“Jagara! Jagara! Jagara!” The bells on Efu’s ankles and the tiny gongs strung to the end of her long wood staff rattled as she swaggered to the palace.
The fading evening sun cast a funny shadow of her on the ground. Still her shadow looked no too amusing than she really looked, than a priestess of Ihe looked. She wore a long red wrapper bedecked with mirror discs and shells and her hair was made into a mass of plaits packed and twisted into a big lump on the top of her head. A line of white chalk ran below her left eye and white dots speckled her cheeks, top of her shoulders, arms and part of her legs.
Her maids— two young maidens clad in similar-patterned breast and waist cloth and also dotted all over in white followed her from behind. One of them carried her raffia bag and the other a calabash containing worship items. Every now and then they’d sing, “Nwanyi ka ibie—greater woman, lead us, guide us, speak for us!”
Efu would sway and waggle her shoulders before moving on. But it was wrong for the priestess to have maids, for she was only a servant, her duties devoted only to the service of the moon maiden and the good people of Odu.
The guards at the palace gate like the other people she passed on her way bowed as she approached them. “Greetings, wise one,” they greeted.
As usual, she responded with only a clank of the gongs on her staff and walked past.
She was called wise one, a title given to the one that communed with the gods. For in the incomparable wisdom of the gods she spoke.
Inside the palace, Efu and her maids stood in front of the palace hall—a rectangular space walled round with artistic weaving of canes and bamboo, and waited. The roof of the hall was of classy fine thatch and made into steps.
The king was not on his throne when they entered the compound and one of the guards had gone to his chambers to call him. If it had been someone else, someone more common, they must have to leave to come back later. But the visit of the priestess of Ihe was real treasure, especially in these times.
“Greetings, good king of my land,” Efu said as the king approached.
Three of his personal guards walked behind him. They were clothed in a slightly different outfit than the rest of the guards and the two in front carried huge knives.
Efu only bowed slightly when she greeted the king. Her mother, Erulu, knelt to greet the king; only a moon maiden was not required to. Many things had changed since Efu became priestess.
“Greetings accepted, wise one,” King Oduma said.
Efu, though plump was quite taller than him. She would have looked more beautiful if not for the facial markings, roomy dress and funny hairdo.
The king entered the palace hall and she followed. Her two maids stayed back at the mouth of the hall.
King Oduma pulled up his long robe which swept the ground as he walked (all his royal garments did) and climbed onto his throne. The many stories of King Oduma’s deeds did not match his size at all. As one group of gossiping maidens once deduced, Onyema’s handsome face might be from him, but the prince sure got his height from his mother.
King Oduma truly had the strong handsome features of his son, only he was darker—probably it was age and his lips weren’t as full—maybe that too, Onyema had inherited from his late mother, queen Asamma. He had bushy sideburns which had started to turn grey just like the short beard on his chin.
The king settled down and one of the three guards following him picked the long fan propped against the side of the throne and began to fan him. The tall throne stood at the far end of the hall facing a narrow central way flanked at each side by an array of armchairs constructed from shiny wood. Plane wood carvings of a lion head above two crossed huge knives and a large image of breastfeeding woman hung on the wall atop the throne. The other two guards with huge knives and very mean faces walked behind the throne and stood at each side of it.
Efu stood at the middle of hall, vibrating.
“Efu, mouth of the great goddess, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?” The king’s voice was calm and calculated, as always.
Efu stopped vibrating and hummed. “Good king of our land, I come with a complaint.”
Efu eyed the king guardedly. “The festival of the moon approaches and I’m yet to see the people at the temple with their sacrifices.”
After the disappointment last year when no moon maiden was named, King Oduma had ordered his people to stop taking sacrifices to the temple. According to him, it was high time they showed the goddess how they really feel about her continued silence.
King Oduma tilted his head back and looked at Efu in a way that came across as withering. “Is there going to be any festival this year?” He made an expressive wave. “I mean what’s the point when the goddess had remained silent still?”
Efu’s brows bunched together in a sudden frown. She was clearly unhappy with the king’s comment. But then, what could she do? He was king after all. Her hand clenched round the orb of her staff as she took a step forward. “The gods are wise, my king.”
King Oduma nodded. “Oh yes, they are, my dear,” he said, not minding if the irony in his voice came out too obvious. “Always.”
Efu ignored it. “Even I cannot explain the way of the gods, Your Majesty,” she continued. “I’m only but their voice. I speak only when they tell me to.”
King Oduma nodded again, but this time it was difficult to tell if there was any association of irony.
Efu plunked her staff on the floor so that the tiny gongs hanging around it jiggled and rattled. “Well, my king, with a glad heart, I tell you I bring good news this time.”
