Part One: Impressions
“Aaaaaaugh!” The cry echoes across the azure waters on this blistering hot day. It’s too late to back down. Forget the stoic expression I held seconds ago, my comrades mock me now.
Miroreka Fakusha teases me with a snigger, her face adorned with jewels.
The earlobes were fine. Oh how I’ve been horribly misinformed the wall between my nostrils would be indifferent. I glare up to her older brothers, particularly the one who pierced me.
“You’re not going to impress anyone if you cry like a baby.” he says cleaning his needle in the ocean.
“I could always return the favor.” I growl back waving my scrimshaw dagger.
“I’ll pass.” His gaze travels to the young ladies nursing their firstborns under the jungle shade. It’s a beautiful day, one worth halting obligations for. “I’m not in that pool anymore, remember?”
His sister wanders off to dote over the babes, though her hips have a natural sway—unforgivable for me to admire, since she is the king’s only daughter destined to become the incarnate representation of the Aykotah. That prince, whoever he will be will be granted dominion over our tribe, meanwhile I’m at the lowest rank in the Aykotah social class. I’m about as despised as a barren woman in a tribe that adorns fertility.
“You on the other hand, Ridwiqu’Mar should consider finding a… naaah. Start flirting.” He turns to his brothers, “He needs to stop bantering with my sister before the tribesmen start accusing him of being her personally assigned eunuch.”
I choke on my spit.
He pauses to watch Keyla stride along the beach towards the merchants with a basket full of candles. “Hmm. What about her?”
I raise my brow not giving her a consideration. My mind, no my heart is already set, throwing all caution to the wind, when Fakusha became more than a girl who used to push me into the mud or play ‘warriors’ with me with sticks we’d fashion into swords. She has this dream that instead of marrying a foreign prince, she will forgo the role of queen and rule the tribe instead. That she would become king of the Aykotah, and riling her up brings the sparkle to her eyes.
Only I would be exiled if I ever showed interest in courting her. Being the only daughter to King Mirorego Torajamaku, marrying within this tribe is forbidden, let alone a harvester’s son—like me. I am a pureblood Aykotah unless I abandon my allegiance. Plus, my siblings’ paternal history varies.
Keyla flicks her long braids behind her ear in a dramatic motion inviting men to gawk. Perhaps the Miroregos suggest Keyla because rumors claim she lack piety and the chances of me settling with a woman with her virtue in tact is unlikely. Her father’s lineage does holds merit since her uncle Joroar is second in line to the throne. If I were to successfully pursue her, there is a chance our child could follow my dreams and serve the king—Fakusha’s future consort. I shake my head to clear the daunting thought.
“Really? She’s staring your way.”
“Keyla.” He clarifies the ‘she’ as if I didn’t clue in.
Fakusha’s second eldest brother gives me a shove. “Ridwiqu’Mar, one of these days you’re going to have to stop pretending you’re a soldier and settle down. Sure, sure you spend all your time hanging around a girl, but Fakusha isn’t any help when it comes to women, or competition. You’re never going to prove to the maidens of our village your worth if your feeding our sister’s ego from the treetops.”
I squint. We haven’t played ‘King and Protector’ in those forts for a full year now.
Another brother interjects, “Besides she needs to spend more time with the ladies to become one.” He winks at his wife. She blows him a kiss back which he catches with pride. “No prince is going to want her with a farm boy shadowing her.”
“Farm boy?” I repeat back. “Say that again at blade-point.”
“Why do you even spend time with her?” Galukush, her younger brother adds. And here I thought they appreciated my friendship. “How are you… still?”
I hop off the driftwood log and hold my hand out for a sword to borrow. The brother I challenged unsheathes his. We stand two arm lengths away from each other. “Your mother required healing after Fakusha’s birth, so she summoned my mother to nurse her… then we became playmates… so the story goes on. I keep her out of trouble, don’t I?”
“No, you cover it up. You kiss her...”
The older brother clears his throat then waves the sword around.
“I was going to say feet.” Galukush shakes his head at his older brother, though he’s ready to duel.
