The Weary Sojourner Caravansary stood at the corner of three worlds.
For a multitude of seasons before Oke was born, the travelhouse had offered food, wine, board, and music—and for those who had been on the road too long, companionship—to many a traveller across the Savanna Belt. Its patronage consisted solely of those who lugged loads of gold, bronze, nuts, produce, textile, and craftwork from Bassa into the Savanna Belt or, for the even more daring, to the Idjama desert across Lake Vezha. On their way back, they would stop at the caravansary again, the banana and yam and rice loads on their camels gone and now replaced with tablets of salt, wool, and beaded ornaments.
But there was another set of people for whom the caravansary stood, those whose sights were set on discovering the storied isthmus that connected the Savanna Belt to the yet-to-be-sighted seven islands of the archipelago. For people like these, the Weary Sojourner stood as something else: a vantage point. And for people like Oke who had a leg in all three worlds, walking into the Weary Sojourner called for an intensified level of alertness.
Especially when the fate of the three worlds could be determined by the very meeting she was going to have.
She swung open the curtain. She did not push back her cloak.
Like many public houses in the Savanna Belt, the Weary Sojourner operated in darkness, despite it being late morning. During her time in the desertlands, Oke had learned that this was a practice carried over from the time of the Leopard Emperor when liquor was banned in its desert protectorates, and secret houses were operated under the cover of darkness. Even though that period of despotism was thankfully over, habitual practices were difficult to shake off. People still preferred to drink and smoke and fuck in the dark.
Which made this the perfect place for Oke’s meeting.
She took a seat at the back and surveyed the room. It was at once obvious that her contact wasn’t around. There were exactly three people here, all men who had clearly just arrived from the same caravan. Their clothes gave them away: definitely Bassai, in brightly coloured cotton wrappers, bronze jewellery—no sensible person travelled with gold jewellery—over some velvet, wool, and leatherskin boots for the desert’s cold. Senior members of the merchantry guild, looking at that velvet. Definitely members of the Idu, the mainland’s noble caste. Guild aside, their complexions also gave that away—high-black skin, as dark as the darkest of humuses, just the way Bassa liked it. It was the kind of complexion she hadn’t seen in a long time.
Oke swept aside a nearby curtain and looked outside. Sure enough, there was their caravan, parked behind the establishment, guarded by a few private Bassai hunthands. Beside them, travelhands—hired desert immigrants to the mainland judging by their complexions, what the Bassai would refer to as low-brown for how light and lowly it was—unpacking busily for an overnight stay and unsaddling the camels so they could drink. There were no layers of dust on anyone yet, so clearly they were northbound.
“A drink, maa?”
Oke looked up at the housekeep, who had come over, wringing his hands in a rag. She could see little of his face, but she had been here twice before, and knew enough of what he looked like.
“Palm wine and jackalberry with ginger,” she said, hiding her hands.
The housekeep stopped short. “Interesting choice of drink.” He peered closer. “Have you been here before?” He enunciated the words in Savanna Common in a way that betrayed his border origins.
Oke’s eyes scanned him and decided he was asking this innocently. “Why do you ask?”
“You remember things, as a housekeep,” he said, leaning back on a nearby counter. “Especially drink combinations that join lands that have no place joining.”
“Consider it an acquired taste,” Oke said, and looked away, signalling the end of the discussion. But to her surprise, the man nodded at the group far away and asked, in clear Mainland Common:
“You with them?”
Oke froze. He had seen her complexion, then, and knew enough to know she had mainland origins. What had always been a curse for Oke back when she was a mainlander—Too light, is she punished by Menai? people would ask her daa—had become a gift in self-exile over the border. But there were a few people with keen eyes and ears who would, every now and then, recognise a lilt in her Savanna Common or note how her hair curled a bit too tightly for a desertlander or how she carried herself with a smidgen of mainlander confidence. There was only one way to react to that, as she always did whenever this came up.
“What?” She frowned. “Sorry, I don’t understand that language.”
The housekeep eyed her for another moment, then went away.
Oke breathed a sigh of relief. It was of the utmost importance that no one knew who she was and what she was doing here, living in the Savanna Belt. Because the history of the Savanna Belt was what it was, a tiny enough number of people who originated from this side of the Soke border looked just a bit like she did. Passing as one was easier once she perfected the languages. Thank moons she had studied them as a scholar in Bassa.
She drank slowly once the housekeep brought her order, and she put forward some cowries, making sure to add a few pieces to clearly signal she wanted to be left alone.
Halfway through her drink, she realised her contact was running late. She looked outside again. The sky had gone cloudy, and the sun was missing for a while. She went back to her drink and nursed it some more.
The men in the room rose and went up to be shown to their rooms. Oke peeked out of the curtain again. The travelhands were gone. One hunthand stood and guarded the caravan. One stood at the back door to the caravansary. The camels still stood there, lapping water.
Oke ordered another drink and waited. The sun came back out. It was past an hour now. She looked out again. The camels had stopped drinking and now lay in the dust, snoozing.
Something was wrong.
Oke got up without touching her new drink, put down some more cowries on the counter in front of the housekeep, and walked to the front door of the caravansary. On second thought, she turned and went back to the housekeep.
“Your alternate exit. Show me.”
The man pointed without looking at her. Oke took it and went around the building, evading both the men and the animals. She eventually showed up to where she had left her own animal—a kwaga, a striped beauty with tiny horns. She untied and patted it. It snorted in return. Then she slapped its hindquarters and set it off on a run, barking as it went.
She waited for a moment or two, then dashed away herself.
Going through a secluded route on foot, while trying to stay as nondescript as possible, took a long time. Oke had to take double the usual precautions, as banditry had increased so much on the trade routes that one was more likely to get robbed and murdered than not. Back when Bassa was Bassa—not now with its heavily diluted population and generally weakening influence—no one would dare attack a Bassai caravan anywhere on the continent for fear of retaliation. These days, every caravan had to travel with private security. The Bassai Upper Council was well known for being toothless and only concerned with enriching themselves.
The clouds from earlier had disappeared, and the sun beat mercilessly on her, causing her to sweat rivers beneath her cloak, but Oke knew she had done the right thing. It was as they had agreed: If either of them got even a whiff of something off, they were to make a getaway as swiftly as possible. She was then to head straight for the place nicknamed the Forest of the Mist, the thick, uncharted woodland with often heavy fog that was storied to house secret passages to an isthmus that connected the Savanna Belt to the seven islands of the eastern archipelago.
It didn’t matter any longer if that bit of desertland myth was true or not. Whether the archipelago even still existed was moot at this point. The yet undiscovered knowledge she had gleaned from her clandestine exploits in the library at the University of Bassa, coupled with the artifacts her contact was bringing her—if either made it into the wrong hands, the whole continent of Oon would pay for it. Oke wasn’t ready to drop the fate of the continent in the dust just yet.
Two hours later, Oke looked back and saw in the sky the grey tip of what she knew came from thick, black smoke. Not the kind of smoke that came from a nearby kitchen, but the kind that said something far away had been destroyed. Something big.
She took a detour in her journey and headed for the closest high point she knew. She chose one that overlooked a decent portion of the savanna but also kept her on the way to the Forest of the Mist. It took a while to ascend to the top, but she soon got to a good enough vantage point to look across and see the caravansary.
The Weary Sojourner stuck out like an anthill, the one establishment for a distance where the road from the border branched into the Savanna Belt. The caravansary was up in flames. It was too far for her to see the people and animals, but she knew what those things scattering from the raging inferno were. The body language of disaster was the same everywhere.
Oke began to descend fast, her chest weightless. The Forest of the Mist was the only place on this continent where she would be safe now, and she needed to get there immediately. Whoever set that fire to the Weary Sojourner knew who she and her contact were. Her contact may or may not have made it out alive. It was up to her now to ensure that the continent’s biggest secret was kept that way.
The alternative was simply too grave to consider.
The rumors broke slowly but spread fast, like bushfire from a raincloud. Bassa’s central market sparked and sizzled, as word jumped from lip to ear, lip to ear, speculating. The people responded minimally at first: a shift of the shoulders, a retying of wrappers. Then murmurs rose, until they matured into a buzzing that swept through the city, swinging from stranger to stranger and stall to stall, everyone opening conversation with whispers of Is it true? Has the Soke Pass really been shut down?
Danso waded through the clumps of gossipers, sweating, cursing his decision to go through the central market rather than the mainway. He darted between throngs of oblivious citizens huddled around vendors and spilling into the pathway.
“Leave way, leave way,” he called, irritated, as he shouldered through bodies. He crouched, wriggling his lean frame underneath a large table that reeked of pepper seeds and fowl shit. The ground, paved with baked earth, was not supposed to be wet, since harmattan season was soon to begin. But some fool had dumped water in the wrong place, and red mud eventually found a way into Danso’s sandals. Someone else had abandoned a huge stack of yam sacks right in the middle of the pathway and gone off to do moons knew what, so that Danso was forced to clamber over yet another obstacle. He found a large brown stain on his wrappers thereafter. He wiped at the spot with his elbow, but the stain only spread.
Great. Now not only was he going to be the late jali novitiate, he was going to be the dirty one, too.
If only he could’ve ridden a kwaga through the market, Danso thought. But markets were foot traffic only, so even though jalis or their novitiates rarely moved on foot, he had to in this instance. On this day, when he needed to get to the centre of town as quickly as possible while raising zero eyebrows, he needed to brave the shortest path from home to city square, which meant going through Bassa’s most motley crowd. This was the price he had to pay for missing the city crier’s call three whole times, therefore setting himself up for yet another late arrival at a mandatory event—in this case, a Great Dome announcement.
