To appease the sinister spirits of the dead, Tarisai must anoint a council of her own…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Jordan Ifueko’s Redemptor, the sequel to Raybearer—available August 17th from Amulet Books.
For the first time, an Empress Redemptor sits on Aritsar’s throne. To appease the sinister spirits of the dead, Tarisai must now anoint a council of her own, coming into her full power as a Raybearer. She must then descend into the Underworld, a sacrifice to end all future atrocities.
Tarisai is determined to survive. Or at least, that’s what she tells her increasingly distant circle of friends. Months into her shaky reign as empress, child spirits haunt her, demanding that she pay for past sins of the empire.
With the lives of her loved ones on the line, assassination attempts from unknown quarters, and a handsome new stranger she can’t quite trust… Tarisai fears the pressure may consume her. But in this finale to the Raybearer duology, Tarisai must learn whether to die for justice… or to live for it.
My name was Tarisai Kunleo, and no one I loved would ever die again.
I stole down the palace hallway, my sandals slapping the words into music—never again, never again. I would play this song until my soles wore thin. Griots, the sacred storytellers of our empire, shaped the histories we believed with their music.
I, too, would sing this story until the world believed it.
Tar? The base of my scalp hummed as Kirah connected our Ray bond, speaking directly into my mind. Are you all right?
Kirah, my council sister, and Mbali, the former High Priestess of Aritsar, stood ahead of me in the broad palace hallway. I caught up to them, smiling manically before remembering that they couldn’t see my face.
We wore ceremonial veils: colorful beads and shells that dangled to our chests, concealing our faces. Tall leather hairpieces, stained crimson and shaped into flames, circled our heads. Our costumes honored Warlord Fire, creator of death, and disguised us as birinsinku: grim women of the gallows, on our way to perform holy death rites on imperial prisoners.
I’m fine, I Ray-spoke to Kirah, gritting my teeth. Then I willed my voice to be light and chipper, speaking aloud for Mbali’s sake. “Just—you know. Excited for Thaddace.”
Servants and courtiers danced out of our way as we swept through An-Ileyoba Palace. Rumor warned that birinsinku spread foul luck wherever they went, and so as we passed, onlookers warded off evil with the sign of the Holy Pelican. No one guessed that I, Mbali, and Kirah hid beneath those glittering veils, plotting to free the most hated man in Aritsar from prison.
Dayo had named me Empress of Aritsar exactly two weeks ago. Until then, the world had believed that only one Raybearer—always male—existed per generation. The Ray was a blood gift, passed down from Aritsar’s first emperor, Enoba the Perfect. Its power granted emperors near immortality, and allowed them to form a council of bonded minds, uniting the sprawling mega-continent of Aritsar.
But Enoba had lied about the gift in his veins. He had never been meant to rule alone, for two Rays existed per generation—one for a boy and one for a girl. That Ray now swelled in my veins, upsetting five hundred years of Arit tradition. My sex alone had made me plenty of enemies, but if that hadn’t been enough… with one impulsive vow, I had placed the entire empire in grave danger.
For eras, demons called abiku had plagued our continent, causing drought and disease, and stealing souls down to the Underworld. Enoba achieved peace through a treaty, sating the abiku by sending children into the sulfurous Oruku Breach—two hundred living Redemptors, or sacrifices, per year. I had voided that treaty, offering myself instead as a final Redemptor. The abiku had accepted on one mysterious condition: Before I descended to the Underworld, I had to anoint the rulers of all twelve Arit realms, forming a council of my own.
They had given me two years. If in that time I failed to anoint a council and cast myself into the Oruku Breach… the abiku would raze the continent. No one would be safe then, not even the priests in their lofty temples, or the bluebloods in their gilded fortresses.
Enraged, the nobles had plied me with tests. If my Ray was fraudulent, my promise to the abiku could be voided, and the old treaty reinstated. But before hundreds of gaping courtiers, I had walked across hot coals, chugged goblets of pelican oil, and submerged my face in gourds of holy water—all tasks, legend had it, highly lethal to any but a Raybearer.
The strongest proof of my legitimacy, however, shimmered in lurid patterns on both my forearms: a living map of the Underworld, marking me as a Redemptor. The abiku would not have accepted my treaty, relinquishing an eternity of child sacrifices, for anything less valuable than a Raybearer. To win my soul, the abiku had made a promise—and a deal made by immortals, once sealed in blood, could not be broken.
