A Song of Wraiths and Ruin – Roseanne A. Brown

“Abraa! Abraa! Come and gather—a story is about to begin!” The griot’s voice warbled through the scorching desert air, cutting through the donkey pens and jeweled caravans that populated the tent settlement outside the city-state of Ziran’s Western Gate. On instinct, Malik angled his body toward the storyteller’s call, his grip tightening around the satchel strap slung across his chest. The griot was a stout woman nearly a head shorter than Malik, with a face stretched wide in a tooth-baring grin. Bone-white tattoos composed of symbols Malik could not understand swirled on every inch of her dark brown skin. “Abraa! Abraa! Come and gather—a story is about to begin!” The steady rhythm of a djembe drum now accompanied the griot’s call, and within minutes a sizable crowd had formed beneath the baobab tree where she stood. It was the perfect time for a story too—that hour when dusk met night and the little sunlight that remained left the sky bright but the world below dark. The audience sat on overturned crates and between worn carts, checking the heavens every few minutes for Bahia’s Comet, even though its arrival and the start of the festival of Solstasia were still hours away. The griot called a third time, and Malik took another step toward her, then another. When the Zirani had occupied his home in the Eshran Mountains, the griots had been the first to go, but the few who remained had carved their marks into Malik’s soul. To listen to a griot was to enter a new world, one where heroes danced across the heavens with spirits in their wake and gods churned mountains into being with a flick of their wrists. Malik’s body seemed to move forward of its own accord, caught on the hypnotic lure of the woman’s voice. He and his sisters had been traveling the Odjubai Desert for two months now, with no company aside from the creaking of the false wagon bottom they hid beneath, the howling cries of the wind shifting through the dunes, and the quiet whimpers of his fellow refugees. Surely there’d be no harm in listening to just one story and letting himself forget for just a moment that they had no home to return to and no— “Malik, look out!” A strong hand grabbed Malik by the collar, and he stumbled backward. Not even a second later, a leathery foot the size of a small cow slammed to the ground right where he had been standing. A shadow passed over Malik’s face as the chipekwe lumbered by, throwing sand and pebbles into the air with each thundering step.

Malik had heard stories of chipekwes as a child, but none of the tales had captured the creatures’ gargantuan size. Bred to hunt elephants on the savanna, the top of its plated head could have easily cleared the roof of his family’s old farmhouse, and the sharp horn protruding from the creature’s nose was nearly as large as he was. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” snapped Leila as the chipekwe’s shadow passed. His older sister glared at him over the bridge of her crooked nose. “Watch where you’re going!” Reality returned to Malik like drops of water from a rusty faucet, and slowly the call to story was drowned out by cries of caravan drivers to their beasts, melodies from musicians regaling audiences with tales of Solstasias past, and other sounds of the settlement. Several people had stopped to stare at the idiot boy who had almost gotten himself trampled to death, and the weight of their gazes sent heat rushing to Malik’s face. He twisted the worn leather of his satchel strap until it bit into the flesh of his palm. Shadows flickered in his peripheral vision, and Malik squeezed his eyes shut until his head hurt. “I’m sorry,” he muttered quietly. A small head surrounded by a cloud of bouncy, dark curls popped out from behind Leila.

“Did you see that?” exclaimed Nadia. His younger sister’s mouth hung open in wonder. “It was, like—like a million feet tall! Is it here for Solstasia? Can I touch it?” “It’s most likely here for Solstasia because everyone’s here for Solstasia. And don’t touch anything,” said Leila. She turned back to Malik. “And you of all people should know better than to just wander off like that.” Malik’s grip on his satchel strap tightened. There was no use trying to explain to his older sister the power a call to story had over him. While he was prone to dreaming and wandering, Leila preferred logic and plans. They saw the world differently, in more ways than one.

