Hello Dear Readers!
M. L. Wang here with the first chapter of my brand new newsletter serial, Rage and Whisper! As those of you who have followed me for a while may know, my most successful book to date, The Sword of Kaigen, was originally written in this format, with a chapter released to my mailing list each month. I’ve found that having a project I get to write on a serial schedule helps relax me and keep my creative muscles loose as I work on the main series.
Rage and Whisper is a standalone featuring the same elemental magic system, martial arts, and African-dominated world-building as the rest of my books. Here, we follow a group of teenage fighters, all prodigies in their respective styles, through a school-wide combat tournament that forces them to contend not only with each other but with their own egos, trauma, and prejudices. Will some of them fall in love? Yes. And is someone trying to kill one of them? Probably. I’m still working out that part of the outline.
To avoid this introductory segment going forever, I’m going to bullet-point the main things to know about Rage & Whisper before jumping in:
- It is a standalone! While it takes place in the same world as my other books, you do not need to have read anything else to know what’s going on.
- It takes place nine years after The Sword of Kaigen, and two years before Theonite.
- It does NOT contain spoilers for Theonite: Planet Adyn, Theonite: Orbit, or any of their planned sequels.
- It DOES however contain MAJOR SPOILERS for The Sword of Kaigen, so if you were planning on reading that, be sure to do so before Rage and Whisper. (Sample chapters here to get you started).
- With protagonists aged 14 – 19, Rage and Whisper represents an attempt to land somewhere between the preteen-oriented tone of Theonite and the adult tone of The Sword of Kaigen. I’ll let you decide if I succeeded.
- I write serial chapters as they come out, meaning that all chapters are essentially first drafts, so excuse the inevitable typos.
Useful References (i.e. the stuff that would go in the front and/or back of a physical book):
“Yiriku men o men ji do a te ke bamba di.”
No matter how long a log stays in the water, it will never be a crocodile.
– Mande Proverb
Maadi had come to tolerate the existence of Carytha’s heinous white winter, but she was having trouble tolerating its fingers all over her skin. Her body’s natural response to the cold was to heat up to a degree that frost and snowflakes melted before they made contact. But she had given her word as a noble to keep a lid on her powers, and now there was snow in her ears, down the back of her neck, up her sleeves, up her shirt, in her socks. Gods damn it, how had it gotten in her socks?
“You dead over there?” Siya’s voice sing-songed from across the clearing.
Maadi lay still in the snowbank where she had been thrown, knowing that the moment she rose, her teeth would start chattering uncontrollably. Above her, skeleton tree branches swayed against a sickly white sky that wouldn’t stop spitting out snow. The sunforsaken flakes fell on Maadi’s face and stuck there, sitting brazenly on her skin for several dinmanu before melting. Gods, was this what it felt like to be an adyn, with no power over the elements? Miserable! What could their ancestors possibly have done to deserve such a curse?
“Mighty Biraye, Daughter of Kings!” Siya sang in the mocking fashion of a jaseli. “Slain by a snowdrift!”
“Oh, shut up.” Digging gloved fingers into the snow Maadi sat up. And there went her teeth—clattering together so hard they felt like they might fall out. Stubbornly, she clenched them together, but this only caused the flame-guttering tremors to migrate to her core, where they shook her entire body from her toes to the tips of her braids. Holding the shivers uncomfortably in the pit of her stomach, she stood.
“Aww!” Siya let out a laugh a little too amused to be sympathetic. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you shake like that!”
“I said shut up!” Maadi liked to think she was usually more articulate than Siya, but the cold was getting to her. She crammed snow into a projectile and lobbed it at her friend. It was an impotent gesture. The snow melted on contact with Siya’s sheer blistering aura, and the solitary water droplet that made it to her body turned to vapor the moment it hit her skin.
Siya Wagadu was not out here to endure the cold; she was here to conquer it. Everyone agreed that Siya was an offensively beautiful girl, with a wide set nose and mouth, large, fierce eyes, and the flawlessly dark skin of a true manga koro. But in Maadi’s opinion a person didn’t know beauty until they saw Siya as she was right now, in the full power of her taya, flames streaming from her pores, electric blue nearest her skin, turning white a hand’s-width out and then breaking into crackling ribbons of yellow, orange, and Wagadu red against the air.
