of the race and understood something.
“The Bull let us win,” she whispered to Samal. “We couldn’t have made up the time we lost dodging.”
“I know,” Samal whispered back. “But if they want it that way, we’ll keep it to ourselves.”
Karek, the captain of the Bull, held out his hand to help Vio jump to the quay, and as she took it she saw clearly his likeness to the men of the royal clan.
“Why did you let us win?” she murmured to him, as they walked up to the Temple.
He glanced at her and saw it was useless to lie. “Because we couldn’t let those bastards get away with what they did. And because we’re on your side. This victory will be good for you.”
“Thank you, kinsman,” said Vio. “But next time I hope to beat you fairly.”
“We’ll try it soon,” said Karek, surprised and pleased.
Vio, as captain of the winning boat, stood in front of the Priestess on the Temple steps and was crowned with a wreath of lotuses. Karek also received a garland for second place. The Priestess recited a prayer for prosperity and happiness, and Vio and Karek turned to the crowd, which started to cheer. The two crews joined them on the steps and Vio took Tankret’s arm and held it high. The cheers went on and on.
Finally Vio and Karek turned away and entered the Temple to offer their wreaths on the Bull’s altar. Tankret, carried away by the new experience of success, followed them and tripped over an uneven flagstone in the dim light. He swore loudly once, and then restrained himself, but Vio couldn’t help feeling the little incident was a bad omen. The dark stone Bull seemed to gaze at her severely from his altar.
For some time after this, however, nothing but good luck seemed to come the way of the royals. Katelia and Ibisia recovered their good humour, and began to appear in public, walking with their maids to the temple, and they charmed everyone. Samal suggested to Tankret that he should build in the Queen’s name a stadium for the traditional sports of running and wrestling.
An area outside the walls, between the Dog and Boar gates, was flattened, and work began on building stone tiers of seats all round it. So that the stadium could be used in the mean time, wooden grandstands were erected. It was inaugurated in the presence of the Queen and her daughters, escorted by Melops, who looked relieved and proud. Athletes came to race from near and far; and Tankret won the wrestling contest on that day without any cheating at all. He became a popular figure.
The Kingfisher and the Bull raced against each other over the same course and the Bull won. But Vio challenged them to another race, and the Kingfisher won, fairly this time. The race between the two boats became a regular event, with people betting on the outcome. Other crews were inspired to streamline their boats for racing, and joined in the contests. Vio was thrilled to see women on the boats.
Another woman rode in a horse race, and women began to appear in the stadium as well, first a pair of them and then more. They raced against each other and against the males too, and one of them, Agilo, a tall, sinewy woman from a remote country place, won the open race at the new Gazelle Games for the Third Moon Festival.
Vio thought the good old times might be returning.
Vio celebrated her sixteenth moon day. For the first time that day she felt really interested in her appearance. She wore a long green robe, piled her hair on top of her head, and got Gora to paint her face lightly. Her hazel eyes sparkled and her long nose looked both delicate and regal. When she entered the front hall, there were loud exclamations from family and friends gathered there, especially the boat’s crew. Yon, who had hesitated to come, lowered his eyes as if it hurt him to look at her.
I’ve caused so much trouble as a woman already, Vio said to herself, and it’s only now I’m beginning to feel like one.
“And is this beautiful young lady the Vio that sails with us?” asked Anil, as she joined the crew. “Will she still want to play around with boats?”
“Of course I will, you idiot,” said Vio. “But I’ll get dressed up sometimes too. I’ve decided it’s fun. The food is in the garden.” And she went to greet her relatives, playing her role as hostess. The party was a success.
Gora said she’d better learn to make herself up, and to prepare the paints and potions a woman needed.
“What potions?” asked Vio.
“There are some to snare men,” said Gora, “but perhaps you won’t need those. And some to stop you getting pregnant, and some to put off ageing. You won’t think now that you need them but learn them anyway.”
Vio felt she was entering new territory, but once she’d made up her mind to go ahead, she knew she belonged there. She felt very much at home indeed.
“I’m teaching you all this,” said Gora, “because it’s part of our tradition. But you’ll have to be careful how you use it. This is not a good time for women.”
“How can you say that?” exclaimed Vio. “Haven’t you seen what’s been happening lately? Women are doing all kinds of things.”
“Yes,” said Gora. “It’s nice to see, but I’m afraid it won’t last.”
Vio realised that she had spent too little time with her old nurse over the last few moons. Gora visited many houses in her work as a doctor, and people talked to her about their problems and worries. She knew what was happening in the town; and at the same time she used her divining techniques.
“What have you been seeing, Gora?” she asked. “Are the dark clouds still there?”
“The dark clouds are there and they are bigger and darker than ever. I recognise faces among them now.”
“Jalkan?” asked Vio.
“Jalkan. You have not got rid of him. And Jinis is just biding his time.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Vio burst out unhappily.
“I am not blaming you,” said Gora. “Fate is at work. There are other clouds too.”
“Tankret,” said Vio, remembering an old insight.
“Yes, Tankret. Don’t be deceived by the change in him now. He is not working for the Queen, as Samal thinks he is.”
“Samal is too noble,” said Vio. “He can’t understand treachery in others.”
“Dear Samal,” said Gora, sighing. “You’re right. And Tankret is not exactly a traitor. He doesn’t understand anything except his own selfish desires. And he likes the treatment he’s been getting lately.”
“Oh, dear,” said Vio. “It’s Ibisia we should make into a heroine.”
“She wouldn’t let you,” said Gora. “She is like her mother, too weak and nice to be a Queen.”
“And the clan are behaving badly still, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Katelia should be keeping them under control, but she doesn’t know how. They’ve been taking land from the peasants. And of course people blame the Queen too for the high prices the merchants are charging. The merchants tell them it’s because of Palace taxes.”
“Do you think this means the end of the royal family?” asked Vio.
“It will mean the end of the Queens,” said Gora.
“What went wrong?” asked Vio.
“What is wrong is obvious,” said Gora. “It’s why it’s happened I don’t understand. It’s as if the Goddess has decided to let us do our worst.”
After this conversation, Vio looked at her world with changed eyes. She lost her happy excitement in the victories of the royals, and sailed in the races just for the fun of it. Sometimes she took risks, letting the boat lean over almost on to the water, that made Samal frown at her, though for her they were part of her understanding with the wind.
Her mother was surprised and pleased when she asked to have more fine clothes made for her. She liked to spend time in her room, dressing up in them and painting her face in front of the polished stone mirror set in her wall, and hanging gold or silver earrings in her long, fine ears. She recognised that she had a beautiful face, and looked forward to seeing the effect of her beauty on other men. She didn’t want to cause the kind of pain she had given Yon, and perhaps, if she was honest, Jalkan as well, but she knew, without knowing how she knew, that her charms could give her an advantage in a kind of game that she would enjoy playing.
More often now, she had moments when she glimpsed future events. In her mirror faces would come and go behind hers, too fast for her to seize their features clearly, though she thought some of them were Lupaka. Sometimes they seemed to smile, but more often they brought with them a sense of doom that Vio didn’t understand and had to make an effort to shake off. And Gora’s dark clouds were there too, closing in. A happy image that appeared several times, quite clearly, was a tall tree, unlike any that grew at Kynopolis, with a mass of yellow flowers. Vio had no idea what that might mean.
At the Palace, Ibisia had also discovered she was no longer a girl but a woman, and Vio’s new interest in clothes gave them something to talk about again. They spent happy moments together trying on each other’s robes, and Vio taught Ibisia some of Gora’s recipes for face paints. She didn’t teach her the potions; she knew they were not for Ibisia. Ibisia was receiving her own training now, lessons in law and ceremony that she would need when she became Queen.
Tankret, when he noticed this, protested.
“Why is she studying law,” he asked his mother at lunch. “She’s not going to need that. Can’t you see the people want me to rule them?”
“Ibisia is my heir,” said Katelia.
“Ibisia loves me. She won’t stand in my way,” said Tankret, beginning to get annoyed.
“Oh dear,” thought Vio, seeing how Melops tensed and glowered. “It’s starting again.”
But Samal distracted Tankret by saying, “Eat up, the wrestlers will be waiting for us.”
“Right,” said Tankret, smirking. “They’re waiting for a beating, eh?”
Ibisia’s tutors were kept out of Tankret’s sight, and peace continued for a few more moons.
The slide toward disaster began in a way that Vio had never imagined.
“Let’s go and sit in the garden,” Samal said to her one evening after dinner.
“There’ll be mosquitoes,” said Vio.
“They’re not too bad just now. I want to talk to you.”
She followed him round the house, into the garden that sloped down to the river, and sat on the grass with him, watching the water flow smoothly past the bank as he gave her the news that she immediately knew would destroy her world.
He began by asking her, “Are you still so set against marriage?”
“Certainly,” said Vio. “Why?” And then she glanced at him and guessed what he was going to tell her. “Are you going to get married?”
“I think so,” said Samal.
“Well, you’ve always been a good boy, haven’t you?” said Vio, affectionately. “You’re still young, but if you like the girl I suppose it may as well be now. We’ll still do things together, won’t we?”
“Of course,” said Samal.
A hesitation in his voice told Vio that there was something more troubling to come.
“Who is the girl?” she asked.
“Ibisia. They want me to marry Ibisia”
Vio went cold all over. “That’s mad,” she burst out. “Who wants you to marry her?”
“Katelia and Melops. And Papa and Mama have agreed. So that Ibisia can become Queen without any protests. The people like me.”
“The people love you,” said Vio, “but that’s not the point. What about Tankret?”
“I’m Tankret’s friend. They think he’ll accept me as Ibisia’s consort.”
“And what do you think?” asked Vio.
“I know he’s fond of me. It might work.”
“Sami, listen to me,” Vio pleaded. “Tankret adores you because you bring him what he wants. All his successes are due to you. But just because he’s so sure you’re his friend, he’ll be frantic if you say you’ll marry Ibisia. And there’ll be no one to control him. Without you, no one can manage him.”
“I don’t see why he should be so upset.”
“Sami, don’t play dumb. He’s never given up the idea of becoming ruler after Katelia, and he’ll think you’re taking his place. And he’ll be jealous, too. Ibisia is his special ally.”
“I don’t think that will matter, Vio.”
“So you’ve decided to do it. You’re just letting me know.”
“I suppose so, yes. I have to try to help to save the queendom.”
“But…” said Vio, and stopped. She knew it was useless. Samal couldn’t see what she saw, and he would do what he considered his duty. She remained silent, and Samal didn’t know what else to say either, because he got up and went into the house. Vio went on sitting in the garden as it got dark, ignoring the stings of the mosquitoes, turning the situation over in her mind, and the more she thought the worse it looked to her. Unhappiness would come to everyone. She even felt a little bit sorry for moronic Tankret, who would see his world collapse too.
The next day Vio went to the Palace, intending to talk to Ibisia. She knew Ibisia would obey her parents if they insisted, but with her help they might persuade Katelia and Melops that the marriage plan was dangerous. Ibisia had always tried to avoid offending Tankret. But Vio got another surprise. Her cousin, when she joined her in the roof room, was looking happy and lively.
“Vio,” she exclaimed, getting up to meet her. “Has Sami told you the news? I’m so happy. I’ve always liked Sami, and now we’ll be sisters, won’t we?”
“Yes, dear,” said Vio, hugging her. It could have been a happy marriage, she thought, if the times had not changed. Ibisia and Samal would have made a fine royal couple and they would all have gone on being friends. She liked Ibisia.
“You must help me design my wedding robe,” said Ibisia. “It must be really special.”
“Of course,” said Vio, and her heart was sinking further every moment. “What colour do you think the border should be?”
They discussed robes for a while, and all the time Vio was thinking, But this is madness. And yet she couldn’t break into Ibisia’s eager mood to say what she had come to say. It would be useless, anyway, and only turn Ibisia against her. Only at the end of their talk, when Vio was leaving, she asked, quite casually, “Does Tankret know yet?”
“No,” said Ibisia calmly, as if it was of no particular importance. “We thought we’d let him know with everyone else, when we announce it at the High Sun Festival.”
Vio ran home to talk to Gora. Gora was in her kitchen, preparing some medicines. She looked at Vio, who was on the verge of tears, and told her to sit down. She wouldn’t let her speak till she had given her a bowl of herb tea, and then she said, “I know what’s upsetting you. Samal told me too.”
“Is he mad?” asked Vio, though she was feeling a bit calmer. “Are they all mad? How can they be so blind?”
“What you are feeling,” said Gora, “is helplessness in the face of what we call destiny. You can see but they are behaving like puppets.”
“Is that supposed to console me?” asked Vio.
“No,” said Gora, “It’s something you’ll have to get used to. And at the moment it’s your love for Samal as much as your vision that’s telling you he’s trapped.”
“But if people woke up in time, couldn’t he be saved?”
“If,” said Gora. “But that’s the point. It doesn’t look as if they will.”
“They’re like butterflies flying into a storm,” said Vio.
“Exactly like that,” said Gora.
In the mean time life seemed to continue as usual. Vio didn’t try to discuss the marriage with Samal again. Samal saw Ibisia only with the rest of the family. He spent most of his time with Tankret, who practised his wrestling against anyone who would take him on. Vio didn’t much like wrestling, but one day she wanted to spend some time with Samal, even though they were finding it difficult to talk to each other, and she told him she would like to watch a fight.
