Years went by. I never imagined that years could seem so short and so long at the same time. Now here I was on my twenty-fifth birthday contemplating how the days could seem so long and the nights could seem so short even when the winter months mercifully greatly expanded the darkness.
I spent a lot of time looking back on the last few years that day. There had been so many good things that I had accomplished, and every little bit of it I had to do with a fight. There were small battles that I just couldn’t win because people get stuck in their ways and some things just can never be changed, but for the most part my forest and my people were safe. The people jumped at my suggestion that there should be no war against them anymore, but there were still minor restrictions against them, which I thought were silly because it really didn’t affect them at all.
I remembered the day four years before that Sheena and Cub had come to visit me for the first time without fear of being imprisoned or hurt. They walked right up to the castle and requested to meet with me. We were eating lunch when they were led into the dining room and I gasped at the sight of them. Rossannah and I both jumped up and the four of us hugged and held each other while Shyla, the Hawk, and the king watched with stupid looks on their faces.
As we let go of each other I saw Shyla rise from the table from the corner of my eye. She had a look on her face as if she had seen a ghost as she slowly approached us.
“Who is this woman with my face?” Sheena breathed as she noticed Shyla for the first time. I felt a little guilty when I realized that the last time I had seen Sheena when Cub, Rossannah, and I had escaped, I had forgotten about the one conversation that I had with Shyla when she had informed me that she was Sheena’s twin sister. I bit my lip in shame and backed away from them as Shyla glided to a stop in front of Sheena. Sheena’s face contorted in confusion as Shyla gingerly grasped both of Sheena’s hands and turned them to lie palms up in her own hands. Then Shyla brought Sheena’s hands up to her mouth and planted a soft kiss on her open palms, lingering a while in each one. Sheena’s face erupted into instant recognition and her eyes began to fill with tears.
“Oh Shy!” Sheena exclaimed. “I was sure you were dead.” She brought Shyla’s palms to her own mouth, reciprocating the gesture that Shyla had just completed.
It was a confusing custom, but one that I saw them practice countless times after that day. That is how they greeted each other whenever they had been away from each other a long time. I had never seen anybody do this before so I surmised that it was something that was unique to them.
That night Shyla and I explained to Sheena that she was my biological mother and they laughed about how ironic it was that I should end up in Sheena’s arms. I had recently started to see Shyla as a long lost aunt, even though in truth it was Sheena who was my aunt. Sheena had raised me and would always be my mother.
Cub and Sheena went back to the forest after a brief stay. They begged Shyla, Rossannah, and me to go with them. I told them I couldn’t leave the fate of our tribes in the hands of the king. I told Shyla and Rossannah that they were free to leave if they wanted, but Shyla had been raised here and couldn’t see any other way to live and Rossannah wouldn’t leave me. I was relieved that Rossannah was so loyal, but sometimes I regretted that Shyla was around.
Cub and Sheena came back many times after that, and always stayed for a day or two. Sometimes Sheena would come by herself, and sometimes Cub would come alone. Cub seemed to come around more as she began to get older and more independent. She was gaining the forest strength and I realized that I was beginning to feel a little jealous of her and the fact that she would get to live out her life in freedom. Her only obligations were that of the tribe. I missed those obligations.
Cub visited a few weeks before I had turned twenty-five. This time she had come with a boy. She had called him her boyfriend. I regretted not being around to see this milestone take place.
Now I was twenty-five, the age at which most women in my tribe started to think about having a child. I was just contemplating the last few years. It wasn’t as if I didn’t think about that kind of thing, but thinking about it and accomplishing it presented a problem. I had just decided that I wouldn’t think about it anymore because it wasn’t likely to happen.
I wasn’t the only one thinking about it, though. As I was sitting in the dining area eating my lunch with Rossannah, the king approached me cautiously.
“We should probably think about an heir,” he blurted out as he sat down across from us and motioned to the servants that he wished to be served. I set my fork down on the plate nonchalantly and thought for a moment.
“What about that cousin that everybody is always talking about?” I answered. “If something were to happen to me he could take over.”
