In a society where a royal family of seers determine a nation’s future, a runaway princess struggles to cross the border to her freedom while trying to evade capture by a savage general
Mary woke me from sleep, grabbing my wrists and jerking me awake. I had tried pushing her away but that had been a waste of time. She didn’t let go, she just pulled me off the bed and shoved me to a standing position. Wake up, princess. He’ll be here any time from now.
I had blinked myself awake and blinked again at the two girls that stood still in the doorway, their waist-length braids tipped with corral, the roughened, brightly-patterned cloth of our people tied around their chests and ending at their ankles. They stared at me wide-eyed. I yawned and waved them away. I didn’t remember their names.
They didn’t move. Seemed they feared Mary more than me.
I left my bed and walked across the tile floor. It was cold but I endured it, then I waited as one of the girls shuffled to one of the panels on the left wall. There was a humming noise and a shifting, vibrating feeling beneath my feet. I took a step back as the floor separated into two, one half of it sliding toward the other side of the room. The water gleamed, steam rising off its surface. I yawned again and waved the girls away. This time they shuffled off, their braids clacking behind them. By the gods, I was too old to have attendants. I had to get rid of them.
I thought of Oladunni’s hands on my back, the feel of his fingers through mine and I smiled.
I slipped off what was left of my robes, walked carefully to the edge where the floor ended and the water began, crouched and trailed my fingers across its surface. The heat was good. I gripped the edge and slowly lowered myself into the water, one leg at a time. Soon I was in, making broad sweeps with my arms; l had long since learned that the drag and pull of the water wasn’t an enemy, but a cool, unblinking friend. One that never demanded anything of me, that didn’t make me do things that I didn’t want. No nagging, or poking or taking or changing. When I was here I was truly free.
I opened my eyes and felt myself bob back up through the water. I didn’t have much time. Mary would be back soon.
Fifteen minutes later, I’d clambered out of the pool into the waiting hands of the two girls, one holding my towel, the other the dress I would be struggling into in a few minutes. I grabbed the towel, feeling the floor beneath me clicking back into place. Soon I would feel the flushing vibrations as the water was sucked back out through large pipes. The first part of my morning was over.
I sat at my dressing table with the large oval mirror, its edge studded with bright stones. I stared at my reflection, then at the reflection of both girls as they pulled at the huge drapes, letting the morning light in. Soon everywhere was cloaked in the bright morning sun of Mount Kai. The tiles gleamed; the furniture-chairs covered with gold fabric fitted into honeyed frames- seemed to puff up in pride. The high ceilings and white walls all etched with the images of my ancestors came alive. Even my unmade bed looked glorious. But I knew if I went to stand next to those same high glass paned windows, I wouldn’t feel anything. No heat, no warmth. There would be no feel of the sun through the bullet-proof, WT-43resistant glass. Father had made sure of that.
I slipped into the Kaftan Mary had chosen for me. The sky-blue one with long swirl-embroidered sleeves. I could see the blank looks of the girls behind me. I stared at my reflection, and saw the same look on my face.
What was wrong with me? I was too old to be afraid of the big bad general. Wasn’t I?
The door to my chamber creaked open and Mary hurried in. She took one look at the two girls and they fled past her, shutting the door behind them. I breathed a sigh of relief until I saw the look on Mary’s face. She had that wide-eyed accusing stare. “You’re not ready,” she announced and stood behind me, glaring through the mirror.
Was she serious? “Of course I am.”
Mary made a snorting sound at the back of her throat, the kind she always made when I did something wrong. Looking back over the past twenty years, Mary must have made that sound at least ten times a day. I hadn’t been an easy charge.
She grabbed my hair, holding a bunch of braids in her left hand as I winced. “Did you oil this?”
I shook my head. She snorted again and reached for the top drawer on my left, grabbed the glass bottle that Father had given me for my birthday and emptied some of the green slop into both palms. She immediately began kneading along the length of five or more strands, working down to the tips.
