Akata: Whispers of the Past

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Chapter Thirteen

Marriage is a chaotic business even scarier than war. Both involve a great deal of fruitless diplomacy, and both cost a fortune to engage in. The tactics are just about the same. The only major difference is that, in marriage, you do not fight with weapons and territory, you fight with favors.

In my country, favors meant everything: they dictated whether a bride or groom’s family was worthy of their family-in-law. The greater the gift was the better your family was viewed, and vice versa. It was all about honor and pride and status.

I didn’t understand how any other family thought it possible to compete with the Royal Family. And yet at least once a week, often more frequently, we received gifts from the Tyutsu family. Each favor was grander than the last, and I began to wonder just how decorated the bride, Ghita’s, father could be. I learned that Rogami Tyutsu had served in one of my father’s regiments several summers ago, and that his bravery in the battle had awarded him a greater title, but that was as far as my understanding stretched.

The week before the wedding was unnaturally hot. The heat drenched me in sweat, and my hair curled up slightly and stuck out of its ties in thick, wavy tendrils. There was little to no relief from the humid, stagnant air, even indoors. I contented myself by staying in the shade and gulping copious amounts of cool water from the underground wells to withstand the disgusting heat.

The dry season was always like this. In the summer, there were week-long periods of time in which it would not rain, but the air would be thick with moisture. That oppressive heat caused many servants in the castle to collapse from exhaustion.

Ryukou hated the dry season more than I did. He kept to himself and grumbled under his breath curses to the gods of fire and the sun. He tugged at the collar of his kimono like he wanted to tear the whole damn thing off, and I’m not sure I would have protested if he had. Whenever he sweat, he would wipe it away with a wet cloth and dab jasmine fragrance on his skin. If there was one thing Ryukou hated more than anything else, it was to be dirty, and the second most hated was to smell dirty.

As the date drew nearer, the palace was in mayhem. Servants hurried about the halls and courtyards on their miscellaneous tasks: sweeping dusty corners, hanging decorative tapestries, scrubbing floors and pottery. Cooks preparing mountains of food. Gardeners trimming the trees and cleaning the ponds. Boy runners rushing off to complete errands. Seamsters preparing Ryukou’s garments for the wedding.

With all the frantic activity, I found myself growing anxious the closer we came toward the wedding. When the day came, the sky was clear, and the air was cooler than the week before, which was a sign of good luck.

Before the wedding began, I went to see Ryukou. He was getting ready, and servants surrounded his chambers, inside and out, preparing his raiment for the ceremony. He wore robes of the finest black and indigo silks, with gold thread trimming, and his head was adorned with a tall silver headpiece, beads draping down to conceal his face partially. When I arrived, he was getting his overcoat fastened in place with an embroidered belt. He stood with his arms outstretched as a servant assisted him.

It seemed that he didn’t notice my approach. He was occupied watching the gardens outside his window, gentle wind swaying the trees which cast dancing shadows on the grass and flowers below, the ponds gurgling softly as waterwheels channeled water into different pools, and early midday sunlight basking everything in stillness and clarity. When a cloud shifted and covered the sun momentarily, he blinked in surprise and turned to face me. He said nothing for a prolonged moment, so I stepped forward and touched his shoulder as the servant finished tying his coat in place.

“I came to offer you my blessing… if you will have it,” I said.

Ryukou inclined his head with a slight motion. “Of course,” he said.

“Then go forth happily and enjoy the days that are to come, despite everything.” My grip on his shoulder tightened without my observation, and when I realized, I released him.

He tilted his head to the side, and in-between the silver beads, I thought I saw the traces of a frown. “Despite everything…” I heard him mumble.

“Are you ready?” I asked, twisting my hands under the long sleeves of my formal kimono.

Ryukou seemed to shrug. “Is one ever ready?”

I nodded, thoughtful. “Aye, I suppose you’re right.”

I heard him chuckle in his deep voice. “Don’t you worry, Izka. Things tend to level themselves out in the end. Everything that happens today is all part of a greater plan fate has dictated for tomorrow.”

