Excerpt Reveal: Kinning by Nisi Shawl
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Excerpt Reveal: Kinning by Nisi Shawl

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kinning by nisi shawl

Kinning, the sequel to Nisi Shawl’s acclaimed debut novel Everfair, continues the stunning alternate history where barkcloth airships soar through the sky, varied peoples build a new society together, and colonies claim their freedom from imperialist tyrants.

The Great War is over. Everfair has found peace within its borders. But our heroes’ stories are far from done.

Tink and his sister Bee-Lung are traveling the world via aircanoe, spreading the spores of a mysterious empathy-generating fungus. Through these spores, they seek to build bonds between people and help spread revolutionary sentiments of socialism and equality—the very ideals that led to Everfair’s founding.

Meanwhile, Everfair’s Princess Mwadi and Prince Ilunga return home from a sojourn in Egypt to vie for their country’s rule following the abdication of their father King Mwenda. But their mother, Queen Josina, manipulates them both from behind the scenes, while also pitting Europe’s influenza-weakened political powers against one another as these countries fight to regain control of their rebellious colonies.

Will Everfair continue to serve as a symbol of hope, freedom, and equality to anticolonial movements around the world, or will it fall to forces inside and out?

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Kinning by Nisi Shawl, on sale 1/23/24


Chapter Zero

June 1916

Kisangani, Everfair

Princess Mwadi knelt in the jasmine’s warm shade. Both Sifa and Lembe slept. That had never before happened, but the eyelids of both her mother’s women stayed shut when Mwadi whispered their names. And Lembe snored, though lightly. And Sifa smacked her lips, which she would never have done in Mwadi’s presence while awake.

Daring discovery, the princess stood, still lapped in the vines’ deep green shadows. Her brother Ilunga lay within the palace walls, recuperating from the new illness under the care of Yoka, one of their father’s most trusted and discreet counselors, and visited frequently by King Mwenda himself; her mother, Queen Josina, had established rooftop gardens to house the hives of her holy bees upon her return from her diplomatic mission to Angola, and there she was to be found most days. Though ostensibly the queen dwelt here in the palace courtyard with the other royal wives and daughters, Mwadi had quickly learnt how to amuse herself without expectation of her mother’s praise or censure. And also how to seek out and enjoy her mother’s company without being shooed away from the secrets Queen Josina liked to gather.

How, as Miss Rima Bailey would have put it, to sneak around.

The trick was to become something else. No longer content as a velvet-faced, sturdy-armed thirteen-year-old girl, Princess Mwadi concentrated on her resemblance to the sighing rain, then slipped free of the pavilion’s overhanging roof to join the rain’s fall.

Languorous in the midday’s moist heat, ranks thinned by the ravaging new illness, the palace guard proved no impediment to Mwadi’s departure. And Kisangani’s thoroughfares led her where she wanted to go so easily—the dwindling waters between built-up roads coming no higher than her knees, so that she might wade unmolested the whole way.

The city had grown since her father first established his court here, back before she or Prince Ilunga had been born. And it had grown even more in the two years since she acted the role of Bo-La alongside Miss Rima in Sir Matty’s play. The atolo tree planted near the shelter of the king’s ancestors stood surrounded now by many similar shelters sharing the tree’s protection. So broad its branches, by itself the tree darkened almost all the sacred precinct’s ground. So high its crown, the misting rain wreathed around its leaves like dagga smoke. So snaking its roots, she had to stoop to the soil and feel her way among them with her hands. So fat and slick the trunk, she didn’t even try to climb it, merely clasped it to her, breathing in its clean, wild scent.

She had reached her goal! She threw back her head in joy and saw it—the king’s original ceremonial shongo, yes! The green of its copper was duller and bluer, the curves of its blades were fuller and longer, than the intervening foliage.

So high above her head . . . impossible to touch it. It had stayed lodged in the gleaming brown bark higher than the ceiling of the palace pavilion for more than forty seasons—ever since her father hurled it there and decreed that whoever drew it free would rule after him. Warning stories told of the injuries borne by pretenders to Everfair’s throne in their pursuit of this prize: multiple bones broken in sudden, inexplicable falls; crippling wounds gouged in their flesh by the beaks of invisible crows. But from the overheard conversations of her mother’s rivals, the princess knew for certain that once she released the shongo from its resting place she could call herself her father’s heir, as these women’s sons had attempted to do. As her stupid brother Ilunga had tried to do as well. She had to retrieve it for herself, successfully—but how?

