Cub Outsmarts The King
It took me a long time to get used to my new role. I had never done a lot of cleaning chores before. We lived in the forest. The little cleaning that we had to do was usually reserved for the very old or very young members of the tribe who couldn’t hunt, gather, or protect the tribe because they were too weak. When we moved to the cave, the cleaning chores were given to Cub, and Joseph would help out when he was around. Sometimes Sheena would take time to help with dishes, but I never did anything like that. It was new territory for me.
In addition to the unfamiliar chores, I was homesick for the forest. I missed climbing the trees, picking berries, hunting for my food, and the sounds. Sometimes I had trouble falling asleep at night because of the absence of the sounds.
Cub must have been missing home, too. When I saw her at meal times she seemed tired and lonesome. As time went on she seemed to eat less and less. Soon, her face became pallid and worn. The king and his mother tried to encourage her to eat more, but she seemed determined to eat only enough to keep her alive.
The king’s mother seemed especially anxious about Cub’s condition. I would often hear her discussing Cub in hushed tones with the king when they thought nobody was listening. From their conversations I found out that it was true that they were planning on grooming Cub for marriage. It wasn’t the king’s original intention for her when he brought her to the castle, but the moment his mother saw her she pronounced Cub to be the perfect candidate. Apparently, it was a custom of the kingdoms to choose girls for the other future kings to promote peace between them. They groomed these girls and when the future king was ready to marry he would choose between them. Usually the kingdom that produced the best girl was rewarded in trade. They got the richest pickings for a very long time. Cub, however, was not being a model student and was losing a lot of her good looks in the process. The king’s mother suggested that the king give her a present to encourage her to go along with the training, something that she really wanted.
For the next two weeks I watched as the king showered Cub with gifts. I watched from a distance as he brought her out to ride her very own horse. Cub sat on the horse somberly as the king led her around for an hour, trying in vain to make her smile. Finally, he became frustrated and gently lifted Cub off of the beautiful white horse. He looked down at her, disappointed, and shook his head. He told her to stay where she was while he put the horse back in the stables. He took the horse’s reins and led it away, and as soon as he left, I saw Cub’s mouth turn upward. I knew then that she had been having a good time, but didn’t want the king to know it.
The next day, the castle was flooded with an array of fancy dresses, all for Cub. There were so many dresses of so many different materials and it was impossible to count them all. They kept on arriving, one after the other, and Cub just sat there, eyeing them with disinterest. But I watched her, and once she knew that the king and his mother were looking away, she reached out and stroked one of the soft, silky ones.
One day they offered her toys. Another day they offered her beautiful caged birds. She was even given her own garden to play in and they told her she could order the gardener to plant whatever she wanted in it. Even though I was not able to witness it all, I knew Cub was pretending not to care about any of it. I knew she was secretly admiring her new things behind the king’s and his mother’s back. Cub was holding out for something, and I was anxious to find out what it was.
“She’s really quite clever,” Rossannah said to me when we were alone in the kitchen one day. “She’ll make an excellent princess. All that nonchalance and underneath it all she’s just trying to get more.”
“Oh, Cub isn’t really like that,” I informed her. “But she does have something up her sleeve.”
And Cub did have something up her sleeve. It didn’t take her long to realize how important she had become to the king’s mother, and how important the king’s mother was to him. I wasn’t going to be left in the dark about her intentions for much longer.
“Please, Cub,” the king’s mother pleaded with her over breakfast one morning, “Could you eat just a little bit more?” Cub just stared into her eyes, blankly. The king’s mother elbowed him to try to encourage Cub.
“Why aren’t you happy, Cub?” the king asked, exhausted. “What can we give you to make you happy?”
“Well,” Cub spoke softly, “there is one thing I want. It would make me very happy. I might even do better at lessons if you were to give it to me. But I know that you never would.”
“What is it?” The king’s mother demanded eagerly. “Anything you want is yours.”
“Do you promise?” Cub asked, slyly. She glanced over at the king who was peering at her with a curious look on his face.
“You can have anything you want,” the king’s mother promised, “Except to leave. You have to stay here and take lessons.”
“I want Joby!” Cub exclaimed, excitedly. Both the king’s and his mother’s mouth dropped open instantly. It took them a few moments to recover from the shock.
“Absolutely not!” the king raged. “She is needed in the kitchen.”
“But you promised me,” Cub whimpered to the king’s mother. “You said I could have anything that would make me happy!”
“I did say that,” the king’s mother agreed. She and the king were locked in a stare down. It only took a few seconds of his mother’s scolding gaze before the king relented.
