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Title: Waking Fire
Author: Jean Louise
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Publication Date: January 10, 2023
Page Count: 384
About the book:
This incendiary YA fantasy debut follows a girl who will stop at nothing to save her village after it’s discovered by a dangerous warlord and his army of undead monsters. Perfect for fans of A Song of Wraiths and Ruin.
Naira Khoum has only known life in Lagusa, a quiet village at the desert’s end. But to the rest of the world, Lagusa is a myth, its location shrouded in secrecy. While war rages to the north led by power-hungry Sothpike and his army of undead monsters called Dambi, Naira’s people live in peace.
Until the impossible happens—Lagusa is attacked by a Mistress sent to do Sothpike’s bidding with a hoard of Dambi under her control. The Mistress is looking for something, and she’s willing to let her Dambi destroy Lagusa to get it.
Desperate to protect her home, Naira convinces her twin brother Nez and handsome refugee Kal to join the newly formed resistance with her. Together, they’ll have to figure out what the Mistress wants—before there’s nothing left of Lagusa to save.
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“FIVE SILVERS FOR TWO KUFFAS OF RICE?” I SHAKE MY head at the exorbitant price and back away from the grain merchant’s stall. “My mother would kill me. I’ll give you two silvers.”
The merchant’s eyes widen in shock. “Two silvers? I can’t do that. My children have to eat too!” He holds out the sack of rice. “I’ll give it to you for four.” When I don’t immediately agree to his offer, he shakes the bag. “The market’s closing. You won’t find a better deal anywhere else. Here, take it.”
He’s right that my options are limited. The stall my mother usually purchases grain from has already closed and most of the other merchants are putting away their wares and board-ing up their stalls. But four silvers is still too much.
“Two and a half.”
The merchant grimaces as if my counteroffer hurts him. “Three, and I won’t go any lower.”
I can tell he’s finished haggling, so I have no choice but to agree. “Fine.”
While he fastens a rope around the opening of the sack, I fish out three silver rubes from the leather money pouch tied around my waist. Omma’s not going to be happy. She sent me to the market to buy spices and rice for dinner when the sun was six hands from the western horizon, but I took so long picking out incense at my favorite shop that by the time I got around to the errand my mother sent me on, the market was shutting down for the evening.
I hand the merchant the money and he passes me the sack of rice.
“Thank you for your business, samida,” he says with a smile. “See you again!”
The merchant bows and I roll my eyes as I return the ges-ture. I’ll never come back to his stall even if he were the last grain merchant in all of Lagusa. We both know he’s ripped me off, and his satisfied grin makes me scowl even more.
I only have three silver rubes and four coppers left to buy the rest of the ingredients on Omma’s shopping list: cumin, ground red chilis, honey, and dried orange peels. The chilis will be the most expensive, so I’ll buy them first and then see what I can get with whatever rubes are left.
Even though the market’s closing, the roads squeezed be-tween stalls and mud-brick buildings where one buys spices and cloth, jewels and swords, livestock and produce are still busy enough that I can’t run to the next open spice shop. The remaining merchants and customers haggle over prices while dirty children hold out their hands for scraps and coins. The savory aroma of charred meat cooking on a grill makes my stomach grumble as I pass the crowded food stalls, but that’s quickly replaced by the flowery scents coming from up head. Perfumed air engulfs me as I cross Honey Street: the place where those who can afford it go to soak their bodies in cleansing oils and fragranced water.
I find an open spice shop with a bowl of ground chilis right out front. I motion to the owner, but she ignores me, her eyes on something farther up the road.
“Excuse me, samida,” I say, trying to get her attention. “I’d like—”
The owner shoos me away with a wave of her hand with-out even giving me a glance. Annoyed, I follow her gaze to see what could be so important.
A few stalls down, a plume of black smoke rises above the open market.
“Is that a fire?”
The woman nods. “I think so.”
As we watch the pillar of smoke grow, more and more people gather in the street, their eyes transfixed on the dark clouds bisecting the sky.
“It’s those Haltayi,” a man next to me says, a sneer in his voice. “They brought in one of those mangy desert animals, what do you call it?”
“Yeah, the damn thing went berserk. There was some kind of scuffle and a lantern got knocked over and set their tent on fire.”
I stand on my toes to peer over the heads of those in front of me, but it’s no use. I can’t see anything except the smoke. “What happened to the maugrab?”