Missing this impromptu meeting would be his third infraction, which could mean expulsion from the university. He’d already been given two strikes: first, for repeatedly arguing with Elder Jalis and trying to prove his superior intelligence; then more recently, for being caught poring over a restricted manuscript that was supposed to be for only two sets of eyes: emperors, back when Bassa still had them, and the archivist scholars who didn’t even get to read them except while scribing. At this rate, all they needed was a reason to send him away. Expulsion would definitely lose him favour with Esheme, and if anything happened to their intendedship as a result, he could consider his life in this city officially over. He would end up exactly like his daa—a disgraced outcast—and Habba would die first before that happened.
The end of the market pathway came within sight. Danso burst out into mainway one, the smack middle of Bassa’s thirty mainways that crisscrossed one another and split the city perpendicular to the Soke mountains. The midday sun shone brighter here. Though shoddy, the market’s thatch roofing had saved him from some of the tropical sun, and now out of it, the humid heat came down on him unbearably. He shaded his eyes.
In the distance, the capital square stood at the end of the mainway. The Great Dome nestled prettily in its centre, against a backdrop of Bassai rounded-corner mudbrick architecture, like a god surrounded by its worshippers. Behind it, the Soke mountains stuck their raggedy heads so high into the clouds that they could be seen from every spot in Bassa, hunching protectively over the mainland’s shining crown.
What took his attention, though, was the crowd in the mainway, leading up to the Great Dome. The wide street was packed full of mainlanders, from where Danso stood to the gates of the courtyard in the distance. The only times he’d seen this much of a gathering were when, every once in a while, troublemakers who called themselves the Coalition for New Bassa staged protests that mostly ended in pockets of riots and skirmishes with Bassai civic guards. This, however, seemed quite nonviolent, but that did nothing for the air of tension that permeated the crowd.
The civic guards at the gates weren’t letting anyone in, obviously—only the ruling councils; government officials and ward leaders; members of select guilds, like the jali guild he belonged to; and civic guards themselves were allowed into the city centre. It was these select people who then took whatever news was disseminated back to their various wards. Only during a mooncrossing festival were regular citizens allowed into the courtyard.
Danso watched the crowd for a while to make a quick decision. The thrumming vibe was clearly one of anger, perplexity, and anxiety. He spotted a few people wailing and rolling in the dusty red earth, calling the names of their loved ones—those stuck outside the Pass, he surmised from their cries. Since First Ward was the largest commercial ward in Bassa, businesses at the sides of the mainway were hubbubs of hissed conversation, questions circulating under breaths. Danso caught some of the whispers, squeaky with tension: The drawbridges over the moats? Rolled up. The border gates? Sealed, iron barriers driven into the earth. Only a ten-person team of earthworkers and ironworkers can open it. The pace of their speech was frantic, fast, faster, everyone wondering what was true and what wasn’t.
Danso cut back into a side street that opened up from the walls along the mainway, then cut into the corridors between private yards. Up here in First Ward, the corridors were clean, the ground was of polished earth, and beggars and rats did not populate here as they did in the outer wards. Yet they were still dark and largely unlit, so that Danso had to squint and sometimes reach out to feel before him. Navigation, however, wasn’t a problem. This wasn’t his first dance in the mazy corridors of Bassa, and this wasn’t the first time he was taking a shortcut to the Great Dome.
Some househands passed by him on their way to errands, blending the poor light, their red immigrant anklets clacking as they went. These narrow walkways built into the spaces between courtyards were natural terrain for their caste—Yelekuté, the lower of Bassa’s two indentured immigrant castes. The nation didn’t really fancy anything undesirable showing up in all the important places, including the low-brown complexion that, among other things, easily signified desertlanders. The more desired high-brown Potokin were the chosen desertlanders allowed on the mainways, but only in company of their employers.
Ordinarily, they wouldn’t pay him much attention. It wasn’t a rare sight to spot people of other castes dallying in one backyard escapade or another. But today, hurrying past and dripping sweat, they glanced at Danso as he went, taking in his yellow-and-maroon tie-and-dye wrappers and the fat, single plait of hair in the middle of his head, the two signs that indicated he was a jali novitiate at the university. They considered his complexion—not dark enough to be wearing that dress in the first place; hair not curled tightly enough to be pure mainlander—and concluded, decided, that he was not Bassai enough.
This assessment they carried out in a heartbeat, but Danso was so used to seeing the whole process happen on people’s faces that he knew what they were doing even before they did. And as always, then came the next part, where they tried to put two and two together to decide what caste he belonged to. Their confused faces told the story of his life. His clothes and hair plait said jali novitiate, that he was a scholar-historian enrolled at the University of Bassa, and therefore had to be an Idu, the only caste allowed to attend said university. But his too-light complexion said Shashi caste, said he was of a poisoned union between a mainlander and an outlander and that even if the moons intervened, he would always be a disgrace to the mainland, an outcast who didn’t even deserve to stand there and exist.
Perhaps it was this confusion that led the househands to go past him without offering the requisite greeting for Idu caste members. Danso snickered to himself. If belonging to both the highest and lowest castes in the land at the same time taught one anything, it was that when people had to choose where to place a person, they would always choose a spot beneath them.
He went past more househands who offered the same response, but he paid little heed, spatially mapping out where he could emerge closest to the city square. He finally found the exit he was looking for. Glad to be away from the darkness, he veered into the nearest street and followed the crowd back to the mainway.
The city square had five iron pedestrian gates, all guarded. To his luck, Danso emerged just close to one, manned by four typical civic guards: tall, snarling, and bloodshot-eyed. He made for it gleefully and pushed to go in.
The nearest civic guard held the gate firmly and frowned down at Danso.
“Where you think you’re going?” he asked.
“The announcement,” Danso said. “Obviously.”
The civic guard looked Danso over, his chest rising and falling, his low-black skin shiny with sweat in the afternoon heat. Civic guards were Emuru, the lower of the pure mainlander caste, but they still wielded a lot of power. As the caste directly below the Idu, they could be brutal if given the space, especially if one belonged to any of the castes below them.
“And you’re going as what?”
Danso lifted an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
The guard looked at him again, then shoved Danso hard, so hard that he almost fell back into the group of people standing there.
“Ah!” Danso said. “Are you okay?”
“Get away. This resemble place for ruffians?” His Mainland Common was so poor he might have been better off speaking Mainland Pidgin, but that was the curse of working within proximity of so many Idu: Speaking Mainland Pidgin around them was almost as good as a crime. Here in the inner wards, High Bassai was accepted, Mainland Common was tolerated, and Mainland Pidgin was punished.
“Look,” Danso said. “Can you not see I’m a jali novi—”
“I cannot see anything,” the guard said, waving him away. “How can you be novitiate? I mean, look at you.”
Danso looked over himself and suddenly realised what the man meant. His tie-and-dye wrappers didn’t, in fact, look like they belonged to any respectable jali novitiate. Not only had he forgotten to give them to Zaq to wash after his last guild class, the market run had only made them worse. His feet were dusty and unwashed; his arms, and probably face, were crackled, dry, and smeared with harmattan dust. One of his sandal straps had pulled off. He ran a hand over his head and sighed. Experience should have taught him by now that his sparser hair, much of it inherited from his maternal Ajabo-islander side, never stayed long in the Bassai plait, which was designed for hair that curled tighter naturally. Running around without a firm new plait had produced unintended results: Half of it had come undone, which made him look unprepared, disrespectful, and not at all like any jali anyone knew.
And of course, there had been no time to take a bath, and he had not put on any sort of decent facepaint either. He’d also arrived without a kwaga. What manner of jali novitiate walked to an impromptu announcement such as this, and without a Second in tow for that matter?
He should really have listened for the city crier’s ring.
“Okay, wait, listen,” Danso said, desperate. “I was late. So I took the corridors. But I’m really a jali novitiate.”
“I will close my eye,” the civic guard said. “Before I open it, I no want to see you here.”
“But I’m supposed to be here.” Danso’s voice was suddenly squeaky, guilty. “I have to go in there.”
“Rubbish,” the man spat. “You even steal that cloth or what?”
Danso’s words got stuck in his throat, panic suddenly gripping him. Not because this civic guard was an idiot—oh, no, just wait until Danso reported him—but because so many things were going to go wrong if he didn’t get in there immediately.
First, there was Esheme, waiting for him in there. He could already imagine her fuming, her lips set, frown stuck in place. It was unheard of for intendeds to attend any capital square gathering alone, and it was worse that they were both novitiates—he of the scholar-historians, she of the counsel guild of mainland law. His absence would be easily noticed. She had probably already sat through most of the meeting craning her neck to glance at the entrance, hoping he would come in and ensure that she didn’t have to suffer that embarrassment. He imagined Nem, her maa, and how she would cast him the same dissatisfied look as when she sometimes told Esheme, You’re really too good for that boy. If there was anything his daa hated, it was disappointing someone as influential as Nem in any way. He might be of guild age, but his daa would readily come for him with a guava stick just for that, and his triplet uncles would be like a choir behind him going Ehen, ehen, yes, teach him well, Habba.
His DaaHabba name wouldn’t save him this time. He could be prevented from taking guild finals, and his whole life—and that of his family—could be ruined.
“I will tell you one last time,” the civic guard said, taking a step toward Danso so that he could almost smell the dirt of the man’s loincloth. “If you no leave here now, I will arrest you for trying to be novitiate.”
