That second rainy season, the ground ran with blood.
Princess Kiwana stood motionless under the heavy rain. Fat drops plopped on her head and shoulders and dripped down from her headscarf into her eyes. If she had dared to cry, the droplets would have mingled with her tears.
The rain made everything run and blur, until the land was little more than a watercolor painting. The peoples’ small, circular huts looked like smeared strokes of mud. The men, women, and children watching the spectacle did not fare much better: simple frocks became rivers of cream, yellow, orange, and red linen. Even in the richest garments, however, the colors were muted by the unceasing downpour.
Mud squelched beneath Princess Kiwana’s bare feet. She could not see the blood in it – the rain had mixed it too well – but she knew it was there.
Kiwana pulled her lavender shawl more tightly about her head. On either side of her were her brown-clad servants, the only ones who remained faithful to her.
Obi. Sweet Prince Obi, youngest son of the Great King Chike. She loved him more than anyone else in the world – and he loved her as dearly.
Kiwana had laughed at the time. Now, she could only let the rain run down her face like tears.
The king towered over Obi, holding an Ida sword. To every side, drums beat. The leaf-shaped blade was blackened. Even if Obi was not killed instantly, he would not survive the Ida’s poison.
If Obi said anything, Kiwana could not hear it. She was not even sure he could reply at this point. His once-handsome face was battered and bleeding. Both eyes were swollen shut, and his slim cheeks had grown puffy. Purple bruises and black cuts marked his skin from the rocks the villagers had hurled at him – most of them too small to break his bones, but too large not to leave a mark. Barely an inch of him was unwounded, and Kiwana could see every inch of him. They had not even allowed him the dignity of clothing. A spark of anger flared up inside her heart at the thought that everyone else in the village had now seen what should have been hers alone. She stifled a moan at the realization that she would never hold him close again. She would lie only in another man’s bed.
She could not speak; she must be strong. Beside her, her future husband slipped his hand into hers. He was as desolated as she – and as helpless.
Eighteen Years Earlier
Outside, a windstorm raged. The tent rocked and protested, but the constant work of many servants kept it upright. The wind would not harm the woman inside.
Queen Tula clenched the edges of her bed, legs spread, linen sheets drenched in sweat. She screamed as she pushed, attempting to force the baby out. And, somewhere at the edges of the pain, she began to doubt the Great One’s intentions.
Why would he inflict such agony on her?
She had heard about the pain of childbirth, of course; her mother had told her, as had the other women of the tribe. Most of them had left to be alone during childbirth; only she, the queen, had attendants. She had expected to bear the pain stolidly. Still, this . . . this was too much. She could feel that something was wrong.
Around her, maidservants chanted tribal songs and lit incense. She could barely hear them over the howling of the wind.
No. Not the wind; the Great One’s howling. He was observing the birth. He was causing her this pain.
Queen Tula squeezed her eyes shut against the stinging incense. If only my husband were here, she thought. If only I had returned to him sooner.
Queen Tula felt something cool on her forehead and opened her eyes. Fufi leaned over here. “It will not be long, my queen,” she said. “The Great One is with you.”
“But I wish it to end!” the queen screamed.
“Be cautious what you wish for, my queen,” Fufi said sternly. She was the queen’s oldest and most loyal servant. “Soon you will be home, holding your child, safe in the king’s arms.”
The king. The Great King Chike of Ndiuno. Her husband.
She had been barely seventeen when she had met him, and as proud as the day was long. “I will never fall in love,” she had informed her mother, with all the wisdom of seventeen years.
Her mother had smiled a little. She was nearing forty years, but her face still bore the remains of beauty. Fufi had told Queen Tula many times that she looked like her mother, and Tula knew it was true. She had seen the way men looked at her, the way they admired her flashing black eyes, her full curves, her wide nose. She herself had often admired her smooth, muscled skin, dark under the glaring African sun.
The sun had been glaring that day, back when Tula had met her future husband. Before she had seen him, she had scoffed at the idea of marrying him. She would not be like so many women before her, forced to marry an old, cruel man, torn from her homeland. Chike might have great wealth and many slaves, he might have gold, ivory, and cowrie shells, but in the end, he was merely a man. She had no reason to love him.