The man shrugs. “Burned to death, I guess. There’s no way it could have survived those flames.”
A frenzied roar fills the streets, quieting the crowd with its intensity. The maugrab isn’t dead yet.
I’ve always felt sorry for maugrabs—they’re sickly creatures that the Haltayi nomads capture out on the plains beyond the village and charge parents a few rubes to let their children tug on their matted manes or ride on their bony backs. Selling maugrab rides is one of the few ways Haltayi make money to buy supplies so that they can survive the Rocky Plains, but the maugrabs always look so sad, so beaten, as if the rope that keeps them tied to a stake in the ground is sapping all of the life out of them.
I can’t turn my back on a creature in pain, not if there’s something I can do to help. I forget the orders from my mother to not dally and push my way through the crowd to-ward the fire.
The smoke thickens as I get closer, stinging my eyes and making me cough, but I trudge ahead. I finally burst through the crowd and see the Haltayi nomads tossing buckets of water onto the flames, which rage like a beacon in the night. Mer-chants with stalls on either side of the fire are clearing out their wares while using wet cloths to beat away the flames that lick their wooden structures.
The maugrab roars again. A wall of flames separates the animal from safety. Through the fire, I catch glimpses of the poor beast, its mouth open wide, its heavy paws pacing back and forth. Its short snout contains massive, sharp teeth, and anxious muscles ripple beneath the rust-colored fur covering its broad shoulders and hindquarters. Waves of heat prevent anyone from getting too close and helping.
Someone has to do something, or that maugrab is going to die.
Dropping my purchases on the ground, I run toward one of the stalls and climb on top of the structure, my feet sink-ing into the cloth awning. A merchant grabs at me, yelling for me to get down. I kick his hands away and jump onto the next stall, then the next, until I’m on top of the stall closest to the crackling flames.
I can hear more people hollering for me to come back, but I ignore them. Looking down, all I see is fire and smoke. The sides of the tent have burned away but the crates and furni-ture that lined the walls are still on fire. What remains of the top of the tent is in flames, but the section closest to me has already burned away. I’m about to turn back—the foolishness of my actions has finally caught up with me—when I catch sight of the maugrab through the haze.
I look into the maugrab’s eyes, and I see that it wants to live. There are so many people standing around, watching, some of them crying, but no one’s doing anything to help. The maugrab’s going to die unless I do something.
I have to act fast if I’m going to save the maugrab. Luckily the roof of this stall is made of wooden planks and not fabric. I cover my face with my arms, grit my teeth, and pray to the gods that I land on the other side of the fire and not within the flames.
A gasp erupts from the crowd as I leap over the flames. The heat briefly singes my skin before I hit the ground with a thud. My pants are on fire, the hungry blaze eating the thin cloth. I beat out the flames with my hands and get on my hands and knees.
The only sound is the roaring fire, and acrid smoke coats my lungs with every breath. I’ve never felt such heat and I’m instantly drenched in sweat. It’s difficult to see, so I crawl to where I last saw the maugrab and cry out with relief when my hand brushes a furry paw.
The maugrab is lying on the ground, its breaths shallow. I climb to my feet and tug on the beast’s rough mane.
“Come on,” I say between coughs. “Get up!”
Slowly, the maugrab gets on all fours and I rub the sleek reddish-brown fur on its powerful shoulders.
“There’s only one way out of here,” I tell the animal, point-ing at the top of a stall, barely visible over the wall of flames. “And I can’t make the jump. Can you do it?”
The maugrab starts forward but is held back by the rope around its neck tied to a stake in the ground. I make quick work of the knots, and the maugrab shakes its mane and roars when it’s free.
I climb on the beast’s back and grab hold of its mane, my mind racing with prayers to the gods that I can actually pull this off. With a powerful lurch, the maugrab leaps and clears the fire, landing on top of the wooden stall with a skid and digging its claws into the wood to stop us from sliding off.
A cheer rises up among the crowd. I’m grinning, reckless but triumphant.
“You did it,” I tell the maugrab.
The rickety stall wobbles beneath us and the maugrab jumps onto the ground as the roof crashes down.
We’re immediately surrounded by onlookers, many of them clapping me on the back and congratulating me as I slide off the maugrab. A Haltayi woman runs up and wraps her arms around the animal’s neck, as a Haltayi man bows deeply be-fore me. “Thanking you, samida,” he says in his thick accent.