“Oh, fine,” he fumed, “but this doesn’t mean that she is off the hook for chores. She will have some to do when the little girl goes to bed at night.”
“Come sit here, Joby!” Cub chirped. “We can have breakfast together now!” I was frozen in place by shock. I didn’t realize how smart Cub really was until that moment. She must have been planning this for a long time.
“Sit down!” the king yelled at me, enraged. “And hand that dish to someone else.” I gave the oatmeal that I was holding to one of the other servants and sat down beside Cub. The other servants were ordered to bring me a plate and serve me. I could feel their hatred as each of them scooped food onto my plate. Rossannah winked at me as she came through with her dish. Rossannah made this awkward situation feel okay.
I kept my eyes lowered on my plate as I picked through my food nervously. I could tell that the king was watching me the entire time, plotting how he would make me suffer for this event and others to come. Cub sat beside me, eating as she hadn’t done in weeks, blissfully unaware of the tension.
“If I have to eat with her,” the king remarked as he left the table, “she will have to learn some manners. She will undergo lessons with the child. Make sure that she is setting a good example for the girl, Mother.”
“I agree with you,” the king’s mother replied, looking at me with repulsion. “She is awful at the table. She is pretty, though. Who knows? She might also come in handy some time down the road. I’ll make ladies of them both.”
I looked up at Rossannah to try to make sense of what I had heard from the king’s mother. Her eyes had gone wide and she had a stricken look about her. I knew at that point that I was in trouble; I just didn’t know what kind. I told myself that I would find Rossannah as soon as I was able to find out what was going on.
As breakfast ended, the king’s mother announced that we were done and I stood up and began to clear the table out of habit. It was a chore I had become so used to doing that it was almost a reflex.
“Sit down, Joby!” she scolded me crossly. “That is no longer your responsibility. I’m sure you will have other responsibilities, but while you are in my presence, you will not smell like sweat. I have a very sensitive nose and so you will bathe every morning before coming to breakfast now, or after your chores are done at night. In fact, go and bathe right now before lessons.”
“Bathe?” I asked, confused. I had not been aware that there was any smell to me at all. When I grew up in the forest, we only bathed when we came to a stream or a lake, but I was never really aware of anybody smelling badly, and I had not seen any water sources around castle grounds. “Where do I bathe?”
“Don’t get smart with me,” the king’s mother said, angrily. “Go to the bathroom and take a bath.”
“I’m not sure what you are talking about,” I maintained. Rossannah had been listening intently to our conversation as she was clearing the table. She set the dishes she held back on the table.
“I will show her,” Rossannah offered, and the king’s mother waved us away.
Rossannah led me through the castle to a part where there were many rooms. It was a part that I had not been to yet. She brought me into a room where there was a sink, and some structures I had not seen before.
“This is a bathroom,” Rossannah explained to me, “How were you here for so long and not know what this was?”
“I’ve never had to use it before,” I answered.
“What have you been doing with your waste?”
“You know the ash bucket for the fireplace? I use that and then I burn it.” I replied. “I didn’t know what else to do with it. We bury it in the forests.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Rossannah agreed, “but don’t tell anybody that is what you have been doing. It would sound savage to others who are from this world. Plumbing has been around for a very long time. It’s from the old world, before it was destroyed.”
“What do you mean the old world?” I asked, intrigued.
“Things weren’t always this way,” Rossannah explained, “Everything used to be more connected than it is now. But not everybody is going to agree on how to live all the time, so now we have this. That’s all I really know about it. The older people seem to know more about it, but a lot of them are even fuzzy on the details. Most of them were only children when the world changed.”
Rossannah explained to me how to use the bathroom. I took my bath while she waited outside the door. When I came out she began to lead me back to Cub and the king’s mother.
“You shouldn’t have to come back to this exact bathroom again. There should be one close to your room. I could wait around for you and help you find one when you are finished with your day.” Rossannah offered as we walked along.
“It’s nice of you to offer,” I said, “but I have a feeling that it is going to be very late before I get back to my room. I can probably manage to find the bathroom myself, now that I know what I am looking for.”
“I don’t mind waiting for you,” Rossannah argued back, “In fact, it would be a lot better than going home to see my father at the end of the night. He’s a little crazy. He used to be a slave, a long time ago. He worked in the fields. That is where most of the slaves work. He was pardoned from his debts by the king’s father; he and his wife at the time. His wife ended up committing suicide. The older he gets, the more he talks about her now. My father is the reason I work in the castle, as a servant to the king. I dislike him very much, and I am only telling you this because I know that you won’t tell anybody. When he started having these tirades about his old wife, he started demanding that we all be appreciative of the king and the fact that he had a son to take over the throne when he passed away. When the old king passed away, he started to pressure me and my siblings to go work for the new king so that we could watch over him. My mother eventually couldn’t take it anymore and so she left my father and took my younger brothers, but I stayed behind to take care of him because he just can’t take care of himself. He is fine during the day, but at night, he shouts in his sleep. I have to wake him up, but sometimes, I need a rest, too. So I will wait for you tonight.”
