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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Eki: The Prince's Bride (Book Excerpts) 2

Soon, they passed through a wide intricately carved door into a cool room with a high ceiling.

 It was filled with artefacts and artworks of different sizes and shapes: sculptures, statues, busts, vases, animal skins, elephant tusks and other objects of art.

 “This is one of the treasure rooms in the palace where valuable objects are kept,” he explained, his hand waving over the room.

Eki gazed at the artworks in astonishment. She had never seen such beautiful objects in her life; they were like a feast for the eyes. Her bright eyes glowed with excitement as they alighted on one object after the other.

She lingered in front of a bronze sculpture of a woman dressed in the style of Bini royal women.

 “That is Queen Isoken, the mother of the present Oba (King) of Bini. It was a gift from him to the Ovie during his coronation two seasons ago,” the man explained.

The sculpture showed her elaborate bouffant hairdo, intricately decorated with red coral beads and bejewelled combs.

Her eyes stared at Eki, clear and penetrating making Eki feel as if she could read her mind.
 “It’s beautiful,” she said.

 “Not as beautiful as the woman herself.  I heard she was a famed beauty in her youth,” he said, turning to point to another art piece.

 Sometime later, they emerged from the Hall of Treasures into the afternoon sunshine. 

She had been so immersed in looking at the artefacts, she had lost track of the time.  Her father might be through with his meeting with the king and would be searching for her.

 “Thanks for showing me round. I’ve to leave now to meet up with my people,” she said.

 “You’re here for the ‘Uyere’ ceremony,” he noted as they walked in the direction of the large courtyard at the entrance of the palace.

“Yes,“ she replied. “But how did you know?” She looked up, puzzled at him.

“I know you’re not from these parts. From the location of the place we met the last time, you must be from Igodi village,” he said.

“You are correct. I came here with my father.”
He stopped and turned to her.

“I’ve a meeting somewhere so I need to leave. It was nice meeting you again, Eki,” he said.
 “You know my name? “she asked, surprised.

“I heard your friends call you that at our last encounter,” he said, smiling down at her.
Then with a little bob of the head, he left her, his men in tow.

 “What’s your name?” she said, but he had gone too far to hear her.
Eki walked slowly away, deep in thought.

Her mind was full of the objects in the Treasure room and the man who had shown her round.

“He must hold a powerful position here to be able to have access to such a high security place,” she muttered to herself. “I don’t even know has name. Maybe he’s the Chief Bodyguard in the Palace.”

She wondered if she would ever see him again or the Treasure Room. She would have loved to see those beautiful treasures again and again but she knew it would not be possible since her father said they would leave for home once the festival was over.

A short distance away, she saw her father and Brume talking. Her father was looking around as if searching for someone.
She took a deep breath, and prepared herself for the scolding she knew she would get for wandering off…

Meeting the Prince

Before leaving for the Palace the next morning, Esiso conferred with his relative Ukrakpor on the matter of Eki’s marriage.  He was someone he could trust so he opened up to him about his plans for his daughter.

He listened attentively, not speaking till Esiso was done.
 “It sounds like a good plan to me,” said Ukrakpor.  “But have you discussed it with your daughter?”

Esiso shook his head.
 “Not yet.  I’ll do that after she has met the Prince and he shows interest in her.  She’s just a woman; she doesn’t have any say in the matter. She does what she’s told,” he said firmly.

Ukrakpor hoped things would work out well so, ”our family can become in-laws to the King,” as he remarked.

 Esiso concurred, silently noting that if the Crown Prince reacted the same way as his father had done earlier on meeting Eki, then all his efforts would not be in vain…

At the Palace, the different dance troupes from all corners of the Kingdom were already gathering in the large courtyard. 

There were fierce-looking masquerades with ropes tied round their waists to restrain them, bare-chested maidens with coral beads strategically placed on the hips to cover their nakedness were at one end of the yard practicing their dance steps, drummers checking the sounds of their instruments, the ikenike (stilt walkers) looking arrogantly down from their majestic heights on the proceedings below.

The sounds, colours and smells were part of the ‘Uyere’ activities, to entertain the king, his court, ministers, chiefs and the visitors from the different communities that had converged on Okor.

 Eki, who found the whole scene fascinating stood and watched, an excited look on her face. But, Esiso hustled her along, impatient to meet with the Crown Prince.

 “But Father, I thought we were here to watch the dance?” Eki protested as she walked with him and the servants bearing the gifts for the Crown Prince out of the courtyard.

 They passed through the entrance Eki and the Palace guard whose name she did not know had taken the previous day.

    “Yes, yes!” said Esiso. “But the ceremony won’t start till the King appears in the early afternoon. In the meantime, there’s somebody we need to see.”
Eki gazed up at her father.

    “Who is it, Father? Is it the King?”

They had passed through two inner gates and were heading towards a cluster of buildings fenced round by a low mud wall.

Some yards from the wooden gate in the centre of the wall, Esiso stopped and turned to his daughter.

 “That’s the Crown Prince, Prince Obaro’s residence. He’s the one we are meeting,” he said, pausing. “Listen, my daughter. This meeting means a lot to me and our family.  So, I want you to be on your best behavior while we’re there.  Is that understood?”

Eki gazed up at her father curiously, wondering why the meeting was so important. Was her father in any kind of trouble with the royal family, she wanted to ask. 

But Eki, having been trained all her young life to always obey her elders, simply nodded and kept her thoughts to herself.
    “Yes, Father.”

Esiso passed through the gate manned by two guards who greeted him with deep bows.
Standing a short distance away by the door of a building was a young woman who welcomed Esiso and his group.  

