Heir To The Sky
“What were you thinking?” Elisha huffs beside me as we run. “The Elite Guard’s already arriving. You could’ve gone to the edge of Ashra after the ceremony.”
I open my mouth to answer, but no answer comes. She’s right, but I’d thought I could escape for just a moment, just freeze time and not have to face all of this.
A momentary thought. A dream snapped in two like the pika’s fireweed sprigs.
“At least you’ll get to see him again,” she teases, but the guilt comes over her face as I don’t smile back. “I’m sorry,” she says, regretting it right away.
I shake my head. “Jonash isn’t awful.” And he isn’t. But he’s not my choice, either.
We hurry on, the citadel feeling like it’s never closer. We stop a few times to catch our breath, and I look down at my foot, smudged black from the dusty roadway.
A chime sounds through the clearing, and Elisha and I exchange worried looks. The bells are already ringing. Is it that late? She reaches for my hand and pulls me along the path, toward the bells chiming in the gleaming crystal tower of the citadel.
Maybe Aban will burn me alive, after all.
We finally reach the side of the stone building, and two of the Elder Initiates are there, straightening their robes and tying red rope belts around their waists. They look up in alarm as we stumble toward them.
“Kallima,” one of them says, his brown hair slicked back and his sandals scraping against the dirt. “I thought you’d be inside already.”
I pant. “Did Aban start already?”
He nods. “The Elite Guard arrived ten minutes ago. Elder Aban’s already reading from the annals.” Soot and ashes. I’m doomed.
“Your Highness,” the other says, a dark woman whose golden earrings swing back and forth as she reaches out her hand. I take her hand and she pulls me up the stairs into the citadel.
“Good luck,” Elisha shouts, and then the world around me is dark and silent, closed in by the shadows of the palace hallways.
I HAVE A momentary wish that the Initiate would pull me toward the northern hallways, toward the arched ceilings of the library and the rows of annals themselves. I’d rather bury myself in there, surrounded by piles of books, than face the crowds of the Rending Ceremony. But my absence wouldn’t go unnoticed, so there’s nothing to do but follow her toward the south of the building instead, into a great room lit by candles and chandeliers of glass, where my father stands with his arms outstretched like a scarecrow. Three attendants are crouched around him, straightening his robe, fastening his ceremonial gilded sword and buttoning the endless gleaming buttons of his official Rending Ceremony costume.
He peeks over his shoulder at me, his gray wiry beard pressed against the fine gold-and-red embroidery of the crisp robe he wears. “Kallima,” he says, his voice filled with relief. “So Elisha found you.” An attendant murmurs an apology as he turns my father’s head forward so he can properly affix the plume of the Phoenix to his coat. “Where have you been?” my father asks the front of the room.
I don’t like to lie to my father, but like any loving parent, he worries too much when I go near the edge of the continent. There hasn’t been an accident on Ashra since I was two years old, and yet he still fears that I’ll lose my footing and fall off the edge of the world. I don’t think I could survive without my realm of one, so I bite my lip and gently betray him.
“At the lake,” I say. “So many flowers are in bloom now.” Two more attendants rush toward me, and I’m forced to raise my arms to the side like my father. They mumble to each other about the gray soot on my dress and the ragged ends of my golden rope belt. I wait in guilty anticipation of them noticing my missing shoe.
My father chuckles under his breath, and though I can’t see his face, I know his eyelids are crinkling at the sides as he smiles. His blue eyes are always filled with warmth, even when he scolds me. “My Kallima,” he says. “Always fluttering away.”
The attendants tug at his sleeves and yank my hair back, brushing the brown matted waves into a more presentable tangle. Two of my father’s attendants move to the side of the room and reach for the heavy golden headdress to bring it toward me. I groan quietly. It’s beautiful, but it weighs a ton, pressing me into the ground. Whenever these ceremonies end and I get to take it off, I’m always surprised I don’t float away.
The headdress is like a crown, but made of thousands and thousands of golden beads and cones and iridescent shells from the creatures that lurk in the mud of the lake. The strings of beads end in tiny plumes of red, usually the feathers of sunbirds but sometimes dyed gull or chicken quills if they need replacing. The headdress tinkles and chimes as they carry it toward me and lower it slowly onto my head. The beads drape across my forehead and dip along the sides of my head, where they fasten together in the back and drape through my hair. Every movement I make, no matter how slight, sends them clinking and jingling together in a melody that is said to evoke the Phoenix herself. May she rise anew, and all that.
The government on Ashra pieces together like a Phoenix, as we learn when we’re little. The Elders are the feathers, surrounding the people—the Phoenix’s beating heart—with truth and light. Some are just tufts, like the Initiates, and others are long wing and tail feathers, guiding us in the right direction with the sun and wind on our backs. When a child is born, the Elders visit the home to bless the child with welcoming rituals and gifts. The Elders study the annals to help us serve the Phoenix and each other, to take care of this floating world she entrusted to us. They’re revered and welcomed as they journey the floating continents of our world—Ashra, Burumu, and Nartu and the Floating Isles. Nartu and the Floating Isles are so remote and small that they’re usually grouped together. Only scholars live out there, retired Elders included.
After the Elders come the Elite Guard, who’ve arrived from their home in Burumu on the airship that passed over Elisha and me. The Elite Guard are the sharp talons of the Phoenix; they keep us safe from danger, although now they are much more ceremonial than in the past when monsters threatened us. In the time of the Rending, they formed to protect what was left of mankind. Now they serve as a reminder, and as a force against future dangers, should they arise. We stand upon them for support.