“I’m sorry,” Malik repeated, his eyes planted firmly on the ground. The sunburned tops of his sandaled feet stared back at him, blistered from months of travel in shoes never meant for such a task. “Blessed Patuo give me strength. Taking you two anywhere is like herding a couple of headless chickens.” Malik winced. Leila had to be really upset if she was invoking the name of her patron deity. She extended Malik her left hand, the palm bearing the emblem that marked her as Moon-Aligned. “Come on. Let’s go before you get sat on by an elephant.” Nadia giggled, and Malik bristled at the jab, but he still obediently took Leila’s hand.

His other hand he offered to Nadia, who took it without hesitation. No one batted an eye as Malik and his sisters maneuvered their way through the tens of thousands of people who had flocked to Ziran for Solstasia. Refugees existed by the hundreds in the settlement outside Ziran, with dozens more arriving each day; three new ones, young and unaccompanied as they were, hardly made a difference. “Solstasia afeshiya! Solstasia afeshiya!” The cry came from everywhere and nowhere, a call to celebration in a language older than Ziran itself. In a few hours, Bahia’s Comet, named for the first sultana of Ziran, would appear in the sky for an entire week, marking the end of the current era and the beginning of the next. During this time, the Zirani held a festival known as Solstasia, where seven Champions—one to represent each of the patron deities—would face three challenges. They would know which god was meant to rule over the next era by the winning Champion. “Imagine every carnival and every masquerade and every festival in all the world happening all at once,” Nana had once said, and though his grandmother was in a refugee camp hundreds of miles away, Malik could almost feel the warmth of her wizened brown hands against his cheek, her dark eyes bright with knowledge he could hardly fathom. “Even that is nothing compared to a single hour of Solstasia.” Though Leila did not move particularly fast, within minutes sweat poured down Malik’s back and his breath came out in short, painful bursts.

Their travels had left his already frail body a weakened shell of itself, and now splotches of purple and green danced in Malik’s eyes with each step he took beneath the unforgiving desert sun. They were headed for six identical wooden platforms in a wide clearing, where Zirani officials and soldiers screened the people entering the city. Each platform was twice the size of a caravan wagon, and the travelers, merchants, and refugees populating the settlement shuffled around them, all trying to pass through the checkpoint while drawing as little attention to themselves as possible. “Traders and groups of five or more to the right! Individuals and groups of four or less to the left,” called an official. Though Zirani soldiers milled about in their silver-and-maroon armor, Malik saw no Sentinels. Good—the absence of Ziran’s elite warriors was always a welcome sight. Malik glanced upward at the structure towering ahead. Unlike the chipekwe, the old stories had not undersold Ziran’s size. The Outer Wall stretched as far as the eye could see, fading into a shimmering mirage at the edge of the horizon. Seven stories of ancient sandstone and mudbrick loomed over the settlement, with the Western Gate a dark brown horseshoe-shaped deviation in the red stone.

In order to take advantage of the excited crowds, vendors had set up stalls along the path to the city, shouting increasingly hectic promises to any person who passed. Goods of all kinds spilled from their shelves—ebony prayer statues of the Great Mother and the seven patron deities, ivory horns that bellowed louder than an elephant, tinkling charms to ward off spirits and the grim folk. Though customers swarmed over the stands, most left the latter untouched; supernatural beings, known as the grim folk, were the stuff of stories whispered on dark nights, nothing more. Malik knew from experience that the charms never worked and oftentimes left one’s skin itchy and green. At the thought of the grim folk, Malik checked over his shoulder again, but there were only people behind him. He had to relax and stop acting like imaginary monsters might grab him at any second. All he had to focus on now was getting into Ziran with the forged passage papers in his satchel. Then he and Leila would find work in one of the thousands of positions that had opened up thanks to Solstasia, and they’d make enough money to buy passage papers for Mama and Nana as well. But what if they didn’t? Malik’s breath shortened at the thought, and the shadows in the corners of his vision danced again. As the world began to swim around him, he shut his eyes and repeated the mantra his mother had taught him when his panic attacks had first begun all those years ago.

