The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (10 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
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Below them were flat fields sitting in a small depression in the otherwise hilly scrublands that Kerem shared with Mawas. The Drudge, who had prepared the fighting circles, had done an excellent job. The stones that made up each of the ten circles were pressed into the earth and painted red. They would catch the eye but were sunk low enough to avoid catching anyone’s foot.

In each fighting circle, the scrublands’ silt-like soil was covered with clay, carried all the way from Mawas. The clay had been laid, smoothed, and allowed to harden under Xidda’s sun. It was a perfect fighting surface.

Up and down the length of the fallow fields, the black flags of the Indlovu Citadel flew above their sand-colored tents. The flags had been wired with bronze to look as if they moved on the currents of a strong wind.

Tau scanned the fields. Many Nobles had already arrived, and Tau knew Aren would have preferred to have done the same, but it was customary for the more influential Nobles to take their time, and Lekan, in his conceit, had dallied.

The umbusi’s firstborn stood at the head of the column, hands on hips, looking down on the assemblage as if they were all Lessers. In truth, the Nobles, come to watch their sons test, were Lekan’s peers if not betters. A few of them, like Greater Noble Thabo Oghenekaro, husband to the umbusi of Kigambe, greatly outranked fief Kerem and its Petty Nobles.

Still, the victory, however minor, was Lekan’s. The sun was almost at its zenith and the journey had been well timed. They were last to arrive. Even Ogozi of Mawas was already on the field.

“Let’s go down and get started,” said Lekan. “Where’s our spot, Aren?”

Tau’s father didn’t speak to Lekan, opting to point to a cordoned-off area close to the center of the field. Aren had sent several Drudge and two Ihagu a quarter moon early, to stake and hold their spot.

Lekan shaded his eyes. “Good. We’ll have a view of nearly all the fighting circles.”

The column started down and Aren turned to Jabari. “We’ll set up, and Tau will see to your armor and helm. I want you to stretch and run through your forms. Nothing fancy. People will watch to see what forms you tend toward. Don’t give them that, just the basics.”

“Your will, Inkokeli Solarin,” Jabari said. His eyes narrowed as he chewed the inside of his cheek. The testing had become, Tau thought, a little too real for Jabari as well.

After that, things moved fast. The Drudge and Ihagu settled in and Jabari warmed up, then dressed. Tau did the same and the two men sparred. Aren didn’t watch them as much as glare at them. He corrected this and that, hovering like a mother over a newly walking babe. Tau did what he could to keep his “head straight,” but the energy on the fields was distracting.

Lessers scurried back and forth, attending to their betters. Ihagu were either set as guards or found spots to cheer on their Nobles. The Drudge dug out latrines, carted foodstuffs, or offered the young fighters gulps of water, cooling wet cloths, and even boiled mashed potatoes, for quick boosts of energy. Meanwhile, full-blooded Indlovu wandered the fields like they owned the earth beneath them.

The Indlovu were titans, every one. Most were head and shoulders taller than Tau, all of them were more muscular than he could ever hope to be, and quite a few looked like they could crush rocks with their bare hands. He watched them in awe.

“I have to go with your brother,” Aren told Jabari, avoiding Lekan’s honorific. “He’ll sign the official documents for your testing, and I’ll be back. The fighting will begin soon. Be ready.” But before Aren could leave, Lekan strolled over with an older Noble and a young man of age with Tau and Jabari.

“Aren,” Lekan said. “I have a task.” He indicated the Noble beside him. “This is Nkosi Izem Okafor and his second son, Kagiso.”

The difference between man and son couldn’t go without remark. Izem Okafor was gaunt and tall, even for a Noble. He had a stern face and long fingers, and his skin was well oiled, despite the heat. He was shiny but wasn’t sweating, and Tau wondered how the man managed that trick.

The son, on the other hand, wasn’t much taller than Tau. He was pudgy, his eyes were set deep in his moon of a head, and his skin was the color of light topsoil, rather than the deep-earth dark that was characteristic of the Chosen.

“Kagiso has drawn one of the first matches,” said Lekan, “but has no one with whom to warm up.”

Aren glared, his look a clear warning.

“I believe,” Lekan went on, “that your son could step in and serve Kagiso in this regard.”

“I would be indebted,” Izem Okafor said, his voice melodic, a surprise given his ascetic appearance. “I wish to give Kagiso every opportunity to succeed.”

“Indeed,” said Lekan.

Aren was furious. He hid it, thought Tau, but he was furious.

“Tau, warm up with Nkosi Kagiso,” Aren said, managing to obey the order without speaking to Lekan. “Nkosi Jabari, please do not interrupt your forms. I’ll return once your documents have been registered with the citadel.”