“Do you know how important today is?” she said, her voice taut as she applied more green mush. I said nothing. I wouldn’t dare.
“Do you have any idea?” she continued, her eyes narrowed.
“You have to look your best.”
“Why? It’s not my face he’s interested in.”
“Taking care of ourselves inspires confidence in others. That we’re not worried about anything. That we’re in complete control.”
“They don’t care, Mary. They don’t like us. They never will.”
She gave my hair a hard tug then, and I howled in pain. I looked up at her in surprise. “What was that for?”
Mary glared at me through the mirror, and I glared back, though not quite as furious. I guess I was still a little scared of her. Even after all these years. So I kept quiet but felt myself stiffen as Mary dropped the bottle on the table with a loud thunk and rounded my chair till she was standing over me, her back to the mirror.
“Who are you?” she said, folding her arms against her chest.
“We went through this last night.”
“And we will go through it again.” she said, her voice brittle. “Who are you?”
I took another deep breath, and then I sighed. There was no point; I had to give in. “I am Ini.”
Mary’s face hardened. “That’s not the right answer.”
“I am Princess Ini. “ Princess. I hated that word. In this time and especially this place, it was ridiculous. It brought to mind the play-periods of my childhood, where my sister and I would watch cartoons with pale princesses wearing puffy sleeves and large skirts bouncing round them as they danced and sang and ate poisoned apples or lost slippers or turned into pumpkins. Silly. Childish. The appropriate term for me and my ilk was witch.
“And what are you?”
I rolled my eyes. “I am a seer.”
“And what do you see?”
“I see the future.”
Mary shook her head hard, her dreadlocks slapping against both cheeks. “You see black silver.”
I looked away, then back at my reflection. “I see black silver.”
Black silver. The only reason we were still alive, perched on Mount Kai, protected and served. Kept fat. Because somehow, someway, the gods had blessed my grandmother with the gift of sight, the gift of seeing deep into the earth’s entrails, spouting out locations where black silver sat waiting to be drilled and pumped out by huge rigs.
Black silver was the new fuel of the twenty-second century, that would make made the mega-space stations of the West a reality and propel their rockets even further across solar systems. Invaluable to them, priceless to us.
So my great-grandmother’s gift had become my grandmother’s. Then my mother’s. Now it was mine.
“You’re daydreaming,” Mary snapped.
I swiveled my chair toward her with a screech. “What do you want from me, Mary?” I snapped back. “I’ve agreed to see him. I’ll be polite, not like the last time. I’ll keep the generals satisfied. I’ll show him we’re still worth keeping alive.”
Mary looked at me, her face suddenly older and more drawn than I’ve ever seen it. I felt bad. This wasn’t her fault. It was my father’s fault. He always crawled to those men, constantly on the phone with the Prime Minister, offering up his children like strapped down goats. Our reward though was to stay shackled to this mountain-prison.
By the gods, one day I will be free.
Free with Oladunni.
Suddenly, Mary lowered herself to a squat until she was eye-level with me, took my hands and clasped them in hers. I looked down at her hands, smooth and inky-black just like the rest of her. Again, I marveled at her skin and how it hadn’t changed over the years. There were no net of wrinkles at the corner of her eyes either, no grey where the dark fuzz of her hair met the gold-colored ropes that hung to her neck. She was broad-faced, broad-shouldered… strong. Not like me, gangly and awkward and weak.
“I care for you, my child,” Mary said finally. “But you can be so silly sometimes.”
“You mustn’t be afraid of what you have.”
“I am not afraid.”
“You mustn’t be afraid of anyone else.”
“I am not afraid, Mary. I just…I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Mary’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
I pulled away from her. “I’m tired of them coming back here, year after year after year, testing me like I’m some kind of oddity. Getting me to reveal secrets…reveal things. I want it to stop.”
“It’s not going to stop.”