Arching her back, she continued gazing upward. A limb emerged from the tree’s main body to the shongo’s right, and just a little lower. Thinning gradually, gracefully, the long limb drooped near its end—Mwadi whirled to check—low enough! Or nearly so; she picked her way to where it waved almost, almost within her grasp. A glance around: no one was present. As she had planned. Offerings would be made later, at the time of the evening meal. Nobody had been here when she arrived, and nobody had arrived since.

With practiced swiftness she unwound her headwrap—a wider strap than babies wore, as Mwadi was soon to be a woman. A couple of tosses and it went over the limb. First she dragged the limb down. When the wood no longer bowed to her weight she paused to make sure again she was alone, then jumped! Still hanging by the loop of her headwrap she swung her legs high and locked ankles around the lowered limb. Of course it held her. Creeping along its underside like a caterpillar—bunch, stretch, bunch, stretch—she moved toward the tree’s center. Once there it was a struggle, but she got herself upright and facing in. No dizziness or loss of grip or balance. No plunge from this hard-won height. No flock of ghosts.

Now. Bracing herself by tightening her thighs she leaned left, took the wooden haft of the king’s shongo in both hands, and tugged. It came free slowly, like a well-watered cassava plant.

Triumph! Everfair was hers! Entranced by her happy prospects she sighed and stroked the glowing, newly naked blade, largest of the shongo’s three. Burial in the atolo tree’s flesh had kept it shining bright. As bright as the future reign of Queen Mwadi.

Now to tell King Mwenda, so he could make the succession official. And to share the news of her good fortune with her mother, his favorite. And to gloat openly, in his face, upon her victory over Ilunga.

No, she would be kinder to him than that. Appoint him minister of something. He was her brother, after all, by both father and mother.

Surely that mattered.

According to Queen Josina, every relationship entered into mattered. Each was of the utmost importance. Slowly, thoughtfully, Mwadi came down off of the atolo limb and untied her headwrap. She wound it around and around the shongo’s shaft, pulling it tight, then laid it loosely over the sharp-forged cutting edges.

Her mother shared wisdom like it was chocolate, always possessed of a personal supply from which she doled out small bits, seemingly on a whim. Mwadi had learned as a child to savor her mother’s pronouncements, to chew them over and extract their constantly changing, ever-refreshing truths.

As the princess left the grove surrounding the atolo for the ramp leading down to the partially flooded thoroughfare, she frowned at the ground on which she walked. She was going to reign over this land—over this earth, over the very soil clinging to her bared feet. Was that a relationship? Even now, at this point, before she actually ascended to Everfair’s throne? Or perhaps not even then. Perhaps only relationships with living entities should be counted? The trees, then? A low branch brushed the top of her head as she stepped onto the ramp’s gravel, as if in a tender farewell.

The peak of the day had passed, and Mwadi met a few others on her way home to the palace. Other subjects: young people running errands for their elders, whites ignoring the inconvenience of doing business during the heat’s height. Were the Europeans whom King Mwenda had demanded fealty from also in important relationships with her? Or only those she knew personally, such as Sir Matty?

No one stirring about recognized her without her attendants, and Mwadi reached the palace steps quickly and easily. Sifa still slumbered in the courtyard; Lembe woke, but fell in immediately with the princess’s pretense of being on her way to the bottom of the staircase that climbed from courtyard to rooftop.

For Lembe to do otherwise would have been to alert Queen Josina to her inadequacy. It would have been to admit that she’d neglected to do her job. Instead, when the queen came out onto the roof through the door of the interior stairway, her serving woman was diligently oiling the carved wooden stand of one of her holy hives.

Mwadi watched the queen walk slowly between the tubs containing her budding flowers and fragrant blooms. Reaching the sheltered platform where the princess reclined, Queen Josina paused to observe her woman at work.

“How is my brother?” Mwadi asked dutifully. She sat up and reached beneath her couch to retrieve the cloth-swaddled shongo and began to unwrap it.

Her mother stepped onto the platform and sank to the cushions beside her. “Well enough. The disease is coming to accept his superiority.” She swung her head one way, then the other, checking for any who overheard them. None of the other wives were visible; though supposedly it belonged to all, this garden was known as Queen Josina’s private retreat.

“All signs indicate Mwenda will take my advice on the succession. So eventually, Ilunga will rule over all the rest of our land just as he’ll rule very soon over the organism causing this illness.”

No he would not.

“Naturally, a position of such distinction brings with it a high measure of risk. We must guard him carefully…”

Josina’s long, proud eyes rested lightly on the bundle occupying Mwadi’s lap. “What are you about to show me?” Not waiting for Mwadi’s answer, the queen twitched aside the last of the veiling headwrap. “Ah. Is this—this is the knife your father threw!”