Aren strode off without excusing himself and without waiting for Lekan, causing the older Okafor to raise an eyebrow.

Lekan struggled to keep his composure. “Yes, yes. Always such a rush at these things,” he said, as if he attended a testing every cycle. “Shall we, Izem?”

Izem Okafor inclined his head and, together, they left. Izem, Tau noticed, did not exchange any words with his son.

“Well met, Jabari,” said Kagiso, his voice, like his father’s, defying expectation. For all his girth, Kagiso spoke like his seeds had yet to drop.

“Kagiso…,” Jabari said, continuing his forms.

“Haven’t seen you since the Grow festival in Mawas.”

“Has it been so long?” Jabari said, showing his back to the heavyset Noble as he worked through a thrust, low-cut, and riposte combination.

“We should get started, nkosi,” Tau said to Kagiso.

Kagiso turned to Tau, looked him up and down, and turned back to Jabari. “What a horror show, this testing. The life of a Noble son, yes?” Kagiso’s grin revealed a row of teeth yellowed with calla leaf stains.

Jabari replied with a grunt.

Kagiso, disappointed, switched his attention to Tau. “Well, Lesser, let’s get this over with.”

Tau moved them back a few paces from where Jabari was working. “Nkosi, would you like me to fetch your practice sword?” he asked, seeing Kagiso wearing sharpened bronze.

“It’s light sparring,” said Kagiso, “and it’ll take too long to get it. My match is coming up. Let’s go.”

Tau wanted to protest, but Kagiso had his sword out and was already swinging. Tau backed off, and, worried about getting hurt, he fought defensively. Kagiso took this as a chance to push the pace, increasing the strength of his swings.

Tau made sure to be aggressive enough to keep him at bay. If he took an unblocked blow, the injury would be serious. He considered asking again if Kagiso would use his practice blade, but after their first few engagements, he realized Kagiso was no swordsman.

The discovery turned Tau’s concern to surprise. The only other Noble he’d crossed swords with was Jabari, and he’d believed all Nobles to be as capable. Kagiso’s hack-and-slash style flew in the face of that belief, and Tau wondered if the man he faced was a poor fighter or a more accurate representation of the abilities of his kind. If the latter was the case, Jabari would make short work of the men he faced.

More likely, thought Tau, Kagiso was simply a Noble son who had never taken to his duties. It would hurt Izem Okafor to have a son who failed to make the citadel. It would also hurt Kagiso’s chances at a good marriage.

“Hey, Tau!” Jabari said, followed with a reluctant, “Kagiso.”

Jabari didn’t break his form or momentum but indicated a direction with his head.

“See there,” he said, “that’s Jayyed Ayim, the ex-adviser to the Guardian Council.”

Tau looked and saw him. Jayyed Ayim was a Lesser dressed in the grays of an Ihashe warrior. He was in his middle years, almost as tall as a Noble, and nearly as big. Tau whistled to himself and looked back to Jabari.

His friend was smiling, and even from several strides away, Tau could see the mischief in his eyes. “The way my father tells it, he’s probably a match for many Indlovu.”

Kagiso took the bait and scoffed. “A Lesser as good as an Indlovu?”

“Perhaps that’s too far a walk down the path,” Jabari said, “but given the swordsmanship I’ve already seen today, I’m certain he’d make short work of at least a few of us.”

Kagiso’s mouth tightened and his nostrils flared wide as a rock lizard’s frill, but Jabari ignored him, speaking to Tau instead. “After your testing,” he said, “do everything you can to get into Jayyed’s scale. You want to train under a man like that.… He might even make you change your mind about the Ihashe.”

Tau nodded agreeably and gave the ex-adviser turned fighting instructor another glance. He had a square jaw and a heavy brow and walked with the sure movements of a fighter. It wasn’t hard to imagine him as skilled with a blade.

Beside him were two bigger men, and without their formal attire, it took Tau a breath to recognize them. Jayyed Ayim was with Dejen Olujimi and Abasi Odili, the chairman of the Guardian Council.

“He’s with Councillor Odili and—” started Tau, before lurching aside to avoid a wild swing from Kagiso.

Off-balance, Tau blocked another strike, turned the third, and had to drop to his knees to duck the fourth, aimed for his neck.

“Char and ashes!” shouted Tau, standing up. “Are you mad… nkosi?”

“Pay attention, Lesser! You’re sparring against a Noble.”

“Easy, Kagiso,” said Jabari. He’d stopped his form work and was watching the two of them. He’d seen Kagiso swing for Tau’s head. “This is sparring. Why do you have a sharp blade?”

