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By Mike Grinti, Rachel Grinti
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2014 Mike and Rachel Grinti
All rights reserved.
The king's grayships spread out down the length of the coastline, their red-streaked sails visible between the palm trees. Jala watched their approach from the roof of her family's manor. It was a calm day, and the sails hung slack.
Nearby, Jala's father swore. "How are we supposed to feed them all? We'll be eating palm leaves and grass by the time they're gone."
"But there'll be dancing," Jala said. She'd been practicing for months now. What would it be like to dance with the king? With any man, for that matter. She'd only been allowed to dance with other girls until now. It wasn't fair, really. Jala's cousins danced with anyone they liked, and no one thought twice about girls and boys from the village dancing together.
"You don't need a feast for dancing. Just a drummer," her father muttered. "I'll tell your mother you're getting ready." He started down the steps but paused for a moment to say, "I'll miss you. You know that. But I'll be proud, too. Prouder than I've ever been. You know what this could mean for our family?"
Jala smiled at him. "I know." She'd heard this same speech a hundred times, but her father was never one to let her forget how much pressure she was under.
The king's ship landed. Six men disembarked and formed a line on the beach. The king came ashore next. He wore fine silks taken from the Autumn Lands, gold-spun wool from Renata, and necklaces inlaid with stones that glittered red and blue in the sun.
My future husband, Jala thought. Maybe.
Only the earring in his left ear didn't shine. It was half the heart of a shipwood reef, white and gnarled. The King's Earring. Its other half would be worn by the queen.
Jala heard someone coming up the stairs and turned to see Marjani, her closest friend. "You missed the fleet coming in."
Marjani shrugged, peering over the edge. "Well, he's not short, or scrawny. But that earring looks heavy, doesn't it? I wonder if it'll stretch out your ear."
"If it does, I'll just wear one on the other ear that weighs the same."
Marjani stepped closer and hugged her. "You're scared, aren't you?"
Jala nodded. "Maybe I wasn't until everyone started asking me." She rested her head on Marjani's shoulder and took several slow breaths to calm herself. "You know this is his last stop? He's had girls like me thrown at him for weeks."
"It's all right if he doesn't pick you."
"You know it's not," Jala said.
"Well, it's all right to me. I'd rather you stayed anyway," Marjani said. "Since you're set on it, I made this for you." She held out a comb made from carved and polished palm wood.
Jala ran her fingers over it, then slid it into the rows of thin braids gathered at the crown of her head. Marjani straightened it for her and smiled.
They'd been friends since they were five years old. Twelve years of seeing each other nearly every day. And if everything goes right, I might not see her again for months.
"You can visit me," Jala said. "As often as you want, and I'll send you messenger birds every day."
"Hah! Like you'll have time for that. You'll probably forget all about me."
"You're right, I will," Jala said. "I'm forgetting already. Everything's fading ... it's like the last ten years of my life never existed." She squinted at Marjani and imitated her grandmother's quavery voice. "Excuse me, little girl, have we met?"
"Very convincing," Marjani said. "I wish I could hide up here until it's over. It's not that I want you to face it alone, of course. But I don't want to marry the king, so I don't know why I have to pretend I'm interested."
"My mother's a bully, that's why." Jala was only half joking this time. She didn't think her mother had relaxed for more than a few moments since they heard the king would be visiting. And if Zuri couldn't relax, no one could.
"She told me not to worry so much and that he won't want me anyway. I think she meant it in a nice way."
"That sounds like something she'd say. She probably did think she was helping." They watched the king approach the manor, escorted by his guards. The white sand of the beach was blinding, but when Jala peered over the edge, she could just see him pass through the main gate. "Come on, looks like it's time. We'll never hear the end of it if we're late."
Marjani nodded and allowed Jala to pull her away from the edge of the roof to the steep staircase leading down to the halls below. The king was probably already being greeted by Jala's parents. Then they would present the older members of the family. Finally, they would introduce him to the eligible daughters in the Bardo family. Jala would be introduced last.
Jala heard a drum reverberating through the brick walls. A slow beat, at least ten heartbeats apart, played on a lighter drum. That meant it was an occasion for moving slowly, for considering, but not a solemn day. She let the steady rhythm calm her.
"Stand up straight," Jala whispered to herself. "Don't play with your hair. Look him in the eyes when he addresses you and smile, but don't stare or you'll scare him off." They took another set of steps down, turned left into a smaller hall, and stopped outside a door with two of Jala's cousins.
From beyond the doorway Jala heard a man's deep voice declare, "Presenting Azi, of the Kayet family, king of the Five-and-One Islands. Where are the heads of this island and its family?"
