CHAPTER 1 Lord Tambo
Nasomi uncovered the basket to admire her work. She inhaled the aroma that wafted from it, reveled in Father’s yet-to-be-given compliments. “This is wonderful, my daughter,” he would say, his mouth full. She’d prepared his favorite: pumpkin leaves mixed with powdered peanuts and dried chili; she’d included a piece of hard bread.
“Nice!” she said out loud, proud of the extra attention she’d put into her work.
“I’m sure it is,” someone behind her said.
She started. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you were behind me,” she told the man.
He was dressed in a rich brown sleeveless tunic adorned with patterns of red and green, and baggy breeches fastened at his shins. His sandaled feet were dustless, like he’d walked on the air. All his fingers had rings of copper, all studded with various gems, marking him as a tribal lord. He had searching, teasing eyes and a long handsome face. He had much hair on his head, and although it was unkempt, it suited him well.
Nasomi performed her act of courtesy: she touched her chest, curtsied. “My Chief. Please pardon me.”
“That is good smelling food there.” He returned the greeting by touching his chest and dipping his head. He gave her a sweet smile.
“It’s for my father. I am sorry I blocked your way, My Chief.”
The path at that point was too narrow to let him pass by her. It wound through tall grasses and bushes. She covered the basket and walked on. She couldn’t seem to walk fast enough. His strides were long and he was but a pace behind her.
After a while, he said, “I think the path is now wide enough for us to walk abreast.”
They had gone past the thicker section, and the grass and wild flowers in the sides were easy to tramp upon if more walking space was to be required. She ignored him and tried to walk faster.
“I mean you no harm,” he said.
“Isn’t that what a robber or rapist would say?”
He gave a short laugh. “You’re right. I am sorry. I think I am lost,” he said. “Someone pointed the way, but there are too many forks, I misremember.”
She paused to let him catch up. They were now by the first field and a number of people were in sight. She felt safe enough. “You are a tribal lord,” she said, “but where are your attendants?”
“I didn’t need my own today. I am in my father’s company.”
She didn’t pry. “Where is the lost lord going?”
“To a field.”
“That’s not saying much.”
“All I know is my father will be there, to attend to some dispute.”
“The fields begin here, My Chief. You can go along this path until you come to the one you are looking for.”
He gestured for her to continue walking. “What is your name?” he asked.
She could lie, but she wasn’t a good liar and it was just her name. “Nasomi.”
“Nasomi,” he said, stressing the ‘o’ in a thick accent that revealed he was of the Somebo tribe. “Lovely name. Mine is Tambo Mwanakepe Go.”
“So, you belong to the Kepe clan. It must be nice being the son of a Chieftain.”
“It has its good days… Ah, I see you don’t believe me because I travel alone. Why would someone impersonate a tribal lord?”
“I’d expect a palanquin and at least half a dozen attendants, maybe a singer or two to sing your praise as you move to the admiration of the people.”
“I like walking around alone. Helps me see things I would otherwise miss. Like finding a woman in the bushes talking to herself. Look, my breeches have pockets. Sometimes I put my hands in them to not be too conspicuous.” He demonstrated, grinning as well.
“Your clothes, though. They scream rich and lordly.”
He shrugged. “Not as much as the rings.”
They walked on for a moment in silence. “Some people I know talk to themselves,” she said defensively. “You crept up on me.”
“I didn’t. You were minding what was in the basket to hear me come. I only wanted to ask for directions.”
“But you’re not a rapist?”
He laughed, and so did she. She found herself mimicking his laughter.
“I hate such people,” he said, with all seriousness. “You’ll forgive me for saying this, but if I were a spirit, I would haunt them at night and rip out their innards and let their bodies rot in the streets.”
“So would I.”
There were a dozen more people than she expected on her father’s field. Even the lowest among the strangers looked richly dressed in the manner Tambo was. Her father looked drab against all that finesse, as he argued with another elderly man who was obviously Tambo’s father.
“It seems we were coming to the same place,” Tambo said to her.
She rushed to her father’s side.
“You keep disputing the deed,” Chieftain Go said, waving a parchment in Nasomi’s father’s face. “Would you like me to read it again?”