He was so tall that his chest armour was right in Danso’s face, the branded official emblem of the Nation of Great Bassa—the five ragged peaks of the Soke mountains with a warrior atop each, holding a spear and runku—staring back at him.
He really couldn’t leave. He’d be over, done. So instead, Danso did the first thing that came to mind. He tried to slip past the civic guard.
It was almost as if the civic guard had expected it, as if it was behaviour he’d seen often. He didn’t even move his body. He just stretched out a massive arm and caught Danso’s clothes. He swung him around, and Danso crumpled into a heap at the man’s feet.
The other guards laughed, as did the small group of people by the gate, but the civic guard wasn’t done. He feinted, like he was about to lunge and hit Danso. Danso flinched, anticipating, protecting his head. Everyone laughed even louder, boisterous.
“Ei Shashi,” another civic guard said, “you miss yo way? Is over there.” He pointed west, toward Whudasha, toward the coast and the bight and the seas beyond them, and everyone laughed at the joke.
Every peal was another sting in Danso’s chest as the word pricked him all over his body. Shashi. Shashi. Shashi.
It shouldn’t have gotten to him. Not on this day, at least. Danso had been Shashi all his life, one of an almost nonexistent pinch in Bassa. He was the first Shashi to make it into a top guild since the Second Great War. Unlike every other Shashi sequestered away in Whudasha, he was allowed to sit side by side with other Idu, walk the nation’s roads, go to its university, have a Second for himself, and even be joined to one of its citizens. But every day he was always reminded, in case he had forgotten, of what he really was—never enough. Almost there, but never complete. That lump should have been easy to get past his throat by now.
And yet, something hot and prideful rose in his chest at this laughter, and he picked himself up, slowly.
As the leader turned away, Danso aimed his words at the man, like arrows.
“Calling me Shashi,” Danso said, “yet you want to be me. But you will always be less than bastards in this city. You can never be better than me.”
What happened next was difficult for Danso to explain. First, the civic guard turned. Then he moved his hand to his waist where his runku, the large wooden club with a blob at one end, hung. He unclipped its buckle with a click, then moved so fast that Danso had no time to react.
There was a shout. Something hit Danso in the head. There was light, and then there was darkness.
Danso awoke to a face peering at his. It was large, and he could see faint traces left by poorly healed scars. A pain beat in his temple, and it took a while for the face to come into full focus.
Oboda. Esheme’s Second.
The big man stood up, silent. Oboda was a bulky man with just as mountainous a presence. Even his shadow took up space, so much so that it shaded Danso from the sunlight. The coral pieces embedded into his neck, in a way no Second that Danso knew ever had, glinted. He didn’t even wear a migrant anklet or anything else that announced that he was an immigrant. The only signifier was his complexion: just dark enough as a desertlander to be acceptably close to the Bassai Ideal’s yardstick—the complexion of the humus, that which gave life to everything and made it thrive. Being high-brown while possessing the build and skills of a desert warrior put him squarely in the higher Potokin caste. Oboda, as a result, was allowed freedoms many immigrants weren’t, so he ended up being not quite Esheme’s or Nem’s Second, but something more complex, something that didn’t yet have a name.
Danso blinked some more. The capital square behind Oboda was filled, but now with a new crowd, this one pouring out of the sectioned entryway arches of the Great Dome and heading for their parked travelwagons, kept ready by various househands and stablehands. Wrappers of various colours dotted the scene before him, each council or guild representing itself properly. He could already map out those of the Elders of the merchantry guild in their green and gold combinations, and Elders of other guilds in orange, blue, bark, violet, crimson. There were even a few from the university within sight, scholars and jalis alike, in their white robes.
Danso shrunk into Oboda’s shadow, obscuring himself. It would be a disaster for them to see him like this. It would be a disaster for anyone to see him so. But then, he thought, if Oboda is here, that means Esheme…
“Danso,” a woman’s voice said.
Delicately, Esheme gathered her clothes in the crook of one arm and picked her way toward him. She was dressed in tie-and-dye wrappers just like his, but hers were of different colours—violet dappled in orange, the uniform for counsel novitiates of mainland law—and a far cry from his: Hers were washed and dipped in starch so that they shone and didn’t even flicker in the breeze.
As she came forward, the people who were starting to gather to watch the scene gazed at her with wide-eyed appreciation. Esheme was able to do that, elicit responses from everything and everyone by simply being. She knew exactly how to play to eyes, knew what to do to evoke the exact reactions she wanted from people. She did so now, swaying just the right amount yet keeping a regal posture so that she was both desirable and fearsome at once. The three plaited arches on her head gleamed in the afternoon sun, the deep-yellow cheto dye massaged into her hair illuminating her head. Her high-black complexion, dark and pure in the most desirable Bassai way, shone with superior fragrant shea oils. She had her gaze squarely on Danso’s face so that he couldn’t look at her, but had to look down.
She arrived where he sat, took one sweeping look at the civic guards, and said, “What happened here?”
“I was trying to attend the announcement and this one”—Danso pointed at the nearby offending civic guard—“hit me with his runku.”
She didn’t respond to him, not even with a glance. She just kept staring at the civic guards. The three behind the errant civic guard stepped away, leaving him in front.
“I no hit anybody, oh,” the man said, his pitch rising. “The crowd had scatter, and somebody hit him with their elbow—”
Esheme silenced him with a sharp finger in the air. “Speak wisely, guard. You have this one chance.”
The man gulped, suddenly looking like he couldn’t make words.
“Sorry,” he said, going to the ground immediately, prostrating. “Sorry, please. No send me back. No send me back.”
The other civic guards joined their comrade in solidarity, all prostrating on the ground before Esheme. She turned away from them, leaned in, and examined Danso’s head and clothes with light touches, as one would a child who had fallen and hurt themselves.
“Who did this to him?”
“Sorry, maa,” the civic guards kept saying, offering no explanation. “Sorry, maa.”
Oboda moved then, swiftly, light on his feet for someone so big. He reached over with one arm, pulled the errant guard by his loincloth, and yanked him over the low gate. The man came sprawling. His loincloth gave way, and he scrambled to cover his privates. The gathering crowd, always happy to feast their eyes and ears on unsanctioned justice, snickered.
“Beg,” Oboda growled. The way he said it, it was really Beg for your life, but he was a man of too few words to use the whole sentence. However, the rest of the sentence was not lost on anyone standing there, the civic guard included. He hustled to his knees and put his forehead on the ground, close to Esheme’s sandals. Even the crowd stepped back a foot or two.
Danso flinched. Surely this had gone past the territory of fairness, had it not? This was the point where he was supposed to jump in and prevent things from escalating, to explain that no, the man might not have hit him at all, that he was actually likelier to have fallen in the scramble. But then what good reason would he have for missing this meeting? Plus, with Esheme, silence always had a lower chance of backfiring than speaking up did.
He kept his lips tight together and looked down. Why throw good food away? as his daa would say.
“You don’t know what you have brought on yourself,” Esheme said to the guard quietly, then turned away. As she did, Oboda put his hand on his waist and unclipped his own runku, but Esheme laid a hand gently on his.
“Let’s go,” she said to no one in particular, and walked off. Oboda clipped his runku back, gave the civic guards one last long look of death, and pulled Danso up with one arm as if flicking a copper piece. Danso dusted off his shins while Oboda silently handed him a cloth to wipe his face. The civic guard stayed bowed, shaking, too scared to rise.
Danso hurried off to join Esheme in the exiting crowd, spotting her greeting a couple of councilhands. He stood far off from her for a moment, and she ignored him for as long as she could, until she turned and wordlessly walked over to him, adjusted his wrappers, re-knotted them at the shoulder, then led him by the arm.
“Let’s do this,” she said.
Heading south on mainway one was a slightly downhill trip, so that people always seemed like they were rushing when leaving the city centre, their backs to the towering Soke mountains in the distance behind them, framing the border and its moats. Esheme and Danso performed their walk of intendedship with deliberate intent, so that they seemed to be in slow motion next to everything else. Esheme interlocked her fingers with his and he let her, despite the fact that he abhorred this part of the performance. Today, though, he swallowed his usual thoughts and walked hand-in-hand with her, considering it penance for his errant ways. He’d been so occupied with attending the meeting that he’d even completely forgotten about this part.
The frenzy of the announcement had yet to wear off, and First Ward, being the only ward that was nonresidential and all commercial, remained as packed as possible. Cart pushers ran their carts at a speed faster than usual, whipping their oxen, raising dust and going hyaah and making that loud click with their tongues. Pawpaws, watermelons, and soursops bounced in their attached barrows. Kwagas strutted and cantered past them, their striped equine coats and polished double horns shining in the midday light, massive hooves and hindquarters stomping the dust. Hitched travelwagons housing returnees hurried by amid all of the clacking. Danso and Esheme stuck to the wayside near the mainway’s earthen walls, street and corridor connections opening up from them like yawns. Nighttime palm oil torches, unlit, were the only things that stood with them, silent and unhurried.
Why intendeds were expected to advertise their togetherness, Danso could never understand. He’d once read at the university library that it was a practice developed in the early days before Bassa, when the indigenous peoples of the mainland’s hamlets needed to advertise that they had chosen someone, lest they be snatched up by another. But Danso found it ridiculous that such a tradition should persist until today, in the greatest city on the continent. Why should the public care about who he was being joined to? It made even less sense because they never spent time together in any other way. They attended the same university, sure, but Esheme barely spoke to him when they went past each other in the hallways.
