Of Things to Come
Having woken the others, I return to find the handsome stranger already making himself comfortable on the couch next to Umayama.
He winks at me as I take a seat on a chair in the corner. "Is he coming?"
"He's coming," I grumble.
Everyone streams in, Shana, Cook, Onion, Ghari, Lateef, and, last of all, Bomani.
The prince is dressed now. He wears a tunic beneath his brown tappa, his obsidian dagger stuffed into the waistband of his cotton trousers. He glowers at our guest as he slips behind my chair and leans against the wall.
Bomani's reaction pleases the man. His roguish grin stretches from ear to ear, revealing a set of white teeth. "You look well, My Grace."
"So you've left that whorehouse of yours to come and visit us, have you?"
"I am fairly rebuked! I should have come sooner." He bows his head, examining the mismatched crowd filling the sitting room. "Lateef, you've acquired quite the household since I last saw you." His curious gaze lingers longest on Umayama.
I understand the quizzical turn of his brow; he recognizes her but can't quite remember from where.
Lateef drags a chair into the center of the room. "You have some news for us, I hear."
I protest, "Wait! Who is this, Lateef?"
Only then does Lateef notice the crowd surrounding him. "This is my good friend and our benefactor, Sadiki Luzige."
Bomani leans over to hiss, "A womanizing cretin."
Sadiki hears him. "Please! I am nothing but a connoisseur of beauty!" His eyes lock onto mine. "How can that be a crime when there is so much in need of admiring?"
I turn away, revolted.
Lateef slaps the visitor's knee, refocusing the room's attention. "You have news?"
"Yes indeed!" says Sadiki with a loud clap of his hands. "Do I ever." He reaches into the folds of his soaked tappa, withdrawing a huge, rolled poster.
"Take a look at this."
With a snap and a flourish he unfurls it, bold glyphs framing two familiar portraits. They're our faces, mine and Bomani's. They occupy a good third of the poster.
The room falls silent.
"What? What does it say?" I whisper.
"'Wanted'," Shana answers. "It's your death warrant, Khensa."
"That's not all!" Sadiki flips the poster over and reads it aloud: "'Wanted for attempting to incite anarchy, for practicing black magic against temple law, and for the murder of the Queen-of-all-that-is-Good."
"We didn't kill her!" Bomani barks.
I freeze. We, he said. We. I want to look at him. I want to ask him, "Do you really believe that?" But I don't because the image of him cradling his mother's corpse is burned into my memory. I don't because I can still hear him screaming, "You've killed her!"
"Oh, but listen here, he's invented names for you: 'Prince of Anarchy, Priestess of Blasphemy'!"
"I don't care what he calls us! We've been charged with murder!"
"And so will anyone else caught helping you," Sadiki says with a return to solemnity. "Lateef, Ghari, even I, if they're smart enough to catch me at it. He's already destroyed Junktown, hasn't he?"
I snap to attention. "But the Junkers had nothing to do with—"
"The king's saying that they sheltered you." Sadiki points at me, and my response dies in my throat. "He's already calling it 'the Great Exterminat'—Are you all right?"
I hold my face to disguise the tears that spring to my eyes. I feel Shana's soft hand on my shoulder.
Sadiki realizes the effect his words have had on me and amends, "The king has only wanted the excuse. He would have burned it down months ago if he could have."
I had been the excuse. I hold my stomach; it's swollen with guilt.
Bomani speaks next, his voice low, "It's true. Recently my father has taken a keen disliking to the whole district. He likened them to rats stealing from his larder."
His hand taps my shoulder, putting emphases on the metaphor. It's hard to miss the double meaning:
The king wanted Junktown destroyed because he knew that soon he wouldn't have enough food to feed them all. Allowing the Junkers to starve would only invite rebellion, even revolution.
It's hard for me to feel guilty when I'm filled so completely with hatred. The whole room watches me, expecting me to cry. I turn my blazing gaze to the floor so they cannot see the ugly expression puckering my face.
Bomani redirects the conversation. "What of my mother, Sadiki? What has my father done with her?"
"She's to receive a royal funeral: mourners, parades, a feast, the works. There was no way your father could cover up her death; a dozen men must have seen her floating in that sewer."
I'm beginning to wonder if Sadiki is tactless on purpose.
Bomani, to his credit, doesn't lose his head. He lifts his chin and grips the back of my chair with enough force to make it creak, but he keeps his composure.
