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Prepare to Pay the Price For This Exclusive ‘Kingdom of Souls’ Excerpt

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Prepare to Pay the Price For This Exclusive ‘Kingdom of Souls’ Excerpt

Prepare to Pay the Price For This Exclusive 'Kingdom of Souls' Excerpt

Grandmother said I will be a powerful witchdoctor one day.

But I cannot wait that long.

Kingdom of Souls: Arrah

Welcome to Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron, book nerds.

Main character Arrah is a girl you want on your team. Tenacious and compelling, she comes from a family of witchdoctors, but hasn’t yet received magic of her own—so she takes matters into her own hands. As a deadly last resort, she trades years of her life for scraps of magic. (And like… we get it). Then, the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is determined to find the culprit. Instead? She finds something far worse—a Demon King stirring.  In order to stop it, Arrah might have to pay the ultimate price.

Y’all. Rena is an absolute master, and Kingdom of Souls will HAUNT YOU.

See for yourself! Read the first few chapters of Kingdom of Souls and tell us what you think!

 

PROLOGUE

Be still, Little Priestess.

My father kneels before me with a string of teeth threaded between his fingers. They shine like polished pearls, and I square my shoulders and stand a little taller to make him proud. The dis- tant echo of the djembe drums drowns out his words, but it doesn’t tame the twinkle in his eyes as he drapes the teeth around my neck. Tonight I become a true daughter of Tribe Aatiri.

Magic of all colors flutters in the air as gentle as wingbeats. I can’t be still when it dances on my father’s dark skin like lightning bugs. It flits along his jaw and leaps onto his nose. My hand shoots out to catch an ember of gold, but it slips through my fingers. I gig- gle, and he laughs too.

Girls gossip as their mothers fix their kaftans and bone charms. For every one the magic touches, it skips two, like the rest of us are invisible. My chest tightens, watching it go to others when it’s never come to me—not even once.

The few girls who speak Tamaran ask me what it’s like living so far away in the Almighty Kingdom. They say that I am not a true Aatiri because my mother is not of the tribe. Something twinges in my belly, for there is truth in their words.

I hold my head high as my father straightens my collar. He’s the only man in the tent, and the other girls whisper about that too. I don’t care what they say; I’m glad he’s here. “Why doesn’t magic come to me, Father?”

The question comes out too loud, and silence falls upon the tent. The other girls and their mothers stare at me as if I’ve said some- thing bad. “Don’t worry, daughter,” he says, folding the sleeves of my orange-and-blue kaftan, which matches his own. “It will come in due time.”

“But when?” I stomp.

It isn’t fair that many of the Aatiri children younger than me have magic already. In Tamar, I’m the only one among my friends who can see magic at all, but here, it flocks to the other children and they can make it do things. I can’t.

“Maybe never, little ewaya,” says the oldest girl in accented Tamaran. She glares at me and I wrinkle my nose at her. I’m not a baby, and she’s wrong. It will come.

The girl’s mother clucks her tongue and fusses at her in Aatiri. Her words slide over my ears without meaning, like all the strange and beautiful languages in the markets back home.

“Even if the magic never comes,” my father says, “you’ll still be my Little Priestess.”

I poke my tongue out at the girl. That’ll teach her not to be so mean.

Another girl asks why my mother isn’t here. “She has more important things to do,” I answer, remembering how my father had begged her to come.

“Why the sad face?” my father asks, squeezing my cheeks. “Ime- byé is a time of celebration. Tonight, you begin the long journey into adulthood.”

The djembe drums stop. I bite my lip, and the other girls startle. It’s time to go stand in front of the whole tribe so the chieftain can bless us. But for once, my legs still as the other girls hurry from the tent with their mothers.

“I want to go home, Father,” I whisper as the last girl leaves. Some of the light fades from his eyes. “We’ll go home soon, okay?”

“I want to go home now,” I say, a little stronger.

He frowns. “Don’t you want to take part in Imebyé?”

I shake my head hard enough to make my bone charms rattle. My father comes to his feet. “How about we just watch the ceremony together?”

The chieftain walks into the tent and I tuck myself against my father’s side. Her silver kaftan sweeps about her ankles and stands out against her midnight skin. Salt-and-pepper locs coil on top of her head. “Do my son and granddaughter plan to take part in a cer- emony they traveled fourteen days to attend?” she asks, her deep voice ringing in the tent.

My father wraps his arm around my shoulders. “Not this year.” The chieftain nods as if satisfied. “May I speak to my granddaughter alone, Oshhe?”

My father exchanges a look with her that I don’t understand. “If it’s okay with Arrah.”

I swallow. “Okay.”

He squeezes my shoulder before leaving the tent. “I’ll save you a spot up front.”

The chieftain flashes me a gap-toothed grin as she squats on the floor. “Sit with me.”

The tent flap rustles in my father’s wake. My legs ache to follow, but the sight of the great Aatiri chieftain sitting on the floor roots me in place. I sit across from her as she raises one palm to the ceiling. Sparks of yellow and purple and pink magic drift to her hand.

