Something incredibly wicked this way comes, and it’s today’s sneak peak! Witches Steeped in Gold is a vicious and magical Jamaican-inspired fantasy debut from Ciannon Smart.
Witches Steeped in Gold follow two witches, Ira and Jazmyne. Ira has spent her life in a cell, planning her vengeance. Jazmyne is the Queen’s daughter, who has no intention of dying like her sister before her to strengthen her mother’s reign.
Looking for rich and immersive fantasy? Check. An exciting and dangerous magic system? Check. Badass female characters? Extra check. Your next YA obsession? Yep, check!
Start reading right now!
Though the night is flush with stars, the sky still seems like a lid of earth closing atop a grave.
It’s a fate that could be mine, should anyone see me sneaking from my home at this hour—a fate reserved for criminals and traitors, rebels and liars. Not me, the doyenne’s emissary.
Even if I am most of those things.
Ever watchful, the palace’s hulking shadow looms across the Parade Court, dogging my nervous tread to the sweetscented fruit grove where, as promised in the missive that drew me out of bed, my sand-prowler is tethered. In pursuit of blood eaters, Joshial bows a tree trunk with his weight as he flicks his whip of a tongue out.
At the sight of me, he jumps back to the grass on four thick scaled legs. Straining against his leash, he’s more of a hound than a monster-size lizard. Cooing, I scratch the underside of his chin before mounting. There’s no time to retrieve a saddle. Who knows which eyes watch from the windows.
Adjusting my hood, I bend low against Joshial’s wide neck. “Run fast for me tonight,” I whisper. Always the loyal companion, he half sprints, half leaps, taking us away from the palace via the unguarded temple drive, and into a tangle of bush that conceals our descent into the sleeping parish streets at the base of the estate’s mount.
We enter Ol’ Town at a breathless gallop. In the day, it’s a bustling street market. This late, no magi congregate to gossip, their musical patwah mingling with peppery jerk spice and opiate smoke. The slowing click of Joshial’s claws on stone is the sole sound as we bear down upon the destination dictated in the missive. Wedged between vacant neighbors, and down a side street I’d never enter in the day, the building’s windows are either shattered or boarded up; dark puddles, too murky to reflect light from fading witchlight lamps, seep before it, and trampled detritus litters its doorway—where a buguyaga slumps, blanketed in filthy rags. I guide Joshial right up to the snoring witch; his giant pink tongue unfurls and gives the side of her face a good lick.
“Cha!” Abandoning all pretense of sleep, Anya scrubs a filthy sleeve across her cheek. “When will you teach that beast some manners, mon?” Beneath her mucky camouflage, the toasted almond color of her skin is flushed with annoyance; it contrasts against wisps of straight silver hair peeking out from beneath her hood. “And why are you so late?”
“Wahan to you too. Whoever left the missive didn’t wake me.”
Straightening, she swaps her disaffection for the better- fitting militance of her Stealth métier. “I’ll have a word with whichever fool was assigned. Some of the newer recruits could do with having more respect for our discipline.” And who better to teach them than her, the best magically trained shadow I know.
“Can you keep Joshial with you?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I’m on duty with the first battalion tonight, not the resistance.”
Of course. At nightfall the magicless second battalion is replaced by those with magic.
“I’m undercover, obviously, but others in uniform are also making rounds. You’d better take your familiar inside before he licks the wrong face.”
I look at the building’s entrance, and nerves twist in my belly. Away from the palace I can no longer hide behind my mask of political envoy, a professional fence-sitter. In the meeting that waits inside, I’m part of a resistance working against the very structure I serve, and they have a question for me tonight. My answer won’t please us both.
“You’ll be fine as long as you remember to duck when the time calls for it,” Anya says, knowing my expressions almost as well as she knows her own.
We two are bottom and bench. But while she might not fear the aim of Light Giver, the moniker bestowed to the grizzled resistance founder, my cheek smarts at the memory of the last time one of her slippers caught me in the face.
“Now go. I’ll come find you later.”
