Your hands shake as you take two steps forward. Your feet are soundless on the concrete floor, and your long jalabiya makes soft swooshing sounds.
But how can this be? You think as you look at the body lying peacefully on the bed.
You know the woman. Early sunlight plays on her black braids, making them appear silver in some places.
“Cidra,” you call out tentatively.
She doesn’t stir, not even a toe curl.
Irrational fear builds in you, and your panic grows. She can’t be dead. Who will make the beancakes you love so much if she is?
The laugh that escapes your lips is high-pitched and more of a short bark. Your heart pounds as you take the rest of the steps to the bedside and lean toward her body.
The moment your fingers brush hers, her eyes fly open, and she sits up so fast her head smacks yours.
“Mo Abdah!” she curses, rubbing her forehead and closing her eyes. Then she opens them and stares at you like you are one of the dead saints brought back to life.
“Yoila, why are you in my house?” she asks.
You try to swallow past the knot in your throat and only succeed in bringing tears to your eyes.
“You,” the word makes your throat hurt, and you pause before trying again. “You don’t remember anything?”
There is suspicion in her gaze now. “Remember what?”
“I think—I think I found you.”
She stares at you for a few seconds and bursts into laughter. Still laughing, she shoves you off the bed and stands.
“This old man, you’ve finally gone mad,” she says while looking around for her slippers. She seems only mildly surprised when she finds them already on her feet. “How can you find me in my own house?” she continues.
You want to talk but hold your tongue. Instead, you walk to the room door and open it. You feel the moment Cidra’s humour dies, and her fear comes back in full force.
“Yoila,” she says, her voice slightly shaky now. “Why am I in your house?”
“I—I don’t know.”
The outraged look on her face makes you blush. “I swear! I’ve been on official duty for the sovereign for the past three weeks and I haven’t been at home since.”
The implication of your words dawns on her, and Cidra looks around like a lost child, despite being a young woman. Her dark face is pale and drawn.
“Did someone take me?” her quiet whisper splinters your heart, and you move forward to comfort her. As you reach for her shoulder, she flinches slightly, and her fists tighten by her side.
You immediately step back and speak very quietly.
“Your mother reported you missing the day after you disappeared, and all your friends have been looking for you ever since.”
You watch her fight the urge to fidget and are not surprised when she asks, “Can you leave me for a moment, please?”
You nod and leave, closing the old wooden door softly. Your feet carry you to your worktable in the middle of your sitting area. Not knowing why or how, you find yourself straightening all the quills, inkpots, and parchments, even as your mind wanders frantically.
Who could have done something so insidious? Your skin itches as you look around your home. It has been turned into a kidnapper’s lair now, a den of evil for an unknown force.
The sound of a door opening interrupts you as you are scrubbing the front door handle with a brush. You turn and see Cidra watching you with less guarded eyes and a looser posture. A sigh escapes you, and your shoulders relax slightly.
“Take me home.”
You quickly gather up some things, and soon, you are walking the dusty roads on your way to Cidra’s mother’s home.
When you get there, you do not need to knock. Her mother is seated on the threshold, her usually gleaming white hair dull and scattered like some patches have been torn out. Her eyes are closed, and her lips move soundlessly.
Cidra makes a strangled sound. “Mama?” she whispers as she edges closer to the body that looks more like a corpse than the woman who gave birth to her.
Her mother’s eye sluggishly opens. The moment her lethargy clears, and she notices whose hand is outstretched towards her, she leaps to her feet and begins to dance around Cidra.
“Abdah, oh Abdah! My daughter has come back to me! Abdah, you are great!”
The loud singing and dancing raise dust and attract those curious neighbours who have not left for their day jobs yet.
Mother and daughter embrace each other, and tears run down their cheeks as they laugh, and Mama pokes and prods Cidra like she grew a new skin in the three days she was gone.
“Where have you been? Did someone try and take you from me? Who?” she asks, and Cidra shakes her head.
“Mama,” Cidra interrupts gently. “It was Yoila that found me.”
The smile on your face cannot match that on Mama’s as she dances over to you and picks you up with her arms wrapped around your waist. You laugh along with onlookers, a few of whom clap at the old woman’s impressive show of strength.
“Mama!” you protest. The woman is half your size!
She puts you down and bends your neck so your forehead touches her wrinkled one.
“May Abdah bless you richly, my son.”
You smile modestly and thank her. She lets you go and returns to her daughter, speaking quietly with her.
Your job here is done, so you leave them and head toward the palace. Despite the dark nagging feeling that this is only the beginning of something big, you can’t help but whistle a jaunty tune on your way, garnering a few strange looks as you walk.
Who says a kingmaker can’t be a hero once in a while?
