I squeeze my eyes shut.
‘Oh my Curl!’ Lina laughs. ‘Nate, burn that shirt already. It’s giving me nightmares.’
I will myself to turn around.
‘This?’ Nate tugs his shirt. ‘This old thing is a treasure. Much better than the purple rag you’re wearing.’ He blows raspberries and gives her a thumbs-down. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember I’m looking at a twenty one-year-old scientist.
‘Shut up and give me a hug’, Lina says before pulling him to her the way she did to me. Nate pats her on the back but his hazel eyes stay fixed on my face. When she finally releases him, he comes to my side.
‘Hiding from me again?’
I snort in the most unattractive way possible.
‘Don’t be silly. I’ve just been busy’. I throw an arm round his waist, opting for a casual side hug.
‘If you say so.’ He doesn’t sound too convinced. Then he leans in, a cheeky smile tugging at his lips. ‘You know I am the smartest one here- and the oldest.’
‘Only by a few months,’ Tim mumbles under his breath.
Nate cocks his head. ‘And those months still give me an edge.’ He inches closer to me. ‘So it’s only a matter of time before I work out whatever little secret you’re hiding.’ I giggle at his joke, sounding more nervous than I’d like.
‘If I remember correctly, I was the reason you passed all your exams in school. I wouldn’t be so confident,’ I say.
‘Well, only Tressian history and grammar. And you-’ He digs a finger just below my shoulder. ‘-have always been a better teacher than student.’
I shrug and smile.
‘It’s been long.’ He ruffles his sandy blond curls. ‘I’ve missed you.’
‘I’ve missed you too.’ And I mean it. Looking at him now, I can’t imagine how I managed to get through the past weeks without his constant teasing, without my best-friend.
Nate wets his lips. ‘You’re okay right? Your dad’s okay?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘I began to worry when I stopped seeing you around the company.’
The concern in his eyes is so sincere I feel horrible for avoiding him. I decide then that whatever friendship-shattering conversation lies ahead, I’m just going to have to brave through it.
Nate scowls. ‘It’s not okay.’
I’m about to protest when he yanks one of my curls. I yell and he laughs.
‘Now we’re okay.’ Then he digs both hands into my hair and completely messes my curls like he always does.
Tim extends his platter. ‘Nate- free guava tot-treat?’
‘Don’t mind if I do.’ Nate says, grabbing one. I steal a second just as Tim moves the platter away.
‘At this rate, I’ll have none left to sell.’
I laugh and finish the cake in a few bites.
‘If she had two, I demand a second.’ Nate adds.
I clap away the crumbs on my hands. ‘Take it as a compliment Tim. You make excellent cupcakes.’
Tim scratches the freckles on his nose. ‘Cupcakes?’
‘That’s what they call them in Otherside.’
Lina leans against the stall and her dress rises up her thighs making her ridiculously long legs look even longer. ‘Here we go again,’ she says. ‘I was wondering when you’d enlighten us with your many Othersidian facts. I thought your dad was like, really against you reading Othersidian books?’
‘He is. But it is part of my work after all. I can’t just refuse to look at them.’ I grin. ‘Plus, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.’
Nate looks impressed by my unexpected rebelliousness. ‘Does this mean he still doesn’t know you went ahead with the Centre application?’
‘I’ll tell him when the time’s right.’
Papa hates Otherside because it’s the land of the hair-atheists- people who don’t believe that hair type matters. Tressia cut official links with it centuries ago even though it was the ancestral home of Elriya and the founders of Tressia. The Ministry of Hair Affairs still maintains a large library of Othersidian books that were brought in by the first immigrants. It’s part of some kind of ‘know your enemy’ policy and only employees of the Centre for Othersidian Studies have full access to them. Sometimes, materials considered useful by the Ministry get sent over to my department for censoring before consumption; and they are fascinating. I’ve never told anyone this, but if it weren’t for the travel ban to and from Otherside, it’s my dream to visit it one day. That’s the real reason I’ve been studying so hard. Getting a job in the Centre somehow feels like a step closer to that dream.