“Yes. I pulled it from the atolo tree. That means I—not Ilunga— am my father’s heir.”

Her mother smiled with closed lips. “You are his heir when he says so.”

“He will! He has to! Mother, you can help me to persuade him of my rights!” Mwadi took the shongo by its handle and tried to lift it from her lap.

Josina’s hands barred hers from rising. “Are you sure you should do this?”

She drew back, staring. “Of course I am!”

“Are you sure this is how to get what you want?”

All certainty drained from Mwadi’s head. Why would her mother object to her becoming queen? Why would she favor buffalo-headed Ilunga?

“Do you even know what that is? What it is that you want?”

“Everything! I want everything!”

A wider smile now. “Yes. You are truly my child.” And now her mother’s long, strong fingers curled over Mwadi’s own, reinforcing her grip on the shongo. “We will have it. Everything you want. Trust me.”

Mwadi had always trusted her mother. The question had always been whether her mother trusted her in return. Some secrets, the queen kept saying, it was impossible to share.

“Can you tell me how we will win?”

“You know that I am an initiate in the mysteries of the Yoruba, a priest of the orisha Oshun, yes? She who is the owner of wealth and learning?”

“I do.”

“She who invented the form of divination I practice. She who holds high her golden light to show me which path of the many I can see that I should take. Which leads most surely to my desires.” Queen Josina’s exploration of foreign cultures was well-known— but had adoption of foreigners’ beliefs undermined her faith in her daughter’s abilities? Or did it somehow, by some devious means, support it?

Your desires?”

“We are in harmony. I have learned the best melodies to play, the best places in which to move our feet.” The queen stroked the back of Mwadi’s clenched hand. “You must relax. As I said, trust me.” She beckoned, and Lembe abandoned her task to approach the platform.

“Accompany Princess Mwadi to Prince Ilunga’s chambers,” the queen instructed her serving woman. She leaned forward, speaking softly into her daughter’s ear, again stroking her hand. “You’ll give this to him for safekeeping.”

“To Ilunga? No! Never!” She lowered her voice, too, but fierceness filled it, hardened it the way blows and heat harden iron. “I! I will be this country’s rightful ruler!” She jerked her hand, trying to free herself—and the shongo—from Josina’s grip. She couldn’t. “What if I agree with you on that point?” The queen was whispering, was close, her cheek touching Mwadi’s. The sweet scent of her hair oil threatened to wipe out all other smells, all sights and sounds and—

Mwadi stood. She swayed only a little, only a moment. She kept her hold on the shongo. So did her mother, which Mwadi found steadying. “Then you do? You agree and acknowledge—”

“Listen to me! Can’t you tell? Stop your insolence and obey me!” The queen stood too. “I know what I’m doing! I know this reality! I am ready to enter it—though if Oshun had not prepared me for your stubbornness I would have you poisoned!”

Quickly Josina wrested the shongo away from Mwadi’s surprised grasp. But only to hold it before her, between them. “You will present this to your brother. You will explain to him that you found it at the atolo’s foot, in a bowl filled with black sand such as we use for metal casting. You’ll make sure others hear your story, and that they repeat it.

“Do these things and anything else I instruct you to do. The throne and the land will be yours.”

June 1916 to June 1920 Kisangani, Everfair, to Cairo, Egypt

Should he lie? Prince Ilunga shifted his weight from one aching elbow to the other and gazed away from his sister’s gift. Then back. Resplendent on a fur-covered cushion it lay, his father’s first ceremonial shongo, a three-lobed promise of sovereignty. He who pulled it from the trunk of the atolo tree was to be named King Mwenda’s successor.

Should Ilunga claim the feat of retrieving it as his own? With the shongo in his possession, his claim would have real weight. It would ease the pricking soreness lingering from that earlier attempt, that ugly failure seen by all.

But what of those who’d seen Mwadi bring the shongo to him here? The guards outside his door? Or the flat-chested woman seated by his bed, the one his mother had assigned to attend to Ilunga as his illness receded? Not to mention anyone his sister might have met on her way to his rooms. Not to mention his sister herself, gone now. Gone to report to someone? To his mother?

There was no hope of untangling the threads of Queen Josina’s intricate plots. He must just believe she always put his interests first, as she swore she did.

“Why does my sister want it, anyway?” he grumbled.

The flat-chested woman spoke, startled. “She doesn’t! She gave it to you!”