But again, today he couldn’t nag about any of these things as usual. The possibility of invoking Esheme’s wrath was the beginning of wisdom. She had a way of making things happen just exactly as she wanted them, and anyone who caused that to derail would face the consequences, her intended being no exclusion.
“Is all this furore over just the Pass closure?” Danso said. “I feel like I missed something big at that announcement.”
Esheme said nothing in response. She draped a wrapper over her hair to ward off dust from the disturbed earth. Her sullen expression flipped into a pleasant smile as they neared a group of passersby who chattered breathlessly about rumoured reasons for the meeting. The group eased up once they spotted the couple, and fell into yet another expression Danso was familiar with, one where they bit their lips because they couldn’t disrespect two semi-outcasts since they were performing their walk. So the group paused and offered the requisite greeting.
“Your home supports you,” they said.
“Outsiders cannot harm us,” Danso and Esheme chorused.
Danso scratched at his neck, uncomfortable with the tightness of the wrapper crisscrossing at his collarbone. Esheme had done this too tight, hadn’t she? Too late now, though. He would have to wear it like that.
“So humid,” he said, as they went on. “Isn’t it supposed to be harmattan yet?”
Esheme smiled at another passing greeter, and then her face returned to passive. Danso was unsure how to proceed.
“How did the meeting go, by the way?” he asked, and that was what did it.
“Shut up,” she said, stopping to face him for the first time. “Shut your dirty mouth.” She contorted her face in mockery. “How did the meeting go? Are you not a jali? Is it not your job to know such things, to be the documenter of our history, to be here, present when asked?” She made a sound at the back of her tongue. “Would it kill you not to be aloof for once? Just look at the nonsense you’ve put me through today.”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“Don’t even try,” she said, pointing a finger in his face. “That’s market mud on you, okay? And no kwaga, no Zaq. I’m not stupid; I know you were already late.”
He muttered an apology that she didn’t acknowledge. She instead turned and kept walking. He jogged to keep up with her. He thought about easing his hand back into hers, but was unsure which was now the greater risk: holding her hand or not holding it at all. He stuck with the status quo.
“I said I was sorry,” he muttered.
“Danso, you must remember—”
“My place, I know,” he said. But she had to understand that it was this place that had gotten him in trouble, didn’t she? If he never had to be both an Idu scholar and a Shashi man attending the meeting, there would’ve been no altercation. Whether he was late or not would’ve been moot. The real problem was that he was both gold and shit at once, but no one wanted to hear that.
“You can’t keep blaming everyone else for your misfortunes,” she said, as if reading his mind. “You broke the rules, and you paid for it.” She ran her fingers over his plait; he was unsure if the gesture was one of intimacy or correction. “They held you because you were late and without a Second, not because you’re…” She searched for a word other than the one Danso knew was at the tip of her tongue, one that she consciously avoided using to describe him, though he was unsure if it was out of respect for him or because she thought it would reflect poorly on her.
“Just because you’re you,” she said at last. “Besides, count your appearance as a blessing. It’s how Oboda spotted you in the first place.”
Another group passed by them and performed the greeting for intendeds. Danso answered noncommittally. He was never sure what to do when Esheme pretended not to see his Bassai-Ajabo heritage. As though, if not for his ability to recall every single word he read—a talent the Bassai elite considered incomparable—he wouldn’t be down at Whudasha right now with the thousands of Shashi corralled there. They would never have met if he was cordoned off, in a protectorate on the coast so far out of sight that mainlanders didn’t have to face the truth of his existence every day.
But she did understand, because she, too, knew what it was like to be disrespected for where one came from. They were together for that very reason. No one would touch the daughter of Bassa’s prime fixer with a stick. It did not matter that Esheme herself was an Idu. Her maa both was a fixer for Idu nobles and hailed from the lower Emuru caste. That combination was enough reason to be marginalised. The reasons for hers might be a tad different from his, but the feeling in the pits of their stomachs were the same.
“They’re closing the Pass,” Esheme said, bringing him out of his thoughts. “Since you were wondering what the meeting was about.”
Danso’s eyes widened. “For real? I thought that was just a rumour.”
She shot him a look. “Why won’t you think like a commoner when you act like one? Of course it’s not a rumour. The meeting was just more details, but it’s decided. Speaker Abuso said there will only be essential import/export activities for now. No more crossing the moats, no movement into or out of the mainland until further notice.”
“Well, moons,” Danso said. “That’s drastic. The outer wards will feel that hard. They’ll protest.”
“The Coalition for New Bassa will definitely whip up something in response.” She seemed to have shaken off her anger, and Danso thought she sounded oddly excited about it. “This will affect immigration the most, though. Trade still remains open with the outer lands, even though only First Merchant caravans are now allowed through.”
“And this closure is, what, temporary or…?”
“Looks permanent. Something tells me no one will ever be allowed to enter the mainland again, which is just as well. Part of the reason for our waning influence with our hinterlands and the desertland is that we have too many immigrants anyway. Not near enough work for everyone, and fealty is increasingly unsure.”
Danso’s eyebrows arched. “For them to literally close the drawbridges over the moats sounds like something more than curbing immigration is going on.”
She glanced at him. “What are you, a desertlander advocate?”
“Well, I mean—”
“What happens when our resources can no longer serve us? What happens when the desertlanders suddenly outnumber us and attack?”
“Attack?” Danso snorted. “There hasn’t been an attack on the mainland since the Second Great War, Esheme.”
“Maybe. But also…” She put a finger to her lip. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but, I mean, you’re my intended, so.” She paused again. “I think my maa wouldn’t mind.”
Danso fought back a scoff. Esheme and MaaNem didn’t quite have the best maa-daughter relationship, but one thing he was sure of was that nothing ever got past either of them. The MaaNem household was like a sponge—things got in more than they got out, unless Nem was the one doing the squeezing. If anyone who was anyone in Bassa needed to get something fixed, in all the ways possible, Nem was the person to go to. The network of assets in her employ—hunthands, alchemists, smiths, skylookers, tinkerers, scouts, whisperers—was notorious enough to make her highly despised but extremely useful to the Bassai elite. For someone who traded daily on information, Danso thought Elder Nem would very much mind Esheme letting him in on whatever this piece of information was, but he gave her his ear anyway because he had made her angry enough for one day.
“There was an intruder, they say,” Esheme said. “At the border. Rumour is they made it over the Soke Pass.”
“You mean like an illegal immigrant? That happens every day.”
“Yes, but not a desertlander.” She paused. “An islander.”
Danso jerked his head back. “Don’t be silly.”
“I’m not.” Esheme’s voice was low, conspiratorial. “Within Idu’s upper circles, there’s a story that a border official thought they caught a glance of—you won’t believe this—yellowskin around some caravans that had just arrived from the Savanna Belt. They reported it to the civic guard captain on duty at the Pass. Some men were sent after the described person, but no one has found anything.”
“Yellowskin,” Danso said. “You can’t be serious.”
“Danso,” Esheme said. “I literally overheard my maa discussing this with an Elder.”
Danso’s eyes watered, and the back of his throat suddenly felt parched.
Every season since birth, there was one thing Danso had been completely sure of: that there used to be three places in the world, but now there were only two—the mainland, and the sprawling desertland north of the Soke mountains, with the Soke Pass separating them. The only islands known to the continent—the Ajabo Islands to the west where his maa’s people had come from, and the Nameless archipelago to the east—both went extinct hundreds of seasons ago. Sunk into the great waters, said the manuscripts at the university library. Sent by Menai to a deep-sea grave, said the jali litanies he learned in class. Yellowskin was the mainland slur for the people of the seven islands of the northeastern Nameless archipelago, geographically closer to the desert than the mainland. The Nameless Islands were nameless for the very reason that mainlanders had never interacted with anyone from there—at least not in the same way they had with the Ajabo. It was widely accepted that human life didn’t exist there, wherever it was. The only tales that attempted to refute that were those of returning travellers to the desert who reported sightings of a yellowskin or two. They called them contagious, that if a yellowskin touched you, you became one. They said yellowskins were of low intelligence and unable to stay too long in the sun or see very far. They described them as having red eyes and yellow hair up to their eyebrows. They said if killed, their body parts could be used to cure diseases.
So basically, a bunch of drivel. The only people who believed in them were the same sects who ardently believed in lightning bats, ghost apes, and other entities no one had ever seen but many were sure plagued Bassa’s rainforests.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Danso asked her.
“Does it matter?” Esheme shrugged. “There’s no such thing as too much precaution.”
“I guess.” They went on in silence, but Danso found that a familiar spark had been lit within him. The same kind of spark that had caused him to begin the search for the history of the Ajabo, which led him to discover the Codex of the Twenty-Third Emperor of Great Bassa, the Manic Emperor Nogowu, at the university library. Which had then, of course, put him in big trouble. He had to rein this one in. This was really not the time.
“My maa and the Elder were saying leadership is not making it public because they don’t want to alert the intruder,” Esheme was saying. “But they’ve put out a bounty to the hunthand guild. The Elder, I believe, wanted my maa to make a go for it with the hunthands in her employ.”
“A hundred gold pieces, dead or alive.”
“I know!” Esheme said. “Imagine that. Enough gold to buy some respect on this mainland.”
“Why so high, though? I mean, for someone who could easily be spotted by anyone, I don’t know…”
“Well, the Elder said the yellowskin can change their complexion and look like one of us. Apparently, that’s how they escaped at the border.”
Now Danso had to laugh. “You mean the skinchanging myth.”
