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Chapter Three

Amari

Amari, sit up straight!” “For skys sake—”

“Thats more than enough dessert for you.”

I lower my forkful of coconut pie and push my shoulders back, almost impressed by the number of critiques Mother can hiss under her breath in one minute. She sits at the top of the brass table with a golden gele wrapped snug around her head. It seems to catch all the light in the room as it shimmers against her soft copper complexion.

I adjust the navy gele on my own head and try to appear regal, wishing the servant hadn’t wrapped it so tight. I can feel the blood being cut off from my brain as I attempt to look alert. Mother’s amber eyes scan the oloyes dressed in their finest, searching for the hyenaires hiding in the flock. Our female nobility paste on smiles, though I know they whisper about us behind our backs.

“I heard shes been pushed to western quarters—”

“Shes far too dark to be the king’s—”

“My servants swear the commanders carrying Saran’s child—”

They wear their secrets like glittering diamonds, embroidery woven through their lavish iro tops and long buba skirts. Their lies and lily-scented perfumes taint the honeyed aroma of sweet cakes I am no longer allowed to eat.

“And what is your opinion, Princess Amari?”

I snap my head up from the heavenly slice of pie to find Oloye Ronke studying me expectantly. Her emerald iro sparkles bright along her mahogany skin, chosen precisely for the way it shines against the white stucco of the tearoom walls.

“I beg your pardon?”

“On a visit to Zaria.” She leans forward until the fat ruby hanging from her throat grazes the table. The garish jewel serves as a constant reminder that Oloye Ronke wasn’t born with a seat at our table. She bought her way in.

“We would be honored to have you stay at our manor.” She fingers the large red gem, lips curving as she catches me staring. “I’m sure we could even find a jewel like this for you as well.”

“How kind of you,” I stall, tracing the path from Lagose to Zaria in my mind. Far past the Olasimbo Range, Zaria sits on the northern end of Orïsha, kissing the Adetunji Sea. My pulse quickens as I imagine visiting the world beyond the palace walls.

“Thank you,” I finally speak. “I would be honored—”

“But unfortunately Amari cannot,” Mother cuts in, frowning without the slightest hint of sadness. “She is in the thick of her studies and she’s already fallen behind in arithmetic. It would be far too disruptive to stop now.”

The excitement growing in my chest deflates. I poke at the uneaten pie on my plate. Mother rarely allows me to leave the palace. I should have known better than to hope.

“Perhaps in the future,” I say quietly, praying this small indulgence will not incite Mother’s wrath. “You must love living there—having the sea at your feet and the mountains at your back.”

“It’s just rocks and water.” Samara, Oloye Ronke’s eldest daughter, wrinkles her wide-set nose. “Nothing compared to this magnificent palace.” She flashes a smile at Mother, but her sweetness disappears when she turns back to me. “Besides, Zaria’s overrun with divîners. At least the maggots in Lagose know to stick to their slums.”

I tense at the cruelty of Samara’s words; they seem to hang above us in the air. I glance over my shoulder to see if Binta heard as well, but my oldest friend does not appear to be here. As the only divîner working in the upper palace, my chambermaid has always stood out, a living shadow forever by my side. Even with the bonnet Binta secures over her white hair, she’s still isolated from the rest of the serving staff.

“May I assist you, Princess?”

I turn over my other shoulder to see a servant I don’t recognize: a girl with chestnut skin and large, round eyes. She takes my half-empty cup and replaces it with another. I glance at the amber tea; if Binta were here, she would’ve snuck a spoonful of sugar into my cup when Mother wasn’t looking.

“Have you seen Binta?”

The girl draws back suddenly; her lips press together. “What is it?”

The girl opens her mouth, but her eyes dart around the women at the table. “Binta was summoned to the throne room, Your Highness. A few moments before the luncheon began.”

I frown and tilt my head. What could Father possibly want with Binta? Of all the servants in the palace, he never summons her. He rarely summons servants at all.

“Did she say why?” I ask.

The girl shakes her head. She lowers her voice, choosing each word with care. “No. But guards escorted her there.”

A sour taste crawls onto my tongue, bitter and dark as it travels down my throat. The guards in this palace do not escort. They take.

They demand.

The girl looks desperate to say more, but Mother shoots her a glare. Mother’s cold grip pinches my knee under the table.

“Stop talking to the help.”