Few tajakalu could produce blue flames. To do it at fourteen was unheard of unless it was in one’s blood. And to do it at fourteen, in the middle of a winter storm, well… Maadi supposed that was in Siya’s blood too. Siya’s great grandmother, Nyagasola Wagadu, had been the first Yammanka general to take troops into the Hadean interior in the cold season, through snows that had stopped all tajakalu who had tried before. There was a statue of her at the Wagadu compound where Siya had grown up. Maadi used to sit at the general’s obsidian feet every day while she waited for Siya to meet her for the walk to school and, since Siya was always late, Maadi had run her fingers over the inscription a thousand times.
Nyagasola, Small Sun, it read, Wagadu, Winter Slayer. Conqueror of Hades.
Maadi had always thought that statue alone was cooler than all the monuments to her own family’s heroes. The greatest members of the Biraye line had lived over a thousand years ago, too long ago for any sculptor to capture their likeness in glass or for anyone to say “Gods, you look just your Great Ancestor, So-and-so.”
“Maadi? You still with me?” Siya pressed and Maadi realized that she had gone numb again, staring in envy and wonder.
“Y-yeah,” Maadi said, annoyed at the way her voice came out shaking from between her teeth. “Just starting to think…” She had to pause to get the shivers under control, “I got the bad end of this deal.”
“Come on. When your match comes around, I’ll do whatever you need. However you want to train.”
“My first match is against a littigi.” Not to slight littigiwu, but realistically, a sub-theonite wouldn’t outfight Maadi. It was physically impossible.
“Yeah.” Siya laughed. “I don’t even know why they enter.”
Maadi felt like she did. Of course, you couldn’t know another fighter’s heart, but she sometimes thought that it wouldn’t matter if she had been born with worse powers or no powers at all; she would still want to be the best she could be. Maybe it was silly for littigiwu to stand against theonites, but it seemed tasteless to laugh at them for trying.
“Your second-round match then, or your third,” Siya said, “we’ll do whatever you need to get ready. You promised.”
“I know.” Flexing cold-stiffened fingers, Maadi realized that her gloves were so damp and full of snow they weren’t worth wearing anymore. She tugged them off, cast them aside, and immediately regretted the decision when the wind sank its teeth into her digits. Without her heat aura as a shield, the cold went straight to her bones. But at least this way, she might be able to get a good grip on her opponent.
“We’re out here so you can attack me,” Siya said, “not stand there shivering like a scared senkuli.”
Maadi was tempted to tell Siya she could power down and see how long it took her to start shaking, but manga koronu didn’t whine, so she kept her jaw clamped shut.
“Come on, Maadi!” Siya’s flames flared. “Come at me!”
Shaking herself, Maadi obliged. She might have argued except that Siya was the only hot thing in this white nightmare. She was ready to take an elbow to the teeth several times over if it meant a few moments in that replenishing heat. At full power, Siya’s flames would blister the skin of a lesser tajaka and cook the flesh off a non-tajaka, but Maadi ran into them without hesitation, welcoming the crackle across her face. She went for Siya’s leg, hoping to pitch the heavier girl onto her back, get on top of her and, if possible, clutch that heat tight to her for a few moments before Siya found a way to throw her off.
Normally, Maadi’s lighter build gave her a razor-thin speed advantage, but normally she wasn’t stiff with cold. Even Siya’s fire couldn’t thaw her limbs in a split dinma, and snow-numbed fingers slid off Siya’s thigh without so much as unsettling the girl’s low center of gravity. Siya’s body crashed into Maadi’s back with the force of a speeding truck. Powerful arms locked around Maadi’s waist and the next thing she knew, her feet were jerked from the ground.
Wonderful, Maadi thought for the brief moment she was upside down, the ends of her braids dragging in the steaming slush puddle at Siya’s ankles.
Then Siya threw her.
Blessed heat vanished in a whistling rush of cold air. Before she could eat the snow again, Maadi shot a hand out and grabbed the nearest tree trunk. The momentum of her body swung her in a full circle around the slender tree, her fingers stripping the bark as she came around.
“That was pitiful,” Siya sneered as Maadi let go of the sapling and landed in the knee-deep snow.
“Yeah,” Maadi agreed gingerly, shaking out her hand. She had gotten bark under one of her fingernails. Nyaare, how could an appendage that was so numb sting so badly?
“You said the cold wouldn’t slow you down.”