“I have a deed also,” Father said. He leaned on his hoe and looked eager to get back to the digging. “It has the monograph of the king himself and his scorched symbol. And it says my land extends four gardens, from there to there”—he indicated with a shaking finger— “and five the other way. I’ve had it for five years, My Chief. Five years. Ask Chishala, my neighbor, there. There are beacons set. I was there when they were being laid by the architects themselves.”
“You haven’t shown it to me. My deed here reads that—”
“Yes, yes, you repeat yourself. Your deed describes your land being seven gardens long. A good part of that lies in the farms of Chishala and the other idiot over there. I do not see you harassing them to hand over the land. Why only me? Because I am a poor farmer who has nothing but a few grains to plant?”
“Harassing you? I am here only to claim what is mine.”
Father touched Nasomi’s hand. “Quick, my daughter, rush to the house. Get the deed to this land. It will be folded neatly in the small chest beside my pallet.”
“I am not leaving you alone,” she said.
“I need the deed, Somi. My Chief here seems to think this is his land.” He looked the chieftain straight in the eye.
“Are you saying I am trying to steal from you?” The chieftain was breathing hard, near wheezing.
“Father,” Tambo said, so coolly like tempers were not flared. He knelt before the chieftain.
“Son. Did you get lost like I knew you would?” the chieftain asked as though only just noticing that Tambo was there.
“No. I took a different route.”
“Stand, my son. Now, I want these people arrested and tried.”
“May I propose another way to solve this, Father?”
Chieftain Go sat on the seat of his palanquin. “I’m impatient, boy. What other way is there? This is our land here.”
“Hear my proposal. Let us invite these people to our table and we can examine both parchments, and we can call experts to help us. Perhaps there has been a mix-up, but a good-natured discussion over a meal can set things right.”
The chieftain grunted. “Now they must eat my food as well? A good few days in a dungeon will bring senses to this man.” He pointed at Nasomi’s father, who scowled at the insult.
“I am not an interpreter of the law, and neither are you, Father,” Tambo said. “We need someone to examine both documents. If it turns out we are right, this man here would have no objections about it. And we might even employ him to look after the farm.”
“Or have him imprisoned.”
“And if it turns out we are wrong,” Tambo continued, “we would have not condemned an innocent man. And people will still say good things about us in either case.”
“Good things. Good things! Pa!” the chieftain said bitterly, shaking his head. “I should have come with one of your brothers instead. They know how to act quickly. You talk too much.”
“But you must admit I have talked well.”
His father gave him a long look. “Perhaps you have. Have it your way, for now. Take charge of this dinner yourself, and see that this is brought to a quick end. The sun is hot on me, I would go home now.”
The attendants immediately took their places around the palanquin and hoisted it to their shoulders in a well-rehearsed synchrony. A poet strummed his string instrument, prepared his voice as the palanquin began to move. Tambo gave a small wave to Nasomi and mouthed something she couldn’t make out, then followed after the chieftain.
Nasomi and Father went home without working on the field. When he spoke, it was to mumble about how greedy some people in the world were, how unfair life was, and how this was the work of the Tumina, the spirits beneath the ground. Nasomi had seen him bitter, but this was deep, this was fury. He kicked the dirt and picked stones to throw at trees. He dropped the hoe and Nasomi had to carry it.
At home, he refused to eat, refused to wash, no matter how many times Nasomi pleaded. He muttered to himself when he thought he was alone, and complained to Nasomi and her cousin, Naena, when they were anywhere close to him.
“We've lost everything,” he said. “Everything! All because of some greedy man. He has more than generations after him will need. Why does he want to also get my crumbs?” He coughed so terribly Nasomi thought he'd cough himself to death.
“I can start selling things at the market,” she said. “We can sustain ourselves.”
“What things, if we will have nothing to reap? And what will I do? Sit on my rump all my days till I die?”
“Father, you're being so anxious. What would Mother say?”
“Don't bring her up to try to control me.” He coughed. “You know how hard she and I worked to get that piece of land.”
Nasomi looked to Naena for help, but her cousin, who usually knew what to say, was quiet.
“We mustn't lose hope, Father. I think things will go well. The young lord will make things well for us.”
He sucked through his teeth, and went to his room, muttering to himself.
“Young lord?” Naena said. “You must tell me about him.”