Jala's father said, "I am Mosi of the Bardo. Welcome, my king. The ships of the Second Isle greet you with raised oars and lowered sails."
"I am Zuri of the Bardo," said Jala's mother. "Welcome, my king. Our family greets you as a guest, with slow drums and swords unsharpened."
"I accept your hospitality, and I wish your fleet good hunting," a new voice said. Jala leaned closer to the door to listen. It must be the king.
Then Jala's aunts and uncles introduced themselves, followed by the members of the Kayet family that had come with the king on his bride hunt. Traditionally they came to support the king, but in reality they would spend most of their time telling him who they thought he should marry.
Remember, Jala's mother had said, the king will love you for your looks and charm. But his family will approve of you because you will seem quiet and easy to control. Her mother had gone on about everything Jala would do for her family once she was queen, but Jala hadn't really listened. Her father had been teaching her how to be queen for two years now. She knew everything they had to say.
Jala ran her hands down the folds of her dress, smoothing it in case her skirts had ballooned out on her way back. The skin of a rainbow serpent around her shoulder added whirls of color. Her braids spiraled in elaborate patterns and just brushed her shoulders.
"Here," one of her cousins said, handing Jala a vial of palm oil. Jala pulled out the stopper, poured a little into her hands, then rubbed it into her cheeks and forehead and down her arms. She passed the vial to Marjani and pushed the bracelets on Marjani's thin wrists farther up her arms so they wouldn't jangle.
The drum stopped. Jala's heart stopped for a second. The traditional part of the meeting was over. It was time.
"My king, would you like to meet the daughters of the Bardo?"
"I would, Lord Mosi." Something about the way he said it made Jala think that what he really meant was Let's get this over with.
"My king." It was her mother's voice. "Please let me introduce my sister's daughter, Nia."
Nia arched her back slightly, opened the door, and walked out slowly. "I am most pleased and privileged to meet you, my king."
"She's a fine girl," Jala's mother said, "with a good head to help you lead the islands and good hips to bear both our families' children."
"How old is she?" asked the man who'd introduced the king. There was some haggling between the two families, with Jala's mother making a case for her niece and the king's family criticizing. Soon the other girl was called, and Marjani after that.
"Why does this one look so sullen?" Jala heard the same man say. "Is this the best that the blood of the Bardo can present to the king of the Five-and-One Islands?"
"Surely there is more to a queen than looks," Jala's mother said, but there was an edge to her voice, and Jala hoped Marjani wouldn't get lectured later. She scowled to hear them talking about Marjani like that, even if exaggerated criticism was expected. Jala's mother made her case for Marjani for another minute, then moved on. "But if she is not to the king's liking, then may I present my own daughter, Jala."
Jala took a breath and then walked out into the manor's greeting hall. Her aunts and uncles stood along both sides of the wall on one end of the hall, the king's guards on the other. Her parents waited with the king at the center. All eyes were on Jala. Her palms were sweaty. She hoped he wouldn't notice if he took her hand.
Soon she was by her mother's side, standing in front of the king. He looked different than she had expected. Beneath the layers of finery was a boy only a year older than herself. A wicked scar cut across his shaved head, stopping just above his left eye. It was a raised, ugly, pinkish thing that stood out from his black skin. Yet the effect it had on him wasn't ugliness. Instead, it made him look dangerous, fierce. He stood still and silent, almost rigid, as he watched her approach. Jala tried to keep her breathing even.
This was not quite the king she had imagined. Jala had met his brother, Jin, the boy who had been in line for the throne. Jin had smiled easily and liked to flirt. He put everyone at ease. But Jin had died, and this younger brother had taken his place.
"My king," Jala said. She realized she was staring and bowed her head.
"Hello," the king said. He said nothing for a moment, still watching her.
Jala's cheeks warmed under his gaze. She felt stupid staring at his feet, but she was suddenly nervous about meeting those dark eyes again. Nothing ventured ...
She let her eyes wander over his lean arms, then higher. Her gaze lingered on his lips, and she was suddenly thinking about how soft they looked.
Her mother was talking again, but Jala wasn't listening. She needed to say something, to break through this monotonous ceremony. Something clever or funny, maybe? But her mind was busy wondering what it would be like to kiss the king. How could she be speechless? She and Marjani had spent the last week thinking of little else. She knew they'd come up with a thousand things for Jala to say when she met him.
Jala met his eyes and saw he was already distracted, his gaze darting to the man standing beside him, the one who'd insulted Marjani. Thinking of Marjani's reluctance, she realized just how many times he must have seen this exact scene played before him. If she was nervous, might he be nervous, too? Or was he just bored? One thing was clear, his mind was already moving on, probably wondering what her family was serving for dessert.
