The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (9 page)

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

Thousands lined the main path to the keep. The gates had been thrown open, and Jabari’s family, the Onai, stood beneath the keep’s walls, ready to welcome their queen. Tau was with the family, wearing the aqondise’s tabard that had been loaned to him.

He was two strides back from a bathed and scrubbed Jabari. Jabari, in turn, was one stride back from his father and his mother, Afia Onai, the umbusi of Kerem. Lekan was there too, mirroring Jabari on their mother’s right-hand side. Tau did his best to ignore him, though his hand twitched near his empty scabbard. Jabari’s father fidgeted too. The gouty old man was nervous.

To avoid having Lekan in his field of view, Tau stared at the press of people stretching into the distance. Aren was beyond the gate, dressed in full fighting gear. He had his men standing at attention along the sides of the path. They were there to keep the crowd a respectful distance from the queen, but like the keep guard spaced out across the top of the keep’s walls, it was for show. Afia Onai was doing her best to impress her monarch.

Tau saw dust rising. The queen’s procession had come to the last rise before the keep. His heartbeat quickened and he told himself that he was a man now, not a child to be excited by nonsense. The dust cloud grew bigger, the first men of the Queen’s Guard marched into view, and Tau’s pulse raced.

The Queen’s Guard was outfitted in maroon, a blend of red and black, the royal colors, a dragon’s colors. They marched in lockstep, and behind them were some of the peninsula’s most powerful. Queen Tsiora Omehia, her champion, the Gifted Leader, and Abasi Odili, the current chairman of the Guardian Council, rode down the path to Kerem on horses.

Tau had heard of horses, but he’d not expected to see any. The animals were huge, though a dragon could eat one of them in two bites. But people didn’t ride dragons, and here were four Chosen moving across the earth on horses, as if it was the most natural thing.

Voices thundered, drawing Tau’s attention, as the people of Kerem cheered their new queen. They pushed against Aren’s Ihagu, trying to get closer, making Tau think that perhaps lining the path with fighters had been for more than show.

As the procession neared, Tau made out more details. The first, and most astonishing thing, was the queen. She was young and couldn’t have had her testing for womanhood more than a cycle ago. That wasn’t it, though. It wasn’t her youth. It was her beauty.

Her skin was dark as a moonless night and she had lips like the sunrise. Her face was framed by delicate cheekbones, and beneath long lashes she had eyes shaped like almonds. She wore a black and red riding dress, cut to be formfitting, but flowing in the arms and legs. It also had a neckline that exposed enough skin to be gossip-worthy in a small fief like Kerem. She gazed out at the crowd, smiling as if pleased to see an old friend.

“Goddess be praised,” Jabari muttered.

The queen’s procession came to a halt, and her champion, Abshir Okar, stood up from atop his horse. Tau saw that the champion, armored in the red of blood, fire, and mourning, had his feet in a rope contraption that wound its way around the horse’s body, forming a seat on the animal’s back.

“Queen Tsiora Omehia,” said Champion Okar, his voice deep as a mountain well, “second of her name, first among the Goddess’s Chosen, and monarch of the Xiddan Peninsula, seeks Kerem’s hospitality.”

Okar was no longer young, but only a fool would underestimate a man who looked like he was carved from rock. The champion, Tau remembered, had placed first in all three cycles at the Indlovu Citadel. Upon graduation, he was made an Ingonyama and had fought in countless campaigns. When old Queen Ayanna’s champion had died in battle, she’d asked Abshir to take up the mantle.

It was the umbusi’s turn to speak. “I, Afia Onai, umbusi of Kerem and vassal to Queen Tsiora, would consider my house and lands blessed by the Goddess, if my queen permitted me to wait upon her.”

There was no higher honor, or status, for a Chosen male than to be made champion. It meant access to the queen, a seat on the Guardian Council, and other privileges.

It wasn’t forbidden, but queens did not marry. They were wedded to their people and loved none more than the Goddess, so the saying went. Instead, queens took great care in the selection of their champions. The queen’s champion was more than a military leader. He was also the seed for the next generation of royalty and, in ideal circumstances, a true partner.

