The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (11 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
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BRAVE

The sword slipped from Tau’s fingers as he dropped to the earth beside his father.

“Councillor, it goes too far!” said Jayyed Ayim over the crowd’s din.

Tau held Aren, speaking to him, speaking words that made no sense. He spoke for no better reason than to hold his father’s attention, because as long as his father listened, his father was with him.

Aren’s eyes were unfocused. They fell on Tau, fell away, and returned with difficulty. His mouth moved, but he said nothing. He couldn’t, not over the horrible sucking sounds that came from his chest with every breath.

“Father? Father! Da…,” Tau said, as the man who had always cared for him convulsed, drowning in a sea of his own blood. “Da!” But it was too late. Tau’s father was gone and could not hear.

The noise of the fighting fields came back in a rush. It seemed everyone was shouting, until Odili’s voice cut through.

“This Common, a military man,” he said, pointing at Tau’s dead father, “fought a blood-duel on behalf of his son. The same son who assaulted one Noble and later raised his sword to another.”

The tumult did not settle.

“I see you are not satisfied,” said Odili, walking to Tau, sword in hand.

Tau watched him come. He didn’t move. Jayyed Ayim did. He stood over Tau with one hand near his sword hilt and the other raised to the councillor, blocking Odili’s way.

“Nkosi—” he began.

Odili brushed past and swung a killing blow. Tau didn’t flinch until the metal shrieked, Odili’s blade brought to a screeching halt by Jayyed’s sword.

“Peace,” said Jayyed, his sword arm quivering with the strain of holding the edge of Odili’s weapon away from Tau’s head.

Tau didn’t know when the large man had moved, but Odili’s Body had the point of his sword pressed into Jayyed’s cheek, dimpling it, drawing a bright flower of blood from the skin there.

Councillor Odili lifted his sword and stepped back. Dejen pressed his blade deeper against Jayyed’s face, forcing him away.

“Peace, again? Do you only play one note, Jayyed?” Odili asked. “You’re no longer an adviser to the council, and no matter how you preen, the Goddess and world can see you’re a Lesser. You think you’ve fallen far? There is so much farther to go.”

“Councilman Odili is willing to be merciful,” shouted Jayyed to the crowds without taking his eyes away from Odili and ignoring the Ingonyama looming over him.

Odili laughed, jerking the muscles of his face into an empty smile. He sheathed his sword and waved Dejen back. Dejen let his sword dip until it aimed for Jayyed’s heart, but moved off.

Odili kept his voice low, speaking to Jayyed alone, though Tau could hear. “Have this peace, Jayyed.” Odili’s grin stretched as if pulled by hooks. “It’s the most you’ll get.” Raising his voice, he addressed the crowd. “Clemency asked, clemency granted. The Lesser’s father has been punished. I’ll leave the boy to his fief.”

He said it like it was worth a cheer. The southern crowd did not oblige. Unfazed, Odili clapped Jayyed on the shoulder as if they were great friends and whispered, “You’ve been a pest. The old queen would not let me swat you, but the old queen is dead. Get in my way again and it’ll be the last thing you do.”

Odili slapped Jayyed’s shoulder a second time, laughed like they’d shared a jibe, and left. The enormous Dejen, Odili’s Body, followed. Trailing the two, disgust on his face, was Kellan Okar.

Tau didn’t understand. His father could help. He tried to wake him. After long days, Aren would often fall into deep slumbers.

A hand fell on Tau’s shoulder. “He’s gone.” It was Jayyed.

Tau looked up. “My da…” Tau couldn’t feel the ground beneath his knees or the sun’s heat. He glanced around. Jabari was there; so was Lekan. Tau saw Kagiso on the ground. The fat Noble, nose still a bloody mess, was nursing the spot where Odili had kicked him.

Thought of the councillor roused Tau. He placed his father on the ground, letting him rest, and reached for Aren’s sword. A strong hand with rough fingers fell on Tau’s wrist.

“I am sorry for this loss,” Jayyed said, taking the sword from him. “Your father was very brave. He knew if he stepped in the circle to fight Kellan, he would never leave. The Chosen are made less by his passing.” Jayyed called out to Aren’s Ihagu. “Come, take your man. Take him home for his burning.”

The Ihagu, glad for instruction, did as they were bid. Tau wanted them to leave his father alone. He wanted to snatch the sword from Jayyed and hunt down Odili, Dejen, and Kellan. He did nothing.

“Nkosi,” Jayyed said, addressing Lekan, “this Common is from your fief?” He was asking about Tau.

“Yes. Yes, of course,” Lekan said.

“He’ll be cared for?”

“What? Yes, yes. You can trust I’ll take care of him,” Lekan said. “And the testing?”

“Nkosi?”

“My brother is here, we all are, for the testing.”