Kagiso didn’t answer. Instead, he pressed Tau, swinging like a drunk trying to catch a fly.

“Calm yourself!” Jabari hissed. “They’re walking this way.”

Tau risked a look behind him, almost got his nose chopped off, and had to bring his full attention back to Kagiso. There was bloodlust in the fat man’s eyes as Kagiso came at him again, and Tau wasn’t about to risk injury.

He blocked the Petty Noble’s swing and stepped in, throwing his body weight against him, shouldering him aside. Kagiso staggered back, tripped, and fell to the dirt.

Jabari started to laugh but stifled it. From his ass, Kagiso glared. Then his eyes flickered past Tau’s shoulder and his face went blank. Tau worried he’d hurt him and was about to beg forgiveness, when Kagiso bumbled to his feet and charged, his razor-sharp blade leading the way.

“Blood will show!” Kagiso yelled.

Tau had no idea what the idiot was doing, but he was done playing. He sidestepped Kagiso’s lumbering charge and smashed the flat of his blade into the Noble’s back. Kagiso was launched from his feet and hit the ground hard, skipping across it like a poorly thrown stone in a pond.

“By the Cull, man, what are you doing?” said Tau, his blood red-hot, all thoughts of begging for anything burned away.

Kagiso moaned, then lifted his head, and blood gushed from his nose. It was broken, and that was when Tau became worried. Heart hammering, he looked up from Kagiso, and his worry turned to terror.

The chairman of the Guardian Council and the Ingonyama that was his Body, as well as Jayyed Ayim, Lekan, and Kagiso’s father, were there. Tau looked to Jabari for help, but Jabari was staring at him like he was covered in curse scars.

The fighting fields were silent, no one moved, and Tau felt like he was in a nightmare. It got worse when the guardian councillor began to clap.


“Well, this is an interest,” said Abasi Odili, walking to Kagiso and bending over the downed man. “Who are you?” His Palm accent made the words glide together like they’d been greased. Kagiso moaned and Odili kicked him. “Speak up.”

“Kagiso, Kagiso Okafor,” he managed.

Tau had never seen a Noble treated this way and looked to Kagiso’s father. The man was only a few steps from his son but came no closer. He stood still and straight-backed, staring at his boy as he struggled.

“Kagiso…,” said Odili, straightening and turning to take in the growing crowd. “Well, we should thank Nkosi Kagiso. He’s saved us a lot of time.”

The crowd murmured.

“Kagiso,” said Odili, “was bested by a Lesser.” He examined Tau, his pupils black and face hard under the midday sun. “A Low Common.” Odili picked up Kagiso’s sword. “He fought him with sharpened bronze and the Common has a practice blade.” Odili clucked his tongue and turned the edges of his mouth up. It wasn’t a smile. It couldn’t be called that. “Indlovu, we leave for Kigambe. If these southern Nobles can be bested by Commons, then none are fit for the citadel.”

Odili began to walk away, and the murmuring gave way to shouts of protest. Tau saw his father in the crowd. Aren looked near to panic. Nearby, Lekan was trembling, he was so angry. Tau was about to go to Aren, thinking to explain about Kagiso, when Jabari threw down his sword in disgust. It had all gone wrong, and it was Tau’s doing.

“Councillor Odili,” he yelled, trying to be heard over the protesting crowd and hoping his form of address was an appropriate one. “Councillor Odili, please. Nkosi—”

Aren was on him then, pulling him back, trying to get him away. Tau resisted. He had to fix this. Odili stopped. There was a chance.

With his back turned, the councillor spoke. “You, little Common, are lucky I don’t have you hanged for attacking and injuring a Noble. Scurry back to your mud hole now, before I change my mind.”

Tau couldn’t believe the man’s words. Hanged? Attacking a Noble? He let his father pull him back.

“Your indulgence with that Low Common offal did this,” Lekan hissed at Jabari.

Tau didn’t think; he reacted. He turned to Lekan, the man who had tried to force himself on Anya and then had her entire family murdered. “I fought Kagiso fairly,” he said, seething, “and, Common or not, I was the better man. I’m a better man than you!”

Tau’s hand went to his sword hilt, and Lekan stepped back, sputtering. Everyone who’d heard Tau’s words spoke at once, shouting over one another until Odili raised his hand in the air, commanding silence. When he had it, he poured slippery words in its place.

“Kellan,” he said, letting his voice carry into the crowd behind him, “this Lesser has the dangerous idea that he knows the sword.”