“I’m not saying it’s true,” Esheme said. “I’m saying if a top Elder believes it, it’s worth concern.”
“Seriously? They’re closing our border because of that? So, what, how did the skinchanger do it now, by the power of ibor?”
Esheme frowned. “What do you mean, ibor?”
“Never mind, never mind.” He couldn’t discuss what he’d learned in the codex with anyone—that had been one of the conditions of being allowed to remain at the university. The stone-bone mineral was something that came up in stories every now and then. Like most myths and legends in Bassa, few people took to them with any manner of seriousness. But Danso had read something in the codex that, though it sounded vague at the time, he began to think might be in reference to ibor:
Know this this, in the very presence of our Holinesses Ashu and Menai—may they strike me if I lie—that the Second Great War may have been rendered needless if the intruders had parted with their stones of sorcery upon joining the land.
Perhaps these stones of sorcery were something else entirely, who could tell? Perhaps the man was simply high on opiates. He was called the Manic Emperor for a reason.
They stopped to perform another greeting of intendedship. Danso wished he could prod someone with more questions. His daa and uncles rarely spoke a word about his maa and what had really happened with her or with the Ajabo, not even to discuss the pogroms against Shashi that came after, before Whudasha’s Peace Treaty was agreed upon. Whenever he asked, they retreated into their shells like disturbed snails and would remain cold for a long time. The little he knew was from the sparse jali lectures and library archives, and if there was anything he’d learned from this codex business, it was that prodding in that direction had consequences.
A runner sped down the road, pushing a small wagon with a young couple in it. Esheme gazed at them and said something about how her maa would like to see them like that, once their joining ceremony was complete. Danso pretended not to see or hear. If there was one thing he was looking forward to, it was not that. He might not have a very clear idea of what he wanted, but he was sure it did not lie here in Bassa with its rules and confines and expectations.
He looked up to see that they had arrived at their destination. Nem’s house rose with thick walls of mudbrick and mortar. To Danso’s eyes each time he looked upon it, it was thrice the size of the DaaHabba abode. Nem’s household was well cared for, with a hired caretaker and an army of househands, much unlike Danso’s home. His daa had left the jali guild after being disgraced for his affiliation with an Ajabo woman once Danso’s existence was revealed post-pogrom. Habba had settled into life as a private healer. The DaaHabba household, with no caretaker, suffered as a result and began to fall, crumble, die. Danso thought his triplet uncles who lived with them made this crumbling happen much quicker by siphoning the few resources his daa had left.
“So, um,” he said, “I would like to apologise for today. The day really went away from me. Can I make it up to you at the crossing festival?”
Esheme smiled. For a moment, Danso saw what most others saw: a pretty, young, desirable Bassai woman, dark and pure. Then her smile lasted just that little bit too long, and the illusion was gone.
“Of course you will make it up,” she said. “You will kiss me, and then it will be forgotten.”
Danso cast furtive glances at the entryway. “Er—”
But she had already pulled him in and put her lips to his. He found them soft and slim and tender, warm. The balmy, metallic fragrance of the ochre of her facepaint ran rings around his nose. He shut his eyes and opened them many times, until she pulled away.
She adjusted his wrapper knot, then ran her palm over his plait again. She kissed his forehead.
“At the crossing festival, then,” she said.
She disappeared behind the entryway, and Danso was left alone to dread the return home to face his daa’s disappointment and the snivelling whispers of his uncles.
He had not fully stepped through the doorway when Pochuwe, the first of Danso’s three uncles, materialized in front of him in a flurry of fabric.
“Where have you been?”
A retort rose from the bottom of Danso’s belly and travelled up his chest, ready to be unleashed, but, as usual, it stopped at his larynx and lodged there with the other retorts that never became, forming a bulge now too large to go down no matter how hard he swallowed.
“Dehje, uncle,” he said in greeting. “I was walking my intended to her maa’s.”
“Eh.” Pochuwe gathered his wrappers, laid them over a thin hand, and studied his unkempt look. “You say you were, but how do we know for sure? Because your lie-lie can be legend.” He twisted his angular jaw, an odd feature beneath lazy, rounded, well-fed cheeks.
“I was there,” Danso said, which wasn’t quite a lie.
Uduuwe and Kachuwe, spitting images of Pochuwe, descended the steps from the upper floor, their wrappers draped across their arms in the exact same manner; it was uncanny. Uduuwe looked at Danso and frowned.
“You weren’t at the announcement,” he said.
Kachuwe, the youngest of the three, said: “We heard.”
Danso almost rolled his eyes. It was pointless asking how they knew. Bassa’s network of corridors and courtyards meant everyone knew everything too soon. The colour of one’s shit could be common knowledge before one stepped out of the lavatory. But they could just as well have wrung it out of Zaq.
You maybe should’ve spent that time finding your own houses, Danso thought, but swallowed again. “I said I went.”
“When?” Pochuwe asked.
Danso stared at him.
“Toward the end.” Kachuwe scoffed. “Zaq told us.”
“You think you’re a big man now or something.” Uduuwe shook his head. “It’s like you’re forgetting where you’re coming from. Are you trying to sabotage this family’s name or what?”
“What did Nem have to say about you leaving her daughter to attend the gathering alone?” Pochuwe asked.
Danso stared at the cut strap of his sandal again. He should get Zaq to fix that right away.
Pochuwe managed a disapproving click of his tongue and went to settle in a woven chair. The other two followed, regarding Danso in the same pitiful manner with which one looked at a fowl that insisted on taking up issue with the field cattle.
Kachuwe said: “You can’t finish us in this family, this boy.”
“Every single one of your peers was there,” Pochuwe said. “Representing their houses. And you think you’re too special to follow the rules of your guild, or what?”
Heat rose up Danso’s chest, but he shuffled his feet and shoved it down. “Sorry, uncles.”
“Sorry for yourself,” Uduuwe said, then poured raffia wine into earthenware cups and passed them around. Pochuwe took a sip, smacked his lips, and said:
“Your daa is waiting for you in his workroom. Better have a good apology ready.”
Danso dragged his feet across the welcome room and to the back of the house, cursing every single step that led him closer to his daa’s workroom. When he arrived at the door, he couldn’t will his feet to enter. He stood there, contemplating.
“If you’re going to come in,” his daa said from inside, “come in like a man.” Danso sighed, said a silent prayer, and pushed aside the woven door.
Habba sat at one end of the wooden healing table that took up half of the workroom. He was hunched over, parsing a herb, separating the stalks from the blades. From the pungent smell, Danso could tell it was the aromatic fever grass, hence the reason the thatch blinds over the large windows were rolled up. Bassa’s afternoon humidity settled into the usually cool room. A firepot burned in the corner, adding to the heat.
Danso barely came into his daa’s workroom unless he was in trouble or was sneaking in to learn about the medicine his daa worked, something Habba didn’t quite agree he should be privy to. His daa thought he was better suited to the intellectual work of the jali, not work that required physical labour at any level. Danso, however, was simply insatiably curious, and managed to sneak in to study the dried fauna and flora—whole or in part—in earthenware jars stacked row upon row, right behind where Habba was sitting. The timber shelves were packed with them, with no form of organisation visible, so that only Habba knew where to find what. Usually, Danso would give up and study the slates hung on the wall, stories of Oon’s history etched into them, the only thing from jali guild his daa retained.
It was like being transported into another world, these tales. Tales from not only the mainland, but from across the Pass: the Savanna Belt and its eastern and western grassland plains, the Sahel lying north of that, encapsulating Lake Vezha; and farther north to the Idjama desert, where few people except licensed merchants ever went, as it was rumoured there was not a drop of water to be found there and that was why desertlanders were migrating southward.
Even about the mainland, there were slates from places south of the Tombolo-Gondola confluence, those corners of the mainland very few Bassai ever ventured into. The slates were from both hinterland protectorates, southwest and southeast, as well as the delta settlements—this particular slate told of its humongous alligators and unverified stories of massive water creatures that ate people for fun. If there were stories of some other continent beyond Oon—not that anyone knew if there was one or not, because no one had yet been able to cross the seas to find out—Danso was sure his daa’s workroom would have them.
Danso found it annoying that the manuscripts in the university library never told these stories, instead focusing inordinately on Bassa’s conquests within the mainland’s north, and notable events like the construction of the Soke moats. He thought it was one of the nation’s many flaws: simply considering anything non-Bassai to be inferior, and therefore undeserving of attention. These smaller stories, often hidden, were the ones Habba had preferred to tell in his time as jali. For Danso, this room was the one that had sparked his interest in the world outside Bassa, because it held so many worlds in itself, ones Danso vicariously lived in.
Coming in here for a reprimand, however, had a completely different feeling to it. The room suddenly lacked air and the walls stood too close.
Habba didn’t look up when he asked, “Why were you absent from today’s gathering?”
Lie or truth? Danso thought, biding time for both factions of his mind to battle against one another.
“You know how I hate it when you lie,” Habba said.
The lie faction in Danso’s chest dissolved.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “See, I was deep into writing and got carried away, so I didn’t hear the crier. By the time I realised it and could dress up—” He shrugged.
Habba didn’t look up, continuing to weed off the stalks with the tip of a small knife. “What were you writing?”
Danso shuffled, uneasy. Another condition of his return to the university was that he would never write down what he had learned in that codex on anything, anywhere, ever. The records, once thought lost in the Second Great War, had been declared too esoteric for public consumption. Two seasons ago, Danso had accidentally rediscovered them written into the margins of another random old manuscript, which was from the restricted section he wasn’t supposed to be looking at. After the Elder Jali who caught him passed the discovery over to the Collegiate Council, the scholar community was agog with gossip, exchanging all kinds of tales about what might be in the codex. Danso, who had read just a significant chunk of it (but not all) before being happened upon, snickered at how far off their postulations were.
