Read an Excerpt From Jordan Ifueko’s The Maid and the Crocodile

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Maid and the Crocodile by Jordan Ifueko, a new romantic fantasy set in the world of Raybearer—publishing with Amulet Books on August 13th.

In the magic-soaked capital city of Oluwan, Small Sade needs a job—preferably as a maid, with employers who don’t mind her unique appearance and unlucky foot. But before she can be hired, she accidentally binds herself to a powerful being known only as the Crocodile, a god rumored to devour pretty girls. Small Sade entrances the Crocodile with her secret: she is a Curse Eater, gifted with the ability to alter people’s fates by cleaning their houses.

The handsome god warns that their fates are bound, but Small Sade evades him, launching herself into a new career as the Curse Eater of a swanky inn. She is determined to impress the wealthy inhabitants and earn her place in Oluwan City… assuming her secret-filled past—and the revolutionary ambitions of the Crocodile God—don’t catch up with her.

But maybe there is more to Small Sade. And maybe everyone in Oluwan City deserves more, too, from the maids all the way to the Anointed Ones.

Three months ago, five mansions of ivory bone rose overnight from rubble—one house in every district of Oluwan City.

Cold leeched from their windowless plaster walls, even in the blazing Oluwan heat. On each front door hung a single adornment: the head of a crocodile, glossily preserved in resin.

Rumors about the houses’ owners roared through the city. These days, animal heads hung on many households. The decorations had grown popular ten years ago, back when the Arit Realmhood was still the Arit Empire, and a series of vigilantes masked as different beasts had led the charge against corrupt nobility. But the heads on the bone doors, gos­sips decided, likely had nothing to do with Arit history but represented the avatar of the god within. They concluded that a shape-shifting spirit had built five shrines to itself. And as children bicker to name a stray dog, every religious sect rushed to claim the god. The idea of having a housed deity to bless trade and smite enemies excited neighborhoods every­where.

Most city folk are People of the Ember, and so offerings of coal, newly minted coins, and volcanic ashes piled at each of the shrines’ doorsteps. Next came the sides of fish, mother-of-pearl shells, and hunks of amber­gris left by People of the Well. When the god ignored fire and water wor­shipers, the ascetic People of the Wing flocked to the shrines, flaying themselves and anointing the steps with pelican oil. Even I, an earth-wor­shiping bumpkin of the Clay, shyly left a ripe tangerine at a shrine, in case the god wanted to protect me too. But every single gift rotted away in the sun, left untouched on the steps of the houses.

Then someone thought to bring a girl.

You know, of course, that human sacrifice is illegal in the Realmhood. It is a practice that died with the old Arit Empire, which appeased demons by sacrificing children to the Underworld.

But this girl had been both beautiful and poor, an unwise combination in any town. Her neighbors called her an angel. Then she refused to be wooed, marry, or have children, and so they called her a witch. In time, they broke open one of the shrine doors, tied a rope to her ankle, and thrust her into the shadowy mouth of the bone house.

She did cry out. But as soon as the door shut behind her, the wailing stopped. The rope, meant to drag out her body after the god killed or ravished her, fell slack. When the neighbors pulled it from the doorframe, there was nothing at the end of the line. No one dared enter the house, but when a few brave souls squinted over the threshold, they saw nothing but a smooth, windowless room.

So born was the legend of the Crocodile God, who ate pretty girls.

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The Maid and the Crocodile
The Maid and the Crocodile

The Maid and the Crocodile

Jordan Ifueko

If that gecko had screeched “Crocodile!” into your ear, I think, you would have swiped it from your shoulder and fled. It would not have helped much, for no one outruns a spirit on two legs. Still, you would have done it, because you are not like me. You have a lioness heart: one that fights, against the odds, to keep beating.

But I had never been the hero of anyone’s story, least of all my own. The silt lining my lungs had addicted me to peace. And peace, the silt insisted, meant accepting one’s fate. So when the gecko pointed for me to leave the market, I obeyed. When it leapt from my cane to climb across the walls and alleyways of the Academy District, I followed, pausing only to admire slivers of the city that, in another life, might have been mine.

“Goodbye,” I bid the stewmongers, as they beckoned hungry cus­tomers to sit on the curb. I blessed the pots simmering in open-air kitch­ens, scenting the air with clouds of spicy steam. “Be careful,” I told the rickshaws that hurtled through the streets with bells and shrieking wheels, weaving around the wealthy in their palanquins. “Forgive me,” I begged the towering murals of Raybearers and their Anointed Ones, the guardians of our Realmhood, whose eternal eyes stalked me on every block of the city-long Watching Wall.