It was awkward, then, the transition from one queen to another, if the old champion was still in place. Before long, Queen Tsiora would need to graciously retire Abshir and select a champion of her own. Monarchs must have heirs.

The greetings done, the procession wound its way into the keep, and Tau was close enough to see that Abshir wore the two guardian daggers and guardian sword he’d won from his time at the citadel. The dragon-scale weapons were incredible, none more than the sword.

The black blade was belted at his side. It had no scabbard and was dark enough to have been shaped from obsidian. But, even from a distance, there was something alien about the weapon. It drank in the light, and no matter how hard he looked, Tau was unable to make out any details on its surface. It was as if the weapon hid in plain sight, like he could see its outline rather than its whole.

It reminded Tau of what it had been like to watch the Guardian at Daba. Dragon scales stymied the eye, tricking it into underestimating the dragon’s position and speed. The eye-bending properties were useful to a massive flying predator, more so to an accomplished swordsman.

“Did you see?” asked Jabari. “She’s… she’s…”

“Perfection?” offered Tau.

“Yes! Well said. Perfection.”

“You’ll sit near her at dinner?” asked Tau.

“Not too near,” Jabari said, chewing his lip. “She’ll be closest to Mother and Father. Lekan as well. I’m a second son. I’ll be farther back.”

“Don’t worry, I can speak to her on your behalf,” Tau told him.

Jabari laughed. “Point taken. I’ll be closer than most. I just… Did you see?”

“I did.”

“Then you know.” His eyes followed Queen Tsiora as she rode her horse down one of the paths inside the keep. A keep Common, looking ready to wet himself, led the entourage to the hastily constructed stables.

Tau took the opportunity to examine the rest of the queen’s party. The KaEid, riding close to the queen, was the leader of the Gifted and served as both a military and religious official with powers that paralleled the guardian councillors’. “What’s the KaEid doing here?” Tau asked.

Jabari’s head swayed in sync with the queen’s body as she rode. “The who? Oh, KaEid Oro? She’ll make the opening statements at the awarding ceremony.”

“In the southern capital?”

“No, on a boat on the ocean. Of course in Kigambe.”

Tau waited until the queen disappeared around the bend before asking his next question. “Beside them, was that the Guardian Council’s chairman?”

“Hmm?” The queen was lost to sight, but Jabari had his neck craned, trying to catch one last glimpse.

“Was that Abasi Odili with them?”

“Yes,” said Jabari. “He’ll be watching this cycle’s testing.”

“You didn’t tell me the chairman of the Guardian Council will be at the testing.” Tau tossed the concept around in his head.

“I don’t tell you everything,” said Jabari, accepting that there was no more of Queen Tsiora to see. “Hey, did you notice the two beside him?”

“The hulks?” Tau said. He’d noticed.

“The bigger one is Dejen Olujimi. He’s Abasi’s Body, his personal Ingonyama.”

“Goddess,” muttered Tau. The man was a behemoth. Tau couldn’t fathom what he’d look like when enraged.

“He’s supposed to be the best fighter in all the peninsula.”

“You could handle him,” Tau joked.

“Easily,” Jabari said with a crooked smile.

Tau grew serious. He was thinking about Lekan and about how Aren had actually considered fighting him. “Jabari, how exactly do the blood-duels work?”

“Blood-duels? What’s this about?”

“Nothing, my father… uh… one of his men mentioned them,” said Tau.

“Why?”

Tau shrugged.

“They don’t happen often, but any full-blooded military man, any Ihashe, Indlovu, or Ingonyama, can challenge any another. Caste makes no difference.”

Tau found the idea ridiculous. The average Noble was bigger, stronger, and faster than the average Lesser. And if a Noble was in the military, it meant he was an Indlovu or Ingonyama. They would destroy any Ihashe.

“Most blood-duels happen when two soldiers are drunk and one gets caught with the other’s woman,” continued Jabari. “There’s too much to lose for reasonable men to go around compelling people to fight them to the death. And they almost never happen among Royal Nobles.”