An Avander walks up to Tim’s stall with a disposal bag. Seeing her scratching her bald head makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on their ends. She stuffs my used napkin into the bag and then a dirty bread roll she finds on the ground before walking away. I watch her pause and dig her arm back into the rubbish. She wipes the roll against her filthy clothes and takes a bite.
Lina scrunches up her face. ‘Eww. Did you see what that Straight-Head did?’
Tim shakes his head. ‘Disgusting.’
Nayr stretches his arms over his head. ‘I’m not surprised. After all, hygiene is a mark of a civilized community and the Avanders are far from being civilised.’
‘Hunger will make you do anything I guess.’
All eyes turn to me.
Lina raises a perfectly-plucked eyebrow at me and we stand in silence for a while.
Nate is the first to break it.
‘By the way Elle, there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.’
I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
‘Emm…Like now?’ I ask.
‘Why? Do you have something to do?
‘Of course she has something to do,’ Lina says all of a sudden. ‘We all do.’
Nate blinks, his face a blank.
Lina sighs. ‘Seriously, you haven’t heard?’ She digs her hand into her purse and fishes out her gold Juwail pocket watch.
I inch towards her. ‘What?’
Lina checks the time. ‘There’s been a change in schedule. She’s arriving early.’
We stand behind a large wooden platform among a massive throng of Elriyans waving their purple banners and flags. The stage before us is decorated with hanging garlands made of violets and begonias. I arrange my curls over my shoulders, taking in the smell of mulled wine, burnt oil and roasted cashews wafting in the air. It’s not a terrible combination.
Lina squeezes my hand. ‘Isn’t this so exciting?’
The Festival marks the Queen’s one and only annual public appearance. Exciting is an understatement. My mind flashes back to that unforgettable day eighteen years ago. Her Majesty’s face is a picture of compassion, etched in my mind’s eye. I remember those soft eyes and endlessly long black curls. I remember the way she held my hands and told me it wasn’t my fault. My granddad would be forever remembered as the hero he was. Those simple words helped me get through one of the darkest moments of my life.
A loud boom of trumpets wrenches me out of my memories. I watch the Elriyan army platoon begin its rhythmic march across the field, my heart beating faster and faster. We clap and cheer while the soldiers take their place below the stage. Their faces are steely and they place their fingers over pistols that hang on the belts of their crisp purple suits.
Her Majesty’s entourage is the next to arrive. My eyes eat-up the scene before me when two hulking men block my sight. On my tiptoes, I crane my neck between their massive shoulders just in time to catch a glimpse of the Queen’s cousin, Princess Cressida. My jaw drops and around me, men whistle. Her gown is designed to look as if her own long blond curls were wrapped around her shoulders and waist, then left to cascade over her round hips. She waves at the crowd from the stage before sticking one hip out and baring an entire leg. Lina hoots and squeezes my elbow. On the other side of me, Nate looks redder than usual and is holding back a smile.
There’s a short pause while the courtiers make themselves comfortable on large embroidered chairs at the back of the stage. I take in a deep breath then hear it- the sound of staccato drumming marking her arrival.
The transcendent Queen Kurle of Tressia.
Six Straight-Heads roll out a purple silk carpet through the field to our right. They scatter just as she emerges out of an iron carriage looking every bit a goddess. She glides across the field with light, ethereal steps; shoulders pulled back, head raised, green eyes deep and discerning. I gasp. There’s both power and grace in the way she moves. She’s breathtaking as always.
A group of twenty or more slaves follow behind, carrying the weight of her infinitely long curls up the stage. I elbow the dazzled spectators in front of me and draw nearer, getting as close as I can to the first row of spectators. Like hunched bridesmaids fixing the train of a bride, the bald slaves adjust Her Majesty’s lustrous black curls over the length of her purple velvet dress and around the stage. She looks out at us, the sunlight bouncing off her gold headband, her fingers interlaced.