“Are you sure?” asked Samal. “What you see may not be pretty.”
“Never mind,” said Vio. “I have a strong stomach.”
But sitting on a worn bench in the town gymnasium she wondered if she had been wrong about her ability to stand the sight of physical violence. The crowd surrounding her were rough-looking people, all human (the clansmen were too snobbish to come to a place like this, she thought) and nearly all men, and they looked as though violence was what they wanted. There were some women in the crowd too, and Vio wondered what sort of woman would watch wrestling, until she remembered that someone could be asking the same about her, which made her smile at herself.
Tankret quickly flattened the first contender, a young man who looked too thin to have much strength. He was carried away unconscious. Tankret was huge, not fat but bulging with muscles, and more ungainly to Vio’s eye than ever. He moved very fast, however, and his whole strength went into every blow, whether with fist, heel or head. He was frightening.
The next man who offered to fight him was obviously a sailor, with a weather-beaten face and torso and scars on his face and shoulder. He was strong, and for a moment Tankret looked surprised at the blows he received – almost, thought Vio, as if the child was going to come out of him and say “It’s not fair” – but he soon reacted and grabbed the sailor in a strangle-hold. The sailor managed to break the hold, but Tankret took advantage of the man’s own impulse to send him against the stone wall of the gymnasium and the sailor came back reeling, with blood streaming from his nose. Tankret’s face was a grim mask now, and he started hitting the man like a mindless demon. When the man was too exhausted to defend himself any longer, Tankret picked him up, squeezed him as if to expel all life from him, and threw him away like a straw doll.
The spectators applauded their hero wildly and Tankret raised his arms with a proud and carefree smile. Samal went to the fallen man and felt his pulse. Vio was glad that Samal did not seem to be enjoying the performance. This also must be part of his effort to save the royal family. She watched as the sailor stirred and Samal helped him to sit up; then she waved to Samal and slipped away.
Tankret had also decided to learn to ride. One day Samal told Vio to go with him to the stables of the “royal horses”, and she found Storm there.
“Do you recognise her?” asked Samal.
“Of course,” said Vio. “So Jinis didn’t want her any more.”
“He sold her for a high price. He’s too busy to bother with racing now.”
Vio put her arms around the mare’s neck and Storm nuzzled her in return. Vio felt like crying. She wished everything in life could be as simple as the love of a horse.
“Do you like her?” asked Tankret, seeing her hug the mare. “You can have her if you want her. She’s too tame for me. I like a horse that plays up. Watch!”
And he vaulted on to the back of a tall, coarse, chestnut stallion, which reared up and pranced, snorting, in circles.
“How often does he fall off?” Vio asked Samal.
“Every day. But he doesn’t get hurt.”
“Crocodile skin,” said Vio, using a port expression. She couldn’t help wishing he would fall off and cripple himself. That, she thought, would remove the threat that was hanging over them.
But nothing changed, and the day of the High Sun Festival came round.
The whole royal clan gathered at the Palace, to celebrate the anniversary of the meeting of their ancestors Polon and Kantalisia. Vio wore one of her new robes, green with a red border, and was kept busy greeting her clan aunts, uncles and cousins and receiving their compliments on her appearance. Her elegance surprised them all, she realised. They must have told each other she would never grow up. All the women of the clan were in colourful robes, and the men in fine linen tunics. As a group they were good-looking, Vio thought, with the long, mobile faces and graceful gestures they inherited from the Lupaka. The more human-featured ones were handsome too, well-formed mestizos. Only Tankret, out of the whole clan, was monstrous.
A ceremony was performed at the altar on the terrace, to thank the Goddess for her blessings and pray for her support for the clan in the coming year. Katelia tended the flame in the golden bowl and recited the prayers with dignity. A crowd had gathered in the street below, and when Katelia released the blue doves, signalling the end of the ceremony, they cheered loudly. The royal family had not been so popular for many years.
They went back downstairs to the great hall, and took their places on the mats while servants carried in the dishes for a feast. Vio sat down with her family at the Queen’s end of the hall, opposite Tankret, so that she could watch his reactions. Samal was at Melops’ left, Ibisia on her mother’s right, with the rest of the family close by. The clan was hungry, and Katelia gave the signal for them to start eating.
Just as well, thought Vio to herself. If they’d made the announcement first, all this food would have been wasted. She asked herself, then, if she was being too fearful; but one look at Tankret’s stupid face, as he chomped on a piece of meat with his mouth open, renewed her feeling of alarm. She couldn’t eat anything.
When most of the dishes were empty and people had washed their hands in bowls of water brought round by the servants, Melops stood up.
“Katelia has a very important announcement to make to you,” he said, as the voices died down.
He helped Katelia to her feet, and she held out her arms to them all, offering happy news. “This is a particularly auspicious day,” she said, “to announce the engagement of my daughter and heir. Ibisia is going to marry Samal.”
People began to applaud and shout congratulations. Samal and Ibisia stood up and acknowledged the applause. Ibisia and her mother exchanged embraces, Samal was given a hearty hug by Melops, and then Ibisia and Samal held out their arms to each other. But at that point Tankret erupted.
Vio was watching him when he heard the announcement. He was looking contented and well fed, and not at all curious about what Katelia was going to say. It took a while for the words to penetrate the haze in his head. Then his expression went from confusion, to disbelief, to indignation, to ugly, white-hot fury in a few moments. He gathered himself together, like a wild animal about to spring. Without thinking, Vio jumped up and screamed, “No!” but it was too late for anyone to react. Tankret leapt, roaring, toward Ibisia, shoved his mother aside, and grabbed his sister by the arm.
Ibisia went deathly pale and pulled her arm away. Tankret transferred his attention to Samal, who was trying to grab hold of him, and gave Samal a blow on the chin that laid him out. Melops tried to intervene, but Tankret hit him in the stomach and he collapsed without breath. Tankret had not become a champion fighter for nothing, thought Vio, watching the scene as if in slow motion and with a strange lack of feeling.
Before anyone else could try to stop him, Tankret picked up Ibisia in his arms and ran down the middle of the hall, trampling on the remains of the feast, and out into the courtyard. His chestnut stallion was tied up in the shade of the wall. Vio didn’t see this part, but the first guests who followed him out of the hall reported that Tankret slung Ibisia across the horse’s shoulders, vaulted on himself, and galloped away with her. The guards were surprised at the sight, but they opened the gate at his order.
Confusion had broken out inside the hall. Everyone was shouting; many were weeping. Katelia was sobbing, Samal and Melops slowly getting up, still stunned.
Vio suddenly heard her father’s voice, “Help me, Vio.” Her mother had fainted. Vio helped Pepi pick her up and carry her outside through the agitated crowd to lie her on the steps. Someone handed Vio a palm fan to give her some cool air.
Amapola opened her eyes, and Pepi said, “Samal’s all right.”
“I want to go home,” said Amapola, and Pepi and Vio slowly helped her up and led her away, supporting her between them.
No one spoke for a while, then Pepi said, “Your mother didn’t want the marriage. I should never have let Katelia convince her.”
“I didn’t want it either,” said Vio.
“I know,” said Pepi. “I thought it was Gora’s fears affecting you too. I will listen to you all in future.”
Vio wondered if the future would give him a chance to do that, but she didn’t say so. Her parents were upset enough.
She and Pepi returned to the Palace later in the evening, when Amapola had recovered and was resting in Gora’s care. The feast had been cleared away. Many men and women of the clan were still there, to keep the Queen company as she waited for news of Ibisia and Tankret. Melops had sent guards and servants out in all directions into the countryside, on horseback and on foot, leading one group himself.
The whole of that night they waited, and there was no news. Late the next morning a rider came in and reported that he had found the chestnut stallion, running loose in wild terrain down river, but seen no sign of Tankret or Ibisia. Katelia had become a timid, helpless woman again, and wept silently nearly all the time. Melops returned, looking ten years older overnight. Of all of them, thought Vio, he should have known what a risk they were taking with the engagement, and she was unable to feel sorry for him. Samal had also returned with a search party and was sitting by himself, with his head bowed. Vio didn’t know what to say to him.
To escape the tension in the hall, she climbed up to the terrace. The wide view of roofs, river and fields momentarily raised her heavy heart, until she realised there was a crowd down in the street, staring at her. It was not the same crowd as the day before, or if they were the same people their mood had changed entirely. They looked disapproving, even aggressive toward the inhabitants of the Palace. Tankret’s flight with Ibisia must have been seen, and the word had spread. But were the people really so fickle, turning so fast against their idols of the day before, or had Jinis and his allies, whoever they were, already stepped in to take advantage of the situation? In any case, Vio didn’t like the look of the crowd, and she went back inside.
The day passed with no further news, and some of the waiting relatives went home, slipping away without saying anything to Katelia. What was there to say? Vio lay down and slept on the mats in the roof room, as she had done sometimes as a child. The next day also went by, very slowly. Members of the family wandered in and out, aimlessly.
Finally, at dusk, someone shouted outside in the courtyard, “Tankret’s coming,” and a moment later he limped into the hall, followed by the guards that had found him. He was barefoot and filthy, he had a bump on his grotesque head, and bruises were visible down one arm and side. He grinned a bit sheepishly at the relatives still waiting, as if half expecting a welcome. His smile turned to a peevish frown when Melops shouted at him, “Where’s Ibisia?”
“I don’t know where she is, the naughty girl,” he said. “I punished her. She should have known she belonged to me, and instead she wanted to get married. I had to punish her, didn’t I?”
“Where did you leave her?” asked Melops, controlling his anger and panic. Katelia was sobbing out loud and the rest of the clan held their breath.
“That was the first night. The next day she was not well. I put her on the horse to go and look for water, but he saw a snake and bolted and I dropped her. He ran a long way with me, and I couldn’t stop him, but in the end I fell off too. Look at my bruises.”
“Where was it you left Ibisia?” Melops repeated, and Tankret tossed his head, irritated. “She shouldn’t have left me, the silly girl,” he said. Then, saner for a moment, he went on, “She fell off near a shrine in a gully. I was too sore to go back for her. I didn’t know the way. I hit my head when I fell.”
Melops ordered two guards to take Tankret away and shut him up in a cell at the back of the Palace. He asked if anyone present knew of a place like that, a shrine in a gully down river, and no one did. But someone called an odd, shy cousin who liked to explore the territory of Kynopolis and had been all the way to the sea, and when he heard the description he said he had an idea where the place might be. It was quite far, he said. Melops sent him with a group to search for it. Samal wanted to go but Melops persuaded him to wait at the Palace in case Ibisia was brought in from somewhere else. It was already dark and the search party was on foot, so Vio knew there would be another long wait.
At last, when day had already broken, the group returned, carrying Ibisia on a stretcher they had made of two branches and their capes. They laid her carefully on the stone floor of the hall. Her clothes were ripped, her face and body were beaten till she was hardly recognisable, and there were thorns all over her. She was scarcely breathing, more dead than alive. Vio saw Katelia throw herself on the floor beside her daughter, and Samal kneel beside her with deep sorrow in his face, and she ran to fetch Gora.
They returned to the Palace with Gora’s medicine chest. The men, except Samal and Melops who were standing at the entrance, had left the hall, and some of the women were bathing Ibisia’s bruised body and removing the thorns from her flesh. Her torn robe had been thrown aside and she was lying on a pallet covered with a clean cloth. She was still unconscious. The women looked up when Gora approached, and made room for her to kneel beside Ibisia.
Gora felt the bones of Ibisia’s skull and pushed up her swollen eyelids to look at her eyeballs. Then she turned her on her side and ran probing fingers down her spine.
“There is very little I can do,” she said. “She is too broken, outside and inside. Finish washing her and put this ointment on her wounds, in case she can feel pain. I will give her a potion to see if she remembers herself for a moment, so you can say goodbye.”
“The blue vial,” Gora said to Vio, when Ibisia was washed and covered with a white cloak. Vio nodded, and passed it to her after Gora gently pried open Ibisia’s bruised jaw. She poured the contents of the vial drop by drop into her mouth, and sat back to wait for a response.
After many moments had passed, when Vio thought Ibisia would never wake up again, her eyelids flickered and opened. Katelia controlled herself and knelt over her daughter to smile tenderly at her, then Melops. Gora beckoned to Samal, who had been hesitating on the edge of the group, and he also knelt beside his lost bride. Vio was sobbing quietly, as was everyone else in the room. Ibisia looked into Samal’s eyes and for a brief moment there was joy in her own. Then her eyes closed again and she gave a little sigh and stopped breathing.
Some of the women started wailing. Melops led Katelia gently away. Samal stood looking down at Ibisia with an expression that Vio didn’t understand. The men returned to the hall, and someone arranged for more candles to be placed around the body, and for a group of white-robed musicians to come and sing the mourning songs. As the hours passed, Vio sat near her cousin on the floor, or got up and wandered round the Palace, thinking as little as possible, simply sharing the family’s grief.
At some point during the night she heard a servant tell Melops a strange man wanted to see him in the courtyard, and, concerned, she followed him outside.
The man who was standing there was as thin as a pole and wore a ragged grey robe. He had long, matted hair and staring eyes. He was saying to Melops, “I was passing through this town and I heard of your affliction. I believe there is a way in which I can help you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Melops.