“I will be glad to provide you with a distraction,” I smiled uncomfortably, wondering what I had done to prompt this confession from her. Part of me felt a little out of place, but a bigger part of me felt relieved that I knew a little more about Rossannah than I had before. It gave me a sense of security to know that I was developing a true friendship with someone in this place where I was nothing more than an outsider to so many people. Having Rossannah as a friend could be my ticket to getting out of this place.
We eventually found Cub and the king’s mother again. Cub ran up to me and hugged me tight as soon as she saw me. The king’s mother also approached me, and circled around me as a hawk would around its prey before it swooped down and clutched it in its razor sharp talons. I imagined her as a hawk from that point on. Rossannah and I even called her that when she wasn’t around.
“We will have to get you new clothing for when you are taking lessons with Cub,” the Hawk informed me. “Those are servants clothing. You will wear proper clothing when you are with me, you will change into your servant’s clothing after. Stand still while I take your measurements.” I did what I was told, but that didn’t stop her from taking a thin stick and whacking me with it from time to time, claiming that I was fidgeting when I obviously wasn’t.
After my measurements were taken, we spent the rest of the day doing things that I found very silly. We spent almost the entire day walking from one end of the room to the other, stopping only for meal times. Every once in a while, the Hawk would stop us and explain to us what we were doing wrong, and then tell us to walk to the other side of the room all over again. She seemed very pleased with Cub’s improvements, but became increasingly more agitated with me.
“How old are you?” The Hawk demanded, when she became so flustered she could no longer hold it in.
“Sixteen,” I replied.
“I do not see how a sixteen-year-old woman can’t get the hang of something as easy as walking, yet a mere six-year-old child gets it within the first day,” the Hawk insulted. I just shrugged my shoulders. I wasn’t even trying. I didn’t care about any of this.
“I guess it’s just not as important to me as it is to you,” I said, honestly. “I’m not somebody’s pet to be trained.”
“Cub,” the Hawk fumed, “please, go to supper, we will be along when your sister learns how to walk properly.”
Cub left the room, obviously disconcerted. She knew that I had already put myself in a bad situation by mouthing off to the Hawk. Any transgression that she could commit would be quickly forgiven because of her young age and importance, but I would not be so lucky. As soon as Cub was out of the room, the Hawk took out her flimsy little stick and began hitting me with it like it was a whip. It didn’t hurt that much, but I knew that if I let her know that, my punishment might become more intense.
When the Hawk finished disciplining me, I did as I was told and paid more attention to my lesson. We headed off to supper ten minutes after that. I decided that I would play her little game for now because I didn’t want to be barred from Cub and any chance of finding a way to escape with her.
At supper, the Hawk informed the king of the way that I had acted during lessons. He looked at me with disdain in his eyes and warned me that he would take over punishments if my behavior didn’t get better. I nodded my agreement to him, although inside I was planning out every last detail of my escape. I just needed to find the weakness in the castle and the guards that would help me put my plan into action.
After supper, it was Cub’s free time. We were both allowed to do what we wanted for an hour before Cub was to be put to bed by the Hawk. Cub wasted no time in showing me where her room was. Apparently, she had been thinking about escaping just as much as I had been. We might have attempted it that night had it not been for the Hawk trailing us everywhere we went.
“Come here, Joby,” Cub whispered to me as she brought me to the window in her room. “Look out of this window.”
I looked straight down in the direction that Cub was pointing. The castle was made of rock that I could easily climb down, and there was wall right below that separated the outside from the castle grounds. There was about a mile of fields beyond the wall, and then a forest full of beautiful trees. Trees we could hide in if we could make it past the fields.
“Look at my garden,” Cub said loudly, for the Hawk’s benefit. “Isn’t it pretty? We should go into my garden tomorrow.”
Cub had already planned out the whole escape while I had only been thinking about it. I was extremely proud of her, but I knew her plan would never work unless we could shake the Hawk.
“I don’t know, Cub,” I answered her, looking into her eyes and trying to help her read my mind. “That is up to the king and his mother, don’t you think? They are in charge.”
Cub seemed to understand what I was trying to say to her. She nodded her head and we came away from the window. I looked out at the forest one last time before walking away. I really missed those trees.
