The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (8 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
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The days that followed were hard. Zuri made it a point to spend as much time with Tau as their duties allowed, but Anya’s fate weighed on her. It hurt Tau to see Zuri so melancholy, and it didn’t help that his nightmares about the raid hadn’t stopped. Still, they found quiet moments to sit and talk, to laugh, sometimes for Zuri to cry.

Tau tried to be her mountain and found that she helped him more than he could her. She was everything he hadn’t known was missing. She was his first thought in the morning and his last at night. He had trouble considering anything but her smile, her eyes, her voice… her.

Still, he did what he could to remain focused. He promised himself he’d repay Jabari for helping protect Nkiru’s family and for being willing to help him make a better life for himself with Zuri. The thing Jabari needed most was training for the upcoming Indlovu testing. So Tau spent every day sparring with his friend until they both collapsed. It was in this way that the final days of Grow ended, the early days of Harvest flitted by, and the ceremony for manhood arrived.

The male Lessers born in the same cycle as Tau were to be made men. The local Sah priest attended the ceremony, reeking of olu. He spoke of the tests facing all women and men of the Chosen. He encouraged the newly made men to be righteous and hoped their deeds would bring pride to their families, as they served the Omehi people, the queen, and the Goddess.

Then the new men were given gaum. It was Tau’s first time tasting the yellowish sludge, distilled from scorpion poison. He downed his cup and the drink blazed its way across his throat, burned his nostrils, and seared a path up and over the back of his scalp. He gasped and gagged, to the enjoyment of everyone come to see him and the others made into men.

Tau couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to drink something so vile, though once the taste had passed, he did notice that the following feast of boiled cabbage, sea-salted potatoes, and long beans tasted more flavorful than usual. Also, jokes were funnier, he couldn’t feel his teeth (had he ever been able to feel them?), and every woman he saw was almost as beautiful as Zuri.

He celebrated into the night with the other new men, and sometime during it all, Jabari had shown up and gifted Tau a brand-new pair of boots. Tau hugged him for a long time and invited the Petty Noble to join him for the best drink in all the peninsula. Jabari smiled, waving off the proffered cup.

The rest of the evening raced, then crawled, in turns. Tau’s father congratulated him and even sat with him for a time before leaving for some duty or other. Zuri came and he told her she was the Goddess on earth. She looked at him, an eyebrow arched, hands on hips. He thought this made her more lovely and wanted to kiss her, but people were around. He tried anyway. She didn’t let him and said she was there to take him home.

Tau was not ready and tried asking Zuri to dance, but his tongue felt fat. No matter; he took her by the hand and guided her to the dancing circle. They danced and it was marvelous, until Tau’s stomach began to heave. He excused himself, pointing to his stomach and mouth before stumbling off to the nearest brush, where he returned his dinner to the earth.

He stood like that for a while, amazed so much could come out of him. When he was done, he looked for Zuri, so they could continue dancing. She thought it best they head home. Tau thought that nonsense, but Zuri impressed him with her strength when she pulled him away from the party.

Tau yelled he had to get his new boots, and Zuri pointed out he was holding them. He said she was the Goddess on earth and was told he’d already said that.

Aren was at the door waiting, and he helped Tau to bed. Tau didn’t need help. He could take off his own trousers. He pulled one leg free and tumbled to the ground. He should get his other leg free, he thought, closing his eyes.

It was the shouting that woke him. His mouth tasted like he’d swallowed a fistful of sand, his stomach rolled, and his head boomed like the inside of a beaten drum.

“Where is he now? I’ll kill him!” It was Aren.

Tau jumped to his feet and fell over. He had just one leg of his trousers on.

He heard his father storming away, the footsteps heavy, angry. Tau jerked the trousers the rest of the way on, snatched his tunic from the night before, and saw it was filthied with vomit. He found another shirt, torn but serviceable, pulled on his new boots, grabbed his practice sword, and dashed out of the hut into a painfully bright new day.

Aren was with Ekon, the tall and wiry fighter he’d made his second-in-command after Nkiru’s banishment, and Aren was furious.

“Father? What’s going on?” Tau asked, squinting against the sun.

“Go back inside.”

“What’s going on?” Tau demanded. He’d never seen his father like this.

“He had them killed!”

“What? Who?”

“He had them killed, that nceku!” Aren marched off.

Tau jogged after. “Who!”

“Lekan,” Aren growled.

Tau didn’t want to know. “W-who… who’d he kill?”

“Ekon’s patrol found them. Their bodies had been thrown from a cliff. Nkiru, his wife, Anya, her brother… the baby… the baby.” Aren drew his sword, moving faster.

Tau ran to catch up. “Father, what are you going to do?” He grabbed his father’s arm, forcing him to stop. “Father!”

“I’m going to kill him.” Aren pulled his arm free.

“Ekon!” Tau said. “Do something!”