“And what if you don’t like tomorrow’s plan?”

“Well,” he says, “I suppose you learn to live with it.”

A prolonged moment passed in which I didn’t know how to respond. Just as I opened my mouth to say something, a servant opened the door.

“Crown Prince, Your Royal Highness,” he started, bowing low to the ground, “They are waiting for you. It is almost the auspicious time.”

Ryukou nodded. “Thank you.” He turned toward me and attempted a smile, mostly obscured by his headpiece. “Wish me luck, little brother.” And he stepped out of the room with his assembly of servants before I could mutter a word.

“....Be well,” I managed, as the door slid shut behind him. A sigh slipped out between my teeth, and I rubbed a hand over my neck before deciding to make my way toward the courtyard where Mother and Father were waiting.

“You are late.” Father stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his face partially obscured by the shadows cast under the eaves. He stood beside Mother on the porch, watching the guards gather by the curtained palanquin in the courtyard. She smiled at me as I approached, and her brown eyes were gentle.

I took my place by Mother, bowing my head to avoid his gaze. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shall not cause any more delays.”

Father didn’t respond, choosing to keep his gaze steady on the palanquin. Ryukou was inside, I knew, obscured from our sight by the overhanging curtains. But the procession wouldn’t start until the city was secured and all the guards were in place.

It was a tradition, stretching back further than my knowledge, that the bride and groom be brought to the temple separately where they will complete their vows. Then, once they have been bound by the priest, the bride and groom shall be brought together to the groom’s home. The next day, there is too be song and dance, wine and a grand feast to celebrate the joining of the families. In the case of royal weddings, a week-long festival is held for the common people to celebrate.

Mother leaned over to whisper in my ear. “Be still. You’re making me nervous.”

I nodded, surprised. I hadn’t even noticed my own fidgeting, but I was anxious and impatient for the wedding to finally begin. I glanced up at the noon sun, watching the thin, wispy clouds glide across the sky. It should be time soon, I was sure.

Then the drumbeats began, and the wind shifted, carrying a scent strong with spicy basil and other rich aromatic herbs. It must have come from the temple, I realized. Four strong men wearing painted masks lifted the palanquin, and nine guards surrounded it in front and back, holding upright tall spears. Together, the group started walking in rhythm toward the Palace gates. Father and Mother followed, I behind them, with more guards surrounding us. The drummers and flag bearers brought up the rear.

As we entered the city, a herald announced the wedding to all the onlookers. Men and women, youth and elders crowded the streets, kept back against the shops and houses by guards. They murmured and gestured as we passed. Some of them bowed or offered prayers or blessings, and many of them rang bells or beat on small instruments. Old women waved colorful fabrics in the air, and children blew on little wooden flutes. The whole city was teeming with sound and color, music and scents, a proud display of Aka culture.

Somewhere, a woman’s voice rose in a high-pitched trill, weaving a simple melody in long, wavering notes. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought her somber warble was a type of keening.

“Kuro-lao ten, nara kuo, veri terr. Kujan-la ten, sanei ta, verim terr… Her sylph-like body, dancing sweetly, beckons me. Her silvery voice, quietly trembling, calls to me…

The words were from an old love poem in the ancient Akatu language called “En-ku” or “Bright Spirit.” We all knew how to speak Akatu, which was the original language in my country, but when my ancestors crossed the ocean, the natives adopted their simpler language of Sunang. We still used Akatu for religious ceremonies, and we had adapted our written text from the original Akatu symbols, but it was no longer spoken in households.

The walk through the city’s main streets was particularly long, since we stepped to the beat of the drum, but it felt even longer because of the oppressive heat. I felt the droplets of sweat that had built up on the back of my neck drip down my back. All the layers of clothing made me feel uncomfortable and overheated.

I glanced at Mother beside me. She looked regal and proud as she walked forward, her head held high and her expression peaceful. I wondered if it was only me who thought this wedding was too rushed. When I looked forward again, I saw the back of Ryukou’s adorned head through the window of the palanquin. He too was calm, having resigned himself to what was to come.

