The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (7 page)

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

The next morning, Tau woke before sunrise. He was still sore from the battle, but the nightmares had lessened, and as the sky brightened, his head filled with thoughts of Zuri.

“You’re up,” Aren said, eating cold lentils and potatoes.

“I’m up.”

Aren watched him. It was the same look from training, when he was worried Tau was about to get hurt.

“I’m well,” Tau said.

“Didn’t say anything.”

“Were about to,” Tau countered.

“Maybe, but you’ll never know now.”

Aren got up, buckled on his sword, and went outside to relieve himself. Tau heard him greeting someone and then his name was called.

“Coming,” Tau said, pulling on his worn boots and going outside. Jabari was there.

“Well met, Tau.”

“Well met, nkosi.” Tau knew Jabari didn’t like it when he used the Noble honorific to address him, but Aren was there, and Tau would get an earful for being too familiar if he didn’t.

“I’m for Daba. It’s just me. Lekan won’t come.”

“Well, we’ll do the work of three,” Tau said, glad Lekan wasn’t joining them. It gave him the day with Jabari, and that was an opportunity for Tau to tell him his plan. It was a chance to ask Jabari for his help.

His father stood outside the hut, watching them leave. He liked seeing them together and had always encouraged Tau to spend time with the umbusi’s second son. Tau waved and Aren gave him a nod in return. He was playing the part of the stoic, but Tau knew he was proud that the two of them were lending aid to Daba.

“It’ll take most of a season to make Daba what it was,” Jabari said as they walked. “I’ll go up for the first few days, but then it’ll have to be training all morning and afternoon.”

“The testing.”

“It’ll be here before we know it, and Father is relying on me.” Jabari kicked at the dirt. “It still shames him that he failed his.”

“Your father has done well by Kerem,” Tau said. “Besides, he’s an umbusi’s husband. That makes him military.”

“Honorary. He hasn’t trained a day and the mandatory military status does him no favors. It means anyone in the service, even Lessers, can challenge him to a blood-duel.” Jabari shook his head. “The Ruling and Guardian Councils give military status to men like my father to keep them in line. It’s no compliment or benefit.”

Tau was half listening. He’d never cared much for politics and was worrying over how to tell Jabari his plan. He figured he’d start with his feelings for Zuri. Jabari would understand that, he hoped.

Truth be told, Tau would have preferred not to involve his friend at all, but he needed his support. It was the only way he could guarantee himself a position in the Onai keep, once he was… injured.

Jabari picked up a small rock and began tossing it from hand to hand. “It didn’t help when Lekan was rejected either,” he said, still going on about the family’s failings. “Now I’m the last hope. My mother is the umbusi and the war needs warriors. I have to pass the testing and become an Indlovu. If I don’t, none of the men in the Onai family will serve and the fief will face tithes we can’t pay.”

Jabari pulled out a hand’s span of dried meat from his pack, and Tau’s mouth watered. “You’ll make the citadel,” Tau said, trying not to stare.

“From your lips to the Goddess’s ears,” Jabari said as he broke off some of the meat and offered it to Tau.

“Thank you, nkosi,” Tau said, bowing his head.

“Don’t call me that.”

Tau had trouble listening. He was focused on the meat. It had been a long while since he’d tasted some. He’d have to take it slow or his stomach would toss like ocean driftwood. He took his first bite and the taste was the Goddess’s own gift.

Jabari took a bite of his half, speaking as he chewed. “It should be fine. I’ve trained hard. We both have. You’ll make the Ihashe for sure.”

Tau swallowed, trying not to sigh with pleasure. Root and soft vegetables had their place, but meat was something else. “Beg pardon?” he asked.

“You’ll make the Ihashe and be a great addition to the war effort.”

Tau refused to let the words spoil his last bite or weaken his resolve to go ahead with his plan. He plopped the meat into his mouth and chewed slowly, savoring its texture and flavor. When the last of it was gone, it was time.