“You can go, Yoila,” the sovereign says without lifting his head from the parchment he has been reading since he summoned you.
It’s like you are a fruit falling from its tree, weightless and unable to prepare for the harsh landing that will bruise your soft skin. Your mouth opens a couple of times, and the breaths you take are short and laboured.
“But my lord, nothing like this has ever happened before. The culprit—”
“Haven’t you been listening, Yoila?” the man standing behind the sovereign says.
It takes every muscle in your body not to sneer at the man you have hated for years. The happy look on the Prime Minister’s craggy caramel-coloured face makes you want to march up to him and slap him.
“I know what he said, Faya,” you spit out in a fit of contained rage. “If I had more time—”
“You’ve had a year of wasting the kingdom’s resources to find your mysterious kidnapper,” Faya interrupts with a cold smile. He swaps out the parchment on the ivory and gold table for a longer one as the sovereign briefly raises his head.
“There have been no other kidnappings since Cidra, Yoila,” the sovereign says in a kind voice laced with a little impatience.
That is how you know there is nothing to be done anymore. In all your thirty-five years of working at the palace, the sovereign has never once been impatient with you. And now, he is treating you like a bothersome child.
“I wish you well, your majesty,” you say with a low bow, but his head has already bent down again.
Before you leave the room, you take one last look at the man you put on the throne. His head is peppered with white, not like yours, which has gone completely grey. His oily cheeks puff out as he considers the parchment in his front.
All the years you gave to him, charming and deceiving the populace into backing his reign—forgotten just like that.
I should be the one on that seat, you think bitterly.
It doesn’t take long to clear out your station in the palace. As you walk down paved roads that soon turn to sandy streets, you struggle to hold back tears. Every time you feel the onslaught, you heft your large bag higher, making your back ache and chase away the pain for a little while.
You distract yourself by looking at the depravity around you. Not even the streets leading to your home have escaped the filth that has become commonplace as a result of Faya’s poisonous influence on the sovereign. Wind whistles in the wood frames of once-occupied shops; children no longer play in the sand, “cooking” with leaves and flowers like they used to. Who wanted to run the risk of being the next Cidra?
They might not be so lucky as to be found and returned this time.
Your home is dark when you arrive as rain clouds have been steadily rolling in. You light a lamp on the centre table and sit heavily. Then the tears start to fall, and you don’t stop them.
You know no one would bother to find Cidra’s kidnapper now. Just like that, a faceless criminal walks the streets unbothered, possibly planning his next victim.
And that stupid Prime Minister! You let out a growl when his smug image fills your mind.
Yet, these are not the things your heart bleeds for. Your bleary eyes fall on your spare quill and scattered bits of parchment lit by the orange candle glow on the table.
What will you do now? Who are you now? For thirty-five years, you had a purpose, and now nothing. You have been reduced from a kingmaker to nothing. All because of a man who cares more about humiliating you than finding a potential danger to the people he is supposed to serve.
Without thinking, you snatch up a quill, and soon a perfect likeness of Faya in ink is staring back at you. His bushy brow is raised in the last smirk you saw on his craggy face. Blood boiling, you fling the parchment away.
Even your favourite thing to do cannot calm you.
You sit back, close your eyes and massage your fingers. Then you hear it.
A thump from your guest room.
A thump that sounds exactly like the one you heard one year ago.
Blood rushes to your head, and you grab the nearest thing that can serve as a weapon. Heart pounding, you stand and walk carefully to the door.
You haven’t been in the room for a year. If the whole house feels like a kidnapper’s lair and makes your skin itch, that room feels like a ritual site and makes you want to tear off your flesh till you see bone.
The sound of the key turning in the lock makes you wince and grind your teeth. You push open the door and wait for your eyes to adjust to the moonlit room.
There on the bed, in the same serene position as Cidra was, is Faya.
You stumble back and fall on your buttocks, scrambling backwards till you hit the centre table. The pounding in your heart has shifted to your head.
What? What? What? Your mind asks repeatedly.
You decide to trace your steps from the palace.
You left Faya and the sovereign there. You came home. You cried. You drew. You heard a thump.
Suddenly, a terrible thought occurs to you, but you dismiss it.
It’s just a myth.
And yet, like a puppet of cosmic forces, you pick up another parchment, take your spare quill, and draw again. This time, it is Cidra’s cat. The moment you are done, you hear it; a thump.
Not bothering to drop the parchment, you rush to the room, and sure enough, the black and white tabby is sleeping peacefully on Faya.
Horror fills you with the knowledge of what you have just done, at what you did to your dear friend a year ago. Your stomach churns, and you swallow back the bile fighting to leave your body.
But somewhere in the darkest recesses of your mind, a sleeping monster begins to stir. And when it wakes, it smiles at the body in your guest bed, and a plan begins to take shape.