“I thought it wouldn’t,” Maadi admitted.
She had thought that a coat and boots would be a sufficient substitute for the heat that usually radiated from her, but that was turning out to be blisteringly untrue. The only clothing item Siya wore was the sports wrapper around her hips, leaving her shirtless and barefoot in the snow. That was the point of this training. Just Siya. Nothing but her taya against the fury of Duna’s northern hemisphere.
Everyone knew that Siya could burn as hot as Zilazen fires under the benevolence of a Yammanka sun, but before the upcoming fight, she needed to make sure those powers were ready for a merciless winter.
So far, she seemed to be doing alright. All the snow within two bounds of where she stood had turned to slush, mist, or boiling mud puddles beneath her feet. The nearest pines shuddered at the heat, shaking harder than Maadi as they shed months of snow. Any clumps of snow that fell toward Siya met the same fate as the little snowflakes, melted and vaporized before they even reached the blazing color of her flames; her aura was that hot. She had managed to maintain those flames for… how long had it been now? Gods, it felt to Maadi like half the day.
“Come on!” Siya demanded. “Again!”
“Just…” Maadi hated to admit weakness, but if Siya threw her like that again, she was going to crash and break her neck. “Just give me a siira.”
“For shame, Maadi!” Siya sighed as Maadi slid a frozen hand into her own shirt. “Half a siira.”
The real fight today was between Siya and the blizzard; Maadi was just here as an afterthought, a body for Siya to ensure that she could still kick, punch, and grapple while maintaining her blue fire against the cold. If Maadi were to power up, her taya would inevitably raise the surrounding temperature, weakening the frostbiting temperatures that Siya was so intent on defeating all by herself.
Maadi couldn’t fault Siya’s logic. The tournament arena would be set to sixty-four degrees Koumbia, the temperature of an unpowered human body, giving neither party the environmental advantage. It would be Siya’s raw heat against Matsuda Hiroshi’s ice. If he matched Siya there, the two would have to engage with weapons, and if they ran out the clock with weapons, the next round would be bare-handed combat. Siya was an excellent grappler, but in order to get her hands on Hiroshi, she would have to make it through a weapons round against him, which was a long shot.
It wasn’t like Siya was bad with a spear and shield—no one would say that—but Hiroshi was a legendary sword fighter, better than most of the Academy instructors. If Siya couldn’t overcome him with heat, her chances of victory were slim.
Still, there had to be a better way to do this.
“If you really wanted to train against jijaka cold, why didn’t you ask a jijaka to train with you?” Maadi asked. There were plenty at Daybreak. But no, Siya had to grab her solar-powered friend, drag her into the woods on the coldest day of the year, and then deny her the use of her powers.
Siya laughed smoke and steam. “I want to be able to fight at full intensity through the cold. No jijaka can match me at full intensity, and you’re the only tajaka I trust not to pass out and die of hypothermia.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Maadi smiled grimly, “but I still say you could have looked for a jijaka.” That was the point of going to an international school, wasn’t it? The opportunity to train with people outside your own theotype? “Some of them are really strong.”
“As strong as us?”
Through her shivers, Maadi managed a shrug. “Maybe in the cold.”
“Maybe.” Siya sounded doubtful, “but a Wagadu doesn’t settle for maybe. I only train with the best.”
“And we have to do it in a blizzard?”
“Yes!” Siya said impatiently.
Maadi wanted to say that she doubted even Matsuda Hiroshi’s power would equal a Carythian blizzard. But she wasn’t actually sure that was true. If Siya was a piece of the sun, Hiroshi was the dark side of some desolate, frozen moon. No matter how powerful Siya was, her victory here wasn’t a given, and that made Maadi worry. Not so much for her friend’s safety as her ego.
“You know that whatever happens…” Maadi said—because someone needed to say it, “however this fight goes, there’s no shame in it.”
Siya looked at Maadi like she had gone insane. “No shame in losing?”
“To him?” Maadi shrugged again. “I don’t think so.”
“He’s just a koro,” Siya pointed out—not exactly a fair distinction considering that Hiroshi came from a country where no family except the emperor’s was allowed manga koro status, but Siya probably didn’t know that. She had never been too keen on Yammanka history, let alone that of foreign countries like Kaigen. “A jijaka koro. I don’t care how great he thinks his little backwater house is. I’m not worried.”
