Memory seven: For protection
I scan the garden to see if I can find Sehe.
Spring is well underway and he should just be somewhere out here.
There’s enough garden work to do in spring,
I spot him in the back, squatted down and snipping at the plants with a small pair of scissors.
“Good morning Sehe.”
He looks up at me and bows his head “Good morning lady Elizabeth.
“What are you doing?” I ask with interest as I follow his hands.
“Thinning out seeds. If you look closely you’ll see that there are three plants in each hole. I’m cutting down the smaller ones so the biggest can grow nice and strong.”
“Poor smaller plants.”
“Don’t worry, they’ll end up in your lunch so they’re not wasted.”
“My lunch?” I ask with surprise “What is it?”
“I think I saw that on a sign somewhere but I don’t know what that is.”
“You must have passed the grocers then. In Cygne you call it koriander.”
“So this is what that looks like on the plant!”
“Wonderful! Well, I won’t keep you I’m going back to…reading.” I turn and walk away picking up a “Have fun.” From Sehe.
I turn the corner and check behind me to see if I’m out of view yet.
Then head straight to Sehe’s house.
I had to make sure he wasn’t inside but with him occupied I clamber up onto the roof and jump over the wall.
It goes better this time. I’m taller than when I did this three years back which helps a lot.
I jump down the other side, then immediately buckle over because I forgot the grass is set at an angle here and scrape my knee.
Right, so the landing could use some work but overall not bad.
On the other side I tie a ribbon to one of the tree branches so I know where to clamber up again.
Then go out into the city.
On my own.
I want to be able to explore the city without that ever-present feeling of being watched.
My bodyguard is scary, maybe not to me but definitely to the people around me.
I’ll never make friends that way.
Of course, going out without Henri isn’t without danger.
Ruffians galore in a city large as this.
But I have a plan.
I’m heading straight to Xochu.
The store is empty, I wonder how this lady makes ends meet if she has so few customers and most of the ones that do come in come in for advice or charity.
I wonder if she even remembers me, it’s been such a long time.
“Hello Elizabeth, welcome back,” Xjaa tells me from behind the cash register.
Well, that answers that question.
I bow at her “It has been indeed Xjaa.” But I don’t have time for reminiscing “I came to purchase a firearm.”
She draws up her eyebrows “And who is your target?”
“I just need it for protection, I want to be able to walk outside the wall without the need for a guard or a fear of the kashuya.”
“The kashuya will be scary no matter what weapon you carry.” She tells me solemnly.
“I guess, but it’s better than nothing. I don’t need to kill anyone I just want them to stop trying to kidnap me.”
“And what kind of a weapon are you looking for?”
“Do you happen to have a… revolver?”
“Not many, but a couple, why a revolver?”
Because that’s the preferred weapon of Antoinette Delarouge and I want to be just like her “My bodyguard Henri carries one, they look…practical.”
“They are, they’re also a weapon that requires a lot of discipline. The easier it is to shoot again the surer you need to be about your target.”
She looks at my face with stern eyes trying to gauge my honesty.
“Very well, come with me.”
Xjaa leads me to a shooting range at the back of her shop and lays a gun in my hand. “Shoot the target.”
I nod, then inspect the weapon. “What does this do?”
“That’s your safety, it blocks the trigger unless you lift it.”
“That’s the hammer, it ignited the gunpowder.”
“I see.” I take a moment to look at the range, ten meters, maybe twelve, so it’s not that far away.
I take a moment to line up my shot.
Pull up the safety, pull the trigger and a surge of energy rushes through me as the weapon roars in my hands.
I hit the target, not in the centre, or even anywhere close to the centre, but I hit the target.
“You got talent, that’s good. Now come inside and we’ll talk details.”
About an hour later I’m standing on the outskirts of the city, looking for an address that makes no sense.
It’s a jumble of letters and numbers but the order seems all wrong.
I stumble upon a white building looking vacant and dilapidated.
That can’t be it right?
But every other direction has a different street name or number…
So it has to be.