“How do you make the magic come to you, great chieftain?”

Her eyes go wide. “I’m your grandmother before all. Address me as such.”

I bite my lip. “How, Grandmother?”

“Some people can pull magic from the fabric of the world.” Grandmother watches the colors dancing on her fingertips. “Some can coax magic to come with rituals and spells. Many can’t call magic at all. It’s a gift from Heka to the people of the five tribes—a gift of himself—but it’s different for everyone.”

She offers me the magic, and I lean in closer. I hope this time it will come to me, but it disappears upon touching my hand. “I can see it,” I say, my shoulders dropping, “but it doesn’t answer me.”

“That is rare indeed,” she says. “Not unheard of, but rare.”

The feather strokes of Grandmother’s magic press against my forehead. It itches, and I shove my hands between my knees to keep from scratching. “It seems you have an even rarer gift.” Her eye- brows knit together as if she’s stumbled upon a puzzle. “I’ve never seen a mind I couldn’t touch.”

She’s only trying to make me feel better, but it doesn’t mean anything if I can’t call magic like real witchdoctors—like my parents, like her.

Grandmother reaches into her pocket and removes a handful of bones. “These belonged to my ancestors. I use them to draw more magic to me—more than I could ever catch on my fingertips. When I focus on what I want to see, they show me. Can you try?”

She drops the bones into my hand. They’re small and shiny in the light of the burning jars of oils set on stools beneath the canopy. “Close your eyes,” Grandmother says. “Let the bones speak to you.” Cold crawls up my arm and my heart pounds. Outside, the djembe drums start again, beating a slow, steady rhythm that snatches my breath away. The truth is written on Grandmother’s face, a truth I already know. The bones don’t speak.

Charlatan.

The word echoes in my mind. It’s the name my mother calls the street peddlers in the market, the ones who sell worthless good luck charms because their magic is weak. What if she thinks I’m a charlatan too?

My fingers ache from squeezing the bones so hard, and Grand- mother whispers, “Let go.”

The bones fly from my hand and scatter on the floor between us. They land every which way, some close to others and some far apart. My eyes burn as I stare at them, straining to hear the ancestors’ message over the djembe drums.

“Do you see or hear anything?” Grandmother asks. I blink and tears prick my eyes. “No.”

Grandmother smiles, collecting the bones. “Not everyone’s magic shows so early. For some, the magic doesn’t abide until they’re nearly grown. But when it comes so late, it’s very strong. Perhaps you will be a powerful witchdoctor one day.”

My hands tremble as the Aatiri girl’s words come back to me:

Maybe never.

“Come, child, the celebration awaits,” Grandmother says, climbing to her feet.

Tears slip down my cheeks as I run out of the tent without waiting for Grandmother. I don’t want to be a powerful witchdoctor one day—I want magic to come now. The heat of the desert night hits me, and my bare feet slap against the hard clay. Sparks of magic drift from the sky into the other children’s outstretched arms, but some of it flits away. I dart through the crowd and follow the wayward magic, determined to catch some of my own.

It weaves through the mud-brick huts like a winged serpent, always staying two beats ahead of me. Beyond the tents, the drums become a distant murmur. I stop when the magic disappears. It’s darker here, colder, and the scent of blood medicine burns my nose. Someone’s performed a ritual in the shadows. I should turn back, run away. The wind howls a warning, but I move a little closer. Fingers like crooked tree roots latch on to my ankle.

I yank my leg back, and the hand falls away. My heart beats louder than the djembe drums as I remember all the scary stories about demons. During a lesson, a scribe once warned: Don’t get caught in the shadows, for a demon waits to steal your soul. The younger the soul, the sweeter the feast. A shiver cuts down my arms at the thought, but I remind myself that those are only tales to scare children. I’m too old to believe them.

It isn’t until the outline of a woman comes into focus that I breathe again. Magic lights on her skin, and she writhes and thrashes against the sand. Her mouth twists into an ugly scream. I don’t know what to make of her; she looks both young and old, both alive and dead, and in pain.

“Give me a hand,” says the woman, voice slurred. “I can get my father,” I offer as I help her sit up.

Her brown skin is ashen and sweaty. “Don’t bother.” She wipes dirt from her lips. “I only need to rest a spell.”

“What are you doing out here?” I ask, kneeling beside her.

“I could ask the same, but I know the answer.” A flicker of life returns to her vacant eyes. “There is only one reason a child does not take part in Imebyé.”

I glance away—she knows.

“I don’t have magic either,” she says, her words seething with bitterness. “Even so, it answers my call.”

I swallow hard to push back the chill creeping down my spine. “How?”

She smiles, revealing a mouth of rotten teeth. “Magic has a price if you’re willing to pay.”

