THE Master OF Thornkeep
Koffi smelled the blackberries first.
Saccharine, tart, it was their cloying scent that lured her back to consciousness. Slowly, she opened her eyes. A groan began low in her throat, very nearly passing through her lips, but instinct caught the sound before it could escape. In the silence, a realization settled on her skin like motes of dust.
She didn’t know where she was.
Life returned to her fingertips, and Koffi let them explore, taking tactile reconnaissance of her surroundings. From them, she gathered that she was lying on something soft—a bed—with linen sheets bunched at her waist. Her head rolled to the left, pressing one cheek against the cool pillow beneath her; she paid for that small movement instantly. A stab of pain throbbed at the base of her skull, and her eyes watered. Seconds passed before her dulled vision sharpened again. Even then, she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing.
She was in a large bedroom, one she’d never been in before. Its walls—at least, those visible in the dimness—were a cool slate gray. Squares of buttery light dappled the vaulted ceiling overhead, which she took to mean it was morning. A glint to her left caught her eye, and she noted a bone-white nightstand beside the bed. There was a gilded serving tray on it, laden with food. Her eyes took in the sliced bread, the tiny bowls of jam, cheese, and fruit, and her mouth watered.
A feast for a king, she mused. She was still staring at the food, considering, when she heard it: the soft rustle of fabric. She stilled.
She was not alone.
At first, she didn’t understand how she had not immediately noticed the two people standing on the opposite side of the bedroom and facing a massive bay window with their backs to her. But as the seconds passed, she did understand; she hadn’t noticed them because they stood with near-perfect stillness, two statues silhouetted in sunlight. The man was tall, muscled, and lean, with skin like sunbaked clay and cropped black hair. Beside him, the woman was much shorter, with brown skin a shade darker than his and a springy black Afro. His kaftan was river blue, hers was marigold. Without warning, the man spoke.
“How much longer should we let her sleep?” His voice was low. “We’ll wake her soon,” the woman murmured. Her voice was lilting. “He’s expecting her.”
Koffi stiffened on the bed. She was almost certain that these people were talking about her.
Abruptly, the man began to pace. Koffi couldn’t see the details of his face, but his movements reminded her of an agitated lion contained in a too-small cage.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said between steps. “It’s been years since he brought a new one here—why would he start doing it again now?”
“I don’t know,” the woman replied. She was still facing the window.
The man stopped, and Koffi finally saw his face properly in the light. Every one of his features was smooth and angular, as though carved by a practiced sculptor. He had a long, even nose, ochre eyes framed by thick black brows, and a knife-sharp jawline. Only his scowling mouth looked out of place.
“He said nothing to you?” he asked the woman. “Nothing about where she’s from, or what order she belongs to?”
Finally, the woman turned. Even in profile, Koffi knew at once that she was beautiful too. Her face was soft, defined by full pink lips set below a short, rounded nose. She was frowning.
“He tells me as much as he tells you,” she said. “All I know is that we’re to bring her to the main hall. He didn’t say anything else.”
“And how are we supposed to do that?” the man asked. Koffi watched him massage the bridge of his nose. “She’s still unconscious.”
“We can’t take her to him in the clothes she’s wearing,” said the woman. Koffi noticed she’d lowered her voice. “They’re filthy. She’ll need to change them.”
Koffi’s pulse quickened. She’d hoped for more time to form a plan. Her eyes searched the room, desperate. The only other furnishings nearby were a vanity and a divan in the far-left corner, neither of which could be used as a weapon or shield. These people, whoever they were, had the advantage. She’d have to move quickly to catch them off guard.
A shaft of golden sunlight drew Koffi’s eyes back to the serving tray on her left. Just beside it, there was a silver butter knife. She took a slow breath in, bracing herself, then closed her eyes and tried to envision what she was going to do. If she moved over slightly, she could reach the knife. And if she could reach the knife . . .
Koffi’s eyes were still closed, but to her right she heard the man’s voice again, closer. She shifted subtly to her left.
“Kena, maybe you should be the one to—”
Koffi lunged, rolling off the bed and snatching the butter knife from the tray in one less-than-graceful motion. She regretted it almost immediately; an explosion of stars erupted in her head and blotted her vision, but her fingers wrapped tight around the knife’s tiny handle. She focused on its feel, the cool of its metal against her palm. The room tilted violently from side to side like the deck of an ill-fated ship at sea, and she stumbled. This time, a groan did escape her. She still couldn’t see, but she heard a gasp. Then a male voice.
“Oh. You’re awake.”
Koffi blinked hard, trying to quiet the percussion in her chest as she fought to remain calm. Her ears were ringing, there were still flashing spots in her vision, but she saw that the man and woman who’d been standing at the window were now just on the other side of the bed, looking at her with shared concern. Upright, she realized they were both younger than she’d first thought; not a man and a woman, but a boy and a girl, each about sixteen—her age. It was the former of the two who broke the silence.
“So,” he said with one brow raised. “I take it this means you didn’t like the welcome breakfast?”