Interest popped out of King Oduma’s face as he pulled out of the chair. “Let me hear of it.”
Efu’s lips quivered in a small smile. “I’m glad to inform you, Your Majesty, that our goddess has finally spoken.”
For a moment, King Oduma only stared blankly at her. Then he swallowed hard and said, “This is good news.”
Efu grinned. “Yes, my king, the great goddess has finally chosen her next maiden. She will be named on the night of the festival and all shall become well again.”
“This is indeed great news!” King Oduma said again, his face giving way for a large smile. “The gong man will spread the message this evening and the sacrifices shall begin at once.”
King Oduma might be strict, but he took no delight in the suffering of his people. The many unfortunate happenings in his kingdom had left him very upset over the years.
“You will live long, my king.” Efu bowed and left.
The gong man walked that night. All were happy to hear the good news from the priestess. The thought of seeing the full moon again, the rains coming as early as they should, and the eventual end to all suffering, flooded each heart with joy. Now the people would bring the largest of their tubers and their fattest goats and cocks to the temple, all in hope of a greater harvest next season.
At the cave that night, each owl landed on a rock before taking their witch form.
“Ajulu, kneel.” Ezenwanyi’s voice resonated with anger.
Ajulu stepped forward and knelt before the witch queen.
“We shall have your apology now or you face fitting punishment.”
Ajulu held out her two palms in the air and lifted her eyes to Ezenwanyi’s face. “Forgive me, oh great queen.”
Ezenwanyi gave her a long, piercing stare before nodding. “You may rise.”
Ajulu rose and turned to her mates. “Apologies, fellow wings of night.”
Didi and Ujuaku nodded their acceptance.
“This is becoming more of a habit,” Ugedu grunted.
Ajulu shot her a frown before joining her in the seat.
“It is now roughly three months before the festival,” Ezenwanyi began.
They exchanged glances, nodding.
“I can’t say for any of you but I know that is not so much time for us.”
They nodded their agreement again. “Ezenwanyi, we heard news that Efu claims the goddess has finally spoken to her,” Didi said.
“Yes, Ezenwanyi, she said the next moon maiden will be named come this festival,” Ujuaku added.
“I heard that upsetting announcement too,” Ugedu joined.
“Never!” Ezenwanyi shrieked. She pulled at one of the twigs of her hair. “Lies! All lies! The white goddess dare not speak to Efu again.”
Ugedu coughed. “My queen, maybe the goddess has finally decided to forgive her. After all she has more pressing issues at hand now.”
“Never! Efu’s offense was a deplorable one. Abominable!”
“E-z-e-n-w-a-n-y-i!” they chorused, their heads dropped down in a bow.
Ezenwanyi turned to Ujuaku, her face taking on an expression of complete disappointment. “Ujuaku, you have failed us.”
Ujuaku dropped to her knees at once—an act Ajulu would have considered unnecessary. “Forgive me, Ezenwanyi.”
Ezenwanyi ignored her. “Didi, you must go to the girl now. Find out what she knows. As you said, let her lead you straight to the stone.”
“Yes, my queen.”
The faint smile that lingered on Didi’s face showed how much she had longed for Ezenwanyi to finally consider her proposal. For her it was a way to finally prove her worth to Ezenwanyi and the entire coven. Because she was youngest, she sometimes saw the others as neglectful of her true worth.
Ujuaku hung her head as the stench of her incompetence drifted all around the space.
Ngala was the maiden betrothed to Prince Onyema for marriage. Her mother, Odochi, had been Queen Asamma’s best friend while she was alive. The prince was only nine when their betrothal ceremony was performed.
Ngala’s beauty had become apparent even while she was a child. When she turned five, the king finally agreed to engage them, after his wife’s persistent persuasion. King Oduma had been very fond of his late wife. Even in death he never really got over her.
Though he had remarried—a crowned king of Odu was not supposed to be without a wife—none of his two new wives had gotten close to replacing his love for Queen Asamma, Onyema’s mother. Even the palace maids were aware their king did not like his new wives that much, some of them said it was because neither of them could compare to Asamma in beauty, others believed it was because they were yet to give him a male child.
Prince Onyema as a child had been quick to grow fond of his five-year-old wife-to-be. He took good care of her and made sure she lacked nothing, even though little Ngala was not very easy to please. But as he got older and developed his mature eyes, he discovered Ngala held little appeal for him in such matters.
But in Odu, breaking a betrothal oath was no cinch, if ever possible at all.
“Greetings, good household!”