 

CHAPTER 1

Every year, the five tribes of Heka gather for the Blood Moon Fes- tival, and I tell myself that this will be my year. The year that wipes the slate clean. The year that makes up for the waiting, the longing, the frustration. The year that magic lights on my skin, bestowing upon me the gift. When it happens, my failures will wash away and I’ll have magic of my own.

I’m sixteen, near grown by both Kingdom and tribal standards. My time is running out. No daughter or son of any tribe has come into their gifts beyond my age. If it doesn’t happen this year, it won’t happen at all.

I swallow hard and rub my sweaty palms against the grass as the djembe drums begin their slow and steady rhythm. With the tribes camped in the valley, there are some thirty thousand people here. We form rings around the sacred circle near the Temple of Heka, and the fire in the center ebbs and flows to the beat. The drummers march around the edge of the circle, their steps in sync. The five tribes look as if they have nothing in common, but they move as one, to honor Heka, the god of their lands.

Magic clings to the air, so thick that it stings my skin. It dances in the night sky above endless rows of tents quilted in vibrant colors. My tunic sticks to my back from the heat of so many bodies in tight quarters. The sharp smell in the valley reminds me of the East Mar- ket on its busiest days. My feet tap a nervous beat while everyone else claps along with the music.

As Grandmother’s guests, Essnai, Sukar, and I sit on cushions in a place of honor close to the sacred circle. It isn’t because we’re spe- cial. We’re quite the opposite: ordinary and outsiders at that. Some people glare at us to make sure we don’t forget. I wish the looks didn’t bother me, but they only raise more doubts. They make me question if I belong here. If I deserve another chance after years of failing.

“I suppose your gawking means the magic is coming,” says Sukar, wrinkling his nose. The tattoos on his forearms and across his shaved head are glowing, so he knows as well as I that the magic is already here. “Either that, or you’re missing someone back home . . .”

A flush of warmth creeps up my neck. We both know who he means. I try to imagine Rudjek here, perched on a cushion in his fancy elara. He’d stand out worse than me and love every moment of it. The thought brings a smile to my face and eases my nerves a little. Sukar, Essnai, and I made the journey from Tamar with the caravan, crossing the Barat Mountains at the western edge of the Almighty Kingdom to reach the tribal lands. Some two hundred people had come, but many more Tamarans of tribal blood hadn’t bothered. “We should’ve left you in the Kingdom too,” I tell Sukar, casting him a scathing look. “Some of us are respectful enough to pay attention to the ceremony, so please stop distracting me.”

“Well, if it’s a distraction you need . . .” He winks at me. “Back me up, Essnai,” I beg. “Tell him to pay attention.”

She sits cross-legged on the opposite side of Sukar, her face stony as always. My father brewed a blood medicine to color her hair last night, and the shock of red looks good against her ebony skin. As usual, she’s caught eyes, although she never seems to notice. Instead Essnai looks like a lovesick puppy without her ama Kira at her side. She shrugs, watching the drummers. “He won’t listen anyway.”

I sigh and turn back to the sacred circle. The moon has settled into a crimson hue, deeper red than only an hour before. In Tamar, we’re taught that the moon orisha, Koré, cries blood for her fallen brethren on this night. Five thousand years ago, she and her twin brother, Re’Mec, the sun orisha, led an army to end the Demon King’s insatiable thirst for souls. But the tribes believe the blood moon represents their connection to Heka. For it is only during this time that he returns to give his gift to future generations.

Even from this distance, the fire draws beads of sweat from my forehead. Or at least, I pretend it’s the fire that has me on edge. I wish I could be like Essnai and Sukar. They don’t care about not having magic, but it’s different for them. Neither of their parents have the gift. They don’t have to live up to the legacy of two promi- nent bloodlines.

When I think of the other reason I’m here—the tests—my belly twists in knots. The drums stop, the sound as sudden as the calm before a storm, and my muscles wind even tighter. The musicians stand almost as still as the statues in the scholars’ district in Tamar. Silence falls upon the crowd. The moment we’ve been waiting for has finally come, but it stretches a beat too long to spite me. In that space of time, the what-ifs run through my mind. What if it doesn’t happen? What if it does, but my magic isn’t strong like my parents’? What if I’m destined to become a charlatan peddling good luck charms?

Would that be so bad?

I draw my knees to my chest, remembering the woman at Ime- byé writhing in the sand. Magic has a price if you’re willing to pay. Her words ring in my ears, the words of a charlatan, the words of someone desperate for magic. I push her out of my head. There’s still a chance for me—still time for Heka to give me his gift.

A hum rises from behind me and I crane my neck to see the witchdoctors weaving through the masses. They will perform the dance to start the month-long celebration. The blood moon casts them in eerie crimson shadows. Save for their voices, the entire val- ley quiets. No whispers, no children fooling around, only the whistle of wind and the rustle of feet in the grass. I want so badly to be in their ranks, to belong, to measure up to my family’s legacy. Instead, I’m stuck on the side watching—always watching.

