"This compelling Nigerian-influenced fantasy has a wonderfully unique premise and lush, brilliant worldbuilding that will consume you until the last page."—Buzzfeed
"...Unforgettable in its darkness, inequality, and magic." —VOYA, Starred Review
"...A paean to an emerging black legend."—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
Black Panther meets Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch in Beasts Made of Night, the first book in an epic fantasy duology.
In the walled city of Kos, corrupt mages can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts—lethal creatures spawned from feelings of guilt. Taj is the most talented of the aki, young sin-eaters indentured by the mages to slay the sin-beasts. But Taj’s livelihood comes at a terrible cost. When he kills a sin-beast, a tattoo of the beast appears on his skin while the guilt of committing the sin appears on his mind. Most aki are driven mad by the process, but Taj is cocky and desperate to provide for his family.
When Taj is called to eat a sin of a member of the royal family, he’s suddenly thrust into the center of a dark conspiracy to destroy Kos. Now Taj must fight to save the princess that he loves—and his own life.
Debut author Tochi Onyebuchi delivers an unforgettable series opener that powerfully explores the true meaning of justice and guilt. Packed with dark magic and thrilling action, Beasts Made of Night is a gritty Nigerian-influenced fantasy perfect for fans of Paolo Bacigalupi and Nnedi Okorafor.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Copyright © 2017 Tochi Onyebuchi
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
I make sure to sit where they can’t see me.
From where I’m perched, tucked just out of sight on a pile of rubble, I have a pretty good view of the other sin-eaters, the aki. They’re gathered in the small clearing below, ringed by the rubble of what used to be someone’s home.
If they knew I was here, they’d probably get all self-conscious, stop playing, and start trying to talk my ear off. Sky-Fist this and Lightbringer that. Whatever lahala they’re calling me these days in the Forum. Seems like barely anyone still remembers my name is Taj.
This group of aki are young, some of them just kids. But there are a few who look close to my age, including one girl with a big, easy smile that catches my eye. They wear jewel studs in their ears, gemstones to remind them of family members or loved who they abandoned or who abandoned them when their eyes changed and it was clear that they were aki. Others wear coal where gemstones would go. Jewels for the living. Coal for the dead.
I grin as I watch that girl who smiled at me show off for her friends, doing a backflip off a piece of broken balcony. She sticks the landing, her tunic flipping up a bit to expose a patch of light-brown thigh. I catch a glimpse of a fresh black mark wrapped around her leg—a tattoo of a snarling wolf.
Flashing another smile, Wolf Girl holds up her hand to get everyone’s attention, and the aki form a circle.
They begin to clap, slowly and in unison, their bodies swaying with the rhythm. Arms wide, then clap. Arms wide, clap. Faster. Faster. Even faster.
Now the aki begin to stomp their feet in rhythm with each clap while they sing a familiar song.
One stone, two stone, three stone, four,
Sound of Arbaa aki knocking at your door.
One stone, two stone, three, four, five,
Khamsa dahia aki set your street on fire.
One stone, two stone, and one makes three,
Aki from Thalatha climbing up your trees.
One stone, one stone, one stone please,
So the pretty aki girl can then see me.
I mouth along, careful not to let out a sound. I can’t remember the last time I joined a circle of young aki like this, but I haven’t forgotten a single word.
As the last words of the song die down, one of the youngest kids enters the circle and bounces on his feet, twirls, till he’s got everyone’s attention. Then he really goes at it, bounding to the left of the circle, darting to the right. He spins. Flies through the air. And the little aki around him cheer and clap.
Another girl breaks away and dances toward him, clapping in his face. She matches him leap for leap, and now we have ourselves a fight. The two aki kick and dodge while the circle sings about the kid who steals the pearl and has to leave town, climbing over the massive Wall that surrounds our city of Kos and escaping into the forbidden forest on the other side to whoever is waiting to welcome him home.
I notice most of the aki, except for Wolf Girl, appear to have unmarked skin. But if I look closely, I can spot a small lizard tattooed along the collarbone. A griffin marking one’s shoulder blades. Black ink on red skin, brown skin. Most of them are too young to have Eaten much sin, their skin largely unblemished by the animal markings earned by a successful sin-eating. The same markings that label us as pariahs, that earn us nasty looks and shoves in the Forum. These aki are lucky. I tug my sleeves down over my own arms and legs. They’re covered with beasts.
I could be inside sleeping like I deserve to, preparing for my next Eating, but it’s nice out. Not so dry that the dust’ll choke you into a coughing fit in two steps. And not so humid that the air feels heavy.
I even catch myself swinging my legs to the rhythm of the song as it echoes all the way up to where I’m sitting. As I watch the aki laugh and dance, it’s easy to forget that some of them are gonna get spit on as soon as they leave our dahia, our neighbor- hood, and walk through the Forum. Some of them are gonna get kicked, maybe even beaten by the Palace guards walking up and down our streets with their cutlasses and their gloves and their complete and total lack of humor. Here, they’re happy and unbothered. Here, we are happy and unbothered.
A shadow passes over me.
I flinch, ready to strike, but it’s just Bo.
“Don’t do that, brother; I nearly dusted you,” I huff.
But I’m glad to see Bo, even though I know now it’s just a matter of time before the other aki notice us. My friend is easily four or five hands taller than most people in the city of Kos. He’s hard to miss.
I make room for him, sliding over so he can sit down, too. But Bo just stays standing, his freshly marked arms crossed over his large chest, face as blank and serene as always.
“Taj, we’ve been called to the Palace,” Bo says, then clears his throat to make sure I’m still listening instead of looking at Wolf Girl. I smirk. That means he noticed her, too.
“Jai was called to Eat a sin. He failed.”
My smile fades. “So he has Crossed.”
“Yes.” Bo’s voice is quiet but steady. “The inisisa ate him. It’s still loose. They need us to take care of it.”
I stand up and brush the dust off, ignoring the small shiver that creeps down my spine. I didn’t know Jai well, but we’d lift our chins in greeting any time we crossed paths. The aki respected him. And now he’s dead. Worse than dead. Eaten.
Already, I’m trying to size up the inisisa, the sin-beast, in my mind. How big is it? How fast?
I check to make sure my daga is snugly tucked into my armband, even though I know it’s always there. First thing I do every morning is slip my knife into my armband. I’d feel naked without it.
“Is the Mage already here?” Nobody makes it to the Palace grounds without an escort.
“Yes, he’s waiting.” Bo lays a heavy hand on my shoulder as I pass him. “Careful, Taj. Jai was good. The inisisa shouldn’t have beaten him.”
“Did that ruby-licker Mage say how big the inisisa is?” I try to shrug off Bo’s grip.
Bo shakes his head. Apparently saying no would be too much effort.
“Well, don’t worry, brother.” I pat Bo’s hand. “If that inisisa even dreams about beating me, I’ll wake it up and make it apologize.”