“No,” he responded, irritated. “That’s not what I meant. I meant a real heir. Blood.” It took a while for what he was saying to sink in.
“I don’t think so,” I spat out. “No way.” Rossannah was sitting beside me quietly. I looked over in her direction and we exchanged looks of horror.
“It’s just my cousin…I mean your cousin Hector isn’t really an ideal candidate to take over. It would be better to have someone that we could teach from birth.” He was pleading with me now. He didn’t seem to understand that I wouldn’t give in. To him, this was part of our job as rulers. I, however, had never wanted this job, but since I got to make many of the rules there were aspects of this job that I felt I could just ignore as long as it didn’t interfere with my protection of my people.
“We will find someone then,” I maintained. “I’m not going to have a child with you. If this necklace can identify me as the next ruler it can do the same for somebody else.”
“The training has to be constant. We can’t let outside forces interfere with what we are trying to do. It would be easier if it were our own child. People aren’t just going to hand their children over to us,” he argued.
“We’ll see,” I said, dismissing him.
“I’ll invite Hector to the castle,” the king replied, angrily, “maybe you will change your mind then.” Then he stormed off to go and write his letter inviting the cousin to come and stay with us for a few weeks.
“I doubt it,” I called after him. When he was out of earshot Rossannah and I erupted into a fit of giggles.
“What is he, crazy?” Rossannah laughed. She lifted her water glass to her lips and took a drink but had to spit the water out again because she couldn’t control her laughter.
“He’s acting as if we have a real marriage or something,” I worried, sobering up. “I don’t know, Rossannah, this could be trouble. I don’t know if it is possible but he may try to take this issue to council. I don’t know how people would react to it.” Rossannah stopped laughing, which troubled me even more than I already was. I had hoped that she would find my apprehension ridiculous and break out into a new fit of guffaws, but she only contributed to my fear that I did have something to be anxious about.
“Maybe this is just a plot,” Rossannah presented, “to prove that he is the only one that really cares about the kingdom. If he gets the people back on his side he could probably do just about whatever he wanted. If he takes it to council, maybe you should just agree to it. He might back off. Even if you do agree to it in public, it doesn’t mean that you have to go through with it. It would be his word against yours, and the people like you better.”
“I wish Sheena was here,” I fretted, “I need her to tell me what to do.”
“Maybe I could help,” Shyla offered as she walked into the dining area and sat down. “What is the problem?”
“It’s nothing,” I said defensively and we all ate the rest of the meal in silence. I had gotten used to shutting Shyla out of my life. At times she could be helpful and warm, but she was mostly cold and distant. I had hoped that we would have been able to ignite some sort of friendship between us, but it was if she was always trying to make a decision about whether or not she wanted me in her life. I had given up and come to the conclusion that I didn’t want to deal with her instability. I did make an effort whenever Sheena was around to act as if there was nothing wrong with my relationship with Shyla to put Sheena’s mind at ease. Sheena only saw the warm part of Shyla.
After lunch, Rossannah and I decided to take a walk out in the fields where all of the crops were grown. We did this every day. We walked along the edge of the forests and sighed at our longing to be in them.
Then I had to get back to work. I sat in the big room behind the table next to the king while people approached us one by one and rattled off their silly little problems. We wrote them down one by one and promised to come up with a decision by the next council. We sorted out everything from disputes over property to stupid little husband and wife arguments over how to discipline children. I couldn’t care less about these issues. In the forest we sorted these things out for ourselves. For the most part, I allowed the king to take care of everything. He stood up during council day and boomed in his own self-important way how things should be done. We had both realized that we didn’t even need to talk about it. The only time I would ever speak up was if it had anything to do with my precious forest. I only acted as if I was listening to these pathetically dependent people to get their votes for the times that I needed them.
I was ecstatic when supper came. It had been an unbelievably cruel day filled with miniscule problems that I had to pretend to care about. I happily took my place in between Rossannah and Shyla and made my mind up to hurry through my meal so that I could scamper off to my room and spend time with Rossannah. She seemed to realize that I was in an excruciating need to get away from that table as quickly as possible and began shoveling food into her mouth at the same rate that I was.
