Read an Excerpt From O.O. Sangoyomi’s Masquerade

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Masquerade, a new historical novel by O.O. Sangoyomi—publishing with Forge Books on July 2nd.

Òdòdó’s hometown of Timbuktu has been conquered by the warrior king of Yorùbáland, and living conditions for the women in her blacksmith guild, who were already shunned as social pariahs, grow even worse.

Then Òdòdó is abducted. She is whisked across the Sahara to the capital city of Ṣàngótẹ̀, where she is shocked to discover that her kidnapper is none other than the vagrant who had visited her guild just days prior. But now that he is swathed in riches rather than rags, Òdòdó realizes he is not a vagrant at all; he is the warrior king, and he has chosen her to be his wife.

In a sudden change of fortune, Òdòdó soars to the very heights of society. But after a lifetime of subjugation, she finds the power that saturates this world of battle and political savvy too enticing to resist. As tensions with rival states grow, revealing elaborate schemes and enemies hidden in plain sight, Òdòdó must defy the cruel king she has been forced to wed by reforging the shaky loyalties of the court in her favor, or risk losing everything—including her life.

The next morning, I was awoken by a clap of thunder.

As I was informed by Ìgbín upon her arrival, this was predicted to be the last rainfall before dry season officially arrived. Each year, during rainy season’s final storm, it was believed that Ṣàngó bestowed a parting message of wisdom onto his city, speaking through the royal babaláwo. And as the future wife of the Aláàfin, I was expected to bear witness.

I was clothed in a gray wrapper with swirling stark white designs, a white headscarf, and an abundance of silver jewelry. Afterwards, I was carried to a small stone building. I walked through its archway, down a narrow sloping tunnel.

I emerged into an arena that looked like it had sunk into itself. Above, what must have once been a floor was a jagged and open ceiling. Gray light and rain fell freely onto the center of the room, where there sat a man covered in the white painted dots sometimes worn by babaláwos. Countless brass chains of red and white beads looped over his kente toga. Behind him stretched a long table holding miniature ebony statues of humanlike icons—the òrìṣàs. Scattered among them were kola and palm nuts, cowrie shells, and cracked rocks that were so unnaturally dark they looked as though they had been struck by lightning.

Nobles sat on tiered stone benches that lined dirt walls, low conversation buzzing among them. They seemed to be seated by family; most men were surrounded by women and children. Eyes pressed into me as I joined Kòlò and Mama Aláàfin where they sat on a balcony somewhat separated from the other nobles.

“Good morning, ma,” I said, dipping my head to Mama Aláàfin.

Her lips twisted, as though the very sight of me soured her tongue. But Kòlò patted the bench next to herself and said, “Good morning, little flower.”

As I sat beside her, I asked, “Where’s Àrèmọ?”

“Observing one of the royal city’s barracks. He likes to personally ensure that his soldiers’ training is coming along well.”

“The soldiers have to train today?” I asked, surprised. “Even in the rain?”

Kòlò laughed hollowly. “Rain is nothing to them. The way he works those soldiers, they’ve lived on the edge of death their entire lives. There is nothing he cares about more than ensuring his great army stays great.”

When she saw my frown, she smiled and put her arm through my own. Her cocoa butter scent was less sweet now that I had glimpsed the bitterness that lay beneath.

“Look, he’s starting,” she said, putting a finger to her lips as though I was the one who had been talking.

Below, the royal babaláwo was moving to the table. “Ṣàngó yọ mí,” he greeted.

I should not have been able to hear his brittle voice so clearly, but I did. So did the rest of the room, for the affirmation was said back to him. As the solemn harmony echoed around us, the babaláwo plucked a palm nut from the table and rubbed it in his palms vigorously as he began to pray.

He prayed to his ancestors and to the supreme creator Olódùmarè. He prayed to Èṣù, the trickster òrìṣà and divine messenger between heaven and Earth; to Ògún, the warrior and master blacksmith; to Ọya, the fierce goddess whose whirlwinds could ravage the landscape; to Obàtálá, the patient and wise father. He prayed to those òrìṣàs and more, ending with the òrìṣà who had gathered us here today.