“I hope to make the Ihashe,” he said, “but I won’t serve.”

“Neh?” Jabari turned to him, mouth full and an eyebrow raised.

Tau dove in, deep and fast. “I’m in love with Zuri Uba, and I’m not a killer. I want to marry her, but I can’t if I have to leave her to fight in the war as an Ihashe or Ihagu. And if I refuse either option, I’ll be made a Drudge and we’ll never be together.”

Jabari had stopped walking and tilted his head to one side, staring at Tau. He was completely still, except for his mouth. It continued to move, chewing. “What now?” he asked.

“I have to pass my testing for the Ihashe. After I do, I’ll be sent to complete my training. I’ll… I’ll be injured badly and have to come home.”

“Injured? You can’t know…” Jabari’s eyes went wide. “Oh…”

“When I come home, I hope I can work in the keep. It’s better than I deserve, but… Jabari, I’m begging.… I’m…” Tau sighed. “Will you help me? When I’m back? Will you put in a good word?”

“You’re joking.” Jabari’s face remained still, and Tau couldn’t read it.

“I’m not,” he said.

“Tau, don’t let Daba define you. It was your first battle, you can’t—”

“Nkosi, I’m not a killer.”

“Don’t ‘nkosi’ me. We’re friends. Sword brothers…” Jabari swallowed the last of the meat. “You’re serious about this?”

“I am.”

“How do you know Zuri will even ask you to marry her?”

“I… I don’t know, but she came to me yesterday.”

Jabari shrugged. “And?”

“She kissed me.”

“Oh…” He rolled the stone around in the palm of one hand. He seemed to have forgotten he was holding it. “Did it seem serious?”

“Ah…”

“She kissed you? On the lips?”

Before Tau knew it was coming, he’d broken out into a cheek-straining grin. “Yes. Yes, she did.”

“Nceku!” Jabari swore, grinning too. “How was it?”

“Jabari…”

“If I’m going to help you, I deserve every detail of this kiss.”

Tau’s breath caught. “You’ll help me?”

“Sword brothers, that’s what I said… even if you’re being stupid enough to think your life will be better without the sword part.” Jabari sniffed. “Anyway, we’ve a while before you test and head to the isikolo.”

That was it, then. Jabari believed Tau would change his mind. He probably thought the kiss had done this to him and that a little time would undo it.

“You’ll put in a good word for me, if I come back?” Tau asked again.

“If you come back looking for work in our tiny keep, I’ll feel sorry for you, but that won’t be what I’ll tell my mother. I’ll tell her Tau Tafari is the best, hardest-working Lesser I know.”

“Thank you.”

“Nceku! I can’t believe Zuri Uba kissed you.” Jabari laughed and started walking again. “We’re talking about the same person, right? The pretty handmaiden?”

“She’s the beautiful handmaiden,” Tau said.

SONS

Tau and Jabari returned to Kerem that evening, exhausted but satisfied. The Lessers in Daba had lost much but refused to surrender to despair. The hamlet would survive.

As they approached Tau’s hut, Tau noticed light from the fire pit. Aren never lit it at night. Tau ran the rest of the way. They found a bleary-eyed Zuri inside the home.

“Tau!” she said.

“My father—”

“Aren is well. It’s not him. It’s Anya.”

“What’s this?” said Jabari, squeezing his way into the hut, making the tight space feel oppressive.

Zuri struggled to find the words. “Nkosi Jabari,” she said, addressing him formally, “it’s my friend’s father… ah, Aren’s second-in-command.… He’s been accused of attacking a Noble.”

“Nkiru?” Jabari asked. “No. Why?”

Zuri’s mouth opened and closed, like the words wouldn’t come. “Your brother was… I mean to say, Nkiru struck him when he—”

“Why in the Goddess would Nkiru…” Jabari’s face went slack. He’d pieced it together at the same time as Tau.

Zuri still had to say the words, though. “Lekan was forcing… Pardon me. Nkiru found Nkosi Lekan with his daughter, Anya.”