Dayo had begged me not to provoke the nobles further. “Just for a while,” he had pleaded. “I want them to love you, Tar. To see you as I do.” Out of guilt for making him worry, I had promised to keep my head down. And I would. Really.
Right after I broke an imperial traitor out of prison.
Thaddace of Mewe laughed: a desperate, rasping sound that dissolved into coughs.
“Stand back,” he managed at last, and the iron lock on the grate began to smolder, melting in on itself until the door creaked open. Thaddace gathered Mbali to his chest, gasping beneath her torrent of kisses.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled against her neck. “I’ve been a fool.”
“My fool,” Mbali agreed. Kirah and I looked awkwardly at our sandals, and after several moments, the former Anointed Ones seemed to remember they weren’t alone. Thaddace glanced at me over Mbali’s head. “Well, incorrigible one? What next?”
“Change into these,” I ordered, pulling an Imperial Guard uniform and dust mask from the bundle on my back. “Then we’ll have to split up. Groups of two are less conspicuous.”
As he changed, I listened at the landing. My pulse hammered when I heard the squeak of a cart, a muffled thump at the bottom of the stairs, and the pattering away of anxious footsteps.
“That was the drop,” I ordered, “Sanjeet said he’d leave a decoy body. Kirah, Anointed Honor Mbali—can you handle dragging the corpse up to the landing?” They nodded.
“Good. Once you’ve brought it up, dress it in Thaddace’s clothes. Use the torches to set it on fire, so it looks like a dishonor killing. Then get out of here as fast as you can. By then, Thaddace and I should have reached the palace gates.”
Kirah winced. “What if you get stopped?”
“We’re leaving the palace, not entering. They won’t have reason to search us thoroughly.”
“Still”—Kirah gestured at the sinister charms and holy water vials dangling from my belt—“make sure the guards see those. And the marks on your sleeves. It’s bad luck to touch a birinsinku who has just delivered last rites. Or at least, that’s what people believe.” She smiled thinly. “Let’s hope those guards are superstitious.”
Thaddace planted a last, lingering kiss on Mbali’s full lips, beaming as she murmured against him: “A world worth surviving in.”
His green gaze darted across her face. “Almost there,” he said. Then my old mentor took my ringed hand in his sunburned one, and we disappeared down the landing stairs.
An-Ileyoba was waking up, and the halls had grown dangerously crowded. Courtiers shot curious looks at the masked Imperial Guard and veiled birinsinku woman hurrying through the passageways. My heart hammered.
“We’ll head through the residential wing and cut around to the back gates,” I told Thaddace, keeping my head down. “Fewer witnesses.”
I guessed correctly: The palace bedrooms were sparsely populated, and we were able to run without drawing attention. Just a few more corridors and we’d be outside. Then Thaddace would be through the gates, and I would have one less horror, one less death on my conscience.
“It’s almost over,” I breathed, and then we rounded a corner. A single child stood in the center of the hallway… and I gasped in pain.
The Redemptor glyphs on my arms burned, glowing bright blue. “Greetings, Anointed Honors,” the boy monotoned.
At first glance, I would have said the child was a ghost. But he was flesh, not spirit, feet planted firmly on the ground. Ten, perhaps eleven years old, with matted straight hair and pale skin like Thaddace’s. The strength of the boy’s Mewish accent surprised me. The cold, green kingdom of Mewe was thousands of miles north of Oluwan, but most realms weakened their regional dialects in favor of the imperial tongue, for fear of sounding like country bumpkins. This boy sounded like he had never seen an imperial city in his life. Most confusingly… Redemptor birthmarks covered his body. Unlike mine, his glistened purple—the mark of Redemptors who had satisfied their debt to the Underworld.
“Y-you are mistaken,” I stammered. “We are not Anointed Ones. I’m a birinsinku.” The veil hung thickly over my head and shoulders. This boy couldn’t know who we were. Well . . . the marks glowing through my robe might give me away. But Thaddace’s mask was still in place. Either way, we needed to keep moving. I advanced briskly, intending to pass him, but the boy fell to his knees in front of Thaddace, staring up at him with translucent eyes.
“Bless me,” he whispered. “Please.”
“You’re being silly,” I snapped at the child, beginning to panic as the boy clutched Thaddace’s tunic. “Let him go.”
