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Excerpt from The Unkindness of Ravens


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1

Six years ago.

 

A

nari Escaped The Crow wing of the palace during the hottest part of the day, when most people were sleeping. His overrobe bulged in unusual places because of the knee-length quilted armor and sword hidden underneath. He assumed a bored, faintly arrogant air and held his head high as he sauntered past the guard. The guard didn’t give him a second look.

Kayin was waiting for him outside the palace compound’s east gate, halfway between the Crow and the Raven wings. Kayin would not risk his god’s displeasure by visiting the Crow wing of the palace, though Anari had visited the Raven royal household many times. House Crow’s split from House Raven had caused bad blood between Lord Crow and Lord Raven. To the gods, that blood was still fresh, even though four human generations had passed.

After they exchanged greetings, Kayin asked, “You’re certain you want to have a practice bout with me? You’re not up to my weight and you never will be. I was your size when I was thirteen.”

“I’m ready,” Anari insisted. “I’ve been learning.”

Kayin shrugged. “I’m sure you’re good—for a sixteen-year-old Crow.”

“I’m ready,” Anari repeated.

“To first blood?”

“These are practice swords.”

“It happens. To first blood or to a strike that would disable in a real fight, then?”

“That’s fine.” Anari’s nerves twanged until he released the tension with a laugh. “We did it! I didn’t expect it to be this easy. Do you think anyone will notice?”

Kayin rolled his eyes. “Not unless you keep giggling like a little kid who stole a handful of coconut candy.”

“I’m not a little kid!”

“I know, I know. You’re almost a man.”

“You’ll see.” Anari had been learning House Crow battle ploys. He grinned as he thought about how surprised Kayin would be, but—as he stole a glance over his shoulder—he didn’t laugh out loud.

The streets stayed quiet and somnolent in the midday heat as he and Kayin walked away from the palace compound and through the city. They made it out and into the veldt without problems.

Dry yellow grass whipped Anari’s calves as he followed Kayin down one of the narrow dirt trails that led away from the city.

Anari had been following Kayin since he was small. He’d always looked up to him like a brother of the same House. When Anari was young, he’d been treated as such.

No doubt it helped that they appeared similar enough to have hatched out of the same egg. Both had jet black hair and eyes. Both had a cleft chin, a characteristic that came from their shared seed-father and not their House. Because they were the oba’s heirs, neither had a House tattoo on their hand. Both had dark skin, if of different shades. Kayin’s was the blue-black of House Raven. Anari’s umber brown skin was a reminder of their Houses’ shared heritage, not a trait preserved by Lord Crow. Their royal birthmarks weren’t the same, but those were concealed by their robes.

The most notable difference was their height. Kayin was tall and strong, a man full-grown at age nineteen. Anari was much shorter, as were most of his age-group in House Crow. Every generation after Crow and Raven split, Crows grew slightly smaller as Lord Crow shaped his new House.

Still, the height difference had been easy to overlook when Anari was younger. If anything, it had helped. Only three years separated Anari and Kayin, but the other members of the royal Raven household had indulged Anari as they would a much younger child. Kayin’s guide-father, Adetosoye, had even taken Anari under his wing when it became plain that he wouldn’t be separated from Kayin.

Adetosoye had lectured them both, equally, on how an heir to the oba’s throne should act. He’d advised them on what it meant to be a man. He’d taught them the basics of fighting. When he found them practicing those basics without permission, he’d scolded them while dangling them in mid-air without any apparent effort.

He’d given Anari his first practice sword, and he’d bellowed with laughter when Anari immediately tried to spar with Kayin.

“Like watching a fledgling try to mob a hawk!” Adetosoye had said, but his calloused hands had been gentle as he adjusted Anari’s grip on the sword.

There had been other matches after, but recently Anari and Kayin hadn’t sparred in months. Not since before Anari started learning the battle secrets of his House.

The sun beat down on Anari’s head and shoulders, broiling him inside his robe and quilted practice armor. There was no shade. The few scraggly trees had lost most of their limbs to mourners seeking firewood to build funeral pyres on the banks of the holy Yeghra River. Even the ticks stayed out of sight in the heat of the day. The effort of keeping up with Kayin’s longer strides made Anari’s breath come fast.

“Last chance to change your mind.” Kayin pointed ahead to a rocky hillock high enough to shield them from the city’s view. “Otherwise, that’s a good place. Nobody will see us behind that hill.”

Still breathing hard, Anari grinned. “Good.”

They stomped down a circle in the grass, tossed aside their overrobes, shook out their arms and legs to loosen their muscles, and drew their blunted practice swords. Kayin’s was longer and wider.

They circled each other. Anari took cautious steps, keeping his gaze from focusing too tightly on any one thing.

“Begin!” Kayin barked. He made a wide, slow swing at Anari’s shoulder.

Anari stepped back out of reach before it came close to connecting, but then he had to scramble across uneven footing to get back in the flattened circle. It made him turn his back to Kayin, who swatted him with the flat of the blade, making Anari jump.

Kayin chuckled. “Nice dodge, but don’t forget that you need a way to get back in the fight, too. You put yourself at a disadvantage in bad terrain.”

Anari did not make that mistake again. He darted in and out, tried for quick strikes, and worked on deflecting the power of Kayin’s blows instead of attempting to counter it directly or retreating. After a few minutes of sparring under the hot sun, Anari’s arms ached like he was lifting lead weights. Sweat dripped down his nose and stung his eyes. His hair was plastered to his head.

“You’re quick,” Kayin admitted. “That’s good. It might save your life if you have the misfortune to end up on a battlefield someday.”

“Why would—?”

“Enough dancing.” Kayin swung his sword in a hard, wide arc that forced Anari to back up and dodge to the side to stay in the circle. “Getting tired, little Crow?”

