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Baba says only wicked things happen after midnight, but I know better.
I hold my breath, relieved the front door doesn’t creak as I nudge it open and relish the evening breeze on my skin. This late, its scent is distinct, a sharp blend of ozone and pine. I glance over my shoulder. In the next room, my parents are fast asleep; Mama’s snores are gentle, my father’s thunderous. It’s easy to envision them, two brown bodies curled against each other under a threadbare blanket, both worn out from a hard day’s work in the harvesting fields. I don’t want to wake them. Perhaps in the repose of their dreams, their daughter is different, a responsible girl instead of one who sneaks out. Sometimes I wish I was that responsible girl. I hesitate a second longer before slipping into the embrace of night.
Outside, the air is temperate, the rolling gray clouds overhead thick with the promise of monsoon season, but Lkossa remains a city bathed in silver moonlight, more than enough for me. I weave through its empty roads, darting between the flickers of sconce-lit streets, and pray I don’t run into one of the patrolling Sons of the Six. It isn’t likely I’d get in trouble if the city’s anointed warriors caught me, but they’d almost certainly make me turn back, and I don’t want to. It’s a rare pleasure to walk here without whispers following in my wake, and there’s another reason not to be sent home yet: Dakari is waiting for me.
I note the new cloth banners decorating most of the city as I trek north, braided together in ropes of green, blue, and gold—green for the earth, blue for the sea, gold for the gods. Some hang limp from laundry lines as thin and worn as thread; others are nailed clumsily to the doors of modest mud-brick homes not so unlike my own. It’s an endearing effort. In a few hours, once the dawn breaks anew, citizens will gather to begin their observance of the Bonding, a holy day in which we celebrate our connection to the gods of this land. Vendors will peddle amulets for the reverent and give away pouches of throwing rice for the children. The recently appointed Kuhani will offer blessings from the temple, and musicians will fill the streets with their discordant symphony. Knowing Mama, she’ll make roasted sweet potatoes drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon, like she always does on special occasions. Baba will probably surprise her with a small gift he saved up for—and she’ll probably tell him he shouldn’t have. I ignore a small pang in my chest as I think about Tao, wondering if he’ll stop by our house like he normally does for holidays. I’m not actually sure he will this time; Tao and I haven’t been speaking lately.
The city darkens as I reach its border, a wide dirt clearing a few yards wide that separates Lkossa from the first of the Greater Jungle’s towering black pines. They seem to watch my approach with an immemorial regard, as stoic as the goddess said to dwell among them. Not everyone would dare to venture here—some believe the jungle isn’t safe—but I don’t mind it. My eyes search the expanse in anticipation, but when I realize I’m alone, I have to quell a fleeting disappointment. Dakari had said to meet him at this exact spot just after midnight, but he’s not here. Perhaps he’s running late, maybe he’s decided not to—
My heart stutters in my chest at the familiar nickname, and a dull flush heats my skin despite the evening chill as a figure peels away from one of the nearby pines to step into better light.
It’s hard to make out all his details in the night, but my imagination can fill in the gaps just fine. Half his face is dipped in moonlight, tracing along the sharp cut of his jaw, the easy bend in his broad shoulders. He’s taller than me, with the lean build of a runner. His golden-brown skin is several shades lighter than mine, and his hair, raven-black, is freshly cut in a top fade. He looks like a god, and—judging by the cocky grin he gives me—he knows it.
In a few confident strides, he closes the gap between us, and the air around me immediately fills with the smell of him: steel and dirt and leather from his apprenticeship in the forges of the Kughushi District. He gives me a once-over, visibly impressed.
“Of course.” I make myself sound at ease. “We said just after midnight, didn’t we?”
“We did.” His chuckle is low, almost musical. “So, are you ready to see the surprise?”
“Are you kidding?” My laugh echoes his own. “I’ve been waiting for this all day. It had better be worth it.”
“Oh, it is.” Abruptly, his expression turns more serious. “Now, you have to promise to keep this secret. I’ve never shown anyone else.”
This surprises me. Dakari is, after all, attractive and popular; he has lots of friends. Lots of girl friends, specifically. “You mean, you haven’t shown anyone at all?”
“No,” he says quietly. “This is really special to me, and I . . . I guess I’ve just never really trusted someone else enough to share it.”
At once, I straighten, hoping I look mature, like the kind of girl who can be trusted. “I won’t tell anyone,” I whisper. “I promise.”
“Good.” Dakari winks, gesturing all around us. “Then, without further ado, here it is!”
I wait a beat before frowning, confused. Dakari’s arms are extended like he’s about to take flight, his expression absolutely jubilant. Clearly, he likes whatever he’s seeing, but I can’t see anything at all.
“Um . . .” After a few more uncomfortable seconds, I break the silence. “Sorry, am I missing something?”
Dakari glances my way, eyes dancing with amusement. “You mean you can’t feel it around us, the splendor?”