“Your son is disturbed in his mind and soul. You cannot keep him here with you. Give him to me and I will take him to a distant place so you will have peace.”
Melops made a gesture of disbelief. “You think you can control a madman?” he asked.
“I am a man of God. I have a gift for bringing calm to people,” the man said. He stared at Melops with unblinking eyes.
Melops hardly hesitated. “Very well, take him,” he said. “We will be in your debt.” And he called a guard to lead the stranger to Tankret’s prison.
Vio quietly followed them round the building. She saw the soldier pull Tankret out of his cell. He was exhausted now, and hardly able to stand. The man put his hands on Tankret’s shoulders and glared fixedly into his eyes. After a short time Tankret limped tamely away after his new guardian.
Vio felt worried, not for Tankret, who had no more right to pity from anyone, but because she was suspicious of the motives of the “man of God”, whatever that might be. She didn’t believe he had taken Tankret because he wanted to help her family. And whatever the real reason was, she was sure it meant danger.
Ibisia’s body lay for a day on a bier in the Palace entrance hall. In the circumstances it seemed unwise to display it in the courtyard so that the people of the town could also take their leave of the heiress. For members of the clan it was distressing to see the bruised face sunk among white cloths in the flickering candle light.
Then Ibisia was burned at the royal funeral site beside the river, and her ashes were scattered on the water. A crowd from the town came to share the brief rite with the royal family, and their attitude was respectful. Many people appeared to be sincerely grieved. Vio stood beside Samal as the flames took hold of the body, wishing she knew what he felt behind his expressionless silence. She felt terribly sad herself, and aware that their lives had changed in a frightening way.
As they turned to leave the site, Vio looked up at the statue of the dark Goddess on her pedestal above the pyre, surrounded by funeral palm branches, and she asked her silently, Is this what you want? The answer came quite clearly in her mind: I am not desire but necessity. I am also called peace. Vio felt comforted, though she knew it would be a long time before she understood what she had heard.
That evening Yon came to their house. “I’m sorry,” he said to Vio, who came to meet him in the hall. “I got back from fishing today and heard about Ibisia and Tankret.”
“Sami will be glad to see you,” said Vio, leading the way to Samal’s room, “but don’t expect him to say much. He’s closed up.”
“That’s natural,” said Yon.
Samal’s eyes lightened when he saw Yon, and he returned his hug warmly. Yon said, “I never thought anything so dreadful could happen. You must be stunned.”
Samal said “Oh. Well, I expect it was fate.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Vio asked Yon, “What are people saying at the port now?”
“Everyone is sorry, for Samal and for the Queen. And some people still think we should support the royal clan. But…” Yon hesitated.
“But?” said Vio. “Tell us. We need to know.”
“It seems a lot of people feel that a family that can produce a monster like Tankret has no more right to rule. Tankret has played right into the hands of Jinis and his friends. They’ve been busy lately, stirring up dissatisfaction, telling people in the marketplace that their country needs better, stronger leaders.”
“They’re right, it does, but the merchants wouldn’t be any better,” said Samal. “The people should think carefully before they support them.”
Vio remembered the crowd she had seen from the terrace after the news of Tankret’s flight with Ibisia reached the town, and she felt sure that thinking carefully was not something they were likely to do on their own. They needed the royal family to respond convincingly to the disaster.
Katelia, however, did nothing to reassure her people that all would be well. In her place, Vio thought, she would have been up on the terrace speaking to them, promising a new start. But Katelia was more helpless than ever, almost crazy with grief at the death of her daughter and the loss of her mad, wicked son.
Vio went every day to the Palace, to show her support to Katelia and to spend some time with Tinina, who was now the only daughter and the heir. She had never liked Tinina much, and Tinina’s behaviour now did nothing to change her opinion of her. She was no longer a child and understood what was happening, but she appeared to be almost untouched by her sister’s death, and unconcerned about the future of the clan. She was, however, interested in clothes, and Vio found herself dressing up with her as she had with Ibisia, but without any of the enjoyment she had felt with her older cousin.
A whole moon passed with no relief for the family’s sadness, and then another man of God appeared at the door to the Palace. This man was even taller and thinner than the one who had taken Tankret away. His eyes were wild and moved back and forth all the time in his face, and he had black stumps of teeth in a cavernous mouth. When Vio saw him, arriving at the Palace for her daily visit, she felt disgust and fear. He was sitting on a mat in the porch, and Katelia was sitting opposite him, also on the ground, fascinated by what he was saying. She didn’t even see Vio, who waited to greet her.
“We are born with nothing,” the man intoned in a harsh voice, “and we leave this world with nothing. And between the two our path lies through a region of shadows. Why should we become attached to shadows?”
“Are our children shadows?” Katelia asked.
“Of course they are,” said the holy man. “Nothing we possess in this world is solid. Nothing here is of real worth.”
Vio wanted to answer him back, to tell him not to talk nonsense to a woman in distress, but the hopeful look on Katelia’s face made her keep silent.
“Then what is of worth?” asked Katelia.
“Only God. Only God our father who made us to serve him.”
Vio stepped quickly past them and ran up the stairs to Tinina’s room. She was horrified at the man’s blasphemy. God the father who made us! The Goddess made us to be her children and to enjoy her beautiful world. But at that moment she had recognised the repulsive man of God as one of the figures that sometimes hovered in her mirror, and she knew that nothing she could say or do would affect his power over her life and her friends’ lives.
In the days that followed Katelia was calmer. Vio knew that the intruder was coming to the Palace every day, seeing Katelia now in her private rooms, but she avoided meeting him. Then one day at the midday meal, Katelia broke the silence that usually accompanied their meals to talk about the man and his teaching.
“His name is Purgator,” she said. “He comes from far away and he is a very wise man. God the father has sent him to me to heal my sorrow.”
“God the father?” asked Tinina, without any real interest.
“Yes. We have been wrong all this time. God is male.”
Tinina shrugged. Vio said nothing, because if she opened her mouth she would say too much.
“I don’t expect you to understand,” said Katelia, “but I can’t go on living as I have up to now. I wish to renounce the world and all the evil that is done in the name of happiness. I wish to retire.”
“What do you mean, retire?” asked Melops, who was as surprised as the rest of them by this announcement.
“I am giving up the queendom,” said Katelia. “I will follow Purgator to the remote place where he lives and spend my life praying to God.”
No one knew what to say. Melops reacted first. “Take time to think about it,” he said. “Let Purgator go on his way now, and if you still want to follow him a few moons from now, you can send word to him to fetch you.”
“He says the call comes once only,” said Katelia. “And I am ready now. What do I have to live for here?”
Melops looked devastated. “Who will be Queen, then?” he asked. “Tinina is not ready.”
“I cannot concern myself with such things any longer,” said Katelia. “Do as you think best.”
“Then will you empower me to be your regent for now?” asked Melops. “You may change your mind and return.”
“I will not change my mind. I leave Kynopolis in your hands. In any case it is more fitting for a man to have the power.”
Vio knew that Melops didn’t like this idea any more than she did, but he was obliged to take charge of the city. He persuaded Katelia to stay and give her blessing to Tinina’s engagement, so that the people of Kynopolis would know a young woman was growing up to take her mother’s place. Vio didn’t even wonder where they were going to find a bridegroom for her in the few days Katelia was willing to wait. She knew Melops would expect Samal to perform this duty, and she knew Samal would be incapable of refusing.
“Don’t you wish at least you could say no?” Vio asked him before the announcement was made to the clan. “Haven’t you any plans for your own life?”
“Not really, Vio,” he said. “Since Ibisia died like that, I don’t care any more what happens.”
“Did you love her so much then?” She had never dared to ask Samal this question.
“I wasn’t in love with her. But we had always been friends and marrying her was a good thing to do. I hoped it would work out. Now nothing makes sense any more.”
“I know,” said Vio. “Everything is falling to pieces and we are not in control of what happens at all.”
Samal looked at her gratefully. “I’m glad you understand,” he said.
“Oh, Sami,” Vio said, “I do understand, I always have. I just wish so much you could be happy.”
“And I wish you could be happy too,” said Samal.
So understanding was restored between Vio and her brother, which was a consolation to both of them.
Vio asked Gora if she thought Samal could be happy in the future with Tinina.
“You know the answer to that as well as I do,” said Gora. “If they ever do get married, which is not likely the way things are going, how could he be happy with that cold, selfish girl?”
“Oh, dear,” said Vio. “I hoped what I was thinking might be wrong.”
“You must trust your intuition even when you don’t like what it tells you,” said Gora.
The engagement of Samal and Tinina was made public, and Katelia followed Purgator into the wilderness. The word of her departure spread in the usual swift way, and people were standing in the streets to watch her, thin and pale in a simple white robe, walk a few steps behind the man of God through the Boar Gate and into the distance. Vio stood on a corner, listening to a group of citizens discussing the madness that had got into the royal family, until they realised a royal was listening and hurried away.
15. WHAT CAN’T BE TAKEN AWAY
Vio had not given up her outside activities and, in spite of all the sorrow and the worries, there were still happy moments in her life. She had taken Tankret at his word and decided to consider Storm her own, and often in the early morning she ran to the royal stable and took the mare out for a ride. Trotting or cantering as the light spread and the sun rose in the sky, on the narrow paths between fields and among palm trees, aware of Storm under her responding to her slightest wish, she felt glad to be alive.
After the tragedy of Ibisia’s death the boat racing contests had stopped, but the group of friends, all or some of them, still sailed from time to time on the river. They had all left school by now. Keni was looking after his father’s farm, Anil and Soteps were learning their families’ trades. Samal, his official entry to the royal house postponed and his betrothed too young to be interested in him, was often idle. He took to spending a lot of time on the river, with whatever friends were free as crew, and Vio accompanied him whenever she could.
On one special afternoon, Vio, Samal and Yon took the Kingfisher out alone. They performed the tasks of sailing her with a minimum of effort, easily becoming a team. They sailed down beyond the Bull Temple, and round the bend to the stretch of faster water where, long ago now, Yon had saved the others from being swept down river, if not from death. They turned in under the tempting palms and Yon jumped on to the bank and moored the boat to a trunk. He jumped back on board, Vio laid out on the deck the dates and pomegranates she had brought with her, and they sat down to watch the water flow and the light change slowly as evening drew in.
For a long time no one spoke, and then Vio said, “It’s funny. I feel like the girl I was on the day when Yon fished me out of the river, and at the same time I feel years and years older.”
“An awful lot has happened,” Samal said. “But we’re not that much older really.”
“Nothing else important has happened to me since I met you,” said Yon. “But I know what you mean. We were innocent then.”
Vio looked at him. “And we’re not innocent now, are we? No one who has their eyes open can be innocent now. Too many bad things are happening.”
“I wish they didn’t have to happen to you two,” said Yon. “I wish you could have gone on being as happy and sure of yourselves as you used to be.”
“I expect we were very selfish,” said Vio.
“No you weren’t,” said Yon. “You were always generous. It’s not your fault that Tankret turned out to be mad and people like Jinis have decided to bring your family down.”
“Tell us what you’ve been hearing,” said Samal. “What’s going on at the port?”
“There are still people on your side,” said Yon. “They’re willing to give Tinina a chance, especially since she’s going to marry you. But the merchants have won over a lot of people, at the port as well as in town. They’re saying it’s time the city got rid of the decadent royals. They want a government of men who will make Kynopolis strong and wealthy, even if it means war. People find that exciting.”
“People like violence,” said Vio, remembering the audience watching Tankret fight.
“A lot of them do,” said Yon, and Samal added “I’m afraid so.”
“So the merchants are more powerful than they ever were?” Vio asked.
“Yes, they are.”
There was another silence, and Vio could feel the threat hanging over them as if it was a rotten roof. Then she shook herself and looked at the reflection of the palms in the water, which was turning white as the sun descended, and their beauty brought her back to the present. At the same time, Yon said, “I know I don’t have to say it, but I want to. I will always be on your side. Any help you need, just ask.”
“Thank you,” said Vio. Samal just put his arm briefly round Yon’s shoulders.
“I suppose we should be getting back,” said Samal. “It’s getting late.”
“All right. Eat the last piece of pomegranate,” said Vio. “And you, Yon, finish up the dates.”
The last of the fruit disappeared and they went on sitting there.
“I hope you won’t mind me asking, Vio,” said Yon after a while, “but do you understand now that old prediction about you and your child saving your race?”
“Not really,” said Vio, “except that, if it means the royal clan, I can see now why my race would need to be saved. But I’ve no idea how I could do it or if I’ll have a child.”
“But you’re not so dead against that as you used to be?” asked Yon.
“I can’t afford to be, can I? I’ve had to realise that life is not a game.”
“So serious and submissive! I’m astonished,” said Samal, with his warm smile, which they hadn’t seen very often lately.
“Oh, shut up,” said Vio. “I didn’t say anything about getting married, did I? I’m as against that as I ever was.”
They all laughed.
“Come on,” said Yon. “We’d better move.”
They pushed off and set sail up river, but when they reached the Bull Temple the sun was about to set in a blaze of light. By unspoken agreement, they brought the boat alongside the quay and moored her again, then sat watching as the dark red disk went down beyond the horizon and the flame colours in the sky turned to pink streaked with rust and died away. Yon started to sing a hymn to the mother sun, and Vio and Samal joined in. Vio felt her soul swell inside her till it burst out and she became the space around her, from the dark water where the reflections were fading up to the top of the sky where little wisps of cloud were still glowing with daylight.