Breathe. Stay present. Stay here. As long as they drew no attention to themselves, looked at no one, and spoke to no one, they should be fine. It was just a crowd. Walking through it couldn’t kill him, even if his palms had gone slick with sweat and his heart threatened to beat out of his chest. “Hey.” Nadia tugged on Malik’s pants leg with her free hand, then pointed to the cloth goat whose head poked out of the front of her faded djellaba. “Gege wants to know if I get to have your bag if the chipekwe steps on you next time.” Despite the panic roiling in his stomach, Malik gave a small smile.

“Gege is a bad influence. You shouldn’t listen to her.” “Gege said you’d say that,” Nadia muttered with the kind of gravitas only a six-year-old could muster, and Malik laughed, calm flooding through him. No matter what happened, he had his sisters. As long as they were together, everything would be all right. They took their place in line behind a woman with several baskets of papayas balanced on her head, and only then did Leila let go of Malik. “And here we are! Now we wait.” It seemed they would be waiting for quite a while. Though the settlement bustled with energy, the actual lines going into Ziran were painfully slow. A few groups ahead of them had even set up camp for the night, and looked in no hurry to move forward.

Nadia wrinkled her nose. “Can I look at the booths?” “No,” said Leila as she smoothed a crease out of her blue headscarf. “But the line’s not even moving!” “I said no.” Nadia puffed out her cheeks, and Malik could sense the tantrum brewing. Though Leila meant well, dealing with small children was not her strong suit, so it was Malik who bent down to Nadia’s eye level and pointed to the Outer Wall. “Do you see that?” Nadia’s head snapped upward. “See what?” “Up there, at the very top of the highest tower.” Even the Outer Wall had been decorated in honor of Solstasia, with banners hanging from the towers depicting each of the seven patron deities—from Gyata the Lion, who ruled over the Sun Alignment, to Adanko the Hare, Malik’s patron, who ruled over the Life Alignment. Each patron deity ruled over a single day of the week, and when a child was born, the midwife would carve the emblem of one of the seven gods into their left palm so every person could know their Alignment. It was said that a person’s Alignment decided every major moment of their life, from what kinds of work they’d be most suited for to who they were destined to spend their life with.

Nadia’s mouth fell open as she regarded the Sun Alignment banner hanging from the wall. “That’s my emblem!” “It is,” said Malik. “Gyata is watching everyone who’s Sun-Aligned to see who the next Sun Champion should be. But he’s not going to choose you if you cry.” “I won’t cry!” Nadia picked a stick off the ground and brandished it in the air. “And then, when Gyata chooses me as a Champion, I’m going to live at the palace with the sultana, and I’m going to eat whatever I want, and I’m going to ask Princess Karina to make it illegal for me to stand in a line ever again!” “I don’t think the princess makes laws.” Nadia’s cheeks puffed out once again, and not for the first time, Malik was struck by how alike they looked—the same coarse, black hair that fought any brush that tried to go through it, same tawnybrown skin, same wide black eyes that looked surprised no matter their owner’s mood. Moon owl eyes, Papa used to call them, and for half a heartbeat, Malik missed his father so much he couldn’t breathe. “Well, what would you do if you met the princess?” demanded Nadia. What would he do if he met Princess Karina? Malik pushed away the painful thoughts of his missing parent to consider the question.

One of the biggest perks of becoming a Solstasia Champion was living at the royal palace for the duration of the festival. Though Malik would never admit it out loud, he had fantasized once or twice about becoming a Champion and representing his Alignment for all the world to see. But it was a useless fantasy, as no Eshran had been chosen as a Champion since the Zirani occupation more than two hundred and fifty years ago. Besides, rumor had it that Princess Karina Alahari was a volatile, irresponsible girl who was only heiress to the throne because her older sister had died in a fire nearly ten years ago. Princess or not, Malik wanted nothing to do with someone like that. “I don’t think the princess and I would get along very well,” said Malik. Nadia huffed. “You’re boring!” She jabbed Malik in the gut, and he fell over in exaggerated pain. “Ow! I yield!” he cried. “If I tell you a story, will you stop trying to kill me?” “I’ve heard all your stories already.