Then she had laid eyes on him for the first time. She had seen the wisdom in his face, the gentleness, the goodness. In that instant, she had known she could give herself to this man. She had known she would be safe and happy in his arms.
Pungent fumes of incense brought Tula’s thoughts back to the tent. Through the haze of pain, she could see only the bright reds and purples that adorned the thick, cream-colored tent. Now, all the colors mixed together, swaying back and forth with the tent as servants hustled back and forth.
Waves of pain pulsed through Tula, and then the colors, scents, and noise all merged in one great howling, the howling of the wind, the sign of the Great One.
The contractions quickened and Tula screamed again.
“Push,” Fufi urged her, leaning close. “You must push!”
Yes. She would have this child, the child her husband had yearned for. King Chike’s first wife had died in childbirth, and the baby was now a young boy. Chike could also have a bastard by a maidservant, of course, but such a child would mean nothing to him. They were not the children of his queen. Only sons of queens could become king . . . her son, if he won the people’s favor.
When Tula had married Chike, she had expected to become pregnant immediately, to bear him many sons. Then, moon after moon had passed, and she had not conceived.
She knew what the villagers had whispered: she was cursed, the Great One was not pleased with her, she would never have a child. Even servants were given children, but not she. Sometimes, when she was alone at night, she would weep. Her king had given her so much, and she could offer him nothing more than her beauty and virginity.
How long before he became disappointed in her? How long before he, too, believed the rumors?
“I will give you a son,” Queen Tula had whispered in her husband’s ear. “Do not listen to the rumors. The Great One is not displeased with me. I am faithful to him.”
“I know,” he had replied, stroking her hair with long fingers, leaning in to kiss her. “I have often heard you praise his name, and have never known anyone to live by the Five Promises of Ndiuno more faithfully than you. You will bear me a son.”
That night, she had conceived.
At last, the pain was lessening. Queen Tula’s eyes flew open – when had she shut them? – and looked down the length of the bed. Fufi waited expertly at Tula’s hips, waiting for the baby.
She was not smiling. Her wrinkled face had fallen into folds of worry.
Something was wrong. Fufi was usually so calm, so reliable. But no – the baby was almost out. Queen Tula could do this.
Tula gave one final push, screaming with all her might. Finally, the baby emerged in a tremendous surge. Fufi lifted it into her arms.
Panting, exhausted, the queen waited for the first cries of her child.
They never came.
“What is wrong?” Tula asked. “Fufi, tell me!”
Fufi’s face had fallen into unfamiliar folds. Her eyes flickered toward the queen. They she straightened her bent back. “Go!” she ordered the others. “Be gone!”
“What?” Tula demanded, when the others had gone. “Tell me what is wrong!”
Fufi gave the child a sharp pat to initiate the breathing. After several more pats, she stopped, cradling the baby in her arms. She made no motion to speak, or even to bathe the child.
“Give him to me,” Tula pleaded. “Give me my son.” She held out her arms, desperation giving her fresh strength.
“My queen –”
“Give him to me!”
The afterbirth had not yet come, and the umbilical cord was too short to reach. Fufi withdrew a knife and severed it before handing the infant, still sticky with birthing fluids, to its mother.
Tula stared down at her child. It made neither sound nor movement. “What is it?” she whispered, bringing the child to her breast, pushing it when it failed to respond. “What is wrong with him? Why does he not cry?”
Fufi did not answer. What could she say? She had born and birthed many children, and this was not the first time one had not had the breath to cry. Once the baby had been shocked into realizing it was no longer inside its mother, wailing always began, but today there had only been silence. There was only one ending to such births.
“You,” the queen hissed suddenly, lifting murderous eyes to Fufi. “You killed him!”
“No! No, my queen, I did not. He –”
“You killed my baby!”
“No, no – my queen –”
“Do something!” Tula screamed. “Bring him back! Bring him back to me!” She rocked the baby as well as she could, unable to sit up with him.
Fufi said nothing. She waited for the afterbirth and then knelt beside the queen’s bed.
