Ramya liked her tongue. She wasn’t ready to give it up, not yet. The Melokai rolled it around her teeth, touched it to the roof of her mouth and brought it down with a satisfying cluck.
She glanced at Chaz. The scholar’s mottled black and white hands cupped his face, his body rocking with the movement of his horse, eyes glazed. They continued through the circular streets of the city in silence, both soon to lose the ability of speech, but neither with anything to say.
Most Melokais ruled for a decade, Ramya had ruled now for two years longer than most. Your time is up! She was certain this was the cats’ message. They had been frantic all morning. Their mewing, trilling, yowling sounded different. Urgent, worried. They had scuttled about under her feet as she limbered through her daylight dances, slapped paws at the goat’s milk in her washtub rather than lapping at it, and as she had dressed, they clawed at her fur cloak, looking up at her with knowing marble eyes. When she had left her chambers to head to the busy dining hall, a swarm of squalling, hissing fur had trailed behind.
Ramya had made the oath, she knew what happened to old Melokais. Her tongue would be taken and she would be banished by the Stone Prophetess Sybilya, cast out to wander the mountains alone. Sybilya cautioned that those who had tasted power were reluctant to relinquish it, and forever strived to wrench it back, causing unrest, violence and war. Without speech, old rulers cannot poison the minds of others and bend them to their will, and out in the wilderness there was no one to corrupt. The Stone Prophetess knows best, she lived through the Xayy atrocities after all.
Ramya had made this trip to see the Stone Prophetess every week for the past twelve years, since she was sworn in as Melokai of Peqkya. She couldn’t shake the feeling that this would be the last.
The end of her rule was upon her, and she was dreading it. Melokai no more.
She found her tongue, formed words. “It will happen today.”
Her counsellor and Head Scholar jolted out of his reverie. “I expect so, my Melokai. The cats…” He didn’t need to finish, it seemed Riaow’s entire feline population had emerged from every cranny to chitter at them as they passed.
“The Stone Prophetess will proclaim, ‘It is time’, and name four women to participate in the Melokai Choosing Ceremony and I will relinquish the title, be muted and banished.”
“Yes,” he replied, shoulders hunched.
Chaz, and each of Ramya’s counsellors, would also be muted, as was custom, but they were permitted to stay in the city. Ramya’s jaw clenched. Losing a body part was one thing, but gnawing at her insides, pummelling at every organ with vicious blows, was the banishment part. Ramya feared loneliness. She had no desire to go back to the solitary days of her childhood, where her volatile anger had scared off any would-be friends. She had learned to control it by throwing herself into warrior training, or leadership, or anything that kept her busy. As Melokai, the love of her people was a close friend. One she did not want to part with.
“You have achieved a great deal, you should feel proud.” Chaz swept his hand to indicate the thriving city.
They passed rows of colourful dome-shaped huts fashioned on the first people’s nomadic tents. Ramya had constructed homes for every Peqkian and ensured every Riat had a job, built the House of Knowledge, a centre of learning and documenting with a library open to every Peqkian, including the peons. She had set up the fresh waterflows with channels for drinking and to fill new public baths, as well as improved the underground sewers. She’d created wider, tree-lined streets as part of a city-wide roadway update, and opened more parks and healing centres. And had even introduced a swapping system, where produce and goods could be exchanged for items of an equal value, so there was no need for money.
“I’ve been busy,” she said.
“You have earned your title and earned your people’s love, my Melokai.”
Ramya nodded at Chaz’s reminder of her first visit to the Stone Prophetess after she had triumphed in the Choosing Ceremony twelve years earlier. Sybilya had looked into Ramya’s eyes and deeper into her soul, and purred. The thrumming reverberated through Ramya’s body. Sybilya had moved her hand, indicating for Ramya to sit on her lap. Ramya had wrapped her arms around the prophetess’s neck and rested her cheek on the great lady’s chest. Sybilya held Ramya tight and stroked her cropped black hair. She had felt wholly at peace. The prophetess had declared in a sonorous voice, “Welcome, my Melokai. Earn your title and you will earn their love.”
Since then, no words had left Sybilya’s mouth. Ramya longed to hear the purring again, to be stroked so tenderly, but silence greeted her. No response, no movement, just blinking eyes staring out into a different place, a different world. I will hear Sybilya today, but she will tell me what I don’t want to hear. Melokai no more.
“I’ve been trying to distract myself from the upcoming,” the eunuch pointed at his mouth, “by considering what I might write for my entry into The History of Peqkya. Every Head Scholar is duty bound to summarise their Melokai’s tenure. Care to hear?”