“Now you have found your mouth?”
“What did you want me to say, Somi? You’ve seen the mood he is in. Just tell me about this young lord.”
CHAPTER 2 The Walk
Nasomi and Naena were scouring pots the next morning when Tambo appeared at the gateway. Naena was the one who saw him and she nudged Nasomi. They both stood and wiped their hands on their wrapping cloths as he entered. He was smiling.
“I found the place,” he said, looking quite pleased with himself.
“My Chief,” Nasomi and Naena said together, curtsying.
“You came here, My Chief?” Nasomi asked. She became conscious of her and Naena’s appearance: unoiled skins, undone hair, wrapping cloths with sodden patches. And also, the small drab house, the unremarkable yard with a falling fence around it. Two hens chased another right past Tambo’s feet, clucking too loudly.
He returned the compliment. “Ladies.” He didn’t seem bothered by the poor surroundings. “I asked around for a farmer with a daughter called Nasomi. I got lost through some of the ways, but I persisted.”
“You have to forgive us, we didn’t expect this,” Nasomi said. “We were going to come to your home this evening for the meeting.”
“I told you I’d come to find you. There’s no need for the meeting now. I have set things right.”
“You mean the farm? It is ours?”
“Yes. Entirely. I convinced my father to let the matter go. We have more than enough land, and it was a matter of inquiring about the deed. Is your father home?”
“Let me get him. He will be glad of this.” She rushed into the house and found Father dozing on a stool next to his pallet. He had said he needed to pray. It seemed he needed sleep more.
She knelt before him. “Father?”
He lifted his head to look at her like he’d been expecting to see her there. “Mhmm?”
“Father, Lord Tambo is here. He has some news about our land.”
He opened his mouth and paused, as if not comprehending. “Lord Tambo? Who is...? He’s come here? He’s outside our house?”
“Come, Father.” She took him by the hand and led him outside.
“My Chief,” Father said, touching his heart and dipping his head.
“The Mara bless you,” Lord Tambo said, gesturing for the man to be at ease.
“When my daughter told me there was a lord at the door, I thought it was your father. Where are your attendants, My Chief?”
Tambo stole a glance at Nasomi, gave a dismissive laugh. “I sent them on an errand. I thought to personally bring this news to you. The land…”
“Yes?” Father shuddered.
“It turned out our deed was old and invalid. We didn’t realize my great-grandmother had gifted the land to the king and somebody forgot to get rid of the deed. When Father stumbled upon it… Well, he thought we had land no one had reminded him of. But it is all yours now.”
Father did a stiff dance of wiggling his shoulders and pumping his fists. “Ahhhh! This is so wonderful! I don’t know how I can thank you, My Chief.”
“No need,” Tambo said. “My father was quick to understand and leave the land in the hands of a hardworking citizen like you. I have also provided you with two workers to help you with the season’s growing.”
Father couldn’t help but take Tambo’s hand in both of his and shake it. “You are a good lord. Nasomi, I will go to the field now. The weeds won’t pluck themselves.”
“But you need to eat first, Father.”
“You will bring me the food. The sun won’t wait. Give Lord Tambo some cornwine.” He dashed back into the house.
“You have brought joy to Father,” Nasomi said to Tambo. “He was sick and worried.”
“I’m only happy to.” A moment of heavy silence fell upon them, the three exchanged looks.
“This is my cousin Naena. She is the daughter of my mother’s young brother…”
Naena nudged Nasomi in the ribs. “You don’t have to say everything, Somi. You will bore the lord.”
“Please, you can tell me everything,” Tambo said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t mind listening to your family history.”
“Sit for some cornwine,” Nasomi said. “I will bring it shortly.”
“No, no. Don’t trouble yourself. I’ve had a lot to eat already.”
Another bout of silence.
“I will go now,” Tambo said.
“Thank you, My Chief,” Nasomi said. “For this gift. It is a good thing.” Naena gave her a disbelieving look, as if to say, Are those the best words you can speak?
He smiled and turned. He walked away slowly, deliberately. He was in no hurry. He placed his hands at his back, turned his head left and right and skyward to study whatever caught his attention. A man with few troubles in his life, Nasomi thought.
Naena poked her. “How can you be so dim, Somi?”