"We're having spice cake," she said.
The king blinked and looked back at her, as though he was seeing her for the first time. "Sorry, what did you say?"
"I said we're having spice cake for dessert tonight. You looked like you'd rather be eating right now, and honestly so would I. I thought I'd let you know, in case you don't like spice cake."
"Jala!" her mother said. But she didn't seem to know what to do. She couldn't yell in front of the king and his family, not without making Jala's rudeness worse. Jala wasn't sure if she was being rude or flirting. Possibly a little of both. But she had his attention now.
"I do, in fact, like spice cake," he said, and there was a hint of a smile on his face now. "So, Jala. What are your feelings on spice cake? Or if that's too personal, your thoughts on dessert in general."
It was completely ridiculous to be talking about cake right now, but of course it wasn't about cake. It was about saying anything to keep the moment from ending. She wanted to talk to him again, even as part of her wanted to run and hide. This wasn't at all the way her mother said she was supposed to behave, but it didn't matter. She was talking to the king, and she wanted him to keep looking at her the way he was now. That look that was halfway between amused and arrested. Neither of them looked away.
"I like cake well enough," she said. "But I like dancing more. Well, actually it depends on the cake ... and on the dancing partner. There's a dance tonight, of course, and we have the best drummers you've ever heard. If you think you can keep up, you should ask me to dance."
The king smiled widely now. "I think I will."
* * *
The king was led away to his quarters, with his family trailing behind. Then the Bardo family's calm order dissolved, and everyone rushed to prepare for the dance. Jala stood in the center of it all, taking in sweet, slow breaths. In the middle of the floor, several large circles were being drawn. A little girl laughed as she helped to throw chalk onto the floor. It hung in the air and made Jala cough.
The commotion was like the distant wind, the chatter and cries of her family like the surf. She heard it one moment and forgot about it the next. Yes, it was true, the king always chose one daughter from each island to dance with. But he wanted to dance with her. She had seen it in his smile, in his voice, in those brown eyes that had watched her so intently.
"Come on." Marjani pulled her out of the hall and up to their rooms. "We have to get you into something you can dance in. I can't believe you did that. What did your mother say?"
"She hasn't said anything yet. I'm sure it's going to depend on whether I fall on my face during the dance."
Marjani helped Jala into a simpler dress, a strip of silk pulled low around her chest and a skirt decorated with bright flowers from the Bluesun Peninsula. She slipped a hoop of gold through Jala's left ear; the other Jala kept free.
Jala's mother arrived, looked her over, and nodded her approval. She leaned in close to Jala's ear. "Your little game has worked for now, but don't be a fool and think you've won. He clearly finds you charming, but the uncle, Lord Inas, is not happy the boy asked you to dance. He'll be watching you closely. If the king asks you to walk alone with him, be sure to hesitate before accepting. If he kisses you, you must push him away, but not too hard. Otherwise he'll think you don't find him attractive. You must leave him wanting more."
"I know. I practiced with Marjani." Jala wasn't sure she wanted to do any such thing. She didn't like the thought of being that way herself. And why should she hide what she thought or what she wanted? He might be a king, but Jala wanted to be a queen. It was a good thing her mother couldn't watch her too closely tonight. There were other guests to look after.
Her mother whisked her out of the room and back to the main hall, with Marjani trailing after. Jala could hear the murmur of the guests waiting for the dance to begin. A few stray beats reverberated through the brick walls as the drummers warmed up.
She sat down at the head table, while her parents and Marjani took their places on the other side of the table. King Azi was seated next to Jala, and his sleeve brushed against her arm as he sat. Like her father, the king was now dressed in a simple robe that hung loosely over his body. He wore golden rings around his wrists and ankles.
From across the table, Marjani batted her eyes at Jala and puckered her lips like a fish. Jala choked on a laugh and kicked her friend under the table. At least, she hoped that was Marjani's leg. She faced the king, but she still saw Marjani making faces from the corner of her eye. Deep breaths. Giggling uncontrollably was not going to make a good impression. Marjani was going to pay for this later.
"Will you be competing in the wind-dance, my king?" Jala asked.
The king nodded, his smile widening. "I've heard your father is a tough man to beat. I'm looking forward to it. Though to be honest, it may not be much of a show. I haven't had a chance to wind-dance since Jin ... since I was called off ship."
Excerpted from Jala's Mask by Mike Grinti, Rachel Grinti. Copyright © 2014 Mike and Rachel Grinti. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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