“Hello?” I call out. “Is anyone out there, I got this card?” The door opens swiftly at my voice and a young man jumps out, his hair is a mess and he’s wearing only a single layer of robes.
I show him the card, and he reads the message on the back before asking “Tea?”
“Well come on in then.”
I look at the building, “I…I prefer to stay out here for now.” I don’t expect Xjaa to want to do me any harm, but I don’t know this man, and I’m not sure what to think of him yet.
The man blinks for a bit, then says “All right but can you sit down behind the house then so no one sees you? I’ll be right out with tea.”
I weigh my options and then nod.
The door closes again and I make my way to the back of the house where there’s not much to sit on actually so I lean against the building instead.
I pull out the weapon, it’s beautiful, a revolver just like Henri got with a six-bullet chamber and a gorgeous body engraved with flowers and birds. I wanted to research beforehand but getting a book on guns is nigh impossible. The only thing I managed to find is a catalogue that explains some of the basics while trying to sell me the latest models.
How to load, how to clean, how to take off the safety and ‘shoot some rounds’.
But if I want to actually practice these skills. I need a teacher and a place where it’s safe for me to fire a weapon.
“Sorry for the wait.” The man says as he makes his way around the building. He freshened up a bit and put on some more clothes which is appreciated.
In his hands, he holds a plate that’s pulling duty as a tray and on top of it is a small teapot and even smaller cups.
“Sit, sit.” The man says and he sits down in the grass ”Actually don’t sit, the grass is wet with morning dew.”
I try to keep my amusement to myself but I can’t help but crack a smile.
Luckily the man smiles too. “Could you perhaps hold this?” He asks and I take the plate from him while he pours the tea.
I feel a bit silly insisting we stay outside while it’s quite clear now this man wouldn’t hurt a fly and all this is much more inconvenient than I intended it to be.
But saying ‘let’s go inside’ would probably be even more of a hassle at this point so I just wait patiently for him to take the tray back and offer me a tiny cup of tea.
I bow politely, then accept and take a sip, it tastes…fresh, not in the sense it just got brewed but, it’s different from normal?
“It’s delicious, may I ask what kind of tea this is?”
“It’s qjata, it grows in the mountains back in Xjawa. That’s where I’m from, Xjawa, so this tea reminds me of home.” He then grunts “I’m doing this all in the wrong order, hello miss, my name is Mjo and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“It’s quite all right, my name is Elizabeth and likewise. I got your card from Xjaa, she told me you could teach me how to wield one of these.” I show him my gun.
He looks at the gun, eyes wide, then nods “Well, yes, but there is something you must know beforehand.”
“Being?” I ask a tad suspiciously.
“Well, this place doesn’t get many students, and the students I do get are…well…” he tries to weigh his words, seemingly gives up and states “They’re a rag-tag group of street kids that probably don’t have the highest regard for the governor’s daughter.”
“You’re saying they’ll hate me?”
“Most likely yes.”
I know I shouldn’t feel surprised by that, and yet.
I take a breath “That’s all right, I’m here to learn, not to make friends.”
“Well, in that case, you came to the right place.”
“Thank you, oh and Xjaa told me to give you this, It’s tuition for the foreseeable future.” I hand him a small bag, judging from his expression it’s lighter than he expected.
Then he opens it up and his eyes light up “Uhm, this will suffice for a long time…”
I smile “Good, when do we start?”
“Lessons are on Sundays at nine in the morning. We can start this Sunday if you like.”
“I would like that very much, thank you.” I put the cup down on the plate and bow to my new teacher.
He bows back, I take my leave with a skip in my step and a grin on my face.
Then decide on the perfect way to celebrate.
“Are you sure your father is okay with this?” Henri asks as I look at myself in the mirror.
The real answer to that question is ‘no’ but I’m too giddy to tell him the truth. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
The lady from the shop adjusts the piece of fabric around my waist and asks “You like?” in awkward Cygnian.
“It’s gorgeous.” I tell her in Jigani “Could you explain to me how to tie this? I’d like to be able to do it myself.”
The woman looks surprised for a bit, then smiles “Certainly miss, let me grab another sash to demonstrate.”