“He wants you to follow him.”
“That can’t be right.”
“Don’t be silly. Learn to understand the clues. Go after him, now, or I will.”
Naena took two steps forward. Nasomi grabbed her hand.
“I will go. Stubborn you.”
She trotted some of the way, walked the rest. When she was almost upon him, she felt so stupid. I shouldn’t have come, she thought. When he turned and saw her coming, he stopped. She would tell him she was going to see an uncle and walk past him.
“Nasomi,” he said, sweetly and without surprise. “Have you seen the new aqueduct being made?”
“Glimpses of it as I move about the city. I have meant to take a good look one good day.” She lied. She didn’t care about construction.
“Today is a good day then,” he said.
“Well, I can’t go like this.”
“I will wait.”
She hesitated, thinking he was jesting. But he smiled reassuringly. “I won’t be long,” she muttered, and she ran back. She rushed past Naena even as her cousin asked why she was back so soon. She went to her room with Naena in tow.
“What are you in a hurry for?”
“He’s taking me to see the aqueduct.”
“Ooh. Let’s get you dressed properly.”
Nasomi chose a supple seamless dress, the fabric brown from years of being worn. It was her favorite, and she thought the fading made the dress look better. Naena was about to comment when Nasomi gave her a look that said, I am wearing this!
Naena shrugged. “Your hair.”
“Have you seen his?”
They both laughed. “Let me do something quickly,” Naena said. “And wear my sandals. Yours will break before you take five steps.”
“They never break.”
“Wear mine still. You know they’re better.”
Nasomi tied the sandal straps around her shin as Naena worked on her hair. Naena gathered and wound Nasomi’s hair into a high chunky bun. “You look like a tree. A tree in love.”
Nasomi poked her. “It’s only a walk. Don’t be too quick about things.”
Father called from the living room that he was going, singing and whistling as he went. Nasomi waited for him to get to a good distance before dashing out. At the gate, she called back to Naena, “Take some food for Father in case I am gone for long.”
Naena scowled and folded her arms, but Nasomi knew she would do as asked.
She fell in by Tambo’s side. With his hands in his pockets most of the way, they walked through the streets and alleys of the district. Ninki Nanka was a middle-class district, the abode of farmers, merchants, fishers, workers of cloth, and messengers. Although she had lived her life there, Nasomi thought it was a good place to stay. Even as she and Tambo walked into the next district, Mokele, the differences were obvious: Mokele’s streets were narrower, winding and cutting and veering in undefined patterns; the huts were smaller, clustered; and every few paces, a vendor was trying to sell them something: fresh mangoes, sweet potatoes, sandals, goats, chickens, “sticks that catch fire quicker”.
The new aqueduct passed over the edge of Mokele, held thirty feet in the air by towers that were being constructed twenty feet apart.
“It goes higher as you get closer to the North Gate,” Tambo said. “It is more stable than the old one, longer even by fifteen gardens. When it is complete, they will set to renovate and extend the first one.”
Father used to take Nasomi to the first one numerous times when she was young. He lifted her onto his shoulders, told her to look up. The aqueduct had looked like it would topple on her, and the dizzying effect was excitingly terrifying when he spun her around. Beneath a part that leaked, she had held her mouth open for a drop of water that fell every four heartbeats. Most of them hit a part of her face other than her mouth, and she enjoyed adjusting her position in the hopes she would get ingest the next drop.
“Imagine climbing up there and going all the way to the wall,” she said.
Tambo raised a brow. “Who would want to?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I am just imagining things: people are chasing you, the gates are locked, and that’s the only way out.”
“I'd go to the parts of the wall with gaps, try to squeeze myself through one.”
“The gaps are being guarded by soldiers. Soldiers who have been bewitched to do nothing but kill you.”
“That person should be brave then, climbing so high and going against the water flow. And you do have quite an imagination. I like it. If only we were younger. We would have tried it.”
As her eyes followed the winding of the duct, her hand brushed against his. She flushed, but when she looked at him, he didn’t seem to have noticed.
“The whole thing has needed over five thousand bamboo trees, fifty-six gallons of tar, miles and miles of timber, I-don’t-know-how much stone-weights of rocks, and the rope required could be thirty-eight miles long.”
