This is Gossip – and my imaginary eyes are widened at all the drama flying around. This is so interesting, why else do you thing I bother to tell this tale; a story isn’t worth much if it’s covered up and preserved, so don’t judge, just enjoy.
At the same moment, two princes are struggling through the exact same emotion, well, not entirely exact because prince Ekong is engaged and his issue is more complicated than that of prince Onen.
Anyway, we shall come back to the princes, but right now, let’s visit Nkoyo at the Atam palace and see how she’s faring after a couple of days in casual cloths.
It is going quite good. After the first day she’d ventured out of her room not to go to the dinning room but to search out the queen and express her gratitude for the cloths, she’d been told that the queen had left the palace with the king. And so, despite the speculative looks given to her by the handful of palace workers, she’d toured a bit and her first port of call had been the kitchen.
Unlike her counterpart at her father’s kingdom, Nkoyo never ventured into the kitchen unless she was going to give the cook grieve, which hadn’t been often. It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to cook, she did; an Efik woman that didn’t know her way around the kitchen was a complete failure or an alien.
Nkoyo had just created her own ideal direction by being aloof to the traditional norms expected of a woman. When she’d been younger, her mother would have been remiss in her duties if she hadn’t taught her how to cook; but Nkoyo had made a decision that of course her own daughter would be taught this compulsory norm, but not from her, a professional cook would be employed for that.
And so for about two years she had stayed away from the kitchen, purposely shutting her mind from the urge to create culinary master pieces that had been ingrained in her from an early age. For so long, she consciously regarded cooking not as a woman’s pride but as something beneath her as royalty and only fit for paid workers.
Discovering the Atam palace kitchen did not magically turn her thoughts around as one might hope, not Nkoyo, instead it served as an edge in her struggle for escape. You read right, Nkoyo was still bidding her time and waiting for the perfect opportunity to flee from the palace.
“Nkoyo, you arrived at the right time,” the queen called out on day five, after the arrival of casual cloths.
She had been touring again, this time, she had ventured round the palace premises, she’d been impressed at the vastness of it and she had just rounded a corner that would take her to the backyard, only to hear the queen’s welcoming voice. When Nkoyo rounded the corner fully, the backyard looked like a mad house, with blackened pots, used basins, firewood and a host of ingredients for a very sumptuous meal, laid out in no particular order.
“Your majesty,” Nkoyo breathed in shock; she was momentarily unable to move a step. This immobility was caused by the sight of the queen dressed like a peasant and elbows deep in work with the other local women. If she hadn’t spoken, Nkoyo would have just breezed past without realizing the queen was in their midst.
“Don’t look so shocked girl, we need help with the vegetables,” the queen said distractedly as she was burning the hairs off a mighty chunk of cow skin over a blazing fire of firewood, before pulling it out to scrape with a dull looking knife.
Nkoyo’s eyes drifted to the big basin full of pumpkin vegetable which had yet to be plucked from its stalk and her heart skipped. She had never been a fan of plucking from the stalk or the more rigorous process of slicing the vegetable leaves, even when she’d been learning from her mother.
The abundant chlorophyll in the pumpkin always left her nails green and the pieces of sliced vegetable always remained stuck in her nails no matter how many times she washed her hands. This had been an issue then, because even as a teenager, Nkoyo was already gearing up to be the adult she had become; and so, she would spend hours using any sharp object she could find to pick her nails until they were clean.
Recalling the memory, the adult Nkoyo looked down at her artificially manicured and very long nails and shivered. Anyway, she silently assumed, she probably had to just pluck the leaves from the stalks, that wouldn’t be a big deal with her nails. With that thought, she smiled at the queen and found a low stool in the melee, sat down and begun plucking.
Conversations in the local dialect flew about her but she wasn’t bothered. Once in a while she’d look up at what the queen, unbelievably, was doing and no one would be paying any kind of attention to her and she liked it that way. Before long she completed her task and even magnanimously washed the leaves so many times at the tap until they were free of sand and any other dirt.
“I’m through,” Nkoyo called out to the queen, while she surreptitiously arched her back to ease the dull ache from bending so long while washing the leaves.
The queen gave her a cursory glance but didn’t reply. She instead thanked the women who had apparently come from the village to help her. The maid that had welcomed her on her first day, handed out waterproofs to the five women and with the way they thanked the queen profusely, the monarch had obviously gifted them with something in appreciation for their services. Nkoyo silently wondered why they were leaving when there still was so much to be done.
