One Hundred and Eighty-Six cycles later.
Tau stumbled backwards, avoiding the Petty-Noble’s swing. He tried to regain his footing, but Jabari was on him and he had to hop backwards to survive the larger man’s onslaught.
“Come on, Tau!” his father yelled, the words made indistinct by the booming of The Roar.
“I’m baiting him,” shouted Tau, his sword arm numb.
Jabari was pushing him closer to the cliffs. Another step and Tau would be out of the fighting circle. He tried to be more aggressive, swinging for Jabari’s leg, but Jabari bashed his sword aside and launched a counter. Tau leapt back, tripped on the stones, marking the fighting circle’s boundary, and fell.
He was on his back, near the cliff’s edge and The Roar was loud enough to set his teeth chattering. He glanced back and down. The ocean roiled like boiling water, crashing against itself and spewing froth. Tau knew falling into it was death.
“Get up!” His father said and Tau scrambled to his feet.
“Look,” Jabari said, pointing down.
Tau lowered his sword and moved closer to Jabari. From his back, he’d missed the boat.
“Are they mad?” asked Jabari.
“What’s this?” Tau’s father said.
Jabari pointed again. “Boat.”
Aren Solarin, Tau’s father and the man in charge of Petty-Noble Jabari Onai’s training, walked over. The three men watched the small watercraft bob up and down in the churning waters. “They’ll be lucky if they don’t drown,” Aren said.
“Can you tell who they are?” Jabari asked Tau.
Jabari was taller, stronger, and faster than Lessers like Tau, but Tau was known for his sharp eyes. “Doesn’t look like one of ours…”
Aren looked closer. “Xiddeen?”
“Maybe,” Tau said. “I don’t see anyone on it. It’s heading for the boneyard…”
Waves drove the small ship against the group of rocks and it was dashed to pieces.
Jabari shook his head. “How did we do it?”
“Do what, Nkosi?” said Aren, eyes scanning the sinking wreckage.
“Cross it,” Jabari said. “No ship we make now can sail more than a few hundred-strides from shore. How did we cross all of it?”
Tau wasn’t listening. Handmaiden Anya had crested the hill, arm-in-arm with Handmaiden Zuri, and he was caught in the sway of Zuri’s hips. It didn’t hurt that the knee-high slit in her dress offered glimpses of calf. Tau smiled at her and Zuri’s brown eyes danced, as she raised a questioning eyebrow at him. Anya squeezed Zuri’s arm and giggled.
Aren stepped back from the cliff’s edge, waving for Jabari to join Tau in the ring. “Nkosi, save the deep thinking for your tutors. My concern is your sword-work.” Aren raised his arm. “Fight!”
Tau, wanting to impress Zuri, launched himself at the Petty-Noble. Jabari rose to the challenge and soon both men were sweating in the heat. Jabari went high, too high, and Tau found his opening. He lunged, aiming for Jabari’s mid-section with a strike that would have disemboweled the taller man, if their blades were anything but dulled practice swords.
Tau squeezed his eyes shut, bracing for an impact that never came. He snapped his eyes open. Jabari had baited him. He tried to defend, but Jabari’s sword slapped him in the armpit, where his gambeson had the least padding. The blow drove the air from Tau’s lungs and he tumbled to the ground in a heap, ears full of Anya’s tittering.
Embarrassed, Tau looked up to see that Zuri was hiding a smile behind her hand. Worse, his audience had grown. A High-Harvester was standing with the handmaidens.
“Nkosi Jabari,” said the Harvester. Tau thought this one’s name was Berko. He was from the mountain hamlet of Daba, where they grew potatoes, tiny misshapen potatoes. “I’ve come from the keep. Umbusi Onai, as well as your father and brother are looking for you.”
Jabari grimaced at mention of his older brother. He wasn’t close with Lekan and Tau couldn’t blame him.
“I’m training,” Jabari told the Harvester.
“Nkosi, I was sent because of news from The Palm.”
That caught Tau’s attention. News from the capital was rare.
“From the Palm?” asked Jabari.