Unsurprisingly, the scholar community treated the codex just like everything else from the Manic Emperor’s time—as the ravings of a madman. The Upper Council, once informed, decided the manuscript be “sanitized”—by which they meant re-scribed—for “historical accuracy.” The original was to be destroyed and whoever had already seen it was to be sworn to silence, hence the rules about discussing the codex. All of this, of course, had the opposite effect of piquing Danso’s interest more. What was so special about those notes? In truth, most of it had been gibberish—discussions about aspects of the two Great Wars that Danso had never heard about in any of the jali songs; descriptions of various peoples Danso had never heard of, so that he didn’t know if they were real or fictional; a lot of fixation on what the emperor called stones of sorcery, or sometimes stone-bone. For a while, Danso thought the Collegiate Council might’ve called that one correctly: The codex was clearly the documentation of an obsessed man constantly under the influence of opiates. But as with most things Danso read, the words remained imprinted in his brain anyway.
“I see you have nothing to say,” Habba said. “So perhaps I should show you this…” He reached to the side and pulled out a sheaf of bound papers.
Danso’s eyes widened.
“I enjoyed it, actually.” Habba placed his knife down to flick through the sheaf. “Such colourful descriptions of nonexistent people and places for someone who has never left Bassa.”
Then Habba leaned over the table, manuscript in hand, and tossed it into the firepot.
Danso shot forward, unthinking, as the manuscript’s edges started to catch. He was reaching into the pot when Habba rose from his stool, extended a long, thin arm, and grabbed his wrapper at the neck.
“Are you mad?” he boomed, pulling him back. “By moons, are you mad, this boy!”
“Why would you do that?” Danso yelled, eyes on the new fire catching in the pot, his face constricting in agony. “Why?”
His daa regarded him, dumbfounded. Slowly, Habba sat down but did not resume his parsing of the herb. Instead, he watched Danso watch his stories burn, until the fire returned to normal.
“This is self-sabotage, is it not?” Habba asked finally. “You’re trying to get yourself in trouble, to get expelled on purpose. You know that discussing anything you saw in that codex, in a fictional sense or not, is a sanctionable offence. But you throw that aside, throw aside all our sacrifices, throw aside how hard we begged to ensure that you could keep your place and status,” Habba breathed. “You think you’re persecuted? You think you’re the only one who’s kept from telling stories? Look at the merchants—to become full guild members, they swear oaths to not speak of what they see beyond the Pass. Look at the desertlanders who come here—isn’t Zaq restrained from telling you unsanctioned stories about the desertland too? I know you’re a jali and your work is to tell stories, but stories are like knives: weapons or tools, depending on who is wielding them. Especially those that are written down and can be traced back!”
Danso glared at the fire. He refused to blink, refused to let the pain clouding his eyes leak down, refused his daa the satisfaction of seeing his pain. He turned away from the man.
“I’m not done with you,” Habba said. “Look at me.”
Danso faced his daa. The man looked at him—looked at him—and Danso felt his resistance shift, fracture, melt. Habba’s eyes always had something swimming in them, like the inside of him was made of burning gold, like he channelled the fire of Menai. Habba rarely laid a hand on Danso, much to the chagrin of his uncles, but his daa could look, and the ghosts of Danso’s sins would come running to torment him.
“You must understand, Danso,” Habba said quietly, rising, “that the world will never be as forgiving as I am.”
Habba, taller than most men of Bassa, but constantly slouched like a man who carried the weight of the continent on his broken back, came over to his son. He was thin, just like Danso, with cheekbones that rose high and sharp.
“I can’t blame you for spending all your time trying to dig into a past that is better left alone,” he said. “It’s my fault. I didn’t foster you a sibling spend time with responsibly or become joined to another to share the weight of leading this household. We have no caretaker, so I barely have time to teach you everything you need to know.”
Habba walked over to stand by Danso. He was dressed in a house garment wrapped around his midriff to cover his loincloth. Sweat gathered on his back from his task, drips running down the lines of his ribs.
“But you’re the future of this household,” he said, a hand on Danso’s shoulder. “You need to remember that, every waking day, every sleeping night. You must understand what your actions mean for this household.”
Danso bowed his head and bit his lip.
Habba sat on the table to face his son. “Look, you’re gifted. You’ve passed memory tests even Elder Jalis struggle with. We’re preparing for your joining to Esheme, and you two will be powerful together. You’re poised to become one of the best jalis in Bassa and beyond, to even have your stories drawn into the pillars of the Great Dome.” He narrowed his eyes. “But you will never become this person if you cannot remember these simple duties.” Habba smoothed the plait in the middle of Danso’s head. “Is that too much to ask?”
A flurry of responses rose through Danso’s chest. What if he didn’t want to be great? What if he wanted something completely different, something he didn’t yet have a name for but felt deep in the pit of his stomach?
The questions lodged in his larynx and stayed there.
“I don’t know who is madder, Emperor Nogowu for writing these things, or you for enabling such nonsense.” Habba returned to his table and resumed with the herb. “Now, this won’t be complete if I don’t punish you. So go and rearrange the yams in the barn. Put the rotting ones at the bottom and the freshest on top. Go.”
Danso turned to leave.
“And don’t let me hear that Zaq helped you out,” Habba called after him. “I want you to spend that time thinking about what we just discussed.”
Zaq waited for Danso at the door to the cylindrical hut that served as the barn. He was big enough to almost cover the barn’s door, but not as tall as a civic guard, which was why he had ended up a househand in the first place, eventually promoted to Second. Despite the turning light of evening, his complexion was still distinguishably low-brown enough for anyone to peg him for a Yelekuté.
“Zaq, can you imagine?” Danso said. “All my time and energy, he just threw it in the fire like that.” He stopped when he realised Zaq was making the customary bow for Seconds. “What’re you doing?”
“Nothing,” Zaq said, his voice thick and harsh in the throat. “Simply paying required respect to my charge.”
Danso looked him up and down. “Why are you talking like that? Did you drink or something?”
“No.” Zaq remained bowed. “I just don’t want it to seem like I’ve…forgotten my place.”
Danso looked around, then frowned. “Something happened, didn’t it? Tell me. Who was it? Pochuwe?”
Zaq said nothing.
“Gettup, boyo,” Danso said. “I’ve told you to stop listening to my uncles. They can’t have that kind of authority over me when they don’t even pay for the wrappers on their bodies.”
“It was not Pochuwe,” Zaq said, rising. “It was your daa.”
Danso went sullen.
“Well, that’s rubbish,” he said. “We can do however we like.” He looked to Zaq. “And you even listened to him. Since when did we start following anybody’s mouth?”
“Since now,” Zaq said, his voice taking on an official quality Danso didn’t like. “I am required by the nation to remind you of your duty to this land and to this family. I understand our relationship has not been quite…favourable to that. But alas, things must change.”
Danso stared at him, aghast.
“You must understand, Danso,” Zaq continued. “This is the job I was accepted into the mainland to do. It will not be wise for me to keep risking being sent back because I let you do as you wish. I’m sorry, but now I must be like this with you, please. It’s my duty to prepare you for everything, to help you be the best possible Bassai.”
“So what happens to all of our good stuff? Our errand hijinks, our mooncrossing gags. Who’s going to read my tales and whisper taboo stories of the outlands for me to embellish them with? You’re really just going to hang me out to dry like this, Zaq?”
“Sorry.” Zaq kept his face as straight as possible.
Danso kissed his teeth with vehemence, unlatching the door. Zaq watched him for a moment, then placed a hand over his. Danso stopped, his hands shaking, fighting back the anger rising to his eyes as tears. Zaq, caught between maintaining a respectful distance and providing comfort, shuffled his feet.
“It was me who told him where your manuscript was,” Zaq said, contrite. “He forced me to. I didn’t have a choice. I apologise. I really do.”
“It’s not your fault.” Danso wiped his eyes.
Zaq put an arm on his shoulder. “No, it’s not. I thought that too, back then, when I used to be stubborn like you and made mistakes I couldn’t take back. Your situation is different because you still have this.” He tapped Danso on the temple with a finger. “It is your power. It will always be.”
Danso unlatched the door and stood at the threshold, staring into the darkness.
“I’ll get you a lantern,” Zaq said, turning away.
“Zaq,” Danso called. “What if I don’t want to be the best possible Bassai?” He turned to face his Second. “What if I want to be…anything else?”
Zaq stared at him for a second, then said: “I’ll get you a lantern.”
Danso stood there and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Night came with a thunderstorm, and rain poured into the courtyard of the MaaNem household. Bits of hail came with the rain, striking the slate roof with unsettling noise, uncommon in Fourth Ward because Nem’s house was one of the very few houses here with a slate roof. The night was not a lit one—Ashu was in a quarter moon, and her sister, fiery Menai, blinked red in reverse gibbous—so that only a series of palm-oil-lit lamps illuminated the courtyard and shone into the street outside.
Nem stood at the threshold of the door to the library’s veranda, watching the rain pour from the roof and fill the impluvium in the middle of the courtyard. She sipped raffia wine from a beaded calabash, slowly. Alongside weybo, the highly intoxicating spirit, she preferred the common man’s drinks to the fruit wines from the hinterlands that the highbrow of Bassa drank. Nem had grown up in the core of the city herself, had mingled in its streets. Her taste buds weren’t simply going to change just because she had clawed her way upward.