While she’s off looking for another sash I go back to admiring the patterned fabric, the massive sleeves and the delicate pleats.
“The servants probably know how to tie it you know,” Henri tells me.
“Yes but I don’t want to have to ask assistance to get dressed every morning, the servants already have enough tasks on their plate.”
“You want to wear these bathrobes daily?” He asks flabbergasted.
“They’re not bathrobes, they’re shimou.”
Henri rolls his eyes, I try to ignore it.
Then the woman comes back with a long strip of fabric “So this end is folded and you put it over your shoulder…” She shows and I try my best to follow the steps in kind.
By the time I come home again I wear my shimou with pride.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares my enthusiasm.
“What are you wearing?” Father asks, his disdain thinly veiled as he makes his way down the steps.
“Shimou, they’re really great. Look you can use the sleeves as pockets.”
“Go upstairs and get changed, now. I don’t know where you got that from but you’ll take it back tomorrow.”
“Because I say so.”
The bell for dinner rings, I smile and tell him “No.” Before heading to the dining room.
“Excuse me?” Father calls behind me “Come back here this instant.”
I sit down at the table and have a sip of water.
Father barges in, then recollects himself and repeats “Need I remind you it’s my money you’re spending, that means I have the final say.”
“It was time for a new dress anyway. I didn’t spend any more money on clothes this year than I regularly do and I’m not going to insult the artisans who made this gorgeous piece by returning it.”
He grunts “Look, you’re not dressing like a servant at my dinner table, go change or I’ll have dinner alone.”
“That’s ridiculous.” I scoff but father snaps his finger to address one of the servants filling the table.
“You there, clear her spot.”
The boy bows and picks up my glass.
“Father that’s ridiculous.”
There goes my cutlery.
He doesn’t respond, merely drinking from his own glass and staring me down like a dictator to his subjects.
“Fine!” I jump from my chair and rush to my bedroom to change.
But you bet I’m changing straight back after I’ve had my food.
He’s impossibly rude at times. A real…
Sunday couldn’t come fast enough.
Every evening I take the gun apart and clean it.
Put it back together.
Then put it in a box underneath my bed.
And dream I’m a crime-fighting, mystery-solving badass with a gun in one hand and a book in the other.
Free and far away from here.
I head back to the white house and the moment I approach the door opens up.
“Ah, Elizabeth, wait, is it okay if I call you Elizabeth?”
“Come on in.”
Inside I find two boys already waiting for class to start.
I walk up to them and bow “It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m Elizabeth.”
The smaller one of the two looks up first “What’s the Chattoway kid doing here?”
“Uhm…I’m here to learn, just like you.” I try to keep my spirits high but the older boy just huffs “Leave us alone rich kid.”
“All right, sorry to bother you.” I try to press down the sense of disappointment and sit down by myself.
Well, Mjo did warn me I wasn’t going to be the most popular girl in class…or liked at all.
However, it still stings.
I check my watch and note that class should have started already.
But there are only three of us here.
Is this all?
Just as I’m about to enquire about it the door slams open and a girl with fiery red hair rushes in followed by another boy who seems to have a hard time keeping up.
“Morning!” The girl shouts then practically crash-lands on the floor as if to say ‘I’m here, now let’s go.’
It makes me crack a smile. I didn’t expect to see a fellow girl here but with that revelation comes a spark of hope that I might make a friend after all.
“All right, everyone sit down, I have an announcement to make,” Mjo tells the class of only five people myself included. He then gestures to me “Elizabeth if you would stand.”
“Oh, okay.” I stand up and face the others.
“We have a new student today, her name is Elizabeth and I expect you all to treat her with respect and dignity.” For some reason, Mjo decides to end my introduction with a warning tone.
I bow “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
My eyes drift to the girl when I look up again and find her hand is raised.
“Yes, Migo?” Mjo asks pointing at the girl.
“Is this a joke?” she asks with a sharp edge to her voice.
Under his breath I can hear Mjo hiss ever so slightly “No Migo, it’s not a joke, Elizabeth will be studying here for a while.”