"I always hate being the bearer of bad news," Sadiki mumbles to himself. "But these posters"—he shakes the large wanted sign—"are plastered all over the place. The streets are swarming with guards. You'd be wise to keep your heads down until we can figure something out."
What would Lateef and Sadiki say if they knew that Bomani and I had already formulated a plan?
"Now I'm afraid I must be off. My valet's expecting me back soon. I've told him I was making a quick trip to the nighthouse." He winks again, this time aiming his debonair smile at Shana.
Shana wrinkles her nose. I scowl.
Lateef gets to his feet, taking the poster from his friend before helping him up.
Sadiki's just turning towards the front door when Mbiki emerges from wherever he had been sleeping. I haven't spared him a thought since our encounter in the courtyard. I have had neither the time nor the strength. The dirty bandages on his arm act as a bitter reminder of our last confrontation.
His arrival startles Sadiki. "Well! What a surprise to see you here!"
Mbiki flinches. "Lord Sadiki, a pleasure to see you again."
"It's been an eternity! How did you get tangled up with this group?"
His eyes dart in my direction as he says, "It's a long story."
No one moves or says anything for long, awkward moment.
Standing by the door, Lateef breaks the silence, "Sadiki, I'll walk you to the front gate."
"Right, right. It was good seeing you again, Mbiki, and nice meeting you all. Stay safe, I'll see you all again soon."
They step out together into the rain and the mud. The door closes on their heels.
Bomani is the first to ask, "How do you know Sadiki?"
"We were…friends, once upon a time." He holds his injured arm, his eyes cast downward.
The prince snorts. "What interesting company you keep."
And how unlikely that you should meet each other here, I want to say.
Lateef returns, shuffling in and taking Sadiki's spot on the couch. "Onion, some tea, if you wouldn't mind. Bread if you can manage it. I think we could all use a little pick-me-up."
Onion nods, slipping from the small sitting room.
Mbiki takes a chair, intent upon being part of our conversation now that he's arrived. His presence weighs upon my conscious. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle every time he glances my way.
Lateef slumps back into the couch cushions. There are dark circles beneath his eyes; he's gotten little sleep these last couple days.
"Murderers. If they catch us now, they'll charge us and throw us into the Abyss alive. All of us." He lifts a hand to include Ghari, Cook, and Shana in his proclamation. "We must be doubly careful from now on."
"I'm sorry," I say. "This is entirely my fault."
Shana squats beside me, her hand rubbing my knee, and Lateef waves me off.
"Everything will work out in the end. I still have dena. When things calm down in the city we'll use it to buy ourselves a home in the country."
How pretty and clean his plan seems! Only Bomani and I know that it won't work out so easily.
"That's impossible, Lateef." From inside his tappa, the prince extracts the same trade agreement he had showed me earlier. He hands it to his mentor.
Lateef sits up a little. The room is lit only by two table lamps, and it's hard for him to make out the glyphs scrawled across the paper's surface. "Where did you find this, Bomani? This looks like a—"
"I took it from my father's office." For the benefit of the entire room he elaborates, "It's a signed agreement between him and Lord Hamley, detailing the exchange of over half the city's wheat."
"Half, you say? You're sure?" Lateef's eyes flicker back and forth across the page.
"I've checked the numbers. Half. Maybe more."
"You know the state of the stockpiles better than I. Can they absorb that sort of deficit?"
Lateef opens his mouth to say something more, but then he spots something in the contract that stops him. "What? What's this?"
"What's what?" Bomani says.
"It says here 'unrestricted access to sacred lands is granted to the abovementioned signers. They retain all rights to build upon and utilize said lands at their own discretion.' By the Eater, that's a strange…" He trails off and then exclaims in a voice loud enough to make us all start, "Oh!"
"What?" Bomani demands to know, looking over Lateef's shoulder.
The parchment shakes in the lord's hands. "I should have known! I should have guessed!"
"Guessed what?" The prince is losing his temper. I'm up and looking at the contract too, despite not knowing how to read.
Then Lateef says, "The Abyss… They're mining the Abyss!"
I scoff, "How can that be?"
"Do you remember me telling you that I had been inside the Abyss before? Do you?" Lateef looks mad to make me understand.
"I remember you lying about it. You said you used a rope!"
"I lied about the method," he says, "but I was there. I saw inside."
Bomani doesn't say anything. He's contemplating Lateef's declaration as though believing it.
Shana, as steady as always, comes to me and takes me by the shoulder. "Lord Lateef, perhaps you should explain everything."