“The Bodies,” said Tau.

“Challenge a Royal and they can have their Body fight in their stead. Hence, Dejen. Councillor Abasi Odili prides himself on having the most deadly Bodies in the queendom. It’s the reason he has that slightly smaller beast in tow. He’s grooming him.”

“Who is he?”

“Greater Noble Kellan Okar. He won his first cycle at the citadel and that won him Odili as a patron. This cycle, he placed first again.”

“Okar? He’s Champion Abshir Okar’s son?” asked Tau.

“The champion has no children. Kellan is his nephew.”

“Then… Kellan is the coward’s son?” said Tau, remembering the Greater Noble hanged for treason.

Jabari hissed, looking around them.

Tau leaned in, whispering. “His father was the one they hanged?”

“The Battle of Kwabena,” Jabari said. “One of our worst losses. Coward Okar was inkokeli for an entire wing. It was his responsibility to defend the rage’s flank. When the hedeni attacked, he panicked and ran. He said he was engaged by an overwhelming force and had no choice.”

Tau sucked his teeth.

“Without his soldiers defending the flank, the hedeni cut through the rest of the rage. Four thousand men and nine Gifted died that day. Nine Gifted, Tau.”

As he told the story, Jabari’s voice lost its whisper, becoming a growl instead. “At the trial and under oath, the other inkokeli swore that coward Okar’s account was a lie. The force that engaged him was a fraction of the size he claimed. Then the idiot argued that the hedeni had gifts, that they appeared out of thin air and disappeared the same way. He—”

“Gifts?” said Tau.

Jabari cupped his hands near his crotch. “He had big bronze stones, to stand in front of the Guardian Council and tell them—”

“At Daba, the tribes were working together. They never do that. Something’s changed or is changing. Maybe—

“Don’t be foolish. They—”

“Maybe their gifts really have returned,” Tau finished, unwilling, that day, to be called foolish without some small counter.

Jabari gave Tau a hard look. “Don’t interrupt me,” he said, pausing, making it a point to hold Tau to silence. “The Goddess weakened the hedeni gifts for their mixing and blasted them away entirely when they decided to fight against us.”

Tau had known Jabari his whole life. He knew when the Petty Noble was on the cusp of anger, and Tau was good at turning his frustrations into a smile or even a laugh. It was one of the reasons they were close.

That morning, though, with Nkiru and his family dead, Tau couldn’t play the part. He shook his head, suggesting he didn’t agree with Jabari. It was a little thing, a small act of defiance. It turned the taller man’s face sour.

“You think it matters to Nobles,” Jabari said, “whether the hedeni miraculously had gifts that day? We didn’t hang Kellan Okar’s father for lying. That wasn’t his crime. We hanged him for cowardice, for proving himself unworthy to be treated or judged like a man.” Jabari stepped close, until he was looking down at Tau. “We hanged him for behaving like a Lesser.”

Heat swept up Tau’s neck and he stared up at Jabari, unwilling to step back or look away. He didn’t care about coward Okar or his crimes, but hearing Jabari compare and weigh a Lesser’s life so lightly hurt. If Jabari felt this way, it must have been so simple and uncomplicated for Lekan to have an entire family of Lessers murdered.

“We are Chosen,” Jabari said, still standing too close. “We fight, we don’t surrender, and we don’t run. The Nobles have tried to teach that to Lessers for generations.”

Tau couldn’t stop himself. “If we don’t run, then why are we on Xidda instead of Osonte?”

Jabari’s face twitched and he balled his right hand into a fist. Tau braced for the hit, but the blow didn’t come.

“I’m going in,” Jabari said. “I have to change for dinner.”

“Of course… nkosi.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow for training, Common Tafari. Be ready. I can’t afford to go easy on you anymore. The testing is close.”

TEST

Queen Tsiora left for Kigambe the next day, and her beauty was the topic of conversation for the rest of the moon cycle. She had captured the hearts of Kerem’s men and the imagination of its women. Tau could tell Jabari was particularly smitten, but they hadn’t spoken more than was needed as they beat and battered each other in preparation for what was to come.