“Impressive,” Nasomi said. She touched one of his rings with her finger, feeling the texture of the ruby gem.
He looked at her and smiled. “The amount of labor is staggering. It has needed three hundred men and women, thirty-seven oxen, forty horses. The wagon that brought the largest boulder - for the pillar over there - was so long it had a dozen pair of wheels—”
And I thought I was the shy one, Nasomi mused. She gave him a slight pinch on his arm above the wrist.
He reached out to her and she evaded his hand. He reached again and she jumped out of his way.
“Oh, you think you’re clever,” he teased. He lunged for her. She ran, he chased. When he caught her, she was giggling like a little girl. He pinched her and she chased him through narrow streets of clustered stalls, among mud houses, and through a throng of workers hefting planks. Some of them spouted curses, but upon realizing Tambo’s status, they gave the gesture of respect, saying “My Chief.”
He pretended to be tired, to let her catch up. He took her hand and in silence, they watched the raising of a massive scaffold.
“It’s lovely,” Nasomi said. “The structure.”
He escorted her home and went his way.
Later in the night, after a hearty supper of corn pap and cow trotters boiled in beans and pumpkin leaves, Nasomi and Naena sat outside to watch the moon and stars. All the four stars of the Bowl were bright tonight, signaling the advent of the rain season. The moon’s splotches were vividly gray against its luminescent silver. As Father snored loudly in the house, Naena, poking her teeth with a stick, said, “You just have to tell me what happened.”
“We talked and walked and saw the aqueduct. Then I came back home.”
“That’s not saying much, you. What did you talk about?”
“He knows all these things about the aqueducts… you should have heard him talk. Numbers and all that. On our way back, he asked me about my family. I told him about you and Father. I told him Mother died four years ago from ulcers. He asked me if I had been close to her. I said ‘Yes, very. I enjoyed it when she carried me on her back and sang for me when I was ill.”
“‘Sounds like a wonderful woman,’ he said. ‘I said she was.”
“He talks sweetly, doesn’t he? One word at a time.” She mimicked his speech: “‘Sounds like a wonderful woman.’ I can just imagine you there by his side, falling for his voice.”
Nasomi shoved her. “That’s just his accent. They all talk like that.”
“But he does it so well. What did he say about your eyes?”
“He didn’t mention my eyes.”
“Oh, swallow him! How can he not talk about your eyes?”
“Watch your language, Nae. How is he supposed to notice my eyes on the first day?”
“Second day. Your eyes are the first thing everyone loves about you. Is he timid?”
“You asked about his family?”
“Yes. He has two brothers and a sister. I can only remember her name, Teeyana. The other two I forget. He’s firstborn, and will inherit the lordship.”
“That’s too shallow. Give me the intimate details.”
Nasomi shook her head as she laughed. “What surely can I know in just a day about someone?”
“You’re afraid of asking questions. Take me along next time and I’ll show you how to talk to boys.”
Nasomi pushed her again. “He’ll get bored with me.”
“It shows that he likes you. He must be on his lordly bed right now looking at his ceiling and thinking of you.”
“I doubt it, Nae. What have I got to offer?”
“Well, let me count.” She brought her palm to Nasomi’s face and folded the first finger. “First, your eyes.”
“What with you and my eyes, please?”
“They are lovely Nasomi. So brown and shiny.”
“And my face? The rest of my figure?”
“Look at you saying figure. It is not so bad, with your thick hips and tall legs. Good enough to attract a lord.”
“You’re full of teasing, Sister.”
“Second, you cook well. Who doesn’t like good food? Third— What’s with your face?”
Nasomi was squinting at the gateway. “I’m having that feeling again like I’ve dreamed this before. It was exactly like this, you and me talking, and at the gate, a small cat passed.”
Naena looked at the gateway and back at Nasomi. “And third is this,” she said, making a sweeping gesture with a hand of three folded fingers. “This weirdness of yours. He’s going to love that, I tell you. You and your deja vus.”
Nasomi shrugged. She yawned, and so did Naena. “You’ll do my hair tomorrow?”
“Of course. First thing in the morning, before your boyfriend comes.” Naena escaped from an impending pinch.
“He’s not… Ah, there’s no convincing you.”
