Prologue

Oke

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 traveler 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 the 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.

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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 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 leatherksin 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 north-bound.

“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.

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The housekeep stopped short “Interesting drink choice.” 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 acquired taste,” Oke said, and looked away, signaling 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, recognize 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, there was a tiny enough number of people who originated from this side of the Soke border that looked just a tiny bit like she did. Passing as one was easier once she perfected the languages. Thank moons she had studied them a bit as a scholar in Bassa.

She drank slowly once the housekeep brought in her order and she put forward some cowries, ensuring 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.

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