Ramya welcomed the distraction and gestured for him to continue.
He cleared his throat. “Melokai Ramya’s progressive governing principles combined with relevant traditions and applicable ancient laws ensured the city of Riaow remained a well-ordered settlement. She did not shy away from reforming old rulings or customs. As we know, the Meliok mountains surround the high plateau of Peqkya, making it a safe enclave with no bother from erratic neighbours or threat of invasion. However, under Melokai Ramya, Peqkians, both in built up areas and roaming the mountainous plains, have flourished. Our nation is prosperous, peaceful, happy.”
“Maybe a bit much…” she mumbled, but internally swelled with pride.
“It’s not all good.”
Chaz cleared his throat again. “It is to be noted that Melokai Ramya has done much to improve the conditions faced by peons. This has received considerable criticism. Early on in her reign, seemingly on a whim, she suggested softening the severity of peon punishments at a public assembly, but this was met with uproar and rejected outright. She has not brought it up again.”
She nodded with the briefest of smiles. Chaz had been the only one to support her that day and she had learnt a very valuable lesson. To pick – and communicate – her battles meticulously from then on.
Someone shouted her name. The group was passing through the cloth quarter, past the silk and brocade workshops. The heavy snows of the last few weeks had eased and the bright day had melted much of it, bringing the workers outside of the large goat hair works that made fine thread, ropes, rough-hewn bags as well as rugs and carpets. The women, bundled up in furs, and the peons, in goat hair overcoats, sat on small stalls weaving and spinning yarn in the sunshine. The call had come from the owner, who now waved.
Ramya halted her horse. “How is business, Glendya?”
“Better than ever, my Melokai. Our carpets are the finest in the city. I thank you every day for granting me the land and resources to build this workshop.”
“And I admire you for bravely presenting your new weaving method at the public assembly all those years ago. I’m pleased to hear of your success.”
Glendya bowed, beaming, and Ramya continued, “We must be off. Goodbye weavers.”
The women waved back, the peons kept their eyes on their work, apart from a skinny one with swollen, raw hands, who stared a little too hard.
“Ready yourself for the fumes!” Chaz declared as they entered the bustling medicinal quarter where ointments and potions were conjured up and two of Ramya’s healing centres were housed. Vast vats of bubbling concoctions, huge jars containing countless herbs and cages of creatures lined the street. The pungent fumes whooshed up her nostrils and whirled about her skull. Her vision blurred and a rising heaviness crawled up her throat and clutched at her tongue. She babbled a few greetings to the healers and chemists who ambled about their business, half intoxicated. As they passed out the other side she gulped down the fresh air and, when she was certain no one was looking, her warrior’s restraint wavered and she slumped, rubbing circles on her temples before jolting back to her disciplined stance.
The smell stirred up her dread.
Steadying herself, the Melokai quashed the rising panic, which would only open the door to anger and recited one of the principles from the revered woman she was on her way to see, ingrained in the lives of all Peqkians, ‘Embrace change, for when it comes you cannot stop it’.
An icy nip in the wind cut at her round face. Ramya was not beautiful. The height of Peqkian attractiveness was feline features – oval face, almond eyes, small nose and delicate, pointed ears, of which the Melokai had none, all her features were wide. Wide face, nose, lips, teeth. Even her bright green eyes were set a little too far apart. But her wide smile was warm and endearing. She was short and squat, not long and lithe like so many fellow warriors, but at thirty-two her body was still strong and her black skin glistened from her milk baths.
She turned to the fierce, young warriors who rode behind, Violya, Lizya and Emmya. There was no danger, their presence was custom, like the daggers strapped to Ramya’s biceps. Her blades hadn’t tasted blood in many years, not since that pygmie fray on her first warrior campaign, five years before she became the Melokai. She touched her mutilated left hand to her mutilated left ear. An ugly memento.
“We gallop from here,” she said. If the warriors were surprised by the command they didn’t show it. The group never hastened through the city, the journey to see Sybilya was leisurely, Ramya enjoyed greeting and speaking with her people. Not today. She ran the tip of her tongue over her lips. Let’s get this over with, she thought as she kicked on her horse.
The group lurched to a stop at the foot of the sacred Mount of Pines. Ramya paused to rest the horses. The place was deserted, as always. The Melokai and her small delegation were the only ones who set foot here, not because of any law, but out of awe for who lived there.
Ramya bowed her head in greeting and then urged her horse on at a brisk walk, followed by the others. During the time of Melokai Tatya, three hundred years past, Sybilya had returned from the gruesome Wolf Expulsion, sat on a tree stump atop this hill, and hadn’t moved again. She was slowly turning to stone.
