Akiba’s father celebrated his fifteenth year as the invincible, sovereign ruler of Mwishoni on the day of his death.
She ruled out death by sickness, old age and assassination as soon as it happened. Her father had never been sick from the time he was born, and his fifty years weighed on him much like a lie weighed on a politician. As for assassination, anyone with enough experience will tell you-the hardest thing in the world is orchestrating the death of a cutthroat. And Malifedha, who had the blood of a third of his continent's population on his hands, was the biggest cutthroat on the continent.
In the beginning, Mfalme Malifedha couldn’t have enjoyed the celebrations more-at least that’s what Akiba thought. The wrestling matches had been fast paced and exciting, her father’s voice, pure as the twittering of weaver birds but powerful as the crashing of waves along a cliff had starred in the dances, and when his most vocal critic in the council of elders, Bi Lentaula, was returned half-drowned at the end of the swimming matches, Akiba didn't miss the smug smile that grazed her father's lips as he headed to the banquet hall.
There had been no disasters on her end as well. She had played the part of the dutiful daughter perfectly, spending the afternoon with the cooks, piling sugared kaimatis onto plates, and pulling a splendid victory against herself by not leaping at the tailor who had exploded into a shrieking tirade when Akiba failed to grow an inch for the tenth year running. In fact, if she hadn't stopped at the infirmary to see how Bi Lentaula was doing, everything would have been just fine.
The clatter of voices and the opening and closing of doors could be heard from the banquet hall when Akiba slipped from the palace's healing centre and hurried through the halls. When she passed by the kitchens and peeked through the doors, she could see the maids piling dirty dishes into the sinks, meaning that she was late. One of them caught her eye and grimaced at her, motioning her to hurry and Akiba sped off, her palms sweating and her breathing becoming shallow, dread settling on her as she faced being tardy for yet another appointment.
She managed to reach the balcony above the banquet hall just when the cleaners were packing up the last of their supplies. One of them, a man with a wrinkled face that folded into more wrinkles when he smiled hailed her. 'Well, if it isn't the little princess,'
'Please refrain from calling me little,' Akiba sighed. The man laughed and rummaged through his supplies.
'You need my help again, I suppose? My, my, Mheshimiwa, if this continues happening I don’t know how I can cope.’
‘It won’t happen again,’ Akiba mumbled, eyes on the floor.
‘You say that,’ he continued, piling brooms together, ‘but you have been late all your life. Late for your birth – most children take nine months in their mothers’ womb but you took ten - late for all your lessons, if there was ever a fixed time for one’s death, you’d be late for that too, I warrant.’
‘Right, right, will you or will you not help me?’
The wrinkled man laughed, ‘it’s ironic, but you have never explained to us how we help you, anyway.’
Akiba smiled, but kept her mouth shut. Feasts at the banquet hall were events that condemned tardiness, so she had found herself left with no choice. There was a woven ceiling on top of the banquet hall, held up by two living palm trees. If she managed to slip between the crack of the ceiling and one of the palm trees and climb down behind it, then no one would notice her entering and she could make it look like she had been there the whole time.
‘Here’s some rope,’ said the wrinkled man, handing it to her, 'and we've packed almost all our supplies, so I can only give you this,' he handed her a basket not much bigger than one that would be reserved for a cat. Akiba's eyes nearly bulged out of her head.
'What are you thinking?' she snarled. 'You can't expect me to use this. I won't fit. I'm telling you that I won't...'
Ten seconds later, she was curled in the basket with only a slight feeling of constriction around her sides.
'I fit,' she groaned, burying her face in her hands. The cleaner cocked his head.
'Impressive, I wonder if you can fit in an actual cat basket.' He looped the rope around the basket handle and began to lower it, the muscles in his arm straining.
'Shut up,' growled Akiba.
'Your body has done you dirty, Mheshimiwa. My youngest daughter is ten, and even she wouldn't be able to fit in there.'
‘And how will telling me this change anything?’
'You must be careful,' the cleaner's voice was getting faint, 'ladies at twenty-five years old don't look so half-grown. Drink a glass of milk every night before sleeping.'
Before she could form a retort around how humiliating it would be to drink a glass of milk every night like a toddler, the basket had touched on the ceiling and the cleaner was waving goodbye from the balcony. Akiba execrated herself out of it and placed one foot on the ceiling, testing its weight, before tiptoeing across it. Through the mesh of woven palm, she could see the rest of the council of elders in colourful kikois and patterned fez hats seated in various clusters on the mats, around plates of food. Her father was in a group at the corner of the room, but he could as well have been at the centre. He pulled the energy of the room towards him like the sun pulled planets into orbit. With every action the council did, she could see them glancing at him for his approval.
