Prologue: Cinnamon Cake Crisps
Sixty-Five Years Before Toom Meets Niako
At first, I liked the strange visitor.
Coarse brown fur curled over his face like the stitched tufts on Snuggles, my stuffed bear. When he smiled at me, his snaggy wooden teeth reminded me of the sawdust Snuggles sometimes pooped out a torn seam in his belly. And the chorus of birds spilling through the open door behind him announced his arrival like a storybook warrior returning from battle.
“Hello, sir,” I said. “My mommy is making cinnamon cake crisps for the Day of Blessings. Would you like some?”
The spicy-sweet aroma already wafted from the kitchen around the corner, and Mommy’s voice carried over the popping sizzle. “Epsa, did you say something, sweetheart?”
The Snuggles man sank down to my eye level and pressed a finger over his furry lips. Leaning in, he whispered, “I have a surprise for your mommy, little one. But I need you to hide. Can you do that?”
I scratched my nose as I considered. “Yes, sir, I think so. I always hide when Mommy’s visitor comes. I’m very good at following —”
I opened my mouth to reply, but when he raised his fur-covered brow bones in warning, I snapped my mouth shut and gave a solemn nod. Hunching my shoulders for extra sneakiness, I tiptoed toward my bedroom.
Leather boots crunched behind me as the man stood up. I slipped through the doorway and climbed up onto my bed, perching at the edge of the mattress so my dangling feet just reached the ground.
One, two, three. My lips moved soundlessly to form each number. Seven, eight, nine. I swung my feet, bare toes scuffing the wooden floor panels in time to my counting. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen...
Something clattered to the ground in the kitchen, followed by a muted gasp. My feet stilled, the floorboards smooth and cold against my toes. I almost called out for my mother before remembering I was not supposed to make a sound.
Just keep counting.
But I couldn’t remember which number I was on.
I started over.
One, two, three. Boots squeaked on the floor. Ten, eleven, twelve. Movement flashed just outside my bedroom. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three. The front door creaked. Twenty-eight, twenty nine… what comes after twenty-nine?
The cinnamon crisps sputtered and hissed on the griddle.
An unfamiliar ugliness pressed down on me, as though someone were stepping on my chest. Maybe the visitor was not so nice. Maybe something was terribly, horribly wrong.
I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined my mother kissing my forehead before she left for work. If you stay strong and do as you are told, Goddess Rashika will protect you, my sweet Epsa. The Goddess blesses those who obey without question.
I restarted the count.
One, two, three. The spicy-sweetness turned acrid and bitter. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Smoke tickled my nose. Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six...
The door swung open.
“Sweet child, what are you doing in here?”
I cracked open one eye and then the other. Before me stood the most beautiful man I had ever seen. Shiny black curls. Skin almost as dark as me and Mommy. A sparkling gold vest fitted over a broad chest and trim waist. He looked so much like the warriors in my storybook that I itched to grab the book from my shelf to compare. But I wanted to be a good girl, so I forced myself to sit still and answer his question.
“The Snuggles man asked me to stay here, sir.”
He crouched down in front of me, brows furrowed and lips pursed. “The Snuggles man?”
Sunlight from the window behind me streaked the smoke billowing in the doorway. As I watched the wispy tendrils unfold, I said, “Sir, the crisps are burning. Where is my mommy?”
His dark eyes softened, and he reached out to squeeze my knee. “Would you like to come live with me, child? I have a son your age, and my home is quite large.”
I cocked my head. “Will there be cinnamon crisps for the Day of Blessings?”
Heat licked the air, and the warrior man craned his head to look over his shoulder at the darkening smoke. But when he turned back toward me, his eyes remained gentle and patient.
“In my home, you can have cinnamon crisps every day.”
Wary of some trick, I narrowed my eyes. “What about my mommy? Can she come?”
He smiled, though his eyes looked sad. “Your mommy is very, very tired. She needs to sleep for a long time.”
“But when she wakes up, she can come?”
“Of course. Now I need to carry you out of here. Are you ready?”
“One second.” I scooted over to snatch Snuggles from the foot of my bed. “Ready, sir.”
He slid one hand under my legs and the other behind my back, scooping me off the bed as though I weighed nothing. As I tucked Snuggles between us and wrapped my arms around his neck, words slipped from my lips unbidden.
“I’m going to be a warrior like you someday.”
He chuckled, but even his chuckle sounded sad.
“I’m not a warrior, sweet child. I am King Makapu.”