So he does. In that methodical, meandering way of his, he tells us the story he's been withholding all this time:
"I was distraught, out of my mind with grief." He glances once at Umayama. If she realizes that he's referring to her supposed death, then she doesn't let on. "I was out there for a funeral, but snuck back when I should have gone home. It was getting dark; I couldn't see straight. I stumbled over it without at first being aware what it was.
"A huge hatch, right on the edge of the Abyss. I had to clear away the sand before it could be opened, and even then I could barely manage one door. I slipped inside and there found a spiral staircase leading down. I didn't give it much thought. I just followed it, down and down and down. I must have walked all night. My legs felt as soft as pudding, but I was irrational, blind to my own pain.
"At the bottom… I know what I had been expecting. I had expected bodies and bones and decay—that's why I had climbed down there, after all—but there was nothing. Nothing. We've been dumping bodies down there for generations. There should have been thousands of corpses."
"The Eater… He ate them all." I swallow, and Shana, scared like I, takes my hand.
"Don't…don't be so sure," Lateef begins again. "It should have been complete darkness down there, but it wasn't. There were lamps nailed to the walls, and you wouldn't believe the smell they gave off. Bad enough to curdle cream.
"Then I saw the men. They stepped in and out of the light as they moved about. They were covered in dust and wore lanterns upon their heads. They were sweaty and dirty, and in the dark they looked like demons coming to claim me.
"I bolted for the stairs. I climbed as fast as my weary legs could carry me. The trip down had taken hours, but the ascent must have taken me a full day. I wondered all the while, 'where were all the bodies?' There hadn't been a bone or a hair. No clothing, no nothing. I had assumed that those men, with their yellow, malodorous lights were…were the Eater's minions, dragging the corpses to His den.
"But now, it makes sense. Everything makes sense.
"The king has given the northerners access to the Abyss. The dust, the lamps, everything points to mining. The temple must have found out. Could you imagine how angry they must have been? Their sacred place, the source of all their followers and income, explored and drilled by the north men like some common quarry! It's no wonder things between the palace and the temple were so bad. It's no wonder the north men always, inexplicably, took the king's side.
"They were protecting their interests in the Abyss!"
I think of the temple and the Purple Man looming over me, muttering his dark secrets like a chant. "Chike, when he—When he talked he frequently mentioned names. Yours, but then also ones I couldn't pronounce, that I couldn't quite remember."
"Hamley, Bateman, Thorton?" Lateef supplies, butchering the names and proving my point. "I should have asked earlier. I should have seen it… Chike thought I was in on it. He knew I'd been into the Abyss and assumed I was working with them. That's why he tried to kill me."
"This isn't helping, Lateef," Bomani says. He seems unsurprised by his fantastic story; perhaps he's heard it before. "That will have to wait. Our more immediate concern is Waset's food stores. Without grain no one will be alive to worry about the Abyss."
Bomani straightens. Here it comes:
"Khensa and I are leaving the city. We're going to get it back."
With a sharp inhale, Lateef shoots to his feet. Everyone's staring at me now.
"You can't, Bomani. You'll be killed. I won't let you, nor will I let you force her!"
"'Force' me?" I repeat with a growl. "I'm going with him of my own accord. I can't just sit here while the city starves! You said it yourself, wheat is Waset's most precious commodity!"
Lateef couldn't have expected this. Since when did Bomani and I team up against him? He sputters, "But why you? What can the two of you possibly hope to achieve?"
"I'll get it back," Bomani insists, his face like a statue's, stern and confident. "It's my responsibility."
"You're not a prince anymore!" Lateef says. "Your responsibility is to stay here and take care of your brother!"
Bomani's expression clouds over. His eyes fall on Umayama, her hands set primly upon her lap, her face turned up in his general direction.
"I know what's best for Jarai," Bomani says to us all. "No one can protect him as well as me. No one has. I'm going north because it's the only way to keep him from starving! I'm taking him with me because it's the only way I can ensure he's safe from my father."
Lateef realizes that he's overstepped himself. He lowers his head as though Bomani were a growling dog rather than a man. "No one's questioning your ability to take care of Jarai. You've done extraordinarily, considering the circumstances. But we shouldn't split up like this."
Bomani's face has gone bright red. "You'd really just stay here? You'd just sit on your ass and wait for the king's men to find you?"
"I'm a coward," Lateef admits with one, sorrowful glance my way. "It is less frightening to sit and do nothing than it is to go traipsing into the desert."
He shifts, and his fingers fiddle with the belt around his waist.
Shana seizes the opportunity to say, "I'm going too!"