Up ahead, the temple of Devanim came into view. It was a small one-room building, with a shingled roof and stone steps leading up to the wooden posts. A terracotta statue of Devanim, shown as a robed man with a lion’s pelt draped over his head, stood over ten feet high in the small gardened courtyard. Inside, I knew there was a shrine where the ceremony would take place. It was the same shrine where I had gone through Verishim.

Our procession stopped in front of the entrance, and we waited for a few more minutes while the Tyutsu family approached the temple from the other end of the street. When they stopped, the drumming ended with a final beat, and both palanquins were placed on the ground. Everyone was silent while we waited.

Finally, the palanquin bearers pulled the curtains aside, and Ryukou stepped out carefully. Across from us, Ghita Tyutsu also stepped out.

I had never met her before. I’d never even seen her, and nor had Ryukou, for that matter. She could’ve been a seven-legged troll for all I knew. Of course, I doubted that our parents would’ve approved of the union, had that been the case.

The short woman wore a bright hanfu with a thick beaded sash around her waist, and multicolored layers of red, orange, and pink fabric. Her face was obscured from view by a nearly-opaque veil attached to an ornate headdress. As the tradition dictated, Ryukou could not see his wife’s face until they were alone in the bridal chambers.

Ryukou stared straight forward calmly, and I tried to decipher his thoughts, but his expression was emotionless. At the sight of the two of them standing in the street before the temple, the crowd went quiet, hushing to a state of awe.

They bowed low to each other, and together—although not holding hands—they ascended the stairs and entered the temple.

Now, we just had to wait. I watched the temple’s entrance, unable to see anything inside, but eagerly waiting for what would happen next. Although I was reluctant to accept my brother’s union to someone he didn’t know or love, I was curious about what kind of person she would be.

After only a few minutes, I began to feel it had been an eternity. I couldn’t stand the waiting... It’s the waiting that drove me slowly but surely insane. I tried to listen to the murmuring of the crowds around me to distract myself, to no avail.

Just when I was ready to lose my patience, I saw, as did everyone else, Ryukou and his new wife walk out of the temple entrance, their arms linked with a blue ribbon tied around their wrists. Their shackles, I thought.

Again everything was silent for a painfully long minute, while the crowd watched them with curious eyes. And then the drum beats began again, a booming thump once every three seconds. At the first beat the couple walked forward in step with each other.

Ryukou and the veiled woman reached the bottom of the steps and began walking down the street toward the palace. I watched as my father and mother fall into step a few meters behind them, and I followed suit, walking to the cadence of the drum beat. Guards formed a formation around us, as if daring someone to try something threatening. I could feel the people’s eyes on us as our group slowly walked through the street toward the palace.

Our procession was long and slow, following the cadence of the drum beats, but we finally reached the palace gates. The sky had begun its vibrant change from the yellows and blues of midday to the oranges and pinks of dusk. Once through the gates the drum stopped, and I could feel the tension in the air drop considerably.

Ryukou slumped his shoulders, looking exhausted. Servants rushed around in a frenzy trying to finish their final preparations. And I could see Ryukou was trying his best not be nervous.

The woman next to him, whose wrist was bound to his, seemed to watch him through her veil. Ryukou glanced at her, but he averted his eyes again, unable to mask his unease.

Father and Mother took the bride’s father inside the palace to converse and congratulate each other. But I was frozen by the gate watching my brother’s obvious discontent.

Finally a group of servants, male and female, approached them both with a bow.

“The preparations have been made, Your Highnesses.”

Ryukou nodded slowly and squeezed Ghita’s hand as if to reassure himself. With a deep breath, he led his new wife toward the Palace, where they were waiting for them.

Now that Ryukou and his new wife had gone inside, the guards began taking up their regular posts. But I remained by the gateway, staring at my brother’s departing back. As the guards began to disperse, I was left alone in the courtyard.

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