Jesam only turned to her friend’s daughter after she’d finished with the women and the backyard was only left with her three maids, Nkoyo and herself, what was left to be done would be completed by them.
“Sweetheart, who do you think will slice those pumpkin leaves?” she asked pleasantly while chopping the cow skin that she’d just finished burning.
“The women could have done that, but you let them go,” Nkoyo pointed out succinctly.
“They have their own families and it’s the last hours of the school day, they need to go prepare food for their children’s return,” Jesam answered with a slight smile while patiently waiting for the next excuse.
“So why don’t you have more maids?” her voice almost came out affronting.
“Because I brought my children up to be self sufficient; the maids do what has to be done and my children take care of themselves despite the fact that they are royalty,” Jesam knew that was a direct jab at Nkoyo.
The princess sighed in exasperation, because she saw that the maids were actually fully occupied, “I can’t slice the pumpkin leaves with my nails, the process will be a challenge.”
“Lucky you, Nkoyo, I just happen to have a nail dissolver lying around. Nengka,” Jesam called and the maid that had welcomed her the first day answered, leaving the pile of yam she’d been peeling to rush to the queen’s side and then rush off when the monarch had spoken to her in their dialect.
Nengka returned with a one liter plastic gallon of nail dissolver and a big pack of cotton wool that actually looked used, she deposited it in Nkoyo’s hands and returned to her work.
“We need those leaves soon,” Jesam warned as Nkoyo stood still, her face registering abject shock at the turn of event.
Swallowing all the snide and acerbic things that were eager to spill from her lips, she settled back on her stool and proceeded to soak up a large bulb of cotton wool with the dissolver and placed it on her nails, rubbing it slowly to dissolve the artificial nails from her natural ones. Nkoyo didn’t waste time with the task, seeing as the dissolver was an authentic product, it made her formerly intricately designed artificial nails disappear like magic. Additionally, she didn’t want to complain more and end up being regarded as a petulant child; there was no way she was destroying the positive steps she’d gained with the queen just because of nails.
“If you can’t do without manicures, I’ll have my personal stylist come fix you up with something that won’t hamper house work,” Jesam said without looking up.
Nkoyo didn’t know what to say or what to think at the queen’s comment. The woman came off harsh and then in the next moment kind; it was as though she was purposely keeping Nkoyo confused.
Without waiting for help, all that she’d been taught as a child returned to her, so she searched and found a stainless tray large enough. She rinsed it thoroughly, found a chopping board and did the same. Then she found an elevated spot, placed the board in the tray and proceeded to slice the pumpkin leaves with a sharp knife.
“Do you want it sliced tiny?” Nkoyo asked without turning or stopping the expert move of her hands as they sliced the leaves.
“Yes, please,” the queen replied while staring at the girl’s hand fly with the knife and smiled.
Nkoyo had gotten so engrossed in her task that she had abandoned her sitting position to a standing one, though bent from the waist to get good traction as she sliced. She had also not noticed that the other maids had completed their tasks and left the backyard; only the queen and herself remained by the time she completed her task.
Scraping the last of the sliced leaves into a basin, she proceeded to rinse all the utensils she’d used, just like she’d been taught. It was as she’d completed this task and had been about to ask where she could drop the cleaned tray, chopping board and knife, that was when she noticed that she was alone with the queen and the monarch was hard at work stirring a boiling caldron on the fire.
Taking the time to watch her, Nkoyo silently wondered why the queen preferred to put herself through this when she was wealthy enough to employ help. As though reading her mind, the queen looked up and smiled.
“When my husband’s family deigns to visit, I prefer to make everything by myself to ensure perfection. And I also do that when my husband requests for his favorite meal, which is often. Come sit close to me, Nkoyo,” she invited, sounding like a grandmother at that moment.
Nkoyo dropped all she’d been holding, grabbed the basin of sliced pumpkin leaves and approached the queen, who covered the large cooking pot and settled her bottom on her comfortable looking stool.
“So,” Jesam said turning to face Nkoyo fully with a relaxed gaze, “I’ve been looking to have this conversation with you from the beginning but you’ve been unavailable.”
“Unavailable?” Nkoyo asked with a small confused frown; have I been invisible this whole time, she thought sarcastically.
Jesam smiled again, reading the girl’s thoughts as though she was an open book. “While you were off in your delusional princess world…”
“I’m not delusional,” Nkoyo refuted instantly, she couldn’t keep calm any longer while the older woman insulted her in the name of advice.