The moment the words leave his lips, there’s a thrum deep in my core. It’s like the first pluck of a kora string, and it reverberates through my entire body. And then I understand, of course. Foreigners call it magic; my people call it the splendor. I can’t see it, but I sense it—a great deal of it—moving just beneath the dirt like ripples in a pond. There’s far more here than I’ve ever felt practicing with the other darajas on the temple’s lawns.
“How . . . ?” I’m afraid to even move, to disturb whatever this strange wonder is. “How is there so much of it here?”
“It’s a rare, natural occurrence, only happens once a century.” Dakari’s eyes are closed like he’s savoring a forbidden fruit. “This is why the day of the Bonding is so special, Songbird.”
I look around us, astonished. “I thought the Bonding was symbolic, a day of reverence for—”
Dakari shakes his head. “It’s far more than a day for symbolism. In a few hours, an immeasurable amount of splendor will rise to the earth’s surface. The power will be glorious to behold, though I doubt most people will be able to feel it the way you can.” He throws me a sly, knowing look. “After all, few darajas are as gifted as you.”
Something pleasant squirms inside me at the compliment. Dakari isn’t like most people in Lkossa. He isn’t scared of me, or of what I can do. He isn’t intimidated by my abilities.
“Close your eyes.” The words are less a command and more an invitation when Dakari says them. “Go on, try it.”
I follow his lead and close my eyes. My bare toes wriggle, and the splendor responds as though it was only waiting for me to make the first move. It tingles as it flows through me, filling me like steeped honeybush tea poured into black porcelain. It’s divine.
“Songbird.” In my new darkness, Dakari’s voice is barely audible, but I hear the emotion in it, the want. “Open your eyes.”
I do, and the breath leaves my body.
Concentrated particles of the splendor are floating around us, sparkling like diamonds turned to dust. I feel a million of their tiny pulses in the air, and in the moment their collective heartbeat finds my own, I also feel a distinct sense of connection to them. The red dirt at my feet shifts as more of it rises from the ground, dancing up my limbs and seeping into my very bones. A current of its energy runs the length of me, intoxicating. I instantly crave more of it. Beside me, something tickles my ear. Dakari. I hadn’t noticed him moving closer to me. When he leans in and one hand finds the small of my back, I barely resist a shiver.
“Imagine what you could do with this.” His fingers interlaced with mine are warm, his lips soft against my cheek. I think of them, so close to my own, and forget how to breathe. “Imagine what you could make people see with this kind of power. You could show everyone that the splendor isn’t dangerous, just misunderstood. You could prove they were wrong about everything, about you.”
You could prove they were wrong. I swallow, remembering. The memories come in an onslaught—the brothers of the temple and their scoldings, the children who run when they see me, the gossiping elders. I think of Mama and Baba back home in their bed, fast asleep. My parents love me, I know, but even they whisper to each other when they think I’m not listening. Everyone is afraid of me and of what I can do, but Dakari . . . He isn’t afraid. He’s believed in me all along. He was the first person to really see all of me. In his eyes, I’m not a girl to be chastised but a woman to be respected. He understands me, he gets me, he loves me.
I love him.
The splendor before us has taken clearer shape now, forming a towering column of white-gold light that seems to stretch into a realm beyond the sky. It emits a low hum. I could touch it if I reached out. I start to, when—
A different voice fractures the peace—one full of fear—and I tear my gaze away from the splendor. Dakari’s hand tightens around mine, but I pull away and search the clearing around us until I find a skinny boy in a dirt-smudged tunic. His short dreadlocks are bed-tousled, and he’s standing yards away with the city at his back, holding his knees like he’s been running. I didn’t see him arrive, and I don’t know how long he’s been here. His eyes are wide with horror. He knows me, and I know him.
“Adiah.” My best friend doesn’t call me Songbird—he uses my real name. His voice is hoarse, desperate. “Please don’t touch it. It’s . . . it’s dangerous.”
Tao loves me too, and in a way I love him back. He is smart and funny and kind. He’s been like a brother to me all my life. I hate hurting him. I hate that we haven’t been speaking.
“I—” Something catches in my throat, and Tao’s words echo in the space between us. Dangerous. He doesn’t want me to touch the splendor because he thinks it’s dangerous. He thinks I’m dangerous, just like everyone else does. But he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t get it. Dakari hasn’t said anything, but now his voice fills my head.
You could prove they were wrong.
I realize I can, and I will.
“I’m sorry.” The words leave me, but they’re swallowed by the sudden roar of the splendor. The column has grown bigger and louder; it drowns out Tao’s reply. I watch the light of it illuminate his face, the tears on his cheeks, and try to ease that same pang in my chest. My friend knows I’ve made my choice. Perhaps it doesn’t matter now, but I hope one day he’ll forgive me.
I close my eyes again as my fingers reach to brush the closest fragments of the splendor. This time, at my touch, they course through my veins in an eager, heady rush. My eyes open wide as they consume me, the wonder of it so enthralling that I barely register the pain until it’s too late.