I snap around and look down, hiding from Mother’s gaze. She narrows her eyes like a red-breasted firehawk on the hunt, just waiting for me to embarrass her again. But despite her frustration, I cannot get the thought of Binta out of my head. Father knows of our closeness—if he required something from her, why wouldn’t he go through me instead?

I stare out the paneled windows at the palace’s gardens as my questions grow, ignoring the empty laughter of the oloyes around me. With a lurch, the palace doors fly open.

My brother strides through.

Inan stands tall, handsome in his uniform as he prepares to lead his first patrol through Lagose. He beams among his fellow guards, his decorated helmet reflecting his recent promotion to captain. Everything he ever wanted. It’s all finally happening for him.

“Impressive, is he not?” Samara fixes her light brown eyes on my brother with a frightening lust. “Youngest captain in history. He will make an excellent king.”

“He will.” Mother glows, leaning in closer to the daughter she cannot wait to have. “Though I do wish the promotion was not accompanied by such violence. You never know what a desperate maggot might try with the crown prince.”

The oloyes nod and dispense useless opinions as I sip my tea in silence. They speak of our subjects with such levity, as if they were discussing the diamond-stitched geles sweeping Lagose’s fashion. I turn back to the servant who told me about Binta. Though she is far away from my table, a nervous tremble still rocks her hand. . . .

“Samara.” Mother’s voice breaks into my thoughts, pulling my focus back. “Have I mentioned how regal you look today?”

I bite my tongue and drain the rest of my tea. Though Mother says “regal,” the word “lighter” hides behind her lips.

Like Samara, Inan and I are marked with the blood of our father, noble lineage mixed with maji ancestors from a few gener- ations back. A failed attempt to restore magic to the monarchy through royal kosidán and maji marriages only served to lighten our black hair and darken a fraction of our ancestors’ skin.

Today the descendants of those nobles do whatever they can to hide the markers of their maji ancestry, dyeing their hair, using powders to lighten their pigmentation. As I peek at Samara from behind my cup, I’m struck by her new, soft brown complexion. It was only a few luncheons ago she shared her mother’s mahogany coloring.

“You are too kind, Your Majesty.” Samara looks down at her dress in false modesty, smoothing nonexistent wrinkles. “Thank you. Truly, your words mean the world.”

“You must share your beauty regimen with Amari.” Mother places a cold hand on my shoulder, fingers light against my darker copper skin. “She lounges in the gardens so often she’s beginning to look like a farmhand.” Mother laughs, as if a horde of servants don’t cover me with sunshades whenever I step outside. Like she didn’t coat me with powder before this very luncheon began, cursing the way my complexion makes the nobility gossip that she slept with a servant.

“That is not necessary, Mother.” I cringe, remembering the sharp pain and the vinegar stench of her last cosmetic concoction.

“Oh, it would be my pleasure.” Samara beams. “Yes, but—”

“Amari,” Mother cuts me off with a smile so tight it could split her skin. “She would love to, Samara, especially before courting begins.”

I try to swallow the lump in my throat, but the very act almost makes me choke. In that moment, the smell of vinegar becomes so strong I can already feel the searing on my skin.

“Do not worry.” Samara grips my hand in her own, misread- ing my distress. “You will grow to love courting. It really is quite fun.”

I force a smile and try to pull my hand away, but Samara tightens her hold, as if I am not allowed to let go. Her gold rings press into my skin, each band set with a special stone. One ring feeds into a delicate chain, connecting to a bangle adorned with our monarchy’s seal: a diamond-studded snow leopanaire. Samara wears the bangle with pride. No doubt a gift from Mother. In spite of myself, I admire its beauty. It has even more diamonds than min—

Skies . . .

Not mine. Not anymore.

A breath strangles inside my chest. Panic floods me as I remember what happened to my own bangle. The one I gave to Binta.

She did not want to take it; she feared the price of a gift from the throne. But Father raised the divîner taxes. If she didn’t sell my bangle, she and her family would’ve lost their home.

They must have found out, I realize. They must think Binta is a thief. That’s why she’s been summoned to the throne room. That’s why she needed to be escorted.

I jump out of my seat. The legs of my chair screech against the tiled floor. I can already see the guards holding out Binta’s delicate hands.

I can see Father swinging down his sword. “Pardon me,” I say as I step back.

