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Amazon Origins

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Chapter One

Chapter One

Ten years pass

“AMA, AMA...Sessi, where is Ama?” Ama could hear her stepmother, Ida, shouting inside her rooms and Sessi’s, her nurse’s, response.

“A servant has been sent to search for her mistress. She will be ready in time for Jentin’s visit.”

“She had better be,” Ida threatened, “because if she isn’t, and if she does not look ready to wife, then it’s you who will suffer for another failure!” Angry footsteps slapped across the stone floors, echoed on the walls and slowly disappeared.

Ama sighed at the thought of another ordeal at the hands of her parents as she was paraded like a red-brown cow in front of her father’s friends and colleagues, trying to find a man for her to marry. Ama had no desire or interest in marrying, and her nurse, Sessi, had no desire to see her marry her father’s colleagues or friends either. While her father was a wealthy, successful merchant, and her three older sisters had made marriages into other merchant families, none of the other families were as successful as her father, and Sessi was not satisfied with this prospect for her charge’s future. With reluctance, Ama appeared around the corner and entered her room to Sessi’s obvious relief and immediately was guided to a large bowl filled with what might have once been warm water.

Sessi began pulling off Ama’s cotton dress and, throwing linen into the bowl to soak up the water, muttering, “let’s get you clean and presentable – not too pretty. You don’t want to marry Jentin’s son – they are cattle trades after all and think of the smell!” Sessi’s nose wrinkled in disgust while Ama rolled her eyes at her feeling of being paraded like a cow in front of Jentin was more poignant than she had realized at the time. Sessi pulled a soaking linen from the bowl and crushed cinnamon and rosemary into the thick material while Ama stood naked and shivering in the corner of her room, furthest from the window and doors, and from the draught that would be swirling over her exposed skin. The linen was cold and made Ama jump with shock, but Sessi just gave an impatient snort. “It would have been very warm if you came when I first sent for you.” Sessi began rubbing Ama’s skin is soft circular motions, releasing the scent of herbs and spices into the air and lingering on her soft skin. Sessi continued to mutter as she worked. “Jentin is no good... they have to be patient... just wait a few more years... only twelve... some girls bloom late; she will bloom and she will be stunning... can do much better than Jentin and the rest of the trade.”

Ama was not naïve enough to believe that Sessi’s insistence she could do better than a marriage to a trader’s son was anything to do with actual affection. It was clear that Sessi believed she should be a servant to a wealthier family and was convinced that Ama would be her path to the career she craved, by marrying an upper-class son. But, there was no chance of that now. As Sessi worked on cleaning and perfuming Ama’s body, she looked down at herself; tall for her age and slender, she was flat and straight from head to toe. Her breasts had not developed and her hips were narrow. Her skin was also much paler than everyone else’s in the villa. She had been told once that she had her mother’s looks and colouring and it made her unusual and unique. Ama’s mother, Mussa had not been seen or heard from since she was banished from the house ten years ago and nobody wanted to talk about her for fear of reprisal from the master and his new wife, who deeply resented Ama and her mother’s good looks. Her father’s marriage to her stepmother had been yet another scandal to shake up the neighbours after the shocking exit of her mother. It took Ama years to learn the full story and she thought about it every time her father told her to get ready for a new proposal.

After Mussa was banished from the house, leaving at the rising of the sun, never to be seen or heard from again, Porto had gone to the local priests to inform them of his wife’s abandonment and to claim his divorce. The priests, eyeing Porto’s heavy purse dangling in one hand, were quick to sign the parchment allowing the divorce and declaring Porto a single man again, free to take a new wife before the ink had even dried. The townspeople gossiped and speculated about whom Porto would take to wife and so it was scandalous news indeed when Porto announced his new wife to be Ida, who was known throughout the town as a disgraced woman. Not married, but recently birthed a son, Ida had been disowned by her family as a disloyal and worthless daughter who would not be able to make a respectable marriage to another family as she had proved herself to be a wanton woman, who would consort with a man who was not her husband. But that was not Porto’s concern, he wanted a son, and Ida was a pretty young mother with a baby boy at her breasts. Nothing could have been more attractive to Porto, and Ida could not believe her good fortune at the prospect of marrying a man like Porto when she had been left with nothing, no husband, no family and no future, at the hands of her own kin.

The wedding was a quick and quiet affair. Ida’s first son, Idin, was adopted by Porto as his ‘nephew’ which meant that Porto’s own sons would inherit before Ida’s son, but if Porto had no sons with Ida, he could use her first son to inherit his businesses and home. It was a marriage that suited both people and feelings were not part of the process. The local townspeople used to discuss the topic regularly in the taverns, over their beer, well into the night. Ida birthed Porto two healthy sons, Portus and Pollo, and Portus was the ‘heir’ to Porto’s legacy. He was born nine months after the wedding leading many townspeople to gossip that Portus may not be Porto’s son, or that if he was, he was conceived before they officially wed. This was ‘typical’ behaviour of a wanton woman, and many people believed at least one of the rumours to be true.