For the ceremony, seven witchdoctors stand for each of the five tribes. Under their chieftains, the other six make up the edam, the tribal council. Although many of the tribal people have Heka’s grace—his magic—witchdoctors stand apart. The chieftains gifted them the title because they show a mastery of magic above others. Of all the tribal people, only a hundred or so have earned this prestigious appointment. They are the ones that the others revere and the ones I envy the most.

As the witchdoctors grow closer, their chants rattle in my bones. What would it be like to command magic with the ease of taking a breath? To reach into the air to collect it on one’s fingertips, or walk in the spirit world? To not only see magic, to tame it, to bend it, to be magical?

First come the Tribe Litho witchdoctors: four women and three men. Their tribe lies southwest of the Temple of Heka in the wood- lands. White dust covers their bodies and vests of rawhide. Their intricate crowns, made of metal and bone and colorful beads, jangle in the breeze. The ground shifts beneath their feet, moving as gentle as ocean waves, gliding them to the sacred circle, which only the edam are allowed to enter.

As the procession draws closer, the djembe drummers start again, moving away from the circle to settle in an open spot on the grass. Their slow beat surges faster when the Litho chieftain enters the sacred circle.

Tribe Kes comes next—the smallest of the five tribes, whose lands border the valley to the northwest. Their diaphanous skin and near-colorless eyes remind me of the Northern people. Two are as white as alabaster and their bright clothes stand out in stark con- trast. With each step they take, lightning cuts across the sky and sparks dance on their skin. They fan pouches of smoke that burns my nose. It smells of bloodroot, ginger, and eeru pepper: a cleansing remedy I’ve helped my father make in his shop at home.

The tribe from the mountains south of the Temple arrives next. The Zu witchdoctors leap above our heads, their feet supported by air. Tattoos cover their bodies and they wear crowns of antlers, some curved, some hooked, some large, some small. Some fashioned out of slick metal with edges sharp enough to sever a finger. With one misstep, an antler could fall upon the crowd, and it wouldn’t be pretty. I tuck my fingers between my knees just in case.

Sukar nudges me, a lopsided grin on his face. His family is Zu, and although he’s got at least two dozen tattoos, he doesn’t have nearly as many as the edam from his tribe. “As always, the most impressive of the five,” he whispers.

I swat Sukar’s arm to shush him at the same time Essnai slaps the back of his head. He winces but knows better than to protest. It’s the Aatiri’s turn, which Essnai and I are anticipating the most. Even with her short-cropped hair, there’s no denying that her high cheek- bones and wide-set eyes mark her as an Aatiri. We’d become friends after she’d found me in the desert at Imebyé with the charlatan.

Relief washes over me as Grandmother steps from the shadows, leading Tribe Aatiri. I hadn’t expected anyone else, but she’s the first familiar face among the edam. I sit up taller, trying to look like even a shadow of the great Aatiri chieftain.

The Aatiri do not walk or leap, for clouds of magic carry them. Grandmother’s silver locs coil on top of her head like a crown, and she wears a half dozen necklaces of teeth. The Aatiri are tall and lean with prominent cheekbones and wiry hair braided like mine. Their skin is as beautiful as the hour of ösana.

My father is the last of them to enter the circle, and my heart soars. He’s tall and proud and magical, more so than any of the edam aside from Grandmother. He stands upon his cloud with his traditional staff in hand and a knife carved of bone in the other.

He is an honorary Aatiri edam as he doesn’t live with his people, but they don’t deny that he’s one of the most powerful among them.

I’m not foolish enough to think that if . . . when . . . my magic comes I’ll be as talented as he is. But seeing him fills me with pride.

The Mulani come last. They live the closest to the Temple of Heka.

It was a Mulani woman Heka revealed his presence to when he first descended from the stars a thousand years ago. Now the Mulani chieftain serves as his voice. The position would belong to my mother had she not left and never looked back. When she was only fourteen, the tribe named her their next chieftain and emissary to Heka because she’d shown such remarkable powers.

I could never live up to that legend either, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to.

Unlike the witchdoctors of the other tribes, who vary in gen- der, Mulani witchdoctors are all women. I cover my eyes before the flashes of light that always come when they enter the sacred circle. Sukar curses under his breath because he’s too busy not paying attention to remember. From the groaning around me, he isn’t the only one. When their auras cool, the Mulani stand facing the crowd. They have broad shoulders, curvy bodies, and skin ranging from deep brown to alabaster. My amber eyes and some of my color come from them, while my lean build favors the Aatiri.

“I speak for Heka.” The Mulani chieftain’s words echo in the valley, silencing all. “I speak for the mother and father of magic. I speak for the one who gave of himself when the orishas withheld magic from mortal kind. I speak for he who has no beginning and no end.”

The Mulani chieftain is my mother’s first cousin, and her voice rings with authority. Almost as much authority as my mother’s: Arti is soft-spoken, but she commands as much respect in the Almighty Kingdom as her cousin does in the tribal lands. I tell myself I don’t mind that she’s not here. It isn’t so different from how things are at home. There, she spends most of her time at the Almighty Temple, where she and the seers serve the orishas. When my mother left the tribal lands, she adopted the gods of the Kingdom too.