” Malik brushed the curls from Nadia’s eyes. She had always been small for her age; now, after months of malnutrition, she was so tiny that Malik sometimes feared a strong enough breeze might carry her away forever. “Have you heard the one about the little girl on the moon?” Nadia’s mouth fell open. “There’s a little girl on the moon?” Malik nodded, twisting his face into a look of comedic seriousness. “Yes. Her older brother put her there because she wouldn’t stop pouting.” He punctuated the last word by flicking Nadia’s nose, earning an outraged giggle. Because Papa had left less than a year after Nadia’s birth, it had been Malik who had taken care of her while Mama, Nana, and Leila had worked the fields. He knew her better than anyone, like how she would drop everything to listen to a story, same as him. In the wagon, Malik had entertained her with tale after tale of the trickster heroine, Hyena, and when he’d run out of those, he’d created his own drawn from all the legends he’d absorbed over the years.

He’d spun stories until his throat grew raw, anything to keep Nadia from crumbling under the weight of their situation. Once again Malik gazed up in wonder at Ziran. Though the Eshran Mountains were part of the Zirani Territories, few Eshrans ever got to see the famed city itself. The price of passage papers was too high and the approval rates for said papers too low, to say nothing of the dangers that lurked in the Odjubai. Ziran may control every aspect of Eshran life down to who could live in which village, but Ziran itself had never been meant for Malik’s people to enjoy. But there they were, standing at the foot of the greatest city in the world. All those nights spent huddling with his sisters under worm-eaten blankets, fighting off the biting winds and the wailing cries of people being treated like animals all around them. The soul-aching fear that he would never see their birthplace ever again—all that had been worth it. In fact, he’d yet to see even a hint of the . creatures that had plagued him back in Oboure.

They were safe now. Malik’s thoughts were cut off by a commotion from the line directly to the left of theirs as a battered cart pulled by a mangy donkey reached the platform. The old man driving it handed a stack of documents to the soldier overseeing the platform while the man’s family nervously peered out from the back. Malik’s blood ran cold as he recognized the familiar symbols drawn on the side of the cart —geometric patterns native to Eshra. The soldier riffled through the thin stack of papers with deliberate precision. Then he raised the hilt of his sword and bashed it against the old man’s skull. “No Eshrans, with or without papers!” No Eshrans. The world swam once more, but Malik forced himself to remain upright. They were all right. Their papers listed them as a trio of siblings from Talafri, a city well within the Zirani border.

As long as their accents didn’t slip, no one would know they were Eshran as well. The family’s screams resounded through the air as the soldiers took the old man’s body and led the cart away from the checkpoint. In the chaos, no one noticed a single person falling out of the cart onto the dry ground. The child could not have been older than Nadia, yet every person ignored him as they fought to take his family’s place in line. Malik’s heart nearly broke into two. What if that had been Nadia lying there in the dirt with no one to help her? The mere thought made Malik’s chest constrict painfully, and his eyes kept wandering back to the boy. Leila followed Malik’s line of vision and frowned. “Don’t.” But Malik was already moving. In seconds, he was hauling the boy to his feet.

“Are you all right?” Malik asked as he checked the boy over for injuries. The child looked up at him with hollow eyes sunk deep into a battered face, and Malik saw himself reflected in their black depths. Quick as a lightning strike, the boy pulled Malik’s satchel over his head and dove into the crowd. For several seconds, all he could do was stare openmouthed at the spot where the child had just been. “Hey!” Cursing himself for his own naïveté, Malik then did what he did best. He ran.

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