I almost make a hypocrite of myself by trying to stop her. I almost tell her that she should stay and be safe, when she has as much right to go as I. She's not a slave, at least not to me. She watches me, expecting an argument, but I give her none. With pursed lips, I nod my head.
To Bomani she adds, "I can cook. I can tack a horse. I can write and read. I can speak Stepper."
Stepper, the language of the Steppe herders. They are roaming cattleman, and their herds supply almost all of Waset's beef.
"You're from the Steppes?" The news somehow catches me off guard. She seemed no different from Lateef or Onion or Cook. She speaks Wassian fluently, writes like a scribe, and sings like a bird. She's nothing like the marauding raiders described in the stories.
My question goes without answer. She awaits Bomani's response, her body wound tight in anticipation.
The prince huffs, "You're free to do as you wish."
"Then I will too!" Mbiki pipes from his dark corner of the room.
Bomani is less pleased by this offer. He whirls on my supposed father, his eyes alight with distrust. No one's forgotten the chummy greeting he had received from Sadiki. No one's forgotten how little he's told us.
"Tea and pastries!" Onion bursts into the room at that moment, breaking apart the argument before it had even begun. She lays her tray of goods out across the table and helps Umayama to a warm cup of cinnamon spiced tea. The old woman seems ignorant to the dark mood surrounding her.
Lateef leans upon his knees, his head in his hands. "Let him go, Bomani. He's already proved himself to you, don't you think? Besides, he's here for Khensa. If she goes, then what's the point of him staying?"
I'm about to protest when Mbiki copies Shana, iterating all of his good qualities: "I have been trained in archery and swordplay. I know how to set a camp and make a fire and set a snare. I know the guard routes. I know where the king stations his men."
It's the last of these that convinces Bomani. The shift in his countenance is immediate; he goes from suspicious to complaisant in the span of heartbeat.
"Then I will complete the party," Ghari volunteers.
I had not been expecting that. Ghari's personality is the sort to have left little impression on me. He's always quiet, stoic. He watches rather than talks and can fade into a room as though invisible. He stands out now; a tall, thin man standing as straight as a pin.
I instantly like him better.
"Absolutely not!" Lateef barks, his steward's betrayal proving the final blow to his frayed nerves. "I need you here with me!"
Ghari speaks in a monotone voice, he always has, "I have no wish to offend you, my lord. I know how well you've cared for me in the years. You have done more for me than all my other masters combined.
"At first I did what you asked because I had to. When you freed me, I did what you asked because you were my friend. But I support Prince Bomani's plan. If he'll have me, then it is my right as a freedman to go."
"Of course," Bomani says with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. "You'd be an immense help."
Ghari would prove a capable, level-headed addition to Bomani's party. I want him to come. His small speech has stirred something inside me. I know what it is to have desires and opinions without the ability to act upon them. Every Junker knows it.
I reach across the room and grasp Ghari's wrist in the Junker fashion. I smile at him as I shake it.
He returns my grin, in his own mellow way.
Lateef deflates. Ghari is perhaps the one man who could ever argue him into a corner. He knows he's losing him, as his steward and friend, as he shakes his head in assent.
I feel for him, but ask, "What of the others, Onion, Cook…Umayama?"
"They'll stay with me," Lateef replies in a voice that will brook no argument. Two of them are his slaves and the other, the woman he loves.
"Then it's decided," Bomani concludes. "We'll rest here for a week and make the necessary arrangements with Sadiki. Then we'll head north."
"Fine." Lateef pulls on his robes as he looks around, searching for an ally when he feels he has none. He touches nothing on the tray, despite having requested it. "Then in a couple days…"
Without bothering to finish his sentence, he gets up and leaves the room. We hear his bedroom's door shut a moment later, punctuating the end of our meeting.
"Would you like some tea?" Shana asks as she releases my hand and makes for the pot. "It's cold in here."
"She'll have it in a few minutes. I need to talk to her first." Bomani already has my elbow. He's steering me from the room and towards the front door.
I try to yank my arm back, having never been a fan of being dragged about like a doll. "Hey! I can walk on my own."
He pulls open the front door, gesturing for me to go first.
With an indignant glare, I right my robes and march out into the night.
Well, it's hardly night anymore. A twinge of gray breaks across the horizon, barely penetrating through the thick blanket of clouds overhead. The torrential rains have slowed to a lazy drizzle, filling the air like fog, thrumming upon the eaves. It's tranquil, almost serene.
Bomani shuts the front door.
He stands pole-straight and I lean upon the railing.