Ancient Sybilya had spent many lifetimes criss-crossing the land. The endless walking had given her gigantic feet attached to her tall, slender body, cat-like face and extraordinary red hair. The legends claimed her exquisite beauty used to stun Xayy men into silence when they looked upon her. That was before the momentous day a thousand years earlier, when she had conjured magic powerful enough to turn two immense male armies into stone in the midst of the Battle of Ashen. Putting an end to that pointless war ravaged her body, and scorched a circle in the earth she stood on.
Sunlight flashed on and off Ramya’s face as she passed under the majestic row of pine arches that lined the path, like a snake curving its way up the hill. Each arch was carved with ancient symbols and painted the blue of mountain poppies. The paint was peeling and blue flecks fluttered on the breeze. A chill settled like a veil over her and with every step closer, the beloved prophetess’s presence intensified. It was all encompassing, weighty but benevolent.
The horse slowed to a lumbering plod as they climbed and its clopping echoed off the decaying arches. The fading grandeur saddened Ramya. She hoped, as all of Peqkya hoped, that another would be found soon. Her messengers brought news of babies who might have a spark of magic in them from Mothers across the nation, but the spark always flickered out. Before the Battle of Ashen, when Peqkya was still Xayy, there had been many with The Sight and journeys to mythical Zyr Peq, the highest and most inhospitable mountain peak in the realm, were customary. Now, Sybilya was one of a kind and no one visited Zyr Peq.
Soon after the prophetess had arrived on the hill, so too had the cats, both normal and the larger clevercats that were trained to speak. Then the tigers. They had never before come close to the hut when Ramya was there, but – as if she needed any more indication that today would be momentous – she caught glimpses of striped skin lounging under the pines. The normal cats, usually as languid as the tigers, came rushing down the path to squirm around the legs of Ramya’s horse, hissing when their tails were trodden on. As her group neared the hut, their purring became thunderous and the musty, intrusive smell of the creatures choked the earthy pine scent.
Ramya jumped down from her horse and patted its neck. She wanted today’s visit and after, the public assembly, to be over quickly so she could get drunk. Tonight I shall drink my body weight in sweet wine. To toast the end of my reign. And then I will call for company, enjoy myself whilst I still can. Before I am ban– No! she cut into her thoughts. Pointless to dwell on the inevitable.
The warriors stationed themselves outside the simple hut as Ramya and Chaz entered. He took his position standing by the door and she sat crossed legged on the ground, rested her hands, palm up, on her knees and humbly looked up at Sybilya.
The prophetess’s colossal feet were now stone, two unmovable slabs, and Ramya could see the stone creeping up her legs and into her hands that rested in her lap. The tips of her long flaming red locks had faded to white, her once black skin had turned grey and the threadbare rags that still clung to her body were weighed down by a layer of grime. As usual, Sybilya’s eyes were fixed ahead and her shallow breath wheezed through her teeth.
A cat came and sat on Ramya, hot and bony. She twitched her arms and tensed her thighs, trying to subtly shoo it off without moving her hands. It licked its lips and made a foul choking noise, hunching up its body and then spewed out a slimy fur ball on Ramya’s ankle before scampering away. She itched to flick it off, but moving her hands at this point would be disrespectful. She closed her eyes, focused on her breathing, calming her thoughts and willing Sybilya to speak to her.
After about an hour, the Head Scholar coughed to bring the Melokai out of her meditation and signal it was time to go. She wriggled her fingers and stretched her stiff legs, finally wiping away the revolting congealed cat sick. Her eyes darted to his and he gave a tiny shrug, a look of relief on his face. There had been no words. I am still Melokai and he is still Head Scholar.
Confused, Ramya stood, bowed to the prophetess and turned to leave. But then… a feeble grinding, like stone on stone.
The Melokai froze.
The Stone Prophetess dipped her head and was looking straight at Ramya. Chaz gasped. All was silent. A faint purr from the great lady grew louder in the hut, shaking the wooden walls. Every one of Ramya’s bones vibrated.
She met Sybilya’s gaze, two luminous beams that suffused her in light. Without breaking eye contact, Ramya approached and slowly sat on Sybilya’s lap. There was no hair stroking this time, the prophetess’s stone hands were still, but the mouth creaked open. Issee! I will hear her voice again… she honours me with her words after so long! I was right… it is time for a new Melokai.
With extreme exertion, Sybilya spoke. Her voice trembled, but the words were clear. “Welcome, my Melokai. Trouble will come from the east. A wolf will claim the throne.”
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