She came back to herself when Samal and Yon called her name loudly, several times. As they made their way carefully up the river in the dark, she thought that no one, ever, whatever happened, could take that evening away from them.
16. WAITING AND WATCHING
No one in the clan had asked Vio lately when she was going to get married, because there had been too many other things to think about. She was, however, past the age when marriages were usually arranged for young girls. Her mother was sitting in the kitchen one day when Vio came down to breakfast, and as Vio spread fruit preserve on flat-bread she asked her gently, “I suppose you haven’t changed your mind about getting married, have you?”
“No,” said Vio, “I’m sorry. I don’t want to marry, and anyway it doesn’t seem to be a good time to be thinking of weddings, does it?”
“I suppose not,” said Amapola, “but it would be nice to have you settled.”
“Settled!” exclaimed Vio, putting down her bread, and Amapola had to laugh at her shocked expression. “And just out of curiosity,” Vio went on, “who were you thinking of marrying me off to?”
“One of your clan cousins, I suppose,” said Amapola, “though I don’t know which. I don’t know who could manage you.”
“I can manage myself,” said Vio, starting to eat, “even if I do make mistakes.”
With an unusual show of affection, Amapola got up and kissed her. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “I know you have to do things your way. I hope it will make you happy.”
Vio couldn’t even imagine being married to anyone in the clan. They all seemed so limited and dull. If she had to get married now, Yon would be the only person she could think of as a husband, but she didn’t have to. Looking into her mirror, she sometimes thought she glimpsed in the future a man she would feel passionately about, a man who would challenge and kindle her. There was pain in this vision, too, but it wasn’t clear enough for Vio to be concerned about it.
She didn’t want to marry, but she did feel like flirting. After the tragedies at the Palace, a kind of reaction had set in. A few men and women of the clan had been infected like Katelia by Purgator’s preaching, and withdrew from social life, but many of them spent their time at the Palace, eating, listening to music or playing games, as if they wanted to defy the threats to their privileges, even to their safety. They rarely mentioned the merchants’ conspiracy; they all wanted to forget it. Melops took no part in the games, though he was always a generous host. He looked sad and without hope. No one knew even where Purgator had taken Katelia. The place was not within the boundaries of Kynopolis; Melops had had a discreet search made. Tinina flitted around like a silly child, telling everyone she was going to be Queen.
Vio, on the days when she felt like practising her female charms, dressed up in a fine robe, painted her face, and went to join the fun. She found some of the older, married men quite willing to flirt with her and more interesting than the boys of her own age. They teased her back and looked at her in an exciting way. Some of the wives began to hate her, but that amused her too. When the men tried to get her to meet them in secret, she laughed at them.
She knew she wasn’t behaving well, but she couldn’t understand why people would bother to take her flirting seriously. Her own serious feelings were involved in concern for her immediate family, especially Samal, and in her efforts to understand what was happening in the town.
At that time she started to walk the streets and marketplace, with a shawl over her head to disguise her royal features, and listen to what people were saying. Yon was right, she soon found. More and more people were becoming convinced that the city needed a change of rulers.
One day she stopped at a market stall to buy fruit, and took her time choosing it so she could hear what the two women beside her were saying.
“What do you think he was like when he was a baby, that Tankret?” one asked.
“He must have been a monster even then,” said the other. “You could tell from looking at him.”
“They should have got rid of him then.”
Vio felt like interrupting them to ask how the family could have got rid of him, but she kept quiet and the other woman answered for her.
“It’s a bit hard to get rid of a child, isn’t it, with everyone watching what you do. No,” she went on, “it’s just as well he did grow up, because now we can see what to expect from that family. They have to go.”
Another time she stood on a corner as if she was waiting for someone and listened to the conversation between merchants sitting on the steps of a cloth shop.
“She was only good for dressing up, our Queen,” said one. “When things got tough she just walked out.”
“She must have gone mad like her son,” said another. “Walking off into the wilderness with a beggar.”
“I used to have a lot of respect for the Queen,” said an older man. “In her mother’s time things were different. She knew what was going on in this town and she looked after us.”
“Well, times have changed,” said the first man. “We merchants can make a better job of ruling the town than these people.”
They all muttered agreement.
Once Vio heard someone call Katelia “poor woman”; and once when she was sitting on the Temple steps she overheard some younger people arguing about the royal family and saying it was sad that Samal, who was so brave and kind to everybody, should have to share their fate. Then someone mentioned Vio herself. “That madcap,” said a young man, with admiration in his voice, “she’s not like the rest of them, she goes her own way.” That wasn’t so bad, Vio thought. They didn’t hate her.
There were parts of town where Vio preferred not to go by herself, where it might even be dangerous for her if she was recognised, and she asked Yon to go with her. Yon could go where he liked. He was sturdy and strong and looked like the fisherman he was, with crinkles at the corners of his eyes from the glare of light on water. They gave him a humorous expression, and he laughed often, as he always had, but behind the humour Vio could see seriousness and sadness too.
He was glad to accompany her, and they spent many hours in the streets and alley-ways of the town, observing and listening. One day they walked through the settlement of mud huts outside the Dog Gate, and Vio was horrified at the dirt and squalor. Children with swollen bellies sat listlessly in the dust of the alley-ways, and a smell of shit hung in the air.
“Why are they so poor?” she asked Yon.
“Most of them have been turned off the land they were farming,” he said.
“By members of the royal clan, I suppose,” said Vio.
“Then we deserve to be got rid of.”
“You’re not all like that, are you?”
Their presence in the settlement was very noticeable, but Vio wanted to see all she could. They walked to the end of an alley, and from one of the last huts they heard wailing. A bunch of neighbours had gathered at the entrance. Vio told Yon to ask what had happened, and when he reported that a baby had died, she removed her shawl from her head and went to the door of the hut.
Everyone turned to look at her. “I’m very sorry about the baby,” she said. The people were too astonished at her presence to say anything, but there was no hostility in their eyes. Vio stepped inside and looked at the child lying on a ragged blanket in a basket, shrivelled and skinny like a baby bird. It had never had a chance of surviving, she thought. She removed the gold pin at the shoulder of her robe, and handed it to the older woman sitting beside the weeping mother. “I hope this will be of some help to you now,” she said. And she turned and stumbled out before she started crying openly.
“I wish I had something to give all those people,” she said to Yon when she could speak again, and they were approaching the Dog Gate.
“That would be impossible,” said Yon, smiling at her, “but fate chose those people for you to give something to. And you did. Right?”
“Right,” said Vio.
One night they went to the port. Karek, the captain of the Bull, had asked Yon to bring Vio to his house, and she was happy to accept. Since their sailing contests had stopped, she had been missing her meetings with her port relatives.
Karek greeted them warmly at the door and led them inside. The whole crew of the Bull was there, with their wives and families and other neighbours too. Many of them were mestizos, with their Lupaka blood showing in different degrees. A little girl came to lean on Vio’s knee, when she sat down, and Vio could see in her long face and shining dark eyes a distinct likeness to her own. Were these people also in danger, she wondered. Did the port people see them as related to the detested royals?
Karek was watching her, and she decided to ask him, “Karek, most of you are related to my clan. Does that mean you’re in trouble too?”
“We don’t really know,” said Karek. “We used to think we were just the same as anyone else round here, but lately some people are treating us like we were the enemy.”
“But that’s absurd,” said Vio. “You aren’t responsible for the abuses of the royal clan. In a way you’re their victims too.”
“You know that,” said Karek, “but most people don’t reason. They’re saying it’s a matter of race. We must be mad like the royal family, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course I excuse you,” said Vio. “That’s terrible. And it makes me feel guilty.”
“Why should you feel guilty? It’s not your fault, and anyway the royal clan is not as bad as they’re saying by any means. Those others would be worse. We want you to know if there’s a clash we’re on your side. If we can help you or your brother, just let us know.”
Vio couldn’t answer. She wiped away tears, and when the little girl beside her saw her cry she burst into tears too, which made everybody laugh. Karek’s wife, Aralo, brought palm wine and cakes, and they started reminiscing about their boat races, and it turned into a happy evening.
It was late when they left Karek’s house and set out with a group of his friends toward the town. As they turned into the main street they met a trio of drunken youths coming toward them.
“The dogs!” one of them shouted, and they charged the group, which included several small children. The women dodged. Vio picked up a little boy, who was trembling. Yon and the other men caught the attackers and kicked their legs from under them, and they were so drunk they fell in a heap, struggling to get up again. The mestizo party ran then, the women panting and some of the children crying, till they were at a safe distance.
“Does that happen to you often?” Vio asked, when they stopped. She put down the little boy and he smiled shyly at her.
“No,” said one of the Bull crew. “We were unlucky to meet those particular hooligans. But let Yon take you home quickly now.”
“What about you?” asked Vio.
“We turn off here. We’ll be fine. Good night.”
They all shouted “Good night” and Yon and Vio walked on fast.
Vio was upset. “I forget how ugly ordinary people can be,” she said. “How can they hate the mestizos like that just because they’re a bit different?”
“Ignorant people hate anyone different, don’t they?” said Yon.
“It’s frightening,” said Vio. “It makes no sense.”
“Does life make any sense?” asked Yon. He was smiling and Vio knew he was teasing her.
“Maybe not, but I want it to,” said Vio, loudly, and her words echoed in her head till they reached her house and Yon said good night.
A few days later the Harvest Festival came round, and Vio went with her family to the Temple. Differences seemed to be forgotten on that day. People of all kinds and classes were gathered in the stone building and on the steps, celebrating the abundance of life. Vio was inside the Temple, near the altar. When the Priestess held up in her arms the straw doll representing the ripe crop, and the congregation shouted with joy, she felt her soul swell in her again, and she knew that life did make sense, even if she couldn’t understand it.
After that Vio went to visit the Priestess again, and the Priestess invited her into her private chamber. It was even barer than Vio had imagined, with nothing but a pallet to sleep on, a mat to sit on, some scrolls and a low altar. But the small statue of the Goddess on the altar was the most beautiful she had ever seen, of pale stone with fine hands and a very sweet expression.
Vio looked at the Priestess and saw the same kindness in her face. The woman held out her hand and touched her cheek, and Vio burst into tears.
“Yes, I know,” said the Priestess, “you’re crying for me and for everyone at Kynopolis, not just for yourself. It’s not easy to see as you see, young as you are.”
“I wish I could do something,” said Vio, sniffing.
“You’re doing all you can,” said the Priestess. “You’re a good girl.”
“But why…” said Vio, looking again at the gentle, loving figure, and she couldn’t go on.
“She has other faces,” said the Priestess. “But this one will always be there, behind all the dark clouds, waiting to shine out again.”
“Will we see it?”
“You will see it. I may not. But She is with me all the time.”
17. THE MALE IS GREATER
For a few more moons the changes at Kynopolis appeared to go no deeper. In spite of all she had learnt about it, Vio felt the town was still itself, the home she recognised. She was constantly aware of tension, however, in herself and in the air.
The group of friends, the old boat crew, had taken to meeting in the evenings at Samal and Vio’s home. It had always been their natural meeting place, and now it was a haven. They played games and told stories to distract themselves from worry, but they often discussed what was happening in Kynopolis as well. It was impossible not to; no plans could be made without wondering whether the royal family would be overthrown and what that would mean in their lives.
Yon came when he could. His allegiance to Samal and Vio was clear, and he was from a poor family. The poor were not involved in plots. Anil and Soteps, the other human members of the group, were from rich merchant families, and were embarrassed at first when they all talked about the deepening divisions in the town. Finally Samal said, “Look. We know you are our friends. What the merchants do is not your fault. We don’t expect you to tell us any secrets. We’re glad you’re here with us.”
“Thank you for saying so,” said Anil. “We’ve been feeling bad. You and your family have always been good to us.”
“Yes,” said Soteps, “and we’d do anything we can to help you. If we have any news that could be useful, we’ll let you know.”
“But don’t get into trouble for us,” said Samal.
“Don’t worry,” said Anil, “we can look after ourselves. My parents are not in the plot anyway. They don’t want an upheaval.”
“Nor are mine,” said Soteps. “And they admire you and Vio.”
“So there is a definite plot,” said Vio.
“Yes,” said Anil, “there’s a group that’s planning to get rid of you, but we don’t know any details. They’re sworn to secrecy. They’re not even supposed to say that much, but Jalkan told me. Showing off as usual. His father is one of the leaders.”
“Of course,” said Vio.
“Have you decided what to do if the situation gets really bad?” asked Soteps.
“I have,” said Keni, the other royal, who had been sitting quietly through the conversation. “If fighting starts I’m going to escape to our smaller farm down river. They’ll hide me there, and if the worst comes to the worst there’s always a boat.”
“You’ve got it all thought out,” said Samal.
“Yes. I intend to survive this crisis and have a life somewhere. It goes without saying that you and Vio are welcome to come with me.”
“Thank you,” said Samal, “but I couldn’t leave. There’s the family, and Tinina.”
No one answered. They had all forgotten momentarily that Samal was bound to Tinina and the queendom. It didn’t seem real, thought Vio, but, horribly, it was.
“What about you, Vio?” asked Anil.
