London, United Kingdom
It is said that a girl’s first love is her father.
For nineteen-year-old Isha Saene, the First Princess of the Kingdom of Bagumi, this wasn’t entirely true.
Not that she didn’t adore her father or have his fondness to an extent.
However, seeking affection from a man with two wives, eight children and ninety-eight thousand citizens to govern had grown into a lost cause.
Getting a private audience with her father had become a rarity since she entered her teen years. As a pre-pubescent child, she had enjoyed spending time with him as he’d read her school reports and had beamed with pride and joy at the levels of distinction achieved in her academic studies. These days, no awards of merit or excellence from her schools got him to spend one-to-one time with her. He had other priorities.
Consequently, she had given up on vying for parental attention.
She desired a man of her own—someone who would devote time to her whether she was good, bad or indifferent.
Hence, the reason she arrived early for class. She needed a good seat, which meant being one of the firsts to come in.
For other classes, she would sit mid-row. For this one, she chose the front row middle column which gave her a direct view of the lecturer and the clean whiteboard.
Squeaks from the opening door announced the arrivals of other students. Most of the undergraduates in the law faculty made an effort with their appearances since it was Monday morning. But others looked like they hadn’t recovered from their weekend of partying, bringing with them the smell of beer, smoke, and sweat.
Her phone buzzed, and she pulled it from the brown leather tote. The ID on the notification was for her second oldest brother.
His Royal Highness, Prince Azikiwe Saene or plain old Zik as he was fondly named by family and friends was the closest of her siblings. Compared to their rigid and conservative first brother, Crown Prince Zawadi, Zik was a fun-loving animal who didn’t mind bending the rules once in a while. Although they’d had their share of squabbles, she seemed to be on the same wavelength with him most times. And he’d always been her champion and sometimes confidante.
Zik was a Formula One motor racing enthusiast, and had gone to São Paulo, Brazil for a long weekend to watch the last Grand Prix of the season. When she hadn’t heard from him by the time she’d left home this morning, she’d sent him an electronic note.
Now she clicked on the icon and read his response: ‘I got your message. Flew into London this morning.’
‘Welcome back. How was it?’ she typed.
She didn’t share his enthusiasm for long-haul flights across the earth just to spend a couple of days watching men drive cars at break-neck speeds around the tracks. However she enjoyed the stories about his adventures.
Her phone buzzed again. ‘A thrilling weekend. I know you’ve got lectures so we’ll talk after I’ve slept off this jet lag. Later.’
Lucky for him, the Master's Degree he studied meant he didn’t have lectures every day so he could afford to spend the afternoon in bed.
‘Okay. Later. Xoxo.’ She sent the last text and switched off her phone before storing it in her bag.
Her limbs were weighted as she thought about home. As a child nurtured within a large family she could never complain of being lonely. However, privacy proved elusive.
With actions, words and persons monitored by governesses, tutors, minders and bodyguards, Isha had struggled to suppress her independent spirit and conform to protocols. The large entourage also worked as buffers between her and her parents. The constraints had weighed on her like heavy balls and chains around her neck.
Being the prime princess meant leading by example—modelling the perfection expected from the female members of the royal household.
She’d bid her time, and had waited for the right opportunity to spread her wings.
On her sixteenth birthday, when her peers had been throwing lavish over-the-top sweet sixteen parties, she’d asked for one thing, knowing her father would have to grant her wish.
“Papa, when I go to study at university, I don’t want to be Isha Saene.”
First, King Ibrahim had laughed, assuming she’d cracked a joke. Then, he had raged, for months, at her audacious request. Finally, he’d caved in, after been persuaded by every member of the family she could recruit to her cause.
So here, she was Ruby Bagumi, an overseas student from a middle-class family. Her maternal grandmother Mina Fumi had given her the middle name of Ruby, and Bagumi was a generic surname just like Smith or Clark or Jones.
In this lecture hall, no one knew her identity. She had autonomy over her life and the liberty to be her true self. There was no adherence to strict protocols or etiquette—the most significant freedom of all.
The creaking door made her look up. Her heart jolted.
Professor Bassong entered the auditorium, the highlight of her week and the reason this was her favourite course from the degree programme.
The class fell silent as he strode to his uncluttered desk, which stood to the side and placed his black leather satchel on the wooden surface. Without saying a word, he shrugged off the blazer of his charcoal two-piece suit and hung it over the back of the chair.