Anari made a face to distract Kayin from what he was doing. “I guess I’m not ready after all,” he said, as he pushed up the wristlet cover that concealed a wide, flat silver bracelet. His fighting instructor had given it to him only a few days earlier. He switched to a one-handed sword grip to leave his braceleted wrist free.

Some of the excitement he felt must have shown on his face, because Kayin frowned and tilted his head like a bird trying to hear a beetle burrowing in a rotten log.

Anari acted before he could figure it out. He twisted his wrist and flung a brilliant spear of reflected sunlight into Kayin’s eyes.

“Ah!” Kayin flinched, his arm coming up to block the sun.

Anari lunged.

Kayin brought his arm down and knocked Anari’s sword away, but not fast enough. Anari had gotten inside his guard. The force of the block knocked Anari’s blade down and to the side. It was all Anari could do to hold on. He didn’t control the sword’s trajectory.

He heard the rasp as it snagged on the split skirt of Kayin’s quilted armor, and the riiiiip as it kept going. He felt the resistance of flesh giving way, like the feel of his knife cutting into a buffalo steak. He saw a drop of blood land on the ground in a silent puff of dust.

Kayin’s face contorted in surprised pain. “Crow tricks!” he growled.

Anari regained control of his sword. He backed away. “I didn’t mean to,” he blurted. “It was a bad idea. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hurt you. It’s over. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry I won.”

Kayin straightened, holding his sword in a guard position. His lips pressed tight with fury. His eyes were cold. “It’s not over. Crow does not defeat Raven.”

Kayin swung at Anari’s neck.

Anari ducked. He felt his hair ripple from the breeze as the sword passed overhead. He didn’t even have time to bring his weapon up into guard position before Kayin twisted his sword and brought it slicing down at Anari’s ribs. Anari blocked, but the force of the strike shivered all the way to his shoulders.

Kayin attacked at the speed of rage. Instead of growing tired, he seemed to grow stronger and angrier the longer that Anari held out against him. He launched a flurry of blows that sent Anari staggering back to the edge of the grass circle. Anari panted for breath. Kayin paused for a moment. His lips curved in a skeleton of a smile, without a scrap of kindness.

He struck hard and low at Anari’s leg, below the protection of the quilted coat.

Anari barely knocked the sword aside.

Kayin used the recoil from Anari’s block to bring his sword up fast. He shifted his position slightly and whipped the sword straight across at Anari’s throat as if to behead him.

Anari saw death coming for him. He knew that he could not bring his sword up quickly enough to block it. He let his sword fall from his hands.

The sword struck his throat in what would have been a perfectly executed beheading strike if they weren’t sparring with blunted practice swords.

Tears of pain sprang from Anari’s eyes as he clutched his throat with both hands.

That is how you win a fight,” Kayin said, in a voice cold enough to kill.

Anari struggled to draw a breath. His lungs labored, but they only pulled in a thread of air. He clawed at his throat.

Kayin!” he tried to shout. Only a rasping mutter came out. High-pitched whistles escaped his throat as he fought for each strangled breath. Shadows danced around the edges of his vision. Anari’s lungs burned with effort.

Kayin watched him struggle. When his cold gaze melted into dismayed comprehension, relief washed through Anari. Kayin was not going to stand there and watch him die. “Sit down,” Kayin urged him, helping him to the ground. “Let me see—” He pried Anari’s hands away from his throat. What he saw made him hiss between his teeth.

He glanced in the direction of Ayeli Asatsvyi. “Too far,” he murmured to himself. He looked Anari in the eyes. “Lay down. This is going to hurt.”

He placed his hands over Anari’s injury and began to chant. Anari’s throat burned with a sharp, throbbing pain, as if Kayin pressed hot coals against it. Anari gurgled a scream through his ruined throat.

The pain went on and on.

Anari kept screaming after Kayin lifted his hands away. His scream floated above the veldt, loud and strong.

He sucked in a deep breath and realized that he could breathe. The shadows had receded from his vision. His throat no longer hurt.

“You can heal,” Anari said, amazed. His voice sounded normal. “Lord Raven favors you.”

“You can’t tell anyone. Not in your household, and not in mine.”

“But if the less-favored heirs know, they might accept exile without contesting your claim. Like—like me.” It was the first time Anari had admitted out loud that Lord Crow did not favor him.

“I don’t want the beaded crown.”

“But why?”

Kayin laughed, a short, abrupt bark of sound. “I almost killed you, and you have to ask? You know what happened.”

“The Third Danger of the Raven,” Anari said. “The raven will strike without mercy to destroy his opponent, even unto pecking out the eyes of fledglings.” He left off the second part. Beware trusting him.

“Is that what you Crows say? It is the First Temptation of the Raven: Single-Minded Pursuit of Prey. I am too inclined to it. I would make a bad oba. I would leave a trail of wreckage behind me.”

“I won’t tell anyone.”

“Swear it to me on pain of Lord Crow’s wrath.”

“You’re my brother! I would never betray you,” Anari protested.

“We are of different Houses. We can’t be true brothers. Swear it.”

“I swear I will tell nobody, on pain of Lord Crow’s wrath.”

“Now swear that you will not speak of this out loud where any person could hear you, nor write it in any way, temporary or permanent.”

“Did you forget to forbid me to draw a picture of it?”

“Nor draw it.”

Anari swore the oath. After, he accused Kayin, “You don’t trust me.”

“We learn the dangers of the Crow, too.”

“I wouldn’t have told anyone.”

“Don’t forget that if you find a way around the oath, you might also find yourself facing me at the succession challenge.”

“I won’t forget,” Anari said.

Dust puffed up around their sandals as they walked back to Ayeli Asatsvyi.