Vio wanted to say, “And I couldn’t leave Samal,” but she knew he would protest. “I don’t know yet,” she said. “I’ll wait and see. I may be needed here and I’m sure I’ll find a way to escape if I have to.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Keni, smiling. “And there’s always Yon to help you.”
“Yes,” said Vio, “there’s Yon.” And she wondered why she suddenly felt cold inside.
Then Purgator came back.
He appeared at the Bull Gate one day, with three companions dressed in the same dirty robes and with the same wild eyes and hair as himself, and immediately starting preaching in the streets of the town. Melops expected him to come to the Palace and give him news of Katelia, and when he didn’t appear he sent for him. Vio was present with Tinina at the meeting, and when Purgator approached with his companions she recognised one of them as the man who had taken Tankret away.
Melops invited them to enter the Palace, and Purgator refused. He invited them to sit down in the porch, and they refused that also, standing with defiant faces on the steps.
Melops restrained his natural anger and said, “Please be so kind as to tell me how my wife is prospering.”
“Your wife,” said Purgator, with a sneer in his voice, “is prospering in obedience to the God the father.”
“And her health?” asked Melops.
“Her body is weak,” said Purgator. “She understands that the body must be chastised.”
“Won’t she come back to see us?” asked Tinina hesitantly, to Vio’s surprise. At least the girl had enough feeling to miss her mother.
“She will not,” said Purgator. “Do not expect to see her again.”
What could Melops say? It was obvious that no plea or threat could touch Purgator. The men of God were turning to leave, without even saluting Melops. Vio decided to ask a question:
“Is my cousin Tankret with his mother?”
“Oh no,” said Purgator, with a nasty smile at her. “He is in a quite different place. His health is excellent. We have had no trouble with him at all.”
And they stalked away.
A cloud of sadness fell over the Palace again after that. It was one thing to be missing Katelia because she had decided to follow a man of God, but a different matter to realise she was being ill treated, or was perhaps already dead. And Tankret, so it seemed, was being kept in good condition. What did they intend to do with him, Vio wondered. Would they bring him back to cause trouble?
Purgator and his men were going round the city telling people they must wake up and worship the father God before it was too late to save their souls. The Goddess, they said, belonged to the darkness. Females were darkness, males were light; and it was men that should have the power in this world.
This message was, of course, very useful for the merchants, who supported the preachers in their work and told everyone that the new God was on their side and wanted them to take the place of the Queen.
Vio soon clashed with Purgator personally. The weather was stuffy and the atmosphere at the Palace, where she was spending the day, was depressing, so she had taken two servant girls with her and gone to bathe in the pond near the stadium. When she came back, Purgator was standing on the stone bench just outside the Dog Gate, surrounded by a small crowd, nearly all men.
“For too long we have worshipped the mother,” he was saying, in his loud, harsh voice. “What is the mother’s power? Nothing but the warmth of earth.”
He looked ridiculous to Vio, standing there so thin in his shabby robe, with his straggly grey hair stiff with dirt. Did he think God the father was like him, she wondered. What a world, if so.
Almost without meaning to, Vio found herself answering him. “And She whose face is seen among the stars?” she said. “Who rules the seasons of our lives?”
Purgator turned to her. His face was twisted with fury.
“Illusion!” he shouted. “The kind of nonsense that’s keeping us in ignorance. The male brings all that is of worth.”
Vio could see there was no point in trying to talk to such a madman. She beckoned to the servant girls to follow her through the gate. But Purgator jumped off the seat to stand in her way.
“The father will be obeyed,” he roared, staring at Vio’s face and breasts with a hate in which it was easy to see disguised lust. “Women will learn to stay in their place.”
Purgator had come so close to her, Vio could smell his foul breath. She let him see clearly in her face how she despised him, and swept past him holding her robe aside. The people who were gathering round made way for her. She could see they were not all on his side, though many of them were imitating his frown.
After this encounter, Vio felt there might be very little time left to enjoy the privileged life she had. She decided that before she lost her freedom, since that could easily happen, it was time she went beyond flirting and discovered what love with men was all about.
It was not so easy to decide who her lover should be. She knew it would cause trouble if she became involved in that way with one of the clan men, and in spite of flirting with them she was not truly attracted to any of them. She thought of Yon, but she knew a relationship with him would be much too serious. She would not be able to end it once it began, and what she wanted was an adventure, almost an experiment.
There was a groom at Tankret’s stable, a young man whose only job was to keep the horses fed and healthy, since no one but Vio rode there any longer. He was dark and slim, with a mobile, sensitive face, and he loved the horses. He talked to them and they seemed to understand his words. He had saved the legs of Tankret’s red stallion, almost crippled after his flight across the stony waste. Watching him stroke Storm’s neck one day, Vio suddenly thought she would like him to caress her too in that sensual way.
She invited him to go riding with her, and they went far away from the town, to a grove of palm trees with a pool of water in the middle of it. They lay down to rest beside the pool and Vio turned to him and gave him a clear invitation with her eyes. He hesitated, but she knew that was because she was royal and not because he didn’t want her, so she held out her hand and touched his chest. Then there was no more hesitation.
They returned several times to the palm grove, and made love in the stable, too, when it rained and they couldn’t stay outside. Vio learned a new kind of pleasure, more intense than any she had known before. She liked Kirops, too (that was his name), and was enchanted to discover he was a kind of wizard with plants as well as with the horses. By moving his hands, he could make the reeds at the pool sway and the palm branches dance.
But he had too much heart and he fell in love with her. After a couple of moons, the adoration she saw in his face began to alarm her. She didn’t want a serious relationship, and she was afraid he was dreaming of a future together.
So one day, as they returned to the stable, she said, “I won’t be coming any more after today. Please try to understand me.”
He looked as if she had hit him. “But I thought you loved me,” he said.
“I do love you in a way, but not as I think you want me to. I’ve never loved anyone like that. Maybe I can’t. And I have other things to do now. So it’s better if we don’t meet any more.”
“I wish I could die,” he said.
Vio knew he wouldn’t die, but she felt a bit guilty for hurting him so badly. And because she had to admit to herself that for her it was harder to give up Storm than to give up Kirops. Obviously she couldn’t go to the stable any more.
Soon after this Vio, Samal and Anil sailed up the swollen river, to get away from the tensions in the town, and in spite of the cool air and the risk of rain spent the night on a beach. Another boat drew up while they were sitting round their campfire, and the captain asked if they could use the fire in return for sharing the fish they had caught to eat. The friends agreed. The fish was delicious, and Vio watched the captain, as the firelight flickered over his handsome scarred face and tough body, and thought he was a very attractive man.
In the morning, as they prepared, after a dry night, to leave the beach, he approached her and said quietly, “Will you go sailing with me some time?” It was a challenge and she accepted it. He picked her up from the river-bank one afternoon, in a smaller boat than the one he usually sailed, at a point near the cremation ground where they were unlikely to be observed. Making love on the boat as the water rocked it was a new and enjoyable sensation. The man was much older than her, and Vio knew he was interested only in giving and receiving pleasure, without involving her heart or his. They didn’t have much to talk about, but Vio enjoyed the sense of adventure he gave her, which was a change from the worries that surrounded her, and she met him again twice.
“Am I being very bad?” she asked Gora, when she told her about her love affairs. It was too difficult to keep such an important step in her life from Gora.
Gora sighed. “You had to discover the love of men some time,” she said. “I’m surprised you didn’t do it before. And you aren’t going to have much time for such relationships now either.”
As usual, Gora was right. Pepi called Vio to his study a few days later.
“I gave up long ago trying to interfere in your life,” he said, “even when I don’t like what you’re doing. Gora explained to us that a girl with a destiny like yours has to be allowed to grow up in her own way. But now I am asking you, as a responsible person, to behave more wisely.”
“What do you want me to do?” asked Vio.
“Stop seeing this boat captain.”
“ I didn’t know you knew,” said Vio. “I mean, I thought I’d been discreet.”
“You have been fairly discreet. The person who told me happened to see you with him on the river, and will not pass it on for the clan’s sake. It seems there’s a rumour at the port, but we can deny it.”
“Why does it matter so much? Is it because of Purgator?”
“Of course it is,” said Pepi. “You should know that. He’s preaching that women are darkness and lead men away from God. He says the women of our race are worse than the humans and the Palace is a den of wickedness. People are listening to him and if he starts to preach against you personally it will be very unpleasant.”
“All right,” said Vio, realising immediately that her father was right. “I hoped no one would know I was meeting the man, but I suppose that was foolish. From now on I will behave modestly. I don’t want to make things any more difficult for you if I can avoid it.”
“I’m glad you understand,” said Pepi, with a loud sigh. “I can’t understand why you would want such a relationship, but I appreciate your giving it up. We’re all giving up something.” And he continued, as though the words escaped him, “Though I doubt whether anything can save us any longer.”
Vio was dismayed at his gloominess. Pepi was not easily depressed. “Oh, what will happen to us all?” she exclaimed.
“I don’t know, daughter. No one knows, except perhaps Gora and she won’t tell us. Whatever it is, we must face it with dignity.”
Vio was in the Temple square, listening to Purgator preach, when the Priestess finally decided to leave the Temple and confront him. She blinked as she came out into the sunlight, and walked with her hands held out in front of her, as if to protect herself from a fall, to the top of the steps. Purgator was looking towards her and stopped shouting in mid sentence, and there was an angry murmur from the crowd as they turned to see why an expression of furious astonishment had come over his face.
“Wretched servant of darkness,” Purgator yelled. “How dare you show yourself here?”
The look of helplessness had fallen away from the Priestess. She stood erect, seeming much taller than she was, and held up her arms like the wings of a powerful bird.
“I serve the light,” she said, and her firm voice carried all over the square. “The light belongs to the Goddess, the Mother of us all, and this is her citadel. It is you who have no right to invade it with your lies.”
“The lies are yours,” shouted Purgator, “and no one is listening to you any more. Look at all these men around me. They know now my God is real and your Goddess is a sham.”
“You may lead those men astray, but you cannot destroy the Goddess. She is our ruler and in the end she will prevail.”
“Lies, lies!” Purgator waved his arms at the crowd. “Tell her who’s right. Shout ‘God the father’!”
A faint and ragged shout rose from the gathered men.
Purgator waved his arms again furiously. “Tell her!”
This time the shout was louder, but he had to repeat the command twice more before it became a full-bodied yell, and by that time the Priestess had turned and walked calmly back inside the Temple.
18. WOMEN ARE DARKNESS
Purgator’s message of male superiority was winning over more and more people. Vio understood better now Gora’s concern over the years about the decline in women’s power. In the world in which Vio grew up, it already seemed natural for men to be the masters of their households and women enjoyed less freedom of movement than in the old days of the great Queens. But the women were respected, and studied whatever interested them, and contributed to public debate. Suddenly, it seemed, their voices could no longer be heard. There was no Queen to reassure them of their importance. The legitimate Queen was a weak woman who had abandoned her city, and her only living daughter was a foolish girl.
Anil and Soteps told Vio that most men in the town no longer hesitated to support the merchants in their claim to take over the state. They were men, and had the backing of the preachers of the new religion. They wondered how they could have gone on for so long allowing a Queen to reign over them.
Not everyone was convinced so easily that they should worship a father God and turn their backs on the Goddess. Many people’s instincts still told them that the Mother is the source of life and joy. But they were becoming afraid to show their devotion to Her, because Purgator’s men were preaching that her faithful followers would be punished, in the world to come if not in this one.
Purgator had as yet no official power, but everyone was sure it was only a matter of time. The royal family would be expelled from the Palace, the merchants would take over, and Purgator’s rules, which he said were his God’s rules, would become law. In the mean time, since no one was attempting to defend them from Purgator and his threats, people generally thought it was wiser to obey him. The court of justice still sat at the Palace, but few people bothered to take their quarrels there any more.
Many women, however, were unhappy with the new restrictions placed on them. They were not supposed to go out in the streets alone. A companion, preferably male, was to be with them even when they went to the marketplace. Girls had to give up studying any art or science not related to their role as housewives and mothers; their school was closed. And of course they were no longer to take part in sports. Gora told Vio that in the houses she visited as a doctor all the women complained about how difficult their lives were now they couldn’t move around freely, and how bored they felt sitting inside. But their husbands didn’t listen to their protests.
For a while, after the talk with her father, Vio tried to obey Purgator’s rules. When she walked to the Palace, Gora accompanied her. She went neither to the port nor to the marketplace. Although the period of her relationships with the young groom and with the captain had not lasted quite three moons, Vio felt as if she was returning to her normal life after a long absence and finding everything changed. She wondered how she could have been so obsessed with her own feelings and so blind to what was happening in reality. And to the effect of her actions on the people close to her.
Samal had behaved distantly towards her for a while, but Vio thought he was absorbed in his own worries. Now she explained to him as well as she could why she had wanted her adventure with the captain, Relis, and Samal said he still didn’t understand but it was over now and they needed each other’s support more than ever. So that was all right again.
The breach with Yon was much more serious. Vio had asked about Yon when she joined the group of friends at their evening meetings, and they had always said, “He’s busy,” or “He’s gone down river.” Vio had found it strange he was never there, but she had not wanted to think about it. Now she asked Samal, “Does Yon know about me and Relis?”
“Yes,” said Samal, and he looked angry for a moment. “I don’t know how you could do that to Yon.”