I lift Bo’s hand off my shoulder and continue making my way into the street, where I find a Mage in a black robe, waiting to take me to my next engagement.
As we make our way to the palace, I run my fingers through my nappy hair. It’s starting to grow out, and I like the look, like a massive, cushioned helmet, but it takes way too much effort to maintain. I have to wash it right. And sometimes, when it gets hot and humid, my hair falls all the way down over my ears so I look like a donkey. I don’t know—it doesn’t seem worth it. But when it’s good and upright and all puffed out, I love it.
I hate when they keep me waiting. The more time I’m left alone with my thoughts, the more the nerves start to get to me. I play with my daga, flipping it up and catching it again and again, careful to catch the handle and not the sharp tip. I try to keep from wondering what’s waiting for me behind the closed doors.
I’m sitting on a bench on an outdoor balcony, waiting to be called into the Palace where the royal family resides. Even the wealthiest folks can only afford to hire one of us aki to Eat their sins and absolve them maybe once, twice a month. The royal Kaya family calls an aki every few days. Here in Kos, the purest, those most free of sin, rule everything. For the Kayas to main- tain power, it’s necessary for the royal family to absolve them- selves of every little sin, down to the last white lie. For being so supposedly pure of soul, our leaders sure keep us aki busy.
Outside the marble balustrade, there’s green everywhere. Green grass that stretches on forever, a few trees, shrubbery that lines stone walkways that curve out on the Palace grounds. I’m so used to the reds and browns and blacks of the Forum that the green almost seems too bright, hurting my eyes. Even the breeze that whistles through this entryway feels like a luxury. We barely get any wind down in the stifling heat of the Forum.
On the balcony, it’s just me and some of the Palace guards. Their uniforms are decorated with the royal Kaya crest. The Kaya crest is supposed to be some sort of dragon, but to me, it’s always looked like one of those pesky common lizards that are constantly scurrying over walls, popping up in bags of rice, and scaring children.
One of the Palace guards glares at me as I tap a rhythm on the marble floor with my foot. I hold his gaze and grin as wide as I can while twirling my knife around my fingers.
Finally, the door to my left opens and four Palace guards emerge, carrying what is unmistakably Jai’s body wrapped in a blanket. His arm hangs over the side, and I can see the markings covering it. Lizards and sparrows tattooed on fingers, a dragon whose wings circle his wrist. For a second, I wonder if his unpurified spirit, his inyo, still walks the Palace halls, preventing him from entering into Infinity. Sins weigh us down, and if you carry them with you past death, the earth and the sky both will reject you. They say that’s why the aki poison the ground where they are buried, so that nothing good grows where we’re laid. I say plantain trees grow just fine over our dead bodies. Although I’m not into all that superstitious lahala, the Palace still gives me the creeps, and I mutter a quick prayer to the Unnamed, hoping to send Jai’s inyo on its way.
Before they put him in the ground, someone’s gonna have to cut his throat. He’s Crossed but not fully dead, the worst that could happen to us. It would be too cruel to bury him alive.
Jai had never mentioned family before, but I hope he has people, so that they don’t just toss him in the shallow pits where they bury our sin-heavy bodies, far from the mines.
Even as I shift my glance away, I see that Jai’s skin is blue beneath the tattoos. I know if I were to get up and look into the aki’s face, I’d see his eyes glazed over, the color of ice, so unlike their usual brown. The bright stones studding his left ear would be dull as coal now. His face would be frozen in the same expression as when the sin-beast consumed him, sucking out his spirit and leaving only his ruined body behind.
But I won’t let myself look, not even to say goodbye to Jai, because that’s how the fear sneaks in. As fast as a lizard scampering right into my ears, if I give it that opening. Then it nestles there and grows. It makes me dull and slow, and when it comes time to fight the sin-beast, I won’t be able to move as fast as I need to. Maybe that’s what happened to Jai. He let himself get scared.
I stare straight ahead as the Palace guards carry Jai’s body out of sight. A Mage walks out in a dark robe, and I hide my surprise when I recognize Izu, the head Mage. Back in our slum, we aki joke and call him Big Chief behind his back, but he’s stood in the street before with Palace guards while his men ripped us from our families or snuffed us out from our hiding places. Other Mages will call us out for jobs, but Izu is the only one I’ve ever seen do the recruiting. Very dark coal burns in the chest of a man who can do that kind of work.
It’s Mages who have the power to pull sins from people’s bodies. The sins take the form of beasts, the inisisa, and the Mages then sit back while we aki risk our lives to kill those monsters.
Izu lifts his chin at me and jerks his head at the door. It’s time.
I push myself to my feet and follow Izu as he leads me inside and down the corridor. The doors shut grandly behind us. Everything here needs that extra weight. There isn’t a single gesture that isn’t laced with self-importance.
My worn shoes track dirt onto the plush red carpet as we walk down an endless hallway. I begin to hear a faint clanging sound that grows steadily louder. By the time we round a corner, the sound is deafening. We approach a door that’s nearly bent in half at the middle, bulging from something inside striking it repeatedly. Whatever’s inside sounds big. And angry.
I shoulder past the two Palace guards standing at the door, backs as straight as their pikes. A smirk twists my lips when I see their hands trembling where they grip those staffs.
I close my eyes and steady my breathing. There’s always the temptation to wonder whose sin I will Eat, whose guilt I’ll be taking into my soul and onto my skin. But I can’t think about that. Because then I’ll start to think about smooth-skinned Kaya princesses and princes. And I’ll start to think about how they get to walk around pure and bathed in light, while I have to slip through the muddy Forum, spat on and ridiculed for my markings, proof of crimes I didn’t even commit.
But I can’t let myself go there. Which is why I don’t wonder anymore. I don’t ask questions. I’m just here to Eat and get paid.
Suddenly, the clanging noise stops. Izu is at my side, and I look to him for permission. He nods, green eyes glinting beneath his hood. The Palace guards step forward, open the door, and I launch myself into the room, brandishing my blade. I don’t even hear the doors close behind me, because the sin- beast rears up and roars in my face.
I stare up at a massive lion, one of the biggest I’ve seen. The inisisa is formed of shadows so dark that it seems to suck all the light out of the room, even taking the glow from the daga in my hand. Its claws, inky tendrils of black, click against the floor tiles as it settles back on its enormous haunches. Sin made into living, breathing flesh by dark magic.
Let’s see how long it takes for me to do what Jai couldn’t. I shut my mind down so that it’s just me and my body. No room for emotions, for anger or fear or even joy. The beast raises a massive paw and swipes at me.
I duck beneath the first swing. Another paw comes at me and I leap back, but not far enough. Its claws tear at my shirt, the shadows as sharp and lethal as any true claws.
