Chapter 8: Eighth Phase

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 90

A few days after they made their announcement, Aye and Aya of the Department of Court Ladies came to the Maidens’ Compound to bestow Omote Oluchi and Ngozi with their official appointments as Aya of the Inner Palace. The conferring took place on the cobbled courtyard before the Maidens’ Quarters, and many Omote and Agaenaye gathered to watch, for they did not often see Maidens from the Inner Palace. After the brief rite, Aya Oluchi and Aya Ngozi quickly gathered their belongings and left the Outer Palace, leaving no trace behind that Emeravwe could detect in their now-abandoned chamber. She did not miss the girls, but Emeravwe could not shake the sense of forlornness that assailed her whenever she was alone in their chamber, so she busied her mind with thoughts of the king.

She wanted to speak with Aslan about her decision, for she knew little about their king save that he was currently at odds with his mother. Emeravwe hoped Aslan could give her more information and help her with a plan to woo the king; he was a Eunuch of the palace, after all, and was thus privy to much more knowledge.

It was while preoccupied with such thoughts that she accidentally knocked over the bucket of water she and another Omote were using to clean the main entrance hall of the Bureau of Court Ceremonies. The bucket crashed noisily to the tiled floor, its contents splashing across the path of an entourage of Eunuchs and Maidens.

“Imprudent fool!” a short, dark Eunuch rebuked her.

Emeravwe and the Omote in the hall immediately halted their tasks and stood. Seeing that he wore the yellow silk-brocade headcloth of esteemed Eunuchs of the Inner Palace, Emeravwe quickly approached the angry Eunuch. She bent her knees in a butu of the second degree, bowing deeply with head lowered and hands cupped before her chest. The other Omote bowed their heads where they stood.

Oniri, I was careless in my task and have offended you,” she confessed, addressing him respectfully. “May you forgive me.”

“How can you be forgiven when you do not know whom you offended?” the Eunuch rebuffed harshly. He turned to the young man beside him and bowed deeply in a digwe, consoling him, “My lord, may you be at peace. I will see to it that she is punished for this offense.”

But the young man was not at peace, Emeravwe saw, peeking up from her butu. He was perhaps only two or three years her elder, fifteen or sixteen, with even bronze skin and rich sable locks that wound in a profusion of silken curls about his head and shoulders. On his forehead was not one, but two resplendent gems; an oval-cut purple sapphire nestled in the center of his forehead, and just below it was a brilliant tear-cut ruby. As she observed the proud upward tilt of his chin and the neat curve of his dark eyebrows, Emeravwe felt a sense of familiarity. But this was quickly quenched when she saw those eyebrows were pinched in a furrow of annoyance that resonated with the glare of his dark brown eyes.

Seeing the glare, as well, the Eunuch turned back to Emeravwe and demanded to know her name and station.

“Your servant is called Emeravwe,” she answered humbly. “I am an Omote of the Bureau of Halls and Chambers.”

Emeravwe did not see the quick quirk of the young man’s eyebrows before they dove to an even deeper furrow, darkening his glare.

“I shall be sure to report this incident to the bureau, my lord,” the Eunuch assured the young man.

The young man stood a long moment scrutinizing Emeravwe, then turned abruptly and strode on into the Bureau of Court Ceremonies, instructing the Eunuch, “Leave her!”

The glower the Eunuch bestowed Emeravwe as he walked away told her she had just avoided a world of trouble, and she deepened her butu, calling after the young man, “May Oghene bless and preserve you for your gracious mercy, my lord!”

He did not respond, but each Eunuch and Maiden accompanying him glared at Emeravwe as they walked past. One of the Maidens, who was dressed in the pastel blue garments of Aya of the Inner Palace, stopped before Emeravwe with a particularly foul scowl.

“Consider it your fortune that Prince Etegah is in good spirits today, else you would find yourself in the Bureau of Corrections!” the Aya spat and stalked away.

Emeravwe stood frozen as the Omote flocked to her once the hall had cleared. “Fool!” they chided, “How could you offend Prince Etegah!” and “You must not value your life!” Emeravwe blinked in wonder, her heart still quickening from the Aya’s words. If that had, indeed, been Prince Etegah, then she truly had been fortunate! It was well known, even in the Outer Palace, that the king’s younger brother had a temperament as vile as the devil’s, and that his slightest dissatisfaction landed many Eunuchs and Maidens in the Bureau of Corrections. 