Anari stayed away from the royal Raven household for two weeks, and then it was too late. Kayin had been sent away to learn the ways of war from the Raven commander.



2

Now, six years later.

 

A

nari Smelled His seed-father’s flesh cooking on the funeral pyre. The stench of scorched hair and charred meat would never come out of the robe he wore, and flakes of ash clung to the cloth. It was his most elaborate set of palace clothing. Tailors had spent weeks embroidering the patterns on the panels of his robe and the cuffs of his trousers. House Crow priests would ritually destroy it after the funeral. Anari thought that was fitting.

The clothes belonged to his old life. He wouldn’t need them in exile, because he would never set foot in his home again. Not the palace, not the country. He was resigned to that. It wasn’t himself that he worried about.

The royal families of all Eight Houses ringed the funeral pyre beside the sacred Yeghra River. Dressed in their finest, they glowed like a tile mosaic washed clean by the rains. The light of the setting sun haloed the Fox priest’s orange hair as he oversaw the cremation of the oba who had been born into House Fox and would return to it in death.

The holy river burned with the red and gold flames of reflected sunset, as if the oba’s pyre had set fire to the world. It made a right and good memorial. Most of the people who lived in Ayeli Asatsvyi had gone to the banks of the Yeghra River to witness the funeral, and others had traveled from towns near and far.

Mourners from every House and Band stretched up and down the east bank of the river as far as Anari could see. His seed-father had been beloved by the people he ruled. The size of the crowd testified that their love had survived the sacrifices necessary for a ruler in wartime.

Even a small cluster of Scorned ones had gathered to mourn, although they sensibly stayed on the opposite bank of the river, where their presence would be less likely to anger others. Their expressions were impossible to read from so far away, but one drew Anari’s attention. He was thin, and older than the others, although Anari could not have said what made him think that. The man stood as still as a statue. His pale blue robes rippled in the breeze.

“They profane the oba’s funeral,” hissed Anari’s mother.

Anari glanced down at her. Silver threaded her hair and crow’s-feet marked the corners of her eyes, the latter a testament to how often and easily she laughed. Life is as sweet as a ripe mango, she always said, though her own life had not always been easy. It was her nature to find the sweet in the bitter.

Now her clever fingers curved into claws as she glared across the river at the Scorned. “They make a spectacle of themselves! They wouldn’t dare if our warlords were here instead of on the battlefield.”

He’d never heard so much venom in her voice. He couldn’t stop his muscles from tightening, but he kept his voice level as he replied. “I’m sure. Of course, they aren’t the only ones.”

He tilted his head toward the royal mourners from House Horse.

She followed his gaze. It took a moment for the anger to fade from her eyes, replaced by an appreciative gleam of humor. A second cousin of House Horse’s royal wife had presented himself for the funeral wearing gilded archer’s braces, as if he expected to join battle at any moment.

“He seems to have forgotten his bow and arrows,” Anari’s mother murmured.

“No doubt they are at the jeweler and he didn’t wish to disrespect the memory of the oba by appearing with an inferior weapon,” Anari suggested, mock-seriously.

A single snort of laughter escaped her. She quickly banished the mirth from her expression, but she once more looked like the inquisitive, lighthearted mother that Anari knew. Worry still nagged at him. Going into exile and leaving his mother behind without close family to support her was hard enough. Leaving her twisted by grief would be inconceivable.

Ululation rose and fell in waves along the river bank as the people mourned. None of the royal wives or heirs wept. Not yet.

After the oba’s spirit was taken, the royal mourners would part ways. The wives would stay beside the pyre, without food or drink, until the fire died and the oba’s bones cooled enough to be handled. Then they would wade into the Yeghra and release his remains to the current. Their tears would feed the holy river as it carried away the bones and ashes of the dead.

The royal heirs would restrain their sorrow at their seed-father’s death until the long walk back to the palace. Each House had a different route, so that no place in the city could remain untouched by the oba’s death.

The royal heir of House Hyena drew Anari’s eye. Busara looked the most regal of all the heirs, but she had already announced that House Hyena would not seek the beaded crown in this generation. Her dark features were molded into a calm mask of acceptance, crowned by her tight corona of wiry, straw-blonde hair stippled with black spots.

Compared to Busara, Ahyoka appeared skittish, even though her chances of becoming the next oba were good. She had only to whisper in the ear of a horse to have it do her bidding, a clear sign that Lord Horse favored her. As Anari watched, a lovely palomino girl with white hair and pale gold skin stepped forward and eased her hand into Ahyoka’s. She must be the woman Ahyoka had chosen to be her second wife. She would help bear the next generation of royal heirs if Ahyoka became oba and took husbands from the other Houses.

Anari’s seed-father came from House Fox and so had taken no Fox wife when he became oba. House Locust’s royal wife had produced no heirs. The heirs of House Rat and House Viper had not yet announced their intentions. Suman, Anari’s protocol advisor and expert on other Houses, had heard conflicting whispers about their decisions. That left only House Raven.

Anari glanced across the pyre at House Raven. Kayin frowned back at him through a shifting sheet of fire.

The frown hit Anari like a blow.

The direction of the wind shifted. Smoke made Anari’s eyes burn, and flakes of ash peppered him. He blinked tears away before they could be born. He automatically lifted his hand to brush the flakes of ash away, but stopped. The pyre still burned. More ash would follow. Acting as if he could brush it away and remain untouched would be self-delusion. He couldn’t afford that, not if he wanted to stay alive.

He remembered when he’d made the mistake of telling Adetosoye that he didn’t need to do exercises because he was strong enough already. Kayin’s guide-father had ordered him to stand with his arms outstretched. Then he’d lectured him for an hour about the folly of mistaking his own abilities, while Anari’s arms shook convulsively and sweat stung his eyes.