“No, there isn’t.” Naena stood up and stretched. “Let’s go to sleep.”
Nasomi stood and followed her cousin into the house. As she closed the door, she lingered a while, looking toward the gate. A ginger cat with white stripes appeared. It scratched at something on the ground, waited, and bounded out of view.
CHAPTER 3 The Kiss
He was waiting for her on the narrow path that led toward the fields. He took the basket from her hands and sniffed at it. “Mhmm. This smells good. Bring me some of your cooking one day.” He gave it back.
“Maybe I will,” she teased. “Are you coming with me to greet Father?”
He shook his head. “Take the food to him, you will find me here. I like your hair.”
“I thank you. Naena did it so.”
When she returned, he stood where he was, watching her walk up to him with a smile on his face. He said, “Today we're going to a dismally romantic place.”
They walked up to the new aqueduct where one of his servants was waiting with a horse. He mounted and extended his hand to Nasomi. She took it and he helped her up.
“I will ride home soon,” he told the servant. “As usual…” He put his first finger against his lips.
“Yes, My Chief,” the servant said. “My lips are sealed.” He waved and walked away.
“Hold on tight,” Tambo told Nasomi. “Have you ridden on a horse before?”
“No. I’ve been meaning to. On a good day.”
He gave a short laugh. “This is a good day, then.” He kicked the horse into a trot, then to a gallop when they were on a wide path. Nasomi enjoyed the wind upon her face, the view of the city zooming past, and holding Tambo’s waist.
“Out of the way! Out of the way!” Tambo screamed to people. He nearly knocked down a merchant’s cart. They went down the road through the opulent Nkuku District, followed along the old aqueduct for a while and branched off into The Dragon District. Although The Dragon was in the middle of Nari, it contained nothing much but a barracks for young warriors, a guild of woodworkers, the palace of the Jaad clan with a few residential spots about it, the amphitheater, and the cemetery.
She was seven years old when she asked, “Father? Why is it called The Dragon?”
“Every district in Nari is named after a creature,” Father had replied. “Some of these creatures are real, like those Kwindi, Kowasa and Nkuku districts are named for. Others, as far as we know are myths, legends, and scary bedtime stories. Ninki Nanka is a gigantic water creature said to be protecting the big swamp of the Shodishu people. Let me tell you about this beautiful beast—”
“Start with The Dragon,” young Nasomi said.
“Indeed. Some say the dragon used to be an Ao’Pan warrior named Yanga. Everyone coming from the south will have heard of his story. He was a mighty warrior, going on quests to kill monsters that troubled villages. He heard of a dragon that couldn’t die, and he said to himself ‘There is no dragon Yanga can fail to kill.’ He traveled to the troubled place and found the dragon. A monster so big you think it’s a tower.”
“Taller than our walls?”
“Taller than the walls! And it breathed fire upon him. But he fought and defeated it. The proud warrior killed the dragon that couldn’t die. And then he became it. That’s why it cannot die because whoever kills it takes its place.”
“Very much so. Many believe the dragon is real is because, so many years ago, before the walls of Nari were built, before the kowasa emerged and our tribes united, the dragon flew over these lands, snatching our ancestors’ livestock and burning those who tried to fight him. But he flew away and has never been seen or heard of again.”
Tambo and Nasomi reached the cemetery. He tethered the horse to a small dry tree and led her by hand onto a black piece of land. Every Season of the Sun, the grasses and shrubs that grew upon the cemetery would be put to the flames. Few people these days really bothered to attend this burning ceremony called Respecting the Dead, or Responding to the Taunt. Nasomi had witnessed it once in her lifetime.
Tiny green plants and tufts of grass mottled the ashen ground, signs of the new life that would be fuel for next year’s burning. Tambo was right about the place being dismal and romantic at the same time. It made her reflect on death, desolation, but it also made her think of the life that carries on after, of the sunrise after night, of the impending rain after months of heat. She experienced again the emptiness of missing Mother, but she also felt the companionship of being with Tambo.
“Mother is buried there,” Nasomi said, pointing to a distant group of mounds.
He took her hand in his and squeezed gently, saying nothing, and Nasomi loved him for that. Their sandals crunched the ashes beneath as they walked, the rising particles clinging to and blackening their feet. He listened to her.