When I was younger, I begged my mother to spend more time with me, but she was so busy even then. Always busy or unavail- able or unhappy—especially about my lack of magic. A pang of resentment settles in my chest. If I’m honest, a part of me still wishes things could be different between us.

“For a thousand years Heka has come to us at the start of every blood moon,” the Mulani chieftain says. “So it will be again. On this night we gather in worship so that he may show favor to our people. We shall share our kas with him so that he can look into our souls and judge us worthy.”

Anticipation quickens my heartbeat. Every year children from the very young to sixteen come into their powers after Heka’s visit. This year has to be my turn—before I’m too old and it’s too late. Magic will stop my cousins from looking at me like I don’t belong.

Magic will finally make my mother proud of me.

After the Mulani chieftain has delivered her speech, the dance begins. The witchdoctors move around the fire, all thirty-five of them, chanting in their native tongues. Their songs fit into an intri- cate pattern that’s at once odd and beautiful. The ceremony will go on for hours, and the drummers adjust their tempo to match the edam’s rhythm.

Farther back from the sacred circle, campfires crop up between the tents. The smells of brew and roasted meat fill the air. People pass wooden bowls through the crowd, and when one reaches me, I take a sniff that burns my nose. I recoil before I can stop myself.

“You of all people should be used to a little blood medicine,” says Sukar, his voice smug.

“I’ll take the next pass,” I say, shoving the bowl into his hands. He laughs, then takes a dramatic gulp.

Someone thrusts another bowl into my hands, and I almost drop it when my gaze lands on Grandmother. She’s broken ranks and stepped out of the sacred circle. Now she towers above me, and my breath hitches in my throat. No edam has ever left the circle during the dance.

“Drink, Little Priestess.”

Her voice carries on a secret wind, loud and clear despite the noise from the crowd, the curses, the dirty looks. It’s only a pet name when Oshhe calls me that, but there’s weight in Grandmother’s words. She looks down at me, hopeful and hesitant, as she studies my face.

I’m not a priestess. I’m only going to disappoint her.

Unable to refuse, I take a sip. Heat trails across my tongue and down my throat. It tastes herbal and metallic and rotten. I clench my stomach to keep from gagging. Grandmother nods, takes the bowl, and passes it to Sukar, who swallows hard. “Thank you, Honored Chieftain,” he says, bobbing his head to her. He looks surprised that she’s here too. None of the other edam have left the sacred circle.

“Have you been practicing?” Grandmother asks me with a toothy grin.

This is the real reason that I’ve been on edge all night. Each year at the Blood Moon Festival, Grandmother tests whether I have magic, and each year I fail.

“Yes,” I stutter as the medicine starts to take hold.

I don’t tell her that for all my practicing, with Oshhe and alone, nothing has come of it.

“Tomorrow we will talk more,” Grandmother says.

Next to me Sukar falls on his face in the grass as the blood medi- cine takes him first. Essnai rolls him on his side with her foot. A rush of warmth spreads through my body and my tongue loosens. “I still don’t have magic,” I blurt out without meaning to, but I’m too drowsy to feel embarrassed.

Grandmother starts to say something else but stops herself. A pang flutters in my stomach. I can’t read her expression and wonder what the ancestors have shown her in my future. In all these years, she’s never told me. “Our greatest power lies not in our magic, but in our hearts, Little Priestess.”

She talks in riddles like all the tribal people. Sometimes I don’t mind the way she and Oshhe try to soothe over my worries about not having magic. Sometimes it’s infuriating. They don’t know what it’s like to feel you don’t belong, to feel you’re not worthy. To not measure up to a mother who all the Kingdom admires.

Before I can think of something to say, the blood medicine lulls me into a state of peace. The burning in my throat cools into a smothering heat, and my heartbeat throbs in my ears. Behind Grandmother, the other edam move at an incredible speed. Their faces blur and their bodies leave trails of mist that connect them to one another. Their chants intensify. Before long, most people lie in trances—Essnai, the elders, almost the entirety of the five tribes.

The djembe drums fall silent, and the witchdoctors’ song echoes in the valley.

Grandmother grabs my hand and pulls me into the sacred circle. “Let Heka see you.”

This is wrong. I don’t belong in the sacred circle. Only the edam, and honored witchdoctors like my father. Never someone like me— without magic, an outsider.

I shouldn’t be here, but I can’t remember whether I mean in the circle, or in the tribal lands. My mind is too foggy to think straight, but I’m warm inside as I join the dance.

Magic swirls in the air. It’s purple and pink and yellow and black and blue. It’s all colors, tangling and curling around itself. It brushes against my skin, and then I am two places at once, as if the bonds that tether my ka to my body have loosened. No. I’m all places. Is this what it’s like to have magic, to feel it, to wield it? Please, Heka, bless me with this gift.