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O.O. Sangoyomi

“Ṣàngó,” he said, “we give thanks for the storm and the water that it brings our crops. We pray that your city continues to represent your power. We pray that—”

He stopped suddenly, both his words and his hands. A prickle went down the back of my neck; it looked wrong. Nothing, living or inanimate, should be that still—yet there the babaláwo stood, like a tear in the fabric of reality.

Murmurs sounded but were quickly hushed. Nobles shifted, as if to make sure they still could. Beside me, Kòlò uncrossed and crossed her legs. I leaned forward, not quite sure if there was anything to see but not wanting to look away.

“There is but one home to the snail,” the babaláwo said suddenly. His voice filled the room now; it had grown bigger. Not louder—it was simply more. “There is but one shell to the àṣẹ of the soul. Be as water, always knowing the right direction, and the world will never be off course.”

We held a collective breath, waiting. But that appeared to be the only thing that the babaláwo had to say. He relaxed, dusting what remained of the palm nut from his hands, and declared, “Ṣàngó has spoken.”

Around the room, men grumbled. Women rolled their eyes. Even Kòlò was frowning.

But I slumped back against the wall in relief. To some subconscious degree, I had believed the storm was for me, the revocation of Ṣàngó’s blessing for my marriage to the Aláàfin. Now, though, I was sure it had not been an oversight. My impoverished days were truly over, and soon I would be able to save my mother from her toil as well.

Above the arena, rain fell slower, then not at all. Weak beams of sunlight found their way through the gradually dissolving clouds.

* * *

Afterwards, outside the arena’s stone entrance, Mama Aláàfin informed Kòlò that she would be taking her to a naming ceremony being held in Ṣàngótè.

“You would like me to accompany you?” Kòlò seemed surprised.

“Of course. The entirety of the Aláàfin’s family has been invited.”

“Am I coming as well, ma?” I asked.

Mama Aláàfin’s smug expression made me think that she had been anticipating that question, had even been trying to prompt it from me. “As my son has yet to marry you, the invitation to the Aláàfin’s family does not extend to you,” she said. “They are expecting to receive his wife and his mother. Meanwhile, you will be attending your lessons with the griot.”

My face warmed. I knew that I did not technically have a place in the royal city yet, but as I realized with a surprising amount of disappointment, I had been hoping those around me had not noticed.

As if she knew what I was thinking, Mama Aláàfin placed a hand on my shoulder, much to my surprise. “It will take some time before you can fulfill your role here,” she said softly. “Perhaps something that will help you adjust is knowing you are not alone. The royal city has its own witches—blacksmiths, I mean. Over where the forges are. Why don’t you go meet them before your lessons today?”

She offered me a smile, the first one she had ever given me, and I felt my spirits rise. We had gotten off to a rough start, but it seemed she was beginning to warm up to me at last. And she had a point—I had spent my entire life being around blacksmiths. Perhaps knowing that world was not far away would help me be more at ease in this one.

“I will. Thank you, ma,” I said.

Mama Aláàfin nodded then took Kòlò’s arm and began leading her away, their guards following behind them. As they walked, Kòlò glanced over her shoulder at me, a slight frown on her face. I smiled at her to assure her that I was no longer upset about being left behind, then I turned away to begin my own day.

Slaves tried to bring me my palanquin, but I waved it away, deciding to walk to the forges. Now that I was certain that this was my home, I wanted to learn how to navigate it.

But even with help from my handmaids and two guards, the twists and turns of the royal city alluded me. At one point, I ended up on a path that led to the horses’ stables. To my delight, I found that the tales I had heard growing up failed to do the stables justice. Not only did every horse have its own mattress, but they also each had a silk rope for a halter, a copper container strapped to their undersides as a urinal, and three stable hands attending to their every need. A patchwork of horses—rich chestnut and soft gray and jet black—frolicked in an open field, strands of gold glittering in their manes. I even spotted some horses tethered to large gold nuggets functioning as hitch-ng posts.