Afterward, he’d gone straight to Kayin to complain. They had still been on speaking terms then.

Six years had passed since Kayin moved on to a man’s role and left Anari behind. The years had not been kind to Adetosoye. Anari remembered a mountain of a man, deep-voiced and solid as a rock, whose laugh drowned out all other conversations in a room.

Seen now through the pyre’s smoke, the towering giant of Anari’s memory dwindled to merely human. Adetosoye’s short-cropped hair had turned as gray as the ash that swirled through the air. His bulk had melted away. He wore an impassive expression as he leaned on Kayin's arm, but the lines on his face were those of suffering instead of laughter.

Anari’s mother must have followed the direction of his gaze. “I should never have let you spend time with Kayin when you were little,” she murmured. “You still think of him as a true brother, not a rival.”

“I’m no rival to him. Kayin is blessed by Lord Raven.”

Anari left unspoken his own marked lack of favor from Lord Crow. Its absence was as obvious as the huge raven that followed Kayin everywhere. As if it had heard Anari’s thought, the raven flapped its wings. It hopped awkwardly to the edge of the riverbank, where it used its talons and beak to pry open a clam.

 “I am out of the succession,” Anari reminded his mother. “I have announced that I will accept exile.”

It was a horrifying fate, but one that all the royal heirs had been raised from birth to accept. In exile, Anari would have to interact with the Scorned, but the Holy Eight gave special dispensation from caste contamination to exiled royal heirs and their households. At least he would not be damned to rebirth as a Scorned one. Only if Anari attempted to return from exile would he be treated as a true Scorned one, cursed by the gods.

“You’re only out of the succession if none of the other heirs believe that you are a threat,” his mother replied. “Lord Crow grant that it be so. If you aren’t a threat, you should be safe.”

“Lord Crow has never granted me any favors,” he said bitterly. As soon as the words escaped his mouth, he wished he could call them back. You never knew when the gods were listening and might take offense. When the god of your House was a trickster, you needed to take extra care.

They fell silent as the Fox priest raised a long pole above his head. The sky behind the priest burned orange and red. After holding the pole aloft for the space of three heartbeats, he brought it whistling down to strike the forehead of the dead oba.

The crack of the skull splitting resounded in the silence left by hundreds of people holding their breath. Even the Yeghra River seemed muted.

A burst of flame roared up from the body. The priest tossed the pole onto the pyre and stepped back. He looked diminished, an ordinary man instead of the emissary of his god. His hair was still orange, but it no longer blazed like fire.

A chill went through Anari as he looked around at the circle of royal mourners and their households. Without the power of the gods flowing through them, the priests returned to being simple members of their Houses. Only the royal heirs could channel the power of the gods now, and even then, only to the extent that their personal connection to their Lord or Lady allowed. Until a new oba wore the beaded crown, the priests could not sanction births, invoke war blessings, or heal so much as a scratch. In battle or by accident, people would die who could have been saved.

Anari glanced down at his mother and caught her angrily dashing tears from her eyes. His worry for her returned. “Mother—?”

“Go. It is time,” she said, still facing the burning pyre. “Take the household back to the palace. You know the Crow route.”

“Will you be all right?”

“I will be fine with the other wives. We will walk back after we’ve given his bones to the Yeghra.”

“Do you need anything?” He felt compelled to ask, though he couldn’t give her food or drink or even a mat to sit on.

She met his eyes then. Her own were bright with banished tears. “I don’t grieve my husband, I fear losing my son. Go quickly. Be careful. Trust no-one.”

The Scorned on the other side of the river were drifting away. The thin Scorned one in the blue robes was nowhere to be seen. Anari frowned at their disrespect in daring to leave before the royal families.

The rest of the mourners would trickle back into the city after the royal households had passed. House Rat had already vanished, but the other House processions were still assembling. Anari gestured to his household and picked up his pace, hoping to get underway before the rest of the Houses. The warmth of the setting sun painted a target on Anari’s back as he led the Crow procession away from the smoldering pyre at the river’s edge.

A zigzagging dirt path rose from the edge of the river to the regular city streets. As Anari walked up it, the muffled footsteps of his household trailed him like ghosts. Behind him, he heard the royal wives begin to wail their grief. He couldn’t tell which voice belonged to his mother.

When he reached the street, his mind blanked. He knew that he knew the way. Yet in that moment, the memory was as distant as a dream of flying on crow’s wings. He stumbled. Sweat trickled down his spine and pooled in the small of his back.

“Eye,” said the Crow doorkeeper, using Anari’s title.

That one word snapped Anari back to himself. He was the Eye of House Crow, the royal heir. He would do this. House Crow took the widest path, the one that would split into five forks before rejoining at the end.

Anari led the way. Every time the path forked, the Crow royal household also split. They would travel in small groups of two or three through the city before coming back together in a giant muster, the way that all the crows in the city came together to roost during the dry season.

Only a few people had remained in Ayeli Asatsvyi: the elderly, the bedridden, the indispensable, and the otherwise indisposed. Anari and his flock traveled through abandoned streets flanked by shuttered shops and barred doors.

As Anari stalked down the street, he drew his dagger and hooked the curved end over the shoulder seam on his robe. He drew a deep breath and slashed through the seam, dragging his dagger diagonally across his chest.

Yaaaaaaa!” he screamed.

He screamed his grief for the seed-father he’d barely known, whose influence had stretched across every moment of his life. He shouted his anger at the competition to become the new ruler and at his inevitable failure. He cried his fear of a life in exile, surrounded by an ocean of Scorned ones. He raged at his powerlessness to protect those he would leave behind.