Enthralled and mouth dry, she watched the seductive movements of his tall, athletic body. Broad shoulders and wide chest, toned biceps and sturdy thighs lay concealed in the long-sleeved sky blue shirt, navy tie and achromatic trousers.
She imagined him being fit, not overly muscular. Yet, strong enough to sweep her into his arms and claim her in an age-old lovers’ dance. Inexperienced in matters of the flesh, and with knowledge garnered from books alone, it didn’t stop her mind from conjuring images of the two of them. He would spread her on his desk and pleasure her with his hands and mouth and body.
Her stomach clenched and her nipples hardened.
She stifled a moan and shifted in her seat, glancing around surreptitiously in case anyone noticed her daydreaming about having sex with the lecturer.
No one paid her any attention, their focus on the man in question.
He was well-respected, by staff and students. His classes were always packed, and the female students, especially, made an extra effort on their appearances, including Isha.
She’d straightened her naturally kinky hair, keeping them smooth and shiny enough to reflect the fluorescent lights in the hall. She even applied makeup—lip gloss and mascara—although she wouldn’t go as far as to put on the mini dresses that some of her fellow students wore in class.
She’d opted for a black woollen turtleneck sweater dress that reached her knees, sheer tights and black and red leather sneakers. Classic comfort was her preferred style, since she was incognito.
Would he be tempted to have a clandestine affair with his student?
She’d heard rumours of lecturers who behaved in such manners. However, Professor Bassong had never been mentioned in any of the gossips.
Would he ever notice her? Was she headed for disappointment where he was concerned?
Heaviness settled in her chest, and for a moment she struggled to breathe as she lowered her gaze to the desk. She twisted the flame-shaped ruby pendant hanging from a gold chain around her neck.
Grandma Mina had given her the heirloom for which she was named during her coming-of-age ritual. Each of the first daughters in the lineage was named after one of the jewels extracted from the Fumi family mines. Hence the reason her mother’s name was Sapphire.
“I named you Ruby because you are full of passion and loyalty,” Grandma Mina had said as she had placed the stone in Isha’s palm. “This gem will bring you good fortune and pure love. Keep it with you at all times.”
Now Isha mouthed a prayer, “Bring me luck. Bring me love,” and rubbed the ruby as if it had magical powers and could grant her wish.
Her desires would remain in her head and no one would find out. Not even the man of her dreams. Her yearnings were fanciful at best and shameful at worst, according to Bagumi societal and imperial conventions.
Not only should she be of pure mind and body, also she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it if she got noticed by the lecturer.
As the daughter of a mighty king, she could only date a strict selection of men to make a match that would strengthen the Kingdom of Bagumi.
Professor Bassong did not qualify for that concise list of powerful men.
He swivelled to face the class, his gaze sweeping over his audience. Mini skirt or not, he didn’t linger on any particular student or give anyone any extra attention.
He turned back to the table, opened the flap of the satchel, and pulled out items—a textbook, notepad, and marker pen. Then, he strode to the whiteboard and scribbled on it. War and International Order.
His movements were assured and measured as if he’d done them a thousand times before so that he had become finely attuned to the impact on his audience.
The class was still, silent, rapt in attention as they followed his actions.
Pride swelled her chest as she watched him. An African, just like she was, could command the attention of a theatre full of international students.
Known to be hard but fair, he expected a lot from his students. He didn’t suffer fools, and everyone knew they only had one chance to be in his class. Otherwise, he would toss them out.
Professor Bassong might not be a king. Nonetheless, this classroom was his kingdom, and the students were his subjects.
Isha loved being one of his subjects, although he never bestowed any special recognition on her. She didn’t mind sharing his limited time with others, as long as no one else snagged his interest.
Someone’s phone vibrated loudly on a hard surface, and gasps and murmurs erupted in the hall.
Isha turned to find the girl sitting behind her in the next row scrambling to switch off and hide the offending object.
Too late, though.
“What is your name?” Professor Bassong’s voice was stern and sharp enough to chop wood, or more specifically, to cut a misbehaving student to size.
The hairs on Isha’s arms and neck stood erect at the tone of his formal British accent which reminded her of actor David Oyelowo’s voice. And heat flared on her skin as if she was the one he addressed.
He stared straight at the young woman, his arms folded across his chest, his jaw set in a hard line, his clean-shaven chin jutting.
“Jenna ... My name is Jenna Hillman.” The girl stammered and lowered her head.
He reached in a drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper.
And then, he strode to the row of chairs and stopped in front of Isha.
Her pulse sky-rocketed and she licked her lips, tasting her cherry lip gloss.
He stood close enough to touch.