Jayyed didn’t answer. He gave Aren’s sword to Tau and walked away.

“Who does that cursed Lesser think he is?” Lekan said to the Kerem men around him, low enough that Jayyed would not hear.

The Ihagu took Aren’s body away and Tau would have knelt in the dirt till the sun fell from the sky had Jabari not come to take him away as well.

“I will kill them,” Tau told him through tears. “I swear it to Ananthi and Ukufa, I will kill them all.”

BANISHED

The journey home was made in silence. Jabari sent runners to alert the keep that the ritual burning for Aren would be performed that same night. Tau marched without marking where they were or how much farther they had to go. He marched with Jabari beside him and marched when Jabari wasn’t. He marched as the sun beat down and kept going when it didn’t. They marched past nightfall, into the low cliffs of the Kerem mountains. None of it mattered.

“The pompous ass,” Lekan said, walking up to Jabari. “Does Odili even have the power to cancel the testing? Blasted Palm Royals all act like they’re birthed from the Goddess’s twat covered in gold.” Lekan barked at his own joke, no humor in the sound. The Onai family was in a perilous position as long as Jabari remained unconfirmed for the citadel. “What about you? We need you in the military. We can’t pay higher tithes.”

“I’ll travel to the North,” Jabari said. “They test later than we do.”

“How much later? This season’s tithes are due in—”

“It’s not the time, Lekan.”

“Why not? Because your pet Common got above himself and got his father—”

Lekan didn’t finish. Tau leapt on him, bore him to the ground, and struck him in the face. He raised his arm to hit him again, but Jabari shoved him away. Tau rolled to his feet, ready to attack.

“Kill him!” Lekan yelled, his left eye swelling shut. The Ihagu surrounded Tau, keeping him away from the frantic Noble.

“Kill him!” Lekan shrieked.

“They’ll do no such thing,” said Jabari.

“He attacked me. I’m heir to Kerem.”

“Get up.”

“He attacked me. He cost you your testing. I’ll have—”

“Shut up!” Jabari shouted, startling his brother, before turning to Tau. “High Common Tau Tafari, you have attacked my brother, a Noble, and the punishment for that crime is death by hanging.”

“Fine, I’ll do it myself!” said Lekan, reaching for his blade.

“Everyone here knows the crime and its punishment,” said Jabari to the Ihagu and Drudge with them, as much as to Tau. “We also know what this day has cost you, and, for the love I bore your father, I will both honor and consider that in rendering judgment over you.”

Tau felt cold. He knew Jabari was talking to him but couldn’t make himself care.

“I cannot ignore your crime, but as the second son of fief Kerem, and as a neutral Noble, not the aggrieved party, I commute your sentence.” Jabari swallowed and cleared his throat. “Tau Tafari, you may attend your father’s burning this evening, but when the sun rises, you will no longer be welcome in Kerem.”

Lekan was only a few strides away when he pulled his sword from its scabbard. “No more banishments, Jabari. I’ll take my own justice.”

Jabari was in his brother’s way. “Another step and you’ll need to take it over my blade.”

Tau looked at the two Nobles posturing in front of him. One of them, his friend since childhood, had just banished him from the only home he’d ever known.

“You may appeal my decision, taking up the crime and offered punishment with Umbusi Onai,” Jabari told Tau without taking his eyes off Lekan. “Be warned, she may look less kindly on a Lesser having struck her heir than I have.”

“Jabari…,” Lekan growled, his voice aggressive, predatory, in stark counterpoint to his lowered sword and reluctance to step closer.

“Get on, Tau,” said one of the Ihagu, one of his father’s men. “Get on.”

Tau looked for the speaker, couldn’t find him, and turned back to Jabari and Lekan, hating them both with enough force it had his hands shaking, hating them all.

“Get on…”

A hand touched his shoulder, encouraging him to move, and Tau’s vision began to blur with tears. His father was dead. The tears came faster, and refusing to shame himself further, Tau shook the hand loose and left.

His gait was jerky, almost a stagger, like he’d had too much gaum to drink and couldn’t find his balance. He half expected the Ihagu near him to reach out, steady him. Instead, they moved away, letting him leave, and Lekan, perhaps realizing that demands to stop Tau would go unanswered, held his tongue.

A span or two later, Zuri found him in the home that was no longer his. Tau didn’t have much, but what he had, he was packing. She ran to him and held him.

“Tau,” she said, “I’m sorry. By the Goddess, I’m so sorry.”

Tau couldn’t stand to be touched but couldn’t summon the will to move away.

“We’ll attend the burning tonight and then we’ll go,” she said. “We’ll leave Kerem and all of this behind.”

“I have nothing to give you,” Tau said.