Joshial takes the entrance sideways, climbing onto the wall with whatever adhesive his clawed feet provide. I leave him in an empty room just off the doorway with plenty of dead insects to devour before venturing on. The building is a trap of endless corridors dimly lit by the soft glow of overhead witchlight orbs. It isn’t a safe house I’ve been in before, which isn’t unusual. The resistance changes location often to avoid detection. They all have the same feel to them, though: damp neglect undercut by a fetid heat—one that licks at my neck, my brow, and only encourages the creeping sense of unease working its way through my limbs.
I am not a liar by nature, but tonight I must sell the sky to magi who know it’s free.
The resistance has tired of our leader, our doyenne. In the beginning, along with the rest of our order, they admired her decisions. Praised their bloom in the garden of her rule. But as time has passed, certain choices she’s made have rankled, caused them to question how well they suit the spiritualism of our order. Enough that the resistance is prepared to prune the garden she’s cultivated until it is barren, and she is no more.
I need to persuade them that she can change, that such extreme action is unnecessary, even as they hone their tools and discuss attack.
Soon snatches of patwah sound from behind a vast sliding metal door, but it’s too quick for me to catch. I linger long enough to straighten my shoulders and fix a look of cool professionalism to my face before drawing the handle back. The door creaks awkwardly upon opening; behind, a small party of fourteen or so Alumbrar, now silent, turn to see who’s entering. Be measured. Be steady, I will myself. Light Keeper is seated on a stool at the head of their gathering, straight-backed and formidable as any elder. Her eyes narrow.
“You’re late, Emissary.” Her tobacco-rough croak is full of reproach.
“The missive was late,” I correct. Lowering my hood frees my silver afro of curls. Here it is a currency, a marker that I’m one of them. “Please, continue.”
She watches me a moment longer, weighing up the trajectory of her aim and my distance, I’m sure, before her eyes, as dark as coal and just as incendiary, dart back to the standing speaker. “You heard her.”
Nodding in acknowledgment at the attendees, I make my way to the back of the gathering while the witch I interrupted launches back into her report about numbers. This meeting is smaller than others I’ve attended, and yet not a single face is familiar to me. I’m again reminded of the size of this resistance and the power of its anonymity—the Nameless, as they titled themselves long before I joined, aren’t as concerned with flaunting their membership as they are with the protection of our order from a leader sure to destroy us.
One they mean to kill.
My fists curl around the cotton fabric of my cape, scrunching up the delicate kaftan beneath. Remaining on the fence will make the upcoming conversation difficult, but not impossible. I have to believe that as the witch ends her spiel and Light Keeper turns her attention to me.
“What news do you have about the Yielding?” Our Aiycan accent is a song, like the music from cicada and cricket, but from her lips it’s flat. Hard. “Last I heard, the Witches Council is still foolish enough to plan for it to go ahead.”
Murmurs of displeasure, annoyance, ripple across the room. I am not ignorant to their vexation. The Yielding, a sacrificial rite, sees seven pickney all about my age, on the cusp of inheriting their magic, compete for the honor of being offered to the Supreme Being in ritual sacrifice. It’s necessary to provide the guzzu of protection wrapped around the island, an enchantment that keeps us safe from once-allied islands who have always craved the power imbibed in the mountains and rivers here, the earth and bush. But it’s also the biggest blight in our order’s history. The nature of Alumbrar isn’t to kill. At least, it wasn’t before the rite.
“But,” I continue, raising my voice slightly, “there has been more discussion than ever before about the Yielding’s merit now we’ve displayed our strengths to those who thought us weak, as well as facing so little threat from Obeah insurgents.”
Light Keeper frowns. “Unfortunately, that’s not a cancellation. I know how you feel about the decision to assassinate Doyenne Cariot, Emissary, but a discussion is not good enough after we’ve imparted our request through protests, missives, and she remains unmoved. Her lack of malleability isn’t something we can afford to ignore any longer. Not this close to another Yielding announcement.”
“If we wait until then, I’m sure she’ll make the right decision.”
Though I project confidence—I’ve been practicing in the mirrors in my rooms—resistance members exchange glances, and sweat builds anew between my shoulder blades. Some of my order shake their heads in pity at me, the fool they believe can’t see her master is a monster. They truly think I’m turning a blind eye to a witch who has killed countless pickney throughout the years to ensure our order remains in power. But how could I be when they know that number includes my only sister?
Death isn’t the answer, it’s the problem here.