Her fingers tingled with the urge to graze the subtle check-patterned fabric of his charcoal trousers, to feel the warmth and hardness of corded thigh muscles underneath. She caught the scent of his spicy cologne. Definitely cedarwood, cloves and cinnamon and something else she couldn’t identify.
“Ms Hillman, take this and read out the content.” He passed the sheet of paper to Jenna.
Jenna’s face fell as she started reading. “This is the code of conduct for the students attending the International Law and Order course.”
She went on to outline the terms about punctuality, behaviour in class, phones and gadgets, and even dress code.
Isha knew the document mostly by heart as she had read it and abided by it. Most of the students did, but there were rare occasions like this when a mobile device went off in class, resulting in the culprit being subjected to humiliation by reading out the code of conduct.
It worked quite well because she had never witnessed repeat offenders.
When Jenna finished the reading, Professor Bassong took the sheet and returned it to his desk.
“Now that we have all been reminded of the student obligations, we shall get on with the topic for today.” He turned to face the class. “Of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse named by John of Patmos in the Book of Revelations, which one of the Horsemen is the most avoidable? Anyone?”
Isha’s heart thumped as she raised a clammy hand.
The professor’s sharp, assessing gaze fell on her. “Ms ...?”
Her heart thumped harder, and her cheeks flushed as she lowered her hand to the top of the desk. This was the first time he’d addressed her since she started attending his class. “Bagumi. Ruby Bagumi.”
“And the answer?” he said, his expression not changing.
There was no flicker of interest. No hint that being bestowed the knowledge of her full name filled him with excitement just as it energised her.
She swallowed the twinge of disappointment and ignored the tightness in her chest.
She had come prepared for this class, for him.
Like the rare occasion of being granted an audience with the monarch, she would make the most of his attention while she had it.
“War is the most avoidable of the four,” she said in a clear voice, maintaining eye contact as butterflies fluttered in her chest.
“Explain your reasoning, Ms Bagumi?” He leaned against the top to the chair with both hands. For the first time, he focused his gaze on her for more than fleeting seconds as if he had the desire to learn about her as well as what she had to say.
Her internal temperature increased along with her heartbeats. She swallowed the nerves threatening to kick in. She could do this.
“First of all, Death is inevitable for all of us. While we can prolong life through science and technology, the body is set to die from the moment one is born. Pestilence and Famine are largely unpreventable, although we can minimise their impact. But War?”
She shifted in the seat, passionate about her subject. She’d read up on the topic, determined to be noticed for her intelligence if her physical charms didn’t work.
At home, excellence didn’t make her stand out or get noticed. It was a standard expected of her as a member of the Royal House of Saene and the first daughter of the king.
Here, the university recognised and rewarded achievements with awards and accolades.
And she was determined to be noticed by her lecturer, this one in particular.
“War is avoidable,” she continued. “Humans choose to wage war against other humans for tribal, racial, religious, and ultimately political power.”
Someone in the back of the theatre scoffed.
Isha narrowed her eyes and clenched her teeth but refused to glance at the source of the interruption.
Professor Bassong looked in their direction. “Do you have something to say, Mr Dodd?”
Joshua Dodd was one of those arrogant, smart-ass students who behaved as if he knew everything about the law because his father was a well-known Queen’s Counsel, an eminent barrister appointed by the British monarch to be one of ‘Her Majesty’s learned in the law’. He was known for trying to paint other course-mates as fools.
“Ms Bagumi implies that World Wars One and Two were avoidable, which is ridiculous.” Joshua Dodd snickered.
“Ms Bagumi, would you like to rebut?” Professor Bassong’s challenging gaze landed back on Isha. It was as if he was trying to figure out what kind of person she was—would she cower or fight back?
She straightened her shoulder and tilted her chin up, meeting his gaze without flinching.
She’d been raised to be a lioness, not a goat.
“Yes, Professor,” she replied in a confident tone. “If we examine the causes of those unfortunate conflicts, we will find them to be rooted in imperialism and nationalism, which goes back to my earlier point that war is about political gain.”
“Thank you, Ms Bagumi.” There was a hint of humour in his tone and sparkle in his ebony eyes as he bestowed her with the award she had craved since she’d first sat in his class—his acknowledgement.
Then his gaze swept the room again. “In this module, we explore the relations between war and international order. Is war a tool for keeping international order? Is it avoidable or not?”
As the rest of the lecture carried on, adrenaline rushed through Isha, rejuvenating her.
Her first love had noticed her. Finally.