“Yes, Nkosi. The Queen… The Queen is dead. Queen Ayanna has… well, she died.”
Anya gasped, Zuri covered her mouth, and Jabari looked dumbfounded. Tau looked to his father. His father’s face was no comfort.
“Who leads the Chosen now?” Jabari said.
Berko, rail-thin but paunchy with a patchy gray beard, stepped closer. “Princess Tsiora, the second, will be Queen.”
“Then, The Palm seeks ratification for her ascension,” said Jabari.
Tau had heard of this. New Queens asked the Petty-Nobles, Greater-Nobles, and Royal-Nobles to accept their rule. It was a formality. The Omehia line had ruled since before the time of the Guardians.
Jabari inclined his head in a sign of respect to Tau’s father. “Inkokeli Solarin, duty calls.”
“Of course, Nkosi. Goddess guide you.”
Jabari marched for the Keep and Anya, eager to hear the gossip, rushed off after him, dragging Zuri with her.
“She’s a child,” said Berko.
Aren gave the man a look. “What?”
“Queen Ayanna’s granddaughter? She’s a child.”
“Princess Tsiora is of age,” Tau’s father said.
“Cancer.” The Harvester hawked and spat on the packed dirt of the fighting circle. “Hard to believe things like that can kill royalty. First Princess Tsiora’s mother, now her grandmother. The line grows thin and the princess will need an heir or it’ll be the end of the Omehians.”
Tau spoke up. “There’s her older brother and younger sister.”
“Brother doesn’t count and Princess Esi is fey,” Berko told him. “Add the constant raids to the balance and it’s not a good time for a child-Queen.” Berko lowered his voice. “The Chosen are strong because of our Gifts and it has been a long time, too long maybe, since our Queens have had it.” Tau had to lean in to hear the last part. “A bit strange the Omehians can no longer call the Dragons themselves, neh?” Tau saw his father stiffen. The Harvester saw it too. “I’m just saying, is all.” He turned and called to the two Drudge further down the hill, near the ration wagon. “One Low-Common portion and one for an Ihashe.”
“I’m High-Common,” Tau said, annoyed he had to correct the man.
The Harvester shrugged and changed the order. “High-Common portion!”
One of the two Drudge, who pulled the wagon, took two sacks from it. He ran up the hill with them. Tau stared at the scrawny man, dressed in little better than rags. He couldn’t understand why anyone would live that life instead of choosing to fight.
The Drudge placed the sacks by Tau’s feet and waited, in case the Harvester had further orders. The Drudge kept his head down. Tau knew he’d be beaten if he met the eyes of his betters.
The man’s skin was dark, almost as dark as Tau’s and his head was a mass of kinked hair. It was forbidden for Drudge to shave their heads like proper Chosen men and the man’s poor state made it hard for Tau to tell what Lesser Caste he’d been from.
“Tau,” his father said.
Tau gathered up the two sacks, making a show of examining their contents. When the High-Harvester looked away, Tau placed two potatoes near the Drudge. The man’s eyes widened at the unexpected offering and, hand shaking, he snatched them up, tucking them under the folds of his rags.
“Coming,” Tau said to his father. He shouldn’t have done it. He trained most afternoons and needed the food. Besides, the man’s lot was his choice. He had decided he wouldn’t fight. Tau pushed the thought away. The man looked half-starved, and what was done was done.
As he walked past, his father put a hand on his shoulder. “Kindly done,” Aren whispered, little escaping his notice. Then, louder, he said, “Take the rations home. I need to see Umbusi Onai. I want to add more patrols.”
Tau nodded and went to do as he was bid. He made it three strides when he heard Nkiru, his father’s Second, shouting from down the mountain. The muscular Ihagu, along with a full unit of Ihagu soldiers, was running. Nkiru was drenched in sweat, his sword’s scabbard slapping at his thigh. It would have been humorous, if not for the look on his face. Nkiru was frightened.
“Raid! Raid!” Nkiru yelled, struggling to be heard over The Roar. “The hedeni are raiding!”Get the Book or Continue to Part 6