“Why ‘do that to Yon’?” asked Vio. “I’ve never promised him anything.”
“I know,” said Samal, “and I know you don’t love him except as a friend. But he loves you, and you know it. And the worst of it is, Relis is Karek’s neighbour. People saw you on the river with him and understood what was going on and told Karek.”
Vio imagined what Karek’s reaction would be and suddenly felt miserable.
“I think Karek thought Yon and I were a couple,” she said. “Otherwise I don’t know why he’d have invited just us to his house that night.”
“Of course he did. All of Yon’s friends thought so, although he would never have told them any such thing. What you did has been humiliating for him, as well as painful.”
“I suppose it won’t help if you tell him for me I’m sorry,” Vio said.
“What are sorry for?” asked Samal. “That you had an affair or that Yon is hurt.”
“That Yon is hurt,” admitted Vio.
“Then that won’t help him, will it? I won’t tell him anything.”
But Vio was truly sorry that Yon was hurt, and thought how contradictory life is and how difficult it is be faithful to different kinds of loves. She missed Yon very much. And it was now she really needed him, as an escort and protector for her walks in the town, and he was not there.
Two terrible incidents showed Vio, in case she still had any doubts, how powerful the prejudice against women had become in the short time since Purgator was in the town.
When the Gazelle Games came round, Vio covered her head modestly and went to sit with Samal and Anil in the family stand. Work on Tankret’s stadium had continued and the stone grandstands were nearly completed. Purgator permitted sport as a manly activity, and it was taken for granted that all the competitors would be men.
The wrestling was quite exciting, and the running and jumping contests were won by the city’s favourite athletes. When the last race was called, Vio was thinking it had been an enjoyable day, in spite of the circumstances. It was the open race, which the woman Agilo had won the year before.
Suddenly Agilo was there, on the track in front all the gathered people, in her short racing tunic and with her head and shoulders bare. She walked defiantly to the starting line, her head held high.
After a few moments’ complete silence, the crowd roared. It was a terrible sound, a roar of vindictiveness and hate. Vio could hardly believe the people of Kynopolis could make such a sound. The men in the race had drawn back to the side of the track, and Agilo stood alone at the starting line. Suddenly a stone flew toward her. It missed, but others, from a pile of fragments left by builders, came closer. One hit her, then more. She didn’t move. Vio stood up, not knowing what she wanted to do but unable to watch the woman face her enemies alone. Samal and Anil pulled at her arms to force her to sit down again.
“You can’t do anything,” Samal muttered. “She must have known what would happen.”
“Maybe she’s right,” said Vio, starting to cry. “Maybe life isn’t worth living if they take away from you what you love.”
“Then that’s her destiny,” said Samal, “not yours.”
Luckily for Vio, other women in the family stand were upset enough by the spectacle to be crying too, so her sympathy for Agilo didn’t mark her out as a rebel.
Agilo had fallen to the ground. The men, both the athletes on the track and the spectators on the stand near them, went on passing each other stones and throwing them at her until her body stopped jerking and twitching. The race was cancelled and the three friends left the stadium, without waiting to see what would be done with her body. At home Vio vomited.
The other incident was just as horrible. This time Vio was alone in the crowd in the marketplace; she had given up trying to follow Purgator’s rules. She borrowed from Samal a robe with a hood, of the kind the merchants had made fashionable, and disguised herself as a man. She knew the risk she was taking, but she couldn’t stand not being able to move around and keep in touch with what was going on.
At the time when Purgator invaded the city with his preachers, three wandering transvestites had been staying at the Temple. For worshippers of the Goddess, such people were Her spoilt children and brought good luck, so they had always been welcome wherever they went. But when Purgator saw them in the street, with their powdered faces, scented hair and effeminate way of walking, he screamed at them that they were demons, scum, unworthy to be alive. Terrified, they took refuge in the Temple and didn’t dare come out again. The Priestess fed them from her dwindling stores. Her own situation was so bad already, their presence could hardly make it worse.
But they got tired of being shut up in the Temple and decided they had to leave the town. They washed their faces and cut their hair and draped their robes in a masculine way. They came out of the Temple in a group and started to descend the steps, apparently hoping they wouldn’t be noticed, though their gait gave them away. Vio was listening to one of Purgator’s men preach on the duty of destroying evildoers, and she wanted to rush and shout at them to get back inside. But they were too far away, and it would have harmed her without saving them, so once again she did nothing.
The transvestites were recognised immediately. Someone shouted “Bunfaces,” which was what they were known as, and the crowd turned menacingly toward them. The transvestites froze with terror, staring at the faces full of hate as if they couldn’t believe what they saw, and that moment of inaction was fatal for them. Young men ran and cut off their retreat to the Temple. Another group, arriving in the square with staves in their hands, ran straight at them.
It was the first time Vio was seeing the True Order Guard, recently formed by Purgator to enforce his new regulations. The leader of this group was Jalkan. They started beating the defenceless transvestites with their staves. They fell on the steps, and Vio couldn’t see them any more because the crowd of men closed in on them. She hurried away, before someone could ask her why she wasn’t joining in the massacre, and a massacre it was, because all three transvestites died of the blows, with their skulls smashed in, she heard later.
The only thing left for the royal clan to try was to marry Tinina to Samal and declare her Queen. Vio knew the spectacle of a royal wedding would mean nothing to the people of the city now, and nothing silly Tinina could say or do would help, but the clan was determined to make this final effort.
And sacrifice Samal, Vio thought. It was useless appealing to Samal himself; she already knew how he felt. He would go through with it because he had given his word and nothing else made sense to him anyway.
“Is this Samal’s destiny?” Vio asked Gora.
“Samal is the best kind of man of the old order,” Gora said. “He will share its fate.”
“Can’t you stop this?” Vio asked her father. “I know you and Mama don’t want Samal to marry Tinina.”
“It’s too late. I can’t break with my people now,” said Pepi. “And you know Samal is determined to marry her.”
Amapola said nothing. Her eyes were often red with crying.
After the marriage date was announced, Samal’s friends also came to the house to try to persuade him to change his mind.
“Why must you make this useless sacrifice?” asked Anil.
“It’s my duty,” said Samal, and the way he said it didn’t sound pompous but simply sincere. “What else could I do, anyway?”
“I’ve already asked you to come with me to the farm,” said Keni.
“Or come with us” said Anil. “We’ll hide you. Vio too, of course.”
“Thank you,” said Samal, and Vio echoed him, “but I can’t run away.”
“Look,” said Soteps, “it’s not our business to advise you, but don’t you think, if you really want Tinina to be queen, it would be better to marry her to a fully human man?”
“To one of Purgator’s young men? They wouldn’t accept.”
“Someone like Jalkan wouldn’t,” said Anil, “but there are others who are not such fanatics. At least it would look as though the clan really wanted to change.”
Samal was silent for a moment. Then he asked, “Have you all been thinking about this? You think it might work?”
“Yes,” said Keni. “I mean of course we don’t know, but we want you to have a chance.”
“Thank you for trying to help,” said Samal, “but it’s not the answer. The clan can’t change to suit Purgator. We’ll go down as we are.”
Samal’s friends realised there was nothing they could do, and they were very sad. They went on visiting him, to talk about other things, and all the time it was as though they were saying goodbye. Vio knew, because she felt the same way.
Yon didn’t come, or if he did Vio didn’t see him.
Vio continued to go out to spy, although she was aware that with every day that passed the hate in the town toward her clan became more extreme and that she herself, as both a royal and a woman, was in special danger from the fanatics. She was as careful as possible, staying in shadow whenever she could and keeping well covered in Samal’s cape; but in the end she had a narrow escape.
She had been listening once more to a preacher in the marketplace. By now Purgator’s men were openly telling the people it was their duty to rise up against the corrupt and dissolute royals. This preacher – the man who had led away Tankret – was particularly outrageous in his accusations against the family. At one point he called Ibisia a slut, and Vio was so shocked she raised her head suddenly and the hood on her cape slipped back from her face. She immediately bowed her head again, but she knew that in that moment a man had seen her.
She slipped away, down a narrow street, but soon heard footsteps coming after her. When a voice shouted, “Halt!” Vio began to run. Thankful that in her wanderings with Yon she had learnt all the alley-ways and passages in the town, she turned a corner and jumped through a dark doorway inside which steps led to a flat roof that was used as a shortcut from one street to the next. Her pursuers ran on. Lying on the roof, she watched them return, angry, with Jalkan leading them, and pass by again. She shivered, although she was hot in the cape.
Then her heart leapt with fright, as a young man appeared on the roof. He held up his hand to reassure her.
“I’m a friend,” he said. “I was watching you, but it happened too fast for me to warn you. Thank the Goddess you’re safe.”
“Who are you?” asked Vio.
“A friend of Gora. Come with me.”
Vio followed him down into the street on the other side, and he led her quickly to Anil’s house not far away. Anil’s sister, Seso, was happy to look after her and still envious of her “adventures”, whose seriousness she didn’t seem to understand; and Anil walked back with her to her own house at dusk.
Soon after this, Pepi and Amapola decided to leave their home and join the family at the Palace. Their house was particularly vulnerable, isolated outside the city wall, and they felt, besides, that Melops needed their support. But it was a hard decision to make. It was a lovely house they were leaving, full of the family’s happy memories. At dinner, the night before they left, they discussed only practical details, such as how to transport Pepi’s scrolls. They were all careful not to say what each of them was thinking, which was that they would not be coming back.
Vio went up to her room after dinner and looked round at her possessions. If she was going to another home, she thought, she would want to take almost everything with her, from the snake-skin, still coiled round a tall candle stand, to her mirror which had revealed to her so many dreams and fears. And her robes, the red, the green, the blue. But she was not going to a new home. She had no idea whether or where she would ever have a home again. She decided to take with her only two simple flax-coloured robes, a shawl and some of the face paints and creams Gora had made for her. They would help her to face the world. She put them, adding a new pair of sandals, in a reed basket, and she was ready. She looked into the mirror one last time, and saw the yellow tree that had appeared to her before, reaching into the sky, and for no reason that she could think of she found it comforting. She went up on to the flat roof to watch her last sunset from the house.
Amapola was standing there, with tears streaming down her face. Vio went up to her, but she didn’t know what to say to comfort her. She put her arms round her. Then Pepi appeared, and embraced both of them. The sound of Samal laughing with a friend came up from the garden. Vio said a prayer to the Goddess for all of them as the red sun slid down behind the horizon.
Most of the clan had already gathered at the palace, bringing possessions and provisions, and it was beginning to look like a besieged army camp. People were sleeping on the floor in the main rooms, and outside in the courtyard, round the well. Those who had been attracted by Purgator’s beliefs were sorry now for their foolishness, and the clan was united in facing their enemies. Not everyone had come. Keni for one was not there; he had left a few days before for his chosen refuge in the country. Vio wondered why more of them didn’t try to hide or run away, but when she asked they said there was nowhere to go. Their attitude was fatalistic, like Samal’s. They would go down with their people. The men, however, were preparing a last defence, and were practising their skill with fists, knives and spears in the great hall.
Pepi and Amapola were given Ibisia’s room. Vio and Gora joined Tinina, who rather huffily made room for them on the floor.
“The bed is mine,” she said. “I’m going to be Queen, you know. Please don’t touch my robes, Vio. You should have brought more of your own.”
“I have all I want,” said Vio, and Gora said “I like sleeping on the floor.” Tinina didn’t bother to answer.
Samal slept with the men in the hall. It was uncomfortable and there was not much chance for private conversation. But Vio and Samal managed to spend some time together each day, mostly trying to see the funny side of their situation. They observed the awkwardness of some of their clan uncles with spears in their hands, and in spite of everything they laughed.
People could still come and go from the Palace, though few from the town dared to visit them. The guards at the gate, once the protectors of the royal clan, now mostly watched them with hate. But Vio noticed that one of them, an older man whose face was familiar, appeared to be sympathetic toward her, and she decided to speak to him when she found him alone. She had nothing to lose by it.
“Excuse me if I offend you,” she said, “but I would like to ask for your help.”
“Tell me what you want,” said the man, in a neutral voice.
“It’s difficult for me to go outside,” said Vio, “and I don’t like not knowing what’s happening in the town. Could you pass on to me any important news?”
“I’ll do that,” said the man, and turned away, because another guard was approaching.
He didn’t speak to her again, and Vio thought he’d decided not to help her. Then one morning he signalled to her as she crossed the courtyard. She detoured to walk near him, and he said “An army is coming to Kynopolis on the river.”
“Are they close by?” asked Vio.
“They must be by now. The patrol boat saw their boats coming and raced down to give the warning.”
Vio rushed into the Palace, grabbed the first cape she saw lying in the entrance and ran down to the port to find out if the invasion was truth or rumour. There would be time enough to alarm the rest of the clan later.
A crowd of port people, both fearful and curious, were watching as an army of tall, brawny, bronzed men disembarked on the quay. Their boats were heavy and black like pirate boats, but strangely shaped fore and aft, and the men themselves were bigger than the people of Kynopolis, and looked primitive and fierce. They wore short tunics of a dark brown cloth and carried heavy knives and shields.
And these were men, she thought, the creatures Purgator and the merchants were calling superior. Perhaps their father God was like this, one of these tough, aggressive brutes. They looked dangerous too, and she wondered fearfully what they wanted with Kynopolis. They had made no move to attack the crowd at the port.
