Raybearer Page 2

The Lady dips an emerald cuff into the water. She murmurs over the jewel, kissing it tenderly, and the emerald glows and fades. Then she sets the cuff down and calls out, “Melu.” My mother tastes the word on her full lips, drawing out the syllables like a song. “Melu, my dear. Won’t you come out and play?”

The clearing is silent. The Lady laughs, a deep, throaty sound. “The seers say that alagbatos dislike humans. Some doubt you even exist, Great Melu, guardian of Swana. But I think you do hear.” She produces a green vial from her pocket and tips it precariously toward the pool. “I think you hear just fine.”

A hot wind rushes into the clearing, swirling up dirt and clay into a tall, lean man. His wings smolder cobalt blue, like a young fire, but his voice is frost cold. “Stop.”

“I would tell you my name,” The Lady tells him. “But as you know, my father never gave me one.” She pauses, still dangling that vial over the pool. “How quickly does abiku blood spread through earth and water, Melu? How much would poison every living thing within a fifty-mile radius? Two drops? Three?”

“Don’t,” Melu barks. “Wait.”

The Lady points to the emerald cuff.

Melu’s features contort with defeat. Stone-jawed, he picks up the cuff and snaps it on his forearm.

“If I’ve done that right,” says The Lady, “you are no longer Swana’s alagbato. You are my ehru … my djinn.”

“Three wishes,” Melu spits. “And I am bound to this grassland until your wishes are complete.”

“How convenient.” The Lady sits, thoughtfully dangling her muscular brown legs in the water. “Melu, I wish for a stronghold that no one may see or hear unless I desire it. A place my friends and I will always be safe. A place … befitting royalty. That is my first command.”

Melu blinks. “It is done.”


“A mile from here.” Melu points, and the newly blossomed plaster walls of Bhekina House shimmer in the distance.

The Lady glows with pleasure. “Now,” she breathes, “I wish for Olugbade’s death—”

“Not allowed,” Melu snaps. “Life and death are beyond my power. Especially that life. Even fairies may not kill a Raybearer.”

The Lady’s mouth hardens, then relaxes. “I thought that might be the case,” she says. “Fine. I wish for a child who will do, think, and feel as I tell it. An extension of myself. A gifted child, sure to stand out in a contest of talent. This is my second command.”

“Not allowed,” Melu intones again. “I cannot force a human to love or hate. You may not own a child as you own an ehru.”

“Can’t I?” The Lady steeples her fingers in thought. A smile spreads across her face, and her teeth are coldly white.

“What if,” she says, “my child was an ehru? What if my child was yours?”

Melu grows as rigid as a tree in dry season. “Such a union would go against nature. You are human, not of my kind. You ask for an abomination.”

“Oh no, Melu.” The Lady’s brilliant black eyes dance over the ehru’s horrified ones. “I command that abomination.”

They performed a ritual then, one I didn’t understand at seven years old. It looked painful, the way his body folded over hers in the grass. Two species never meant to unite, dissimilar as flesh against metal. But the memory told me that nine months later, my infant cries rang through Bhekina House. And The Lady’s third ungranted wish—her abomination—ran through my veins.

“Do you understand now?” Melu muttered over my drowsy form, once the memory had run its course. “Until you grant her third wish, neither you nor I will be free.” He touched my forehead with a long, slender finger. “I bargained with The Lady for the privilege of naming you Tarisai. It is a Swana name: behold what is coming. Your soul is hers for now. But your name, I insisted, must be your own.”

He sounded far away. Stealing The Lady’s story had exhausted me. I barely sensed Melu cradle me in his narrow arms, soar through the night, and deposit me back at the palisade gates of Bhekina House. He whispered, “I’ve been bound to this savannah for seven years. For my sake, I hope that woman claims her wish. But for your sake, daughter, I hope that day never comes.” Then servants clambered toward the gates, and Melu was gone.