“If you’re so not worried then why did you drag me out here?” Maadi said, a little annoyed.
“I dragged you out here because I don’t just want to beat Matsuda Hiroshi. I want to destroy him.”
“Why? What’d he ever do to you? I mean, other than glower.” Hiroshi did that to everyone, but Siya rarely took kindly to people ‘looking at her wrong.’
“I don’t like him,” Siya snapped, a few of her flames hissing and popping as they snaked over frozen pine needles. “He’s…” Her lip curled, “uppity.”
“Awa,” Maadi sighed white steam, precious evidence that heat still burned somewhere in her body.
She didn’t like it when Siya talked that way about koronu—or anyone really—like she was so far above them. Sure, Siya came from a powerful line; they both did. Maadi didn’t feel like that gave them the right to turn their noses up at other kafoka. Manga koronu were supposed to be leaders, not just on the battlefield but in the town too. A leader, Maadi thought, should be able to understand and value all kinds of people. How could you lead others wisely if you hated them?
“Being talented isn’t being ‘uppity,’” she said after a pause. “Koronu are allowed to accomplish things too.”
“Allowed, sure.” Siya cracked her knuckles. “But will they want to after I’m done with them?”
Maadi hadn’t noticed Siya’s complete disdain for people of other kafonu and theotypes until Daybreak. She supposed, back in Yamma, where it was just them, surrounded by people like them, it hadn’t really come up. But here overseas, Maadi was realizing that Siya had a very clear picture in her head of the order of the world, starkly defined like military white lines on black bogolan. And Siya could be strangely vicious with anyone who stepped outside the mudcloth patterns in her head—a koro who acted too much like a numu, a jaseli who thought they might pick up a spear, a Kaigenese boy with a different idea of what it meant to be a warrior…
“Do you know what he said to Mbali when I sent her to offer him a practice match?” Siya didn’t wait for Maadi to ask ‘what?’ “He said ‘That won’t be necessary. I know women can’t fight.’”
“That’s…” Maadi paused for a moment, grappling with her own gut-reaction of disgust, “a cultural thing,” she said in an attempt to be fair.
“It’s a stupid thing,” Siya said, “and I’m going to destroy it.” She had begun to pace like an impatient predator, flames undulating around her. “Are you ready yet?”
“Gods! Maybe I should have brought a jijaka out here to fight me! Or a jaseli.”
A manga koro probably shouldn’t have let an insult like that go; maybe it didn’t reflect well on her power, but Maadi had learned to tune out Siya’s insults when she was just using them to get what she wanted. She had decided there was power in that too.
“Almost,” she repeated and closed her eyes.
Maadi’s father used to wax poetic about how manga koronu carried a piece of Kiye himself in their hearts, a sliver of molten sun hot enough to survive the frozen recesses of space. She had always found the idea a bit silly. But now, as she massaged her chest, she could almost feel that little sliver struggling to stay alive without its insulating cloak of flames.
In her mind, she sang to it. A little praise song to keep its spirits up. Come on, little God-fire, you can do this! We can do this!
The sliver of heat became fluid and coiled around Maadi’s heart like a snake moving softly, a gentle undulation that kept her heart pumping warmth through the rest of her body.
We can do this. She took the hand from inside her shirt and opened her eyes. We can do this!
“Awa.” Maadi ran her frozen fingers over her equally frozen scalp, scooping her mess of braids from her face. She had tied them back before she and Siya had headed out, but at some point, the tie had been torn loose, along with the headwrap that had been keeping her ears from going numb. That was probably just as well; Siya wasn’t above using a girl’s headwrap to choke her and Maadi would rather avoid that if she could.
“Finally!” Siya growled and sank into her stance.
Maadi didn’t run at Siya this time, she walked, arms at her sides, savoring the few footsteps of pure heat. She let the fire relax her, just enough to restore her molten liquid speed. As soon as she was in arm’s reach, Siya took a jaw-shattering swing at her—at least, it would have been jaw-shattering had it connected, but Maadi had reclaimed command of her limbs.
She ducked under the punch and launched from the low stance into Siya’s abdomen. Still moving forward with the follow-through from the missed punch, Siya pitched into Maadi’s shoulder so hard the breath jolted from her lungs. Flames flickered, blue weakening to orange, as Maadi took her to the melted leaf-litter.