The training left Tau with little time to spend with Zuri, and Aren had asked him not to tell her the truth about Nkiru’s family. Tau argued she had the right to know, but he felt relief that the burden of telling her had been taken from him. And yet, holding the secret didn’t help. The closer he got to Zuri, the more he wanted to tell her everything. Instead of making things better, keeping the secret tainted his time with her and left him guilt-ridden.

So on the morning of Jabari’s testing, as they marched to the fighting fields on Kerem’s borders, Tau was unsettled. He was worried about his future with Zuri, about his friendship with Jabari, and about having Lekan join them, instead of Jabari’s father, who, suffering an attack of gout, had remained in Kerem.

The march to the testing was the first time Tau’s father had been so near Lekan since learning the fate of Nkiru’s family, and that, along with everything else, had Tau feeling like he was walking through a nest of scythe ants. True, he hadn’t been bitten yet, but each step brought with it a fresh opportunity.

Head heavy with troubles, Tau stole a look at Jabari. The Petty Noble had to feel the day’s pressure. At the testing, he’d hold his sword and Kerem’s potential for prosperity or poverty in his hands.

“I’ll be fine,” Jabari said, noticing the glance.

“Soon you’ll be crossing blades with some of the best Noble fighters in the South.”

“I know,” Jabari said. “I’m ready. Aren made me so… with your help.”

The words were kinder than any Jabari had spoken in days, and it was more of a peace offering than a Lesser had any right to expect.

“You are ready. I know it,” Tau said, hoping it was true.

Aren drew apace with them. “How’s the knee?”

The day before, Tau and Jabari had collided in practice and Jabari had fallen.

“It’s strong,” Jabari said. “The swelling is gone. I feel fine.”

“Eyes on the Goddess,” Aren told his student.

“Always. I’m ready,” Jabari said, echoing Tau’s words and shooting him a smile. “I’ll not fail.”

“It’s luck that determines who you draw in the first rounds,” Aren told him. “Remember what I said.”

Jabari tapped his temple. “I have it. If I face Lanre, I’ll watch his overhand swing.”

“You’d better. It’s a feint, and he’ll crack those pretty teeth of yours with his shield while you gawp at his sword. And?”

“And Sizwe is quick.”

“Quick? That skinny bastard… Uh, no disrespect to his Noble person, but that skinny bastard is an inyoka, except he strikes twice as fast.”

Jabari laughed. He was always quick to laugh, thought Tau, but this was serious. He looked up and wiped sweat from his shaved head, more forming the instant the first swath was whisked away.

They were still a few thousand strides from the fighting circles, on the flat and fallow fields between Kerem and Mawas, and the sun was nearing its zenith. The testing would begin at midday and it was Hoard: too hot to grow, too hot to harvest. It would be horrible to fight in this swelter, which was the point.

He heard more laughter. Jabari was joking with one of the Ihagu. If all went well, the Petty Noble would be a full-blooded Indlovu in three cycles. Tau worried Jabari wouldn’t laugh as much after he’d spent time fighting the hedeni. He wanted nothing but the best for his Noble friend, truly, but he was glad he’d found a different path for himself.

“Keep your head straight too,” Aren said to Tau. “Watch Jabari and the other Nobles. This is a great opportunity. You’ll get to experience a testing before your own.”

Aren put his arm around Tau’s shoulders and squeezed. “It makes a difference, seeing how desperate fights get when something is on the line.”

Tau nodded and let his head hang, facing the dirt. It would break Aren’s heart if he knew what Tau was planning. “I’ve experienced something similar,” he said, reminding his father he’d fought in Daba.

“Yes, I think I try to forget you have…” There was a pause. It looked like Aren wanted to say more. “Still,” he said, “even though you’re not fighting today, keep your sword nearby. Warm up with Jabari and put yourself in a fighting mind. Give your body the same feelings and stress. It’ll help when it’s your turn. Trust me.”

“Always,” Tau told his father as the column of men slowed to a stop.

“The testing,” Aren said. “We’re here.”

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
7.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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