“This is the part where you wager with Keyla that if you win, she brings you—just you… dinner on the docks tonight.” I snort.
“You dare not go easy on me, I thought you Miroregos were a dignified bunch.” My sword may point to the second eldest, but with that jest I threaten all nine sons. I counter his intimidations with my own tricks, practicing the weight of the blade by flipping it through the air and controllably around my limbs. “Fight me and if you lose, Fakusha and I will call you farm boy.”
They laugh. “If you win? I’m one of father’s greatest soldiers. Need I remind you, you are but a little boy? How old are you, ten?” Fourteen. “If you can defeat me, I’ll hint to Father myself that you should lead in our next battle.”
Fakusha returns taking a seat by her younger brother. “Careful you’re dripping everywhere Ridwiqu’Mar. His wife would have a fit if she has to wash blood out of his clothing.” She taps her chin. “On that subject, why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”
I shrug. “It’s a hot day.”
She pinches her top. The indigo fabrics embroidered with intricate detail, a garment my kin could never afford.
“How are you not sweating in that robe?”
“It’s a shirt.”
“If it covers your knees it’s a robe.”
“It doesn’t explain why you’re not wearing a shirt.”
“Well Lady Fakusha, I’ve been tilling the earth all morning not prancing around the village.”
“Prancing?” Her dark glare catches my opponent’s attention. “Get him!” she commands. My eyes widen, but I grip the hilt in time to defend the startling blow.
Metal scrapes metal. Her brother has the advantage on weight, like her he is strong, so I do what I always do when dueling with Fakusha: dodge, deflect, defeat.
Again our swords clink, after a crafty pivot under his free arm. He lifts his monstrous leg to boot my gut, but I somersault around him again, spring to my feet with the given momentum, and tap my sword’s tip on his leather armor between his shoulder blades.
“Beginner’s luck,” he hisses as he drops his sword in the sand to surrender. “I’ll talk to Father.” His tone glum, I suppose so if an enthusiastic amateur beat him at his own game.
A deep voice carries over the beach. “No need.” Their father, King Torajamaku crosses his arms with a smug glint in his eyes. The shaman and a two soldiers trail him. “Young Ridwiqu’Mar, is it?”
“Yes, I am he.” I bow immediately. No, that is not enough! I fall to my face, sand sticks to my bare stomach. He nods, then returns to the village core.
Composing myself, Fakusha whips her arms around me in a tight hug.
“Hey, why’d you pick his side?” I ask Fakusha returning the sword.
“I did no such thing.”
I cross my arms, unimpressed.
“You don’t need the encouragement,” she says elbowing her glum brother. “How’s your mother? She um… how many moons until her baby comes?”
I raise my brow noticing her lengthy skirt on a hot day like this. “Two full moons roughly. She’s definitely showing in her final season.”
Fakusha bites her lip. “Hmm. Yes.” Picking at her braids, her brothers decide to wander off, most likely assuming we’re going to chat about girly topics. They are correct.
“You will have to find another person to borrow from or find a new solution soon.”
She grunts. “I know.” Retying the leather bands around her ankles, she asks, “Could you bring them tonight?”
I nod. “I will place the basket by the other offerings in the throne room as usual.” Since my mother is with child, she has no need for the extra cloth. For Fakusha, using her own would attract the attention she seeks to avoid.
She nods back. “Thank you.”
Though she pivots, I catch her wrist. “You can’t keep this a secret much longer. The tribe will catch on through your omission. If not this, they’ll note the other changes to your body.”
“I’ll tie my torso wrap tighter,” I gulp. One day that action will bring more attention than divert it, though I seal my lips to prevent a stinging backhanded slap. “Flowing fabrics to distract from any oncoming matronly shape, I’ll find ways…”
“They will find you a prince, nonetheless Lady Fakusha. You are to be our queen. You will be forced to marry and that man will demand an heir—whether or not he knows now it is a possibility.”
She rolls her eyes, “Don’t remind me.”
“You have been summoned by the king to the throne room.” The voice belongs to Fakusha’s eldest brother, his command coming from the bottom doorstep to my mother’s home. I pause from carving a bone hilt.