He ignored her words. But her presence was not unwelcome; though you couldn’t call her attractive, at least she was a woman. He was young and needed practice. “Here. Use some of that salve on me. My limbs—” Clacking beads interrupted him as his mother swept through his bedchamber’s door.

“Queen!” The woman—he ought to learn her name—dropped to the floor. “Your son’s health improves by the hour. I was going to you with my news as soon as those bringing the evening meal arrived.”

“No need for that.” Josina touched the woman’s shoulder and she got up. “I see his progress.” An arched brow and the delicate flare of the queen’s nostrils indicated her approval. “He’ll be able to join his father tomorrow when he holds court.”

“Is that when we’ll receive the Portuguese envoys? Are they on—” A sharp glance from his mother stopped the prince’s questions mid-spate.

“The secret envoys spent last night in Mbuji-Mayi, and they rest there again today to observe a feast of their religion.” She paused and he had time to absorb the full strength of her emphasis on “secret.” “Rosine, go fetch the prince’s evening meal yourself.”

The poorly endowed woman left. No great loss. The coaching in diplomacy Queen Josina gave him once she was gone more than compensated for missing a chance to flex his love muscles. During the formal reception held for the Portuguese the next day, and in all his dealings with subjects and foreigners afterward, he did his best to remember her teachings.

Regularly she received visits from foreigners—often from those who had initiated her in her religious mysteries. When these visitors departed she would spend long night hours treading intricate dance patterns to music audible only to her ears. Some whispered that his mother was mad. If so, it was a cunning madness.

“Do not reveal the extent of your intelligence to those who assume you lack it,” she counseled him, again and again. “Play the fool in public and in private act the sage, and you’ll both surprise your enemies and please your friends.”

He watched as she accepted without protest the Portuguese ambassadors’ reluctant refusal to speak to the other European governments on Everfair’s behalf. Later, in the markets following his country’s surrender to the English, Ilunga learned how invisible activity—spying, magic spells, nested schemes—bore visible fruit. Despite the attacks on their sovereignty instigated by Thornhill and other British agents, his mother cultivated Everfair’s ties to certain of England’s factions. Because, she said, “Our enemies are made of more than one kind of cloth.”

As the seasons passed, Queen Josina encouraged Ilunga to dig his own information channels and direct their flow. She expected him to use these to help her keep up with schisms developing between those who planned a return to Europe’s fast-vanishing superiority.

The so-called War to End War resulted in a litter of smaller conflicts, most fought with words and smiles, in hidden rooms, on metaphoric battlefields. Judged a harmless playboy, Prince Ilunga was easily able to observe the Europeans and their surrogates as they jockeyed for knowledge and position. He journeyed from city to city, avowedly in pursuit of pleasure: west to Lagos, south to Maputo, east to Mogadishu, north to Cairo.

Where, at the age of thirty-five seasons—eighteen-and-one-half years—he found his first real friend.

Deveril Scranforth grinned when Ilunga introduced himself as the future ruler of Everfair, and leaned back to balance his wooden chair on two spindly legs. “Ha! One day you’ll outrank me, then. But for now—” Without looking he stretched wide both arms and hooked each around the waist of a deep-chested beauty. “—for now, I’ll be teaching you a thing or two, what? And you’ll be grateful for that—and show it!”

Smoke from their host’s hookah drifted between them on its way to the night-curtained windows. Attending this soiree was part of the standard plan Ilunga’s mother had devised for gathering intelligence: woo the offspring of embassy personnel and allow himself to be drawn into their social groups.

Attendance was part of the standard plan, making this a completely unremarkable evening, but ever afterward Ilunga remembered it as the beginning of a new phase in his dedication to savoring the world’s glories. Heightened awareness of his surroundings, helped on by the judicious consumption of cocktails, filled him with the sense of his surroundings’ divinity: the satin sheen of the throw pillows scattered about him on his divan, the jewels winking in a passing guest’s cuff links, the sweet residue of honeyed melon coating his lips, the tinkling chime of the golden chains adorning the wrists and ankles of the laughing woman who leapt up from Scranforth’s lap and snuggled cozily onto his own— despite his weak protests.

“Not a virgin, are you?”

As if Ilunga were still a boy! “No!”

“Good. Nothin wrong with it if you were, but I’d want to start you out a bit slower.” The white crooked his finger and two more beauties congealed out of the crowd to stand beside him. “Which of em d’you want? All three of em? Like to keep one for m’self.”

To go from the glittering heat of the party to the dark fragrance of the house’s fountain-fed garden took only a few steps. Only a moment. And then the prince was enveloped in flesh. Above, below, on either side, perfumed skin slid and slipped against his clothing. Then against his nakedness.