As I walked through the royal city, slaves, soldiers, and even some nobles fell over themselves to please me. They offered funny stories to make me laugh and volunteered to be my personal tour guide and “It would be no trouble at all to carry you, my lady; are you certain that you want to walk?” The same dizzying feeling from yesterday filled me until I was more so floating than walking.

By the time I arrived at the royal city’s forges, the sun had hooked itself to the highest notch in the sky. The forges were located near the barracks and training fields, an area I had never had reason to visit until now.

Despite the opulence of the rest of the royal city, the blacksmiths’ workspace looked similar to my home in Timbuktu. The only differences were this space was larger, and it was positioned under a pavilion. About a dozen women—each wearing the stained and singed wrappers with which I was so familiar—were at work. Some sat at the furnaces, diligently working the bellows. Others worked in pairs, one using tongs to hold incandescent metal on the surface of a large flat rock while the other struck it into shape with a basalt hammer. The rhythmic beating pulsed in the air, a cadence that lulled me into an ease I had not felt anywhere else in the royal city.

As my retinue stepped into the cool shade of the pavilion, the women paused to watch us. I knelt before them and said, “Good afternoon, aunties.”

I waited, but the only sound that met my words was the crackling flames of the furnaces. Confused, I looked up. Many of the women watched me in bewilderment. However, when I met the eyes of one girl, she seemed to snap out of her shock.

“You are welcome,” she said, striding forward. “You must forgive my aunties and I for our silence. We have never been greeted by a noble, much less by a bride of the Aláàfin.”

The girl proffered her hand to me. Her skin was a brown so cool that it almost seemed tinged with silver, but when I took her hand, her calloused touch was warm. She helped me to my feet, and standing, I was nearly a whole head taller than her.

“Before I was called the Aláàfin’s bride, I was called Alálè,” I said.

The girl did not smile. I doubted she did so very often; her facial features were so sharp that they looked as though they had been carved, like etchings in stone. However, there was amusement in her voice as she replied, “Yes, we are familiar with your story.”

The longer I looked into her eyes, the more disconcerting I found them. Most people’s eyes were windows through which their inner thoughts and feelings could be seen. But gazing at her, I felt that I saw myself more than her, with her eyes being so dark and large that they reflected my face.

It was then that I processed what she had called the other women—not her sisters, as most blacksmiths called each other, but her aunties. The same thing I called the blacksmiths I worked with, because of the notable age gap I shared with all of them—an age gap, I now noticed, that she also seemed to have with the other women.

She looked around nineteen, my own age, making her the youngest blacksmith I had ever met other than myself. Most blacksmiths were at least middle-aged; by then they’d had enough time to prove that they were of no use to society. Blacksmithing was not a profession that women chose. It was one they fell into after their parents deemed them failed daughters, or their husbands deemed them failed wives and mothers. It was this, even more than our seemingly mystical abilities, that made us so despised; our largest crime was being, not just women, but women without a man to belong to.

I was one of the few blacksmiths born into the profession because my mother befell this fate while she was pregnant. I did not ask the girl if she shared a similar story; most women did not talk about the circumstances that had led to them becoming blacksmiths, and it was an unspoken rule to not inquire.

“My name is Dígíọlá, but you are my sister, so you will call me Dígí,” the girl continued. She glanced over her shoulder, at her forge, then turned back to me and took my hand in both of her own. “We must resume our work, but thank you for coming to greet us. We are proud of you, how high you have flown from your humble beginnings. Please come see your sisters again soon.”

Dígí’s permanently neutral expression added sincerity to her words. She did not care to please me; she was simply speaking her mind. And the minds of the women around her, apparently, for as I looked around, I saw the other blacksmiths nodding at Dígí’s words.

My heart swelled. “Thank you,” I said. “I will.”

With a final dip of my head to the room at large, I left the pavilion. As my retinue and I embarked down a stone path, I felt imbued with happiness. Mama Aláàfin had been right; it was reassuring to know there was at least one place in the royal city where I naturally belonged.