I scramble backward onto the wreckage of what must have been a lavish bed, catching splinters of wood in my palms. The room is a mess. Rugs lie scattered over the floor. There are smears of nearly dried blood everywhere. I’d like to think Jai put up a fight.
The beast rushes after me, and its paw comes up again. I hop just out of reach of its swipe, then launch myself at the beast. I land on its left shoulder and push myself upward so I can scramble onto its back. The lion roars, but I clamp my thighs on either side of its immense neck. It bucks once, twice, trying to throw me off. I plunge my daga into its neck.
The room shakes with the beast’s scream, and it bucks again and again, but I hold on tight. I stab and stab and stab. Finally, its legs collapse beneath it, and the beast slumps to the ground. Breathing hard, I jump off its back.
Three and a half minutes. Uhlah. No record today.
I dust my hands off and turn to face the dead sin-beast. Slowly, it turns to mist, dissolving bit by bit, limb by limb, until it’s a black pool of tar on the marble floor. The inky substance begins swirling, faster and faster, until it rushes toward me.
I hate this part.
I crouch down and open my mouth as the remains of the inisisa swim right down my throat. It burns. I have to close my eyes against it. Every time. And every time it feels like it’ll last forever. The sorrow that rakes my skin. The guilt that grips my mind. The cold that pierces my bones and freezes my mar- row. And I want to cry out, but my throat is full of sin, and the moment stretches out like a piece of rubber being pulled and pulled and pulled until finally it snaps.
And I’m back.
Bits of shadow dribble down the sides of my mouth, and I wipe the rest of the sin away with the back of my hand. I hear echoes of the sin in my mind, but I quickly shake my head to keep them from taking hold. I don’t need to know who did what to whom. What’s done is done. I’m just here to Eat the sin and get paid. In the beginning, I’d lie on the floor for half an hour after Eating, shivering until my teeth were ready to fall out of my mouth. Now I’m up in less than five minutes.
I walk over to the locked doors and pound on them once, twice, to let Izu and the Palace guards know that I’ve finished. I Ate the sin, the sin didn’t eat me. I did what Jai couldn’t do, what no other aki except me could do.
When the doors swing open, I see the fear and horror on the faces of the Palace guards as they take in the room behind me. Only Izu’s face remains impassive, looking at me like I’m something disposable. Like a rusting hammer or a nail that’ll eventually bend.
I’ve gotten used to it.
Next to Izu stands a golden-haired princeling that I recognize with surprise as Prince Haris. Probably sixth or seventh in line for the throne, but still royal. I bow my head quickly, but not before catching a glimpse of his cold stare. He must have arrived when I was in there battling the sin-beast. His sin-beast.
Coins jingle, there’s a flash of gold, then a metal tab is shoved into the palm of my hand. I get a second to look at the marking on it. It’s not enough time to tell how much I’ve been paid, just that I’ve been shorted. Before I can say anything, the guards are on me and I’m shoved back outside, nearly losing my tab in the process.
I spit a few times to try to forget the taste of the sin in my mouth, then walk down the path to the Palace’s front gates, where Bo is waiting to walk me home. A rare smile splits his face, the only sign that he thought I might not return.
By the time I reach Bo and he slaps me on the back in greeting, I feel the tattoo burn itself into existence on my forearm. This lion etched into my skin will be with me forever now, a marker of Prince Haris’s sin. Now he can walk around pure and noble and free while I carry the evidence of his crimes in my head and on my body. For a moment, I feel a heaviness. Anguish and despair from the sin wash over me, but I concentrate and push them out of my head like I’ve been taught to do, like I’ve been doing since I was nine years old.
With my redeemable tab between my teeth, I fiddle with my hair. I need both hands to fix it, to get it to puff out the right way.
Turns out Jai doesn’t have immediate family left, so it’s up to us to bury him. A bunch of us aki walk up to a ledge that sticks out from the earthen wall that surrounds the northern Ashara dahia like the rim of a bowl. Just beyond the wall are the mining pits, and even in the heat of midday, I see the men, black as obsidian, working the land. With coal-darkened cloth wrapped around their noses and mouths, the men climb out of the mine shafts or hand up baskets filled with what precious stones they’ve been able to find. The metallic sound of their hammers banging against stone fills the air. It’s a different kind of noisy here than in the Forum.
Stone dwellings dot the base of the bowl, but it’s mostly huts and a few shacks with tin roofs. I can barely see the people below, small specks that dart in and out of the huts, but I know that somewhere, a goat roasts over a fire and the women are preparing to dust a young girl’s forehead with precious metals to commemorate her coming-of-age. Somewhere, her younger sisters are pounding yams and grumbling about it. Somewhere, in shadowed alleys, stone-sniffers crush rocks and sniff the small bits off the backs of their hands to forget their troubles, just for a moment. Over it all towers the massive statue of Malek, the mythic figure who, long ago, battled the arashi, the demonic monsters that descended from the sky and attacked the dahia. The sculpture is red-brown when the sun’s at this angle, and Malek’s sword arm is flung back, ready to swing a crushing blow against an invisible enemy. He’s looking skyward.
As one of the eldest aki, Bo presides over Jai’s burial. After the aki lay Jai down next to his empty grave, it’s Bo who cuts Jai’s throat, with Jai’s own daga, and delivers him from his mind-death. I’ve got my slammers in my hand and no heart for burials, but I figure I owe it to the aki to at least be around. It doesn’t take a miner or farmer to tell where the earth in this part of the dahia has been recently turned. No grave markers signal where aki have been put into the ground, but the grass avoids them. Avoids us.
We bury Jai with his dull stones in his ear.
Inyo flit through the air like black bursts of wind, then vanish, and I feel Jai among them.
Bo begins singing in a loud, clear voice, but I can’t catch the words, only the rhythm. He starts the dance, and the other aki join. Jai’s inyo dances with them.
The lion on my wrist burns, like all new marks do. I feel a pang in my stomach, and at first I think it’s because I’m watching another aki get buried, but then I realize that I haven’t eaten all day.
As the burial ends, I scrabble up over the edge of the Ashara wall in search of pepper soup.
Balance is supposed to be the principle that governs us. Sin and sacrifice. Night and day. Death and life. I get to the top of the ridge, and there’s a kid standing there with his eyes closed, almost like he’s waiting for me.
There’s no expression on his face, but there are tearstains on his cheek. His clothes hang off him: a robe full of holes, billowy pants, all the color of mud. Must’ve been on the streets for at least a week. Probably twice that, by the looks of it. He looks like he’s dreaming. His arms are folded tight around his chest, and his eyes are closed.
“Ay!” I step to him. My shadow looms. “You lost?”
This snaps the kid out of his trance, and he starts to shiver. He doesn’t even look like he has a home to run away from. Maybe there’s a place for him with Auntie Sania and Auntie Nawal at the marayu with the rest of Kos’s orphans.
“Hey. What’s your name?”