Ola rose and positioned her ear to outside. The voice she heard had sounded familiar, but she knew she was in no place that voice should be expected. She was at home, at the back of her hut, removing narrow strips from the palm fronds piled up in front of her. Nnaa would use the strips to weave a new basket when he returns. He hardly allowed Ola go to the farm with them. When Nne was alive, he called them apunanwu—the ones that never enter the sun, and made sure they never did.
Ola waited till the voice came again, louder this time and its huskiness pronounced.
“Who is at home?” Prince Onyema called out again.
Ola ran out. With a glum face she knelt, at the front of the hut—leagues away from the prince who stood in the middle of the compound.
“Good day, my prince,” she said.
“Come, pretty one,” Onyema said.
She stood, but did not make any attempt to go close to him. Her face did not show any bit of comfort with him around. The roadside blocking she would have managed but coming to her house, way off what she could bear. He hadn’t come alone even. His two men stood behind him. He probably wasn’t able to dodge them this time.
Although in his early twenties, the prince travelled with men in their thirties or so as his men. Like him they wore knee-length shorts, only theirs were pale yellow—the color of the uniform of all palace servants— and lacked the shiny leather pockets at the front and the other royal embroideries. And instead of the heavily patterned green shirt he wore, the men wore short brown leathery shirts. Long sheathed knives dangled from their waists. Unlike the ordinary young men of Odu, the prince showed pronounced variety in dressing. He wore waist wrappers at times too, but with matching neck cloth—his clothes always matched.
He waited for her, but when it became obvious she was not coming to meet him, he started toward her. Ola observed his strides from the corner of her eyes. There was something charming about the way he moves. She inhaled deeply and brushed the feelings aside. He is not for you, a voice reminded her from inside. You don’t belong to his class. She gave a terse nod as if in obedience.
Onyema reached to her front and set appraising eyes to her face. Ola found his eyes stabbing. She wondered why they were so white. Oh, why wouldn’t they be?—she quickly thought up, when they hadn’t ever been touched by smoke.
She continued to watch the ground, her fingers wriggling and twining around each other behind her back.
“You look tense,” Onyema said.
Shouldn’t I? Ola’s brow furrowed even further. She slipped her face upward in a short glance at his face. “I’m sorry, my prince, but I’m going to ask you to leave,” she said.
“What?” Onyema could not comprehend. The benign expression he saw on her face did not match her words.
His men stepped forward, but he waved them to stay back. Their job was to keep him safe and they would not hesitate to give up their own lives to do it, but they wouldn’t have anyone be rude to him too. Ola was aware of that too. And she hadn’t intended to be rude to the prince. She wouldn’t dare. Though she had not always felt so comfortable each time the prince was around her, insulting him was the last thing she thought of. And it wasn’t just because of the consequences of such an act—she knew the prince may not report her even. It was something else, something else that added to making the prince different, frightening.
It had always been strange to her, why his presence of all things had continued to scare her. Scare would hardly even serve the term because the prince obviously did not scare her in the same way Muo-abali, the dreadful spirit of the night, scared the people who dared to toddle into his path in the night. No. The prince scared Ola in a different way, in a way she couldn’t yet comprehend.
And even now he was standing in front of her, in her father’s compound, the dread he carry had seemed all worsened.
“Ola, you say I should leave?” Onyema asked again, silently praying she did not repeat herself. His heart hadn’t taken it so well the first time.
But Ola did not utter another word, or raise her face from the ground.
“Ola.” He stepped closer to her and she smelt the sweet fragrance of the expensive skin oil he’d used, which again reminded her that he was royalty. Not her class. “Ola, I really like you,” he said.
The words stilled her briefly. She’d heard him say that before—he’d said it to her the first time they met. Though she wouldn’t deny the words did actually have sounded pleasing, but she later brushed it aside, concluding it was worthless. And now, with some effort, she’d done it again. It made no difference if he said it a thousand times, if he actually meant it. Ngala was there, the king, the whole of Odu were watching!
He reached to touch one of the plaits of her scalp-hugging cornrows and she drew back, respectfully. His hand closed up into a fist in the air and he pulled it down.
He looked on the ground, probably to see if he could discover what’s holding her attention in the sand. He saw nothing, only that her toe-nails were neat and matched the fair skin of her feet.
He stepped back from her. “Why don’t you like me, Ola?”
He finally asked that question, a question that has given him sleepless nights for weeks. It had remained very confusing to him why this girl, of all, would be so different.
Ola glanced at him and thrust her face down again. He stared at her intently. But she wasn’t going to answer the question, she did not even know how to. Although Ola could easily pass for a self-assured young woman, her reaction toward the prince had always depicted inadequacy. And probably that was what made her afraid of him. She hated to be reminded where she came from.
“Ola, answer me.” There was a commanding note to his voice this time.