The heat of the sun was relentless now. One of my handmaids had just unfolded a parasol to hold over me when, on the path running perpendicular to ours, came a boisterous man nearly as wide as he was tall. He jabbered away to a skinnier man, who nodded with the stiffness that came with civility rather than genuine interest. The big man glanced my way and back to his companion. Then, apparently processing who he’d just seen, he turned to me entirely. A grin cracked across his face, like a crooked crevice in a stretch of wood.

“The lovely Alálè Òdòdó!” he boomed, striding up to me so that my retinue had little choice but to stop. The man towered over me, making my parasol temporarily redundant. He took my hand and pressed a sweaty kiss to it. “I was warned of your beauty, but even so, you’ve left me defenseless.”

“Thank you,” I said, tugging my hand free and discreetly wiping it against my wrapper.

The man placed one massive hand on his balding head and one on his hip, looking back the way I had come. “Where are you leaving? The only thing down that way is the witches’ place.”

“That is where I am coming from, visiting the royal city’s blacksmiths,” I said, subtly correcting his label. “I wanted to say hello.”

“Is that so.” The man’s beady eyes narrowed, and for a moment, I thought I had offended him.

The feeling subsided as soon as it had come, for when he turned his attention to my guards, his friendly air was restored. “So, these are the slaves tasked with your protection.” He leaned in and asked, “Tell me, my dear, have they tried to seduce you?”

“No,” I said slowly. I often forgot my guards were even present because of their subdued manner—a manner I wished this man would adopt.

He clicked his tongue in disapproval. “The job is wasted on eunuchs. Lucky bastards don’t know how good they have it. How I’d love to do nothing but watch a beautiful woman all day.”

I did not know what to say to that, so I said nothing.

The man flashed me a smile before looking at my guards. “Fémi, Wọlé,” he said, and I only realized those were my guards’ names when they snapped to attention. “You protect this woman with your life, you hear me? Do whatever it takes to ensure that she stays safe and pure.”

“Yes, Captain Kiigba, sir!”

“Captain Kiigba?” I echoed, for the name struck a familiar chord in my mind. I realized it was a name the royal griot had made me write again and again yesterday.

I eyed the scar running over his eye in a new light; Kiigba was not just any Aláràá soldier. He was the second-in-command to the Aláàfin, the voice of Ṣàngótè when the Aláàfin’s focus needed to broaden to all of Yorùbáland. That made him the second most powerful man in the capital… And yet, while Àrèmọ could command a room with just a look, the man before me was entirely underwhelming. It made me wonder why Àrèmọ would keep a man like this so close to himself.

Kiigba seemed delighted that I recognized his name; he wiggled an eyebrow. “Do not be intimidated,” he said. “I am only the captain to my soldiers. To you, I can simply be Kiigba. That is what my wives call me.”

To my relief, the other man present stepped between us. “Though I also call him that,” he said, “so do with that information what you will.”

With a bow, the man continued, “It is my pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, my lady. I am General Rótìmí.”

Rótìmí, I recalled. The general of Wúràkèmi.

Even before Gassire’s lesson, I had heard countless merchants speak in revered tones of the mines of Wúràkémi. Ṣàngótè had had its own mines before, but since acquiring Wúràkémi, Yorùbáland was now practically drowning in gold.

General Rótìmí certainly represented the Gold Coast well; massive gold rings gleamed on his hands, and gold foil flaked the trim of his brown tunic. Thin gold strands were woven in his chin-length braids, which ended in columns of gilded beads. As Rótìmí straightened, I saw that even his brown eyes were dotted with yellow, like specks of gold floating in syrup.

A vertical scar ran under each of Rótìmí’s eyes, down his ginger-brown cheeks—the mark of the Olóòrùn, Wúràkémi’s predominant clan. His gaze was level with my own, and I saw that a small smile lifted a corner of his mouth. I had the sudden urge to ask what, exactly, was so amusing, but as soon as I had the thought, I acknowledged how childish of a question it was. And anyway, his smile was so vague that I could not be certain I was not making it up.

“I spotted you playing the talking drum last night,” Rótìmí said. “You’re a natural talent. We simply must play together.”

I hesitated, but I did not want to be rude. “Sure,” I said reluctantly.