“Give? I want to be with you. I won’t stay in Kerem without you, and I won’t let them take me.” She was breathless, wide-eyed, skittish. “I-I had my test, but it doesn’t matter. Tau, they don’t deserve either of us. We’ll—”

“Test?” Tau found there was enough in him to feel surprise. “You’re… you’re Gifted?”

She didn’t answer, didn’t need to. “If we leave now, if we leave together—”

“Gifted. I knew you were special.”

“We can—”

“No,” Tau said. “We can’t. They’ll hunt to the ends of Xidda to get you back.”

There was no argument against that. It was a truth neither could deny.

“Gifted,” he said again, the word feeling foreign. Tau turned away, closing his eyes. His head was pounding. “I’m going to kill them, Zuri. I’m going to kill the men who did this.”

“Who? The Nobles?”

Tau gathered up the last of his things.

“Tau, if you kill a Noble, they’ll execute your sisters, your mother, your mother’s husband. They’ll find out if you have cousins, aunts, uncles, they’ll kill everyone they can, and once that’s done, they’ll hang you, cut your body open, and leave it in the sun to rot.”

Tau strapped his father’s sword and his sword, the one that had belonged to his grandfather, to his belt. He walked out of the tiny hut, into the twilight.

“You’re letting them take your life too,” Zuri said.

He kept going and she ran up behind him, taking his arm and pulling him so he was facing her.

“Don’t do this,” she said. “Come with me to your father’s burning. You… you don’t have to be with me,” Zuri said, “but don’t lose your life and everything you are to this.”

Tau took Zuri’s hand off his arm. Gifted, he thought. The Nobles weren’t satisfied with wiping out Nkiru’s family or the murder of his father. They’d taken Zuri too.

“Goodbye, Lady Gifted,” he said, using the title that would become hers, the title that placed the woman he loved in an elite caste outranking all but Royal Nobles. Zuri Uba had gone farther from his reach than the stars.

Zuri shook her head. “Tau, please, don’t do this.”

He left her there and took the path to Daba. He would circle back when he was lost to sight. He didn’t want Zuri to know he was going to the keep. He didn’t want her to know that he was about to pay Lekan Onai a visit.

LEKAN ONAI

Lekan was angry. The day had been exhausting and the evening worse. He’d had to explain the events at the testing to his mother and father with Jabari present. Everything he’d said, Jabari had undercut. His mother had been furious and his softhearted father had mourned Aren’s loss, excusing himself to get ready for the burning.

Lekan didn’t believe the Lesser worth the bother. Aren had grown too bold and his end was the natural outcome of an unworthy man caught up in his unnatural pride. If Aren had been more humble, his son would be too, and the boy wouldn’t have tried so hard to show up Kagiso. If both Lessers had better known their place, the morning’s unpleasantness could have been avoided.

As it stood, Lekan had been castigated by his mother. He’d been made to suffer for the mistakes of others. They’d have to find a new inkokeli for the Ihagu, she’d said, and without Jabari in the citadel, the fief was in a difficult enough position. She’d cursed the stupidity of men, claiming the Goddess had forsaken her by sending her sons.

Lekan, knowing his mother’s moods, took it in silence. Jabari had tried to argue. She’d sent him from the room.

When it was just the two of them, she’d given Lekan the one positive thing to come from the day. She wanted him to arrest Tau Tafari at his father’s burning. They’d hang him the next morning for attacking a Noble. That’s what Lekan admired about his mother. She knew when a firm hand was needed.

Later that night, hundreds of women and men came out for the burning, many weeping and sobbing like they’d lost a war hero. Lekan was there with several keep guards, but the Tafari boy did not show his face. Refusing to have another failure on his hands, Lekan sent men to Aren’s hut. The boy wasn’t there either.

Empty-handed and with the evening growing late, Lekan had given the men, the ones who had dealt with the Common whore and her family, the duty of finding Tau. That done, Lekan went to the cellar. He picked a well-aged jug of olu. His mother would lash him with her tongue if the Lesser slipped through his fingers, and that, when added to the rest of his day, had earned him the expensive liquor.

He downed it, and when it didn’t soften the world’s edges or dull the pain around his eye where Tau had struck him, he’d taken a second jug to his chambers along with a bowl of half-ripe avocados from the kitchens.

The second jug helped. He’d also enjoyed cutting up slices of avocado, imagining his dagger digging into Aren’s son’s flesh. Warmed by the olu and stomach full, he’d tumbled into bed, falling asleep with his breeches and tunic on.

Lekan was a deep sleeper, but that night it had begun to rain, an uncommon event in any season and rare during Hoard. On a normal night, the rain wouldn’t bother him. His chambers were on the second floor, where he couldn’t hear it pitter-pattering against the ground, and Lekan’s room had thick shutters. No, Lekan could sleep through a thunderstorm, but he couldn’t sleep through being rained on.