At last, Tula spoke again. “You must not say anything,” she ordered, her voice as rough as rocks. “You must tell no one.”
“I will tell no one,” Fufi vowed.
“You must not.”
There had to be some way to fix this.
“Put me down here,” Queen Tula ordered. The guards lowered her litter onto the bank. Mud and small pieces of debris covered the thick blades of grass. The windstorm had destroyed most of the standing growth and caused the river to flood. The queen’s litter sank a little, but not enough to spill mud over its sides.
Down by the bank, a few servants had gathered around a young maidservant who was joyfully beaming and laughing as she held her precious new gift. She had just given birth to a son of her own, one that was alive and well. The queen eyed the young woman bitterly for a moment before deliberately looking away from her.
Queen Tula cradled her deceased child wrapped in a bundle. She continued to rock it back and forth as she cooed with heartache seeping through her vocal cords. It had been less than twelve hours since the baby’s birth, but she knew she could not keep its death a secret much longer – not unless something was done.
But what? She knew that she could not go back to King Chike with a dead baby. The people would only blame her. They would claim that she had upset the Great One, that her baby’s death was his punishment.
Truth, honor, justice, service to the Great One, and deference. Where had she gone wrong? In the last twelve hours, she had sacrificed many doves to the Great One, praying for an answer, praying that he bring her baby back to life.
She had not. She, the queen, had done her duty. So why was her baby dead while the baby of a servant was alive and well?
Tula watched as more servants approached and went down to drink and gather water. Perhaps, she thought, the Great One took the wrong child.
Several of these other servants joined the young mother, singing, washing the baby. There was only one solution. Queen Tula knew what she had to do. She waited until they had made camp before summoning a guard.
The queen and her contingency were traveling back to Ndiuno, back to her king. After the windstorm that occurred on the previous night, everything had been tightly packed and loaded onto the backs of the servants. Now, everything vital had been brought out again for the night. The camp was abuzz with activity – the sounds of work and laughter, the clinking of stoneware as supper was prepared, and the aroma of freshly cooked meat. The queen had her own tent, but she elected to stay by the river for now, where a little more privacy was available.
“My queen?” a guard asked. He had been summoned by her specifically. Appearing to be quite nervous, the guard was still fairly young and not used to being asked for personally. He knelt before her, back ramrod straight, trying to assuage his trembling hands.
The queen did not make eye contact with him; she was gazing across the wide, shallow river as she inhaled the scents of running water, mud, and crushed grass.
“Did you not hear what I said, Leekee?” she asked sharply. “Do you dare question me?”
Leekee anxiously cleared his throat. To most that took notice of him, he resembled a mountain of a man. Here, kneeling before his queen, he felt utterly powerless.
“My queen,” Leekee replied, gulping, “As you wish. What should I do with it?”
“Do not bother me with that. Take it,” The queen kissed her stillborn child one last time before handing him the bundle. Not a single tear was permitted to roll down her face although a sharp and intense pain was lancing through her heart.
Leekee took the baby in his arms and bowed to it. Even the corpse of a prince was holy. He stood and backed away.
“Guard – Leekee.”
“Yes, my queen?”
“There is one more thing,” Queen Tula said, her gleaming eyes sharp through unshed tears.
“Yes, my queen?’
Tula looked him up and down, contemplating how to phrase her command, “You have been in servitude to me since you were a boy, have you not?”
“I have, my queen.”
“And, next to the Great One and the king, no one is greater than I.”
“It is so, my queen.”
The queen’s throat was dry. Her hands clenched into fists, but she forced herself to breathe slowly and think carefully. Once she was ready, she spoke with the commanding voice that her husband had taught her, “There is one more thing that I must ask of you. It requires the greatest courage and loyalty. Do you have such courage and loyalty?”
Heart sinking, Leekee answered, as he knew he must, “Yes, my queen.”
The sounds coming from the distant camp sounded like mockery now. Leekee yearned to join his fellows even as he sat awaiting her orders, knowing from the look in her eyes that he would not be with his friends again for some time. What would the queen ask of him? What travesty would he be forced to perform?
As Queen Tula explained, a chill wind blew against her back.
The Great One was not pleased.