He sighed. “Our music session will not be any time soon, though.”

Then why did you suggest it in the first place? I could not help but think.

Rótìmí went on, “My schedule is very hectic, and I can only imagine how busy you must be as the next wife of the Aláàfin.”

I held my chin higher, not completely sure why I did so. He sounded kind, but something about his expression made the underside of my skin itch. “I am,” I said. “I have lessons.”

There was no denying the smile on Rótìmí’s face now. “Of course.” He bowed again then clapped a hand on Kiigba’s shoulder. “We have taken up enough of your time. I wish you the best of luck with your lessons, my lady.”

Kiigba also bowed in farewell. As he straightened, his black eyes traveled over me uncomfortably slow, pausing at my chest. I was not so foolish as to think that he was admiring my necklaces.

“I hope to see you again soon,” he said.

“Yes…” I began, but I trailed off, unable to truthfully return the sentiment as he and Rótìmí went on their way.

Rótìmí’s smile lingered in my mind, and I groaned. I had not been ashamed of not knowing how to read, but for some reason, now that he knew I needed lessons, I found the whole ordeal embarrassing.

When I reached my hut, I found Gassire waiting at a table, manuscripts stacked in front of him. The griot acknowledged my arrival with a curt, “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, quickly taking the seat next to him. “I lost track of time while exploring the royal city, but it won’t happen again.”

“I should hope not. We are beginning your lessons in strategy, a particularly complex subject. If you ever hope to become learned in it, you must be more dedicated than what I have seen from you thus far.”

“Strategy?” I asked, confused. “Is that why I’ve been exercising each morning, to prepare for combat training?”

Gassire’s annoyance melted into amusement. “My dear, there are no Ahosi warriors in Ṣàngótè. Aláràá women do not fight—your exercise is to make you stronger for childbearing.” He laughed at my stunned expression. “We all must serve the Aláàfin. A man by being the best soldier he can be, and a woman by birthing those healthy soldiers.”

I felt myself deflate. As a blacksmith, my value had lain in my ability to produce for the state. And now, according to Gassire, my value as a noblewoman would lay in… my ability to produce for the state.

But no—I had seen the glamour of the royal city, the softness with which the wives of rich men lived. It was a life incomparable to the laborious reality of a blacksmith. No matter what Gassire said, I refused to believe my new status as a wife would not be a vast upgrade from being a witch.

“Strategy,” Gassire continued, pulling me from my thoughts, “is a fundamental part of every noble’s education, even noblewomen. After all, the Aláàfin’s army is such an integral part of Aláràá pride that to understand it is to understand the Aláràá people.

“But training so many men would be useless without knowing how to use those skills, hence why officers spend as much time being taught strategy as they do on the training field. For your instruction, we can begin with one of the most basic principles: deception. You are from Timbuktu, yes?”

“I am,” I responded enthusiastically, for it was the one question he had asked thus far to which I knew the answer.

Gassire nodded. “Then you know that deception is a tool the Sahara uses well. Heat is the desert’s strength, but mirages are the strategy it utilizes to make its enemies succumb to that power.

“What is the key to deception?” Gassire asked. “The key is to condition the enemy to see only what you want them to see. Thus, when a unit of soldiers is weak? They must appear strong to prevent a quick defeat. And when they are strong? They must seem weak to lure in the enemy. The Aláàfin was particularly successful in applying this tactic in the Battle of—”

A sudden clamor of voices drowned out Gassire’s lecture. The scowl he gave me was so accusatory that I quickly said, “It’s coming from outside.”

He stood and swept out of my hut. Curious, I followed close behind him. Other women were emerging from their huts, confusion plain on their faces. Gassire and I joined them as they walked through the gates ahead.

On a nearby field stood at least a hundred men, scattered in pairs. They wore nothing but loose, knee-length cotton breeches and sandals. Each held long wooden sticks crossed over his partner’s, and at the commands of an unseen man, they pulled back, struck, pulled back, struck.

From the amazement of the women around me, I garnered this was not a common sight for them. I was wondering what had made the soldiers train here today when a shout sounded, one removed from the stream of commands.

