Heir To The Sky
“The people walked from the mountains, from the valleys, from the oceans and the islands. We gathered upon this place, Ashra, when it was then part of the earth.”
Aban has placed the plume staff at the Phoenix’s stone talons and is backing away with his head bowed toward her. There is a small string in his hands, almost invisible unless you know it’s there. This is the big finale, the culmination of the Rending Ceremony.
“And then,” my father’s voice booms, “with a blast of her fiery wings, she tore the roots from the ground and rent the earth in two.” Aban pulls the string, and the plume staff erupts in a burst of flames that travels up the garlands around the statue. “She lifted us high above the darkness and the fangs and the endless hunger that infested the earth. She burned to ashes like the sun, raising us to freedom and deliverance.”
“May she rise anew!” the crowd shouts as the rings of fire blaze around the statue. The people cheer and wave their red banners as my father hands the annal to Aban, who closes the book and lifts it into the sky. I step toward the statue now, the flames dangerously close. My face is hot from the waves emanating from the fire. But this is proof of the Phoenix’s favor, and I must do this task to instill courage in the village. I quickly reach my hand toward the plume staff, now only a gold handle with a burned quill end attached to it. The longer I hesitate, the hotter the gold will get, so before I can rethink it I wrap my fingers around the handle and pull it away from the statue’s talons. I lift it high above my head like a baton, my headdress tinkling in my ears as the crowd cheers.
“From fiery sacrifice to ash, from ash to rebirth,” my father shouts, “we, too, will rise anew! Let us never return to those dark days. Let us never throw away the gift of a new rebirth on Ashra and in the skies!”
The people cheer, and Aban nods, and the official ceremony is over. Now is when my father usually ascends the steps and I follow, but today he’s got more news to share. I see him look at me for a moment, his eyes kind and a little remorseful. And there’s nothing I can do but nod, because our lives are for the people, and I know this. We are the wick and wax, and we still burn for Ashra’s freedom.
“There is one more announcement you’ve been waiting for,” my father says, raising his hands. The elaborate red-and-gold sleeves coil around his elbows and the crowd quiets down. He looks toward the Elite Guard, and the lieutenant salutes. He marches smartly into the courtyard, then turns sharply to face the crowd. When he glances at his troop, Jonash steps forward. He doesn’t march the way the lieutenant did, but walks gracefully and solemnly toward us.
“Next year is the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Rending,” Father says. “And it is time to secure the continuation of Ashra and her lands—Burumu, Nartu and the Floating Isles.” Ashra had been the original continent—the others broke off during the Rending and sailed through the sky, shattered shards of a broken past.
But it’s the future that concerns me now.
Jonash’s eyes burn as intensely as the last of the flames that devour the garlands around the Phoenix. He falls to a knee before my father, who nods at him.
“I am pleased to officially announce,” my father says, each word an iron link in my chain, “the betrothal of my daughter, Princess Kallima of Ashra, to Second Lieutenant Jonash, son of the Sargon of Burumu.”
Jonash’s eyes meet mine, and his hand rises palm up like an offering. I know what is expected of me. I rest my hand in his, and he presses his forehead against the backs of my fingers. His skin is cool from the breeze, but my fingers are warm from the golden staff fetched from the fire.
The people cheer and applaud as Jonash rises to his feet and stands just behind me. The Sargon is lower ranking than my father the Monarch, but Burumu has the densest population and the greatest output of resources that complement Ashra’s agriculture. The union is perfect to continue the peaceful ruling of the floating kingdom on which our lives play out.
Jonash’s hand rests in mine as we ascend the steps behind my father, the cold stone scraping against my bare feet. I feel as though I have changed into someone else just now, as if I have ceased to exist.
The candle of my life burns, tears of wax trickling down its melting sides.
JONASH DOESN’T SPEAK to me until we are inside the great room, where my father and I stretch out our arms, and the attendants begin to unravel the cumbersome costumes that adorn us.
“Kallima,” he says. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
“And you,” I answer, always diplomatic and polite as I am supposed to be. Two attendants come to lift the headdress off my head, untangling the strings of beads that have twisted and knotted into my hair. But with Jonash here, I don’t feel any lighter. The world still feels stiff and heavy. “How was the journey from Burumu?”
He smiles, his blue eyes full of warmth and his cheeks flushed with a bashful glow. Elisha is right when she says he’s handsome, but his looks don’t move me at all. “It was well enough. Airships are bumpy, troublesome things.”
I haven’t been on one since I was seven years old, when I toured Burumu and Nartu with my father for the 290th Anniversary of the Rending. The airships are patched together like the hot air balloons I’ve read about in the annals, and they float from side to side in a pudgy, indecisive path. I’d wanted to see the ocean below Burumu on that journey, but the clouds were thick that day, only the peaks of the mountain range poking through. I remember how wonderful it was to look out at the lesser floating isles, though, the small pieces of continent that are too rocky or inhospitable for people to live on or gather resources from. They looked so strange, their roots and crumbling soil holding on to nothingness as they floated in the air.