Although they whispered behind their hands at the family, nobody dared mention this to Porto outright. A wealthy, hard man, he would not suffer slurs lightly, and it was clear to everyone he doted overly on his pretty young wife who had given him his greatest wish- the one thing Ama’s mother had been unable to do- have a living son, which was why she had been banished from the villa in disgrace leaving Ama all alone. Ama was too young to even remember her mother’s face, and she had so many unanswered questions about what would happen to Ama if she were held accountable for outcomes outside of her control which, being a woman, was most things!

“Ow!” Ama jumped and rubbed at her side where Sessi had roughly poked her. “Well if you weren’t standing around daydreaming I wouldn’t have to poke you to get you to move. Now hurry up, I have to brush your hair and dress you,” Sessi scolded. There was none of the deference or respect a servant should have when talking to their master or their master’s children. When Sessi spoke to Ama, she was supposed to address her as ‘young mistress’ just as her step-mother was referred to as mistress, but the title seemed to be forgotten when Sessi spoke to Ama. In fact none of the servants spoke to Ama or called her young mistress unless her father was in the room, or in front of company. Ama didn’t mind this slight, as her parents would have. She moved towards her pallet and was rubbed down with dry linen wondering how she would be treated differently if she insisted the servants use her title when speaking to her. It wasn’t as though they were unkind; it was more comfortable than that. There was no fear in the servants. They weren’t scared Ama would get rid of them for dropping a new dress on the floor, or for speaking out of turn. Ama was harmless, and was generally left alone to do as she wished so long as she didn’t draw attention to herself. This is what Ama spent most of her time doing, walking around the villa doing her best to be invisible to everyone, and this was exactly what she wished she could be now - invisible.

“Come on, come on, you’re dry now. The green dress I think; it’s the newest one you have.” Sessi marched across to the chest where Ama’s clothes were kept and rifled through until she pulled out the soft green shift dress that her father had brought home for her a few months ago. “It brings out the gold in your eyes and compliments your hair so well,” sighed Sessi with longing.

Once the dress was on, Sessi tied a dark green sash around Ama’s waist and scrutinized her slender shapeless frame. “I did my best.” Ama wasn’t sure who Sessi was trying to convince with that but shrugged it away and turned to sit on a nearby stool so that her hair could be brushed. Her hair was Ama’s favourite feature. It was thick, long and glossy and a rich, dark red with flecks of gold, which resembled the dark red colour of her fathers best wine. It shimmered in the light and brought out the gold in her eyes, but it was these features that seemed to upset both her father and step-mother for she looked too much like her mother to give either of them peace of mind.

Hurried footsteps could be heard pattering down the hall. A servant was coming to summon the youngest daughter of Porto to the reception room to meet the father of a potential husband. With a long sigh Ama rose from her stool, ignoring Sessi’s last minute tugging and adjustments to her hair and dress and went to the doorway, just as the servant was coming in, nearly knocking Ama over.

“Be more careful!” Sessi snapped at the servant, a young boy named Tollus, who pleaded for forgiveness in petrified mumbles and begged Ama to follow him to the reception room, where her family and guests were waiting. Ama nodded and followed him out, her hands clasped in front of her, her head down, walking with small quick footsteps; the very image of modesty to anyone watching, although this was the last thing Ama was. She just understood that by posing in this manner she could escape attention and if someone were observing her, it would be impossible for anyone to find fault with such ladylike behaviour.

As she entered the reception room past a bowing Tollus, Ama walked quietly over to where her father was waiting and stood to the side and just behind him, not even daring to look at the merchant, Jentin, who was sitting opposite her on the best chair, next to Ida and Portus, who was squirming in Ida’s tight grasp for, at nine years old, he had little patience for such things as this.

“Ah, Ama,” Porto said grandly, ‘this is Master Jentin and he has come this afternoon especially to see you.” Porto beamed and pointed his hand at Jentin as if to indicate to Ama, who kept her head down, where Master Jentin could be found.