“Cek!” Jabari swore.

Zuri winced. “Your brother wishes for the laws to be upheld, but Aren refused.”

Tau slumped against the nearest wall. There was no way Aren would order, or allow, the killing of Nkiru and his family.

Jabari paced, or tried to, in the tiny home. “Lekan, that half-witted fool.” He stepped outside. “Let’s go. This has to get sorted before it gets worse.”

They sped down the mountain. It was late, but the closer they got to the keep, the thicker the crowd.

Lekan, along with his family’s guard, stood in the center gateway to the keep. The guards held peat-moss torches that illuminated both their faces and the worry on them. Ochieng was one of the guards, and like the others, he looked forlorn. They faced a crowd that was two wrong words from becoming a mob.

Standing opposite Lekan were Tau’s father, a few of the men under his command, and Nkiru.

“Give him to me, Aren,” said Lekan. “Don’t make me say it again.”

“Nkosi Lekan, I only ask that we take time to discuss this with Umbusi Onai,” Aren said.

“My mother is resting, and this is not a matter that needs her attention,” Lekan said. “You have my orders. Carry them out!”

Tau, along with Zuri and Jabari, pushed their way through the crowd. Tau watched Lekan the whole time.

Lekan was taller than Jabari and heavier, though not from muscle. The umbusi’s eldest son was known for his appetite and, in a land where food was rationed, it sat ill with many that he could grow so large. The Petty Noble also enjoyed his drink, and it was said, behind hands, he drank more olu than water.

“Nkosi Lekan,” Aren said. “I believe we can solve this without death, and I invite your counsel, in addition to your mother’s.”

“In addition? Damn you, Lesser! Send over the man!”

Nkiru looked miserable and Anya was beside him. She was a wreck. Her eyes were bloodshot and she had bruises on her arms, visible even in the dim torchlight. Her dress was torn. Zuri went to her.

“Well met, brother,” Jabari said, pushing through the crowd to stand beside Tau’s father.

Lekan did not look pleased. “Jabari.”

“What’s this, then?”

“I was accosted,” Lekan said, lifting his square chin.

“Accosted? How?”

“It’s not a matter for public discussion.”

“Surely, an attack on a Noble is the exact type of discussion to be had publicly. If a punishment that destroys an entire family is to be meted out, we must know the story.”

Lekan glared at his sibling. “I was accosted. Is a Noble’s word no longer enough in Kerem?”

Tau saw Jabari’s hand tighten around his sword hilt. That was bad. In a fight, Lekan would lose, but that would do less than nothing to help Nkiru and his family.

“Nkosi,” Aren said, addressing them both. “I have had time to interrogate the accused.”

Tau figured that, at most, his father had had Nkiru drink a cup or two of masmas to calm his nerves.

“Nkiru was looking for his daughter,” Aren said. “He—”

“I won’t have my name slandered!” Lekan said.

“He came upon his daughter and—”

“I’m warning you, Aren!”

“And saw her enticing a man.”

Lekan’s eyes went wide and he cocked his head, as if trying to hear a far-off noise. Anya began to sob and Aren told the awful lie that was the only chance he had to save Nkiru, Anya, and the rest of the family.

“Nkiru was incensed with his daughter’s lewd behavior,” Aren said. “He struck out at the unknown man and, when his attack was repelled, realized his grave error.” Aren spoke louder, telling the story for the crowd, making it easy for Lekan to let this tale become the official one. “Nkiru snatched his daughter and drew her from the keep in shame. He came straight to me to admit her sins and to atone for his part in shaming the fief.”

“The fief was shamed!” said Lekan.

“If it please the nkosi, I was dragging this man and his daughter to Umbusi Onai to tell her that I would ask for their banishment.”

“Yes!” said Lekan. “Wait, banishment?”

“Yes, Nkosi Lekan!” said Aren. “We cannot allow such diseased behavior to continue unchecked. A Noble with a Lesser? A Common! Disgusting and disgraceful. Who would believe it possible, except that the wretch of a woman did all she could to beguile you.”