“If we assassinate her,” I ask, challenging them now, “how are we any better? How will this island be less bloody after her than it was before her, when she earned her seat killing the last ruler too?”
The wrinkled skin around Light Keeper’s mouth draws tight.
“The Ascension Festival is just six nights away,” I push. “A mere moon phase—and when it comes, the moon will be New. A purifying blessing from the Supreme Being for our entire order, a chance to reflect and grow. It’s the perfect time for the doyenne to announce a resurgence. One without the Yielding.” My voice softens. “We should have faith.”
Alumbrar are Healers, scholars, cerebrals, Artisans. We are not killers. The doyenne can remember that, if she’s given the time. The resistance should remember that.
“Your faith is commendable, Emissary,” Light Keeper says, her words chewed out slowly. “And you’re right to exercise caution, to protect Alumbrar virtue. It’s what will make you a better leader than the one we currently have. But know this.” Her eyes narrow into a look as foreboding as the sky I left outside. “If the doyenne doesn’t renounce the Yielding during the festival, indefinitely, she will be put down. And you need to be prepared to say goodbye when the time comes.”
I swallow. Her message doesn’t go unmissed.
The resistance will make their peace with ridding the island of a tyrannical leader with ease, but my relationship with the doyenne has always been more involved. She’s not just the leader I work for—she’s the witch who gave birth to me.
“Emissary?” Light Keeper pushes. “Do you understand?”
Should the doyenne be stopped? Yes. Replaced? Definitely.
Regardless of what she’s done, she gifted me with life. I’ve struggled to endorse her assassination; though it’s not sentiment alone that stays my hand. Ours isn’t a relationship where she combs my afro at night, or I turn to her with my problems. She is my tutor. If she dies, I ascend. And I’m . . . not ready. A secret I can’t tell the Nameless, not when they’re looking to me as they are now, with pity, doubt, questions. Not when I want to lead, in time.
Sitting on the fence cannot cost me the respect of my people.
“Emissary Cariot, your answer?”
I inhale. “I’ll be ready.”
It’s a harmless lie. This island, Aiyca, has been ruled by my family for a decade, and will be for at least a decade more.
Nothing will bring about the Yielding this year, I guarantee it.
Six Nights Later
Nana would say that unlike storms, trouble doesn’t give signs like rain, so we must always be ready for it.
Her words have been my constant companion, these ten years since I saw her last. More so than gods or goddesses, friends or lovers. Tonight I bind them to me the way a fighter wraps their fists for protection, curling the memory of her sage cadence around my palms and between my fingers. Her words will do as a favor to see me through what is still to be done. Not that I necessarily believe in such things. Hope may be for the faithful, but it is also for the focused, and what lies ahead means I must be dagger-sharp.
For all my preparedness, Carne Prison lulls in slumber around me. Not for the first time, I curse the lack of windows in this damp, stinking pit. Though, what’s a prison cell if it doesn’t torture the body as well as the mind?
It has to be close to midnight, goddess willing. I’ve already bathed and used the chewstick to clean my teeth, but my extremities twitch in demand for more. It’s a chore to force myself to remain still on my pallet, to count the cracks in the too-close walls of stone, to track the indolent dance of dust motes, until one of the guards makes their way to my section of this block. For them, this night is routine, already lost to better memories.
For me, everything changes.
A soft intake of breath is all I permit at the sweet taste of its promise: leaving prison to inherit my ancestors’ magic, becoming a witch, and finally being equipped to exact justice against those who tossed me in here, foolish enough to think me cowed.
After a long decade of imprisonment, tonight I’ll be free.
No. Not free with the magical conscription that awaits me outside these walls.
But I suppose it will have to do.
Officer Carsten, one of Carne Prison’s guards, finally strides over to the lone glass wall of my cell. Her wheat-brown skin is already aglow with sweat. It gleams at the edge of her silver afro, a sign of status I am without, as a dark-haired Obeah.
“Yuh hear?” she snaps. “Move. Now.”
While I feign lethargy, as though still in sleep’s clutches, my eyes roll freely at the way her piggy pair dart around for booby traps. After all this time, she’s yet to realize the best trap stands before her. Another adage Nana Clarke was fond of saying, wise eyes narrowed under the unremitting fist of the sun, was that cows don’t have any business in horseplay.