My cheeks flush from the attention and I return the bow. Before I can get caught up in all the smiles and excitement, the structure that enclosed the maugrab finally collapses. Swirls of fiery ash and smoke ride the gust of wind released by the falling structure before descending on the crowd. Cries ring out as hot embers fall on bare skin, and I’m jostled aside by elbows as those around me slap at the little fires clinging to their clothes.
Coughing and stumbling, I move aside to clear a path for more buckets of water to douse the flames and find myself shoved into an alley. I take a moment to collect myself, my heart still racing, when I realize I tossed the expensive rice aside to save the maugrab. I still need to buy everything else on Omma’s list, but with the market in such disarray and with most of the shops already closed, I don’t know if that’s pos-sible. And now that all the excitement has waned, exhaustion has taken over, and I just want to go home.
I wipe the sweat from my face with the hem of my scarf and groan when I see the streaks of black on the light blue fabric. Maybe if I explain to Omma what happened with the maugrab, she won’t be disappointed that I didn’t buy any of the things she asked for and why I returned in such a state.
Deciding I’d rather be scolded by Omma than deal with the market again, I head down the alley, toward the main road that will take me home. I pass boxes of refuse filled with rotting vegetables, discarded sacks of mealy grain, and rolled-up rugs with frayed edges and covered in stains. I’m halfway through the alley when I hear a group of voices coming from the shadows on my left.
“You’re such an idiot!” a girl yells and I stop in my tracks. She’s shrouded in shadows, but I don’t need to see the girl to know who’s yelling.
Hamala Mugabe is the last person I’d want to meet in a dark alley.
Not because I’m scared of her. But because she makes my blood boil.
At school, Hamala seems to get all her pleasure picking on younger students, and anyone who tries to stop her gets it worse. I’ve had no choice but to step in a few times to de-fend someone against her bullying and that’s made me one of Hamala’s top targets. Now, every time we encounter each other, we’re both on guard, waiting for the other to strike so that we have an excuse to strike back. It’s as if a lifelong bond has formed between us: one that pits one girl against the other, always in conflict, resolution residing in the strength of our fists.
“By the Fires, I swear I ought to bash your head in,” Hamala continues. “It was supposed to be a quick grab. We had the hard part—we were the distraction! All you had to do was sneak in, steal his purse, and sneak out, and you couldn’t even do that.”
So now Hamala’s stealing too. I thought I had reached the limit of how much I could loathe another person, but Hamala always finds a way to push me. She doesn’t even need the money—everyone knows the Mugabe family has plenty. She only gets away with terrorizing others because her fam-ily always buys her way out of trouble.
The last thing I feel like doing right now is confronting her, so I try to sneak by. But I can’t help overhearing their con-versation as I pass the darkened alcove where they’re hiding.
“How was I supposed to know that maugrab was there?” another girl whines. She sounds like Jalaan, one of Hamala’s lackeys. “You know I’m scared of those things, and you said the tent was empty!”
I pause midstep, one foot barely touching the ground. They can’t be talking about what I think they’re talking about, can they? Did Hamala and her goons try to steal from the Haltayi, who are some of the poorest people in the village? Stealing from them is like snatching a beggar’s cup of change.
“You’re blaming me for this mess?” Hamala says, her voice menacing.
“Well,” a third girl chimes in, “no one told you to start a fire.”
I stiffen in shock, my eyes wide. My feet are rooted to the ground. I knew Hamala was dangerous, but now she’s gone too far. So many people lost their livelihoods in the fire, not to mention the Haltayi losing their tent. And that poor mau-grab would have died if I hadn’t jumped in to save it.
I have to confront her. If I don’t, no one will know what she’s done, and then there’ll be nothing preventing her from doing something even worse next time.
Behind me, the market is emptying as the last fires are dampened. A group of watchguards inspect the smoldering remains of the maugrab’s tent while a few stall owners lin-ger, many of them distraught over the damage. Hamala did this—she caused all of this destruction.
“You’ve gone too far this time, Hamala,” I say, stepping into the brightest section of the alley. “Picking on kids in the schoolyard is one thing, but stealing from Haltayi? Arson? Ei-ther you turn yourself in, or I will.”