The soldiers moved out of their pairs into one large arc that faced the women’s compound. A man stepped forth from the ranks and handed his stick to one of his companions, who in
turn gave him an iron-tipped spear and an oval shield. I had seen similar brown shields traded in Timbuktu; they were made with the rough hide of hippopotamuses and were used by soldiers during battle.

A second man joined the first, and cheers surged forth. I could easily see over the heads of the women around me, but I still craned my neck for a better view, hardly believing my eyes.

The new man wore the same cotton breeches as the others, though his were black instead of brown. His bare torso rippled with muscle and was crisscrossed with scars, like a carefully forged, but scratched-up, bronze statue.

So far, I had seen two sides of my future husband: the good-natured Àrèmọ, a pining fool, and the opulent Aláàfin, an influential noble. Now I saw his third side, the side I had not realized I had been waiting to present itself until it did: the Commander of Death.

From the holsters attached to his leather belt, Àrèmọ extracted dual double-sided axes. It was the same weapon of choice as his ancestor, Ṣàngó.

I watched in fascination. For once, there was no hint of amusement on Àrèmọ’s face, his bronze axes poised in front of him. His opponent aimed his spear tip first at Àrèmọ, his other arm bearing his shield. Amidst the cheers of the watching soldiers, a yell sounded. The two men circled, neither taking his eyes from the other. Then, Àrèmọ’s opponent lunged forward. A sequence of flashing metal was initiated. Each step was feather light, already on to the next as soon as the previous had happened. One man moved forward, the other moved back. Their bodies twirled; twisted over, under; swept from side to side.

It was a dance. A vicious yet captivating performance, the ringing of metal on metal a unique kind of melody.

His opponent stumbled. Almost faster than I could follow, Àrèmọ knocked the man off his feet. The latter fell flat on his back, his spear and shield knocked askew. One of Àrèmọ’s axes hovered over his neck.

Applause erupted. Àrèmọ helped the fallen man stand and gave him an amicable clap on the shoulder. Then, shielding his eyes from the sun with an ax, he scanned the women gathered in front of our compound. His eyes met mine, and a grin lit his face. Annoyed by the realization this was what he had disrupted my lessons for, I did not return his smile. His only widened.

Half exasperated and half amused, Gassire remarked, “It would appear the Aláàfin seeks to impress you, my lady. Are you impressed?” Gassire glanced at me, and apparently misreading my discontent, he added, “Or are you now having misgivings about your engagement?”

“Not at all,” I said quickly. “The training session caught me off guard, but yes, I suppose it was admirable.”

Gassire returned his attention to the field. As we watched Àrèmọ pick out another man to duel, Gassire said, “In oral tradition, the Aláàfin is said to be a warrior hero, a grand and undefeated force of nature. But you, my lady, are from Timbuktu, a city that was long ruled by the Aláàfin’s enemies. In their history books, the Aláàfin is written as a cruel and capricious tyrant. It would make sense if you saw him as a monster.”

I frowned, unsure why Gassire would tell me this. It felt like another one of his tests within a lesson, but I was even less certain about how to respond to this one than the others.

At last, as a new fight began, I said honestly, “I have heard of the Aláàfin’s brutality, of course. I have seen how children cry when those stories are told. But I have also seen the awe—grudging or otherwise—sparked in men as they speak of the empire he is building. Sometimes stories make him a hero, and sometimes they make him a villain, but all of them say he is great. And that is admirable, isn’t it?”

Gassire did not immediately respond to my genuine question, merely holding my gaze for long enough that I began to wonder if I had said something wrong, or perhaps too obvious.

Just as I was reaching peak discomfort, Gassire said quietly, “How quaint. It seems the monster has indeed found his heart.” He turned to reenter the women’s compound. “Let’s finish your lessons, my lady.”

As I made to follow him, I glanced back at the field in time to see Àrèmọ’s ax graze his opponent’s arm. The move was met by raucous cheers. It was unclear whether it had been an accident, but either way, red droplets of blood spattered against the grass.

Excerpted from Masquerade, copyright © 2024 by O.O. Sangoyomi.

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