Satisfied by her preliminary inspection, the large golden coin hanging from a long leather cord around Carsten’s neck illuminates with light, and the diamond glass wall separating us rescinds downward into the rock at her feet. She hulks in the opening, wide and squat, the deep green leather of her uniform militant. Her coin lights again, channeling centuries of her ancestors’ magic at her will. She summons fetters; they lock around my ankles and wrists. Their jaws of oppression are a familiar weight, a stinging reminder of my reduced position.
They’re why I make sure to never forget I wasn’t made to kneel before her ilk.
“Tell me,” I begin, amiable as ever. “How are you this fine evening, Carsten?”
“I’m well too, mon. Quite excited, actually. It’s kind of you to ask.”
“Cha. What did I say?” The coin around her neck is quick to pulse a warning of the magic basking at its surface, ready to be shaped and aimed at all threats—at me.
Magicless as I am, fettered as I am, her terror is still potent enough that I could inhale it like an opiate.
“Corner your mouth,” she threatens, a delicious tremble in her voice. “And move out.”
I do as she says, for now.
Outside my cell, I’m one of many brown-skinned prisoners released earlier than usual to choke down a late supper in the block’s canteen. Newly eighteen, we’re all destined to receive our ancestral magic prior to starting twenty years’ compulsory service to the crown. In theory conscription doesn’t seem so bad, not when it involves working in fields like sericulture, healing, or energy, and we’ll have homes of our own. But immersed in the small crowd of women, some yawning, others crying, whatever humor teasing Carsten instilled wanes in me.
I’ve longed for this day, but there’s no denying it’s not the pardon you hope for when leaving prison: it’s a two-decadelong liberty. Obeah were leaders, an elite legion of magi, lethal and lauded for our skill in the arcane arts as well as our beauty, but now? Within this sunless fortress, skin that once gleamed has been robbed of its mahogany luster, its chestnut shine. Where we once walked tall, shoulders are bent and eyes downcast. We could be duppies, nothing more than a procession of lingering spirits en route to an afterlife in Coyaba.
It’s easy to forget that we are the living, and we are the lucky ones.
I sometimes fail to remember that I’m not alone in having parents who didn’t die at a ripe old age. Many Obeah in here have been orphaned, our parents murdered by the ruling Alumbrar because, at the dawn of our orders’ creation, fate tossed a coin that sparked a perennial battle for sacerdotal power. It finally landed in their favor a decade ago in the aftermath of a surprise usurpation. Obeah call it the Viper’s Massacre. Alumbrar, a long time coming.
A smirk tightens Officer Carsten’s mouth as she notices my focus, the pall that’s fallen thick around me. I’m quick to stop worrying my bottom lip between my teeth, but not enough.
“Wondering how such a bag of bones will fare outside?”
The steady plume of anger forever coiling in my stomach scorches my throat, eager to erupt.
“Not so chatty now, are you?”
“You look ’fraid, Obeah. It suits you better than your earlier conceit.”
Carsten’s laughter is a boot to the ribs, one that catalyzes my spite up and out.
“I wouldn’t discount appearances if I were you, Officer. Even in that uniform, I wouldn’t mind playing with your bones.” My words are as sticky-sweet as molasses—as dark, to an Alumbrar who knows, even now, to fear an Obeah who speaks of bones.
The dead are our biggest allies, after all.
It’s my turn to smirk as Carsten steps back, trembling fingers reaching for her coin, which blazes like a trapped sun. A wince cuts through my lips as three lashes land across the backs of my bare legs at her will, invisible lances that make them buckle with the sting.
“Cha,” she chides, freezing the hand I was about to use to rub across the tender welts. “To speak of the forbidden . . . I hope you try using that mouth outside these walls. You’ll—”
“Now, Officer,” a mischievous voice interrupts. “I didn’t take you for one interested in sharing the delights of Ira’s mouth.” Kaleisha bumps my hip with the hard bone of her own.
Before Carsten can unleash the wrath of a dozen angry aunties on either of us, I drag Kaleisha into the growing congregation of Obeah queueing up at the food pass. Though clear of Carsten’s vigil, other guards surround us. They take everything in with eyes fresh enough to tell me they recently exchanged with the day shift.