Ekon, hands fidgeting with the ties on his tunic, tried to talk sense into Aren. “Inkokeli, uh… Aren, we… we should think about this. We don’t know for sure it was—”

“Don’t!” Aren said, rounding on Ekon, making him cringe. “We know who did this. We know! A baby, Ekon. Nkiru’s baby girl!”

“You can’t fight him,” Tau said, joining Ekon in front of his father, blocking his path.

“I’ll kill him.”

“He’s a Noble,” said Tau.

“Mka! He’ll die the same as a Lesser when my sword is through his neck.”

Ekon looked about them, head jerking left and right, to see if anyone else had heard that.

“Father—” Tau started, but Aren pushed past.

“They’ll hang Tau if you kill him,” Ekon said. “They’ll hang him and then his mother. They’ll cut their bodies open and leave them in the sun to rot. Aren, they will.”

Tau’s father was no longer moving.

“They’ll hang Tau,” Ekon said again. “You know it.”

Aren sat like the bones had gone out of him. He dropped his sword in the stunted grass and placed his head in his hands. Tau went to his father and Ekon followed. Aren’s shoulders bounced up and down. He was crying, without sound. Tau couldn’t remember the last time his father had cried.

“Da,” he said. “Da.” Tau knelt nearby and put his arms around him.

“I’m sorry, Aren,” Ekon said. “I’m sorry.” He kept saying that, over and over. Like the thing that had happened was uncontrollable and inescapable, like it was something more than the act of one man.

“We’ll give them a proper burning,” Aren said a while later. “We’ll do it in secret. Lekan mustn’t know we found them.”

Ekon nodded.

“Tau, Jabari will come up to train. He’ll wonder where you are.”

“I’m with you,” Tau said.

“Go,” Aren said, standing. “And don’t tell Jabari about this.”

Tau glanced at Ekon. He didn’t like the look on his father’s face.

“I won’t do anything. I can’t.” Aren choked on the word. “Lekan isn’t military and Ekon is right. I can’t kill him. They’ll come for my family, for you and Imani, for Imani’s daughter.… Go, train. I’ll be in the hut.”

Aren strode away and Ekon placed a hand on Tau’s shoulder. “I’ll stay with him,” he said. “I’ll stay as long as it’s needed.”

When Tau got to the fighting circle, Jabari was already through most of his forms. He saw Tau and his face stretched into a wide grin. “The boots look great!”

“Thank you,” Tau said, feeling sick to his stomach.

“Ready to fight?” he said.

“In a while,” Tau told him.

“No chance. We’re well into Hoard. No days off with testing so close. And you missed even bigger news by sleeping in.”

Tau looked at Jabari, muscles tensed.

“The queen is coming,” Jabari said.

“What?”

“The queen! She’s coming to Kerem. Well, more to say, she’s passing through Kerem on her way to Kigambe. Still, she arrives this afternoon.”

The queen visited the northern or southern capital every fifth cycle to personally present the citadel’s highest honors. The ceremony also honored the women who had tested as Gifted. The Chosen tested every woman. It was a rite of passage, announcing the transition from girlhood to womanhood.

And, with only one in ten thousand possessing the gift, their abilities marked them as part of a caste of less than five hundred. They outranked all but Royal Nobles and were duty-bound to serve. Tau had heard stories of the citadel catching women who held back in their testing, failing on purpose. They were branded, then taken to serve anyway.

Tau pulled his practice sword free of its scabbard, wishing he could plunge the blade into Lekan’s seeds. “I guess we’d better get started if we’re to finish in time to see the queen.”

Jabari let him get a toe into the fighting circle before engaging. The first round was painful, the second excruciating, and Tau had to concede the third so he could throw up his breakfast.

“The gaum?” Jabari asked as Tau wiped half-digested cabbage flecks from his mouth.

He didn’t answer. He saw Jabari, but not really. He was focusing on the features his friend shared with his brother, Lekan. “Let’s go again.”

The two men battled back and forth in the fighting circle, and Tau caught out the Petty Noble every eighth or ninth match. It wasn’t enough. Tau wanted to teach Jabari a lesson, because he would never have the chance to teach one to Lekan.

He moved through an offensive form as fast as he could, forcing Jabari back. Then Tau caught Jabari on the thigh with a glancing strike that would leave a welt. The contact encouraged Tau, and he brought his sword up and around to slam the blade into Jabari’s side.

The swing was clean and fast, but Jabari was faster. The Petty Noble whipped his sword at Tau’s legs, smashing his ankles together and dropping him in the dirt.

Tau groaned. His head had hit the fighting circle’s floor and there were spots blinking in front of his eyes. Beyond the spots was Jabari, standing tall, his sword tip pressed against Tau’s throat stone.

“Goddess’s mercy,” Tau said, ceding the match.

Jabari stood down. “Cek! You nearly had me. You’re faster than a desert scorpion.”

Tau was angry. “I’m done.”