On the ground, Siya usually overpowered her slighter friend, but Maadi took advantage of Siya’s moment of breathless surprise to scramble into a hold, her arms wrapped around Siya’s neck and right arm. She hooked her left toes around her right ankle and locked in, thighs crushed tight around Siya’s waist.
Siya dug her heels into the ground, bare feet forcibly melting footholds in the frozen soil, and arched against the hold. Muscle strained against muscle. Pound for pound, the heavier set Siya was stronger than Maadi, but that mattered little when Maadi’s grip was good and leverage was on her side. Siya kept the fire burning bright—death to any fool who tried to grapple her… well… any fool except Maadi, who was quite enjoying the bath of flames.
With a tightening of her core, Maadi jerked the two of them sideways. The movement was small was, just enough that Siya lost her tenuous foothold in the forest floor and crashed down, shifting all the power back to Maadi. Even as Siya struggled to expand her lungs between Maadi’s thighs, she kept the flames burning blue-white from every part of her body. Maadi would have liked to stay there in the heat forever. But after a beat, she released her hold, rolling away and onto her feet. Out of breath but still aflame, Siya turned onto her hands and knees.
“Why did you let go?” she snapped.
“You were burning through my coat.” Maadi held up her blackened sleeves. Like all tajaka clothing, the garment was made to withstand flames, but even the best fireproofing could only do so much. At a certain heat, all fibers would melt. “With that taya, literally no one is going to be able to hold onto you.”
“Except you.” Siya’s tone was that strange somewhere between loving and bitter that usually preceded either a hug or a chokehold.
“Except me.” Maadi tossed her braids back with a pleased smile. “Really though, I think you’re as hot as you’re going to get.”
“You think too small.”
“I mean it,” Maadi said, all jokes aside. “I’m pretty sure you’re going to be fine.”
“Would you put money on me?”
“I…” Maadi sighed. Against almost anyone, the answer would have been an unhesitating ‘yes’ but…
“No? Then come at me again.”
Ten rounds later, despite getting a few good hits in, Maadi found herself pinned beneath Siya, contemplating the forbidden words.
“Siya…” Maadi choked, aching fingers prying at the arm at her throat. “I…” For a third time, she tried to swing a leg up and get a foot between herself and Siya and, for a third time, the bulky boot got in the way. “I y—”
“I swear to Kri, if you yield, I’ll break your neck,” Siya threatened.
“That’s not how that works,” Maadi croaked.
“Mighty Biraye,” Siya sneered and leaned in to whisper cracklingly close to her ear, “Daughter of the First Empire, Descendant of Kri, is really going to wimp out on me now?”
A crunch of snow made them both look up.
A girl stood among the trees nearby, her strange coloring half-blended with the wintery landscape.
“Oh. Sorry.” The newcomer eyed the two tajakalu, their bodies entangled on the forest floor, with the beginning of a smirk on her lips. “Am I interrupting something?”
Maadi recognized the girl from class but couldn’t remember her name with Siya’s arm cutting the oxygen to her brain. Akemi? Elektra? It was something weird and ethnic like that. Eclectic… Electable… No, those were just Lindish words Maadi had learned recently… Alexis! Maadi was pretty sure it was Alexis but not sure enough to greet her.
“Romantic spot,” the girl—Alexis—said, casting her eyes around, “or it was before you burned it to hell.”
“Hey—” Siya started and Maadi took advantage of the loosened grip to regain leverage and flip the other girl off of her. Air rushed back into her lungs.
“We’re doing something important,” Maadi wheezed, getting to her feet. She didn’t want anyone to think she and Siya went around torching trees for no reason.
“Aye, I see that,” Alexis smiled.
“What…” Still out of breath, Maadi looked into Alexis’ eyes and felt her train of thought derail.
The family jaseli had always cautioned Maadi away from rivers. Terrible things dwell there, he had said, not just the crocodiles but water spirits, Jinnka of dangerous power and impenetrable mystery.
Maadi wasn’t sure why the jaseli’s talk of Jinnkalu came back to her at that moment. She just thought that if there was such a thing as an ice Jinnka this was what it would look like in human form; snow in its hair and frost on its skin, human in shape but ghostly in color.