After ushering them inside, she excused herself and left.  It was a small hall, a kind of reception area where the Crown Prince received his guests and visitors. 
 A large chair, nicely carved with leopard and eagle motifS was at the far centre of the hall on a slightly raised platform.

Arranged in front of this were wooden chairs upon which several people were sitting when Esiso and his small group entered the hall. 

Esiso and Eki sat down on the front seats facing the large chair which was empty.
His servants who had dropped the gifts by the side of the room, now stood, at the back of the hall, near a couple of bodyguards at the door. Soon, the woman who had  ushered them in earlier emerged sometime later and announced loudly:

 “His Highness, Prince Obaro!”

Everyone in the hall stood up and bowed as the young Prince and his entourage of bodyguards, courtiers and servants walked briskly into the hall.

Eki slowly raised her head to finally see what the Crown Prince she had heard so much about but had never met, looked like. She almost fell back on the seat again at the sight before her.

 What was going on?  Why was the bodyguard she had met earlier the previous day dressed as the Crown Prince who was now seated on the large chair flanked by two bodyguards? Why was…

Her father was speaking.

 “Greetings Your Highness.  It is I, Chief Mudiaga Esiso of Igodi community at your service!”

The Prince smiled genially at him. “You are welcome, Esiso! You’re one of my father’s closest friends and advisers and I hope you’ll extend the same friendship to me when the time comes for me to ascend the throne of my fathers!”

Esiso smiled happily at the Prince and nodded.

 “You can count on me anytime, Your Highness! Any time!”

The Prince then turned his attention to Esiso’s right and a look of surprise came on his face.

“Eki?” he said, his eyebrows raised in surprise. Esiso looked on in confusion, first at his daughter who looked as if she wanted to run away from the hall, and then at the Prince. 

 Then, he quickly got himself together.
 “Your Highness, let me introduce to you, my daughter, Eki!” he said at the same time, pushing Eki gently forward so she could stand closer to the Prince.

    “Your daughter? Ha!  It’s a small world indeed!” the Prince said, an amused look on his face as he gazed down at her from his seat. Eki, who looked uncomfortable with a scared look in her eyes, stood still a few feet away, her eyes firmly fixed on the ground.
    “Come closer, my dear girl.  And you can look up at me. You’ve looked at my face before so you can tell I’m not a spirit who bites!” he said, and burst out laughing.

Esiso, who had been keenly watching this exchange with trepidation, unsure of the outcome, now relaxed and laughed with the Prince.

Stepping forward a little, he said: “Your Highness, it looks as if you’ve made my daughter’s acquaintance before. I can’t remember such a meeting, but...”

 “You can’t Chief Esiso!” the Prince cut in. “Let’s just say your lovely daughter and I had met much earlier than now under certain circumstances. Is that not so, Eki?”

Eki stole a quick glance at the Prince’s smiling face then quickly looked down again at the floor as if searching for something.

 “Yes, Your Highness,” she said in a barely audible voice.

 “And I hope we’ll get to know ourselves better as time goes on,” he said and turning to Esiso, added: “What do you say to that, Esiso?”

Esiso beamed, bowed and quickly said:
“As your Highness pleases!”

Later, Esiso presented the gifts he had brought for the Prince, who looked visibly pleased at the gesture.

As the Crown Prince attended to the other people in the hall who had come to seek audience with him, Esiso and Eki were taken to an adjoining room.

There, they waited for the the Prince who wanted a more private meeting with Esiso after his engagement.

 “Eki, why didn’t you tell me you had met with the Crown Prince?” said Esiso as soon as they were alone in the room.
 “But Father, I did not know he was the Prince!” she said.“I thought he was just a  palace worker, a palace guard or something!”

Esiso looked quickly at his daughter.
 “I hope you didn’t do anything stupid like being disrespectful.”

 Eki frowned.

 “Actually Father," she said reluctantly, "Our first meeting wasn't too cordial,"she said and went on to narrate the incident of the broken pot on the way from the river and the meeting the previous day in the Palace.

Eki thought her father would be angry with her for her rudeness to Prince Obaro at their first meeting; instead she saw his lips stretch into a wide smile.

“To think I put in so much efforts trying to bring you two together, not realizing that fate had taken matters into its own hands!” he said with a shake of his head.

 “Father, what are you talking about?” Eki asked, looking puzzled.
 “I’ll explain things to you later, when we get home. But you need to do this for me.  From now on, you have to be very respectful to the Prince; he’s not someone you can talk to any how... like you did when you didn’t know who he was. He’s high up there”, he said, his fore finger pointing to the rafters of the room. "Are you hearing what I’m saying, Child?”

Eki nodded slowly.
 “Yes, Father.”

The Prince came in shortly after and he sat with them to chat.  After thanking Esiso again for the wonderful presents, he said: “I’ll like to speak to your daughter alone for a while.  So…” 

Esiso glanced at Eki then got up.

“Of course Your Highness.  I’ll wait outside,” he said, bowed and headed for the door.
 “And Esiso, have no fear about her reputation. Some of my people will be outside by the door to act as chaperons,” said the Prince.

Esiso smiled a little to himself as he exited the room, closing the door softly behind him.

As her father walked out of the room, leaving her alone with the Prince, Eki felt her heart beat quicken. She always felt that way when she was anxious about something or nervous. She kept twisting her fingers on her laps as she sat demurely, her eyes fixed on the floor.

The Prince moved his chair closer and took her hand in his “Relax, Eki.  I don’t bite as I said earlier,” he said, smiling at her. “Are you scared of me?”
    “Not really, Your Highness.  It’s just that…”

    To be continued

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