He spluttered awake, slapping at his wet face. It was raining in his chambers, which didn’t make sense. Then he saw the shutters were open. Lekan sat up. He was going to close them, but there was a demon at the foot of his bed.

He squealed and scrambled back, about to shout for the guards, though what they could do against a demon he did not know, when the shadowed creature moved into the light. Lekan relaxed, then went tense again. It wasn’t a demon, but seeing Jabari’s pet Common at the foot of his bed wasn’t much better.

“What are you doing here?” Lekan hissed.

“I’m not here to kill you,” the filthy and wet Common told him.

“Kill me?” Lekan said. “You dirty cek!”

“That’s all we are to you, neh? Nceku? Not men, not people. Is that why you threw my father’s life away?”

Lekan didn’t like the boy’s tone and looked him over for weapons.

“I’m not armed, nkosi. I’m not here for your life, yet.”

Lekan risked a glance to the night table beside his bed. His dagger was there, its blade hidden among the avocado skins.

“I’m here to tell you how you’ll die,” Aren’s son said, making Lekan’s arm hairs stand on end. “I’ll join the military as an Ihashe initiate. I’ll pour my soul into the craft of killing, and I will wait for you to rise to fief leadership. Palm will give you military status, and you will know despair.”

“Despair?” Lekan forced a chuckle as he shifted closer to the table.

“Every day, every season, every cycle, you’ll live in fear, unable to enjoy the taste of food, the sun’s warmth, or the night’s breeze, because one day I’ll come. I’ll challenge you to a blood-duel, Petty Noble Lekan Onai, and you will die on the end of my father’s sword.”

The Lesser had gone mad, Lekan realized, and his mother had the right of it. Aren’s son needed to be put down.

“I am your curse,” the Lesser said. “I am your end.”

“Are you?” Lekan asked, snatching the dagger from the table and lunging, slashing the madman across the face and feeling the blade bite into skin and skitter across bone.

The Common squawked and fell back, blood spraying across the floor in a staccato line of red as Lekan threw himself on the small man, bearing him to the ground. He weighed more than sixteen stone and the Lesser couldn’t have been a sand-grit over eleven. With the dagger in both hands, Lekan pressed it toward the fool’s blood-covered face, using his weight to drive it downward.

“Kill me? Kill me!” Lekan said through clenched teeth as the wretch wriggled beneath him. “I’m going to burn your whole family. You have sisters?” he spat. “Yes, Jelani? I’ll have her with this knife!”

Pain erupted in Lekan’s seeds, seared through his crotch and into his gut. He gasped, his strength gone, as he succumbed to the agony the Common’s knee had caused. The Common slapped the dagger from his hand and pushed him away, using the space to scuttle to his feet.

Lekan stood, swinging for the Lesser’s face, but his target ducked and tackled him, driving the air from his lungs and carrying them back to the ground. They knocked over the bedside table, the dregs from the jug of olu spilling on them. They wrestled there, beneath the open window, as the storm raged.

Lekan used his greater strength to beat and batter Tau. He rolled on top, hit the Common, disengaged, and kicked him in the thigh. He’d aimed for the bastard’s ribs but missed.

Tau began to rise and Lekan dashed to retrieve his dagger. He plucked it from the stone floor, put his back to the wall, and turned in time to see the Lesser running for him. He thrust his arm forward, to skewer the scrawny man, but the Common tripped on the fallen jug of olu and stumbled, making Lekan miss and causing his blade to tear through Tau’s dirty tunic instead of his belly.

The two men slammed together, becoming entangled. Lekan sliced at Tau but couldn’t land a killing blow, his knife trapped in torn cloth. Fumbling with the dagger, he tried to work it free, as the Lesser’s fingers scratched their way round his neck. He made to shout, ready to call in the guards, ready to end the farce, but his head was smashed into the wall.

Lekan saw bursts of light flare in his vision, and before he could recover, his head was whipped against the unyielding adobe again. He scrabbled at the bastard’s arms, couldn’t get a grip, and his head was slammed a third time, turning the light bursts into suns.

Remembering the dagger, he tried to stab Tau, but the blade was still trapped in the mess of torn fabric and Lekan couldn’t get a clean thrust. Desperate, he cut away from his assailant’s body, freeing the short blade. He cocked his arm, ready to plunge the knife into the Common’s heart, when his head was blasted into the wall, and something cracked.

Lekan’s legs went limp and he tried to yell at Tau to stop. His mouth wouldn’t work and he couldn’t see anything from his left eye. He patted at Tau’s face, his hand coming away wet and sticky. Lekan didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. He didn’t—

The back of Lekan’s head crashed into the wall again, and he saw his mother’s face. She was young, leaning over him. He was in the bed he’d slept in when he was a child and she was cooing. He reached up to touch her and she shattered into a million pieces as time stopped and pain unlike anything Lekan had ever known consumed him.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
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