Slowly, as if she is the hunter and I am the prey, Hamala emerges from the shadows with three of her friends behind her.
“You bitch,” she growls as she moves in front of me. Her lackeys stand behind me, blocking the only other exit. I wish I had my twin brother, Nez, with me to make this fight more even. But then again, he’s always telling me not to fight. “I’m getting so tired of seeing your ugly face. Everywhere I go, there’s Naira Khoum sticking her nose in places where it doesn’t belong.”
I don’t clench my fists even though I want to. But if Hamala takes a swing at me, I’ll have no choice but to defend myself and deal with Nez’s disappointment later.
“If you weren’t always causing trouble, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be home right now eating dinner. It’s because of the fire you set that I’m here among all this garbage trying to con-vince you to do the right thing.”
Hamala puffs out her chest. “Did you call me garbage?”
My stomach sinks. I should have known trying to reason with her would be a waste of time. She twists everything I say into an insult.
“I think she called all of us garbage,” Jalaan says from be-hind.
A fight is coming—a big one. I can feel it in the charged air between us, hear it in the way Jalaan and the others snicker nastily behind me, see it in Hamala’s clenched fists. I turn to the side so that I can keep my eyes on Hamala and the others.
Hamala curls her lip in a menacing snarl and looks down at me. “I think so too. And I know exactly what to do to someone who calls me names and can’t keep her nose out of my business.”
Hamala reaches out to shove me, but I’m too quick. I knock her arms aside and plant my foot squarely in her stomach, kicking the air out of her lungs and sending her flying back-ward. She lands sprawled out on the ground, stunned. The other girls look at each other, not sure what to do, waiting for their leader to guide them, but Hamala can barely talk. Tears run down her cheeks, catching the dust that clouds the air from her fall.
“Get her!” Hamala wheezes at last.
The next thing I know, the other girls are on top of me, pulling my hair, trying to scratch my face and knock me to the ground. One yanks me by the arm while another tries to kick my feet out from beneath me.
I have no choice but to fight back. My father started train-ing me in combat as soon as I was big enough to hold a sword, so I try to end this fight quickly. I punch the tallest one in the chest, knocking her breathless, and grab the arm of an-other girl and twist it behind her back. She whimpers in pain.
By now, Hamala has recovered her breath and is standing. She charges, knocking me and the whimpering girl to the ground. I push the girl off me and try to get on my feet, but Hamala kicks me in the stomach once, twice, three times. I can’t breathe, my abdomen throbs with pain, and I lie on my side gasping for air. Then Hamala grabs my arms, wraps her legs around my waist, and holds me down. I thrash around in an attempt to free myself, but her grip is tight.
Hamala yells out something to her lackeys, but I’m so fo-cused on our struggle that I barely register what she’s saying.
She yells again: “Do it! Do it now!”
I glance at the other girls, afraid because whatever she has planned, it’s going to hurt. I only catch a glimpse of the heavy rock in Jalaan’s hand right before she cracks me in the head with it.
The entire side of my face explodes with pain and my head lolls to the side. Hamala releases me from her grip with a laugh. I crumple to the ground, dizzy and nauseous, and touch shaking fingers to my forehead. They come away bloody.
Hamala kneels in front of me and grabs the collar of my tunic, bringing us face-to-face. She’s so close I can see the crust in the corners of her eyes.
“This is what happens when you keep getting in my way, Khoum.” She shoves me and I fall against a broken pot, the jagged edges scraping my back.
“You think she’s learned her lesson?” Hamala asks the oth-ers. She turns to me. “Well, you little snitch, did you?”
I can barely see straight, stabbing pains radiate throughout my skull, and I feel like I’m going to retch. But I still can’t let Hamala win.
I spit in her face and she jumps back in disgust.
“You rotten bitch!”
Hamala snatches the rock from Jalaan and towers over me.
I’m trying to get up, get out of the way of what I know is coming next, but I can’t seem to get my balance. The giant rears her hand back. I notice a dark spot on the rock and it occurs to me That’s my blood—and then the world goes black.
Excerpted from Waking Fire. Copyright © 2023 by Jean Louise. Published by Inkyard Press.
About the author:
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Jean Louise currently lives in Queens, New York, with her cat Martha. When she’s not writing, she can be found with her nose buried in a graphic novel or taking down bad guys in her favorite video games. She received an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. This is her debut novel.
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