In her daily work in the Outer Palace, Emeravwe encountered many ministers and officials of the royal court, since many of the ministries and offices were located in the Outer Palace. But never had she encountered anyone of the royal family! It was no wonder she did not recognize Prince Etegah; the rumors she had heard of him painted a much uglier picture in her mind than that of the personage she met today. His foul expression aside, Emeravwe found the prince quite appealing with his thick whorls of lustrous sable curls, glowing bronze skin and high cheekbones. She thought if the prince was so handsome then, surely, the king would not pale in comparison. She had not thought much about the king’s personal appearance or disposition in her decision to become an Honored Petal, but she was sure he could not be as unpleasant as his brother was rumored to be, and Prince Etegah’s appearance assured her he must not be ugly.

When Emeravwe went to the garden in the Eunuch’s Compound that night, she brimmed with excitement, her mind gushing with all sorts of things to tell and ask Aslan. She prayed he would not disappoint her with his absence as he had the past few nights, so she was relieved to find him already there waiting for her when she entered the garden. He sat leisurely on the white stone bench, leaning back with his arms as supports and legs crossed casually before him. He heard Emeravwe as she entered and greeted her with a pleasant smile.

“Eme, I have missed you,” he said as she approached.

“If you miss me you should see me more often!” she admonished sassily.

He simply smiled and made room for her on the bench.

She hurriedly settled beside him, beginning eagerly, “Aslan, do you know anything about the Orodje?”

His brow rose slightly. “Like what?”

“Anything!” she enthused, leaning close, gray eyes bright and expectant.

Aslan was silent, searching her face, then resumed his leisurely posture and replied in a measured tone, “The current Orodje is the youngest in Xxene’s history. He succeeded the throne at the age of twelve, but due to his youth the Queen Dowager, as the preeminent member of the Royal House, has acted as Regent hitherto. I have heard it said often that he is a true scholar with a noble character, but I think he is yet inexperienced in official matters, for his quarrels with the Queen Dowager has caused much damage at court.” He turned to her, an inquisitive look pursing his lips. “But why do you ask?”

Emeravwe’s eyes were intent as she held Aslan’s gaze. “I am going to marry him.”

Aslan froze. She waited expectantly for a response, but he simply stared. Then, without warning, a grin spread across his face and was followed, to Emeravwe’s horror, by laughter! She had, of course, anticipated that he would be shocked when she announced her decision, but she never imagined he would laugh at her. Her heart dropped as she watched him continue in mirth, her face heating with indignation and embarrassment.

She shot to her feet with a devastating glare and demanded, her voice shaking with hurt, “Why do you laugh? You think I cannot? You think I am merely a nameless, lowly Omote and cannot? I am also a lady of noble birth, yet I must labor in the Bureau of Halls and Chambers while other ladies frolic about the marketplace dressed in fine silks and jewels! They do not worry about back pain or dry hands! What makes me any less worthy? I am no less worthy! I deserve more than a shabby room in a forsaken corner of the palace and these shoddy garments!” She flipped a corner of her transparent green robe with irritation. Scowling at her robes, her fists clenched and chest heaved from frustration. Then she recalled her encounter with Prince Etegah and looked challengingly to Aslan, proclaiming boldly, “At the very least I deserve a prince!”

Aslan had ceased his mirth and listened with a grave expression. He asked quietly, “And at most?”

Emeravwe studied him. No hint of laughter lingered in his features, and she saw sincerity in the soft glow of his amber eyes. A slow smile touched her lips. She stepped forward, leaning close to cup a hand to his ear, and whispered, “A nation.”

As she stepped away, she perceived the sweet, familiar scent of plumeria that always lingered on Aslan’s body and noted, for the first time, his pierced ear.

For a long moment Aslan said nothing but looked at her with such intensely somber eyes that her heart stiffened. Then he said solemnly, his eyes never leaving hers, “People lose much to gain a nation. But take me. I shall give you my heart and be your nation.”

Silence filled the space between them as the songs of crickets rang out in discordance. Emeravwe stared, dumbstruck. Her body seemed to comprehend the meaning of Aslan’s words quicker than her brain did, the warm Xxenen night suddenly becoming hotter than a boiling afternoon as heat rose from the tips of her toes to the hairs at her temples. Her thoughts muddled in a dumbfounded haze and she found her voice stuck in her throat, her heart increasing in tempo. Yet Aslan continued to watch her steadily, the look in his eyes telling her she had not misheard.

But if she had not misheard, then surely there was some kind of mistake! She searched his face for any sign she might have missed something; her mind was unable to accept the earnestness she saw.

“B-but you—you are a Eunuch!” she finally exclaimed her disbelief, her heart pounding.

Aslan frowned. “Even so, I have a heart to give.”