I take up a food tray and force a question through gritted teeth. “What was that?”
Undeterred, Kaleisha’s generous lips stretch into a smile wide enough to expose the gap between her large front teeth. The left was chipped in a fight, turning her sigh into a whistle. “Me acting normally.” She swishes her bob of narrow braids, looking far too pleased with herself.
A quick pinch to the soft flesh of her upper arm soon puts an end to that. And it’s a good thing too. She’s getting comfortable. Comfort means complacency, and complacency means death. She should know better. She should know that.
“It’s like you want to attract attention,” I grind out.
“I don’t. I was trying to help.”
“You could have fooled me.”
Her dark brown skin puckers between her brows, tightening into a frown. “I hate when you do that.”
“Call out your reckless behavior?”
“Talk to me like I’m stakki.”
“Then how about you try acting like a sane person?”
Conversation halts as cornmeal porridge is slopped onto our trays, sans any sweetener, by an Obeah kitchen worker. Silence stretches between us when we sit at our usual table, save for the scrape of spoons. If I leave it a little longer, she’ll break first. She’s never handled silence well. But today something claws at my insides—granted, it could be the porridge. It did look a little suspect. There’s a greater chance, though, that it’s guilt.
Kaleisha has been my family in here since I was tossed inside, spitting like a cat and shrieking bloody murder. She calmed me, comforted me. Over the years we’ve become like two vines, inextricably tangled, thriving because of a combined strength. I might not have survived Carne without her.
“I don’t think you’re a fool,” I mutter.
The dark stare she levels my way is like a well-crafted blade: balanced, acute, and underestimated only by the wotless, which I am not. Neither is she. Though such a side to the O Block’s resident prankster, irreverent beloved, is little known to anyone but me.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.” Kaleisha leans in for the jug of water in the center of the table and breathes, “Do you believe me popping style will make any of the guards suspect we’ve planned a bruckout today? You need to relax, Ira.”
I flinch at my moniker. Ira. The double syllable always feels abrupt, unsuited.
Kaleisha runs her keen focus down my face and across my stiff shoulders. Her eyes narrow to glistening pinpricks. “You’ve always been better than me at concealing your emotions, but you almost look a little . . . peccant.”
“I assure you,” I say, forcing indifference under her scrutiny, “I’ve yet to commit any sins this morning.”
“How fortunate then that the day is young.”
A smile cracks my resolve. “That line bore all my hallmarks.”
“You learned from the best.”
“True, mon. Your mistakes have been the best of teachers.”
It’s difficult to say who laughs longest, in that silent way that aches so much it pains. We are unnervingly similar, in some respects. Enough that everyone calls us sisters. The thought deadens my humor, entombing it somewhere deep. For a moment I consider confessing my doubts about her plans. That’s one of the ways we differ. Kaleisha believes in everything.
Today she’s confident that we’re going to be successful in our fight to flee Carne and join the Obeah rebels, the Jade Guild. Named for the vibrancy of their stronghold, the Blue Mountains, which are actually dominated by green bush, to confuse matters.
They’re working to reclaim our order’s magical freedom every day. A life on the run with them would be better than the half-life offered by the Alumbrar, she said years ago, when this day seemed so far away. Do you want to be watched by their soldiers every waking moment? To be afraid to breathe lest they accuse you of treason and lock you back up?
She’s not wrong. After today we’ll no longer wake behind bars, but we’ll still be prisoners.
“You needn’t be afraid,” Kaleisha says. Her fingers twitch like she means to take my hands, but touching is forbidden, and she knows I don’t like it.
It’s one of the few things I’ve shared with her.
She can’t know that her wants aren’t mine, that I have a need—magic. Her plan to escape, though clever tonight when there are fewer Obeah out of their cells, and so fewer guards on duty, doesn’t guarantee I’ll get my ancestors’ magic. Inheritance has never been worth the indenture, to her. I don’t relish the thought of conscription either, but it’s always been a means to an end I’ve been willing to endure.
In Kaleisha’s face, long and slender, wise and patient, I see a friend I can’t betray. But in her gaze, my reflection looms, and with my features, ties to a family they won’t let me forget. Mama’s bridgeless nose and wide-spaced eyes condemn. Dada’s angular jaw clenches in silent resolve. The dead and the living each have a hold on me, and their contrasting wants are threatening to tear me asunder.
We both flinch as the deep pulse of drums echoes through the canteen. Conditioned to respond, Kaleisha and I jump up as the canteen tables withdraw into gaping mouths in the ground, and we join the throng that wends its way to gather around an aged platform.
One of the prison guards steps atop it. “Obeah, today you’ll be escorted from Carne via prisoner galley to receive your ancestors’ magic from your family trees.” Her Alumbrar-silver afro glints like a steel helmet beneath the witchlight orbs in the ceiling. “After you’re imbued with your inheritance, there will be a brief demonstration of your magical range before you’ll receive your work assignments and prepare to reenter society to begin your conscription.”
“I’ve heard the doyenne herself is looking for a new shield. Can you imagine working with our usurper?”
If I had the piqued ears of a jungle-prowler, they would’ve pricked up at the whispered patwah behind me. Our dialect is fast, demanding more of my attention than I should spare, but I can’t help listening in.
“She called a new one half a year ago!” the second exclaims. “She can’t need another already.”
“She called two, mon!” says the first. “Apparently neither was strong enough to withstand whatever training she has them doing at that estate. Whoever she picks next will need to have the strength of more than two of us.”
They stop talking as the weight of one of the guard’s stares falls their way.
Rumors about the doyenne’s personal cadre of Obeah, fortynine shields that protect the compound upon which the palace sits, have circulated through Carne for years. Some doubt their existence, dismissing the idea of our two orders working together to protect the stronghold as hearsay, fiction, but just as many prisoners covet the idea of spending their conscription in the comfort of the palace, mitigating their guilt by keeping Aiyca, weakened by the usurpation, safe from outside threat. Better the enemy you know.
“There could be one,” the first continues when it’s safe to do so.
“Born back a cow.” The second rasps a short laugh.
“I’m not stupid! She wasn’t killed like her mama and dada were, and I’ve met Obeah who said she’s been living in the mountains with the Jade Guild, biding her time to rescue us.”
The derisive one kisses her teeth. “The Lost Empress is nothing more than a story spun by Anansi. If she lived, it’d be the Alumbrar in here. Not us.”
I loosen the breath I was holding, slowly.
Anansi, the great spider god and brother to our matriarchal pantheon of gods and goddesses, all housed in our Supreme Being, the Seven-Faced Mudda, may be the most revered storyteller across Carne Sea, but he’s also a notorious trickster. For centuries magi on my home island have hunted magical artifacts, jéges, from his stories. Some, the spider’s asserted, will gift power to whoever yields them. Up until now they’ve never been unearthed. As for tales of the Lost Empress . . . I’ve found it isn’t wise to rely on stories, no matter how you may wish they’re true.
The bite of a pinch on my arm makes me hiss.
“Not pleasant, is it, mon?” Kaleisha murmurs beside me. “You missed the first signal word in the speech, as well as the second.” Her pause is filled with questions she doesn’t ask.
There’s no time to doubt my commitment. We have seven more words to pick out of the guard’s instructions we’re using for our coded countdown before all inheritors are shackled together, making any kind of fight—already difficult with the fetters—impossible.
Kaleisha rocks on her feet, fizzing with anticipation. “Take these.”
My hands close around two thick batons—weapons, crafted from aged animal bone. I don’t need to ask how or where she procured them. I’ve fought off my fair share of the four-legged vermin that lurk in the mountain beneath us, drawn by the scent of our despair as we’re forced to sort and package coffee beans for trade.
“Don’t lose focus now,” Kaleisha urges.
A loss of focus has never been my problem.
Years of scheming have led to this moment. Her steps, so familiar to me, pulse through my thoughts. And yet here, at the first hurdle, my nerves falter and stutter at its size. Everything grows and shrinks around me as my breathing shallows in my ears; the prison block’s cavernous reaches suddenly feel chokingly intimate.
Past prison rebellions haven’t worked, Kaleisha has said many times over. We can’t let this one fail.
But now we’re here, doubt gnaws at my will.
I know I can do it—we can do it.
I’m just not sure if I should.
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