The Crone, looking as revolting as ever, stands closely by her right side. Her skin is like trampled old newspapers and her nose arches into a sharp hook. Somehow, she catches my gaze through the crowd. I cringe a little. Her actual name is Yaya, but everyone calls her the Crone because, well, that’s exactly what she is. Besides that, she also happens to be Her Majesty’s old nanny and a close family confidante.
On Her Majesty’s left, a man scans the field with narrowed eyes. Although a tall man, he’s still inches shorter than Her Majesty’s Amazonian figure. But based on his black-suit and purple tie, I guess he’s the head of the intelligence unit-the Lokyn Force.
Somewhere among the procession drummers, a trumpet blows. We immediately place a hand on our hearts, ready to sing the national anthem:
Lord of Hair please bless our curls.
May they bounce and shine like pearls
on the heads of boys and girls.
Save and grace our Tressia.
Give us strength to free this land.
Against the Avanders we will stand.
Smite them with your righteous hand.
Tressia our Tressia.
Guide our Queen and hear our pleas.
May her reign here never cease.
Spread her love across the seas.
Save and grace our Tressia.
The trumpet fades into a burst of applause. Her majesty raises an alabaster hand, silencing us all.
‘Brothers and sisters, fellow Elriyans and citizens of our beloved Tressia, welcome. It gives me great pleasure to join you today on this joyous occasion. The day our people rose from the ashes of oppression, rose against tyranny to fight for our rights and freedom. The Elriyan Revolution!’
The crowd roars. I join their cheers, my palms already raw from the force of my applause. Her Majesty holds her hand up again and my arms slump back to my sides.
‘Let us also take a moment to not only remember our victory against our sworn enemies, the straight-headed Avanders-’
‘Boo!’ I scream and others follow suit until the entire field is heaving with rage.
‘-but to also remember the countless innocent Elriyan lives that were lost at their brutal hands, the curls that were shaved, or worst still, burned straight.’
The thought is enough to make anyone sick.
‘It is as a result of their sacrifices that we stand here today- curly and proud.’
We raise our voices.
‘Curly and proud!’
‘Make no mistake my fellow virtuous Elriyans. The Avanders are a naturally ruthless and degenerate race. Given the chance, they will rise against us once again and challenge our power. For treachery is in their blood. It ran in the blood of their forefather, Avander, who rebelled against Elriya and the laws of Thayron. It ran in the blood the false Straight-Head king, Seth who usurped Elriyan power and forced us under his rule.’ Her words ring with such truth, I can’t help but gape and nod.
‘We must pay close attention to the lessons taught to us by history. If we allow the Avanders to spread their tentacles of evil, they will terrorise our community once again.’
She pauses and inhales deeply.
‘We cannot return to the dark days of Avander rule.’ She continues, her voice soft and full of emotion. ‘Mercy and leniency are attractive principles but they are dangerous. The Avanders must never forget that their place is below us. Their purpose has always been to serve us as ordained by the laws of nature and the Lord of Hair. They must never forget who we are and what we are capable of should they presume to challenge us once again. They must never forget our power. Should we remind them of our power?’
‘Yes!’ We roar.
Her painted lips twist into a smile. ‘Should we remind them-of-our-power!’
The Crone clicks her fingers, to which three soldiers respond by carrying what looks like a large iron box up the stage. They place it beside the Crone and that’s when I notice fingers curled around a small bar window. One soldier unlocks the cage and drags out a Straight-Head woman in Tressian iron chains. The people around me gasp and I immediately regret being so close to the platform, so close to that long straight hair. For a moment, the Avander smirks at the crowd, her eyes bold. Then the Lokyn Force officer shoves her face onto the floor.