With every step, he cut and tore his garments, until his fine embroidered robe and trousers were shredded into rag strips that danced as he walked. Only his loincloth protected his dignity. A thin line of red grew across his chest where he had cut too deep. He screamed and wailed until his throat was burned raw and his soul numb and he could lament no more.

The world crept back into the space left by his silence. He heard footsteps behind him. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw the small flock who followed him: the head cook, one of the junior sweepers, and his protocol adviser, Suman. He hadn’t heard any other voices over the sound of his own grief, but now their ritual lamentations echoed through the streets.

When they entered the bazaar, Anari saw in a glance that they were the first of royal House Crow to arrive at the gathering place. He nodded in approval. As it should be. A patchwork of branch roofs, canvas canopies, and ragged blankets shaded the bazaar. Nothing moved in the forest of stalls except an unsecured corner of canvas flapping against a wooden post.

A lone man sat on a stool in front of a shuttered tea shop nearby. As Anari watched, the man picked up a grass broom and leaned over to give the shop’s threshold a desultory swipe. A tall clay water pot stood beside the door. The dirt packed around its base was dark with moisture. Anari swallowed hard. His throat was parched. He felt every throat-tearing scream of grief he’d uttered.

The day’s heat had passed, but the night’s cool blessing hadn’t yet reached Ayeli Asatsvyi. Sweat plastered Anari’s tattered robes to his body. Grainy fragments of ash itched in the folds of his skin. He longed for the purifying bath that awaited him in the palace.

A blue ceramic tile with a crow in flight sat above the mantel of the tea shop’s door, showing their connection to House Crow. Surely they would not begrudge a scoop of water to the Crow royal heir.

The man in front of the shop did not immediately rise to his feet as Anari approached. He stayed seated, his hands tucked into the pockets of his robe. Annoyance flickered through Anari until he saw the reason. The man’s right shoe cradled a wooden foot, and the outline of a leg brace was visible under his trouser leg.

 Still, Anari wouldn’t be careless about his approach. Trust no-one, his mother had said.

He sheathed the dagger that he’d used to tear his mourning clothes, but he remained poised to leap back and draw it again, in case this was an elaborate ruse to disarm him.

“Greetings to you,” Anari said, extending his right hand for the ritual handclasp.

The man struggled to his feet. He took Anari’s hand awkwardly with his unmarked left hand.

Anari bristled at the insult.

“My apologies, but I lost my hand in battle.” He showed Anari the stump of his right wrist. “Hiran of Band Starling,” he introduced himself. “Smooth your feathers, young Crow.”

Band Starling was one of the largest Bands in House Crow. Anari relaxed, and he felt the others behind him do the same. House tattoo or not, nobody would dare claim a false House when the gods might be listening. He drew reassurance from the familiar jet black hair and eyes as he looked up at the older man.

Anari of House Crow,” Anari introduced himself. He glanced at the water pot. “You have a good situation, Hiran. On hot days, it must be a blessing to have cool drinking water so close.”

“Oh, yes,” Hiran agreed. “You are on the mourner’s walk?”

Anari nodded.

“The walk is hard. I remember when the old oba returned to House Hyena. We followed the procession of royal mourners all the way back to the palace. I was so thirsty, and my feet hurt so much.” He waved his grass broom in the direction of his right foot. “I still had both the originals then. I never thought I’d miss having my feet hurt,” Hiran mused. “I knew I wasn’t going to go for the priesthood, you see. Back then, the only people with missing limbs were the ones with a sacred calling who had sacrificed their flesh to gain the favor of the gods.”

Anari nodded. He didn’t remember much about how things were before the war started, but the older generations loved to talk about it. His attention drifted to the bazaar entrances where he expected the rest of his household to appear, but he kept his face politely attentive. He thought he heard footsteps in the distance.

Hiran must have sensed his distraction, or perhaps he heard the footsteps too. “Enough of my rambling! I remember how much I wanted a cup of cold drinking water that day.”

Anari swallowed hard against the sandpaper rasp of his throat.

“I can do that much for you. Come.” Hiran limped over to the tall clay water pot, lifted the tray covering the pot’s mouth, and drew out a ladle of cool water. Drops rolled down the sides of the ladle and splattered in the dust. “No cup, I’m afraid.”

“Eye!” called Suman, House Crow’s protocol advisor. “I hear the others coming.”

“Then I will be refreshed when they arrive,” Anari said. He cupped his hands, and Hiran poured the water into them.

“Drink up,” Hiran said. “The owner of the tea shop won’t begrudge it.”

Hiran’s phrasing rang strangely in Anari’s ears. It nagged at Anari as he lifted his hands to drink.

The cold water could have been poured straight from one of the heavenly rivers. It kissed his chapped lips and blessed his aching throat as he swallowed. The water tasted sweet, sweet, despite traces of gritty ash from his palms.

“I must check the back door of the shop and make sure everything is in order,” Hiran excused himself. He limped away.

The owner of the tea shop. That was not how a hired door sweeper would talk about the person who gave them that position. They would say, “My boss.” If they felt a strong allegiance, they would say Uncle or Auntie, whether or not they were linked by a blood bond tighter than a shared House.

That lingering oversweet aftertaste wasn’t because Anari was so thirsty. The wave of dizziness crashing over him wasn’t because he was exhausted from walking. Hiran wasn’t leaving to check the shop’s back door.

He was escaping because he’d attempted to murder a royal heir.

“Stop him!” Anari shouted, or tried to shout. It came out as a whisper with no force behind it. He raised his hand to point and stared in horror at the tremors shaking it.

Sharp pain knifed his stomach. He doubled over, lost his balance, and would have fallen if he hadn’t slapped his hand down on the ground in front of him. Nausea seized him. Bitter vomit burned its way up his throat and splashed across the hard-packed dirt. Droplets freckled his hand. The acrid smell caused him to retch again, helplessly. The scalding pain in his throat brought tears to his eyes. Snot dripped from his nose and ran down his chin.

