Anna stood stiffly as Ma pulled her into a tight embrace. The Great Hall was still wreathed in morning shadows, the skylights high above them tinged with pink and gold.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll look after your daughter.’ The Madomo in charge of the Palace’s domestic staff, fluttered his pudgy be-ringed fingers at Ma. ‘Don’t keep the Kupanna waiting.’
Ma’s warm arms loosened their grip. She stroked Anna’s cheek. ‘The Maker go with ye, child.’
Ducking her head at the Madomo, she hurried back through the service areas of the palace toward home.
The portly man bustled off, angling across the Great Hall towards the sweeping flight of rosewood stairs near the grand entrance at the other end. Along with the double peaks of the Twins and the triangular bulk of the Temple beneath them, the Golden Palace of the Kapoks dominated the skyline of the Tarka. Yet Anna had never imagined that the palace was this immense. Already, she was lost and a little out of breath as the Madomo led her up the stairs. They hurried along a balcony edging an open atrium, past grand rooms with fluted stone columns and magnificent tapestries. Bustling servants moved out of their way, bowing before the Madomo and looking Anna up and down with twitching lips. Anna fingered her rough yarma wool tunic and wished she could disappear.
Another flight of stairs led to a vestibule and into an airy room with skylights, potted trees and resplendent divans of red and gold. They had just stepped into the room when a young boy under a mop of chestnut hair came tearing towards them.
A red faced young woman chased after him. ‘Prince Naetok, come back here.’
The boy chortled. Curly head down, arms pumping, he ran faster. The Madomo jerked to a halt, his hands flying up as the young prince slammed into him. The young woman flailed her slender arms in an effort to stop before colliding into the other two. Their limbs tangled as they crashed to the ground.
The middle-aged man lounging next to a stately lady at the other end of the room roared with laughter. He jumped up and strode towards them. Anna sucked in her breath. She had only seen Martal Kapok, the supreme ruler of Tamra, from across the crowded royal square or along Royal Parade on feast days or various other royal occasions but his aquiline nose and piercing brown eyes were unmistakable. She sank to her knees.
The Kapok grabbed the young boy and tucked him under the crook of his elbow. Then he grasped the Madomo’s arm and pulled him upright. The servant huffed as he rubbed his hip.
‘You need to be faster on your feet, Bitjanan.’
The Madomo bowed low. ‘Yes, your Majesty.’
‘And you too Rianka.’ The Kapok extended his hand and helped the young woman up.
She straightened her tunic and dipped her head. ‘Yes, your Majesty. The prince is full of mischief this morning.’
‘Ah well, he is but five and has plenty of time to learn some manners.’
‘As you say, your Majesty.’
The stately woman with a friendly smile came to stand beside the Kapok. Clutching her long skirts, a little girl with large hazel eyes and dark eyelashes toddled behind her. Surely this was the Kupanna Suraya and the Princess Lakwi. The woman turned to the flustered Madomo.
‘I hope you aren’t hurt Bitjanan.’
He shook his head, his cheeks quivering and his domed forehead gleaming in the early morning sunlight. ‘No your Majesty.’
She laid an elegant hand on the young girl’s arm. ‘I am sorry Rianka. What mischief has Natu been up to this time?’
‘The prince got into my workbasket, your Majesty, and scattered my things all over one of the balconies. Now I’m missing my blue wool. It cost three metal pieces and is just the right colour for the sky for the tapestry I’m doing.’
The young prince stopped straining against his royal father’s burly hold. ‘I didn’t take it. See.’ He opened a pair of grubby but empty palms.
‘Then why did you run, dear?’
The Kapok’s grizzled eyebrows contracted. ‘You should always tell the truth, Naetok.’
The prince’s face furrowed. ‘But I am, Papa.’
The Kapok gave the boy a small shake and put him down. He turned to face the Madomo. ‘Humph, Bitjanan, where is this nursemaid you promised the Kupanna. She’s needed to keep this young scamp in order.’
‘She’s right here, your Majesty.’
The eagle eyes riveted on Anna. Shivering slightly, she bowed her head lower and pressed her nose against the cold mosaic floor. ‘Your…your Majesty.’
‘Humph, she’s a dumpy little thing. How old are you, girl?’
Anna’s tongue stuck to the top of her mouth.
‘Well, speak up.’
‘Six…sixteen, your Majesty.’ How she longed to go home but she would be disgraced if the Kapok dismissed her now. She had to make this work even though it wasn’t her choice.
The Kupanna moved closer to her husband.
‘My dear, Chaska says Anna is a hard responsible worker and has often cared for her three younger siblings.’
The Kapok rubbed his blunt chin. ‘Then I guess she’ll do.’
Continued in Part Four: Picnic in the Palace Gardens