One by one, the witchdoctors fall into a trance and drop to the ground too. There is no sound save for the crackling of the fires set around camp. The Mulani chieftain—my cousin—sweeps past me, her steps as silent as starlight. She’s the only other person still awake.

“Wait,” I call after her. “What’s happening?”

She doesn’t answer me. Instead she climbs up the Temple steps and disappears inside. Something heavy pulls against my legs when I try to follow her.

I glance down and my breath catches at the sight of my body lying beneath me. I’m standing with my feet sunk to the ankles in my own belly. I gasp and my physical body mimics me, chest rising sharply, eyes wide. Is everyone else’s ka awake too? I can’t see them.

Can they see me? I try to move again, but the same strong pull keeps me rooted in place.

My ka holds on to my body with an iron grip—a chain around my ankles. I wonder how I can let go—and if I want to. According to my father, untethering one’s ka is tricky business. Only the most tal- ented witchdoctors can leave their bodies. Even they rarely do it, for fear of wandering too far and not finding their way back. The blood medicine alone couldn’t make this happen. Grandmother must have performed some magic when she pulled me into the sacred circle, so I’d have a better chance at being seen by Heka. That has to be it. My body calls me back. The call is a gentle beckoning at first, then grows in intensity. My eyelids flutter and I fight to stay aware as bright ribbons of light set the night sky on fire. I fall to my knees, the pull growing stronger, the source of the light drawing closer. It’s both warm and cold, both beautiful and frightening, both serene and violent. It knows me and something inside me knows it. It’s the mother and father of magic. It’s Heka.

He’s going to bestow his grace upon me.

I can’t believe it’s happening after all these years. My body lets out a sigh of relief.

My mother would be proud if I showed a sliver of magic. Just a sliver. I shut my eyes against the intense light and let his power wash over my skin, his touch as gentle as brushstrokes. It tastes sweet on my tongue, and I laugh as it pulses through my ka.

Then the light disappears, and I’m left empty as the magic flees my body.

 

CHAPTER TWO

The morning after the opening ceremony, I’m in a foul mood as Oshhe and I deliver gifts to his countless cousins. He watches me like a hawk, but I don’t know why. I’m still the same magicless girl I was the night before. Nothing has changed. I want to believe that some magic rubbed off on me—that this year will be different.

My hands tremble and I keep them busy so he doesn’t notice. I have my tests with Grandmother at the hour of ösana. I can’t face her right now, not after entering the sacred circle. Not after feeling magic at my fingertips, feeling it in my blood, and then feeling it abandon me. That’s when the trembling started—as if the magic snatched away a piece of my ka when it left.

I catch the scent of cinnamon and clove and mint on the air and it reminds me of home. Every year my father brings me here so we can spend time with his family and I can get to know my mother’s tribe better. When older Mulani look at me, they see Arti: it’s only the rich brown of my skin that sets us apart. For my mother was not much older than I am now when she left her tribe for the Kingdom and never looked back. I can’t hide from my own reason for coming, the one fueling my anticipation.

We only stay for half of the month-long celebration. Oshhe has his shop to run back in Tamar, and I have my studies with the scribes. A part of me is anxious to return home, where I’m not so much of an utter failure, especially after last night.

Our Aatiri cousins bombard Oshhe with questions about the Kingdom most of the morning. They ask if Tamarans are as ridicu- lous as they’ve heard. If the Almighty One is a bastard like his father before him. If Tamar smells of dead fish. If leaving his tribe for the lure of city life was worth the trouble.

While my father talks to old friends, I eavesdrop. I don’t under- stand everything they say in Aatiri, but I follow enough to stay abreast. They complain about the council that represents their inter- ests with the Kingdom. They want more in return for the precious metals mined from the caves beneath their desert lands. Many times, friends have asked my father to help with trade negotiations, but he always refuses. He says that Arti is the politician in the family. To call my mother a politician is an understatement.

A witchdoctor asks after the health of the seer from Tribe Aatiri who serves in the Almighty Temple. He is very old and wants to return home. The tribe will meet in three days and Grandmother will ask for a volunteer to replace him. They say that only the very old will go because no one else wants to live in the Kingdom. Oshhe laughs with them, but his eyes are sad.

I thread my fingers together to keep them steady while my father hands out the last of the gifts. They’re still shaking from the ritual, but also because my great-aunt Zee has just asked me about Arti.

When a simple shrug doesn’t deter her, I say, “She enjoys being Ka– Priestess of the Kingdom very much.”

With a nod and a laugh, Zee tells me that Arti could have mar- ried the Almighty One had she been clever enough. Joke or not, this is news to me, but it doesn’t come as a shock. My mother has done well for herself in Tamar. Having risen from nothing, she holds the third-most powerful position in the Kingdom, behind the Vizier and the Almighty One himself. Not a day goes by that she lets anyone forget it.

“If you were a princess,” Zee says, “you wouldn’t need magic then.”