“I sat by the grave the entire day after we threw her body in, but I didn’t dare look in. Father and Naena insisted that we go home, but I stayed, even though I didn’t want to look at her body. I hated myself for it, but I had no strength. I didn’t want her to be dead. I wanted her to rise up from the hole and say ‘Let’s go home, my daughter, I am well now.’ She used to say that a lot. ‘I am well now.’ Even when it was clear to see she wasn’t. I guess she wasn’t strong enough for death.
“It stunk, the grave. There were four other bodies in there. Balsams and other noisome herbs, and a hint of rot from some older corpse or two. But I didn’t move, the stink was nothing compared to the pain in my heart. When evening came, so did the people, families of the dead, Father, Naena, too. For the first time, I understood the collective grief. We were all one person when it came to our dead loved ones. Father cried, Naena cried, I cried and I couldn’t stop even after we covered the grave. We embraced each other, embraced the other families. Father had to carry me home and I cried all night. All I wanted was to die, too. Being alive was painful.”
“I am glad you didn’t,” he said.
She chortled. “I am glad I didn’t, either.”
They walked past mounds, the older ones as ashen as much of the cemetery from burned grass, the newer ones barren and awaiting the Taunt of the Tumina. These underground spirits were what gave life to what grew on the land, but they were sly spirits, too. They demanded that you had to till the land and plant seeds and water the ground to get any crops out. And even then, you’d be lucky if insects and locusts don’t come to devour your crops. The Tumina also accepted the dead, ate up their flesh with worms in order to continue giving life to plants and to cause less trouble in the world. When grasses and plants grew on the graves, the Narites considered this a taunt, a spiritual jest by the Tumina. That was why Narites performed the Response, burning the cemetery out of respect of their dead and to say: we will not demand anything of our loved ones in their death.
A group of people, four boys of which the youngest looked five and the oldest fourteen, a teenage girl and an elderly woman stood beside a newly dug grave. The girl and the three older boys hefted a body wrapped in cloth and tossed it in. Then they moved back a few paces and all began to weep.
“Let’s comfort them,” Tambo said. They approached and spoke words of comfort to the elderly woman, praying the Mara’s blessings on the family, wishing them well in life. This reminded Nasomi of her grief and it gave her the sincerity and kindness to give the children each a hug and to urge them to live a good life as they remembered their dead brother. Burial day was two days away, she could imagine how hard this would be for them.
“I must go now,” Tambo said when they left the mourners. “Father would be looking for me. Let me take you home.” He let her ride the horse. She was nervous, thinking the horse would throw her and Tambo off, or gallop into a ditch. But Tambo’s gentle guidance eased her fears and she felt comfortable enough about riding by the time they got to Mokele District. He left her there and she walked home, rehearsing what to tell Naena.
From then on, she met with Tambo as often as four days a week. He would take her to places she would otherwise not think of going, some of which she had last been to as a child. They scouted for spots they could be alone: in the unoccupied cave houses of Kwindi District, behind stalls in the marketplaces, under trees and beneath bushes, and in the shadows of the towers holding up the aqueducts.
Once, he took her to the amphitheater. Dark clouds were gathering and rain smelled in the air. The wind wafted her skirt, prickled her skin with goosebumps. The amphitheater stood tall and majestic, and it looked like it was moving against the gloomy clouds. The gargoyles perched at the top, rimming the entire structure, looked as though they would pounce down. They were statues of previous kings and warriors of Nari, some of them winged or having limbs of lions. Nasomi’s head span looking up at them, just as it had the numerous times she’d been there for New Year's festivities.
Tambo and Nasomi walked around the amphitheater, naming parts of the panorama of the city that revealed themselves. They stopped halfway around; he took her by the hand into an alcove behind a pillar. He turned to face her.
“Your eyes,” he said.
“What about them?”
“They make me want to do this.” He cupped her neck and part of her face in his palm, drew close and kissed her on the lips.
His lips were soft, full, ravenous with desire. Resistance welled up in her, but she pushed it down, let her own desire swell and meld with his. And as though the kiss unlocked the heavens, rain began to fall.
We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Nasomi's Quest. You can find it at MVmedia and anywhere books are sold as of June 1, 2020.