‘Lord of Hair Thayron!’ The Crone cries. ‘Please accept this traitorous snake as a symbol of our loyalty and love. May she forever suffer with her sisters in the icy pits of Zenala. This shall be her punishment for defying shaving law, and polluting the air with her insidious straight hair’.
The Straight-Head flinches under the Lokyn Force officer’s boot.
‘For honour!’ The slave shrieks.
Then everything moves too fast. She pushes hard off the ground. The officer loses his footing and the Straight-Head lunges for the Queen. My scream collides with the cries of the Elriyans around me. I shut my eyes and hear a gunshot. When I open my eyes, the Straight-Head is lying flat on her face, her blood pooling around her. Her majesty keeps her pistol pointed in the direction of the Straight-Head for another second before returning it into a holster fitted over her dress that I hadn’t noticed until now.
For a while, we’re all quiet, staring with blank faces, barely understanding what we had just seen and heard. The guards on the stage fiddle with their guns- clearly embarrassed that the Queen had dispatched the Straight-Head before any one of them did. Below them, the army platoon has its pistols aimed at us in the crowd. I know it’s a precautionary measure but being treated as a suspect feels like an insult.
A solitary clap pierces the silence and soon a wave of applause takes over.
The crowd cheers, ‘Tress-i-a! Tress-i-a!’
I rub my hands against my trousers. I feel dirty, as if the woman’s blood had floated across the field and contaminated me. It sucks the pleasure out of the celebration. I join the others in their cheers without my usual energy and patriotism.
Around me, people shove against each other. I try to find Nate but the place is boiling with people. I can’t even see the stage through the congestion anymore, but I can hear the army unit march away. My heart sinks. We’ve barely had time to see the Queen. But after what just happened, it’s probably safer for her to leave.
A human wave pushes me against the platform’s wall, almost knocking me off my feet. I shield myself as best as I can with my arms but I’ve become a knot in a tangle of arms and legs with no way of getting out. The air is hot and heavy with sweat and I can’t hear, see or breathe properly. Then things take a turn for the worse when an enormous man smashes into me. I gulp fast, shallow breaths and panic rises into my throat. I scream just as two arms dangling above me tap my shoulders and help me scramble upwards over the edge of the stage. On my knees, I pause to breathe.
‘Are you insane? We agreed to stay together.’
Nate helps me onto my feet.
‘Why did you run off on your own? You could’ve been trampled to death. We agreed to move together.’
I press a hand on my chest, panting. ‘I- just- wanted, wanted to see her up close.’
I wait for Nate to bring-up what had happened, but he doesn’t mention it. Good. Talking about things makes them feel more real and I’d rather forget that a Straight-Head had just made an attempt on the Queen’s life.
Nate rests a hand on my back. ‘Are any of your bones broken? That was a huge man.’ He chuckles.
‘Don’t-even-get me started. Where’s Lina? Is she okay?’
‘She got out of the crowd before things started getting crazy. Don’t worry. She said she’ll wait for us near the dance circle.’
The stage is empty save for the hanging garlands, purple silk carpet and embroidered chairs at the back. In front of us, dozens of men and women grunt and yell as they disentangle themselves from one another.
‘How did you manage to get up here so fast?’
Nate sticks his hands into his pockets and rocks on heels ‘I’m the smart one, remember? I walked round the crowd then climbed up here hoping to spot you. You’re lucky I found you in time. Go on, you can thank me now.’
I roll my eyes. ‘Thanks.’
‘Too late. I don’t want your empty words anymore.’
I shake my head, laughing. ‘Is it always so hard for you to be serious?’
‘I don’t think you’d like me much if I was.’ He turns away for a second then looks back at me again. He rubs his lips together. ‘As we’re on this subject, I actually do have something serious to tell you. And no more excuses and procrastination.’
My heart skips a beat. ‘What do you want to tell me?’
He gives me his back. ‘Not here.’
‘But…well. I promised to meet my dad after the speech.’
He twists to look at me, his expression somewhere between fear and anticipation. ‘It won’t take too long.’