The gecko turned onto the Way of the Crocodile—the name locals had given to each dead-end road on which a cold white house had arisen. A hush thick as smog fell over the air. It reduced the Oluwan City din to a murmur, so I heard the thud of my steps on packed dirt and cobblestone. Business teemed in Oluwan City at every hour of the day and night, and so a quiet neighborhood meant great wealth or great danger. Crumbling and dog-ridden tenements betrayed this place as the latter. The newly built house stood out at the end of the street, like a coal burning white in a pile of gray kindling.

As I mounted the cold plaster steps, I fantasized about someone see­ing me. A flock of strangers to cry out: “You there, small girl! Get away from the door! Don’t you know a god lives in there? Come back to the city and be safe. Come down and belong to us.”

But locals had erected a high palisade wall in front of the house, just long enough to shield the entrance from view of the street. The wall offered privacy to those leaving offerings, and also to those with wicked intentions. Local officials had tired of searching for girls fed to the shrine. A wall meant no more witnesses, and no witnesses meant no missing girls.

The remains of past offerings—dry rice, tarnished coins, sticks of incense—crunched beneath my sandals. The crocodile head watched impassively from the door, sunlight glinting on its polished scales. Its hol­low eyes froze me in place.

“Will it hurt?” I asked the gecko in a whisper. “When he… you know.”

But the gecko said nothing, skittering through a crack in the entryway.

Thoughts could only slow me down, so I banished them, and with a sob, I lifted my cane and burst through the door, wailing my own funeral rite.

“Tonight I may join Egungun’s Parade,” I sang, plunging into shadow. “Tonight I may be purified…”

My voice did not echo. It was as though I stood in an unlit box, barely larger than a peasant’s hut. But that wasn’t possible. From the outside, the shrine was several rooms wide, at least.

When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out the gecko, who wriggled by my feet. It gestured to a line of chalk inches from my toes, where something appeared to be stuck in the smooth floor: a single human tooth.

The gecko raced past the line into the gloom, making it clear I should follow. My foot hovered above the chalk. “Am who wrote my birth and death,” I warbled… and stepped over the line.

The world changed.

Sunlight stung my eyes and dappled across a small flagstone court­yard. The palm-dotted walls of a villa encircled me, and the sky stretched in a country-clear blue dome, untouched by city smog.

I whirled around to look back at the shrine door. It had vanished, though the chalk line on the ground, along with the human tooth, remained. It had glowed red as I passed over, then faded again to white.

In the courtyard’s center, a mask hung several feet above the ground in thin air, suspended without strings like a star. The mask was made of crocodile skin, fringed in a halo of teeth.

Below the mask was a stone well, on the rim of which the gecko sun­bathed, looking very smug. Beside the well stood a man.

He was the handsomest person I have ever seen, and of course, this terrified me.

Beautiful people—especially ones like him, an Arit blueblood with cobalt-black skin and shining, toned limbs—were often unhappy to see me. They saw my spots and my foot and worried that whatever I had was contagious. Or else my very existence made them uneasy—a reminder of a privilege they had not earned and could lose by an accident of birth.

In any case, I could not be what the Crocodile God wanted. And this man was the Crocodile God. I knew it because I was still singing and could see his spirit silt. No one is covered in more spirit silt than a god.

An iridescent film, the weight of a hundred thousand whispered prayers and expectations, glowed across his chest and arms, his neck and bare shoulders. Grief-gnats sparkled hungrily at his ears, while lurid ambition-spores clung like burrs to his waist-length locs. Worst of all was his left bicep, on which a gaping wound festered with layer upon layer of slimy, silver despair-mold.

Despite it all, the Crocodile smiled, and that scared me more than anything.

Guide me to Core, the world without end—” The funeral rite died in my throat, and with it, my vision of the spirit silt. What remained was a shirtless man, holding himself as though with great age, despite his youthful appearance. Scars—stab wounds?—rose in keloids across his broad chest. A gold cuff shone on his bicep, along with a scattering of green scales. Mud spattered his crisp linen trousers.

“Ah,” he said in a voice like nettle leaves: velvet and stinging. “So they sent you after all.”

I waited for him to take me in: my face and cane and threadbare wrapper. I expected him to recoil. That could be a good thing, if he only ate girls as lovely as himself. Then again, he might devour me out of sheer rage at my plainness, shape-shifting into a crocodile and swallowing me whole.

Instead he bowed, grimaced at himself, then swiped at his dirty trousers.