Koffi didn’t pause to consider the question. “Who are you?” Her voice was a throaty rasp, as though it hadn’t been used for days. That scared her. She glanced back and forth, trying to keep her eyes on the boy and the girl at the same time, but the effort was dizzying. Her grip on the knife tightened, but to her faint annoyance, the boy only gave it a cursory glance before smirking.
“Is that really necessary?”
“It is when you’re trying to take my clothes off.”
“We weren’t trying to take your clothes off,” said the boy with a note of exasperation. He paused, then smirked. “Well, I mean, technically speaking . . .”
“You have five seconds.” Koffi didn’t know whether to be irritated or terrified by the boy’s nonchalance. “Tell me who you are, where I am, and why I’m here.”
“Or what?” The boy’s eyes flicked to the knife again, visibly amused. “You’ll butter our toast?”
“Zain.” Up to this point, the girl hadn’t spoken; now she was glaring at the boy. “I think it would be best if you left.”
The boy—Zain—considered a moment before he shrugged and headed toward a pair of double doors on the other side of the room. He muttered something that sounded distinctly like “butter knife” before closing them behind him. Koffi exhaled.
“I’m sorry,” said the girl. She was looking at Koffi the way one might look at an injured animal, but like the boy, she seemed unfazed by the butter knife. Koffi sighed, then let it clatter to the ground.
“I know this is all probably very overwhelming,” the girl continued gently. “But Zain and I aren’t here to hurt you, we—”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Makena,” she said. “Yours?”
“Koffi,” Makena repeated. “I’m a daraja, like you.”
Daraja. Koffi felt the word strike against her like a flint to stone, pulling others to the forefront of her mind. Daraja. Bridge. Splendor. They were disjointed, but familiar; she just couldn’t remember why.
“What order are you?” Makena asked. “I’m in Ufundi.” Koffi stared back at her, confused. Makena seemed to be ask-ing the question earnestly, but it didn’t make sense. “Um . . .”
“That’s all right.” Makena waved a hand. “We can talk about that later. But for now . . .” She glanced toward the double doors before offering an apologetic look. “You do need to change your clothes.”
Koffi looked down at her own body for the first time since she’d woken up. Her burlap tunic was covered in dirt and grime, but she had no recollection of how it’d gotten there.
Why? Why can’t I remember?
“I have something for you to wear, actually,” said Makena. “If you’d like.” She crossed the room and stopped before the divan; Koffi noticed something neatly folded on it. When Makena turned back to her, she was holding up a sleeveless dress. It was long and sweeping, cinched at the waist. A geometric black-and-white pattern covered the wax-print fabric, and golden stitching embroidered its hems.
“I made it,” Makena murmured. “I . . . hope you like it.”
“I do,” said Koffi. “It’s really nice.” That was an understatement, but they were the only words she could summon. With certainty, she knew that she was awake, and yet this all still seemed like some distorted dream. She felt removed, unfocused, as though she was grasping at spider-silk threads of memory and trying to braid them into something logical.
Makena laid the dress on the bed. “I’ll call for a cloth and water basin to be brought up so you can wash,” she offered. “But you’ll need to be quick, we don’t have much time.”
“Why?” Koffi tensed. “Where are we going?”
Makena shot a furtive glance over her shoulder as she headed for the bedroom doors. “To take you to the main hall. The master of Thornkeep doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Koffi’s heart thundered in her chest as Makena led her down a narrow hall.
Like the bedchamber she’d awoken in, everything around her was carved from the same slate rock, which did nothing to fend off the chill in the air. Around her, a pervading darkness held firm, interrupted only by the cracks of pale light that came from arrow-slit windows. Koffi was tempted to peek out of each one they passed, but she forced her gaze to stay fixed ahead. With each step, more questions filled her mind, and it unnerved her that she had answers to none of them. How had she gotten here? Why was she here? And why couldn’t she remember anything from before this morning? Makena’s words echoed in her head.
The master of Thornkeep doesn’t like to be kept waiting.
This place was called Thornkeep, she had gathered that much at least, but who was its master, and what did he want with her?
They passed into a new corridor, one with a large window on its left that allowed morning light to breach the dark. Makena walked past it without stopping, but this time Koffi stole a glance out of it. Her breath caught.
The lawns outside the window were lush in the extreme, an immaculate expanse of emerald-green grass. Every few feet, tiny ponds trimmed in alabaster stone decorated the grounds, their glass-smooth surfaces reflecting hues of azure and indigo in the sunlight. Her eyes flitted left and right, trying in vain to count the thousands of flowers arranged alongside the arbors and gazebos, but it was impossible. She noted that every single flower, despite its size or arrangement, was some shade of blue, reflecting the sky above.
“Thornkeep’s east garden,” said Makena. She’d stopped to stand at Koffi’s side. “Also called the Blue Garden. There are three others on the grounds, but this one is my favorite.”
