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Behind Her Smile

Mirian Martins





Copyright 2017 by Mirian Martins



This book is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the author, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be direct infringement of the author’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly. This is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead is purely coincidental.







TABLE OF CONTENTS



Book jacket description

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

About the author

Contact the author

BOOK JACKET DESCRIPTION


No one knows the secret Miriam hides behind her smile, and she is determined to carry this secret to the grave. When the Prince returns home, her feelings for him flare quickly, and soon, she realizes that there are more important issues than her identity.

Years ago, an innocent woman was killed in Ikemba. Little did the people of Ikemba know where this act of injustice would lead them. The threat of annihilation hovers in the air. The village of Ikemba is close to its demise. Series of deaths in the palace leave the village shaken.

The only thing that can save Ikemba from the impending doom is the willing sacrifice of two women. But who will give up her life to save her people? Will the Prince accept this sacrifice, even though it means saving his life and losing the only woman he has ever loved? Will Miriam accept the death of the only man she’s ever loved, or will she do the unexpected?






CHAPTER ONE



Her heart swelling with a news she could not contain, Ella raced into the room she shared with her fellow palace maids. Her roommates had been cleaning up the room, but her sudden presence made them halt. She had brought news. They could tell from the look on her face.

“Girls, have you heard?” Ella asked, panting. She had broken into a sprint just so she could be the first to break the news.

“BBC, what news do you have for us today?” Esther asked nonchalantly.

"Hey Esther,” Ella said, a friendly smile creeping to her face. “I always bring clean news, so don't insult me just because I decided to help you by bringing the latest happening in this palace to your very own hearing o."

The third maid, Amara, bubbled with anticipation as she awaited the news Ella had brought. "Sorry, don't mind her. Just tell us what you have for us."

"Anyway I don't blame you, so I will still give you the news sha,” Ella said to Esther. Facing Amara and the rest of the maids, she smiled broadly. "The Prince is coming back today.”

"What!" the maids exclaimed in unison.

"Yes and do you know the worst part?” Ella asked.

"No,” Esther said. “Tell us.”

Ella moved to the girls—now muddled as one—and whispered into their eager ears. Walls had ears, so she wouldn’t want the words from her lips to reach the wrong ears.

"What!" the girls screamed, their eyes round with fear.

"Why would the Queen perform such a ritual?” Amara asked. “I mean, wasn't it banned by the former Chief Priest? Why would the Chief Priest perform such an evil thing in this land again?"

"But why is the Prince coming back home and why is it that no body is aware of his coming eh?" Esther asked.

Miriam stood by the window, her fingers tightly wrapped around a mop. She looked up at the ceiling and a ghastly fear welled up in her stomach. Despite this, she wore her best smile, blinding the world from her true emotions.

Oh heavens, why is he coming back so soon already?’ she said to herself. ‘What am I even saying eh? This is his home, so maybe he misses it and that's why he is coming home. But I hope he doesn’t distract me from my mission in this palace.’

“Miriam, what do you think about the Prince’s return?" Esther asked, interrupting her thoughts.

Miriam’s grip on the wooden mop tightened even more. Esther’s question had caught her off guard, draining her face of its chocolatey glow. But she did a good job at concealing her shock. "What kind of question is that?"

"But you guys used to be best of friends,” Esther said, more like a question than a statement.

Miriam rolled her eyes. "You said used to be. Not any more, Esther, so please let me be.”

Without another word, she placed the mop against the wall. Gliding from the wall, the mop clattered to the tiled floor, but Miriam paid no attention to it. She stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

"Hmm,” Amara said. Her face hardened, flaunting her exasperation. “What's wrong with that one?"

Esther waved off her question—and any further conversation about Miriam’s attitude—as though she were swatting at a mosquito.

"I wonder what the Prince now looks like,” she said, smiling sheepishly.

Chioma, who had been quietly listening to the conversation, chimed in, "I’m very sure that he has grown into a very handsome young man, and I am also sure that now that he has grown up, things will not be the same again. He will start acting like the Prince he is.”

"Do you think he will be harsh on us or friendly?" Ella asked Chioma.

"Just make sure you do all your chores so that no one will have any reason to be harsh on you.” Chioma walked out of the room, leaving the others thinking about the unfolding event.



***

Sat on a stool behind the palace, Miriam mused over the news Ella had brought. Her hair danced shyly in the cool evening breeze. She’d packed it in a neat pony, but a few stray strands framed the sides of her heart shaped face. Absent mindedly, she tucked the stray strands of hair behind her ears.

"Does he still remember me or has everything changed?" she pondered.