And Jesam on the other hand had discovered that the only way into Nkoyo’s head was a good offense. She wasn’t a psychologist, but she’d been observing the princess, it almost seemed as if she had a key to locking down reality and choosing to believe her own fantasy. And the only way to get to her mind to trigger some sort of real reaction was to offend her fantasy, and poof, there was a free way to reason with her.
“Expecting everyone to do everything for you…even shave, that’s delusional. Oh, don’t look so shocked, your mother cried over that one for a long time. I, on the other hand, would have made you shave all my workers private parts, even the men, just so you would understand what you’d put that poor girl through.”
Nkoyo was breathless but she had the decency to look ashamed of her past actions. Right then, she regretted that particular shaving incident, she had heard that monarchs did that at France and she had wanted to try it. She had always hoped that nobody would know about it, apparently all her threats hadn’t stopped the maid from blabbing.
“How would you feel if a replica of yourself came into your palace, the one that you rule with the man you love and behaved exactly as you have behaved?”
The princess took the question literally, her head lowered in thought, and she imagined a kingdom with the man that she loved, it wasn’t prince Ekong she was envisioning, it was the queen’s son, Onen. She gasped and looked up guiltily as though the queen could read her thought, fortunately, it came off as though she was guilty of all the things she’d been doing.
“I’m sorry,” Nkoyo apologized in a whisper; how could she not have thought about her fiancé for over weeks? How could she be envisioning being the queen to Onen? It was an impossible dream, even though the prince didn’t seem overly affronted by her presence, he didn’t seem overly accepting about it either. He always seemed to be in a hurry when ever she was around, as though he was avoiding contamination.
“I’m not saying this to make you sorry, dear, I’m saying this to give you clarity. A leader isn’t a leader to punish. If you understood the basic tenets of leadership, you wouldn’t even want to be queen someday.”
Nkoyo speechlessly rolled her shoulders in blatant disbelief and denial; she so wanted to be queen.
“You don’t believe me and it’s okay, it’s a free world after all. But I can assure you, being a leader is hard work; back breaking, bone numbing, hard work. It is actually you serving the people, and that is if you want to be a good leader anyway. Some times, the people don’t even know what is good for them, they clamor for things that would hurt them in the long run and you have to risk being hated to do the right thing.”
“Leadership isn’t about all the perks you can get, although, I have to say, some luxurious suits are to die for,” Jesam said, injecting some fun into her lecture and Nkoyo smiled widely in agreement.
“The things the white will do for you when they discover that you are an African royalty,” Nkoyo chipped in with a little shake of her head.
“Yes, the whites, the probably just want to swindle all your money from you, so no, I’m not impressed with them,” the queen said, instantly killing Nkoyo’s buzz.
“Ruling a people and being called queen isn’t about those perks but about being able to create a balance so that everybody is taken care of; so that nobody is cheated by some other wealthy fellow just because they have money. It is about fighting for the rights of the less privilege, even against some of the most powerful people in the land.”
“That’s a lot of work,” Nkoyo grumbled under her breath, but the queen heard.
“It is and more. Some decisions don’t have history for you to fall back on, freak things happen once in a while and it is in your court to make history by making a decision from you own intelligence. There is no former king’s past decision as a reference to fall back on, if your decision fails, you’ll be remembered as the queen that caused this or that and if it is right, of course, you’ll be hailed.”
“The crown does not guarantee loyalty from your subjects, Nkoyo, loyalty comes from how they are treated and regarded. Have you treated your subjects well? Are they loyal enough to take a bullet for you?”
“Because, let’s face it, no matter how nice and fair you also are, there’s just always someone that hates you and wishes you dead. Are your subjects loyal enough to you to expose a threat to your life?”
“Think about it,” she said and got up to check what she was cooking.
And I tell you readers, Nkoyo thought and thought and thought, right into the night, her mind swirled over the queen’s question. But she ended up with the same reply, she could not come up with one person that she’d treated right enough to take a bullet for her. Even her parents were out of the equation, Nkoyo was honest to herself about the things she’d done and the delusional things she’d tried to proof as royalty.
Now the question that boiled in her heart was – how could she turn this around? Because despite the challenges inherent in being a queen, Nkoyo still wanted to be queen, she was created to be queen. But what was the worth of being a queen if she wasn’t liked and protected. Without loyal subjects she could be killed before she even begun ruling and she didn’t want that. She was determined to change no matter how awkward it seemed.
AT FAMILY DINNER THAT evening, after the king’s family had left, the monarchs settled to have a peaceful supper.