It didn’t matter. All that mattered was not falling over, no matter how the world spun. He locked his gaze on a crack in the ground. As long as kept his eyes on the crack, he would not fall over.

Voices swarmed around him. Running footsteps drummed through the streets. A red velvet mite trundled along beside the crack in the ground. The hairs on its back looked so soft.

Blink. He was laying on his back in the street. Other members of the Crow royal household had reached the meeting place. They huddled around him. Their faces looked strange when seen from below, their expressions distorted. Pain radiated from Anari’s stomach to every muscle in his body. His back arched.

“Turn him on his side so he doesn’t choke!” That was their House’s healer priest, Romesh. He pressed three fingers to Anari’s wrist, taking his pulse. “I need to get him to my workroom as fast as possible. You!” He released Anari’s wrist to point to someone buried in the crowd. “Run to the stables and get a war horse strong enough to carry two. Fly!”

Light, quick footsteps faded into the distance.

“Heal him!” cried the junior sweeper. “Why don’t you heal him?”

The cook put an arm around the junior sweeper’s shoulders. “The oba is dead. There is no healing to be had. The priests can’t reach the gods.”

Anari had guarded against deadly weapons. He hadn’t guarded against this, because who would use poison when a single visit to a healer priest could undo the damage? He’d forgotten the Fourth Temptation of the Crow: Expectations. He had expected people to behave the same way, even when circumstances changed. Now he suffered for it.

Blink. He was upright, his arms stretched over the shoulders of two of the burliest men in his household. His feet dragged in the dirt behind them. One foot snagged on a rut in the street, pulling his body straight. A white sheet of pain washed over him.

Blink. The ground was very far away. He sat on a horse’s bare back. Someone sat behind him and held him in place.

“Hold him up! Tie the sash around his chest. Tight.”

Blink. Every hoof-strike reverberated through his gut as if the horse trotted across his body instead of the street.

“We’re almost there,” Romesh said behind him, close to his ear.

“Eye of House Crow! I must speak to you!”

The horse snorted and reared its head as a man dashed into the street before them in a flurry of light blue robes. Only the war horse’s meticulous training kept it from shying away.

“Out of the way!” Romesh ordered.

The blue robes were old and stained, patched with coarser cloth than the original. Who would be so disrespectful as to wear such rags on the day of the oba's funeral?

The man seized the reins, pulling the horse’s head down.

“Eye, I must speak to you!” he insisted.

He was a thin older man with an accent, a strange burnished brass cast to his skin, and lines of bitter suffering on his face. It was the sight of his unmarked hand holding the reins that reminded Anari of where he’d recently seen a thin older man in light blue robes. Shock cut through the pain fogging Anari’s thoughts.

“Watch out—Scorned,” Anari whispered.

A sharp intake of breath from behind him said that Romesh had heard him. Good. He could let Romesh handle it. He focused on the pain radiating from his abdomen, trying to imagine it outside of himself.

“Please, hear me!” The Scorned one reached toward them.

Romesh jerked the reins away from the Scorned one and ordered, “Strike.”

The war horse reared and kicked out with its front legs, knocking the Scorned one to the ground in front of them. The movement sent Anari rocking back. He thudded against Romesh’s chest, nearly knocking them both off the horse. Romesh grabbed Anari and curled forward to keep them on the horse.

Anari gasped as the pain in his abdomen expanded like a lake overflowing in the rainy season. He swayed. His head lolled against his chest. Darkness hovered at the edges of his vision. He stared down at the ground as glimpses of blue robes and horse hooves danced in and out of view. Only the sash tied around his chest kept him semi-upright.

“Gallop,” Romesh ordered tightly.

The war horse’s hooves plunged down. The Scorned one tried to scrabble out of the way.

He didn’t quite make it.

One sharp-edged hoof landed on his hand with a muffled cracking sound. He screamed the high-pitched, throat-scraping scream of someone in unendurable pain. The burst flesh of his hand curled up around the edge of the horse’s hoof. His fingers twitched and splayed like the legs of a dying spider.

The horse stretched its legs into a gallop, leaving the screaming behind. The blows of its hooves echoed through Anari’s body. Blackness swept across his vision.

Blink.

“Help me get him inside. Hold him while I untie the sash.”

Hands seized him around the waist. He arched his back and screamed.

Blink. He stared up at a familiar ceiling. A wave of painful nausea rolled through him. A whimper escaped between his teeth. He tasted acid rising in the back of his throat.

Romesh loomed above him. “Eye, I am happy to see that you are awake. Let me help you sit up. This will hurt,” he warned. “There is no shame in screaming. Try not to faint. You must be aware to drink this preparation.”

He hooked his arms under Anari’s armpits and heaved him into a sitting position on the rope bed. Anari clung to consciousness. He had no shame.

When he stopped screaming, the nausea surged back up his throat. A bowl appeared in front of him just in time. He retched thin, sour-tasting strings of vomit. Romesh held the bowl until Anari ran dry, although his body still spasmed and shook.

“This is good. Before taking the preparation, the more you vomit, the better.”

Anari leaned stiffly against the cushions piled behind him. All the muscles in his back were locked tight, as if he could keep the pain away by holding himself in precisely the correct position.

Romesh lifted a tin cup to Anari’s lips. Murky gray-black liquid swirled inside the cup. Anari gulped it down between waves of nausea. It left his mouth tasting of ashes.

They waited, Romesh with bowl in hand. Anari’s muscles stayed locked in pain, but slowly he felt the urge to vomit subside. When he told Romesh this, the healer priest looked relieved.

Romesh lifted Anari’s hands and studied his nails. He asked him to open his mouth and checked the color of his lips and gums. He tapped and palpated his way along Anari’s body before pronouncing his verdict.