The kid opens his eyes, and that’s when I see it. White pupils. His irises are brown, but right in the center of each is a flaming sun. He’s an aki. I don’t see a sin on him, which means his eyes have changed only recently.
Whenever the preachers in the Forum talk about Balance and the Unnamed and sin and purity, it’s all lahala. But we barely finish burying Jai and then this kid suddenly shows up. Maybe this is what they’re talking about when they talk about Balance. One leaves. Another one arrives.
“Omar,” the kid says. “My name is Omar.”
I hold my hand out, palm up. “To you and your people, Omar,” I say.
It takes the kid a moment, but then he slides his hand over mine. It’s coated in dust, and dirt clings to his fingernails. “To you and yours, sir.”
“Taj,” I tell him. “The name’s Taj.” Without thinking, I put my hand to his head and rustle his nappy hair. “You’re aki now. Let’s go meet your brothers and sisters.” I turn back and lead him down the hill.
The pepper soup isn’t going anywhere.
Every single time I return to the Forum, the noise hits me like a wall. In less than a minute, my sandaled feet are covered in dirt and grime. I’m hoping the open air and the sun will help me clear my head and the pepper soup will warm my body. I look at the new lion tattooed into my forearm. It still burns. Prince Haris’s sin is staying with me longer than usual, which, I guess, isn’t surprising considering how big that inisisa was.
The roar of the crowd settles into a muffled quiet, but if I strain, I can pick out a snatch of conversation about someone’s cousins coming to visit or about the rising price of dates. Northern and southern Kosian accents mingle together. Above it all, a crier stands off to the side of the thoroughfare, singing holy verse in a voice that booms out over the crowd.
Farther down, the smells announce the open market. A mix of imported herbs, the syrupy sweetness of deep-fried puff puff, the tingling spiciness of pepper soup with fufu. Stray too far, however, and it all starts to smell like sweet-sour refuse.
Between the jeweler stalls, glinting with crystals and rings too bright and numerous to be real, are the booktraders. They display their forbidden wares over spread cloth, ready to be snatched up at a moment’s notice. The books are mostly different versions of the Word, the holy text that governs our lives. The pages are folded into cylinders, and you put the book to one eye to watch the text spiral and form new words as you read. Some cylinders are simple, tough leather fabric with black ink. Others are more colorful and ornate, displaying flamboyant curving script. I’ve looked through enough of these vessels to know that half of them contain not religious doctrine but secret histories, forbidden alternate tellings of the origins of Kos, of the world, texts proclaiming that sin can’t be bought or sold or Eaten.
I spot a kid twirling one of the books in his hands. He’s got the thing pressed up against his face, burying his nose in it. I lean back a little bit and can see that the insides don’t have words but drawings. I know this book. This booktrader sells adventures: young aki questing to find a magical amulet to purify all their sins or something like that.
Two stalls down, past the herb seller, is a guy who sells stories of princes and princesses who look a lot like the Kayas. They’re never named, but everyone in Kos knows who the prince is that got caught in another lady’s bedchamber in last week’s installment. It was probably Haris. The real people in Kos, the people getting dirty in the Forum, the people trying to make their way through the dozen or so languages being spoken at any time, they know the royal family isn’t pure. We all know. Many of us Eat their sins. We just have to pretend they’re pure as river water so we don’t get strung up by the gates in front of our families, and so I can keep earning ramzi coins to send back to my family.
“Oya, child, buy it or leave. This is not a library.” The bookseller snatches the book out of the kid’s hand, careful not to crush the cylinder. I glare at him and dig into my pocket to find the marker from Izu. I’ll pay for the damn book. Let the kid enjoy his adventures.
But then I pull the marker out and suck my teeth. He shorted me even more than I thought. This is barely enough for me to send back home to my family. For a second, I think about tracking him down and chopping his hand for chopping my coins, but then I’d have no more work because I’d be dead.
Suddenly, the bookseller lets out a low whistle and shoots me a pointed look. Then, he settles into a bored gaze, staring off into the distance, but his hands move fast as a goat-fly trying not to get swatted. I see him sliding some cylinders under others, and then he shoves some of them into his rucksack entirely. I hear more low whistles, and I turn to see another bookseller doing the same furtive shuffling, and farther down another. When I hear the clank of armored boots, I understand.
An Agha glides through the crowd, almost as though she’s not even walking in the mud, leading a phalanx of other guards. She wears the ruby-red double-sash of higher officers. The Palace guards behind her are nothing but foot soldiers behind a general. She’s staring straight ahead, but everyone knows that they’ve been seen. The booksellers stare down at their wares, and the guards continue past the intersection before being swallowed up by the crowd.
The little kid is still sniffling over having his book snatched away by the booktrader. He probably has no idea the booktrader just saved his life. Who knows what the Agha would have done if she had found the kid spiraling through illegal stories?
I ruffle the kid’s hair and duck down an alleyway to make my way home, ignoring the conmen and hucksters that line the shadowy paths: soothsayers promising to read your future for a few ramzi, scammers offering secret cures for those afflicted by physical or spiritual ailments.
Down a side street I overhear a woman pleading with a trader, clutching her shawl close to her chest. “Please, trader, my son, he is beset by sins.” She’s on the verge of tears. “For many years, he has not been able to lift himself from his bed. And he weeps. Always, he weeps, and yet there is no wound on his body.”
I stiffen when I hear this. I should walk away. It’s not my problem. But the more I listen, the angrier I get. I’ve seen this before.
I was much younger. Up to Baba’s knees maybe. I clung to his pant leg as he haggled with a Mage to purchase a cure for Mama. A small flock of children hid in the shadows where Baba spoke with the Mage. I remember the Mage called one of them forward, a tiny girl a little taller than me at the time. Sin-spots ran up and down her arms. And I knew it was for Mama, who had been sick for almost a month, bedridden with a sin that none of us could absolve her of.
Even after all these years, Mama and Baba are still in debt.
I want to help this woman, but I would need a Mage to call forth the sin, and that would mean breaking my contract with Izu.
“It is the guilt that is weighing on his soul,” the woman in the market pleads. “Please, save my son. We cannot afford an aki. My son will die for want of cleansing, his inyo haunting my home.” The poor woman falls to her knees in the mud.
I listen with gritted teeth as the trader promises a cure that will wash away all her doubts and restore her son, rescue him from the guilt that plagues him. I start at the sharp pain in my hand. There’s blood running down my fingers. I’ve been gripping my daga.
The woman pulls out a small purse and slowly counts the ramzi in her palm, then looks at the trader who nudges her on with a lifting of the chin. She hesitates, then pulls out a few more ramzi, counts them. Her purse is nearly empty.
It’s all I can do not to take my daga and carve the greedy look off that trader’s face. The trader hands her a small vial, which the woman cradles in both hands before secreting it up her sleeve. Relief washes over her face, and she hurries away, head bowed.