Jabari didn’t notice his tone. “After that last match, I’m good for a break too. You really went for me. Hey, let’s get down to the keep. I’ll get changed and ready for the queen’s procession. Tau, come with me. Be my aqondise for the formal nonsense where I’m expected to have one?”

“Your aqondise?” Tau said. Jabari was honoring him, giving him a chance to act as his most trusted. As Jabari’s aqondise, Tau would be as close as a Lesser could get to the royal procession. On any other day, Tau would have been overwhelmed by the gesture. “Yes, of course… nkosi.”

“Don’t call me that. And I need you. Standing beside Lekan for that long, without anyone else to talk to, is torture.” Jabari was grinning like a fool. “Will you come?”

Tau nodded, face grim.

PROMISES

Tau accompanied Jabari to the keep. It was filled with people and everyone was frantic, doing their best to prepare. Kerem had not expected the royal visit, and it had been a surprise when the queen’s vanguard had arrived, requesting an evening’s accommodation for the queen and her retinue.

Jabari went to bathe and prepare, telling Tau to ask the keep guard for a proper aqondise’s tabard. This meant Tau had time, time enough for an unpleasant task. He went looking for Zuri.

He found her in the keep’s courtyard, near the bathhouse. She was cleaning linen with a dozen other handmaidens. When she saw him, her face lit up and she ran over, hugging him. It was more than she’d ever done in public.

“I’ve never seen such chaos,” she told him. “Can you believe she’s coming?”

The other handmaidens kept at their work, but Tau could feel their eyes on him, and the courtyard had gone quiet. “Handmaiden Uba, I’ve a request from Inkokeli Solarin. May I speak with you a moment?” he said.

“Of course, Common Tafari,” Zuri replied, thinking his formality a game.

When they were out of sight, she kissed him.

He fell into the moment, anything to avoid what was to come. “I’ve missed you,” he said.

“It’s been such a day,” Zuri told him, her face little more than a handspan from his.

Tau took a breath. He had to tell her, but there was a tightness around her eyes. “What’s happened?” he asked.

She touched his face. “Am I so easily read?”

She was worrying him.

“My testing day has been set,” she said.

“It has? Goddess, when?”

“The new moon.”

“Oh—”

“You’ll be with Jabari for his testing on the same day. I know.”

“The fighting circles aren’t far. I’ll see you in the evening.”

“Of course.”

“You’ll be a woman.”

“I’m not already?”

“You’re the most beautiful woman in the world,” Tau said.

Zuri punched his arm. “Common Tafari, a proper compliment must be reasonable if it is to be believed.” There was that tightness again.

“Zuri?”

“It’s almost over, isn’t it?” she said. “Common Tafari…” She picked over each word. “It’ll be Ihashe Tafari soon enough, and it’ll be that for the next seven cycles as you train and then fight.”

“Would you prefer something else?” he asked.

“Don’t tease. I know what has to be.”

Tau took her hands in his. “It doesn’t have to be,” he said. “We can make a few choices of our own. We wouldn’t have much, but we could try to be happy together.” He hadn’t meant to say all that. “Maybe I won’t have to fight. Maybe I can contribute elsewhere.”

“Tau…”

“I’m glad your testing is coming,” he told her. “I’ll help Jabari get through his, and I’ll come back to you—a newly made woman.” He forced a smile, wanting a moment more of peace, of happiness. “Maybe you’ll even give me proof?”

Zuri laughed out loud, covering her mouth at such scandal. “I think not!”

“Not yet, then,” he said.

Zuri tilted her head at him and Tau could tell she’d heard the intent in his words.

“The seven cycles will pass,” she said, forcing a smile as tears filled her eyes.

“I’ll come back to you.” It was as close to a promise as he could make.

Her eyes searched his face, pupils large and deep, and he could have lived in that moment forever, but he had to tell her about—

“Zuri! Zuri, where are you?” called a handmaiden. “Mistress Chione will be back any minute. I won’t do all your work for you, you wretch.”

“Who’s that?” Tau said, stepping forward.

“You’re going to defend me against fearsome Kesi now?” Zuri asked, eyes twinkling. “She’s about this high”—she pointed to Tau’s shoulder—“and has a dangerously sharp tongue. I should leave now, before it comes to violence. Against Kesi, I’d fear for you.” She paused, letting the weight of the earlier moment return. “I’ll see you, Tau Tafari,” she told him.

Tau hated himself for being weak. He hated himself for the rush of relief he felt, knowing the tale of Nkiru’s family would have to wait. “I’ll see you, Zuri Uba.”

“Coming, Kesi! I’m coming!” Zuri hastened her way to the courtyard, stealing a look at him as she went.

Tau smiled at her, still upset with himself. He was a coward. He’d stolen a kiss and stayed silent instead of telling the woman he loved the truth about her friend’s death. And soon he’d be standing within arm’s length of the man responsible for the murder, and he would do nothing. He was a coward.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
4.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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