"Young Mistress," said eshu softly. "Ione say is time to get up now. She say to clean your teeth and take a shower, then put on your best frock, the white one with the sailor collar"
Tan-Tan got out of bed. She went outside through the bedroom doors that led to the back verandah. The morning was looking dreary, oui. Papa Sun was hiding his face behind one big mako cloud. Rainflies flitted everywhere, dancing on their wings in anticipation of a wetting. Tan-Tan went to her bathroom, washed herself and brushed her teeth. She reached into her closet for the white dress with the blue-piped collar, but her hand touched her Robber Queen outfit instead. She put it on. It covered up some of her scared feelings.
Nursie bustled into the room, carrying combs, ribbons and fragrant coconut oil for Tan-Tan's hair. "No, child, Put on the white dress, you ain't hear what your mother say?"
"I wearing this."
"Mistress say is okay," chimed the eshu out loud. It confused Tan-Tan. She hadn't had any message from her mother.
Nursie sighed with exasperation. "Let me just get some red ribbons then. These blue ones not going to match."
Nursie oiled and parted Tan-Tan's hair, wove it into plaits, then rubbed some of the coconut oil into her elbows and knees so they wouldn't be ashy. "My pretty little girl." She kissed the top of Tan-Tan's head and took her to have breakfast with Ione.
Tan-Tan's mother was sitting at the table, staring off into the distance. " Oh, you prefer to wear that instead, doux-doux?" She said absent-mindedly. "All right."
Nursie narrowed her eyes. "Comphre, eshu tell me that you give permission for Tan-Tan to wear this."
It was a second before Ione replied. "Eh? No, but is all right." With a sigh she got to her feet and pulled out a chair for Tan-Tan. "Just ask Ben if he will please do a synapse wash on the eshu, nuh? It must be past time." She stood and patted Tan-Tan's shoulder, a little too hard. She smiled nervously, muttered at the air; "Eshu, we ready to eat."
Mummy was wearing a beautiful white dress that left her shoulders bare. It had puffy sleeves and a deep flounce from knee to ankle. Tan-Tan thought Ione was the most beautiful woman in the whole world.
A chicle fetch slid into the room, loaded with covered trays. Ione took them and put them on the table. Bammy bread and saltfish with cabbage and thyme. "Oh, what a creation! Eshu, thank Cookie for we, please."
But Ione only nibbled at breakfast. She kept asking Tan-Tan if she looked okay, kept checking her hand mirror all the time.
Outside, the threatened passing shower broke. Drops pounded like fists at the windows and thunder shouted at lightning.
As soon as the meal was over, Ione had the eshu make a full-sized mirror on the nearest wall. She put a colourdot from her purse onto one lip, then pressed both lips together. Her lips flushed with her favorite oxblood burgundy.
The eshu said out loud, "The limousine waiting, Mistress."
"Oh God," Ione whispered. "Time to go." She hugged Tan-Tan to her, a little too hard. "Don't fret eh, doux-doux? One way or another, it go work out all right." Silently Tan-Tan repeated the rules of the duel to herself. They bustled out into the front yard.
The shower was over. Tiny so like babies' fingernails, transparent rainfly wings were everywhere, held pasted in place by drops of water. Outside twinkled. Flightless as ants now, the rainflies were crawling off to wherever they went after a downpour. The sun had come out, was burning down full. Registering the way Tan-Tan's pupils contracted against the glare, the nanomites swimming in the vitreous humour of her eyes polarized, dimming the light for.
Plang-palang! Plang-palang! Cockpit County was in the full throes of Jour Ouvert morning revelry. People beat out their own dancing rhythms with bottle and spoon, tin-pan and stick. What a racket! Bodies danced everywhere: bodies smeared with mud; men's bodies in women's underwear; women wearing men's shirt-jacs and boxers; naked bodies. They pressed against the car, pressed against one another, ground and wound their hips in the ecstatic license of Carnival. Someone grinned into the limo at Tan-Tan and Mummy. The woman had temporarily cell-sculpted her skin to be Afro on one side, Euro on the other. The Euro side was already sunburnt. She licked the length of the window with her tongue, which had been pierced with a star-shaped platinum nugget. The metal scraped against the window glass.