Alexis was a jijaka, Maadi knew from class and gossip, but unlike most jijakalu, she was not fully Kaigenese. Her mother was a white Hadean, which explained her strange coloring—a shade too light in the hair and eyes—and her bone structure, which was at the same time pointed and vaguely breakable-looking. Unlike a normal white person, Alexis didn’t go shivery and pink in the cold. Instead, her skin seemed to comfortably assume the hue of the frost. Snow gathered in her hair and clung to her eyelashes like it was part of her, making her smile all the more unnerving.
Maadi cleared her throat. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
People often came into the woods to train but this girl carried no weapons or equipment bag. All she had on over her uniform was a light coat.
“Walking,” Alexis said flatly. “That’s allowed, is’t not?”
“You didn’t touch our stuff, did you?” Siya demanded, her eyes darting to the foot of the nearby tree where she and Maadi had set their bags.
Anger flashed across the jijaka’s features but like light on ripples, it was gone in a dinma, smoothed beneath a smirk. “Maybe. Want to pat me down, hot stuff?”
“Just stay away from our stuff,” Siya snapped, looking disgusted. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Sorry, Miladies, Manga Koroyaalu, I realized not I was trespassing in your forest, fool peasant, I!”
“Are you on drugs?”
“Why, would you like some?”
“Excuse me?” Siya said in utter indignation.
The jijaka’s face split into a grin so entertained that Maadi couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.
“Drugs aren’t good for you,” Maadi said and immediately wished she had thought of something cooler to say.
“I know,” Alexis said flatly. “Neither is smoke inhalation. Yet here you are, burning the bark off trees.”
“None of them are actually on fire,” Maadi pointed out. There had been a few close calls, but she had warned Siya in time for the other girl to draw the flames from the branches before they melted enough ice to ignite their neighbors.
“Right.” Alexis picked at the loose bark were Maadi’s fingers had stripped the tree trunk.
“Why is that your business, anyway?” Siya demanded more sharply. “You believe in tree spirits or something?”
“That’s not even a Kaigenese thing,” Alexis shot back, visibly annoyed this time, “nor a white thing neither. An’ I’m not mistaken, that’s a dumb thing people say about Native Baxarians. An’ you’re gonna stereotype me, have the courtesy to get it right.”
A crackle of anger bristled through Siya’s flames. “You watch your tone—”
“Easy, n’teriyaa,” Maadi put a hand on Siya’s shoulder before she could start forward.
She knew from experience that a powered-up Siya was volatile. If the skinny white jijaka threw another barb, she was going to walk away with third-degree burns—if she walked away at all.
“I don’t think you want to start trouble with us, jijaka,” Maadi said, hoping the threat registered as the well-intentioned warning it was. “If you don’t like the smoke, you’re free to leave.”
“Of course, Your Imperial Majesties. I meant not to intrude on affairs o’the state. I’ll get me hence.” The wind picked up, whipping up snow from the ground and, like a spirit, Alexis faded into the white.
“You’re an idiot!” Siya called after her.
“Good comeback,” Maadi said and sidestepped the punch Siya predictably threw at her. “Doni, doni. It was just a joke. Alexis talks to everyone that way.”
“You know her?” Siya wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“Yeah. I’ve got entry-level jaliya with her.”
“Oh.” Siya rolled her eyes. “That.” She never made a secret of her disdain for Maadi’s interest in un-warrior-like activities. Maadi did her best to ignore the hurt; after all, if Siya were to make a secret of her disdain, she wouldn’t be Siya. “Let’s get back to work.”
Her flames, which had dwindled to a few orange tongues in her distraction renewed.
“Awa.” Maadi touched her throat, which was a bit bruised from Siya’s forearm. “But we’ve been grappling for a while now. You wanted to go a few rounds with your spear and shield, right?”
Siya planted her hands on her hips. “You’re just scared I’ll pin you again.”
Maadi smiled. “Or are you scared I’ll disarm you in two dinmanu?”
“Fine.” As usual, Siya was quicker to respond to a challenge than Maadi—or anyone she knew. “Spears. Let’s go.”
“Yeah…” Maadi said but found herself standing still, staring at the swirls of snow between the trees where Alexis had been moments earlier.
“I wonder what she was doing in the woods all by herself.” Was that even safe for a half-Hadean?
“Who cares?” Siya said impatiently, then after a moment of thought. “Probably drugs.”
“I don’t know…” Maadi didn’t like to assume the worst of people based on their skin color, but if she was honest, Alexis did seem like the type. When she wasn’t mouthing off to the teachers in class, she was usually asleep, and Maadi had heard rumors about her stealing and selling test answers, though she had never been caught.