I watch her go, then whip back and start toward the trader. He smirks at me, all traces of false concern gone from his face now that he’s made his sale. He glances down at my exposed tattoos, and his grin grows wider. He knows there’s nothing I can do, that it would be his word against mine, and who would believe an aki? The trader spits at my feet, sticks a rolled sijara in his mouth, then walks back into the crowd.
I push through the crush of bodies in the thoroughfare and follow him. I make sure to push up my sleeves so that people can see my sin-spots. The crowd parts immediately. Most Forum dwellers avoid touching aki, convinced that the guilt and anguish and weight of the sin could somehow transfer to them. It’s a bunch of lahala, but it’s useful in times like this.
As I get closer to the trader, I try not to choke on the smoke of his sijara billowing behind him.
Now I’m right behind the trader. Leading with my shoulder, I crash right into him. The trader stumbles and falls to the ground. His sijara tumbles into the dust.
“You!” he growls as he picks himself up, angrily brushing off his sleeves.
“Please, sir. My apologies.” I bow, lowering my eyes respectfully as he lets out a string of curses.
I wait till I can hear him walking away before straightening up. The trader’s full sack of money fills my entire palm. The ramzi would feed the woman and her son for a very long time. But she might also get tricked out of it by another trader. Mama and Baba need the ramzi too. I slip the trader’s bulging purse up my sleeve.
I make my way back through the crowd, ignoring the dirty looks of the Forum dwellers who glare at my sin-spots. Their hisses follow me through the winding streets and back alleys until I reach the outskirts of the Forum. Here, the dahia I call my home stretches out before me: a small hill crushed between the outer walls of two neighboring dahia; rusted, falling-apart buildings stacked on top of one another and too many people living in too little space. Intoxicated stone-sniffers sharing alley-space with pickpockets and cutpurses. I cover my nose and mouth with my shawl, then march through the pathways where thieves and cutpurses crouch or wait or idle. My feet avoid the empty vials and glass bottles by instinct. Same with the rivers of waste that flow down the center of these paths. I’ve been following this route home since I was a child. I could find my way back blindfolded.
Eventually, the narrow path leads me up a hill where I get a better view of the mud-colored shanties. The tin roofs glint red in the dying sun. Up the hill the dwellings climb, as far as I can see, and I catch myself smiling. Home.
But first I need to see Nazim the money broker. The ramzi is burning a hole in my pocket, and at least some of it needs to get to Mama and Baba.
Being an aki does carry certain advantages.
The line to see Nazim trails down several storefronts and around the corner from a butcher’s stall, so by the time I reach his stall, the flies buzzing around the meat decide they’d rather make a meal out of me. I’ve spent my entire life in Kos, but I’ll never get used to the pests. I could certainly do without the flies constantly feeling the need to dive deep into my ears. One catches me up the nose, and I swat at it. I swear, by the Unnamed, if survival is such a basic animal instinct, why are Forum flies so suicidal?
Somebody jostles me from behind, and I nearly fall into the man in front of me. The line is mostly merchants, a few builders, and some younger Forum dwellers, my age or younger. I can only guess at their jobs. Servants of some Palace royal or their sister or wife. Handmaidens, some of them. Maybe a few newsboys, scurrying throughout the Forum with folded pieces of parchment that carry news from one corner of the city to the other. I’ve seen them around, darting through the legs of older Forum dwellers, the best ones able to get from one dahia to its opposite in half a day. I know Kos, but I don’t know the city as well as the newsboys do. They know every nook, every passageway, even the rumored underground tunnels, and for a second I imagine a whole legion of children crawling through passages underneath the city, bringing people news of loved ones or of new merchants arriving or of a message or sermon from a faraway holy man.
A man stops in front of me to adjust his creaking auto-mail leg, fiddling with the metal gears and knobs in his fake limb. The metal that starts below his knee looks clean and sturdy, but it’s gray and not at all like the precious metals or glittering stones the Kayas wear. Looks sturdy, but it creaks. The half-limbed mostly hail from north of Kos, and I have to admit that the sight of their auto-mail arms and shoulders and knees gives me the creeps. I shouldn’t talk, given that’s the way most people feel about aki, and it’s true that a lot of the gearhead girls who solder the auto-mail are cute. But still.
The heat’s starting to get that wet, heavy quality about it. I can tell because my puff ’s starting to droop. That doesn’t stop the flies. So now I have them to deal with, and the guy in front of me is starting to stink. I’m sick of this.
I break out of the line and march around the corner till I get to the front. I push past the merchants without a word but murmur some apologies for the old ladies. When I get to the front of the line, I give Nazim’s door three sharp raps.
Someone grabs me by the shoulder and spins me around.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The merchant’s nasty onion breath practically knocks me off my feet. Jewelry gleams around his neck and wrists. He hasn’t let go of my shirt.Yanks me close. “Back of the line with you, Forum rat.”
“Oga.” I grin. “You kiss your wife with that mouth?”
The man’s eyes shoot wide open. The crowd stirs, anticipating a fight.
A knife comes out, catches the sunlight. The merchant lunges forward.
I catch the merchant’s knife with my own, then yank his arm behind his back. He falls to his knees instantly. The gems on his rings shine in the sunlight. Gaudy and wasteful. This guy has no taste.
“Don’t do it to yourself, old man,” I mutter into his ear as he struggles against my grip. A fly buzzes insistently by my nose, and I blow it away. It’s got more heart than the guy on his knees in front of me, that’s for sure.
A gasp ripples through the crowd, and I look up to see everyone inching away, eyes glued to my arms. That’s when I realize that in the scuffle, my sleeves were pulled farther back, and now the tattoos on my forearms and fingers are in open view. “Look at that aki. I’ve never seen one with so many marks,” one of them whispers.
I kick at Nazim’s door again and hope I don’t have to wait like this too much longer. The merchant is starting to struggle harder, and the murmurs from the crowd are growing. A couple more seconds, and their shock will turn to disgust and then eventually anger. I pray to the Unnamed that Nazim will open the door. He won’t be pleased that I’ve exposed myself as an aki. There are plenty of folks who won’t patron the same places as aki, but it’s too late for that now.
“Let go of me!” the merchant shouts, kicking at me. I yank his arm even farther up, and he yelps and falls down again. Two more seconds, then more knives’ll come out.
Come on, Nazim. Open the door already.
I’m running out of time. The line has dissolved, and now a crowd of men forms around me. They’re ready for violence. I press my back against the door, holding the merchant in front of me as a shield.
“Nazim.” I kick at the closed door. “Any second now!” More men push to the front. Someone pulls a dagger out from his sleeve. More follow.
I guess this is how it ends then. Thanks to some Forum flies and my big mouth. I let go of the merchant and kick him toward the crowd. I crouch, pulling my daga free. It’ll be like fighting sin-beasts, I tell myself. Only about fifty of them. At once.
Just as they’re about to charge, the door opens behind me.