“I just want them to back off for a little while. Is that wrong?”
Mary closed her eyes. I knew what that meant, that sigh. A long dreary speech.
“You haven’t forgotten that night, have you?” she said finally.
Of course I hadn’t. The night they had come, resistance fighters flooding in with their warships, nightfliers they called them, burning everything in sight. The thundering roar of the icecaps as they had flooded down the mountain. The charred bodies, the smell of smoke. I had prayed to the gods, I had begged them to spare our lives. I had promised them anything.
And they had given me the gift.
“I remember your mother,” she said finally.
I closed my eyes. Here we go again.
“She was scared too,” she added, her eyes suddenly brightening, her lips spread into a nostalgic smile. “Scared of making any kind of mistake.”
“I told you… I am not scared.”
“Then she met your father. A man from our people. A good man.”
“What has this got do with anything?” I said, irritated, wanting her to stop her slow, languid movements.
“This has to do with the fact that everything you’re feeling, she understood. We had the same conversation. She wanted to be free of this place too. Go down there, to the world below.’’ Mary grabbed my hands again and smiled. “It’s normal to want something different.”
“I don’t want go anywhere. I want them to stop coming here.”
“But she got through it. She realized that she had to do the right thing. She had a responsibility to her people, had a responsibility to her family. To the protection of Mount Kai.”
“You may not like the generals…maybe they come across as harsh and cruel, and sometimes they really are. But they serve a purpose. They protect us. As harsh as they are, there are worse people from the world below us. Those people…those peasants would wipe us out in a second if they could. They hate us; they hate what we stand for.”
I rubbed my hands together, tried to focus on something else. “Oladunni’s from there. He never hurt me.”
“He’s the liaison. The generals chose him, remember? And he believes in what we’re doing here. That’s why your father likes him.”
Again, my thoughts went to Oladunni, the first time I’d seen him. The liaison from the world below. The first time I’d seen him, he’d been clambering off the helicopter, his coat billowing behind him, his tie flapping over his right shoulder. He had walked toward my father, his hand outstretched. With his crisp speech and his politeness and frankness everyone had grown to love him. So had I.
Mary slowly turned me back to the mirror and I stayed very still as she used her fingers to fluff up my braids, the woven strands slapping down to my shoulder and the top half of my back. This too she had done when I was a child.
She smiled, but it was a tight one, then she tapped my shoulder. “Now, show me.”
I took a deep breath. “Now?”
Her smile disappeared. “Now.”
With a sigh, I turned toward the mirror and focused, my eyes narrowing. I felt the strain but I still stared forward.
Mary tapped my shoulder again, sharper, more insistent. She said something, but I didn’t hear her. I didn’t need to. I needed to focus, concentrate….
I felt the familiar loosening of my arms and legs, like I was floating on air. I closed my eyes and opened them. Then I took a deep breath.
The room dissolved into a blanket of white, as white as the steep slopes and rocky crags that led to my home. But this shade was full, opaque and blinding.
Now for the difficult part.
I raised my hands, fanned out my fingers. Closed my eyes again and waited. Waited for the weightless feeling to lift, waited for the welcome feeling of stillness to rise over me. Then I heard the closing of a door, felt a very faint tapping on my shoulder. I cursed and hoped Mary heard me. This wasn’t the time for her to interfere; I was doing what she wanted. So I needed her to be silent.
I opened my eyes.
The bright white light was gone and the first thing I focused on was Mary standing behind me, her hands on both of my shoulders, her face the very picture of bliss. I looked back at my reflection.
I was still wearing the same long-sleeved outfit; my braids still hung black and shiny, framing the sides of my face.
The only things that had changed were my eyes, the normal white corneas replaced with a deep, full blackness.
By the gods…
Mary hugged me from behind and kissed me. I felt her breath cool on my cheek, the smell of crisp, clean air. If she noticed me shaking, she didn’t say a word.
Oladunni must never see me like this. Never.