Chapter One: The Day of Descent
I have been searching for any trace of the Sandstorm to complete my tale. Though the wardens claim to have killed them some years ago, I have no confirmation of where or when. It may be my aging eyesight, but I can’t see the end of the story. The rumors are thin, wisps of smoke that I can’t grasp. I will continue to search. I will continue to hope.
—Note found in Griot Zibenwe’s villa
The drumbeat still thrummed through Sylah’s veins as she weaved her way back home.
The raw pink of dawn promised a blistering heat, and Sylah tilted her head and basked in the sun’s rays. The trinkets in her braids chimed.
She ran her tongue over the joba seed tucked in the gap between her front teeth. The warmth induced by the seed was dissipating, leaving her cold. Hugging her arms to her chest, she noticed for the first time she held an empty bottle of firerum. She threw it at the wall of a derelict villa, which was filmed with blue sand. It had been a strong wind last night. At times its pounding had even eclipsed the drums.
But not the drumbeat in her memory.
The sound came again and with it an unmistakable tremor of fear that woke people from their beds. Now Sylah listened and realized she knew the cadence of the rhythm, and it wasn’t from the song in her mind. It was the pounding of the Starting Drum, indicating the beginning of a trial.
It was the sound of death.
Dredge-dwellers began to seep out of their decrepit homes and stream toward Dredge Square. Sylah found herself being carried along in the current.
The square was full of Dusters and Ghostings, blurry-eyed from a night of drugs, sex, or alcohol. Or in Sylah’s case, all three. A dozen officers of the warden army stood to attention in front of the rack, the wooden device used for executions. Like ripe bruises, the army’s purple uniform was enough to instill fear in anyone north of the Ruta River—anyone without red blood.
Sylah spotted Hassa in the crowd and pushed her way toward her.
“How’s it hurting?” Sylah greeted the Ghosting girl.
Like the beetle she had been named after, Hassa was small with dark eyes. The color was unusual for a Ghosting, as light-colored eyes were often a feature of their translucent blood. But it didn’t matter if you were a Ghosting or Duster, everyone who lived in the Dredge had the same hollowed-out look. It was a mandatory uniform, an expression of squalor and poverty enforced by malnutrition and childhood labor.
You look like shit. Have you even slept? Hassa signed.
Sylah ignored Hassa’s observation and pointed toward the officers. “Have you seen this guy’s talent?”
Hassa followed Sylah’s gaze to the officer with the Starting Drum strapped to his chest. He was beating the rhythm with absolute dedication, his muscles clenching and releasing with military precision.
He was born to play the drums, Hassa agreed.
Sylah snorted. “Bet he wanted to join the playhouse, but his mother made him enlist in the army. Poor little Ember.”
Hassa smiled, revealing the spongy flesh of her severed tongue. Her tongue, like her severed hands, had been taken from her at two mooncycles, like they were for every Ghosting in the empire. Their limbs and tongues were cut off and sent to the wardens to tally against the number of Ghosting births as a penance for a rebellion four hundred years old. As a result, Ghostings had developed a complex language that used all elements of their body. It was a subtle language, one invented in defiance of the rulers that still condemned them.
The drum stopped, though the vibrations of dread rippled out for moments afterward. The captain, identified by his striped green kente epaulettes, stepped forward.
“In the name of the four wardens, blessed by Anyme, our God in the Sky, we bring forth the accused.”
A prisoner in shackles was brought forward between the officers’ ranks. Sylah inhaled sharply between her teeth. “A griot.”
They raided his villa a few strikes ago, no warning, Hassa signed. He told his final story last night.
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Excerpt from THE FINAL STRIFE published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Saara Eldin.