The mixture of awe and fear that her father commanded in his subjects had never been a surprise to Akiba. In fact, she had thought it was the nature of every leader's due until she won the crown-leader trials and found that the only person that could lead a bunch of murderers, liar and thieves was the biggest murderer and thief of all. On the outside, her father looked tailor-made for leadership. He had aged gracefully, from a handsome young man to a benevolent-looking king with crow feet around his eyes and a smile that made those who beheld it feel like they were the most special thing in the universe. He commanded fear as well as awe and admiration-not of the brash kind, but rather as subtle as odourless poison. He never raised his voice to anyone – the angrier he got, the softer his voice became. When culprits were dragged in front of him, he wouldn't make any accusations. Rather, he would ask questions, his voice becoming softer and softer until it was as soft as a leopard's pelt, leading the culprit to stumble upon an answer accusing himself. Then he would smile, as if in reassurance that all would be well, but more often than not, it wasn't.
Akiba held her breath as she passed on the ceiling over him, but her father was tilting his head towards one of the council members, who was whispering in his ear, and didn't notice anything. She reached the end of the ceiling, and leaned forward to tie the rope around the trunk of the palm tree holding it. Every fibre in her body was coiled as tense as a snake ready to strike, now. She managed to loop the rope around the tree and tie a knot, then, as she leaned forward to begin climbing, the straps around one of her sandals, caught the taut edge of the woven ceiling and she found herself tilting sideways. She just had enough time to grab the hem of her leso, keeping it from tenting around her head and making the already disastrous situation worse before she was dangling on one leg upside down from the edge of the ceiling and all conversation in the room below stopped.
It's a bird you are looking at, was the desperate thought whirling around Akiba's head, as she shut her eyes as tight as she could. Please, please think that you are looking at a bizarre bird that so happens to have a passing resemblance to the crown princess.
'Mheshimiwa...' came a bewildered voice from below, and Akiba threw every silent curse she knew at it. Small murmurs, like the tiny flares of flame in a forest before a wild-fire were whispering through the room, before the clack of a pair of sandals on cement doused them. Her headscarf had pooled around her face, and for the moment, Akiba's world was soft, swirling cotton and the faint smell of coconuts, but she was sure that it was her father who had entered the scene. There was a short silence, and Akiba could imagine his dark eyes taking in the picture before him, before his voice rang out, soft as the pink of dawn breaking in the sky.
'Bee,' replied Akiba, wincing slightly at how tremulous her voice sounded. Another stretch of silence followed, making goose bumps tingle all over her flesh before her father spoke again.
'Absolve yourself of this situation. You are making a spectacle.'
As if she had done it on purpose.
'If you are not on the floor in five minutes,' her father's voice was becoming softer by the second, 'whatever punishment I have in mind for you will be doubled.' He whirled around, and walked back to his cushion, and the room returned to their positions with him. Akiba sighed and tied a knot around her legs with the leso, then swung back onto the ceiling and climbed down the palm tree. She could see more than one face becoming slack with shock as they deduced the secret of how they would go hours in an event without noticing that the princess was in attendance. Her father gestured her to the women's section of the room and a group seated around a plate made space for her. Akiba sat, smoothening her wrinkled leso, making sure that her headscarf fell to her waist and pretending not to hear the murmurs around the room.
'So disgraceful. A girl, and the crown-princess at that...'
'I wonder again, how she won the trials...'
'I suppose she has spent so much time looking like a child that she is finding herself acting like one too...' that was the worst one.
Akiba picked at the food in front of her with her fingers and ate it without tasting anything. She could hear the group of women at her side debating whether she had cheated her way through the crown-leader trials after all. The topic had been discussed from every angle since her victory, and even after her father had allowed Bwana Kitambi, his greatest rival, to investigate and he came up with nothing, it was clear that not everyone was satisfied.
The murmurs around the room grew louder and more outrageous, and Akiba went from wishing that the ground could swallow her whole to wishing that somehow, something more shocking could happen that would take her off her spotlight. She got her wish when five minutes later, the pitcher of mjani was brought
Mjanis were regarded as somewhat of a controversial delicacy in the country. If you have never seen one, they are large, poisonous green fruits, very like blueberries in shape and like sweet melons in size. When squeezed, they produce a glittering bronzy juice enough to fill an entire jug. They never need any preparation whatsoever and they have the remarkable ability to grow anywhere-from a freezing arctic to a desert wasteland.
It was because the fruit was so easily found that the king detested it so much. For most of his reign, he had always had the notion that the highborn beings belonged in a different world. It was unbearable, therefore, to think that while he was seated, enjoying the drink from a delicate glass goblet, a poor farmer in the mountains was enjoying the exact drink from a cup carved out of wood.
So, it came as a surprise to Akiba when her father poured the bronzy liquid into his cup and took a sip-the first unusual occurrence of the meal.
The second unusual occurrence was minutes after that, when Akiba raised her eyes from her meal, she found her father fixated on her with a look on his face that resembled apology.
The third unusual occurrence, of course, was when Malifedha began coughing blood, frothing at the mouth and his temple hit the carpet. The glass of juice slipped from his hand and glittering brown liquid pooled among glittering shards of glass. From where she sat, Akiba could tell that the glass had nearly been full.
Their invincible, sovereign ruler had only taken one tiny sip, after all.