The limo crept along, slow as a chinny worm. A mako jumbie strode through the crowd, picking his way on his tall stilts. His tattered motley had been made into pants that clothed the stilts all the way to the ground. His chest was bare and he'd tied a long, pointy beak onto his face.
A Robber King stepped into the road in front of them, brandishing pistols almost as long as he was tall. He blew a shrieking whistle that brought to a halt the comess and carrying-on all around him. A circle of space cleared for him. People called out to him cheerfully and drew closer to see what he would do. The limousine braked, tried to go round the man. He stepped into their path again. Ione sighed. "Let he give he speech," she told the car.
Tan-Tan could have lain comfortably under the expanse of the Robber's hat. It had small white skulls bobbing all round its brim. The skulls' lower jaws yammered, but it was too loud in the street to hear if they were saying anything. The Robber's black and red outfit was the essence of Robber King style: bandoliers, holsters, chaps, alligator skin boots with enormous spurs. For a second, Tan-Tan felt the old fear: had he come to take her away for being bad?
The Robber gestured with his guns, spat his whistle from his mouth and broke into a nonsensible rant he had written especially for this day. "Arrest thou compunctively, embroiled despoilers. Dip and fall back, and hear my sultry cry." He turned his head towards the car as he spoke, and it was as though he were sitting right beside them. He must have been wearing a pointmike. Tan-Tan leaned forward to get every word of his speech. Maybe she could pick up some new ones for hers.
"My seraphic dam was a very queen of Egypt; mine pater its monarchical magnate, and I, a son of the sun, a coddled cocotte in my child's robes of ermine and cloth-of-gold. Who would curdle my kingly boy's joy, who mash me down and steal me away like jacks from a ball?"
And so it went: the classic tale, much embroidered over the centuries, mirrored the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, an African noble's son stolen into slavery on seventeenth-century Earth. The Robber Kings' stream-of-consciousness speeches always told of escaping the horrors of slavery and making their way into brigandry as a way of surviving in the new and terrible white devils' land in which they'd found themselves.
"... and then," the Robber went on, "I wrestle the warptenned flying ship from the ensorcelled dungmaster, the master plan blaster in his silver-fendered stratocaster with wings of phoenix flame, and I ..."
Ione opened the window, stuck her hand out. "Here," she called to the Robber. "Take this, and make we move on." She held out money in her hand.
He was supposed to stop when offered payment, but he wouldn't reach for it. "Avaunt!" he shouted. "Get thee behind me, horny horning whore of Babylon!" Someone in the crowd giggled. "Thine gelt shall not tempt me, too wise am I to be clasped by your thighs."
"Take it," Ione growled. "Is fight yard we going, you hear me? "
Fight yard. Fight yard ... was whispered through the crowd. "Robber man," someone yelled, "take she blasted money and let she get through. She going to see she husband duel."
Ione threw the coin. The Robber leapt, swept off his hand, bent on one knee to catch the coin between his teeth and came up smiling. Tan-Tan clapped her hands and whistled to salute him. "Shut up, pickney," zone snapped. Tan-Tan pouted and slouched back against the seat.
The Robber stepped back to let them through, bowed and flourished his hat as they passed. The ring-bang ruction and the dancing started up round them again.
They reached the fight yard to find Quashee standing in the machhte circle already, looking stiff and serious in his leather armour gleaming with jumbie oil, and holding his helmet under his arm. Ione made to wave to him, but pulled her hand back before the gesture was finished. She sucked in her bottom lip and hurried with Tan-Tan to a seat. Some people glared at her, some smiled. An old, white-haired woman with a cane made the kiss-teeth sound of disgust and leaned over to whisper with her companions, another old woman and an old man.
The fight yard had been rearranged to accommodate the only activity it would feature today: the duelling circle. The circle dominated the whole yard. It had rows of benches erected all round. Spectators sat on one side, everybody dressed to puss-foot, everybody excited. The duelling parties sat in two separate boxes on the other. A team of medics sat beside the fighters in one box, a stretcher propped up nearby. Higglers moved through the crowd of watchers, shouting, "Roast peanut? Topi-tambo? Chataigne? Who going buy my fresh roast peanut?"
Tan-Tan craned her neck, trying to see the fighters better. "Mummy, is where Daddy there?" Tan-Tan asked.