“Shh!” Thaddace hissed, glancing around the empty hall. When no one came to investigate, Thaddace tried to shake the boy off, but the child began to wail: a high, keening sound.
“I don’t like this,” I whispered.
“Can’t be helped.” Thaddace shrugged and sighed. “Transitions of power are always hard on peasants. I’ll just give him what he wants.”
Hair rose on the back of my neck. The child… smelled. Not like an unwashed body, but like earth and decay, or the rotting musk of burial mounds, steaming in wet season.
Something was very, very wrong.
Thaddace bent down, holding out his hand to touch the child’s head. “By the power of the Ray, formerly vested in me, I bless—”
I heard the knife before I saw it. The scrape of metal against leather as the boy slipped it from his boot, and the soft, wet hiss as a line of crimson bloomed across Thaddace’s throat.
My vision dimmed as blood soaked Thaddace’s collar, and he sputtered and gasped.
“Run,” he told me, but my feet had lost all feeling.
“Long live the Empress Redemptor,” Thaddace gurgled, hand locked around the boy’s wrist. With a stagger, Thaddace turned the knife back toward the child. The boy did not resist, eerily calm as his own blade impaled him.
Then Thaddace collapsed on the tiles, dead before he hit the ground.
I backed away, shivering from head to toe. No. Thaddace could not be dead. Thaddace was mine, and I was Tarisai Kunleo, and no one I loved would ever…
The thought faded to white noise as the boy stood over Thaddace’s body, removing the knife in his own chest. He did not bleed.
“You’re not human,” I whispered. “What are you?” He didn’t look like an abiku. No all-pupil eyes, no pointed teeth or ash-gray skin. Besides, the abiku did not kill humans unless the Treaty was breached, and I still had two years to make my sacrifice. So if not an abiku, then… what?
The creature cocked his head. “I am your servant.”
“You killed Thaddace.” The world was spinning. “Why? For Am’s sake, why?”
“Thaddace of Mewe murdered the late Emperor Olugbade,” the creature replied. “The Empress Redemptor was aiding a crown traitor.”
“But it wasn’t his fault,” I sobbed. “My mother made him. Thaddace wasn’t going to die; I was going to save him—”
“The empress must not engage in actions that damage her reputation,” the boy continued. “For our purposes, your image must remain unsullied. You must retain the trust of the Arit populace.”
“Whose purposes?” I shrilled. “Who do you work for?”
His childish features wrinkled, as though I had asked a question for which he had not been fed the answer. “I am your servant,” he repeated. “The empress must not…” He took a step forward. I fumbled for a weapon, but my hand found only the trinkets on my belt. With a cry, I unstoppered a vial of holy water and hurled its contents at the boy.
The water would have dissolved an evil abiku, turning it to ash. But the boy merely flinched, staring emptily at his splattered clothes.
“What are you?” I demanded again, seizing his shoulder and attempting to take his memories.
For seconds, all I saw was a long, yawning void. I blinked—this had never happened before. Even babies had some memories, though fuzzy and disorganized. But after a moment, my Hallow managed to salvage the dimmest echo of a memory, lifting it to the surface.
The boy stumbled back from my grasp, his gaze growing suddenly
childlike. Unfocused… as though recalling a distant dream. “I’m,” he mumbled, “I’m called Fergus. I was born in Faye’s Crossing. Far north, in Mewe.”
“Who do you work for? Who are your people?”
The boy shook his head slowly. “My parents… went away. No. They died in battle. At Gaelinagh.”
“Gaelinagh?” I echoed the foreign word, and battle records raced through my memories. “But that’s impossible. The Battle of Gaelinagh was a Mewish civil war, and they haven’t had one of those in centuries. Not since—”
Disbelief stole the words in my throat.
Peace had been established in Mewe five hundred years ago—during the reign of Emperor Enoba. Back when Redemptors were born all over the continent, and not just in Songland.
The Mewish child was sinking before my eyes. The ground was—was swallowing him. My fingers grasped at his clammy pale skin, but my Hallow found nothing—only cold emptiness.
What kind of creature had practically no memories at all?
“Your map’s still blue,” he said. The monotone had returned, and he nodded absently at the symbols on my forearms. “It’ll go purple once you join us.” Then the ground closed over him. He vanished, leaving me alone with Thaddace’s body as a gaggle of courtiers rounded the corridor.
Excerpted from Redemptor, copyright © 2021 by Jordan Ifueko