“If she actually is, we should report her,” Maadi said, frowning.
“We’ve got better things to do.”
“We’re manga koronu,” Maadi said. “We’re not just supposed to be good at fighting. We’re supposed to look after the well-being of the people.”
“Yeah, our people. Not obnoxious Carythian stoners.”
“I think that’s a little unfair.”
“Well, I think you’re just stalling, coward. Pick up your spear.”
Maadi and Siya took playful jabs at each other all the time, but even as a joke, a manga koro couldn’t let an insult like that go unanswered.
So, Maadi lifted her chin and shot back, “Pick up your shield.”
Siya rolled her eyes but did take up her jonjo glass shield, which bore the two-headed serpent of the Wagadu family in blood red and burnt orange. For all Siya’s pride and swagger, even she would concede that Maadi was the superior spear fighter and to face her without a shield was folly.
“There,” she said when she had fixed the shield to her arm. “Better?”
“Better,” Maadi smiled and crossed to her equipment bag.
She could have taken the return barb a step further by turning to face Siya without her own shield. But to joke with Siya was to walk a fine line between making her laugh and making her genuinely angry. And even Maadi Biraye didn’t want to face a truly angry Siya without a shield to protect her.
Maadi was ambidextrous but she tended to fight lefty, with her shield on her right arm and her spear in her left hand, because it threw people off. Of course, Siya, her training partner since childhood, was used to it, but Maadi still preferred it. So, after a moment’s consideration, she slid the shield onto her right arm.
Maadi’s black and green shield was covered in circles representing the Xuuse, the Holy Well around which her ancestors had founded the First Empire of Yamma. It was the sister shield of Siya’s, both made of translucent jewel-like jonjo glass over a thin layer of Zilazen glass that alone cost more than the average house. They had been an age ceremony present from Maadi’s father, who had commissioned them from the best senkuliwu in Kolunjara the year both girls had gotten their first blood. Not to be outdone, Siya’s parents had gifted each girl three Zilazen glass spearheads. Those, of course, were not for use in training. They were a promise, to be held in safety until the girls entered the military.
The spear in Maadi’s hand restored her focus. After a few rounds, the cold disappeared in the rush of combat, but just when Maadi was starting to really enjoy herself, a high karanyang sound rang from her bag.
“What’s that?” Siya asked.
“My alarm,” Maadi sighed. “I have to get to class.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
Siya’s face twisted into a snarl. “Coward!” She flashed forward, her spear jutting into Maadi’s space and Maadi decided that was enough.
In a raw show of power, she struck her spear against her shield and ignited.
Finally set free, the sun at the center of her being exploded with the fury of a supernova. A tower of pure blue flame erupted from Maadi, not only melting snow but incinerating the leaves beneath. Twigs turned to ash and birds for clicks around startled to the air in fright. Even Siya jerked back—not quite a flinch, but close enough to it to be beneath her dignity. Maadi pretended not to notice, but she did take the moment of surprise to break through Siya’s guard and knock her to the ground.
Maadi leveled the tip of her spear at Siya’s throat and smiled as her violently blue display eased back to an amicable orange. A sun-like explosion wasn’t something girl could sustain for more than a moment, but it was sufficient to shut someone up—even if that someone was Siya.
“See you after class, n’teriyaa.” Maadi stepped back with a twirl of her spear and went to gather her things.
“Are you actually serious right now?” Siya said, getting to her feet. “It’s not even real class! It’s just jaliya!”
“Still class,” Maadi said and slung her bag over her shoulder. As she turned to go, there was an irritated shuffle of movement behind her, the thump of a snow-wet grasp on the shaft of a spear.
Maadi knew what was coming before Siya loosed the weapon. It was Siya’s favorite ploy to get her attention. The hope was that Maadi would turn back to avoid or deflect the spear, but Maadi knew the trick so well at this point that she just turned her body and scooped her hair to the side—one time, she had lost a braid—so the shot missed.
The spear struck an unfortunate birch sapling, blasting it to splinters, before sticking in the trunk of a stately pine. Without turning, Maadi adjusted her shield and bag on her shoulder and set off.
“Nyama to you, n’teriyaa,” she said. “Try not to destroy the whole forest while I’m away.”
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Rage and Whisper!
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