Oh, but you can, the monster croons in a voice as soft and sweet as butter. No one has to know you’re the one that took Cidra, and if you have this kind of power, is it not a sign you are meant for something more than a kingmaker?
The voice is quiet for a beat. Your fingers are now shaking. Your eyes are glued to the bed and the sleeping Prime Minister and his feline companion.
Oh, the voice is soft and full of sympathy laced with anger belonging to the deepest, hottest part of hell. You aren’t even that anymore. You’re nothing.
That anger boils over, and you let out a blood-curdling scream, grabbing at your hair in frustration.
I’ll show you what nothing is, a voice that sounds nothing and exactly like you say in your head.
You watch grimly as the carriage carries Faya back to the palace under the light of the full moon.
“He just stumbled past my house smelling like ten barrels of wine,” you’d said to the carriage driver, pasting on a rueful smile. You were careful not to touch his skin as you bundled him up to be carried.
The man shook his head and threw Faya into the vehicle with no regard. “Never liked him anyway,” he said, looking like he wanted to dump the Prime Minister in the nearest river. “Always raising taxes for no reason.”
You made a sympathetic noise and dropped a few more coins into the callused palms of the man. Faya needed to get to the palace for your plans to go exactly as planned.
Now, you go back into your house and make sure to lock the door properly and close the windows too.
Then you spread out parchments on your table and begin to draw. And soon enough, they come.
The sun is peeking over the horizon when you finally sit back with cramped fingers and sweat dripping off your head.
Even before you open the door to the guest room, you know what is there. Seven bodies, all common folk, all asleep till you need them to be.
“I’m going to be king,” you say to Cidra later that day as you chew on one of her beancakes.
She laughs and shakes her head. “You, a kingmaker? Why not just stick to what you know?”
For a moment, you want to push her into the fire. But you don’t. How can she know you no longer have what you have known for the past decades of your life? It’s not her fault the palace cast you out like bad wine.
“And how would you do it?” she continues, oblivious to how close she just came to death. “Even if you staged a coup, no one would follow you.”
I’m not the one that’s going to do it.
The stale air of the prison is as welcome to you as the rats that have been eating your toes for the past two months. Moonlight vaguely illuminates the figure in front of you, and her ebony skin seems to glow from within.
Cidra reaches for your hand and grasps it tightly through the bars. You cling to her fingers, desperate for human contact when all you’ve had for over two months are rats.
“How—” your voice cracks. “How are you?” you finally push out.
She shakes her head, her eyes glimmering with unshed tears. “I should be the one asking you.”
You want to smile, but your lips are so dry you fear they will crack if you try. Your eyes close of their own volition. They do that these days.
“I don’t know why that stupid sovereign keeps you locked up!” she says with such vehemence you would flinch if you had the energy. “Everybody knows you were only stealing the money so you can find the other people.”
You must have dozed off because the next thing you know, you’re being shaken by Cidra.
“Kai Yoila!” she scolds. “You can’t be sleeping now. We need to get you out of here.”
In your tired state, you manage to laugh drily. “The only way that would happen is if a coup happens or the palace is stormed with enemies.”
“And would that be so bad?” she mutters under her breath.
She releases your hand and switches from kneeling to sitting on the dirt floor and you both remain silent for a while. Her face is contemplative, and her slim pointed nose twitches occasionally. Then she bursts into laughter.
“People still can’t believe you broke into the royal treasury,” she says in between breaths.
You finally smile, not caring about your lips. “It wasn’t that hard.”
“You’ve basically become a martyr out there,” she points behind you to the only window in your prison cell. “Those kidnapped people you rescued will not stop singing your praises in the streets.”
You’d taken care to spread out the “rescues” over a year and made each one look more harrowing than the last. On the last faux rescue mission, you even carried a few people along, eager youths willing to learn how you’d found the first three people.
But you didn’t “find” anything, and you’d broken down in front of the young men and women, making a public display in the streets about how if only you had more resources, you’d find the remaining two captives easily.
By an incredible stroke of luck, a few palace guards had been patrolling and tried to disperse the large crowd your tantrum had gathered. At first, you were annoyed, for they had disrupted your plans. But then you heard how the townspeople had murmured, and you smiled secretly.
The guards were unknowingly fuelling the animosity against the palace and its refusal to produce satisfying results regarding the kidnappings. And what do people do when they are unhappy?
But first, you needed to give them someone to rally behind.
So, the next day, you broke into the royal treasury and made sure to get captured. Now, according to Cidra, you were a symbol of the people’s growing dissatisfaction with the palace. Your plan had worked perfectly.
You look at Cidra. She masks her pain well. Her dark face reminds you of the great beauty her mother was at that age too. You feel a twinge in your chest but push it down ruthlessly.