"I don't know, darling. I don't see he. Mama Nanny, tell me that after all this fret I fret, the blasted man not going to just forfeit. "
The fighters were all dressed differently, according to their fighting style: some armored like Quashee; some in leotards; some in dhotis with bare chests or bubby-bands. They all looked jittery.
Daddy finally came striding out from the change rooms. Ben the gardener was running in front as squire, carrying Antonio's helmet and machhte.
Quashee ain't have a squire.
The crowd went silent. Daddy walked into that ring tall and proud. You could tell he wasn't 'fraid nobody. Tan-Tan's heart was thumping like drums.
She had never seen Daddy look so fine as this day. His leather armour was all in black with silver joints for the elbow and knee. His matching black leather helmet had a silver mouth guard. His machhte was sharp so till it caught the little bit of sunshine that had graced the day and flung the light into Tan-Tan's eyes, sharp like a razor cut.
Tan-Tan could see the fear-sweat already on Quashee's brow.
Quashee and Antonio stood opposite each other. The machhte marshall examined both their armour, ran a black box over their bodies. "Mummy, what he doing?"
A woman beside them answered. "He checking to make sure them ain't using electronic fields to protect themself."
"Granny Nanny," the marshall chanted in nannysong to the air, "Let the record show: the combattants dress fair to fight fair" His enhanced voice echoed. He put a hand on either man's forearm and switched to patwa. "Gentlemen, I want you to inform the crowd who issue this machhte challenge this Jour Ouvert morning."
"Is me, Marshall. Antonio, mayor of Cockpit County, against Quashee, the man who take away me wife honour from me. "
Somebody muttered, "Eh-eh. Like her honour is yours to have or lose."
Mummy shot a quick glare at the man, her lips set hard together. He returned her gaze sheepishly, shrugged. Mummy looked back at the ring.
The marshall boomed, "Quashee, you accept the challenge? "
"Yes, Marshall." His voice trembled a little.
The marshall nodded and looked up at the stands. "People, listen good, for though Granny Nanny hearing we, you is the human eyes of the law this morning. This fight must go according to these rules:" Tan-Tan whispered the rules along with the marshal
"Them could only use bare machhte, no other weapon or device.
"Them could wear leather armour for protection.
"If the fight going fair, nobody must interfere
"The thing must continue until one of them beg mercy or can't fight no more.
"The winner shouldn't kill, but should show mercy.
"Them is the rules. All you go be witness?"
"Yes, Marshall," the crowd yelled back. As the marshall turned and walked to safety at the edge of the ring, Tan-Tan could hear the excited voices all around her:
"Quashee, man, is Quashee go win! Put a ten rupees on Quashee, there for me."
"You know so! He been practicing! He sure to beat out Antonio. Look my five rupees."
"Nah, man. Is fool allyou fool. Antonio have more life experience. I bet you the dog have solve tricks in he. I putting down twenty on Antonio, oui?"
From the edge of the ring the marshal called to the two fighters: "All right; allyou ready?"
They nodded. Quashee put on his helmet. Even from where she was sitting Tan-Tan could see how his trembling hands fumbled with the chin buckle. Ben made to put on Antonio's helmet, but Antonio stopped him cool-cool. He swaggered over to Mummy and Tan-Tan. Ione giggled like a sob. She put her hand to her mouth.
"Doux-doux," Antonio called out to his wife, "give me your favour, nuh? Your lace handkerchief to tie back me hair from out me eyes?"
Ione put her hand on her bosom. Her lips wavered into a smile. She reached into her bodice with two fingers, slow, the way molasses does run down the side of the bowl. She drew out a pretty lace kerchief from her blouse, dabbed it against the moisture gathered between her breasts, and then flung it to Antonio. He caught the little piece of lace and held it up to his face, inhaling the perfume of Ione's skin. "Oh God," a man whispered from the crowd. "Look how he love she, even though she did horn he."
"Never mind that at all," somebody replied. "Ain't you would give anything to be that kerchief, and rest where it does rest ?"
Antonio smiled at Ione and tied back his long black hair with the kerchief. Only then would he let Ben put on the helmet. Tan-Tan clutched at the Robber Queen cape Daddy had given her. She closed her eyes and said silently, The winner can't kill. He must show mercy. The winner can't kill ...
Excerpted from Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson Copyright © 2001 by Nalo Hopkinson. Excerpted by permission.
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