Ola’s lips drew apart but no word came out. Her lips were full and as expected of someone with her kind of skin, pinkish, like the inside of an udara fruit. She compressed them into a thin line. “But you are married,” she said finally.
Onyema gave a tiny, hollow laugh—a snort actually. “Ola.” He took hold of her hand and could feel the shivering in it. “I’m not married. Not yet. Ngala is betrothed to me, yes, but I’m not ready to marry her.”
The look on Ola’s face did not change any bit. She took back her hand. “Does it matter?” she blurted out, as someone would talk to a person that had just told a big lie.
Onyema looked slightly puzzled. “How do you mean?”
“Whenever you are ready, she is still the one you’re going to marry.”
Ola felt surprised at her own words.
He reached to her chin and held her head up. Her eyes slammed shut before they could fall on his face.
“Ola, look at me,” he said. Never in his life would he have imagined he’d one day beg someone, a local girl born to a farmer, to look at him. Ola managed another peep at his face and freed herself from him.
“Ola, if you like me—” He was saying this when he broke off, as if something had run to his mind. “Ola, I will stop bothering you only on one condition,” he finished instead.
A mechanical gulp ran down Ola’s throat. It was difficult to tell if the reaction had resulted from the face-to-face encounter or her anxiety to hear the only one condition that could rid her of future ones. He did not wait for her to respond. “Just say you don’t like me and that is it.” He moved his hand expressively. “I’d never come close to you again.”
A chill went down her. It wasn’t what she had expected to hear; she had no expectation at all even. Her senses had seemed all jumbled at the time, like a pot of soup filled with several spices each fighting for dominion of scent. All she wanted to do now is run into her hut and wrap herself under the raffia mat on her bed. She would remain like that till her head settled.
“Ola, I am waiting.” Onyema voice held a note of threat this time. It startled her. He drew back and crossed both arms on his chest. Had she dared another peep at him, she would have seen the perfect bulge of his biceps, or even further, behind each arm, the well-carved contours of his chest.
But the uneasy feeling had gotten amplified now. Her limbs now felt stiff, woodlike.
“I’m sorry, my prince, I do not like you,” she uttered and ran inside.
Onyema ignored the trembling in her voice and believed every word of it. He had to—his question, his condition, all was clear.
She doesn’t like me, he muttered under his breath. He winced at the sound of the creaky door of the hut as it slammed shut. His eyes went dull with sorrow and for a miserable moment he thought he was going to cry. Then he collected himself, exhaled deeply and turned to walk home. But his steps were now heavy, devoid of their usual confidence. His men can only feel sorry for their young master; they had not the slightest idea of how to help him.
Ola remained indoors all through the afternoon, till Nnaa returned and Ikem had to rap on her door a few times before she came out. Even seven-year old Ikem could see the sadness in his big sister’s eyes as she plodded out of the hut.
But to Ola’s sadness was a hint of relief too, one offered by the thought of freedom. Freedom from all his disturbances. To her, she had done the right thing. Better done now than later, she concluded.
But she was surprised when she discovered sleep turned harder that night. She had not always been a smooth sleeper, but her dreams did not come till toward morning and never carried so much sadness along. That night she kept tossing around on the bed. Her heart raced, an overwhelming sense of loss engulfed her whole. The feelings came with an unfamiliar form of bleakness, a different kind of sadness she had not known before.
Onyema did not find the situation any less tormenting. He remained sunk in gloom for days. He would not eat and now spent his nights as day.
Even when he decided to channel more of his time into his training and even saw some improvement on his shots, he still found little relief for himself. His torture proved scariest at night, and he at one time, found himself praying a silly prayer to Ihe, asking the good goddess to take the nights away or at least make them shorter.
But the king must not find out about his condition. So he always faked the smiles and did his best to appear normal whenever he was in his father’s presence. And he doesn’t trust that cook so much too, in an attempt to gain the king’s favour—it appeared all the servants in the palace compete for it— she may whisper to the king’s ears that she’d always returned to see the prince’s food untouched. So each time the food tray was dropped on the table standing on the patio behind his big hut, Onyema would open the bowl containing the soup and pick all the lumps of meat and fish, before sneaking out with the plate of fufu to the other side of the palace compound, where the animal house was located. Pouring in a quantity of the wash water into the soup bowl also made it look used.
He continued on like this for days till he finally decided to confide in someone, someone he guessed could be of help. His best friend, Chuka. Though he had cousins he could have easily talked to, one thing made him believe Chuka was just the right person for this one. For one, he wasn’t of royalty, like Ola. Perhaps he is the only one that could make him understand what could have prompted an ordinary girl into rejecting a prince.