“May I wash up first?” My dark skin is plastered in golden mud and diced leaves stick to my ankles.
He nods. “Make it quick.”
I shake my head entering the hut. After a brief scrub, I rush to tie on my formal wear, though it is generations old and lacks the frivolity most tribesmen are privileged with. In a hurry, I stuff the closed basket with my mother’s bandages, the ones Fakusha has been borrowing for the last two seasons.
“An offering?” He scrutinizes the container from afar.
“Supplies for Fakusha’s latest project,” I smirk, latest scheme is more like it. “Might as well make one less trip, yes?”
He squints, lacking humor. He’s never liked me, probably because I’m too relaxed around the royal family. Perhaps he believes I will indulge in this privilege.
Arriving at the throne room, I place the basket among other offerings. Some contain clean linens, fresh fruits, and fine gems. Fakusha watches my delivery, though her mother grabs her elbow before she can casually saunter to the table of goods.
“Young Ridwiqu’Mar,” The king says approaching his throne. “Interesting.” He taps his nose referring to my recent piercing. I bow my head in gratitude then kneel in front of him. The shaman stands to his right side, the witch doctor to his left. He strokes his braided chin adorned with beads. His torso like a boulder displays wounds from various battles and wars. His fingers tap the arm of his throne decorated with the bones of men who have crossed royals in the past.
Remaining members of Fakusha’s family sit with the elders to the right, with the soldiers to the left. Freestanding torches are lit by a servant.
“Your father is harvester, correct?”
“Yes, oh king.”
“You wield a blade that combats the training of a prince. How so? Who taught you?”
“I’m self-taught, oh king. I watch from afar, prepared for battle in a moment’s notice. I envy his position.” I bite my lip staring at his son’s blanched face. “Though, he was a worthy opponent. Indeed I was challenged by his skill.” Not really, his strength perhaps but if he exerted more of that strength he could be formidable.
From the corner of my eye, Fakusha sweats profusely. Constantly she scans the basket though her mother forces her to remain by her side. A spot of blood hits the floor by her heels.
The king scratches his beard. He prizes it. I would too if I held such growth. “Your mother was Fakusha’s wet-nurse, yes?”
“Yes oh king.”
“Though you are entering manhood, you still remain in my sole daughter’s presence.” He crosses his arms. Muscles bulge. His sons mirror the action. I bow my head.
However young footprints wander playfully around the gifts. The king’s youngest son, apparently skipping his early bedtime sneaks through the baskets picking out snacks for himself.
Fakusha whispers in her mother’s ear to bring attention to her baby brother, though the queen ignores her daughter’s concern allowing him to explore.
A grin curls up Torajamaku’s cheek. “And so you will spend more time with her.” Stifled laughter creeps among the crowd. I raise an eyebrow.
A servant prompts me to stand, taking my measurements.
“From now on you must address her by her position in society. You will train with the others at dawn…”
My jaw drops, speechless. Am I dreaming? The king wishes for me to join his throng? I’ll have my own sword, a real one—not carved branches, and armored cuffs, not make-believe ones from discarded fabrics.
Fakusha’s baby brother flips the basket upside down. All its contents fall on the boarded floor.
He doesn’t care, placing the basket on his head like an oversized helmet and holding the lid like a breastplate, but Fakusha and I are mortified.
The king twists to peer behind his throne. “That is the basket you brought?”
“Yes oh King.”
He glares at Fakusha.
His wife partially lifts her skirt to reveal a thin trail of blood down her calf.
The king clears his throat. “I see you have been attending to my daughter’s recent needs.” He squints. “Recent?” I gulp, unsure whether it should be I or Fakusha who should answer that question. “Assembly excused. I must speak with my rebellious offspring in private.” Wow. Forget child or daughter, but offspring? Ouch.
I mouth, “I’m sorry” to her as I’m forcibly escorted out of the building. Used leather armor is shoved into my chest. The force nearly topples me over. My eyes drift to my armor… my own armor! I’m a soldier!
How long will the king's impression on Ridwiqu'Mar last?
Stay tuned for "Part Two: Advancement"