I fall backward onto the poor money broker, who catches me in his arms. Nazim rights me, his shock turning into amusement.
“Taj,” he says, raising an eyebrow.
At the sight of the money broker, the crowd of merchants instantly softens. I wait until they put away their blades before I stand up and sheathe my knife.
“It’s hot, sir. You know how the weather can sometimes make us behave.”
Nazim is shaking his head. I know.
With a firm hand on my arm, he ushers me through the doorway and into his office. I don’t let go of the breath I’ve been holding until I hear the door close shut behind us. Another day in the life of an aki.
On his desk are neatly arranged piles of parchment with what I can only guess are accounts written on them. Nazim takes a seat behind his desk and motions to the chair opposite him.
“Please,” he says in his clipped, proper southern dialect.
I brush the dust off my cloak, run my fingers through my puff, and try to get it nice and round again. It’s cooler in here than it was outside. Much cooler.
“Taj, I would really prefer if you didn’t make a business of driving away my business.”
“Nazim, I try. Really, I do.” I sit down and sprawl my legs. The straighter his back is, the more mine wants to curl. The straighter his legs when he sits, the more mine lounge. “But you have some very unseemly customers outside that door. I might have even seen some smugglers. Illegal spices. Forbidden texts. You never know who might come to your door with some dirty ramzi that needs scrubbing.”
“Now, Taj,” Nazim says, “you know I do not discriminate in my provision of services. I am at the behest of the community.”
“Sure.” I fish the pouch of coins out from under my shirt and toss it onto his table. It lands with a satisfying thud.
Nazim gives me a long look, and I can tell he wants to ask where I got that much ramzi from. But his business relies on discretion, so he merely sits back in his chair. “Now, will we be sending all of this home?”
He wants to know if I want to keep any of it for myself, but I remember the marker in my pouch and the sin I Ate to get it. “Yes. All of it.”
Nazim dips his stylus into the inkpot, pulls a sheet of parchment from a pile, and scribbles on it in silence.
I wonder if he ever thinks about how those figures and names he writes on his sheet will turn into money for families to feed themselves. I wonder if he ever thinks of the lives attached to the money he sends and receives. To be honest, I wonder if any money brokers think about that sort of thing.
As Nazim writes, I close my eyes and think of Mama, and I think of Baba. I try to remember their faces, but other faces swim into view. Smirking princes and preening princesses. It’s getting harder and harder to see them, Mama and Baba. Their faces.
I never told Nazim about that time Mama got sick and Baba had to hire an aki to cure her. And I never told him about how much it had cost us. But he has probably heard enough stories like it—he would not be surprised.
Nazim clears his throat. I open my eyes to see that he’s divided the ramzi into small, equal piles. I can’t tell how long he’s been looking at me. I quickly blink away any trace of tears. There’s a gentleness to Nazim’s smile. Like he wants to nurse me to health or something. I shift my eyes away. I don’t need pity. I can’t feed Mama and Baba with that.
“So, how does it look?” I mutter.
“It looks fine, Taj.” Nazim slides a piece of paper toward me. “The code.”
I take his stylus, dip it in too much ink, then scribble a series of numbers. It’s the same series of numbers I’ve been using ever since I started sending money back home to my parents, a code known only to me, Nazim, and my parents. Nazim halves one of the piles and separates it. His commission.
“Is there anything else today?” “No, I’m good. Thanks for this.”
“As always, my son.” He nods, his eyes soft. “Be well.”
“You know me,” I say as I head for the door. I don’t know if the crowd is still out there, waiting for me to emerge. Part of me doesn’t care. “Have I ever not been able to take care of myself?”
I wave lazily over my shoulder and walk outside, shutting the door behind me.
The line outside is orderly again. There are new people at the front. None of the regulars who were moments away from gutting me. I almost wish they were still there. I’m itching for another fight, and I can’t figure out why. Then I remember the marker in my pouch and how badly I was cheated for Eating Prince Haris’s sin.
When I get home, a bunch of aki are gathered in a room on the top floor of our dwelling around a massive plate of fufu. Everyone has a small bowl of pepper soup next to them. Dented metal bowls of water for hand-washing ring the table. Bo’s there. So’s Ifeoma. The bear tattoo running along her arm is fading.
Jai’s cousin, Emeka, sits next to her, rolling his bit of fufu into a small ball with one hand, then scooping it into his bowl of pepper soup before slipping the whole thing into his mouth. He has a new stud made of coal in his ear, and I remember he was there at Jai’s burial. A couple other aki sit or lie around the room. Sade has her legs stretched out, a snake tattooed around each ankle. She fiddles with the blue jewel on her necklace while Tolu stands by the window overlooking the neighboring dahia, etching ever-widening circles into the clay with his daga.
I pause at the doorway, taking in the familiarity of it all. When I make my way into the room, all heads turn.
“Taj!” Sade shouts and pulls something out of the bag next to her. It’s an auto-mail arm.
“Ewoooo,” Ifeoma pleads. “Put that away-oh. We are eating, na.”
Sade jumps up and walks over to me. Everyone shifts out of the way, plates rattling as they do. Bo catches the platter of fufu just in time to move it back to the center. Tolu has stopped carving the clay windowsill and only stares, tense. Sade’s holding out the metal limb, practically thrusting it in my face. Everyone waits for my reaction.
Emeka sucks his teeth. “You do not know who that thing has touched, Sade. Put it away.”
“I found it in the Forum,” Sade says, excitedly. “Just lying there. It’s a little rusty, but it moves just fine.” She twists it at the elbow. Bits of dust and rust fall away, and Ifeoma lets out a yelp and scurries away from the plate of fufu. “It’s not a snake,” Sade chides.
“You know how they bang metal up north, Sade,” Ifeoma shoots back. “They are heretics up there. Unbelievers. Right, Bo?”
Bo silently picks a small ball from the mountain of fufu and rolls it. He has his back to me, but I can tell he’s smirking, so I chuckle too.
“The arashi won’t find us and burn down our home because a half-limb left his arm in the street for us,” I joke. I’m afraid to touch it, but I do anyway, because I can’t let the others see me scared. Besides, like Sade said, it’s not a snake. The metal is supposed to be cursed, Unbalanced. Man’s attempt to replace what the Unnamed has taken out.
It’s cool to the touch. And except for the grooves where dirt has caught, it’s as smooth as our water bowls. I run my fingers along its fingers. The joints feel weird to touch, but it doesn’t bite or burn like I half expect it to. “See? It’s nothing.” I toss it to Tolu, who lets out a shriek and covers her head.
Everyone bursts out laughing. Emeka falls on his side, clutching his stomach. Fufu stains his shirt because he couldn’t wash his hands in time. Bo’s shoulders shake as he tries to hold in his chuckling. He calmly washes his hands, then gets up and walks over to where the auto-mail arm lies on the ground. He picks it up, turning it around in his hand.