Her mother is only sleeping, and you need her to remain that way for Cidra to become the revolutionary you need her to be.
You reach for her fingers again and squeeze. “I’ll find your mother Cidra. I promise you.”
Her hand squeezes yours tighter until you are sure your fingers will never work again and her eyes shine with tears and an anger that has been brewing since you saw her witness your sentencing in the town square.
“There is only one way you’re leaving this cell, Yoila, and I will make sure it happens.”
Inside, you are celebrating like a child tasting sugar for the first time. Outside, your face is a mask of concern.
“It’s not safe, Cidra,” you say.
She pats your hand and gets to her feet, drawing her veil around her shoulders. “By this time next week, you will sleep in your own bed. I swear by Abdah.”
She leaves as soon as her pronouncement is made, which favours you as you do not have the energy to feign concern. Instead, your face does what it wants, and you smile.
The sound of metal being dragged on the ground wakes you from your light slumber. Your eyes immediately go to the tally marks you’ve been scratching out on the mud wall since Cidra left you.
Six days. Right on time.
“Riovaus,” a voice says behind you excitedly. “We’ve come to rescue you.”
A thrill goes through your frail body at that word, the word reserved for those touched by deities, the word for any human above a sovereign.
“No need for that, boy,” you say.
“Riovaus,” he says with more fervour this time. “For only those touched by the gods can find what humans fail to.”
Thank Abdah most of you are mindless religious fanatics, you think.
You rise from the dirt, rubbing your sore side, and turn to face the son of your first rescue—or better yet, captive. His big hair is shot through with white paint, and a purple piece of cloth is tied around his huge bicep.
You grin and open your arms wide to him. He grins back, and with one fell swoop of his cutlass, the lock on the cell gives way with a loud clang that rattles your teeth. The boy rushes in and kneels at your feet.
“We’ve captured the palace,” he says in a rush. “The sovereign and all his ministers are in our custody—”
“Wait,” you interrupt. “What of the Prime Minister?”
The boy gets to his feet. “We were afraid to move him from his chambers. The servants say he hasn’t woken or moved in over a year.”
You fight the urge to laugh and nod grimly. “Show me.”
The boy leads you up into the living quarters of the palace and to the Prime Minister’s room. When you see Faya lying in his bed just as he was in yours all those months ago, satisfaction leaves you feeling lightheaded.
“Leave us,” you order.
The moment you are alone, you rummage through your pockets for the parchment you have carried on you for a long time. You thank Abdah you were simply thrown into the prison and never searched.
You unroll it and inspect your work. The sketch has not faded. Faya’s bushy brows and bulbous eyes still sneer at you in black ink.
Then you grip the parchment in one hand and lightly brush Faya’s cheek with the other. The moment your skin makes contact, his eyes fly open, and he takes a deep breath for a very long time before releasing it. He tries to move, but months of no food and water have left him weak as a newborn.
His lips move, and his voice is croaky from disuse when he speaks.
“Shh,” you interrupt, sitting on the edge of his bed. “Save your voice. You won’t need it much longer.”
Outrage tightens his face, but when you raise the hand with the parchment, his words die, and he stares at you in confusion.
“Let me tell you a story,” you begin. “There was once a Creator who wanted to know what it would be like to rule. You see, he was all alone, walking through the trees and fields and oceans day and night. So, he tore three pieces of his document, broke off a tree branch, dipped it in mud, and sketched the first humans. And when he was through, there stood before him three grown humans, waiting for his instructions.
But you see, there was a problem with the third, a flaw in an already perfect universe. So, the creator tore the sketch of that human—destroying them in the process—and made another sketch, this time without fault.”
You lean in closer to whisper in Faya’s ear. “I don’t need you anymore, Faya, just like you convinced the sovereign not to need me. But I want to thank you. If the sovereign hadn’t tossed me aside, I might not have learned what I could do, and I never would have dreamed of what I could be. Now they call me something even more than sovereign.”
You look him dead in the eyes as you grip the parchment with both hands. His eyes widen in fear as he finally understands your intent.
And you rip the parchment in half, destroying the imperfection in your world, making it good again.
“Another one, Riovaus?” the carriage driver asks with a low bow.
You smile as you bundle the body into the carriage. The night is cool, and the moon full. It is a perfect night to fulfill a promise to a friend.
“Yes,” you reply. “Take her to Cidra, the head of the village guard.”
The man nods and climbs on his horse. Before he leaves, you plant a kiss on your final captive’s head. Her weathered skin is soft against your mouth, and as you pull back, you see her twitch in the moonlight filtering through the carriage.
Crickets and owls strike up a chorus in the night air as you walk back up the steps to your temple, as though the universe is saying: