The hut reeked of death.
It was a nauseating smell, both fetid and sickly sweet, thick in the dusk as it filled Koffi’s lungs. A quarter hour had passed since she’d last moved; her legs were stiff, her mouth dry. Every so often, her stomach twisted, threatening revolt. But it was no matter; she kept still as stone. Her eyes were fixed on what lay mere feet from her across the worn dirt f loor—the victim.
The boy’s name was Sahel. Koffi hadn’t worked with him in the Night Zoo long, but she recognized his bare face, mahogany brown like her own, framed by tight black curls. In life, he’d had a crooked smile, an obnoxious braying laugh not unlike that of a donkey. Those things had abandoned him in death. She studied his lanky frame. As was Gede practice, most of his body was shrouded, but dried blood still stained the white linen in places, hints of the gruesome wounds beneath. She couldn’t see them, but she knew they were there—the scratches, the bite marks. From the darkest corners of her mind, a chilling image grew vivid. She imagined Sahel stumbling through a jungle, clumsy, oblivious to what waited for him among the vines. She envisioned a grotesque creature stalking forward in the moonlight, tongue darting between serrated teeth as it eyed easy prey.
She heard the scream.
A violent shudder racked her body then, despite the muggy heat. If the rumors she’d heard earlier were true, Sahel’s manner of death had been neither a quick nor a painless affair.
Across the stuffy hut, Mama was on her knees beside Sahel’s body, staring at the tattered blanket before it. On it were six crudely carved wooden figurines of animals—a heron, a crocodile, a jackal, a serpent, a dove, and a hippo—one familiar for each god. The oil lamp to her right bathed one side of her face in lambent light; the other was cast in shadow. “It’s time.”
Koffi hesitated. She’d agreed to come here and offer parting rites for Sahel, as Gede custom called for, but the thought of getting any closer to the corpse unnerved her. At a sharp glance from Mama, however, she moved to kneel with her. Together they let their fingers brush each of the figurines before folding their hands. “Carry him.” Mama whispered the prayer. “Carry him to his ancestors in the godlands.”
Their heads were still bowed when Koffi asked the question in a murmur. “Is it true?”
Mama cracked a wary eye. “Koffi...”
“Some of the others were talking,” Koffi went on before her mother could stop her. “They said others were killed, that—”
“Hush.” Mama’s head snapped up, and she swatted the words away like tsetse flies. “Mind your tongue when you speak of the dead, lest you bring them misfortune.”
Koffi pursed her lips. It was said that, to pass into the next life, one of the gods’ animal familiars—represented by the figurines before them—carried each soul to the god of death, Fedu. Each soul then had to pay Fedu before being carried on to paradise in the godlands. A soul with no money to pay for passage was doomed to walk the earth as a lost spirit for all eternity. Like Koffi, Sahel had been a beastkeeper indentured to the Night Zoo, which meant he’d had little money in life and likely had even less in death. If faith held true, this meant his misfortunes had only just begun, whether she minded her tongue or not. She had started to say so when the hut’s straw-thatch door opened. A stout woman with salt-and-pepper cornrows stuck her head inside. Her simple tunic was identical to theirs, gray and hemmed just below the knee. At the sight of them, she wrinkled her nose.
“Time to go.”
Mama gestured to the figurines. “We’re not finished—”
“You’ve had ample time for this nonsense.” The woman waved a dismissive hand. She spoke Zamani, the language of the East, like them, but her Yaba dialect gave her words a sharp, clicking quality. “The boy’s dead, praying to toys won’t change that, and there’s work yet to be done before the show, which Baaz expects to begin on time.”
Mama gave a resigned nod. Together, she and Koffi stood, but once the woman had left again, they both looked back to Sahel. If not for the bloodied shroud, he could have been sleeping.
“We’ll return and finish our prayers later, before they bury him,” said Mama. “He deserves that much.”
Koffi tugged at her tunic’s frayed neckline, trying to temper a moment’s guilt. Everyone else in the Night Zoo had already offered prayers for Sahel, but she’d begged Mama to wait. She’d blamed chores, then a headache, but the truth was, she hadn’t wanted to see Sahel like this, broken and hollow and devoid of all the things that had made him real. She’d built her own kind of walls to protect herself from the near-constant reminders of death’s presence here, but it had crept in anyway, intruding. Now the idea of leaving Sahel to lie here in the dirt, as alone as he’d been in the last grisly seconds of his life, unsettled her. She thought again of what she’d heard other beastkeepers whispering earlier in the day. People were now saying that Sahel had waited until late last night to make a run for it. They said he’d gone into the Greater Jungle hoping to find freedom and instead had found a creature that killed for amusement. She winced. The Shetani’s murderous reputation was frightening enough, but it was the fact that the monster had evaded capture for so many years that set her on edge. Misunderstanding the look on her face, Mama took Koffi’s hand and squeezed.
“I promise we’ll come back,” she whispered. “Now come on, let’s go.” Without another word, she ducked out of the hut. Koffi glanced back at Sahel’s body a final time, then followed.
Outside, the sun was setting, cast against a bruised sky curiously fractured by strange black fissures amid the clouds. Those fissures would fade to a gentler violet as monsoon season drew nearer, but they’d never truly disappear. They’d been there all Koffi’s life, an indelible mark left by the Rupture.
She hadn’t been alive a century ago when it had happened, but elders deep in their palm wine still spoke of it on occasion. Drunk, voices slurred, they recalled the violent tremors that had splintered the earth like a clay pot, the dead who’d strewn Lkossa’s streets in the aftermath. They talked of a relentless, blistering heat that had driven men mad. Koffi, and every other child of her generation, had suffered the consequences of that madness. After the Rupture, her people—the Gedes—had been dwindled down by war and poverty, easy to divide and regulate. Her eyes traveled along the cracks in the sky, weaving overhead like thin black threads. For a second, she thought she felt something as she surveyed them...
“Koffi!” Mama called over her shoulder. “Come now!”
Just as quickly, the feeling was gone, and Koffi kept on.
In silence, she and Mama whisked by mud-brick huts crammed along the Night Zoo’s edge; other beastkeepers were getting ready too. They passed men and women dressed in shabby tunics, some nursing freshly bandaged wounds from encounters with beasts, some marked by more permanent injuries like old scars and missing fingers. Each carried a quiet defeat in their hunched shoulders and downcast eyes that Koffi hated but understood. Most of the Night Zoo’s workers were of the Gedezi People like her, which meant the show would go on this evening, but Sahel’s absence would be felt. He hadn’t had real family here, but he’d been one of them, bound to this place by bad luck and bad choices. He deserved more than quick prayers in a run-down hut; he deserved a proper burial with token coins placed in his palms to ensure he made it to the god- lands. But no one here could afford to spare any coin. Baaz made sure of that.
A chorus of shrieks, roars, and snarls filled the eventide as they reached the crooked wooden post marking the end of the beastkeepers’ huts, trading red dirt for an expanse of green lawns filled with cages of every size, shape, and color. Koffi eyed the one nearest her, and the eight-headed nyuvwira snake met her gaze, curious. She followed Mama’s lead around cages of white pygmy elephants, chimpanzees, a pair of giraffes grazing quietly in their paddock. They passed a dome-shaped aviary full of black-and-white impundulus, barely mindful to cover their heads as the birds beat their massive wings and sent sparks of lightning into the sky. Baaz Mtombé’s Night Zoo was rumored to hold over a hundred exotic species within its confines; in her eleven years of contracted service to it, Koffi had never bothered to count.
They moved quickly between other enclosures, but when they reached the grounds’ border, her steps slowed. The black steel cage kept here was separate from the others, and with good reason. In the dying light, only its stark silhouette was visible; what it contained within was veiled in shadow.
“It’s all right.” Mama beckoned even as Koffi instinctively faltered. “I checked on Diko earlier today, and he was fine.” She approached the cage at the same time something in its corner shifted. Koffi tensed.
“Come now, Diko.” Mama kept her voice low as she withdrew a rust-speckled key from her pocket to insert into the massive padlock. In answer, there was an ominous hiss, slick as a blade. Koffi’s toes curled in the grass, and from the cage’s shadows a beautiful creature emerged.
His body was reptilian and sinewed, entirely adorned by iridescent scales that seemed to hold a thousand colors captive each time he moved. Clever citrine eyes danced back and forth as Mama tinkered with the lock, and when the beast flicked his forked black tongue between the bars, a smell like smoke tinged the dry air. Koffi swallowed.
The first time she’d seen a jokomoto, as a little girl, she’d thought they were creatures spun from glass, fragile and delicate. She’d been wrong. There was nothing delicate about a fire-breathing lizard.
“Get the hasira leaf out,” Mama directed. “Now.”
At once, Koffi pulled three dry, silver-veined leaves from a drawstring pouch at her hip. They were exquisite, shimmering with white resin that left her fingertips sticky when she pinched them. Her heartbeat hammered as the door to the jokomoto’s cage swung open and his head swiveled. Mama covered her nose with one hand, then raised the other in warning.
Koffi went stock-still as the jokomoto bolted from his cage and slunk toward her on long-clawed feet. She waited until he was within a few yards of her before tossing the leaves high into the air. Diko’s eyes caught them, and he lunged, impossibly quick. There was a flash of pointed teeth, a merciless crunch, and then they were gone. Koffi stuffed her hands back into her pockets quickly. Jokomotos weren’t native to this part of Eshõza; they were creatures from the western part of the continent, said to be children of Tyembu, the desert god. At roughly the same size as a common monitor lizard, Diko wasn’t the largest, fastest, or strongest animal kept in the Night Zoo, but he was the most temperamental— which also made him the most dangerous. One wrong move and he could set the entire place ablaze; it was all too easy to recall the nasty burns on beastkeepers who’d forgotten that. Her heartbeat only settled after the hasira leaf’s power took effect and the lurid yellow glow in his eyes slightly dimmed.
“I’ve got it from here.” Koffi was already moving behind Diko with a leather harness and leash snatched from a nearby post. She stooped down, and the moment she fastened its worn straps under his scaled belly and tightened them, she relaxed. The flimsy binds were a silly thing to take comfort in—they’d do nothing if Diko’s mood soured—but he was subdued, at least for now.
“Make sure those binds are secure.”
Koffi looked up. “Done.”
Pleased, Mama bent to give Diko’s snout a demonstrative pat. “That’s a good boy.”
Koffi rolled her eyes as she straightened. “I don’t know why you talk to him like that.”
“Why not?” Mama shrugged. “Jokomotos are spectacular beasts.”
“Sometimes things that seem dangerous are just misunderstood.” Mama said the words with a strange sadness before patting Diko again. This time, as if to affirm the point, he gently nudged her palm. This seemed to cheer her back up. “Besides, just look at him. He’s in good spirits tonight.”
Koffi started to argue, then thought better of it. Her mother had always had a strange empathy for the Night Zoo’s inhabitants. She changed the subject.
“You know, that was the last of the hasira leaf.” She patted her empty pouch for emphasis. “We’re out until more is delivered.” Even now, wisps of the leaves’ cloying fragrance still suffused the air. Inadvertently, she caught a lingering whiff of it, and a pleasant thrum tickled the edges of her senses.
“Koffi!” Mama’s voice turned sharp, cleaving through that momentary bliss. She was still holding Diko’s leash, but frowning. “You know better. Don’t breathe it in.
Koffi shook herself, unnerved, then fanned at the air around her until the smell was gone. Plucked from shrubs along the Greater Jungle’s border, hasira leaf was a sedative herb potent enough to knock out a mature bull elephant when consumed; it wasn’t wise to inhale its fragrance at close range, even in small quantities.
“We should get moving.” Mama’s gaze had locked on an illuminated tent set across the Night Zoo’s grounds; other beastkeepers were already heading toward it with animals in tow. From here, it was no larger than a candle’s red-gold flame, but Koffi recognized it—the Hema was where tonight’s show would be held. Mama glanced her way again. “Ready?”
Koffi grimaced. She was never ready for shows at the Night Zoo, but that hardly mattered. She’d just moved to stand on the other side of Diko when she noticed something.
“What’s wrong?” Mama asked, noting Koffi’s raised eyebrow.
“You tell me.” Now Koffi squinted. Something was off about her mother’s expression, but she couldn’t quite tell what. She studied it harder. The two of them looked similar—shoulder-length black twists, broad nose and full mouth framed by a heart-shaped face—but there was something else about Mama tonight. “You look... different.”
“Oh.” Mama looked uncharacteristically flustered, there was no doubt about it. Then Koffi named it, that foreign emotion in her mother’s eyes. Koffi was embarrassed to realize the thing she hadn’t recognized was happiness.
“Did... something happen?”
Mama shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Well, I was going to wait until tomorrow to tell you. After what happened with Sahel earlier, it didn’t seem right to discuss it, but...”
“Baaz pulled me aside a few hours ago,” she said. “He calculated our debt balance, and... we’re almost paid off.”
“What?” Something like shock and joy erupted in Koffi. Diko snorted at the sudden outburst, sending tendrils of smoke into the air, but she ignored him. “How?”
“Those extra hours we took on added up.” Mama offered a small smile. She was standing straighter, like a plant coming into full bloom. “We only have two more payments left, and we could probably pay those off in the next few days.”
Sheer disbelief coursed through Koffi. “And after that, we’re done?”
“Done.” Mama nodded. “The debt will be paid, interest and all.”
Koffi felt a long-held tension within her release as she exhaled. Like most things in the Night Zoo, the terms and conditions held by its indentured workers only benefitted one person. Eleven years of service with Mama had taught her that. But they’d won, beaten Baaz at his own wretched game. They were going to leave. It was so rare that beastkeepers managed to pay back their debts—the last one who’d managed it had done so at least a year ago—but now it was their turn.
“Where will we go?” Koffi asked. She could barely believe she was really posing the question. They’d never gone anywhere; she barely remembered a life outside the Night Zoo.
Mama closed the gap between them and took Koffi’s hand in hers. “We can go wherever we want.” She spoke with a fervor Koffi had never heard before. “You and I, we’ll leave this place and start over somewhere else, and we’ll never, ever look back. We’ll never return.”
Never return. Koffi considered the words. All her life she’d longed for them, dreamed of them. Hearing them now, however, they felt strangely different.
“What?” Mama noted her changed expression immediately. “What is it?”
“It’s just...” Koffi didn’t know if they were the right words, but she tried. “We’ll never see anyone here ever again.”
Mama’s expression softened with understanding. “You’ll miss it.”
Koffi nodded, quietly angry with herself for doing so. She didn’t necessarily love working at the Night Zoo, but it was the only home she’d ever known, the only life she’d ever known. She thought of the other beastkeepers, not quite a family, but certainly people she cared about.
“I’ll miss them too,” said Mama gently, reading her thoughts. “But they wouldn’t want us to stay here, Koffi, not if we didn’t have to.”
“I just wish we could help them,” Koffi murmured. “I wish we could help all of them.”
Mama offered a small smile. “You’re a compassionate girl. You lead with your heart, like your father.”
Koffi shifted uncomfortably. She didn’t like being compared to Baba. Baba was gone.
“Sometimes, though, you can’t lead with your heart,” said Mama gently. “You have to think with your head.”
A horn’s brassy trumpeting split the air without warning, its summons rising from the distant Temple of Lkossa to reverberate across the Night Zoo’s lawns in long, sonorous notes. They both stiffened as the sounds of newly agitated beasts filled the ground around them, and Diko bared his teeth in anticipation. The city’s saa-horn had at last announced nightfall. It was time. Again, Mama’s eyes flitted from the Hema to Koffi.
“It’s almost over, little ponya seed,” she said softly, a touch of hope in her voice. She hadn’t called her that in years. “I know how hard this has been, but it’s almost over, I promise. We’re going to be okay.”
Koffi didn’t answer as Mama tugged Diko’s leash to lead him toward the massive tent. She followed but kept a step behind. Her eyes cast wide, holding in their gaze the final remnants of a sky the color of blood. Mama’s words echoed in her mind.
We’re going to be okay.
They would be okay, she knew that now, but her thoughts still lingered on something else, someone else. Sahel. He wasn’t okay— he’d never be okay again. She couldn’t help but think of him then, of the boy with the crooked smile. She couldn’t help but think of the monster that had killed him and wonder who it would take next.