Shrugging, she looked up at the sky, her heart filled with prayer — a prayer that he would forget her so she could complete her rituals in the palace and leave unnoticed.

Her thoughts settled on the dreams she’d been having lately. These dreams had introduced her to a whole new level of fear; one she never knew existed. Silently, she prayed none of her dreams came true.

An unnaturally brilliant light spilled out of the heavens, hitting her with the intensity of a thousand suns. A stifled shriek escaping her lips, she leapt to her feet. Instinctively, she sank her eyes into the crook of her left elbow.

“The fulfilment is near,” a voice thundered from the heavens. “Kill the royal one or you will be offered up in his place.”

The roar of thunder punctuated the warning, causing Miriam’s entire body to tremble as though an earthquake was about to erupt. Heart thumping savagely, she dashed into the palace.

The other maids, littered in the kitchen, slowed down her stride. Unlike her, they had nothing to think of and had returned to their chores. Although she craved some more moments of rest, she had to attend to her chores, lest the Queen hears of her new found laziness. Sighing, she grabbed a wet rag and joined Amara in cleaning the glassware cabinets.

“Wow!” Ella said, swirling around to sweep her eyes around the sparkling kitchen. A proud smile graced her lips. “Believe me girls, up till now I am not done admiring this house. It’s just amazing.”

“Have you heard the secret behind the foundation of this house?” Amara looked around, making sure no one was watching them. Although Miriam didn’t want to be a part of their conversation, she couldn’t help but listen.

Esther advanced to Amara. “What secret are you talking about?”

Standing at akimbo, Amara whispered, “I heard it was build with the sacrifice of new born baby.”

Fear flashed across the girls' faces. “What?”

“And how do you know that?” Chioma asked, narrowing her eyes at Amara.

“Am I not in this village?” Amara asked. “Anyway, I also heard that the story is not allowed to be discussed in this village, especially here in the palace.”

Grimacing, Chioma tugged at her left ear and leaned in toward Amara who took a step away from Chioma’s intimidating stance. “Hmm! Amara you better watch what you say or else I won't be responsible for anything that happens to you.”

The girls stared at Chioma in bewilderment as she marched out of the kitchen.

“Why is she acting like that?” Amara asked, gazing at the spot where Chioma had been standing. “Or is it because she is the head maid?”

“Let’s just continue with what we are doing before the Queen meets us here,” Esther suggested, leading the girls back to their hive of activities.

They had barely even resumed their chores when the Queen’s high pitched voice sailed to their hearing. “My son is back!”

On cue, the maids set down their cleaning tools and dashed out through the back door. Their eyes twinkled with sheer excitement. Miriam stayed back in the kitchen, feigning oblivion of the Prince’s return.

Although the Queen’s shout out had made Miriam freeze, she let her immobility last only for a moment. Shrugging, she went back to work. She shook her head disappointedly at her friends' giddiness. She couldn’t blame them though. Who wouldn’t be eager to see the Prince who’d been away for years?

Sighing with frustration, Miriam tossed her rag to the corner and made for the servant’s quarters. The day had been quite hectic and she needed a break, but as she neared the living room, the cheering from outside interrupted her footsteps. She gripped a pillar and peeked through the curtains. A crowd of men, women and children streaked in through the gate, singing welcoming songs as they marched toward the Prince’s car.

They screamed at the top of their voices as a guard advanced to the car and tugged at the door. Bowing, he held open the door for the Prince to step out. As though a whistle had been blown, everyone else bowed before the Prince.

The Prince stepped out of the car, his head held high in a kingly pride. Miriam craned her neck to have a better view. She had been right to think he’d grown into a fine young man.

Even though Miriam and the Prince had been friends in the past, she almost didn’t recognize him. The hair on his head, almost an afro, glittered like coal. His complexion, now many shades lighter, made him no different from those British men who often visited the palace. But this fine young man was no foreigner. This was Michael Jaja, the prince of Ikemba.

Michael smiled and waved at the crowd who had gathered to welcome him. “Thank you all. I have missed this place so much.”

“Michael my son,” Queen Jaja said, her voice standing out among the cluster of voices. “Welcome home. Come and give your mother a hug.”

Michael turned toward his mother, but before his gaze fell on her, the window caught his eye.

Gasping, Miriam ducked away from his sight. She pressed her hand to her chest, leading her pacing heart back to normalcy. The Prince had seen her. Or had he?

Although she craved another sneak peek to find out if he still stared in her direction, she turned away from the living room. She sauntered to her room and plopped down on the bed she shared with Amara.

There she sat, motionless, her chest heaving as she reminisced over the bond she’d shared with Michael in the past. The commotion outside grew louder by the second. Miriam knew she was supposed to be out there, welcoming the Prince. It was one of her duties as a palace maid, but she just couldn’t handle being there.