Ama did not move. She just said; “yes, father,” and prayed the ordeal would be over quickly. When it was clear Ama wasn’t going to move anywhere, the merchant, Jentin, heaved himself up off the chair to inspect further. Just like the cattle market, she thought. Thankfully, it didn’t smell as if Jentin had been anywhere near a cattle market today. He walked around her slowly, scrutinising her body so hard Ama could feel herself blushing. Her heart began to pound in her chest, forcing the blood into her face and around her ears. She could feel his gaze lingering over the green dress, as if searching for imperfections, which was making an already self-conscious and nervous Ama feel more and more unsettled. Her palms, already clammy with sweat, stayed tightly grasped in front of her. Finally, Jentin put his hand under Ama’s chin to lift her face up to his. The colour drained from her face immediately with the fear of his touch while she felt as if her heart would burst through her chest, it hammered so hard. Jentin kept a firm grip, staring into her golden eyes before sighing and finally dropping her chin. Ama returned to gazing at the floor, waiting for her heart to return to a less frenzied state. She did her best to keep her breathing quiet and under control, imagining everyone in the room could see her trembling with fear and embarrassment at Jentin’s inspection.

“You may have a pretty daughter Porto, but she looks more to me like a pretty boy.” Jentin turned to face Porto who was spluttering at the insult. Ama kept her head down as shame burned through her body, but Jentin was not finished yet. “She has the body of a young boy. What son of any man would wed her? She has pretty eyes and her hair looks like sunset but she is too small. Summon me when she has hips to bear sons and the breasts to feed them, otherwise call on me no more.” Jentin turned and swept out of the room followed by Porto trying to convince Jentin that a promise of marriage in the future, when Ama had grown, could be profitable. But, Jentin was too far-gone out of the villa for Ama to hear a response. She doubted her father would have such luck as that.

While she waited for her father to return, Ama remained standing on the same spot since she had entered the room, feeling her stepmother’s eyes bore into her as she fought to prevent the tears of hurt and embarrassment falling down her cheeks, knowing that her ordeal was far from over as she listened to the loud complaints of Portus, now that he had been released. Ida was almost Ama’s opposite in appearance, short, her features small and sharp with darker skin and hair and eyes as black as night which always seemed to gleam with malice and spite. “Another good husband put off by your ugliness child. How old will you be before we finally are able to get rid of you?” Ama said nothing but kept her head down feeling the remarks deeply in her knotted stomach. She couldn’t help the way she looked but it seemed as if everyone was going to blame her anyway, just like my mother she thought.

Porto could be heard outside panting as he made his way back into the reception chamber to meet his wife and children. “No good. No good,” he mumbled. “How much longer will you take?” he glared at Ama as if waiting for an answer as to when her body would begin to take a woman’s form, but Ama did not know, and she did not answer. Porto glared at her as if wondering the same thing while Ida suggested increasing the dowry Porto was offering. “With what?” he demanded. “Shall I add you precious jewellery to her dowry, for we have no other free money or goods to provide?” Ida sucked in her breath sharply; her hands instinctively going to her neck where her favourite gold collar, an item of jewellery given to a woman when she was married and could only be worn by married women, rested against her skin. “Didn’t think so,” he snorted. “We will have to wait a little while longer; can’t be long now ‘til she develops; if she keeps her prettiness we may be able to keep more of her dowry once she is more attractive!” He beamed at this prospect. “I mean she’s a perfectly trained wife; she is quiet and does as she is told. You did well, my love, to teach her so.” It was a testament to Ama’s self control that she did not splutter and choke at her father’s compliment to Ida that she had trained Ama in her good behaviour. Ida never spoke or even looked to Ama unless she wanted something, or a potential husband was available to impress. Ida eyed Ama knowing this, saying nothing at first before getting up and walking over to Porto and whispering in his ear. He chuckled and dismissed Ama with a wave of his hand. She quietly left the room but instead of going back to her room where Sessi was likely to be waiting to interrogate her about what had happened, Ama chose instead to sit in the next room, which happened to be the dining room.

The feeling of failure and shame from another rejection from a man who had decided, based on Ama’s appearance alone, that she was not ready to wife, burned her. Even though she didn’t want to marry, rejection in whatever form was hard for anyone to bear. Ama knew she was not ready to be a wife, but she didn’t need her reflection to inform her of that decision. She knew because she did not know how to be a man’s wife. She could not cook or clean because, with servants in the villa, she never had to. She keenly felt the failure of her mother to provide a son and feared the same fate her mother suffered if she was not blessed like Ida. But how? Ama thought, how can anyone know, man or woman whether a child, before its birth, is a boy or a girl? If women could choose the gender of their baby before birth, then all births would be to baby boys, and then where would we be? With no girls for the boys to grow up with and wed, then what would happen? Without a mother or significant female figure in Ama’s life thus far, it had not been explained to Ama just how much of an impact her thinking would have if her fantasy came true.

While she thought deeply about her future, Ama reached out and began to gently finger the small harp, which was used to provide music while the family ate. It was a quaint little instrument and Ama loved the sound of it, gently strumming the chords with her fingers. The notes soothed and relaxed her mind as thoughts of failure and rejection were slowly replaced by soft music.