Koffi nodded, though she barely heard Makena’s words. She was still taking in the scene before her. Thornkeep’s east garden was unquestionably beautiful, but the longer she studied it, the more acutely she felt an unease. Her gaze drifted past the ponds and plots of flower beds, then stopped at a line of neatly planted trees clearly meant to mark the garden’s end. She recognized those trees at once—only acacias had that gnarled, thorny quality about them—but they weren’t what held Koffi’s eye. It was the wall of heavy mist that hung around them. Most of the acacias’ tops were obscured by it, a thick pall of unmoving silver-white.
Even from this distance, Koffi imagined she could feel the mist’s coolness, the damp that would have clung to everything it touched. She shivered.
“That’s the Mistwood,” said Makena without prompt. “It marks the border of Thornkeep’s grounds.”
Koffi didn’t respond. She couldn’t explain it, but something about that mist, those trees, held her in place, as though daring her to watch a second longer. A beat passed before Makena spoke again.
“We should keep going,” she said. “The main hall’s not far.”
In silence, they left the corridor and continued on. When darkness fell over them once more, Koffi’s muscles relaxed. She felt an inexplicable sense of relief the farther she got from the window and the sight of the mist, but she didn’t know why.
Makena stopped again a few minutes later, so abruptly that Koffi nearly ran into her back. When she looked up, she realized that they were now standing before two enormous blackwood doors trimmed in a dull gold paint. Directly next to them, Zain was standing at attention. He offered them a cheery wave, and Koffi answered it with a frown before she could stop herself. Zain chuckled.
“Glad you could make it, Butter Knife.”
Koffi didn’t dignify the comment with a reply, and tried to keep her eyes trained on the double doors, but that was made harder when Zain moved to stand directly beside her, so that she was sandwiched between him and Makena. He was at least a head taller than her, and when he leaned toward her, their shoulders brushed. A smell like freshly laundered linens filled the air.
“A word of advice,” he said under his breath. “Try not to threaten anyone with cutlery.”
Whatever words Koffi had been planning to say back died in her throat as the doors before them swung open. Makena and Zain moved first, passing through them with an easy grace. Koffi took a steadying breath before she stepped into the room. Almost immediately, she faltered.
The room was the grandest she’d ever seen. A lake of white-veined black marble made up its floor, and a line of towering arched windows on two of its walls flooded the room in rose-gold sun-light. There was little in the way of furnishings here, but Koffi’s gaze caught on a single object directly opposite her: a tapestry hung on the wall. It was a massive piece, at least twice her height and many times as wide, and featured at its center a great, swollen hippopotamus. The creature’s skin was brown and shiny with wet, its tiny eyes beetle-black. It seemed to be staring right at her as it stood against the backdrop of a faded marshland baring its white tusks, each one longer than her arm. Koffi looked away from it quickly, disturbed. Something about that tapestry, about hippopotamuses specifically, had stirred another memory within her, but it left her as quickly as it’d come.
“Over here.” Makena glanced over her shoulder, keeping her voice to a whisper. “I see a place to stand.”
Koffi followed until the three of them stopped near the room’s center. She turned and, for the first time since entering, realized that they were not alone here. Clusters of people stood together all over the room, and every single person was staring at her. In stolen glances, Koffi took each one of them in. To her right, there was one group of young men and women dressed in blood-dark red; to her left, a second group donned shades of green. She noted one huddle of people swathed in gauzy blue fabrics very similar to Zain’s, and still a fourth group who wore pale yellows like Makena. The people farthest from her were dressed in deep violet, and she tried not to think about the fact that—in addition to looking like the most athletic people in the room—they also looked to be the most menacing. One of them openly grimaced at her, and she flinched, immediately annoyed at herself for doing so.
Do not show fear, she commanded her body. Do not look afraid.
“It’s all right,” Makena whispered. “No one here will hurt you.”
Koffi didn’t take any comfort in those words. She was too busy wading through even more questions. Who were all of these people? Was the master of Thornkeep among them?
Abruptly, the set of double doors she, Makena, and Zain had just walked through opened a second time; at once, every eye that’d been trained on Koffi shot to them instead. On either side of her, Makena and Zain both straightened. Even Koffi found herself watching, waiting.
Several impossibly long seconds passed before a man entered the chamber alone. He was tall, with dark, ochre-brown skin and curly black hair barbered to a low fade. He looked old enough to be Koffi’s father. She noticed that, unlike everyone else in the room, he wasn’t wearing a colorful garment; rather, his dashiki was a modest black-and-white pattern, not so unlike her own. He said nothing as he moved forward in long, confident strides. One by one, every person in the room bowed their head. There was an unspoken authority about this man, worn like a mantle to which he was well accustomed. Even Koffi found herself lowering her gaze as he approached, his sandaled footfall impossibly soft against the marble. She was staring at her own feet when she heard the words.
“Good morning, Koffi.”
An arrow of heat ran the length of Koffi’s body, as sudden and quick as a lightning strike. She felt a nudge against her arm, and swallowed hard as her bowed head seemed to rise of its own accord.
Slowly, Koffi lifted her gaze and locked eyes with the master of Thornkeep.