She turned back into the library to face the man talking to her. Speaker Abuso was a thin, tall man, as dark as farmland humus. He was the embodiment of the Bassai elite: erudite, diligent, proud. They called him the one without a curved back, because he was stiff and upright and held on to the appearance of integrity for dear life. It made sense that he was plucked from the scholar guild very early on and elevated to Speaker for the nation, the voice of the Upper Council, even though, technically, he was not a part of the council itself.
Even now, sitting, he kept his spine straight and prim, his voice so loud and clear that Nem had given up asking him to quiet it down. She settled for not listening to him, then tuned him out as she often did with most men who sat in that chair. Bassa’s Idu caste was filled with whiny babies who always came to her, complaining about their problems as if she were a place for respite. Sure, it was her job to help them in exchange for gold or bronze or copper or cowrie or favours owed, but she found herself turning to a habit of not listening, as she already knew how to solve most of their issues anyway.
In this case, however, she wasn’t listening because she was mentally parsing the problem that had just landed on her lap, one that she didn’t actually have a solution to.
“Are you listening to me, Nem?” Abuso asked. The decorative markings etched into his forehead, smeared with clay and gold dust, twitched.
Nem turned but didn’t respond. She admired her collection of stitched manuscripts instead, running her eyes around the shelves set into each wall. Her carved desk sat in the centre, under a handwoven rug. Both items bore her handsigned household seal, the intricate curves a symbol she had designed herself, forcing legitimacy into a household name everyone tried to pretend did not exist. The ceiling was part wood and part glass that bore handpainted versions of the same symbol. A cylinder of candles hung from the middle.
Nem walked back to her desk and sat behind it. She picked up a sheet of paper and a charcoal stylus.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
“Gathering resources,” she said. “I will need your household signature.”
Abuso eyed her. “I’m not signing anything. I cannot get any more embroiled in this fiasco than I already am.”
Nem looked at him across the desk as she wrote. “Whether you like it or not, it was in the line of doing what you asked that we got embroiled in this yellowskin matter. You should have fought harder against the closure if you wanted to remain out of this.”
“I am one person,” Abuso retorted. “Those against were outvoted.”
“Then we suffer the consequences. Do·ta knows his caravans will be severely impacted, so he’s very keen on getting the yellowskin caught. We should have answers when he comes asking. Even better if we have the yellowskin dangling from a rope in the city square by then. No loose ends, and we still get to make a show of strength. Who knows if there are even more yellowskins out there planning things?” Nem leaned in and wrote some more. “You can help me, or I can find other ways to do this, and whatever you see, you take it.”
Abuso’s frown deepened as she wrote. “A whole cursed people, unseen for a thousand seasons, suddenly awoken.” He shook his head. “Where did they even come from—beneath the sea?”
“You’re the educated one here,” Nem said. “Shouldn’t you know?”
Abuso scoffed. “You think jali training is about knowing what part of history is true or not? My training was memorising a bunch of litanies and knowing how to create more, and perhaps if one is blessed enough, learning how to sing them and entertain too. I didn’t learn how to tell if a bunch of island spirit-people are real or not, not to talk of knowing where it came from.”
“The yellowskin is a she. Or at least that’s what the official who saw her reported.”
“You mean the same official who said it changed to high-black?” Abuso snorted. “I might as well believe it is Menai in the flesh.” He paused. “What are you writing?”
Nem passed the paper across the desk to him. He frowned at it, reading it from a distance without picking it up.
“That’s outrageous. What do you need this many hunthands for?”
Nem stared into his face. “What do you think is our best chance of catching someone we’re not even sure exists? We need numbers.”
Abuso frowned at her some more, then leaned forward, picked up the stylus, and signed his household name on the paper. He threw the stylus down in frustration.
“None of this would’ve happened if Oke had just stayed in one place. But no, she had to go gallivanting all over the desert, saying she’s looking for some useless bone rock.”
Nem said nothing. The bone rock he was calling useless, Oboda had brought back to her after failing to find Abuso’s daughter. How he had procured it was a separate matter entirely, a matter that was probably connected to why there was a yellowskin on the mainland. But it was in Nem’s best interest not to complicate matters as they stood, so she kept this to herself.
“The next time I hear from you,” Abuso said, rising, “it had better be good news. Or it’s over in this city, Nem. Remember our agreements. My daughter, or everything you have will be in jeopardy.”
Nem snatched her paper back. “I’m aware of the gravity of the situation.” She paused. “And I would prefer if you refrain from threats in the future. I do not take kindly to them.”
Abuso scoffed, then rose and took his leave, yelling for his Second, who doubled as prime guard. The man opened the door and announced Abuso’s leave.
Nem reread the letter, which was addressed to at least five or six ward leaders, consisting of ward chiefs and civic guard captains. A moment passed, and then the door opened, and Oboda walked in.
“He’s ready,” Oboda said. “In holding.”
Nem nodded, rolled up the paper, and handed it to Oboda.
“Give that to Satti and have her send it off immediately. Also—” She tilted her head for him to shut the door. He did. “I have a task for you. It involves retrieving a, um, an artifact. Something you can never be caught doing or caught with, and something I will have to deny knowing about if either of those two things happens.”
He nodded, unfazed.
“I will give you the details, but let us deal with this civic guard first.”
She rose and walked out of the library, Oboda right behind her, his boots causing thunderclaps with the floor, echoes of the thunder outside.
“Find Esheme,” Nem said to the first househand she met outside the door. “Tell her to meet me at the stalls.”
The holding stalls of the Nem household were on the ground floor, but not below ground as with most of the city’s holding facilities. Nem thought underground holdings smelled too bad and were difficult to clean. Of course, it was unheard of for a private home to have its own holding at all—detention and jailing were the responsibility of the civic guard and the local government of each ward. But in Nem’s line of work, there were times when people needed to be handled outside the usual channels.
The stalls were instead set aside in a separate building from the main household, adjacent to the kwaga stables, carefully locked, guarded, and disguised so that anyone who wasn’t looking couldn’t find them. Here, Nem stood with Esheme in the semi-stable, semi-prison interior, their water-resistant cloaks dripping from the walk from the main house in the rain. Oboda stood next to them, boots squishing with water as he shuffled, impatient. Outside, rain lashed at the thatch roof.
The man they came to see was speechless upon their arrival. He had been strung up from the rafters by a rope pulley, the strain in his shoulder joints clear from a darkness building there, blood communing at the wrong point. In addition to being starved of food and water, it was obvious he’d been whipped, his back opened with bleeding scars. He was now so faint he looked asleep but was, in fact, slowly dying.
“Do you recognise this man?” she asked her daughter.
Esheme squinted in the light, green with unease as she always was whenever Nem brought her here, but stoic in the face of it. She stood straight-backed and nodded.
“Good,” Nem said, an idle hand on her chin. “You should never forget a face that has wronged you. And in this case, not just you; anyone who lays a hand on your intended disrespects this whole household.”
“What do you want to do with him?” Esheme asked.
“Oboda will flog him some more,” Nem said. “Then, I will make sure he is sent over the border and can never return.”
“The border is closed,” Esheme said, “so that’s impossible. We’ll have to do something else.”
Shock didn’t quite register on Nem’s face, but something moved within her, and it was not a pang of nostalgia. It was something that showed up every now and then when, even after dealing with some of the most despicable people in her line of work, she could not quite come to terms with this side of Esheme. There was something primal about the girl, a vindictive desire to demonstrate always that she was capable of anything. And she was, but that wasn’t Nem’s worry. She was more concerned that whatever path lay ahead of her daughter could be destroyed by this relentlessness before it even had a chance to manifest.
“Are you sure?” Nem asked.
“He is going to die at some point, anyway,” Esheme said matter-of-factly. “Better to be buried in the welcoming humus than the harsh and unforgiving sands of the Savanna Belt, where his spirit may never know any rest.”
“Okay, fine,” Esheme said. “It shows weakness if we let him go.”
Nem turned to look at the civic guard. He had opened his eyes now and was attempting to speak but his lips were parched, unable to stretch properly. Oboda held up a finger to silence the man, then unclipped his runku from his waist and swung it so that it made a deadly whoosh with the air. He set the heavy head on the ground and leaned on the weapon, looking to Nem, but also to Esheme, waiting for a decision.
“You have always said you want me to learn,” Esheme said. “You say you want people to think of us with respect. Well, when people think of us, this is what we should want them to remember: that even the slightest errors against us will not be tolerated.”
Nem regarded her daughter, perturbed. This, exactly, was why she had insisted that Esheme join the counsel guild. She belonged to that life, to the Idu ways, one that required balance. Not this one of blood and depravity, designless. Nem was doing everything she could to teach Esheme to be streetwise, decisive, ambitious, but also to temper that with shrewd prudence, keep the order of things from going askance. The latter never stuck, though, and each day, Esheme’s affinity for the deep end grew in a way that unsettled Nem.
This time, however, maybe she was right. Maybe Nem was growing soft. Perhaps this was why Abuso thought he could bully her. Perhaps she should be doing more to carve her name into the fabric of Bassa.
She nodded at Oboda.
Oboda moved swiftly; in two or three steps, he lifted the runku and swung. There was a crack of thunder outside. Wind swept in, and the fires in the room shifted. Nem placed a firm hand on her daughter’s neck in case she tried to turn away, but Esheme did not. Nem was proud of her for it, but concerned she had just let burn a fire she could not extinguish.