“I sent the letter off to Hector,” the king mentioned as he led the Hawk into the dining area and they both sat down.
“Mm hmm.” I barely acknowledged him through my mouthful of venison, a rare treat that was now served for my enjoyment.
“He will probably be here in a week or two,” he continued, ignoring my disinterest in the subject.
“Mm hmm.” I said again, equally unimpressed. He scoffed at my table manners and went about eating his own supper which had just been placed in front of him.
“Happy birthday,” the Hawk said, stiffly. “You are twenty-five now? Is that right, Joby? That is a great age to have children. Actually, I would think that twenty or twenty-one would be about the right age to have your first child, but to each their own.” I stopped eating.
“I don’t really see how it is any of your business,” I fumed.
“I just thought that you might want to start thinking about it,” The Hawk offered innocently.
“Well, I don’t,” I said, irritated at her attempt at a pleasant motherly conversation. She had recently adopted this manner of speaking to me while at the same time slipping in little rude innuendos of what I should be doing.
“I’m finished,” Rossannah chirped. “Excuse me.” She got up and left the table. I looked down at my plate, realizing that I had been sucked into yet another argument with the Hawk and lost sight of what I was trying to do. I took two more bites of what I had left on my plate and decided that I didn’t want anymore.
I got up and left the table without a word to anyone. I managed to smile at Ashlee on my way out of the dining area to show my appreciation. She beamed back at me with pride.
“Goodnight,” Shyla called after me. I waved my hand to acknowledge her but didn’t speak.
Rossannah was already waiting in my room when I got there. We sat down on the bed together and began to talk about our day. Rossannah had gone to see her father after lunch because he had been sick. I told her about the most pathetic problems that had come to me during that day. Then we began to kiss.
Most days our lovemaking was soft and tender, but on the days where we had both experienced a constant stream of frustration it was passionate and unpredictable. Today we both had our fair share of woes so we took them out on our bodies in a way that could only increase our pleasure.
“What are you doing?” an angry voice bellowed at us and we were shocked out of our fantasy as we turned to face the accusing figure standing in my doorway.
“What are you doing?” Shyla boomed again as she slammed the door shut behind her. “I can hear you two all the way down the hall. Do you know what would happen if somebody besides me would have walked in on you?”
Shyla walked toward the bed and then bent over to pick up Rossannah’s dress at the foot of it and threw it at her.
“Put it on and go to your own room,” she ordered her forcefully. Rossannah got dressed quickly and scurried away as Shyla glared at her.
“You don’t seem to be happy unless you are trying to back yourself against a wall, do you?” Shyla accused furiously. “When did Rossannah and you start this?”
“A long time ago,” I admitted. “Years ago.”
“Well it needs to stop now,” Shyla ordered.
“I…It can’t,” I said, fumbling with my words. I needed to make Shyla understand that Rossannah was as important to me as food, or air.
“Damn it, Joby! There are some things that you don’t understand,” Shyla argued. “It’s just not allowed anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Shyla retracted. “I misspoke…I meant to say it’s just not allowed.”
“You said anymore and you meant it,” I pressed. “Why did you say anymore? Were there other people like us?”
“There were or are,” Shyla softened, “but it’s a dangerous thing to be. It used to be accepted, but something happened and now it isn’t. That is all that you need to know. Just know that if you don’t end it, it could cause huge problems and even being a queen can’t protect you from the backlash.”
“I don’t care,” I cried, tears welling up in my eyes.
“That is unfortunate,” Shyla sighed and walked back toward my door. She stopped in the doorway and then turned her head in my direction.
“I will try to help you keep this a secret,” she whispered, sadly, “if you try to be more careful.” Then she walked out and shut the door behind her, giving me one last worried glance before she did.
Rossannah returned to my room after she heard the door close to Shyla’s room. I told her about the conversation that we had just had and we both agreed to lay low for a while. Rossannah immediately went back to her own room and we only spent time alone together during our walks in the fields for a while.