“How is work at the mill, son? I keep meaning to drop by one of this days but meetings keep cropping up,” Liman said while sitting back to sip his palm wine.
“It’s fine, dad, I’m handling it,” Onen answered without looking up. He didn’t want to look up, he could feel Nkoyo’s eyes on him as though she was actually touching him. He didn’t want to feel the jolt in his stomach that was sure to happen when his eyes met with hers. And he still couldn’t understand how he could feel her gaze; that had never happened to him before, but it was now and he scowled at his food as though it was at fault for his feelings.
“It must really be stressful without Wofai…”
“I said I’m handing it, mom,” he interrupted his mother but not in an insolent manner and he still didn’t look up from his food.
“I know you are handling it, darling, and you are capable. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful,” Jesam pointed out in her usual reasonable manner.
“It’s the truth, Onen. Your mother is right…as always,” Liman said and smiled at his wife, even winking at her to Nkoyo’s chagrined, she must have witnessed a private a moment.
Instantly she looked away, lowering her head to her food and invariably returning her gaze to the prince who also seemed to be avoiding her gaze too. She didn’t know what pushed her mouth; she had no idea if it was because of her talk with the queen or if she really wanted to shock Onen into raising his head…
“I could help out with whatever Wofai had been doing,” Nkoyo declared and everyone at the table heard, so she couldn’t take it back and in silent victory, Onen’s heard snapped up from his food.
Uh-oh, he didn’t seem too happy at the moment but Nkoyo still had the warm rush that his gaze clashing with hers usually gave her.
“Wow,” Jesam said with a smile.
“That is actually…”
“No…” Onen profusely rejected, interrupting his father who ignored him.
“…a brilliant idea,”Liman completed.
“I agree with you,” Jesam concurred.
“It is not a good idea and I won’t accept it,” Onen ground out forcefully.
“Come on, son, she’s bored just sitting around, let her help you,”Liman pleaded.
“Then let her file her nails or something,” he snapped, she should be used to sitting around since she’d been doing it for years.
“Unfortunately, I no more have those,” Nkoyo jumped in, pleasantly showing off her clean natural nails and affecting a sulky look at Onen.
It was a sulky look that made his frown more ferocious because he was angry about the reaction he had to it; heart flip, warm rush and an inexplicable need to kiss her sulk away.
“You can’t help me, office work is out of your league,” Onen pointed out without hiding the fact that he was insulting her. He heard his mother gasp in shock but he didn’t care.
Nkoyo’s gasp was louder, “I’ll have you know that I have a Masters in management,” she declared looking affronted at his insinuation.
“And what have you used it for, hmm?” he asked smiling knowingly.
“I’m a fast learner, you can just show me the ropes and I’ll catch on.”
“Who has the time? Besides, I don’t think you…”
“Enough!” Liman finally woke from his shock to exclaim, effectively bringing the table to silence.
“What has come over you?” he asked his son while staring at him as though he’d just sprouted an extra head on his neck.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Onen apologized, recognizing the authority in his father’s voice. He refused to look at his mother because she had her searching scrutiny face on and that usually resulted in her finding out the truth behind every action despite the spoken lies.
“Nkoyo will start work at the mill next week. Make sure to prepare Wofai’s table for her, okay?” Liman commanded.
“Yes, sir,” he reacted to the authority voice again.
“You can leave, I and your mother have to talk,”Liman waved his hand at them.
Onen scrambled out of his seat and left in a hurry. And Nkoyo was just glad somebody had stopped the prince from saying the hurtful things he’d been about to say. She didn’t think she liked an incensed Onen very much, he got mean when he was angry.
The prince couldn’t believe that his plan to avoid the princess until she left the palace could so simply be destroyed. What had he done wrong? Why would his parents want to put him in such suffering?
A small voice in his mind reminded him that his parents did not know about his feelings and his avoidance of them. Perhaps, if they knew, they would help him and not push Barbie princess on him.
But even as he thought it, he knew that was impossible. Onen already had issues concentrating the whole day after he’d shared breakfast with her everyday. Even her scent, though she was using Wofai’s deodorant, it smelled different on her, it came off sexy. How would he survive her staying just a few feet from him and he having to show her the ropes?
Showing her the ropes would entail being in close proximity, sharing breathing space and possibly touching. And Onen groaned his frustration into his pillow and wondered how he would solve this dilemma.
I don’t need to tell you that next week came at the speed of light and everybody’s heart pounded in anticipation or fear as to how this particular event would turn out.
INSIDE OUT continues
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