The Sargon lives in Burumu and is a lord below my father’s ranking. He is the Eye of the Phoenix, ever watchful for unrest or trouble. And there has been some in the past, for Burumu is a small island of limited resources, and things have become tense from time to time. But none of us want to go back to dark days, and so it’s never amounted to much at all.
And my father, the Monarch. He is the beak of the Phoenix, speaking truth and leading us all toward the future. His word is law. He lives here in Ulan, in the citadel, which is a smaller town than Burumu but it allows him the peace and quiet to thoughtfully govern us.
And me, his heir? I’m the Eternal Flame that ignites the Phoenix, the hope for the future of our floating world.
All of this symbolism is etched into my headdress. It’s no wonder it weighs so much.
My father wears a circlet of feather-shaped hammered gold, the plumes of sunbirds hanging along it in a much more subtle pattern. His face crinkles up again as he smiles at me, and despite the hundred pounds pressing on my head, and the weight of who I am in my heart, I smile back.
“Ashes, child,” he says suddenly. “Your foot!”
They’ve noticed. I can’t look down easily with the headdress on, but I can feel the attendants lifting my foot up and wiping it with cloth, maybe the hem of their own tunics.
“I lost it on the way,” I say sheepishly.
The doors at the end of the hallway burst open, and two of the Elder Initiates stride in. “Your Majesty,” they say to my father, the Monarch. “If you please.”
“Yes, well,” he says, looking at me worriedly. After a minute he laughs. “I suppose you’ll have to lose the other shoe, as well,” he says.
The attendants exchange looks.
“Sir, but Elder Aban will...”
“Oh, he can take it up with me later, if he survives the rise in his blood pressure.”
I love my father, and he loves me.
I kick off the spare shoe and bite my lip to hold back the delighted grin at the expressions of the attendants and Initiates. My father quickly squeezes my fingers before they place a red and gilded annal in his hands and a short ceremonial staff in mine, a golden beam that ends in a rich crimson plume that tickles against my sleeve.
I follow my father through the hallway, and then we are upon the steps of the citadel. The sunlight is blinding after the darkness of the corridors. The minstrels are plucking at the goat-string harps and the trumpets are blaring as the crowds cheer for their Monarch. Father looks noble and kind as he descends the steps toward the crowd. I wait at the doorway and watch him. Banners of crimson stream in the wind, and the giant statue of the Phoenix towers over the courtyard. There are garlands of flowers strung around her neck and bouquets of red and orange laid at her feet.
It seems a little ridiculous to me at times, but the annals and my governesses have always been clear—without her, mankind would have perished, consumed by the monsters that overrun the earth below. She saved us all with her sacrifice, and so we celebrate the Rending every year since, commemorating our deliverance from certain death.
My father has reached Elder Aban in the courtyard below, and the trumpets blare loudly as the crowd looks up for me. I take a deep breath and grasp the plume staff tightly, walking slowly down the stone stairs in my bare feet, one clean, one scuffed and dirty. I long to glance at Aban’s reaction, but I know I must look straight ahead into the crowd, smiling gently and looking wiser than I feel. The steps are grainy and rough and scrape the soles of my feet. Despite the bright sunny weather, the stone stairs are cold from the thin air up here in Ashra.
The crowd and minstrels are quiet, staring at me as I descend. I think only of how ridiculous it would look if I tripped headfirst, or if I burst into dance or suddenly turned and ran. I could end this whole ceremony, I think. It’s not that I want to destroy it, but the potential, just knowing I could do so, swirls endlessly in my head.
At last I reach the bottom step, and the crowds bow their heads. It all seems too silly to me. I walk through the village all the time with Elisha and no one bows to me. But today there’s such a separation I can feel it. They bend around me like heat bends around the wavering flame of a candle.
The Elite Guard stand in crisp rows to the side of the Phoenix statue. They’re dressed in uniforms of the customary white, with a single red plume pinned to their lapels. Some have golden pins or medals of iridescent shell depending on rank.
I see him immediately, of course. Jonash. He’s in the front row, at the right side of the lieutenant. It’s hard to miss him. He’s looking at me, too, his blue eyes shining and his dirty blond hair cropped neatly on his head. But there’s no time to think about him now. Aban has come toward me to receive the plume staff, and I place it in his old, shaking hands while my father reads from the pages of the annal.
His voice resonates through the courtyard. “So it was,” he reads, “that in those days, the land was covered with the thick darkness of a plague brewing. They came from every direction—creatures bent on destroying mankind and civility. On four legs, on six, on wings and in scales, above and beneath the surface of the earth. They knew only hunger, blood and malevolence.”
Elder Aban steps toward the Phoenix statue with my plume staff. I clasp my hands together over my dirt-stained dress, standing as still as I can. I can feel Jonash’s eyes on me, but I dare not look. I pretend that he’s not there at all, that he doesn’t even exist.
My father’s voice rises as he reads from the gilded tome. “But there was one creature who lived in light, not in darkness. In flame, not in bitter ice. There was one who was merciful and generous and giving. She saw our plight and took pity us. She gathered us under her wings, to protect us from the foul monsters outside.”
The people stare blankly ahead. We’ve heard this story. We hear it every year. But it’s distant to us. It happened nearly three hundred years ago. Well, two hundred and ninety-nine. We’ve never seen the monsters written about in the annals. We don’t even know if it’s true.