“Wow,” Ella said. Miriam raised her head and found Ella and Amara waltzing into the room. How long had she been lost in thoughts?

“The Prince has always been handsome,” Ella said. “But I never thought he would be this charming.”

“He’s been working out too,” Amara said. “Did you see his muscles? They were almost bursting out of his shirt.”

“What are you girls doing here?” Chioma asked, standing in the threshold.

“We came to call Miriam,” Ella said.

“I have come to call her myself,” Chioma said. “It seems she needs a personal invitation.”

“Sorry. I had a headache, so I came here to rest.” Miriam looked away from Chioma. She always did that when she lied. How could she join them outside when the only thing on her mind was avoiding the Prince at all costs?

“When everybody is busy welcoming the Prince?” Chioma asked.

“I said I have a headache,” Miriam said. “I’m not feeling well, please.”

“Okay,” Chioma said. “That’s what you’ll tell the Queen. You think she hasn’t noticed your absence? If you like your job and want to keep it, you better go out there and do what you’re being paid for.”

Miriam sighed. She knew she was fighting a hopeless war. She trailed after Chioma, Ella and Amara as they walked out of the house.

While the three maids joined the crowd in cheering and dancing, Miriam stood like a statue, her eyes locked on the Prince who had his back to her. Standing behind Amara, she stared at him, praying he didn’t turn around. She couldn’t handle him locking eyes with her right now.

Queen Jaja stood behind her son as he crowded the entrance door. The smile on her face had faded, her excitement replaced with a feeling that could only be fear. With a heart full of prayer, she watched her son step into the house.

A fierce wind whirled around him, rippling his clothing and wrapping him with a ghastly cold. He swayed backward, losing his footing, but the Queen was quick to grip his arms. She knew why this was happening, and the knowledge that things might go wrong filled her with untold fear.

Oh heavens,’ she prayed silently. ‘Please don't let anything happen to my son.’

CHAPTER TWO



“No, please don't kill me,” Miriam screamed. Her feet pounded the ground, kicking dirt backward and she trudged forward, leading her pursuer in hot pursuit.

Brandishing a cutlass, her pursuer dashed after her with every ounce of his vigor. The ground trembled underneath his feet. His wrapper around the lower half of his body danced around in the air as his legs flew apart. A white paint formed an eerie trail along his nose bone, and on his clean shaven head were white dots, having the appearance of fireflies. Tattoos snaked around his arms, and beads of cowries hung down his neck, wrists and ankles, jingling rhythmically.

Heart thundering, Miriam tore her way through rows of trees. Tears stormed out of her eyes, leaving cold trails down her cheeks. “Please don’t kill me.”

“The royal offspring must die,” the man said. An average human would be breathless from running an endless race, but his voice held no trace of exhaustion. “I must kill the offspring. The fulfilment of the prophecy is here!"

Miriam panted. Her legs wobbled underneath her. They could not run another lap, and she knew how pointless it was to keep running. Perhaps this was it. Perhaps she was destined to die today, by his hands. Why keep running from the inescapable?

She turned around to face the man. Their close proximity made her shiver. Her eyes squeezed shut as he raised his blade in the air. Sucking in a deep breath, she embraced her end. She stood motionless, waiting for the blade to sink into her skin.

Footsteps rushed toward her from behind. Before she could register what was happening, someone shoved her sideways. Gasping, she fell on her side. A maddening pain spread across her ribs, forcing a silent scream from her mouth.

Something thudded on the ground beside her. Her eyes flew open, only to find her savior writhing on the ground. Grunting, he clutched a gaping hole in his chest. Blood oozed out like water gushing out of a faucet.

“Michael!” she screamed till her lungs burned. “No!”

She scrambled to his side and knelt beside him. She looked around in search of the man who’d tried to kill them, but he was gone. There was no sign that he’d even been here, save for the damage he had inflicted on Michael.

Her frantic hands found Michael’s wound and pressed down on it. “We need to stop the bleeding. Michael, I’ll go get help. Please, stay with me. I’ll go get help. You will be alright. Don’t die on me, please. Don’t you dare leave me behind, I beg you.”

She could feel his heartbeat, slow and barely noticeable, but it was still there. She had to save him. If she left now, then there was a greater chance of saving him. She made to stand, but the feel of his trembling palm against her cheek held her back.

“Michael,” she breathed. Her tears glided to his hand. “Stay with me.”

He smiled weakly. “I miss you so much, Miriam.”

“I miss you too,” she said, her voice wobbling out of control. “Please stay with me. I beg you. Don’t do this to me.”