“Why?” her voice is dripping with disgust instantly incinerating my hope for making friends.
Mjo opens his mouth to defend me but I beat him to the punch.
“Because I want to learn just like you.” I look up at the group as a whole and announce “You don’t have to like me, accept me or even acknowledged my existence. But I’m not leaving.”
The girl scowls, ready to retort but the teacher claps his hands.
“And with that out of the way, let’s start the day with meditation. He directs his gaze at me, it’s very simple, you close your eyes and clear your mind. Just focus on your breathing.”
I nod, then close my eyes to find a lot of thoughts still in the way.
My chest is tight because of the inhospitable reception by the other students and there are so many things to worry about.
“Focus on your breathing.” The teacher repeats and I almost want to sigh. I breathe out, then in again. Out, in, out…what was I thinking about again? Wait don’t think about anything!
In, out, in, out.
“Everybody open your eyes again.” The teacher announces and my head feels oddly fresh and new.
“Now form a line, we’ll shoot some rounds.”
Oh, the exciting part! I pick my gun from my bag and immediately feel the disapproving stares of my peers.
It’s too pretty, isn’t it?
No! I tell myself strictly It’s the one I like and that’s all that matters.
I get shuffled to the end of the cue, but that’s fine by me, I’ll get to observe the praxis before I have to prove myself.
At the start of the line is Migo, the one person whose name I learned by now. She pulls out her gun and aims for the target at the far end of the wall. Then pulls the trigger to hit somewhere halfway down the board.
There must be at least twenty meters in-between us and the target so that’s pretty impressive.
The boys all score lower than that, with one of them missing the board entirely and driving a bullet into the wall to the uproarious laughter of the rest of the group.
Because Migo was at the front and I was in the back Migo stands behind me as I try to line up my shot.
Her presence is daunting.
I try to focus on what’s in front of me.
All right, loaded, unlock the safety, look at the target aaaand-
I press the trigger but as I do the girl pokes me painfully in the back of my ribs, I let out a yelp and lose my aim shooting the wall and getting met with laughter and sneers.
“Even Wata did better than that.”
“Looks like we got a new worst in class.”
My face pulls red with anger and embarrassment.
I turn to the kid behind me “You pushed me!”
“What are you talking about? Did you see me push her?” she asks the other boys and they all shake their heads going “Nah, she’s making excuses.”
“She’s a sore loser.”
“All right that’s enough. Elizabeth please take a step forward and pull another shot.”
“Hey, it’s my turn!” Migo shouts.
“My range my rules Migo,” Mjo tells her outright and I step forward, out of the reach of any pranks or nonsense.
I reload my weapon with a twist of the barrel and then line up my shot again.
I take a breath.
Fire the shot.
Everyone is silent.
I look at the target, the bullet buried next to Migo’s, a single ring closer to the target.
“She beat Migo.”
I walk back to the end of the line beaming with pride.
The rest of the lesson is spent getting scowls from Migo but I can’t say I’m impressed.
Mjo is the boss in this place, as long as he’s around no one can touch me.
I clean my gun, pack up my stuff and bow to my teacher wishing him a good week.
Then walking out, and getting stopped by Migo and her friends.
“If you know what’s best for you, you stay out of this place.”
“I’m not here to fight.”
“Well, that’s exactly what you get” She pulls out her gun and points it at me. “If you come back next week you’ll regret it. Mark my words.”
“Mjo says we’re to use our weapons to defend ourselves. Not to attack others.”
“What about protecting my country?” her eyes are fierce, unrelenting.
I take a step back.
Her finger reaches for the trigger.
I run, dive behind the corner stumble my weapon from my sleeve and-
She pulls the trigger, then laughs.
A soft click.
The gun was empty all along.
The others join the mockery, pointing and prodding at one another.
My heart is racing still.
I want to lash out, call them bad names.
I put the gun back in my sleeve, take a deep breath and go home again.
Witty repartees pop into my head at every step.
Things like ‘noted and ignored’ or ‘ I’ll stay wherever I like”.
‘I’m not scared of you Migo.’
That’s what I should have said.
Maybe next time.