“The treatment is working. The preparation you swallowed will prevent your body from absorbing the rest of the poison. I regret that I can give you nothing for the pain, but your body would not absorb it either. According to the notes, the way you feel is to be expected.”

“According to the notes?” Anari rasped.

“I was not yet a healer when the previous oba returned to her House. This is the first time I’ve had to treat patients without the blessing of Lord Crow. Once it became clear that our oba had the rotting lung sickness and would die, I began studying previous healers’ notes on how to preserve patients through the changeover. I prepared everything I could for my workroom, and I sent what I could come up with for war wounds to the Crow chief healer at the battlefront.”

Anari grunted an acknowledgement.

Romesh sighed. “The battle healers ran through the supplies I sent in a matter of days. Without war blessings, our warriors cannot defend themselves against the flood of infidels crossing the desert land bridge. Our warriors are being pushed back. We’ve lost many to death or injury.”

The bald statement struck Anari like a blow. The royal heirs of the Eight Houses were raised to protect their people. That was one place that the lessons of House Crow and House Raven were in perfect agreement. All the royal heirs knew that one day they might become oba. Then the walls that bound them to one god and one House would shatter, and all the people in the land would become theirs to protect. Now all those people were in danger, and Anari could do nothing. That Romesh didn’t blame him made it worse.

Sweat beaded along Anari’s hairline. He groaned.

Romesh readied the vomit bowl.

Anari shook his head. At the motion, pain spiked from his skull to the base of his neck. His eyes closed involuntarily, but that left him with nothing to distract from the pain. He forced himself to open his eyes, to think.

Romesh set aside the vomit bowl and gestured to a row of covered baskets and large clay pots lined up along the wall. “I’m sending this shipment the day after tomorrow. It won’t last long.”

 “How did you know the oba would die?” Anari asked. “People have survived rotting lung sickness. Guang the Fearless had rotting lung sickness as a youth, but he went on to win great victories.”

Romesh shook his head. “He was healed during the cascade when the gods flooded a new oba who belonged to his house, an oba who was also a healer. It would have been possible at no other time.”

A wave of pain sent spots dancing in front of Anari’s eyes. He groaned. “The notes say the treatment should hurt … this much?”

“Some portion of the poison affected you before I could give you the preparation. You’re young and strong. You should live. Any lingering damage can be healed once there is a new oba.”

“Even though—even if the oba is not from House Crow?”

Romesh nodded. “I’ll be able to heal again. That will be enough for this, even if we should happen not to receive the cascade that passes through the oba to their former House.”

It was kind of him not to mention that the poisoning itself proved Anari didn’t have a special connection to Lord Crow and wasn’t worthy of being oba. There had been no warning from Lord Crow. No special sense that anything was amiss. No crow cawing a warning from a rooftop. Not even a splatter of white bird droppings to mark the ladle as not good to drink from. That was how little Lord Crow valued his life.

If Anari died, nobody would hunt his killer. If he’d been meant to live, Lord Crow would have protected him.

Hiran’s attempt to murder him would be forgiven. But he had committed a worse crime in claiming to be of Band Starling, House Crow. The gods would turn their faces from him, the priests would cast him out of his House, and he would be reborn Scorned in his next turn on the wheel, so that all would know he was not to be trusted.

“There is still poison in you,” Romesh told him. “It is affecting your organs and upsetting the elemental balance in your body.”

A surge of pain twisted through Anari, as if to remind him that he might still die. He panted through the pain. After it had subsided, he said, “If you’d needed to go to a Crow temple for purification before you could treat me …”

Romesh nodded. “If I had been polluted, unable to act as a healer and give you the preparation, you would likely be dead.”

Anari remembered the Scorned one reaching for them. He shuddered. “You did well to ask for a war horse.”

“Thank you, Eye. I was only thinking of the strength a horse needed to carry two. I did not expect anyone to be foolish enough to attempt to stop us, much less a Scorned one.”

“Who would have? What could have driven him to such a mad act?”

Romesh shrugged. “The Scorned don’t think in the same way that you or I do. Don’t waste your energy lowering yourself to try and understand them. Save your strength. We must return your body to balance through cleansing and bloodletting.”


3

W

hen Anari Opened his eyes, he relished the feeling of rising slowly from natural slumber to consciousness. He stared at the mural of lilies and lotus flowers on his bedroom ceiling and wondered why he was so happy to see it. He turned his head to the side and saw the wooden boxes filled with his personal belongings stacked against his wall, ready for him to take into exile.

He remembered weirdly blurred, disconnected fragments, like a fight seen through shifting smoke. He was happy to see his ceiling because … it was not the ceiling in Romesh’s workroom. He was in his own bed. His stomach no longer hurt like he’d swallowed burning coals. The echo of that pain dispelled the smoke clouding his mind, and his memories sprang into deadly sharp focus.

He groaned.

The noise spurred a flurry of motion near the doorway to his room. A young Crow pushed himself up from the straw mat he’d been napping on. “You’re awake! I will get Romesh. Please lie still. He said to tell you that.”

Before Anari could respond or extend his hand in greeting, the boy darted out of the room.

Anari gripped the edges of his bed and pulled himself up to a sitting position. His arms trembled. Tiny shocks of pain sparked with every movement. He let his head sag.

He looked up at the sound of footsteps returning in haste. The Crow boy returned with Romesh on his heels.

Romesh hissed through his teeth when he saw Anari sitting upright, but he didn’t chastise him. “Eye, I am happy to see you. How do you feel?”

When nobody gave the Crow boy any further orders, he ducked out of the room.

Anari’s fingers brushed Romesh’s House Crow tattoo as they gripped hands in greeting. He took strength from the reminder that he was among his House.