When Cub was put to sleep, the Hawk brought me to the king. He explained to me that my new chores would be to clean all of the floors in the castle. I had to do a certain number of rooms every night, and the number of rooms I had to do would depend on my behavior every day. If I was obedient and did as I was told, I would be given only two hours of work, but if I acted up in any way, I would not get to sleep that night. Moreover, I was given a new rule that I could not get my clothing or slippers dirty because with my new schedule, I would more than likely not have the time to wash them. The king and his mother seemed absolutely obsessed with the idea that I should never be dirty anymore.
That night I was given seven large rooms, which took me six hours to clean, because of my attitude with the Hawk earlier. I took off the slippers that I had on and pulled up my dress to my knees to keep my clothes from getting dirty as I swept and mopped the floors. I was happy to find Rossannah waiting for me when I finished the chores.
“Thank you for waiting for me,” I smiled at her when she came to get me.
“If I would have been able to find you earlier,” she said, “I would have helped you do the rooms. You must be exhausted.”
“It’s not so bad,” I smirked, “they think that they are making it unbearable, but as long as I get to see Cub I’m going to be just fine.”
“I’m happy for you,” Rossannah warned, “but just watch out. I don’t like what the king’s mother said about you ‘coming in handy’. I’ve seen girls become concubines because they were pretty. The fact that the king’s mother sees potential in you is not necessarily a good thing.”
“It’s not like they are going to do anything like that while Cub is still around,” I argued. “They need me to keep her happy, and I don’t plan for us to be around long enough for them to marry her off.”
“Just be careful,” Rossannah said, again. “You never know. I’ve known these people longer than you have, and they have all the power around here. Nobody stands up to them, short of the people in the forest, and look what happened to them.” I stopped walking. That last comment made me feel vulnerable and angry.
“I’m sorry,” Rossannah apologized, “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I’m going to stand up to them, Rossannah,” I vowed. “It might take me a little while, but I am going to stand up to them, and I am going to win.”
“I hope so,” Rossannah sighed.
Rossannah and I walked around the corridors close to my room until we found the closest bathroom. I decided to bathe right then so that I could sleep a little longer in the morning. I had been drilled by the Hawk before I had been left to my chores that I shouldn’t be late for meal times. I intended to do everything I could to show that I was on their side until I could find a way to escape so that they wouldn’t become suspicious of me.
The next morning I woke up to find new clothing draped over the foot of my bed. Someone must have put it there in the night and I realized that it was supposed to be the proper clothing that I had to wear for lessons. I put it on and realized that it was much bulkier than the thin servant’s clothing that I had been wearing for chores. I flirted with the idea of keeping my necklace in a pocket in the dress, but decided that this would still be a bad idea and that my necklace was safe where it was for the time.
I made it to breakfast on time. The king seemed disappointed when I showed up. I know he was probably hoping that I wouldn’t so that he could add more hours to my nightly chores. I sat down and forced myself to smile sweetly at him across the table and say “good morning” as the Hawk had instructed me to do. She seemed awfully pleased with herself when I did it.
“We will go out to the garden today before lessons, as Cub had requested that we do last night,” the Hawk announced to us while we were eating. “Fresh air is good for the complexion anyway.” My heart jumped. It might be possible to escape today.
“Isn’t today a harvest day?” the king asked his mother.
“Yes,” the Hawk replied. “There will be hundreds of slaves and their masters on the other side of the wall. We are very fortunate to have very loyal subjects in our kingdom.”
I bit my lip. I realized that the Hawk was trying to tell me that she knew that Cub and I were planning to escape and she wanted me to know that she had already thought of that. We wouldn’t be able to escape today, and as long as she knew that we had a plan to jump the wall, she could keep us away from it when escape was possible. I underestimated her.
“After the garden,” the Hawk continued, “I will begin to teach these girls how to read. It’s come to my attention that they have never had any formal education while living in the forests. Neither of them knows how to read a single word.”
The garden was beautiful and it felt good to be outside. Cub had requested that some apple trees be planted so that when they grew she could simply reach up and pick fresh apples for herself. They were carefully positioned in the middle of the garden, far away from the wall. They were small, but they gave off a rustling sound when the wind went through them. I enjoyed that sound. I had missed it very much.
After the garden, we were brought back inside. The Hawk handed us each a book. I had never seen one before. It fascinated me. The Hawk was thrilled with my sudden interest in something she was teaching. I tried to act uninterested when I noticed how happy it made her, but I couldn’t keep up the charade. I was instantly caught up in the world of books from that first day when she started us on the alphabet. I looked forward to learning how to read every third day as much as I despised all of the other stuff that she taught us. After a year, I could read as well as she could.