“Amari, sit down.” “Mother, I—”

“Amari—” “Mother, please!” Too loud.

I know it the instant the words leave my mouth. My shrill voice bounces along the tearoom’s walls, quieting all conversation.

“M-my apologies,” I sputter. “I feel ill.”

With all eyes burning into my back, I scurry toward the door. I can feel the heat of Mother’s coming wrath, but I do not have time for that now. The moment the door shuts, I take off, hiking up my heavy gown. My heeled slippers clack against the tiled floors as I sprint through the halls.

How could I be so foolish? I chastise myself, swerving to avoid a servant. I should have left the moment that girl told me of Binta’s summoning. If the roles were reversed, Binta would not have wasted a heartbeat.

Oh skies, I curse, pushing myself faster. Past the slender vases of red impala lilies in the foyer, past the portraits of my royal ancestors glaring at me from generations past.

Please be okay. I hold on to the silent hope as I round the corner into the main hall. The air is thick with heat, making it even harder to breathe. My heart beats in my throat as I slow before Father’s throne room, the room I fear most. The place where he ordered Inan and I to spar.

The home of so many of my scars.

I grip the velvet curtains hanging outside the black oak doors. He may not listen. My sweat-covered hands soak into the rich fabric. I gave up the bangle. Father could punish me in Binta’s stead.

A pulse of fear travels down my spine, numbing my fingers.

Do this for Binta.

“For Binta,” I whisper out loud. My oldest friend. My only friend. I have to keep her safe.

I take a deep breath and wipe the sweat from my hands, savoring my last few seconds. My fingers barely graze the handle glistening behind the curtains when—

“What?”

Father’s voice booms through the closed doors like the roar of a wild gorillion. My heart pounds against my chest. I have heard Father yell before but never like this. Am I too late?

The door swings open and I jump back as a stream of guards and fanners sprint from the throne room like thieves on the run. They grab the remaining nobles and servants milling around the main hall and pull them away, leaving me all alone.

Go. My legs throb as the door starts to close. Father’s mood has already soured. But I have to find Binta. For all I know, she could be trapped inside.

I can’t let her face Father alone.

I lunge forward, catching the door just before it slips shut. I wedge my fingers into the frame and pull the door open a crack, peering through the slit.

“What do you mean?” Father shouts again, spittle flying onto his beard and his red agbada. Veins pulse under his mahogany skin.

I pull the door open a hair wider, fearing I’ll catch sight of Binta’s slender frame. But instead I see Admiral Ebele cowering before the throne. Beads of sweat gather on his bald head as he stares at everything except Father. Beside him, Commander Kaea stands tall, her hair falling down her neck in a tight, glossy braid.

“The artifacts washed ashore in Warri, a small village off the coast of the sea,” Kaea explains. “Their proximity activated latent abilities in a few of the local divîners.”

“Latent abilities?”

Kaea swallows; her muscles tense against her light brown skin. She gives Admiral Ebele a chance to talk, but the admiral stays silent.

“The divîners transformed.” Kaea winces, as if the words cause her physical pain. “The artifacts awakened their powers, Your Highness. The divîners became maji.”

I gasp but quickly cover my mouth to stifle the sound. Maji?

In Orïsha? After all this time?

A dull spike of fear travels up my chest, making each breath tight as I open the door a hair wider to get a better view. That cannot be, I wait for Father to say. That would be—

“Impossible,” he finally speaks, voice barely above a whisper. He grips the pommel of his black majacite blade so hard his knuckles crack.

“I am afraid not, Your Highness. I saw it with my own eyes.

Their magic was weak, but it was there.”

Skies . . .

What does this mean for us? What shall happen to the monarchy? Are the maji already planning an attack? Will we have any chance of fighting back?

Memories of Father before the Raid play in my head, a para- noid man with grinding teeth and forever graying hair. The man who forced Inan and me into the palace cellar, placing swords in our hands though we were far too young and weak to lift them. The maji will come for you, he warned. The same words every time he forced us to spar. When they do, you must be prepared. The memory of pain stabs my back as I study Father’s blanched face. His silence is more intimidating than his rage.

Admiral Ebele all but trembles. “Where are the maji now?” “Disposed of.”

My stomach clenches and I hold my breath, forcing the luncheon’s tea back down. Those maji are dead. Slaughtered.

Tossed to the bottom of the sea.

