Both sisters paced the quadrangle upstairs; stiff, stoic and steadfast in their unwillingness to crack before the other.
Salihatu grew tired. She always gave up first. When they were younger, it seemed such a big deal but now she couldn’t care less. Mother was dead. This wasn’t time for games.
She spun sharply on her right foot, turning down the corridor towards the south wing of their home when she heard it.
Impossible. Inconceivable. Incredible.
It just couldn’t be!
She spun right back, sharper than intended, almost twisting her ankle.
Her sister was crying…albeit, silently but not to her. She could hear her clearly; her expression of wordless grief as loud as the ticking of the wall clock affixed above the south wing hallway. And just as silently, she went over to her, put a comforting hand round her shoulders and drew her to the edge of the quadrangle staircase. They sat, like always, with their slim legs dangling through the railings.
“Our legs can still fit through”, Sefiyatu sniffled through her tears.
“Do you remember when we refused to eat tuwo and okro soup because we wanted egusi soup instead?”
“Yes and Mother asked cook to take it away and bring us something else instead.”
Both sisters could still see the rueful look on cook’s face in their minds’ eye, when he came back with ‘something else’ – water in their soup bowls and their mother told them it was ‘water-soup’ and they were to eat it and finish it all.
Both sisters looked at each other.
“Or when Maimuna complained about the new uniform Mother made all the servants wear…”
“Yeah…”, Salihatu carried on without a break in the narrative, “Mother asked to speak with her privately…”
“And…”, Sefiyatu took the narrative back and finished it off. “She came out of Mother’s room wearing a raffia skirt and a top made out of woven palm fronds!”
Salihatu wiped her sister’s tears with a pink handkerchief; the only colour Sefiyatu will allow on her face.
Their mother was a tyrant; an autocrat.
If she hadn’t been, the throne would have been ripped from her and her daughters. She would have been stripped of everything, cast into the stone-paved streets of Jalinga-Joppa with nothing but sackcloth, ashes, a small basket of fruit, a small cooking pot, a tripod and five pieces of firewood.
Her daughters will have been made to serve Daabar, their late father’s only surviving male relative, who had commissioned the royal tailor to make an inauguration robe for him, the very day their father died.
The two sisters looked at each other again; no words were needed this time.
The pink handkerchief passed over both faces again, this time, wiping tears off and resolve on.
Sefiyatu stood first, went over to the dangling rope in the middle of the quadrangle and pulled.
The sound of the royal gong filled the palace.
The servants assembled.
Salihatu let her sharp gaze sweep the assembly.
“Kudju!” she called out imperiously; pointed a long index finger at him and to the front row of the assembly. No words were needed.
A small, clean-shaven man with impossibly big eyes, long lashes and a small, cruel mouth ran out, trembling.
“I hear your room in the palace is too small for you.”
“N…n…no…no, your High-jesty, I mean your Migh-ness…I mean your Majesty…ies”, his big eyes darted between both sisters.
“We’ve moved you into more comfortable lodgings”, Sefiyatu announced, looking over the whole assembly.
Viko, the family’s loyal Palace-Master, who served the Royals like his father and all their fathers before them picked Kudju up with one powerful arm and marched him to the royal goats’ shed at the north side of the Palace boundary.
“Dismissed,” both sisters announced.
The assembly dispersed. Everyone went back to their duties.
“You think Mother would have thought of that?”, Sefiyatu wondered out loud.
“Naa”, her sister replied with a twinkle in her eye, “She would have made him move in with the dogs.”
“But he’s the Royal dog-keeper!”
“I know! I also know he hates goats!”
Royal peals of laughter rang out as the princesses made their way back to the palace, the sun warming their backs.