"I've been thinking since our conversation," he begins, "and I wanted to make sure that this is really what you want to do."
"Yes," I say, "I've already told you."
"Who knows how far they've taken the grain by now. It could be as far as the mountains. It could be dangerous."
"All the more reason for me to go!" I counter. "I can help you protect Jarai. I can heal him if he gets hurt. I can help with his seizures."
This is my path towards self-redemption. Junktown is destroyed and the rest of Waset is set like a tile ready to fall. I could change that. "I wouldn't be coming if I didn't believe in you, Bomani. We'll find the caravan. We'll bring it back."
The far off drumming snaps us to attention. Our experience in Junktown has made us sensitive to them. There's yelling in the distance, men screaming at one another.
Bomani steps forward, standing by the railing at my side. He looks at the wall as though able to see through it and into the street.
I watch the three horses sleeping together in the muddy garden. In a week I'll be riding again. "I feel like we're escaping, you know? Like we should be doing something to help, but we're only running away."
"The city's already crumbling," Bomani observes. "All those Junkers are flooding the streets. They'll fight, and in a couple months the Wassians will run out of food, and they'll rise up to join them. It's already happening. There's nothing we can do."
Junkers leading the charge, a community of thousands bound together by their shared hunger for vengeance.
"The Junker part of me wants to be here, to be a part of it. Don't misunderstand, I know what's more important, but it would still be…"
"Cathartic," Bomani finishes. He understands.
We listen to the far off sounds of drumming and screaming. The humid air dampens the noise only a little.
"Have you ever gone there, to the mountains, that is?"
"Once," he leans down next to me. "I went into the foothills to hunt elk."
I stare at him, perplexed by this strange word.
With a snort he explains, "Huge creatures, as large as cattle. Branching horns. Everything seems to grow large up there. Everything is white."
"It rains almost constantly, but it's cold. The water's frozen before it hits the ground. Snow."
I've never heard of such a thing, I imagine the feeling of frozen rain upon my flesh with a shiver.
"The Cadasa range… It pierces the very sky. I have never heard of anyone crossing it and returning to tell the tale."
"So it's dangerous."
"If those soft northerners were able to cross it, then we should have no problem," he says with confidence. "My hope is that we'll intercept them before it comes to that. Harvest was only a couple weeks ago. They can't have gotten far."
I'm still trying to picture 'elk' and 'snow'. I look again at the horses in the courtyard, imagining them with the horns Bomani had described.
"We'll need blankets," I say.
Bomani scoffs. "We'll need more than blankets." From his waistband he pulls out the dagger and its sheath. He sets it on the railing next to my elbow. "I wanted to give this to you."
I pick up the dagger and draw it to see its obsidian blade, an expensive present indeed. "Do you think I'll need it?"
"Ideally no, but with that Mbiki man coming along, I'd feel better knowing I wasn't the only one armed."
"You really don't trust him?"
"I don't like Sadiki, he's scum. If Mbiki knows him, then that's reason enough not to trust him. Keep it on you at all times."
I copy him, sliding the weapon into the sash of my talla. It looks more ridiculous on me than it had on him.
Bomani then surprises me by saying, "Thank you." He can't meet my eyes. "I'm glad you're coming with me."
His hand jerks forward, taking mine. It shakes as it lifts mine, and I think he might be intending to plant a kiss upon my knuckles until he seems to lose the nerve. He releases me and takes a hasty step back.
"I'm going to go check on Jarai."
I touch the warm spot on my hand as I watch him go, wondering at this prince who can't quite behave as a prince.
In Bata there had been everything of grace and charm, but there is something like bumbling uncertainty in Bomani. He only ever seems sure of himself when he's arguing or fighting or fleeing for his life.
He'll never lead a dance, but I'd trust him to lead us through the mountains any day.
I have never seen it, the Cadasa, but I have heard stories of its size. I have heard it referred to as the Roof of the World, cutting a jagged line from the distant coast in the east to the uninhabitable badlands in the west. It is the barrier that has kept our world and northerners' separated for centuries.
If we must cross them on our quest, what will we see on the other side? What sort of society breeds men like Hamley and Bata? What sort of society invents weapons that can kill a woman instantly? It doesn't seem like a place I belong.
But I belong nowhere. It is up to Bomani and me to carve ourselves a new home.
The drumming persists but the rain eases for another day.
To the north are the mountains. Their snow-covered peaks await us.
Concluded in book two:
To read Bonus Chapters written from Bomani's
point of view, visit
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