At her slight, I forget her comment about my mother.

You wouldn’t need magic then.

Everyone knows about my little problem. My younger cousins at least pretend they don’t, but some of the elders are blunt about it, their tongues sharp. Zee’s the sharpest of them all.

“If I were a princess, Auntie,” I say in a slippery sweet voice, “I wouldn’t have the pleasure of seeing you every year. That would be such a shame.”

“Speaking of shame,” Zee says, fanning a worrisome fly away. “I can’t for the life of me understand why my sister would risk anger- ing the other edam by bringing you into the sacred circle.” She draws her lips into a hard line. “What did she say to you last night?”

Grandmother had said surprisingly little, but I won’t tell Zee so she can spread rumors.

“I see you still like to gossip,” Oshhe cuts in, fixing his stony eyes on his aunt. “A wonder your tongue hasn’t fallen out from talk- ing too much.”

Several people cluck at Zee and she rolls her eyes.

Late afternoon, my father is asked to step in to mediate a dis- pute between two friends from his youth. He fusses about leaving me until I tell him that I’m going back to my tent to rest before my tests with Grandmother tonight. I’m supposed to meet up with Ess- nai and Sukar, but I decide to take a walk to clear my mind first. I’m still seething at my great-aunt and seething at Heka too.

In Tamar, hardly anyone has magic, and no one cares that I don’t either. But here magic plays on the wind like dust bunnies, teasing and tantalizing, forever out of reach. Most tribal people have some magic, even if it’s not as strong as Grandmother’s and the other witchdoctors’.

As I move through the patchwork of bright Aatiri tents, a cousin or an old friend of my father greets me at every turn. They ask about last night, but I want to be alone, so I leave camp, hoping for some peace. I weave through the white Mulani tents nearest the Temple of Heka. The Temple stands on the north edge of the val- ley, the golden dome shimmering against the white walls. A group of Mulani decorate it with flowers and bright fabrics and infuse the stone with magic. I walk by as a procession of women, each with a basket of water balanced on her head, march across the stone. The art is so detailed that you can see the water sloshing around in the baskets.

I slip between the Zu tents covered in animal hide and pause to watch elders carving masks out of wood. It’s getting late by the time I roam into the maze of Litho tents, separated by sheets draped across wire. There isn’t much privacy in the valley, but the camp is quiet aside from the rustle of the cloth in the wind. Most of the tribe has gathered around the firepits to prepare for the second night of the blood moon.

My wandering doesn’t bring me much peace, not like it does when I lose myself in the East Market back home. There’s always a merchant selling something interesting to keep my mind busy there. Or I can listen to the stories of people who come from neighboring countries. Meet people like the Estherian, who tosses salt over her shoulder to ward off spirits. Or the Yöome woman who makes shiny boots that patrons line up in the early morn to buy. But most of all, I wish I were lying on the grass along the Serpent River with Rudjek, away from everyone and everything.

If the Aatiri camp was orderly, the Litho tents are a mess of con- fusion. I become so turned around that I end up in a clearing. By the smell of blood and sweat, I can tell that it’s a makeshift arena. Had Rudjek come to the tribal lands, he’d spend every waking moment here.

I’m halfway across the clearing when two Litho boys around my age step into my path. When I try to move around them, they block me again, stopping me in my tracks. They’re up to no good. It’s written in their white ash-covered faces. Both stand a head taller than me and wear vests of animal hide dyed stark red. We stare at each other, but I don’t speak. I’m not the one sneaking around like a hungry hyena. Let them explain themselves.

“We want to know why a ben’ik like you got to enter the sacred circle,” demands the boy with a black dorek tied around his head. He looks down his nose at me. “You’re nothing special.”

The way he spits out ben’ik makes my skin crawl. I wander so much in Tamar without fear because of my mother’s reputation. No one would dare cross the Ka-Priestess. In the tribal lands, I should know better. I’m an outsider and people like me, ben’iks, are even less liked for our lack of magic. It can’t help that they’re angry Grandmother broke the rules for me.

My blood boils. I should’ve been more careful. I turn to go as two more boys appear out of the shadows. “Don’t make a mistake you’ll regret,” I say, lacing my words with equal venom. “My grandmother is chieftain and won’t take kindly to any trouble.” I immediately realize my mistake. People shrink upon hearing my mother’s name at home, but here my empty threat only makes things worse. The Litho boys cut me with glares that set my heart racing.

One of them waves his hand and the air shifts to encase the whole clearing in a shimmering bubble. Everything outside it seems to disap- pear. I suspect that the bubble will keep anyone from seeing or hearing what’s happening inside, too. “We know your grandmother and your owahyat mother too,” the boy says, his face twisted in disgust.

“We know you as well, Arrah,” the dorek boy snickers. “It’s rare to meet a ben’ik with a lineage so rich in magic. But then, the sins of the mother often fall on the daughter.”