Ama was still reclining against the wall, head back, fingers stroking the harp when a group of servants nosily entered into the room through the corridor that led from the kitchen. When Ama was spotted, the chatter abruptly stopped and the servants went about setting the table for dinner in silence. Ama could only assume the servants had been gossiping about the comments Jentin had made about her. A fresh wave of shame heated through her body as she disappeared back towards her room to change before the family was summoned to eat. Thankfully Sessi had gone from her room when Ama returned, most likely to fulfil her duties before dinner was served, thus allowing Ama the peace and space she craved.

Carefully unwrapping the sash from around her middle and pulling off the soft green dress, Ama laid them down carefully back in her chest of meagre clothing, pulled out her usual brown smock to change into, before returning to the dining room as the sound of the gong sounded through the halls to summon the master. Dinner, in Ama’s opinion, was always an elaborate farce at what Porto believed to be superior dining. The family of six arranged themselves as comfortably as they could around a low table, with thick soft mats for each of them to sit on. Porto always sat at the head of the table with Ida to his right and Portus to his left. It was clear who the key figures in the family were. The remaining three children could arrange themselves as they pleased. Pollo sat next to Ida and vied with his older brother for attention from his parents. Idin however, would sit quietly at the other end of the table as far from his parents, stepbrothers and Ama as possible.

Ama always pitied Idin, it must be hard to be disowned by your own mother and stepfather, to be called nephew when in reality he was a son, the eldest son, and his jealousy of Portus was barely concealed beneath his cold exterior. Not even Ama, who equally suffered from her parents’ ambitions, could persuade him to soften up around her. He was trapped, disowned by his parents but with nowhere else to go. He had no choice but to stay and wait for whatever wife they may find for him and to see whether or not Porto would enlist him in his trade, or else his wife would need to provide him with land or the money to buy land. But few offers had been made. Everyone knew Idin was an unwanted encumbrance on what was otherwise a happy and profitable family. Understandably, the anger and resentment caused by this obvious segregation had destroyed the little boy who found no love from his parents. What sort of man he was beginning to turn into Ama did not know and nobody else seemed to care, but she could not help but feel a little uncomfortable around her silent stepbrother.

As Ama sat there, picking at the food on her plate, ignoring the constant bickering of her youngest two brothers at the other end of the table, Porto turned to her, with a mouthful of sodden chicken, and raised his voice between chews. “How do you… expect to grow… hips, child… when you don’t eat… the good food I pay… to have put in front… of you… every night?” He swallowed and belched loudly in Ama’s direction.

Ama was secretly pleased while during his tirade; Porto had inadvertently and repeatedly sprayed Ida with spittle that she was now delicately trying to discreetly wipe off her face, a look of sheer contempt across her narrow face. “Maybe we should go to the temple tomorrow and ask the priests how long it will take until she can be wed,” Ida suggested, trying to look and sound aloof from her husband’s table manners. She pried apart her two young sons, who had begun to lean over the table to poke each other while Porto nodded in agreement.

“Aye, that sounds a good idea to me, and while we are out she may catch the eye of someone.” He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “We will leave late afternoon when the market is cooler, after the heat of midday and the busiest time on the plaza. That way more people can see her after they have had a bit too much drink!” he laughed at his own joke and Ida smiled with him, staring at Ama intently.

“No man would find her attractive enough to wed any other way,” Ida agreed nastily.

Ama refused to look at her stepmother but she could feel the animosity like needle pricks all over her body.

“Maybe if a man does take an interest in her at market, you should just give her to him Porto. If he has her there and then, it will be too late to refuse in the morning when he wakes up from his drunken stupor,” Ida suggested crudely.

Ama froze at the threat. She would be ruined if a man took her away from her family before she was wed. Ida would convince Porto to disown her and she would be lost. Ama put her hands in her lap carefully to hide them shaking with fright. She was almost deafened by her racing pulse beating loudly in her ears, drowning out the rest of the dinner conversation. Tomorrow was going to be a very dangerous day and Ama knew she would have to be cunning and careful not to attract the wrong attention. She would need to make sure Porto did not leave her at any point during the trip because any gossip or slander could ruin her. In the corner of her eye she could see Idin looking down into her lap where her hands were still shaking between her knees. She turned to face him, desperate for reassurance from someone. However, Idin had never once tried to form any sort of alliance with Ama in the past and this time was no better. He stared at her blankly then turned away to finish his own food. Feeing sick with worry, Ama did not touch the rest of her meal that night, but instead, waited until the rest of the family had finished eating so she could be dismissed. She hurried into her room and covered herself in blankets on her pallet and prayed throughout the night for help that would not come, to save her from the fate she had been dealt by being born a girl to a disgraced ex-wife.

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