Touch receded, returned, receded, returned, new waves rippling over old ones like the music of the fountain waters rising and falling somewhere nearby like the fickle breezes laden with the party’s distant murmurings, or the thickening breaths of the women wrapping him in pleasure.

Then Scranforth’s voice came crashing through their panting sighs: “What d’ye say? Good play? Best hoors in Maadi—in all Cairo! Agreed?”

The soft lips kissing Ilunga’s eyelids went away. He opened his eyes and his mouth, about to bellow furiously at the European’s interruption—but the soft lips came back, to graze his jaw and cling moistly to the ridges and valleys of his throat—and his delight at this found its reflection in the pale, half-shaven face hanging over him.

The prince realized he wasn’t actually angry.

Delight mirrored was delight doubled. Bliss upon bliss proved this new truth. To receive a caress and cry out at its shivery progress—from spine to buttocks to tight and tingling testicles— was to share and deepen its effects.

Was this increase in his arousal a sign that Ilunga wanted sexual congress with the white man? He tried asking his mother. Sometimes he believed she knew him better than he knew himself. But the coded messages he sent her went unanswered. All the queen responded with were instructions: stay in Cairo, enroll in Victoria College, rent a home there that his sister Mwadi could run for him.

His father wouldn’t blame him for a trait only Europeans and missionaries abhorred. Would he? Probably not. Although Ilunga’s usefulness as King Mwenda’s heir would perhaps be compromised… No. That sort of thinking belonged in the head of

Queen Josina. Who, if she said nothing of her son’s predilection, must not consider it to be a problem.

And for him it wasn’t. Adventures with Devil—so Ilunga came to call his new friend, adopting the pet name employed by his fellow students—filled most of the prince’s nights, and quite a few of his days as well. The white man knew the town’s best brothels. Even more conveniently, he introduced “Loongee” to several women willing to entertain them for no money—though not exactly for free, as Ilunga quickly learned.

His first such encounter was with a buxom, cheerful matron whose nephew controlled the stock certificates of the Great Sun River Collector Company. She was easily satisfied. In addition to plowing the slick delta between her thighs—Devil stationed titillatingly nearby, ostensibly to watch out for the woman’s husband—he only had to purchase fifty shares of the company, at a surprisingly moderate price.

But soon the prince learned how to fend off these requests. This meant that sometimes, to his regret, he also had to fend off the proposals of erotic exercise they accompanied. Enough of those remained to keep him happily occupied, though. And despite a couple of petty disagreements, and one serious quarrel involving a firearm, he made sure to include Devil in any activities of that sort. Ilunga dedicated an entire suite of his Maadi villa to sexual pursuits. He arranged a door communicating with the room where Devil often stayed. Once or twice he invited others to visit, hoping to experience the same intensified gratification in their presence.

As far as Prince Ilunga could tell, his experiments failed. He felt no comparable increase in sensation when he shouted his satisfaction in the hearing of his sister’s European protégés, the Schreibers; no wider or even equivalent overflowing of deliciousness when he hosted other college friends for similar nights of sexual indulgence.

Nonetheless, his efforts made a difference.

How? Chiefly through his memory. Ilunga knew he was reaching for connection to others. He was aware that he cherished the touch of the women who attracted him, and that he yearned to share it. He realized how he longed to drench the strangers of the world in these women’s musk, to be soused in their sweat, to drown in it while drowning his white companions with him.

Memories of these desires dug their grooves deep into his mind. Incompletion kept them fresh and sharply edged.

Memories, like all stories, want to tell themselves. Asleep, Prince Ilunga dreamed that his fantasies came true. Awake, he forgot the specifics of how that occurred. But the happiness his dreams left behind haunted him.

Awake, the prince pretended stupidity, as Queen Josina had advised him to do. He acted as though ignorant of Devil’s plan to use him to access Everfair’s mineral wealth—and of some points in that plan he really was ignorant, because ignorance was easier than action. Ilunga always preferred to avoid unnecessary effort.

In fact, it was Devil’s drives rather than the prince’s own unsteady ambitions that moved most things forward—especially things concerning the succession. Much of what the European wanted to do depended on Ilunga inheriting the throne. So in between their college’s lectures on the histories of dead empires and their evening assignations with willing women, Devil did his royal friend’s tedious yet necessary political work.

Who, then, do you suppose gathered and treasured together Prince Ilunga’s unrequited attempts at blurring the boundaries dividing him from the rest of creation?

Who do you think?

Copyright © 2024 from Nisi Shawl

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