Like the sea before a ship’s prow, men parted and Kellan Okar stepped forward. A sculptor could have carved the champion’s nephew from granite and the likeness would have been too soft.

“He seems to know the sword as well as he needs to,” said Kellan. “Is a future Drudge worth our time?”

Tau bristled, the insult cutting too close to truth. His father clutched his upper arm hard enough to crush it.

“You mistake me,” said Odili. “I’m not asking.”

Kellan looked down at Tau and back to Odili. Jaw flexed, he locked eyes with the councillor. A breath passed and Kellan looked away. Taking his time, he unsheathed his sword and stood across from Tau.

It didn’t feel real, none of it. From the crowd massed around him, to the mountain of muscle facing him, to Lekan’s sneering face, none of it felt real. Tau’s heart began to pound, his hand tightened on his practice sword, and he looked to his father. Aren paid him no mind. He had a tight grip on Tau’s arm, but he was facing Odili and Kellan.

“Councillor Odili, this is my son. He’s barely a man and has not yet tested. I’m a full-blood Ihashe, with military status. I take his place.”

Aren pulled his sword free and shoved Tau toward his Ihagu. The men grabbed and held him as Aren strode over to Kellan Okar.

“Father!” Tau shouted, finding more arms had joined the others to hold him back.

Odili opened his mouth. It seemed he would deny Aren’s request to fight in Tau’s place. Aren didn’t give him the chance. He threw himself at Kellan and they crossed blades in a crash of metal and sparks. The crowd roared, its ranks swelling to form a wall of human flesh, and Odili’s protest died on his lips as the fighters circled.

Kellan was the bigger man, much younger too. However, he was an initiate, only two-thirds through training. Tau knew the Indlovu Citadel’s reputation, everyone did, but his father was the best fighter in Kerem.

Kellan struck, swinging his sword in a flashing arc. Aren blocked, point down, but Kellan’s attack had enough power to knock Aren’s blade back. Neither man was dressed for combat and Aren’s blade rebounded, cutting Aren in his side. Tau’s father gasped in pain and shuffled back, and Kellan was on him, swinging, cutting, and stabbing, using forms Tau had never seen and couldn’t have identified, given their speed.

Aren stumbled into the wall of people and they shoved him back toward the circle’s center. He was bleeding from his arm, side, and leg, and Kellan came at him again. Aren took a slash to the face, a sword pommel to the gut, and was sent to one knee by the flat of Kellan’s sword.

“They’re cheating. They’re using gifts,” Tau said, looking for the Gifted, the Enrager hidden in the crowd.

“No, they’re not,” said one of the Ihagu.

“End it,” said Abasi Odili, and Tau finally understood. This was a blood-duel, a fight to the death.

Tau strained against the men holding him. He shoved and pushed at them until a hand slipped off. He slapped one of the others and head-butted the last. He was free and ran for his father, who, in that short moment, had been beaten to both knees.

Tau was three strides away. His father was dazed and bleeding, sword down by his side. Kellan raised his weapon and swung.

“No!” Tau screamed, running, watching the bright blade burn through the air.

Aren lifted his sword to defend. Kellan adjusted, hitting him on the wrist, separating hand from forearm. Tau saw his father’s sword drop to the dirt. None of it felt real. His father screamed and collapsed.

Kellan stepped away and said to the crowd, “It’s done. I’ve taken everything from him that made him a man. The son’s offense is paid in full.”

With nothing on which to clean his sword, Kellan held it out from his body and walked back the way he had come.

“Stop!” said Tau. He couldn’t remember picking it up, but he was holding his father’s sword, its hilt red and slick in his hands. He had the weapon pointed at Kellan’s back.

“Put it down, boy.” It was Jayyed Ayim, the onetime adviser to the Guardian Council. “That’s a Greater Noble you’re threatening.”

Kellan turned to face Tau and Tau had sense enough to be afraid. Aren, with the hand remaining, clawed at Tau’s leg, trying to pull him to safety, but it was too late. Councillor Odili spoke.

“Dejen,” he said, calling his Body.

Face placid, Dejen drew his midnight-black sword and strode into the circle.

“Clemency!” Jabari pled.

“I stand for fief Kerem here!” Lekan shouted. “Councillor, I back your will.”

“Odili, it’s done,” said Kellan, arms wide.

Odili inclined his head and Dejen surged, driving his black sword so deep into Aren’s chest it tore open his back. Aren stiffened in shock, mouth open, and there was no time to move or breathe before the Ingonyama ripped the blade free, swinging it at Tau, spattering him across the face and body with his father’s lifeblood.

“Now it’s done,” Odili said.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
7.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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