“Yes…” Lekan was catching himself up to the fable.

“Nkosi Jabari,” Aren said, “if you and your elder brother agree to banishment, there is no reason to bring this before Umbusi Onai. All gathered here already know Nkosi Lekan’s character. We know what is likely, were he found in a room alone with a Common like Anya.”

Aren was running along a ridge here, and the crowd, knowing Lekan’s character well, began to murmur.

“We can imagine what took place,” Aren continued. “So, why waste the umbusi’s time? I have sworn, here among my peers and betters, that Nkiru acted in fear for his daughter. We would be unjust to punish him and his family for a child’s behavior.”

“That’s no child,” said Lekan, looking at Anya sideways, as if he could see scales, fangs, and venom.

“Even better,” said Jabari, seeking to help Aren get his way. “Let us excise the evil from our midst. I agree with Inkokeli Solarin’s advice. The family will be banished from the fief.” Jabari spat the distasteful words like the rot they were.

“My Noble person was offended.” Lekan still wanted blood.

“Unknowingly,” Aren reminded him.

“Unknowingly.” Lekan gnawed on the word. “Yes, the fool must not have known who it was he attacked. He wouldn’t have dared, if he knew.”

“He wouldn’t have dared,” said Aren.

“I was wearing my sword. If he’d seen me clear, he’d know that to face me is to die,” said Lekan, glaring at the crowd. “Yes, banish the scum. Know this, though,” Lekan said, placing a hand over his heart. “If I see any of their kin within the boundaries of Kerem after morning’s light, they will be eviscerated.”

“What could be more just?” Aren said.

“What’s that?” asked Lekan.

“Your word, my will,” intoned Aren.

“By the Goddess,” said Lekan, turning on his heel and striding into the keep, the visibly relieved guards in tow.

The gate clanged shut and the noise seemed to cut the invisible strings holding Nkiru aloft. The man collapsed to the dirt.

Tau felt hollow. Nkiru was a good man. True, Anya could be a pain, but that was as bad as she got. There was no chance she had tried to seduce Lekan.

“I’ll talk to my mother,” said Jabari.

“It’s done,” said Aren. “Lekan won’t stop if Nkiru or his family stays in Kerem. He was out for blood tonight.”

“Lekan is an oversized—”

“Jabari…,” said Aren, shifting his eyes toward the gathered crowd, drawing the Petty Noble’s attention to the listening Lessers.

Jabari pressed his fingers against his temples, massaging them. “As you say. I won’t try to stop the banishing, if that’s what you wish, Aren.”

“Nkosi Jabari,” Aren said, “I thank you for your help. It’s frightening to think what could have happened if you hadn’t come.” Aren put a hand on Nkiru’s back. He was still on the ground. “We Lessers will do what must now be done.” Aren helped Nkiru to his feet, Zuri stayed by Anya’s side, and the crowd dispersed.

The rest of the night was longer than Tau’s day. He went to Nkiru’s hut with his father, Zuri, and Anya. Several Ihagu were waiting when they arrived, and everyone gave a hand in the packing. Nkiru’s wife, still suckling Nkiru’s youngest, acted brave but couldn’t hide her fear, not really.

It was near morning when they saw the family off. They would travel east to Dakur. The borderland fief suffered many raids, but that meant there’d be a place for a competent Ihagu.

Aren gave Nkiru a few names to call on, and then there was nothing left to say or do. Zuri hugged Anya, holding her tight, reluctant to let her go. Anya looked numb, and Zuri cried for both of them when the family trudged away.

Aren began the walk back to the keep. He had more to do. It was a new day.

Tau stood next to Zuri, and they watched the rising sun turn their friends into silhouettes that became hazy with the morning’s heat and then vanished as the mountain swallowed them behinds its curves. She slipped her hand into his and leaned her head on his shoulder. They stood like that, silent but together, for a span. She was still crying.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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