“My limbs are weak. Everything hurts, but not the way it did before. This is like the pain of a fresh bruise. No, dozens of fresh bruises! The pain moves when I do. Tell me, how long did I sleep?”

“You slept through the night and the whole day. The evening flame has already been offered to Lord Crow. You’ve missed four meals, which is good. Fasting will help you purify yourself. Let me take your pulse.”

Anari allowed Romesh to place three fingers on his wrist. “So I have five days until the new oba must stand before the gods. The mourning ceremony has finished? My mother has returned home safely?”

“Yes, she took the widow’s walk back from the holy river with the other wives. She felt a little weak and dizzy on the walk, but that is to be expected with fasting. She recovered her strength as soon as she drank a large cup of milk and ate some dates.”

“What news has come from the other Houses?”

“I hesitate to say. I devoted myself to your care. I only left your room to sleep for a couple of hours after the worst of the effects seemed to have passed.”

Which meant that Anari wasn’t going to die anytime soon and still had to worry about problems like avoiding another assassination attempt. He needed to know more.

“Where did the boy go?” Anari asked.

Gati!” Romesh called.

The boy stuck his head around the corner of the door. “Yes, Uncle?”

Gati,” Anari said, “I need you to summon my protocol advisor Suman, the head sweep, and Dai Kalinda for me. Have the head sweeper also send a junior sweeper immediately to take that away.” He pointed to the squatting pan.

“Yes, Eye.”

Anari eased back onto the bed. With Romesh’s help and several strategically placed cushions, he arranged himself in something approximating a sitting position while he waited.

After the others arrived and exchanged handclasps and greetings, Anari spoke first to the dai priest. “Dai Kalinda, I need to know if Lord Crow sanctioned the birth of a boy named Hiran to Band Starling.”

She didn’t answer immediately. “How old is he? There is a five-year-old …”

“He said he was my age or a little older when the old oba returned to House Hyena, so he would be of my mother’s generation.” Hiran had lied about many things, but that memory had held the ring of truth. “He was missing a hand and a foot.”

“I wouldn’t know what happens to the children when they are grown unless they return to petition Lord Crow for a child of their own. A moment.” Dai Kalinda closed her eyes. Her lips moved silently as she recited the list of sanctioned births. She opened her eyes. “No, not in all of House Crow. Hiresh is the closest name.”

“Thank you. Do you know the names of the children sanctioned by other gods?” he asked, even though he thought he knew what her answer would be.

“Only if their seed-father or milk-mother is of House Crow, but Hiran is a House name. No child of another house would use it.”

“He lied about his name. Even so, a man of that age missing a hand and a foot could not hide forever in House Crow.” A shock of revulsion traveled through Anari. “He must have lied about his House.”

Dai Kalinda gasped. “How is that possible?”

“He lost his House tattoo along with his hand, or so he said.”

“But—the gods will cast him out for that sacrilege. He will live the rest of this life and the next Scorned. He will be reborn with mixed House traits, so he can never deceive anyone in that way again.” She shuddered. “That he dared to commit such blasphemy! Could he already be Scorned? He might have struck off his own hand to conceal the lack of a tattoo.”

“No,” Anari’s protocol advisor Suman answered her fear. “The Scorned would not dare. They know it would only make their lives worse. House priests would hunt them down and speed them on to the next turn of the wheel. The gods would see to it that they were reborn as an animal or an insect, lower even than the Scorned. If a Scorned one had ever attempted such a ruse, I would have heard of it. Everyone would have.”

She didn’t look entirely convinced. “But what if they were not caught?”

“He would have had to chop off his hand for the ruse. Scorned ones don’t have the courage to make that kind of sacrifice,” Anari added, to reassure her. He turned to his protocol advisor. “Suman, have there been any declarations from the other Houses?”

Suman bowed his head. “House Hyena has announced the death of the Hyena royal heir.”

“But Busara said she would not seek the beaded crown.” Anari remembered how calm and regal she had appeared at their seed-father’s funeral.

“So did you,” Suman replied. “Whoever is behind this is taking no chances.”

Bandhu, what gossip have your people heard about the succession?” Anari asked the head sweeper. Sweepers worked inside and outside the Crow royal wing of the palace. Often higher-ranked people spoke in front of them as if they weren’t there. Anari would never make that mistake, not after growing up sitting at his mother’s feet while she interrogated the sweepers for gossip from the other royal households.

Tawil of House Rat has vanished,” Bandhu said.

“Dead?”

Bandhu tilted his head in a maybe-yes, maybe-no gesture. “He has disappeared so thoroughly that most of his household has no idea.”

“Any other news?”

Bandhu considered. “Perhaps. Ahyoka has a magnificent new mare. The stable sweeps weren’t warned that there would be a new horse arriving.”

“And?”

“She finished the mourner's walk on horseback.”

Lord Horse had sent a messenger to warn Ahyoka of a threat. Anari swallowed bitterness that Lord Crow had not bothered to do the same for him.

“Is there any other news? What of House Raven?” he couldn’t help asking. Seeing Kayin through the smoke of their seed-father’s pyre had broken open an old wound.

“I have heard no gossip from House Raven,” Bandhu answered.

Suman?”

“House Raven has made no announcements,” Suman said carefully.

Anari’s attention sharpened at his tone. “Why do you say it like that?” he demanded.

Instead of answering, Suman turned the questioning back on him. “Have you finished your other inquiries?”

Anari narrowed his eyes. “Yes. Thank you,” he told the others. “My need of you is done.”

After they filed out, he asked Suman, “What didn’t you want to say in front of them?”

“You learned the Dangers of the Raven along with the Dangers and Advantages of every other House. Did you never think to apply them to Kayin?”

 

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