“It balances just fine,” he says, joking. “Back home, most of the men are miners. It is common to lose an arm or a leg in an accident farming metal for the Kayas. Is it wrong for those from the north to make us gifts like these?”
And that’s when I notice that little aki in the corner. Omar. That kid I saw after Jai’s burial. He hasn’t moved this whole time. He’s so distraught he can’t even be bothered to be scared of a little auto-mail.
Ifeoma glares at the metal limb from across the room. “Ehheh, when misfortune finds you, we shall see. Keep that thing around and pretty soon we will all be wearing extra coal in our ears.”
Bo walks over to me, but then the little aki in the corner climbs to his feet and tugs the back of Bo’s shirt.
His voice is so soft, it’s almost like he’s never used it before. Everyone turns to look at Omar, and I can sense them all softening. Nothing like a homeless little kid who’s just discovered he’s aki to get all of us to forget our differences.
“Arashi,” Bo starts. “They’re . . .”
“They’re the reason we have work,” I butt in, and everyone’s all smiles again. “Speaking of which . . .” I fish my marker out of my pocket and hold it up to the light. “It’s time for us to get paid. Costa’s shop has to be open by now.”
Bo throws his hands up in the air. “But we were eating. Let us at least finish our fufu.”
“Eat as much as you want,” I say, heading for the door, “but you know what they say: Make hay while the sun shines.”
Sade follows me. “Time and tide wait for no one,” she shouts, grabbing her armband and daga on the way out.
The others get up and gather their things, but Bo sits firm. “I have not eaten all day. If this spoils, may the Unnamed punish you.” He nods in Omar’s direction. “I’ll see you in the
I nod and look over at Omar. His eyes are wide.
“Let’s go, little one. Time to get some fresh air.”
I look to Bo and grin. He rolls his eyes but smiles back.
I can’t pull the same trick I did in the Forum when I go to redeem my marker: show a little sin-spotted skin and scare people out of the way. Because now I’m standing in a line of aki. And, well, sin-spots are nothing they haven’t already seen.
Most of the aki in line are closer to my age, which is nice because then they’re not staring at how many tattoos I have, or fawning over me. Omar is next to me. I pretend not to notice how he follows me closer than my shadow.
The boy looks up. “Sky-Fist,” he whispers.
I wince, but it’s better than Lightbringer. “Omar, right?”
“Yeah.” He sticks his hand out, palm up. “May the Unnamed protect you, Sky-Fist.”
I slide my hand palm-down over his.
When Omar pulls his hand back, eyes glowing, I can see the fresh mark of a snarling rat on the inside of his wrist. I hadn’t noticed it before. A small sin, maybe a theft or a vicious bit of gossip. He doesn’t have an armband or even a daga yet. I can’t imagine how he managed to finally kill the inisisa. It must have exhausted him.
“Congratulations.” I nod at the mark. “Your first?”
He nods, suddenly shy.
“How was it?”
“Killing it. Eating it, you know.” I can barely remember what it was like when I was in his shoes, but I do remember it wasn’t fun. “You look like a tough kid. I bet it was easy.”
“It was right before I met you.” Omar stares at his sandals, shuffles back and forth. “The beast was fast. But once I got past my fear, I knew what to do. The hard part was after, when I had to Eat the sin.” Omar looks up at me and fishes a marker from a pouch inside his shirt. “The Mage gave me a chit and told me to come here to collect my money.”
I can see from the marker’s etches that he’s only gonna get a couple ramzi. Hopefully, he doesn’t have to worry about sending money to anyone else for food. Hopefully, he just has to worry about himself. He goes back to scratching the life out of that tattoo, and my heart kind of breaks for the kid.
“You can’t scratch it like that. You’re gonna hurt yourself bad if you keep at it.”
“It hurts,” Omar whispers through gritted teeth. “How . . . how do you make the feeling stop?”
“Stop scratching.” I shrug.
“No.” Omar hesitates, then taps his finger against his temple. “In here. I feel bad, like I did something wrong. Only I know I didn’t.”
I grab his hand, close my fingers over his tattoo so he can’t get at it anymore. “That’s not your sin to worry about. Those feelings? They’re not yours. Just think about yourself. Nobody else.”
I flex my free hand so he can see the tattoos that wind around my fingers. “We’re supposed to carry the guilt, and the more we are supposed to hurt. But these aren’t our sins. We didn’t do this. So these aren’t ours to think about. Make sense?” I can tell from the look on Omar’s face that it doesn’t, but someday it will.
“Don’t think about the people who sinned. Don’t think about the sin and who it was done to. Just think about killing the sin-beast and getting paid. What’s the only thing in the world you should ever think about?”
“I . . . I don’t know.”
“You.” I let go of the kid’s wrist. I can tell Omar doesn’t quite buy it, which makes me kind of glad in spite of myself. He’s skeptical by nature, like me.
The kid looks around at all the aki gathered here. With the coal or the jewels studded in their ears. With the stones in their necklaces or bracelets or anklets to remind them of their pasts. With their sin-spots to remind them of their present.
“We can’t ever go back, can we?” His voice is small, but there’s a new edge to it. He’s learning how to be angry. “We can’t ever go back home?”
“Once our eyes change? No.” I can’t remember the last time I saw Mama’s and Baba’s faces. This kid is gonna have to get used to that.
“My sister’s Jeweling ceremony is soon.” He sniffs, then balls his fists at his side. “I can’t go now because I’m aki.”
I’m not good at this. Usually, Bo handles this part. Whenever aki get homesick or mourn the life they’ve had to leave behind, he’s the one who takes them aside and cheers them up. He’s the one who helps them adjust. Me? I’m just the handsome big brother they’re all supposed to want to be like.
Someone shouts up ahead, and all of a sudden the line breaks up, everybody pushing one another out of the way. Instinctively, I put my arm out and move Omar behind me, then I shoulder forward. The aki I pass are pretty well marked. I know from experience that not much will set them off, but they’ll fight way too hard for what they think is theirs. I get to the front where a bunch of aki are gathered. Costa, the lizard-faced redeemer, sits behind a protective steel mesh barrier.
“That’s not what it says on my marker!” Ifeoma shouts at Costa, who just sits with his arms folded. “I’m supposed to get two ramzi! That’s how it’s notched.”
Costa leans forward and points to a piece of parchment nailed to the outside of his booth. On one column a list of sins, on the other, a series of numbers. “These are the rates, you ruby-lickers. I do not decide them.”
“Those weren’t the rates yesterday!” Ifeoma slams her fist against the steel fencing.
“How’re we supposed to know what all of that means?” growls Sade. “You know most of us can’t read that nonsense.”
I shove my way to the front and pull my marker out, then smash it against the fencing, right in Costa’s face. “How much does this get me? And don’t you dare say anything less than six ramzi.”