“And the artifacts?” Father presses, unfazed by the maji deaths. If he had his way, he’d probably “dispose” of the rest of them.

“I have the scroll.” Kaea reaches into her breastplate and pulls out a weathered parchment. “Once I discovered it, I took care of the witnesses and came straight here.”

“What of the sunstone?”

Kaea shoots Ebele a gaze so sharp it could draw blood. He clears his throat deeply, as if stretching out every last second before he delivers the news.

“The stone was stolen from Warri before we arrived, Your Highness. But we are tracking it. We have our best men on its path. I have no doubt we will recover it soon.”

Father’s rage simmers like heat rising through the air.

“You were tasked to destroy them,” he hisses. “How did this happen?”

“I tried, Your Highness! After the Raid, I tried for moons. I did everything I could to destroy them, but the artifacts were hexed.” Ebele’s eyes dart to Kaea, but she stares straight ahead. He clears his throat again. Sweat pools in the folds beneath his chin.

“When I ripped the scroll, it pieced itself back together. When I burned it, it formed again from the ashes. I had my strongest guard take a mace to the sunstone, and it did not even sustain a scratch! When those wretched artifacts wouldn’t break, I locked them in an iron chest and sank them in the middle of the Warri Sea. They could never have washed up on the coast! Not without mag—”

Ebele catches himself before uttering the word.

“I promise, Your Highness. I did what I could, but it would appear the gods have other plans.”

The gods? I lean in. Has Ebele’s mind gone to the skies? Gods don’t exist. Everyone in the palace knows that.

I wait for Father to react to Ebele’s foolishness, but his face remains even. He rises from his throne, calm and calculating. Then quick as a viper, he strikes, grabbing Ebele by the throat.

“Tell me, Admiral.” He raises Ebele’s body into the air and squeezes. “Whose plans do you fear more? The gods’? Or mine?”

I flinch, turning away as Ebele chokes for air. This is the side of Father I hate, the side I try so hard not to see.

“I—I promise,” Ebele wheezes. “I will fix it. I promise!”

Father drops him like a rotten piece of fruit. Ebele gasps and massages his neck, bruises already darkening his copper skin. Father turns back to the scroll in Kaea’s hand.

“Show me,” he commands.

Kaea gives a signal, motioning to someone outside my line of sight. Boots clank against the tiled floor. That’s when I see her.

Binta.

I clutch my chest as she’s dragged forward, tears gathering in her wide silver eyes. The bonnet she takes so much care to tie every day sits askew, revealing locks of her long white hair. Someone has gagged her with a scarf, making it impossible for her to shout. But if she could, who would help her? She’s already in the guards’ grasps.

Do something, I order myself. Now. But I cannot bring my legs to move. I cannot even feel my hands.

Kaea unrolls the scroll and walks forward slowly, as if approaching a wild animal. Not the sweet girl who has wiped my tears for so many years. The servant who saves all her palace rations so her family can enjoy one good meal.

“Raise her arm.”

Binta shakes her head as the guards yank up her wrist, her muffled cries breaking through the scarf. Though Binta resists, Kaea pushes the scroll into her grip.

Light explodes from Binta’s hand.

It coats the throne room in its magnificence—brilliant golds, shining purples, sparkling blues. The light arcs and shimmers as it cascades, a never-ending stream erupting from Binta’s palm.

“Skies,” I gasp, terror at war with the awe bubbling inside my chest.

Magic.

Here. After all these years . . .

Father’s old warnings of magic bloom inside my head, tales of battle and fire, darkness and disease. Magic is the source of all evil, he hisses. It will tear Orïsha apart.

Father always taught Inan and I that magic meant our deaths. A dangerous weapon threatening the peace in Orïsha. As long as it existed, our kingdom would always be at war.

In the darkest days following the Raid, magic took hold in- side my imagination, a monster without a face. But in Binta’s hands, magic is mesmerizing, a wonder like no other. The joy of the summer sun melting into twilight. The very essence and breath of life—

Father strikes fast. Quick like lightning. One moment Binta stands.

In the next, Father’s sword plunges through her chest.

No!

I clasp my hand to my mouth before I can scream, nearly falling onto my back. Nausea rises to my throat. Hot tears sting my eyes.

This isnt happening. The world starts to spin. This isnt real.