“I love you.”

“I love—” she started, but the words died on her lips as Michael’s hand dropped from her face, thumping lifelessly on the ground. His eyes stayed locked on hers, but they were cold, distant, lifeless.

“No,” Miriam screamed, shaking her head. She would not accept this. She couldn’t lose him.

She gripped his shoulder and shook vigorously, but he stared at her, unblinking. He would never breathe again. Her Michael was gone.

“Please stay with me. Michael, you can't leave me just like that. I love you and I miss you so much. Please, I beg you.”



***

“Please wake up,” Miriam cried in her sleep.

“Miriam!” Esther yelled. She shook Miriam’s arm, but Miriam didn’t budge. Amara and Ella stood around the bed on which Miriam lay, their faces painted with fear.

Miriam gripped fistfuls of her bedsheet and rolled on her side, muttering some incoherent words.

“Miriam please wake up!" Amara shouted.

Miriam bolted upright in bed, a loud scream tearing her lips apart. Her eyes, round as doughnuts, swept around the room. She gazed at her roommates, and then fixated her eyes on the wall.

“Ooh,” Ella groaned. “These your village people have come again abi?"

“Ella stop,” Esther said. “Can’t you see that she had a terrible dream or are you blind?”

Esther sank down in the bed beside Miriam and patted her back. Sweat streaked down Miriam’s body, drenching her cotton night gown. She blinked off a bead of sweat strolling into her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Esther asked.

Unable to find her voice, Miriam could only nod.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Esther asked. “Should I get you water?”

“I’m fine,” Miriam muttered.

“What did you dream of?” Ella asked.

Movement around the door caught Miriam’s eye. She turned toward the door just in time to see a figure walk through it. Hyperventilating, Miriam pointed at the door with a trembling hand. Her eye balls rolled back in her head and she collapsed backward, losing consciousness.

“God!” Amara flattened her palm on her chest.

“Miriam!” Ella called, moving to touch her. “Miriam, please wake up. Oh God! What are we going to do na?”

Esther touched Miriam’s wrist, feeling her pulse. “Somebody should please send for Chioma.”

The words had barely left Esther’s lips when Amara darted out of the room, beating Ella to it. She burst into Chioma’s room.

“Chioma,” she called, sweeping her eyes around the room, but no one was in sight. She dashed to the toilet, but it held no sign of Chioma.

Amara placed her hands on the back of her head and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Oh God! Oh God! What is this na? Where is she?”

She turned toward the door and caught sight of a woman staring at her. The woman, blessed with an uncanny beauty, seemed to be in her mid-twenties. She stood motionless, glaring at Amara with eyes that could kill.

Screaming, Amara stepped backward. She glanced around for a way to save herself. Finding nothing, she looked back at the doorway, but the woman was gone. She whirled around, half-expecting to see the woman staring at her from another corner, but no one was in sight.

Screaming, she dashed toward the door and bumped into a human wall. “Please don’t hurt me.”

“What are you doing in my room?” a familiar voice asked.

Amara opened the eyes she didn’t realize she’d been closing. She heaved a sigh at the sight of Chioma. Her eyes darted around in search of the woman. Had someone really been there, or had she been hallucinating?

“You look like you just saw a ghost,” Chioma observed. “Is everything okay?”

Amara shook her head. Pointing at the threshold she said, “There was a woman.”

“A woman?” Chioma asked.

Amara nodded.

“Ehen? What happened to the woman?” Although Chioma knew the woman Amara referred to was none other than Nnenna, she feigned ignorance.

“She was standing right here. But then she just…she disappeared.”

Chioma touched Amara’s forehead with the back of her hand. “When last did you take malaria medicine? You’ve started seeing things.”

“I’m not seeing things,” she said. “Someone was…” She trailed off. What point was there explaining to Chioma? She would only paint herself as a crazy person, and she didn’t want that. Besides, there were more pressing things to do at the moment.

“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here,” Chioma said.

“Please come with me,” Amara said. “It’s Miriam.”

A panicked look flashed across Chioma’s previously stern face. “What happened to Miriam?”

“She…she fainted. I don’t know what happened. She was having a really bad dream, and then—”

Chioma sprinted out of the room, making Amara’s words die on her lips. Amara trailed after her. They raced to Miriam’s side of the servant’s quarters and found her lying supine on her bed. She had regained consciousness. Ella stood beside her, fanning her vigorously, while Esther sat beside her, grasping her hand.

“But Miriam, what is wrong with you?” Amara asked. “Why is it the every night you can’t let anyone sleep in this room, eh?”

Miriam rolled on her side and swiped at the tears spilling out of her eyes. She curled into a ball and embraced herself.


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