Kou woke as the sunlight streamed through the slightly open curtains. She opened her eyes to the voluminous pillows stuffed with duck feathers. Her body was the center of attention in the stark room. The room was stripped of color yet still had depth; the sheets, ottoman, bed, marble floor and dresser were all varying shades of white that bounced the sunlight unto anything of color. As she turned over, a rare groan escaped her lips; the coffee brown skin on her back was covered from neck to waist in an even darker ink that was still healing. The story it told was surprisingly completed in one sitting, the priests who did the inking took turns as she lay face down on the mat, not uttering a sound. Saye, her twin, sat on a stool above her and offered sips of water and bits of rice bread to keep up her strength. He had traded places with her, as his tattoo was done only a week prior. Kou was meant to rule and flinching while the history of her people was inked unto her skin would send the wrong message.
She walked towards the ottoman and picked up her cotton training pants and shirt that were wrinkled from spending the night on the floor. Her unruly curls were a battle she never won, and so she let it fall as it wanted and headed out the door. Comforting silence greeted her when she walked through her wing of the Palace, the hustle and bustle of servants were left to Saye’s and her mother’s wings. As she made her way towards the dome at the center of the palace, the sounds of pots banging and of pine brooms scraping against the already pristine floors made their way to her.
Even though she continuously told them not to, the servants still did the traditional kneel when they greeted her, she stopped telling them a long time ago that it wasn’t necessary. It was tradition, and there was no way they would look the next Queen, the next mother of the Mano clan, in the eye while uttering a greeting. She nodded as each of them knelt and continued into the red earth palace yard. On the right side of the yard were the Water gardens, where every tropical fruit the West African soil had to offer, grew. At its middle were the colossal bathing pools where she played with her cousins and brother as a child. Towards the far left of the yard were the training pits. From a distance, she could see Gonlekpei going through his morning drill. Although his hair had begun to gray long before Kou started to train, he still woke before dawn each morning and bested her every time they sparred.
Gonlekpei always self-trained with two spears. As he saw her approach, he threw her a standard metal spear and lunged at her. She grabbed the spear and hastily spun into a defensive pose, just barely protecting her raw shoulders. She swiped low, trying to get him to the floor, but even before she released her attack, she knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. They continued for several minutes with Gonlekpei attacking, and Kou barely blocking and counter-attacking. The pit filled with more soldiers, both women, and men, but she barely noticed the clang of their steel. When she finally saw an opening, she lunged with the tip of her spear, but he turned at the last-minute.
“I don’t know why you try every morning just to lose every morning,” Saye’s voice greeted her. She turned to face him, and Gonlekpei knocked her to the red earth. A cackling laugh escaped his throat.
“That was cheating!” she lashed out.
“The white people don’t follow our rules. That is why we keep losing members of the ocean tribe. They strike when you’re weak and occupied. To keep the tribe safe, you have to be on guard at all times.”
“Well,” Saye started as he moved toward his twin to help her up. “You don’t have to train you know; you can always rule from the council rooms while I fight our tribe’s wars.”
“And let you have all the fun? I’ll face an army of white men all by myself with a broomstick before I set the Mano women fifty years back by being a glorified piece of furniture.”
…part 1 of 3; to be continued.
Authored by Whitney Okujagu
Featured image by LiGerian Optics