A dozen anxious hands put me to bed, and syrupy voices soothed me when I babbled about Melu the next day. It was all a dream, the tutors said. But their dilated pupils and terse smiles told a different story. My adventure had confirmed their most sinister suspicions.

My mother was the devil, and I, her puppet demon.

THE SWANA GRASSLANDS WERE WARM EVEN in the rainy season. But the air around me always chilled. As birthdays passed—eight, nine, ten—I shivered through Bhekina House, coddled by servants who never broke the surface of my bubble. Sometimes I longed for human touch so much, I would bend my cheek to open flames. The tendrils would sear my skin, but I would smile, pretending to feel The Lady’s fingers.

Eventually, I fell in the kitchen firepit by accident. The servants dragged me out, sobbing, shrieking prayers to Am the Storyteller. I shook all over and rasped, “I can’t die, I can’t die, Mother’s going to come back, so I can’t die.”

But I had not burned. My clothes hung in ruined smolders, but my coily black hair had not even singed.

As my maids looked on in shock, I remembered the wording from The Lady’s wish for Bhekina House: a place my friends and I will always be safe.

“It’s Mother,” I said breathlessly. “She protected me.”

From that day on, I multiplied the gray hairs of my servants by jumping off walls, submerging my head in buckets of water, and catching venomous spiders, encouraging them to bite.

“I didn’t die,” I would laugh as the servants set my broken bones and poured antidotal teas down my throat.

“Yes,” a nursemaid would say through gritted teeth. “That’s because we reached you in time.”

“No,” I would insist dreamily. “It’s because my mother loves me.”

My tutors grew more relentless. The sooner they could make me into what The Lady wanted, after all, the sooner they would be rid of me. So the lessons continued, lectures droning in my ears like gadflies. Ink fumes stung my nose each day, and the scent of jasmine haunted me each night. But Melu’s memory had awoken a hunger inside me, one the mango orchards of Bhekina House could not satiate. I dreamed and lusted for the world beyond the gate.

An enormous globe rested on a wooden stand in my study. Jagged continents curved around a deep blue ocean I had never seen. The largest continent, which included Swana, was a patchwork of savannahs, forests, deserts, and snowy tundras. This was Aritsar, my tutors said. The Deathless Arit empire, may Kunleo live forever.

Most of the history scrolls in my study were edited. My tutors would blot out lines and sometimes whole pages with black ink, refusing to tell me why. Once, I managed to hold papers to the light, reading several paragraphs before a tutor snatched them away.

Long ago, the papers said, Aritsar had not existed. In its place, a jumble of isolated islands had floated on a vast sea. The twelve weak, rivaling lands were ravaged by abiku: demons from the Underworld. Then a warlord named Enoba “the Perfect” Kunleo had unleashed a power from the earth, uniting the lands into one massive continent. He had crowned himself emperor, enlisting twelve of the continent’s rulers as his vassals. Then he battled the abiku with his newly christened Army of Twelve Realms. The mortal and immortal armies had been so evenly matched that Enoba’s war dragged on for decades before, at last, the exhausted forces struck a truce.

Enoba was celebrated as Aritsar’s savior. The continent rulers credited him for bringing peace, and so, for centuries, his line had ruled Aritsar from their home realm of Oluwan, uniting twelve cultures in a network of art, science, and trade. Whenever caravans passed by Bhekina House, I heard merchant families singing of the empire, rocking infants on their hips as children skipped across the savannah:

Oluwan and Swana bring his drum; nse, nse

Dhyrma and Nyamba bring his plow; gpopo, gpopo

Mewe and Sparti see our older brother dance—

Black and gold, isn’t he perfect!

Quetzala sharpens his spear; nse, nse

Blessid Valley weaves his wrapper; gpopo, gpopo

Nontes and Biraslov see our older brother dance!

Black and gold, isn’t he perfect?

Djbanti braids his hair; nse, nse

Moreyao brings his gourd; gpopo, gpopo

Eleven moons watch our older brother dance:

Black and gold, isn’t he perfect?

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