One of the men yelled an order and they fell into formation, about sixty of them, and started marching up the road to the city gate. The crowd followed, Vio among them. No one was paying any attention to her, the spectacle in front of them was too absorbing. Two files of True Order Guards were standing across the gate, with their weapons held high. It looked as though a battle was about to begin, and the crowd halted and started to turn back in alarm. Vio stood her ground and was soon in the front row of the spectators. What happened then was something she could never have imagined.
The marching men also halted, and raised their weapons to the guards in a formal salute. Then both sides lowered their arms and broke formation. From the middle of the strangers’ army two figures stepped forward to stand in the space between the sides. One was a huge, red-headed man with a messy scar where one eye had been, and the other was Tankret. He was wearing the same short tunic as his fellows and his muscles bulged like theirs. He was hairier than ever.
From between the lines of guards at the gate, two other figures advanced, Purgator, with a grimly triumphant expression on his face, and Jalkan’s father, Jinis. Some of the other rich merchants also came through the gate and stood watching the meeting of the four leaders.
Jinis held out his arms in the offering gesture. “Welcome to Kynopolis,” he said. “Your weapons and our wealth will combine to make it a city more powerful than any we know. And with the blessing of our father Purgator, we will all live long to enjoy our success.”
He turned to Purgator, who raised his arms to the sky and blessed the army in the name of God the father. The men shouted “Praise him,” and cheered.
“Come, let us enter,” shouted Jinis, when the cheers died down, and he turned and led the way, with Purgator beside him, through the gate. Tankret was leering round with a self-satisfied grin, and Vio shrank back, though she knew he couldn’t see her. When the strangers had gone through, the True Order Guard followed them, with their weapons harmless in their hands. Kynopolis had been handed over to a foreign army without a single gesture of defence.
The procession took the road to the marketplace; Vio slipped through the gate after them and ran by back streets to the Palace. When she entered the courtyard an irate cousin came toward her and yelled, “So it was you! How dare you steal my cape!”
Vio looked at his angry face and started to laugh, and then found she couldn’t stop. Someone called her father, and he took her by the shoulders and shook her and her hysterical screeching turned to nervous gulps.
“What’s the matter?” Pepi asked. “What has happened?”
“No one… told you?” gasped Vio.
“No one has told us anything. We’ve heard shouting in the streets.”
“Kynopolis… invaded… ships… Tankret with them… Jinis and Purgator welcomed them into the city,” she said more clearly, as her breath returned.
Pepi led her inside (she threw the cape at the cousin), and she told him all she had seen.
“So that was what they were waiting for,” said Pepi when she finished speaking.
“Why?” asked Vio. “Do you think they didn’t trust the people of the town to get rid of us?”
“They want to be sure they can control them once they’re in power.”
“And are people going to let them hand over the town just like that?”
“I would like to think not,” said Pepi. “They hate us, but I don’t believe they’re all cowards.”
Pepi turned out to be right. Citizens who were still faithful to the Goddess and the Queen, and some of those who had been won over by the merchants, too, turned against the rebels when they saw that their town had been betrayed to a strange army. They quickly organised a defence, and for some days there was fighting all over the town. But the invaders were better armed and trained, and it didn’t take them long to suppress their opponents. The figure of Kanipal, the red-haired ogre, seemed to be everywhere, battering the town into submission. And there were townsmen fighting on the invaders’ side.
The spontaneous fighting gave the merchants and Purgator the opportunity to get rid of men and women who were still their enemies. People had been informing on their neighbours, for gain or from fear of the new God, and the True Order Guard went from house to house and killed known devotees of the Goddess or friends of the royal clan.
Vio didn’t leave the Palace again. She had no wish to witness the killing, and what she had seen of the invaders allowed her to imagine only too well the cruelty they would be capable of. When the stories started to come in, from spies and from friends still faithful to Gora, she felt as if she herself was being stabbed in the heart, many times over.
One of the worst stories was the massacre of the port mestizos. There was no way they could hide; their identity was too well known. They all gathered at Karek’s house, together with human relatives and friends who refused to desert them. They piled stones in the courtyard, and when a band of foreign soldiers and enemy townspeople surrounded the house, they used them as weapons. But of course the soldiers overran the house, killed most of the men in hand to hand combat (they also lost several of their own), and murdered some of the women and children. Vio remembered the little girl who had stood at her knee, and the little boy she had held in her arms, and the scene was unbearable to think of. She could only hope they had been among those that had escaped.
Because it was also said that some of them had managed to run away while the fighting was going on, and a boat had taken them down river. Vio hoped it was true. She wanted to hope also that it was Yon’s boat. Gora’s informers told her that Yon had not been seen in the days before the attack at Karek’s house, but Vio was sure he would have done something to help defend his friends. Unless he was already dead in some other fight. There was no news of him at all.
Vio hoped with all her heart he was alive and well somewhere. She missed his friendship, and it was terrible to think that she had not had a chance to make peace with him before it was too late.
The invasion of the Temple was the darkest moment. It seemed that even those evil savages hesitated to violate a Goddess sanctuary, in spite of Purgator’s urging, but finally they took the step. In previous days, rough men from the countryside had arrived in the city, not understanding too well what was happening but ready to defend Kynopolis. In the streets the army ignored them, since they looked stupid and harmless, but one morning they all gathered on the Temple steps. Except for a few cudgels, they were unarmed, but the sight of them infuriated the soldiers. A band of them charged the men with their knives, leaving the steps strewn with dead bodies, and in the heat of the moment they rushed on into the Temple.
After they left there was silence. No one dared to go into the Temple until the True Order Guard appeared. They didn’t hesitate, and came out carrying between them the bloody body of the Priestess, and threw it on the ground in the marketplace. It lay there all day; then, during the night, it disappeared. Vio hoped someone had been brave enough to carry it away for proper burial.
During the night, also, the golden statue of the Goddess on the Temple roof turned black.
20. AT THE PALACE
Up to now there had been no attack on the Palace. No one had any illusions that the defence the men of the clan could put up would be successful against the foreign soldiers. It was only a matter of dignity. The regular guards that had stood at the gates had been removed, and replaced by foreigners who let no one in or out. It would have been easy for them to invade the Palace at any time. Vio felt as though the clan were all pigs being fattened for a feast, the feast of the Palace massacre.
Standing on the roof one evening, breathing the cooler air of sunset, she saw squat, malevolent Jinis in the street below, laughing with a friend as he stared up at her. Then she understood that this harrowing wait was Jinis’s way of taking further revenge on her and her family. All their enemies must be taking pleasure in knowing how they suffered as they waited for the end.
When the clan had first gathered at the Palace the council had discussed the possibility of a mass escape and come to the conclusion that it was hopeless. There were too many of them, and they had nowhere to go. A few people, lone men and couples, had left without saying anything. No one blamed them. They hoped they were safe at their homes in the countryside or had managed to escape from Kynopolis altogether.
Another council of the clan was held. All the speakers, men and women, agreed that there was nothing left to them but to face their end with dignity. So many people were finding the strain unbearable, that the council decided to ask Gora to prepare suicide tablets. These would give them some control over their death, even if they swallowed them seconds before being impaled on a soldier’s knife.
Gora had been expecting this request, and she had all the ingredients she needed to prepare the tablets. Vio helped her, grinding plants and minerals to a powder in a mortar and mixing them with the contents of one of Gora’s old vials. They didn’t talk much lately, because there was nothing to say. Both of them knew now the end was inevitable and would come soon.
Vio had a surprise, however, on the day when the tablets were distributed. She stood in line like the rest of the clan in the great hall, to receive her tablet from Gora’s hand. Gora explained to all of them the deadliness of the poison. They should wrap their tablets carefully and keep them in their clothes, she said. Once they put them in their mouths, there would be no going back. People nodded; it was what they wanted.
When Vio held out her hand, Gora only pretended to put the tablet in it. She whispered in Vio’s ear, “You are not going to die.” When Vio asked her later what she meant, Gora refused to say any more.
A new stage of the ordeal began one morning when a messenger from the merchants escorted Tankret to the Palace. The messenger was a man that Vio had seen before, in Jinis’s company. He was harsh and arrogant and wore a fine white, blue-bordered robe of the kind that only royals had previously used. With him, in his guard’s uniform, was Jalkan, who had the usual sneer on his face.
They strode into the great hall, with Tankret strutting between them, and told Pepi, who hurried to meet them, to call the clan together. Everyone came running.
“I am Olkit,” said the merchant, rudely shoving Melops aside and facing them from the Queen’s end of the hall. “Your time will soon run out, and I for one will be living here in your place. But first I have brought your kinsman to rule over you for a while. That was what we promised him and no one should be able to say we don’t keep our promises.”
He smiled nastily and Jalkan, on the other side of Tankret, was trying not to laugh. Tankret had obviously no idea of their real intention, and was grinning all over his face, actually drooling with pleasure. Olkit and Jalkan held his arms high, and Tankret waited for applause. When none came, he clapped his hands and cheered himself. He had become not just mad but almost mindless, Vio realised.
This was confirmed when Olkit went on speaking and Tankret gave no sign of understanding his words. “Of course he’s been a disappointment to us,” Olkit said. “Purgator thought the town would welcome him. A royal male to replace the useless females. But no one wants him, they say he’s mad. It’s true. He’s very strong but he’s no use to us as a soldier. He doesn’t even recognise who he’s supposed to fight. So I’m happy to leave him to you. You will look after each other.”
This time Jalkan burst out laughing, a horrible, loud, mean sound. He caught sight of Vio and bowed ironically toward her, laughing louder as he and Olkit walked out. At the door Olkit turned to say, “By the way, I must inform you that Queen Katelia is dead.”
This last announcement caused such grief that for some time everyone ignored Tankret. The news was not unexpected, but to be sure that Katelia had died, in exile and ill, perhaps regretting her decision to follow Purgator, was still a blow. Melops sank to the floor and covered his face with his hands. Samal went to sit beside him. Vio couldn’t imagine what he found to say to give him strength, but Melops soon got up and went to comfort his daughter. Tinina looked stunned. It didn’t occur to her to turn to Samal.
Tankret suddenly yelled, “I’m hungry!” Everyone turned to stare at him. “I’m hungry!” Tankret shouted again, and since no one came running with food, he jumped at the nearest group of his relatives and started flailing his arms at them. Someone ran to the kitchen and came back with flat bread and dates, and Tankret began gnawing them like a wild animal.
Vio wondered how ever they were going to live with him, but Gora told her not to worry, his needs were simple and easily satisfied. Gora was right. As long as he was fed he had few other demands, and Gora sometimes put a tranquilliser in his porridge, to keep his temper down. It was true that he was going through their stores at an alarming rate, but he probably wouldn’t be there long. No one would be there long.
Occasionally he was a bit more lucid, and then he wanted to be treated as a prince. A group would form round him in the great hall, where he summoned them with shouts, and bow down to him, touching the floor with their heads. He would smile in a satisfied way, and mutter, “Very good, very good. I’m the ruler now.” And soon he would forget and walk off or call for more food.
One day he recognised Samal and became flustered. “Where’s Ibisia? Where’s Ibisia?” he shouted.
“She’s gone,” Samal said simply.
Tankret’s face puckered and he sniffed. “Gone!” he said. “Poor Ibisia.” A tear actually trickled down his face.
“I pardon you,” he said to Samal. “I don’t know what you did, but it was very wrong. Very wrong. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
Vio could hardly imagine the effort it took her noble brother to say “Yes,” but he did say it and Tankret nodded.
The scene was not repeated and after that he never seemed to recognise anyone in particular. He flinched sometimes when his father came near him, but never called him by name. He became more childish, and if he saw anyone occupied in any task, such as cleaning the floor or making a fan, he would go and grab the tools or spill the water. The Palace servants had left, so the clansmen and women were doing these jobs themselves, and they spent a lot of time dodging Tankret. The kitchen door was kept firmly closed against him.
The manoeuvring became more intense after the clan decided to go through with Tinina’s wedding. It was she herself who asked to be married.
“I’m the Queen now, aren’t I?” she asked Melops in Vio’s presence.
“Yes, you are,” said Melops.
“Then I should be married, shouldn’t I?”
“That has been the custom,” said Melops.
“Well, we should go on with it,” said Tinina peevishly. “I was supposed to be married already. Why shouldn’t I be a proper Queen? ”
Vio could see that even Melops, in spite of his persistence in keeping to the royal conventions, thought it was grotesque for the marriage to take place in the circumstances. But he hesitated to cross Tinina, who in his view was now the Queen, and Samal agreed to go along with it.”
“How can you?” Vio asked him.
“It’s only a rite,” he answered her, sadly. “I won’t touch her, of course.”
So the clan moved busily around, preparing marriage robes from the cloth in the Palace store rooms, concocting wedding dishes with the ingredients they had to hand, all the time keeping out of Tankret’s way.
21. THE END OF THE ROYAL CLAN
On the day of the wedding, Vio woke early with a strong sense of foreboding. It was impossible for the Palace to have any secrets and they had always been aware that this wedding might provoke a nasty reaction in their enemies; but Vio knew now that what was coming was the end. One look at Gora’s face told her that she felt the same.
“I feel so helpless,” whispered Vio, so as not to wake Tinina..