Emeravwe was speechless, her eyes large with amazement. In all the years she had known Aslan, never had she imagined…never had she thought…oh! She could not think! The way Aslan looked at her was too unnerving. She turned away, then back again, bewildered as to how a Eunuch could be so bold to address a palace Maiden in such a way. She noticed, not for the first time, Aslan’s broad shoulders and the way he squared them, the upward tilt of his chin and the dignified way he held his head. These were things she had noted as they grew up but had come to take for granted as the manifestations of his rank. But even with rank, Eunuchs were forbidden intimate contact with palace Maidens. Aslan’s bold declaration and the unwavering assurance she saw in his gaze told her now that his confidence was his own, notwithstanding his rank.

She squinted at him. And partly because she wanted to satisfy her curiosity, and partly because she wished to divert the conversation so he would stop gazing at her in that disconcerting way, she stated, “You are a nobleman’s son.”

“Alas, all Eunuchs are,” he said matter-of-factly.

“No,” she insisted, lightly stomping her foot, “I mean an esteemed nobleman’s son!”

He was silent a moment. “Why do you say so?”

She crossed her arms with a “Humph,” stating, “Never have I encountered a Eunuch with pierced ears who wears scents!”

He smiled now, leaning back on the bench. “Indeed, few can escape the consequences. But you do so easily though you are bejeweled,” he pointed to the small bulge of the ruby beneath her headscarf, “and your ears are also pierced.”

Emeravwe uncrossed her arms, arguing, “But mine—”

Aslan cut her off, “Yes, you are a special exception, but not the only one.”

Emeravwe’s heart sank as she regarded him. Seeing the sudden change in her mood, he inclined his head in concern. “What is the matter?”

She asked silently, “You mean, you are also a ‘valued child’?”

A look of realization crossed his face, his expression growing warm. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

Emeravwe’s heart sank. She knew she was not the only valued child in the palace. She had learned through the years that though palace Maidens and Eunuchs were designated from birth and formally selected every few years, there were exceptions, like herself, when a child not designated was accepted into the palace. But she had never thought that Aslan, too… Even now she could not bear to imagine him as a valued child—she did not want to think that he had also been abandoned and mistreated in the palace as she had been.

Seeing the pain etched on her face, he extended a hand to her. “Come, Eme.”

She took the hand, settling again beside him. They were silent a moment, then she intoned quietly, “Is that why you became my friend?”

He shook his head. “It is simply that I know how lonely the palace can be for a valued child.”

Emeravwe fidgeted with her fingers. “Do you…” Her voice caught in her throat. “Do you know who your parents are?”

He replied gently, “Knowing does not make the palace any less lonely.”

She was silent as she took in his words, her brow furrowing and expression darkening. Then she whirled on him, eyes sharp and accusing, “You at least get to see your father when he comes to court, do you not? He comes to court almost every day, right? Who is your father, anyway?” She gave him a onceover, guessing, “The Minister of Finance? Or maybe the Minister of Justice? Well?”

Aslan’s look was pensive, then, “The Onóturode.”

Emeravwe stared. No wonder. Aslan’s dignified character, the esteem with which he deported himself, these were not the manifestations of his rank, but the mark of his birth. It was no wonder she never suspected he was also a “valued child”: he was different from her. The confidence he possessed was one she could never have because, unlike him, she did not even know whose daughter she was.

“You see,” Aslan said, looking intently at her, “choosing me would not be worse than choosing the Orodje.”

Emeravwe’s eyebrows pinched, her lips pressing just as tight. But Aslan’s stare was expectant, so she said quietly, avoiding his eyes, “You are a Eunuch, and I am a palace Maiden.” She stated more assertively, reasonably, as she looked to him again, “You know as well as I do that such a relationship is unacceptable!”

He smiled. “Yet not unprecedented.”

He was incorrigible! Emeravwe could see that in his unwavering gaze. Not just that, he was being irrational! They were already violating several palace rules just by meeting secretly each night. Even if they simply sat speaking innocently, they would be severely punished and disgracefully thrown from the palace were they ever discovered. They were already straining their boundaries beyond normal limits, yet Aslan had the audacity to suggest… Emeravwe stared incredulously.

As she continued to eye him with disbelief, Aslan’s expectant expression faded and his features stiffened, becoming unreadable. He stood suddenly, turning from her.

“I know nothing of the Orodje, so do not ask me,” he said tersely and began striding away.

Taken aback, she called after him, “Wait, where—”

“I shall retire for the night!” he threw back curtly, never turning or missing a stride.

Emeravwe sat bewildered long after he had left the garden. As much as his ludicrous proposal, his impetuous behavior amazed her. In almost every situation, for as long as she had known him, Aslan remained calm and composed. He had never behaved as indiscreetly as he did tonight, and never had he walked out on her before! Emeravwe marveled at this new side of Aslan, wondering if it came about because of her rejection. Surely, he was sulking!


Submitted: July 17, 2019

© Copyright 2020 OE. All rights reserved.


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