I wait, breathing hard. Everybody waits. He wouldn’t dare defy Sky-Fist. The Lightbringer.
Costa bows his head. After a second, I realize he’s chuckling.
“Gutter-rat.” I shout, hitting the fencing because it’s the only thing I can think to do. “Who changed the rates? How do we know you didn’t just write these out this morning?”
I keep talking, hoping something will stick. Maybe I’ll say something that’ll hit, that’ll either get him to change his mind or that’ll calm the restless aki behind me. Everybody’s got their eyes on me now. “Some of us got mouths to feed,” I drop my voice low, too low to be heard by anyone but Costa. “We got families.”
“An aki? With a family?” Costa sneers. “That seems like the answer to a riddle that doesn’t exist.”
Something snaps inside me. I pull my daga out of its sheath, slowly so that everyone can see. “Pay me what I’m owed, or I cut through this fence like hot oil. Then we’ll see about rate changes. How does that sound?”
Costa’s gaze darts to the left, past my shoulder, then to the right, and I turn around, too late, and see that there’s half a dozen Palace guards at the back of our crowd, ready to knock our heads in. The fight instantly goes out of me. It’s not worth it.
I sheathe my daga and slide my marker through the opening in the fence. “Fine,” I growl, shoving my face right up against the fencing. “What does this get me?”
Costa makes a show of examining it, checking its markings. Then, he tosses me three measly ramzi, and I scoop them up. I wish there were something I could say, some small threat or insult that would hurt him, do real damage, but I can’t think of anything. So I walk away, the look from every aki I pass burning into my back fiercer than any sin I’ve ever Eaten.
I walk and walk to clear my head and lose track of where I am, but a quick look to the left, and I can see, over rooftops, the ridge that surrounds the northern dahia. I realize I’m close to where Auntie Sania and Auntie Nawal live, two older women who practically raised me after I left home to begin Eating. I smile, remembering how their pockets were always full of chin-chin for young aki, meant to wash the taste of sins out of our mouths. It’s a poor dahia, but it’s far enough away from the Forum and most other parts of Kos that the people here generally get left alone. It’s as quiet a place here as you can find in all of Kos.
The sound of scuffling draws my attention. I turn to see Omar climbing over a pile of stones in an alley and heading my way. Uhlah, this kid is never more than three paces behind. I keep going, hands in my pockets, pretending not to see him, but he falls right in step beside me. He puts his hands in his pockets too. Sticks his chin up just like I’m doing. We must make quite the picture strolling through the dahia like this.
I know he’s got a million questions for me, but he’s gonna have to learn to speak up for himself, so we walk in silence through the winding streets of the dahia. They widen, then narrow suddenly, so that if you don’t know your way around, you’re likely to run smack into a wall.
Then I hear it. Drumming.
We come to the wide boulevard, and coming around the corner to our right is the first line of dancers. Four of them spread across the width of the street, their brightly colored robes flowing in the wind as they twirl and stomp in unison. Their wrists and ankles and ears glisten with gemstones. The light catches their jewels and makes them look like moving human-shaped stars. Rounding the corner behind them is the first drum line. Their hands move so fast against the massive drums strapped to their waists. Their muscles gleam with sweat.
Local Kosians come out from their homes and join the tail end, arms swinging with their own dance steps, children doing their best to mimic the adults. I can see where some of the aki get their moves.
What is it?” Omar asks.
I don’t bother hiding my grin. “It’s an Ijenlemanya. A parade.”
“What are they celebrating?”
I can feel my heart getting bigger with each second I watch the Ijenlemanya. This is Kos. “It’s a funeral without a body. Odans from south of Kos brought the tradition with them. A celebration of life.” Finally, a tradition that has nothing to do with sins and aki and us bearing the guilt of others. A tradition that doesn’t make me feel like a piece of parchment for others to write their sins on. Or a rubbish bin where they can dump their worst parts. “Sometimes, they do it to celebrate a birth in the dahia. Sometimes, they do it when a child of the dahia scores well in school. Sometimes, to celebrate a marriage.” I shrug and my smile widens. “Sometimes, they do it just because. A celebration of life. That’s why they say it’s a funeral without a body. It’s a celebration. The grave is empty.”
The air is clearer around the parade, almost as though they’re clearing out the inyo that choke us when we walk through streets they roam.
The revelers head down the street and slowly disappear behind another corner.
“Hey, do you see that?” Omar points at a robed figure standing across the street from us. His robe shimmers silver where the wind rustles against him. The gray is darkening, slowly, starting from the cloth at the bottom near his feet and moving upward.
The call to prayer sounds, and I put my hand on Omar’s head. “Time to go.” Pretty soon, Kosians in every dahia will come back out of their homes and surround the large black Cubes in the center of their dahia and sit in silence to commemorate the Original Storm that created the dahia. They will pray to the Unnamed to protect them from arashi none of them has ever even seen.
My good mood evaporates. All this fear of monstrous arashi that only appear when there’s enough sin in a city to draw them, it’s all lahala meant to control us. Anybody with half a mind knows that those Mages send us all over so that there will never be enough sin in the entire city to call down their wrath. If there are arashi, they’ve done a pretty good job of steering clear of the Kaya Palace.
“There are no arashi.” I don’t realize I said it out loud until I catch Omar staring at me. I realize I’m thinking of the question he asked Bo when all the others were eating fufu earlier. “There’s only the way your wet clothes hang heavy on you during a storm and the way your stomach growls when it’s empty. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
The robed man across the street hasn’t moved, but his robe has gotten darker. It’s completely black. Then I listen.
Wait a second.
The afternoon prayer call sounded not too long ago. And the sun’s too high in the sky for the next one. Something’s not right.
“Come with me.” I hurry up a small ladder pressed against the side of a house, then scramble along the roof until I get to where laundry hangs on clotheslines. Omar’s right behind me. I squint, and that’s when I see them, up on the hills that overlook the dahia. Wreckers. Hurlers. Catapults loaded with brick and stone and burning bundles of wood stand ready.
The man who stood across the street from us is gone. Uhlah, that wasn’t a Mage. That was a Palace animist. Sent by the Palace to the dahias. It all makes sense now. The way his robes shimmered—it was metallic thread with the power to detect the amount of sin in the air. The darker the robe, the greater the amount of sin.
That animist’s robe was pure black. My stomach twists.
This isn’t a call to prayer. It’s a Baptism. The Palace is going to “cleanse” the dahia by razing it to the ground.
The first Wrecker launches. A flaming ball of wood and stone hurtles through the air, and I’m frozen in horror as it crashes into a home close enough that the impact knocks me onto my stomach. In an instant, I realize that it must have landed less than a hundred meters from Auntie Sania and Auntie Nawal and the orphanage. Omar and I stumble from the impact.
“We gotta go.” And we set off at a run along the rooftops of the dahia while homes fall to pieces behind us.