“Just be as calm as you can,” said Gora.
“Is this how you always feel?” asked Vio.
“Lately, yes. There have been better times,” said Gora, with a shadow of a smile.
“And will there be again?”
“For Samal too?”
“Don’t make me say it,” said Gora.
Vio went in search of her brother and found him in the top room, where new mats had been laid for the feast, looking out over the roofs of the town. She sat down beside him in the arch of the doorway, and for while neither of them spoke. Vio could tell he also knew it was the end.
Then Samal said, “You mustn’t be so sad, Vio. I always knew what I was doing. I don’t really mind dying.”
“But you should!” Vio burst out.
“Why?” asked Samal, smiling. “This place will go on” – he waved his hand at the town – “but it won’t be my Kynopolis any more. I have played my part.”
“But there are other places,” said Vio, wishing she could just accept what he said and not make him feel worse by insisting.
“For you there are,” said Samal, as calm as ever. “Promise me you will get away. Whatever happens, you must get away.”
“If it makes you feel better, I promise,” said Vio.
They stood up and hugged each other. Vio broke away and ran down the stairs so he wouldn’t see her crying.
After that the rest of the clan was up and about, busy with the final preparations. Gora gave Tankret a strong dose of tranquilliser with his breakfast gruel, and he collapsed on some cushions in the roof room, snoring.
Vio and Gora dressed Tinina in her wedding robe, which was pure white with a gold border, and painted her pretty, empty face.
“I look beautiful, don’t I?” said Tinina, staring at her reflection in her stone mirror, which she polished every day to admire herself. “I’m sure there has never been a more beautiful royal bride. Ibisia wouldn’t have looked nearly as nice.”
“Ibisia was beautiful,” said Gora a bit sharply, which saved Vio from saying something worse. “You are pretty in a different way.”
Tinina pouted. “Well, I am the Queen,” she said.
“You are,” said Gora, “and today you will show us how Queen Tinina can behave.”
Vio wondered what exactly Gora meant. Tinina thought she was paying her a compliment, and she smiled complacently again.
At the arranged hour, other women of the clan came to the room, and they all escorted Tinina up the stairs to the terrace. This was where weddings were traditionally held, in full view of the townspeople, and the clan had decided to keep to the old custom, though to do so amounted to a challenge to their enemies. Tables had been set in the roof room, with crisp snacks in dishes. The men and women of the clan were gathered there and on the terrace, all dressed in the finery they had managed to improvise, the women wearing the jewels they had brought with them when they took refuge at the Palace. Vio knew they all had somewhere, tucked into the folds of their clothes, the tablets Gora had made for them, and the men probably had their knives as well. Tankret was still sprawling on the cushions, completely dead to the world.
Samal, thin and handsome in a rust-coloured tunic with a long white cape over it, was waiting at the stone altar on the terrace, which was heaped with cooked offerings to the gods. Pepi and Amapola were close behind him. Vio joined them as Tinina, led by the hand by Melops, took her place opposite Samal. From where she stood she could see the faces of many of the people who had gathered to witness the latest attempt of the clan to carry on as though they were still ruling. There was a crowd in the street below, many sneering, some merely curious, a few, Vio thought, hiding sorrow.
It was usually the reigning Queen who acted as Priestess at her daughter’s wedding, but in the absence of Katelia Melops’ sister Lunan, who was a priestess at a temple in the countryside, had taken her place. She was tall, with a long, thick plait of greying hair, and she looked very dignified. She stood facing the town across the altar, with Tinina on her left and Samal on her right. She lit the oil lamps on the altar, then raised her arms and chanted a prayer to the Mother, asking for blessings on the marriage. At the end of the prayer the clan started to sing, in wavering voices, the hymn to love. Lunan took Samal’s hand in her own and was reaching for Tinina’s to join them together, when there was a sudden loud disturbance in the courtyard below.
The singing faltered and Lunan lowered her hands, letting go of Samal’s, while a band of rough soldiers, led by gruesome, one-eyed Kanipal, leapt on to the terrace from the outside stairway and surrounded the group at the altar. Vio saw two of the older women of the clan fall as they bit their tablets; but the soldiers were not ready to attack yet.
Kanipal strode to the altar and stood facing the Priestess. He leered at Tinina, and said, in barely comprehensible speech, “The wedding will go on. But I will be the bridegroom.”
He waited for Lunan to continue with the ceremony. Soldiers were holding back Samal and other clansmen who wanted to attack him. Lunan remained silent and erect, and after a moment Kanipal shouted an order to a soldier, who grabbed her and pushed her off the edge of the terrace.
Kanipal snatched up Tinina in his arms and ran down the steps. In those few moments Vio had time to see a look of excited submission come over Tinina’s face, and she couldn’t even pray for her safety.
Immediately the fighting began. Samal was one of the first to be killed, falling over the edge of the terrace when a soldier impaled him on a spear. Vio wondered if he had bitten his tablet and felt less pain. She doubted it; it would probably have seemed weak to him to lose consciousness. Was Samal really dead, and how could such a senseless thing happen? She began to feel numb, unable to take in the horror going on around her, while acting on impulses she was hardly aware of.
She backed up against the wall nearest her, and watched as Melops fought one of the soldiers with his knife. He killed the man, but another stabbed him in the back. Most of the clansmen on the terrace were quickly killed, being no match for the soldiers and their weapons; but Vio saw her father slip away through the roof room, leading her mother by the hand. She hoped he had finally decided he had given enough for the clan.
Before the soldiers could go inside, a strange figure emerged. Tankret, puffy and red from the effects of the drug, with his fringe of long hair matted, and dressed in a shabby robe no one had told him to change for the wedding, stood menacingly in the doorway.
“Traitors!” he yelled. “What are you doing invading my Palace?”
For a moment the fighting stopped. The soldiers were startled, but then they relaxed, some of them actually laughed. Three men went for him. Even so, and although he was wrestling them with his bare hands, he almost got the better of them, but one of them managed to stab him in the side with a knife, and he fell.
The soldiers rushed inside over his body. Vio was the only person left alive on the terrace. Only two of the dead were soldiers and there were as many women as men. No mercy here. Gora slipped out on to the terrace and took Vio’s arm.
“Hurry,” she said. “We must move now.”
There was no one left in the roof room either; they had all fled downstairs with the soldiers after them. Gora led Vio to the darkest corner of the room where there were two big chests, told her to get inside one of them and climbed into the other herself. The chest smelled strange, and Vio knew Gora had put powerful spells on it. She could hear more fighting downstairs, and screaming. Another band of men must have entered the Palace by the front door and cut off some of the escaping clan. Soon she heard footsteps on the stairs and in the room itself.
“There’s no one left here,” said a townsman’s voice.
“Then where did they all get to?” asked another, familiar voice. Jalkan! In spite of her numbness, Vio felt terror; but Gora’s spell was strong. They didn’t look in the chests.
“Here they are,” someone called from the terrace. “On the terrace and a lot of them fell off.” Jalkan evidently went outside to see for himself. “Samal! Melops!” he shouted. “The big bastards! A good job!” he said, as he came back.
“It’s a pity for this food to be wasted,” someone else said.
“Help yourselves,” said Jalkan.
There was a noise of chewing and trampling for some moments, and then the footsteps receded again down the inside stairs.
Vio and Gora stayed in the chests for what seemed like a very long time. At first they went on hearing blows and screams from below, but then there was silence. When they emerged, they had to stretch their arms and legs until they could move normally again. The bodies were still lying on the terrace and the roof room was strewn with scraps of food from the altar and the tables. The wall paintings were splashed with blood.
They went cautiously downstairs, but there was no one alive in the building. The True Order Guard had finished its slaughter and gone. Some people had got away, they realised. The men and women here were not the whole clan. Pepi and Amapola were not among the dead.
Many dead bodies, however, were lying on the stairs, in the great hall, in the entrance, and in the big kitchen. The hunt had been fierce. Some had been bashed on the head or stabbed, while others, who must have bitten their tablets, were apparently unharmed. The jewels the women had been wearing had gone. The dishes cooked for the marriage feast had been eaten, and the clay pots smashed on the ground. The flagons of wine, all that had been left in the Palace cellar, were empty. Screams seemed to echo still in the ominous silence.
While they were looking at the bodies, trying to work out who might still be alive, they heard voices at the Palace door. They shrank back into the shadows in the hall – it was nearly dusk – and saw entering a small group of humans led by Anil.
“Vio!” he called loudly. “Vio, are you there?”
Vio came out of the shadows and ran to meet him. “I’m here,” she said. “How did you know?”
“I didn’t know, I only hoped,” he said, giving her a quick hug. “No one saw you leave. You weren’t among the bodies.”
“So people have been here looking for us?”
“Some friends came just now. They found Samal.” Anil blinked away tears.
“Yes,” said Vio. Her feelings were frozen.
“I came to search again and help you escape,” said Anil. “It’s good that Gora’s with you. Come on. We must hurry.”
“What’s happening in the town?” asked Gora as they left the hall.
“They’re celebrating in the market-place. The soldiers and the True Order Guard are all drunk. Purgator is furious, but they don’t listen to him. Only when he tells them to kill.”
“Come on!” said one of Anil’s friends, and they all slipped quickly across the courtyard, through the Palace gate, and round the wall in the direction of the Dog Gate. Darkness was closing in fast.
“Where are we going?” Vio asked Anil as they walked.
“We’re taking you to a hut outside town. The people there love you. They remember you going there with Yon.”
“Did Yon tell you about that?” asked Vio.
“Yes. Quite a while ago. I remembered and I thought they might help. I’ve talked to them.”
“So you haven’t seen Yon lately?” asked Vio.
“I haven’t seen him for a long time,” said Anil. “I’m afraid he must be dead. If not, he would have been in touch. He would have been here to help you today.”
“Yes,” said Vio, but she couldn’t think about Yon being dead. There was too much to bear already.
They passed through the Dog Gate and Vio said a wordless goodbye to Kynopolis. They went down a silent alley between the poor mud huts outside the wall, and right at the end they saw a house a little apart from the rest with a lamp burning inside its one room.
“That’s it,” said Anil. “You will be safe there for tonight.”
A skinny, ageing man came out of the door as they approached, followed by his wife. Vio recognised her as the grandmother of the dead baby. The man said to Vio, with a formality that sounded odd in the circumstances, “Welcome to our poor home. All that is in it is yours.” And he stood aside for Vio and Gora to enter.
In better days his generosity would have brought tears to Vio’s eyes, but now she thought all her tears had dried up, forever. She answered the man with equal courtesy, “I thank you. I need only to rest a little, and my companion, Gora, as well.”
“But then what are you going to do?” asked the man, his genuine concern overcoming correctness.
Vio didn’t know the answer to that, and she turned to Gora.
“We’re going on a long journey,” said Gora.
“Do you know where to?” asked Anil, from the doorway. “If not, I have an idea for getting you away.”
“You can get us away from the town,” said Gora, “but after that I know where to go. We will return to where I came from.”
“To the home of the Lupaka?” asked Anil; and Vio thought, Of course, why didn’t I know it?
Gora answered her unspoken question. “I have known for some time now you and I would be going to the Navel,” she said. “But you had to live your life here to its end.”
“I don’t want any other life,” Vio exclaimed, suddenly catching a glimpse of the pain behind her numb feelings.
“Quiet, girl,” said Gora. “Rest now.”
Anil’s friends passed the old man a basket and a water bottle, then joined their hands to salute Vio and Gora and walked quietly away.
“Don’t you think you should eat something?” asked Anil.
“No thank you,” said Vio. “ Just some water.”
She drank the gourd full of water the old woman held out to her and lay down on a clean mat that had been placed for her against the back wall of the hut. Gora gave her a few drops of a potion she had in her pouch, and for a little while she listened to the voices as Anil, Gora, and their hosts – with a younger man who joined them – made plans for the morning.
Then the sleeping draught began to have its effect on her. Neither asleep nor awake, she saw herself walking once again up to the walls of Kynopolis. There was shouting going on inside, and she heard the echo of footsteps all around, but she couldn’t see any people. No one noticed her either, and she made her way to the marketplace. Here, suddenly, she could see the teeming figures. A holy man who resembled Purgator was lying dead on the stones. The Temple was deserted, the figures on the roof broken, but on the steps a man in a brightly coloured, gaudily decorated tunic was haranguing a crowd of idle, vulgar men and women. Vio couldn’t hear his words, but she knew they were ugly. With a great effort, she forced herself to return to the hut where in her real life she was lying on the ground; but immediately she sank again into another half-waking dream.
Again she walked up to the wall of the town. The Dog figure on the pillar at the gate was partly effaced and there were gaps in the stones. She entered and the streets were silent. The Palace was a heap of fallen rubble. As she made her way toward the marketplace, a rabbit looked out at her from its burrow at the base of an old earth wall; she looked round and the town was full of rabbits. There was no one in the marketplace. The Temple still stood, but its walls were leaning, and part of the roof had fallen in. Vio peered inside, and the stone statue of the Goddess was standing on the altar, weather-beaten but still raising its arms to the sky. Vio felt strangely comforted, and, as she let go of her fear, she was lifted by a warm wind and carried away to drift over the ruins of the town, swooping and circling like a lazy bird, watching while the sands of the surrounding desert blew in and covered what was left of Kynopolis.