The court of the Fourth Ward, like each within the city, was an exact replica of the noble court of the Great Dome, only one tenth its size. It held seating for less than fifty and had dais space for two judges and a supporting panel, instead of the whole Upper and Lower Councils. Esheme had only been to the noble court once, on a guild excursion, and had never forgotten the thickness of the pillars, the height of the ceiling, the array of benches in every conceivable direction. Since then, she had always thought of the city versions as drab.
Esheme sat at the very rear of the small hall. It was early morning, which meant the court was near empty. Smaller hearings, those between citizens, were held first in the day. The biggest hearings—involving serious crimes like deadly assaults, robberies, and rapes—were dealt with in the evenings, when most people had returned from the day’s work and were willing to trundle in and listen to proceedings. As a novitiate of the counsel guild, Esheme was mandated to attend these larger hearings, since they were community-versus-accused. She was also required to attend nation-versus-accused hearings, which were held at the Great Dome’s noble court and happened so infrequently that none had yet happened in her lifetime.
The case before her was a silly one, as most were: Two farmers from the same guild, though patrons to rival trading partners, had gone into an altercation over a disputed land border. One had attacked the other with a hoe. Now the attacked man wanted payment for what he had spent treating a head injury.
The counsel speaking on behalf of the accused man was a recent graduate of the university, a woman called Fafa who was only a few seasons older than Esheme and had just ascended from counsel novitiate to junior guild member. She waited as the accuser’s counsel, an older veteran of the guild, shattered and dismissed her every accusation. The complainants themselves sat on opposing benches, looking at each other askance.
Esheme enjoyed attending these hearings. Being so close to the Great Dome, Fourth Ward held court seriously and often, and Esheme considered these early-morning sparring contests the place where one could really learn about people, their strongest desires in the minutest circumstances, the things they held on to for dear life. The high-profile hearings were usually too swept up in furore for individual motives and reactions to shine through. The early-morning cases provided an up-close-and-personal view of things, which better suited Esheme’s interests. If she could visit courts outside of Second, Third, and the neighbouring Fifth, she would, but if rumours were to be believed, anything beyond Seventh was not a court, anyway. It was a community meeting where nothing proper happened.
Fafa was making her final argument for the panel, which consisted of two judges—Second Elders who were Fourth Ward’s representatives at the Lower Council—the ward chief and civic guard captain of Fourth, and a selected jali who mostly took records. The five listened attentively as the young woman suddenly dropped the act she’d been maintaining all this time—that of a meek and acquiescent novice—and gave a powerful speech that revealed updates to encroachment laws that the attacker had been unaware of, argued for the value lost by the attacked, and enchanted the panel with a final plea that a few bronze pieces were nothing compared to a man almost losing his life and a household almost losing its head.
The panel nodded, and there was a relaxation in her charge’s shoulders. The other counsel had his mouth agape, his charge shifting uncomfortably in his bench. Having expended all his points during earlier arguments, the older man gave a closing that was dappled and weak. The judges didn’t deliberate much after. Fafa was smiling long before they ruled that her charge would be paid over a hundred bronze pieces.
Esheme smiled out of the corner of her mouth as the teams packed up and the panel took a break. The losing side went into an argument immediately after, while Fafa walked out, shoulders high. Esheme’s eyes followed her out, admiring the woman’s technique. Reel them in when they thought you weak, and strike back when they had expended all their energy, when they couldn’t retaliate. It was a trap many weren’t supposed to fall into, but Fafa understood the hubris of educated Idu men, especially when they looked at her and saw a small, young woman, fresh into the guild. Winning this case hadn’t been a matter of legal prowess. It was a matter of human psychology.
Ikobi came into the hall right then, spotted Esheme, and settled next to her on the bench.
“What is it exactly you gain from these things again?” the elderly woman asked. She said it like she didn’t already know the answer, but Esheme knew that what she was really asking was if Esheme herself knew why she came here so often.
“People,” Esheme said, same as she’d answered every other time. “Being a good counsel is about knowing what makes people people.”
“In a way, that’s true,” her mentor said. “But it’s no substitute for classes at the university, at least one of which you will have definitely missed at this point.”
“I can always memorise laws,” Esheme said. “Besides, all mainland law can be summed up as ‘affluence rules and lack follows.’”
Ikobi chuckled. Unlike most Elders at the university, Ikobi considered Esheme amusing rather than finding her grating, a welcome change from how other mentors at the university treated their mentees.
“How so?” the woman asked. “Didn’t Fafa just win this case? Her fee will perhaps cost that farmer less than a few crops. His attacker, on the other hand, will be owing his trading partner for a while.” She shifted in her seat. “Influence, perhaps, is the word you’re looking for.”
“Affluence, influence, does it matter?” Esheme said. “The word you are looking for is power. Which is what Fafa just employed anyway, only in a form most don’t recognise.”
Ikobi wore a look that reminded Esheme of how Nem sometimes looked at her, like pride mixed with an equal measure of worry. However, she did not try to press it as Nem often did. Instead, she rose and knocked on the bench.
“All right, that’s enough, get up,” she said. “Where’s your Second?”
“Outside.” Esheme didn’t move. “I want to hear a case or two more before I leave.” The panel was returning, a few new attendees were showing up, and the next counsels were preparing with their charges. Ikobi’s eyes followed them, and then she sighed and sat, deciding it was pointless to argue with Esheme.
They watched the proceedings in silence. The new case was a simple and very tired one: an unpaid loan.
“Who is it this time?” Ikobi asked without turning her head. “Danso or Nem?”
Esheme did not respond. Truthfully, it was both. Both of them were going to be the death of her in this city if she let them. Every single time she thought she had done enough to distance herself from their missteps, they found new ways to drag her back into their muddy waters.
“You can’t keep running away from your obligations every time you’re upset,” Ikobi said. “Those two are your family—or at least Danso will be soon—and you must find a way to deal with them.”
Easy to say, Esheme thought. She had always known Danso to be a blockhead, but his antics were getting worse these days.
She didn’t hate him, not quite. In fact, she liked Danso a lot. He was intelligent, perhaps the most scholarly man in Bassa if he opened himself up to the possibility. He didn’t treat her unkindly for being Nem’s daughter, and he took her words seriously. He was also the only person in Bassa who would allow himself to be joined to her. He understood what it meant to straddle the two worlds of being privileged and outcast at the same time, even though the reasons why they were both outcasts differed. And, surprising herself, she wasn’t taken aback by his Shashi status and associated complexion—he was a part of the Idu caste regardless, wasn’t he?
But what most fascinated her about Danso was that there was a puerile stainlessness about him, like a clean slate to be written upon. The first time they met, a matchmaking Elder Jali from the university had brought Danso before her and Nem, offering a golden opportunity to have Nem’s household be tied to the potential of his greatness, as the jali had put it. Nem was to act quickly before someone else recognised the opportunity. Nem had taken one look at the impish young man, eyed the written record of his Idu status the jali presented, and whispered to Esheme by her side: “This young man is going to be trouble.”
Esheme knew, though, that this trouble was simply dough, and if she got joined to it, she could make whatever kind of bread she desired.
Now, she saw a bit of folly in that decision. Sure, it made sense on slate, but in practice, Danso was the chaotic kind of unpredictable, not the more intentional kind she desired. Unlike her maa, who, despite being the antithesis of everything Bassai, liked to stay constrained and predictable by working within the Ideal’s systems, Esheme wanted to have not one face but many. She wanted to be iridescent, a different colour with every angle. She was already an outlier in Bassa, and Nem wanted her to escape the combined weight of a parent of Emuru status and the stigma of a fixer’s child by becoming an inlier. But Esheme coveted the opposite: to slip between the circles Bassa had drawn so she could exist unquestioned within or without any of her choosing. Preferably wherever granted her the most freedom or perhaps the most acceptance. All she needed was a place where she did not have to tone herself down.
She couldn’t achieve this with Danso exposing her, though. When he wasn’t getting into trouble for reading arcane manuscripts, he was failing to wear the proper cloth, to do the proper hairstyles, to show up when required. While Esheme did everything to stay focused on the spaces she aimed to circumnavigate, Danso seemed to be doing everything to leave the one he was a part of. No matter what she did—including sending Oboda to keep an eye out for him in case he’d slipped away from his own Second—he always found new ways to disappoint her.
Esheme sighed aloud. Ikobi snorted.
“You’re still young,” the woman said. “You have time to make things better. Stop sighing like an old woman with a basket of tomatoes on her back.” She rose again. “Okay, time to go. Really, this time.”
“The case isn’t over.”
“Look, we already know he’s going to lose the loan.” Ikobi pointed. “What do you notice about the complainant’s counsel?”
Esheme looked. The counsel, a smallish man with perhaps a few seasons of guild time under his wrapper, kept fidgeting and snatching glances at the debtor, who sat rock-still but every once in a while gave the counsel a hard-edged glare.
“He has threatened him,” she said.
“Power, as you said,” Ikobi said. “Different form from the last, but same currency.”
She walked out. After a while, Esheme followed.
Outside, Oboda untied her kwaga, one ear on the nearby chatter of a group of idling Yelekuté who argued about whether the price inflations caused by the border closure would remain or go down. Esheme got on her animal, lost in thought, and Oboda led her away.
Nem had always told her she needed to get joined to Danso to aid the smoothing of her social creases. But today’s cases had fermented the idea that had been brewing in her mind for a long time: that she didn’t quite need Danso at all, and honestly, she might not even need Nem. She only really needed one thing, and that thing was power.