Binta is safe. She’s waiting with a loaf of sweet bread. She’s sitting in your room.

But my desperate thoughts do not change the truth. They do not bring back the dead.

Red seeps through the scarf binding Binta’s mouth. Crimson flowers stain her light blue dress.

I choke back another scream as her corpse thuds to the ground, heavy like lead.

Blood pools around Binta’s innocent face, dyeing her white locks scarlet. Its copper smell wafts through the crack in the door. I stifle a gag.

Father yanks off Binta’s apron and uses it to clean his sword. Completely at ease. He doesn’t care that her blood stains his royal robes.

He doesn’t see that her blood stains my own hands.

I scramble backward onto my feet, tripping over the hem of my dress. I rush up the stairwell at the corner of the main hall, my legs shaking with every step. My vision blurs as I fight to make it to my quarters, but it’s all I can do to rush over to a vase. I grab onto the ceramic rim. Everything inside me comes back up.

The bile stings something fierce, bitter with acid and tea. The first sob breaks free as my body collapses. I clutch my chest.

If Binta were here, she would be the one to come to my rescue. She would take my hand and guide me to my quarters, sit me on my bed, and wipe my tears. She would take all the shattered pieces of my heart and find a way to make them whole again.

I choke back another sob and cover my mouth, salty tears leaking through my fingers. The stench of blood fills my nose. The memory of Father’s blade stabs again—

The throne room doors slam open. I jump to my feet, fearing it’s Father. Instead, one of the guards who restrained Binta leaves.

The scroll sits in his hands.

I stare at the weathered parchment as he climbs the stairs, recalling how just one touch made the world explode with light.

Light trapped inside my dear friend’s soul, unbelievably beautiful, eternally bold.

I turn away as the soldier nears, hiding my tearstained face. “Forgive me, I’m unwell,” I murmur. “I must have eaten some rotten fruit.”

The guard barely nods, distracted as he ascends the stairs. He grips the scroll so hard his knuckles darken, as if afraid of what the magical parchment will do if he doesn’t. I watch as he walks to the third floor and pushes a painted black door open. Suddenly I realize where he’s headed.

Commander Kaea’s quarters.

Seconds ache by as I watch the door, waiting, though I do not know why. Waiting will not bring Binta back, allow me to en- joy her melodic laugh. But still I wait, freezing when the door reopens. I turn back to the vase and retch once more, not stop- ping until the guard passes me again. His metal-soled boots clink as he heads back down to the throne room. The scroll is no longer in his grip.

With shaking hands, I wipe my tears, no doubt smearing the paints and powders Mother forced onto my face. I run my palm over my mouth, taking any remnants of vomit away. Questions fill my mind as I rise and approach Kaea’s door. I should con- tinue to my quarters.

Yet I step inside.

The door shuts behind me with a loud thud and I jump, wary that someone will seek out the source of the sound. I have never stepped foot in Commander Kaea’s quarters. I don’t even think the servants are allowed in here.

My eyes comb the burgundy walls, so different from the lavender paint that covers my own. A royal cloak lies at the foot of Kaea’s bed. Father’s cloak . . . He must have left it behind.

On another day the realization that Father was in Kaea’s quarters would’ve made me faint, but I can barely feel anything now. The discovery of Father’s cloak pales in comparison to the scroll sitting on Kaea’s desk.

I step toward it, legs throbbing as if approaching the edge of a cliff. I expect to feel some aura in the scroll’s presence, yet the air surrounding it remains dead. I reach out, but pause, swallowing the fear that begins to swell. I see the light that exploded from Binta’s hands.

The sword that pierced through her chest.

I push myself, reaching out again with the very ends of my fingertips. When they brush the scroll, I close my eyes.

No magic comes forth.

The breath I did not realize I was holding rushes out as I pick up the wrinkled parchment. I unroll the scroll and trace the strange symbols, trying in vain to make sense of them. The symbols look like nothing I have ever seen, no language ever covered in my studies. Yet they are symbols that maji died for.

Symbols that might as well be written in Binta’s blood.

A breeze flutters from the open windows, stirring the locks of hair that have fallen out from my loosened gele. Underneath the flowing curtains, Kaea’s military supplies sit: sharpened swords, panthenaire reins, brass chest plates. My eyes settle on the spools of rope. I knock my gele to the floor.

Without thinking, I grab Father’s robe.

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