My eyes land on a staff propped against a rack as sweat glides down my back. It may be useless against them, but at least it’s some- thing. My chances would be better if I had a hint of magic, even a smidgeon. Enough to keep me safe. I clench my hands into fists, thinking of when Heka’s magic touched me last night. It drew my ka from my body, then left me like a fleeting wind. I can almost understand why some charlatans risk so much to lure magic to them.

I keep all four boys in my line of sight. “If you call me ben’ik one more time . . .”

“We’re going to teach you a lesson,” the dorek boy says. “Ben’ik.”

I run because they have magic and I’m outnumbered. Before I get far, I crash into the edge of the bubble and fall down. They’ve made sure I can’t leave.

My pulse drums in my ears as I climb to my feet and lunge for the staff. It feels balanced in my hands, offering me the faintest feel- ing of security. If I had a weapon of choice, this would be it. Any Aatiri worth a grain of sand knows their way around a staff, Oshhe would say.

The Litho boys laugh. Let them.

I shift my stance. “Touch me and I will break every bone in your miserable bodies.”

“The ben’ik can fight?” The third boy cracks his knuckles. “I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it when you eat dirt, you swine,” I say.

My words sound braver than I feel, but I mean them. Even if they have magic, I won’t go down without a fight.

“She’s bluffing,” says the bubble boy.

Magic crackles in the air like a summer thunderstorm and I brace myself, the staff ready. They close in around me. The third boy pounds his fist in his other hand, and the ground trembles. I take several steps back, keeping the barrier at my rear.

“Well, what do we have here?” someone asks from behind me. Sukar appears out of thin air. The three tattoos across his fore-

head sparkle like stars in the night. He runs his hand over his shaven head, looking as amused as ever. The Litho boys take one look at his slight physique and roll their eyes. Their mistake.

Essnai steps into the clearing behind him—statuesque and poised, a head taller than both of us. Purple powder covers her fore- head down to her long lashes. The red beneath her midnight eyes and the gold dusted on her nose stand out against her umber skin. Her lips are two different shades of pink. She’s changed her hair back to black. Even the Litho boys are too caught up in her beauty to notice her deceptively relaxed grip on her staff.

I sigh in relief. My friends never fail to make an entrance. Essnai clucks her tongue at me. “Always wandering off and getting into trouble.”

Heat creeps up my neck, but I answer her accusation with a shrug. “Someone forgot to invite us to this little party,” Sukar says. “Your protection tattoos won’t save you, Zu.” The dorek boy spits on the ground.

Sukar pulls a pair of sickles from scabbards across his chest. “They broke through your ward easily enough, but I have these just in case.”

Even his curved blades have magic symbols engraved in them— made by his uncle, the Zu seer in the Almighty Temple.

“What’re two more ben’iks to beat up?” the third Litho boy asks with a laugh.

Essnai says nothing as she lifts her staff into the same position as mine.

“You should leave before you get hurt,” I warn the Litho swine. “You’re bold for the daughter of an owahyat,” says the bubble boy.

Before the words clear his lips, I hurl a rock, aimed for his face. It’s clear from the malice in his voice exactly what he thinks when he calls my mother a prostitute. He doesn’t know her and if anyone can talk crap about Arti, it’s me, not him. But the boy knocks the rock from its path with a gust of wind.

“Nice try, ben’ik,” he says. I spit in the dirt.

So they’re talented in the elements. Dirty, arrogant swine. They think because we don’t have magic, we’re defenseless. Another mis- take.

“Are we going to talk all night or fight?” Sukar yawns. “I vote fight.”

Even magic isn’t foolproof. I know that better than most from watching my father in his shop. The only way out is through the boy holding the bubble intact. He hasn’t moved a muscle since he conjured it, as if he needs to stand still to keep it steady. That’s my opening. I don’t second-guess as I charge at him. My fingers tighten against the staff, but the ground shifts and I land hard on my face. The fourth Litho boy’s outstretched arm trembles as the dirt under me groans and settles again.

Sukar and Essnai spring into action. My friends bat away the rocks two of the Litho boys hurtle at us with their magic, neither lifting a finger. I catch a rock and send it flying. It hits the boy who knocked me down square in the chest. He lets out a little squeak and I can’t hide my satisfaction. Serves him right.

I’m on my feet again, my eyes narrowed on the bubble boy. He calls for help, but Sukar and Essnai already have his friends battered and bruised on their knees. The bubble falters before I even reach the boy, and he runs away. I don’t bother going after him. He got the point. Once the bubble’s gone, the sounds of the night’s celebrations rush back into the clearing. The rest of the Litho boys run away too. My hands shake as I clutch the staff. They weren’t even that powerful. Yet, if not for Sukar and Essnai’s help, things could’ve ended much worse. How could Heka bless scum like that with magic and skip me? At the first beats of the djembe drums, dread slips between my ribs like a sharp blade. It’s time to face the thing

I’ve been dreading all day.

My tests with Grandmother—the great Aatiri chieftain.

 

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