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Authors: Mike Grinti

Jala's Mask

BOOK: Jala's Mask
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Published 2014 by Pyr®, an imprint of Prometheus Books

Jala's Mask
. Copyright © 2014 by Mike and Rachel Grinti. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Cover image © Marc Simonetti
Cover design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke

Inquiries should be addressed to

Pyr

59 John Glenn Drive

Amherst, New York 14228

VOICE: 716–691–0133

FAX: 716–691–0137

WWW.PYRSF.COM

18 17 16 15 14      5 4 3 2 1

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Grinti, Mike, author.

Jala's mask / by Mike and Rachel Grinti.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-61614-978-9 (paperback) — ISBN 978-1-61614-979-6 (ebook)

1. Fantasy fiction. I. Grinti, Rachel, author. II. Title.

PS3607.R5684J35 2014

813'.6—dc23

2014023873

Printed in the United States of America

 

For Jenn K.
Slash away!

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Acknowledgments

About the Author

The king's grayships spread out down the length of the coastline, their red-streaked sails visible between the palm trees. Jala watched their approach from the roof of her family's manor. It was a calm day, and the sails hung slack.

Nearby, Jala's father swore. “How are we supposed to feed them all? We'll be eating palm leaves and grass by the time they're gone.”

“But there'll be dancing,” Jala said. She'd been practicing for months now. What would it be like to dance with the king? With any man, for that matter. She'd only been allowed to dance with other girls until now. It wasn't fair, really. Jala's cousins danced with anyone they liked, and no one thought twice about girls and boys from the village dancing together.

“You don't need a feast for dancing. Just a drummer,” her father muttered. “I'll tell your mother you're getting ready.” He started down the steps but paused for a moment to say, “I'll miss you. You know that. But I'll be proud, too. Prouder than I've ever been. You know what this could mean for our family?”

Jala smiled at him. “I know.” She'd heard this same speech a hundred times, but her father was never one to let her forget how much pressure she was under.

The king's ship landed. Six men disembarked and formed a line on the beach. The king came ashore next. He wore fine silks taken from the Autumn Lands, gold-spun wool from Renata, and necklaces inlaid with stones that glittered red and blue in the sun.

My future husband
, Jala thought.
Maybe.

Only the earring in his left ear didn't shine. It was half the heart of a shipwood reef, white and gnarled. The King's Earring. Its other half would be worn by the queen.

Jala heard someone coming up the stairs and turned to see Marjani, her closest friend. “You missed the fleet coming in.”

Marjani shrugged, peering over the edge. “Well, he's not short, or scrawny. But that earring looks heavy, doesn't it? I wonder if it'll stretch out your ear.”

“If it does, I'll just wear one on the other ear that weighs the same.”

Marjani stepped closer and hugged her. “You're scared, aren't you?”

Jala nodded. “Maybe I wasn't until everyone started asking me.” She rested her head on Marjani's shoulder and took several slow breaths to calm herself. “You know this is his last stop? He's had girls like me thrown at him for weeks.”

“It's all right if he doesn't pick you.”

“You know it's not,” Jala said.

“Well, it's all right to me. I'd rather you stayed anyway,” Marjani said. “Since you're set on it, I made this for you.” She held out a comb made from carved and polished palm wood.

Jala ran her fingers over it, then slid it into the rows of thin braids gathered at the crown of her head. Marjani straightened it for her and smiled.

They'd been friends since they were five years old. Twelve years of seeing each other nearly every day.
And if everything goes right, I might not see her again for months.

“You can visit me,” Jala said. “As often as you want, and I'll send you messenger birds every day.”

“Hah! Like you'll have time for that. You'll probably forget all about me.”

“You're right, I will,” Jala said. “I'm forgetting already. Everything's fading . . . it's like the last ten years of my life never existed.” She squinted at Marjani and imitated her grandmother's quavery voice. “Excuse me, little girl, have we met?”

“Very convincing,” Marjani said. “I wish I could hide up here until it's over. It's not that I want you to face it alone, of course. But I don't want to marry the king, so I don't know why I have to pretend I'm interested.”

“My mother's a bully, that's why.” Jala was only half joking this time. She didn't think her mother had relaxed for more than a few moments since they heard the king would be visiting. And if Zuri couldn't relax, no one could.

“She told me not to worry so much and that he won't want me anyway. I
think
she meant it in a nice way.”

“That sounds like something she'd say. She probably did think she was helping.” They watched the king approach the manor, escorted by his guards. The white sand of the beach was blinding, but when Jala peered over the edge, she could just see him pass through the main gate. “Come on, looks like it's time. We'll never hear the end of it if we're late.”

Marjani nodded and allowed Jala to pull her away from the edge of the roof to the steep staircase leading down to the halls below. The king was probably already being greeted by Jala's parents. Then they would present the older members of the family. Finally, they would introduce him to the eligible daughters in the Bardo family. Jala would be introduced last.

Jala heard a drum reverberating through the brick walls. A slow beat, at least ten heartbeats apart, played on a lighter drum. That meant it was an occasion for moving slowly, for considering, but not a solemn day. She let the steady rhythm calm her.

“Stand up straight,” Jala whispered to herself. “Don't play with your hair. Look him in the eyes when he addresses you and smile, but don't stare or you'll scare him off.” They took another set of steps down, turned left into a smaller hall, and stopped outside a door with two of Jala's cousins.

From beyond the doorway Jala heard a man's deep voice declare, “Presenting Azi, of the Kayet family, king of the Five-and-One Islands. Where are the heads of this island and its family?”

Jala's father said, “I am Mosi of the Bardo. Welcome, my king. The ships of the Second Isle greet you with raised oars and lowered sails.”

“I am Zuri of the Bardo,” said Jala's mother. “Welcome, my king. Our family greets you as a guest, with slow drums and swords unsharpened.”

“I accept your hospitality, and I wish your fleet good hunting,” a new voice said. Jala leaned closer to the door to listen.
It must be the king.

Then Jala's aunts and uncles introduced themselves, followed by the members of the Kayet family that had come with the king on his bride hunt. Traditionally they came to support the king, but in reality they would spend most of their time telling him who they thought he should marry.

Remember
, Jala's mother had said,
the king will love you for your looks and charm. But his family will approve of you because you will seem quiet and easy to control
. Her mother had gone on about everything Jala would do for her family once she was queen, but Jala hadn't really listened. Her father had been teaching her how to be queen for two years now. She knew everything they had to say.

Jala ran her hands down the folds of her dress, smoothing it in case her skirts had ballooned out on her way back. The skin of a rainbow serpent around her shoulder added whirls of color. Her braids spiraled in elaborate patterns and just brushed her shoulders.

“Here,” one of her cousins said, handing Jala a vial of palm oil. Jala pulled out the stopper, poured a little into her hands, then rubbed it into her cheeks and forehead and down her arms. She passed the vial to Marjani and pushed the bracelets on Marjani's thin wrists farther up her arms so they wouldn't jangle.

The drum stopped. Jala's heart stopped for a second. The traditional part of the meeting was over. It was time.

“My king, would you like to meet the daughters of the Bardo?”

“I would, Lord Mosi.” Something about the way he said it made Jala think that what he really meant was
Let's get this over with
.

“My king.” It was her mother's voice. “Please let me introduce my sister's daughter, Nia.”

Nia arched her back slightly, opened the door, and walked out slowly. “I am most pleased and privileged to meet you, my king.”

BOOK: Jala's Mask
5.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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