“Excuse the appearance,” he said, dark eyes twinkling. “I am usually devastating, I promise. But I had a run-in with some cultists in the Agricultural District. There was a chase, and some goat pens got involved… Sade, is it?”

“Yes, oga,” I rasped.

Of course he knew my name. He had probably eaten it, along with my body, the moment I stepped over that line. How kind of him to make my death so painless.

“Don’t call me that,” he snorted. “I’m not an oga or a sir. I’m useless and covered in mud.”

“Sorry, oga,” I said, just in case it was a test.

I realized then that I could not be dead. Human souls passed on to Egungun’s Parade, dancing to ghostly drums as they marched to their final rest at Core. I could not hear any music, and besides the Crocodile, I was the only soul here.

So where in Am’s name was I?

The villa courtyard was eerily lifeless, empty of dogs or chickens. Absent even was the buzzing of flies. Aside from the gecko, the closest thing to an animal was the crocodile mask floating above the well. On the breeze I smelled mangos, as though an orchard blossomed nearby. In addition to the line with the tooth I had stepped over, four other lines of chalk glittered around the yard’s perimeter.

“I see you came through the Pointy Molar door,” the man said. “So you came from the Academy District?” When I nodded, he continued, “I am glad it was not the Chipped Molar Door. Palace District people are insufferable. I assume Ixalix filled you in on the details?”

Ixalix. He must have meant the gecko. I glanced at the small creature for help, but it only flicked its tongue, sunbathing on the rim of the well.

The man took my paralyzed silence for assent. “They should not have dragged you into this,” he continued. “Personally, I would have let you be, but it appears the decision was made for me. Your face excited a lot of people, not least of all the Boss Almighty. Tea or mango wine?”

At this point, I began to suspect that he was mad. Many gods were, by human standards, and in such cases it was best to agree with whatever nonsense they said. The same madness that made the Crocodile eat girls, you understand, might just trick him into setting me free.

So I squeaked, “Tea, please.”

He touched the cuff on his arm and closed his eyes. Discomfort crum­pled his features, and I imagined that invisible wound above his bicep, teeming with despair. Then his face cleared, as chiseled and beautiful as it was before.

“I am not supposed to do this,” he said. “But I wanted to impress you.”

A hunk of clay lifted from the ground, shaped itself, and burst into flames. It cooled and burned several more times before resting daintily on the well: a green-glazed earthenware mug. A jet of water leapt from the well and splashed into the newly made cup, joined by fragrant leaves that freed themselves from a nearby tree and looped in a breeze across the courtyard. At last, a faded rug unfurled, and a stool rolled across the flagstones and righted itself inches from my feet.

I sat. He strode over, making me shiver with each step. When he placed the steaming cup of tea in my trembling hands, I planned to say thank you. I wanted to say, If you are going to make things fly and set themselves on fire, please warn me in advance, oh powerful and insane Crocodile God.

Instead I blurted, “How in Am’s name would you have made the wine?”

The man laughed—a low, musical sound that appeared to surprise us both.

“Cheating,” he admitted. He indicated some barrels against the villa wall. “The wine’s already made. I need only have conjured the glass.”

The wine’s already made. Did he have servants? I didn’t see anyone.

I sipped at the tea, willing the mug not to slip from my sweating palms. “Where am I?” I asked, doing my best to sound casual.

“My home, of course. Well. Sort of.” He spread his hands. “Like many things in my life, this place is on loan from the Boss Almighty. She didn’t want it, and I needed somewhere to mope and get drunk, so… here we are.”

“But where is here?” An edge crept into my tone. My head was beginning to hurt, and I doubted his magically conjured tea would soothe it.

The man’s brow wrinkled, then lifted, as though he had found a perfectly clear way to explain. “Nowhere,” he said. “Though also, it’s a remote savanna in Swana. And four other places, including that street in Oluwan City. But also, nowhere.”

With great effort, I managed not to hurl the cup at his head.

“Right,” I said, setting down my tea. “Well. This has been very nice, oga, but I think it is time I went back to Oluwan.” I stood and backed away toward the chalk line, gesturing vaguely around me. “I have so enjoyed your well, and your fine-fine tea, and your lovely… stools, but I fear I have tired out my welcome, and so—”

“You’re leaving already?”

I froze, waiting for wrath to simmer in the god’s eyes.

He only looked at me blankly, then raised his arm, pointing to the cuff and its invisible wound. He asked, “Aren’t you going to try and break my curse?”

My fingers clenched, digging into the grooves of my cane. But I smiled and said the only thing I could say.

“Of course, oga.”

Excerpted from The Maid and the Crocodile, copyright © 2024 by Jordan Ifueko.

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