“How are things in Burumu, Jonash?” my father says as I duck my head down so the attendants can untangle the last strings of the headdress from my hair.
“Well, thank you,” Jonash answers. “My father sends his regards, and his apologies that he could not attend the ceremony.”
My father laughs gently, his warm eyes twinkling as his skin crinkles. “We understand the burden of the Sargon. Burumu is a bustling place.”
“Yes,” Jonash answers. “He does his best to deal with the unrest.”
“Unrest?” I say. My father frowns, his gray beard drooping with the expression. This is the first I’ve heard of this unrest. And my father has never been one to coddle or patronize me. In fact, he’s always kept me well involved in political affairs. I’m the next in line, after all. Ignorance wouldn’t suit either of us.
“Nothing to trouble Your Highness, of course,” Jonash says quickly. “It’s nothing more than a trifling thought. Burumu is a larger city than Ulan, and sometimes the past weighs heavily upon our shoulders.”
Burumu is a larger city, this much is true. On Ashra we have Lake Agur, the rolling hills full of wildflowers and the comfort of the Phoenix statue and citadel. Ours is a farming community protected from the harsh winds by a sheer mountain range on the northeast side. There is too much to do in a day to sit around and talk about unrest. But Burumu is a city of resources, where they mine gold and smelt iron and copper. It’s where the airships are assembled, and the land is scarcer. Many of the families in Burumu try to immigrate to Ashra, but we need to preserve the continent so that future generations won’t run out of food. Is this the source of the unrest? We strive hard not to allow inequality in the kingdom, but there will always be some jobs more desirable than others to sustain the community.
I shake my head in disbelief, putting on my best regal voice. “We know what it is to have a common enemy, the monsters that drove us into the skies. We know that to squabble among ourselves would be to ignore the gift of freedom the Phoenix has given us.”
“My daughter is right, as always.” My father smiles. “The situation in Burumu is nothing more than that—a tiny squabble before the past is remembered. Otherwise the Sargon would be quite bored, with nothing to manage.”
I feel uneasy. My father is lying, I’m sure of it, and whether it’s to me or to Jonash is the question. But the conversation has ended, and to continue it would be to embarrass him in front of company. I’ll ask him later, when it’s just the two of us.
“Indeed Burumu keeps one busy,” Jonash ends politely, but his eyes never leave me. “It’s always a pleasure to get away for a while and to seek other joys.”
He means well, I know. He’s charming, polite and well mannered. He’s handsome and intelligent. But I don’t feel anything for him, no matter how hard I try. He’s like the floating continents—beauty and pageantry above, and no substance below. It makes me sad to think this, and I’m flooded with guilt. I haven’t even given him a chance.
I attempt a smile, feeling like a complete fake.
“Your Highness,” he says, but I shake my head.
“Kali is fine. There’s no need for formalities now the ceremony is done.”
“I suppose not,” he says. “Then, Kali, might I request the pleasure of your company tonight?” His cheeks blaze, and every word from his mouth is slow and thoughtful. “I’d hoped to visit Ulan and see more of Ashra. The Elite Guard will be staying a few days to partake in the celebrations, but I’m afraid I won’t feel festive when I don’t know anyone in the crowds.”
He smiles, but my stomach twists. I’ll have to spend more and more time with him, until we’re married next year. And then we’ll live together in the citadel, and we’ll be looked on to provide a happy example to the people. We’ll share every meal, every moment, every night. We’ll have heirs to keep the bloodline going. My face warms. Perhaps I can learn to love him, I think. I desperately will myself to love him, to make this easier.
I don’t. But maybe I could. Someday.
Or maybe not.
“I’m afraid I’d had plans with my friend Elisha...” I begin, and I can’t believe the words are flowing out of my mouth. My father won’t approve of my discourtesy.
Jonash’s face turns pale; his warm eyes falter. “I... I see,” he says, his fingers fumbling across the golden plume pinned to his lapel. “Of course I understand. I...”
“Oh, ashes and soot,” my father chimes in from the corner. “Elisha can go with you, can’t she? It wouldn’t be proper without a chaperone anyway.”
Jonash hesitates, uncertain how to respond.
But I know what to do. I know what my father has gently asked of me.
“Well, then,” I say with regret. “I’d be delighted to accept.”
“I... Oh. Wonderful,” Jonash says. He’s lost in the silent conversation between my father and me, the words unspoken that duty comes first. He nods his head. “Shall we meet at the fountain, then, after dinner?”
“Won’t you dine with us tonight, Jonash?” my father says. “I couldn’t forgive myself if I treated my son-in-law-to-be with such discourtesy as to leave him to scavenge for his own supper.”
“My gratitude to you, Monarch,” Jonash answered. “But it’s the lieutenant’s birthday, and he’s asked us to join him for the occasion. Er... I’m certain I could explain to him.”
I roll my eyes. It seems eloquence isn’t one of Jonash’s better skills. “That isn’t necessary,” I pipe up pleasantly. “You can always join us tomorrow.”