Heir To The Sky
Both men look at me gratefully, and I wonder what we’re all actually thinking. Does Jonash feel as I do about the arranged engagement? Does he have someone he cares for on Burumu? If he does, or if he longs for freedom like me, then he hides it well. If he, too, burns for the people, I can’t even see the wax tears dripping from the light of the wick.
“At the fountain, then,” he says. “When the skies are darkening. I’ll wait.”
I force another smile, and an attendant escorts him out.
ONCE JONASH IS GONE, and my father has been pulled away by the Elders and their pressing Rending Ceremony matters, I’m finally alone and free. I step barefoot through the dim hallways, twisting toward the library in the north. Except for the outcrop on the edge of the continent, the library is my most favorite refuge. Hardly anyone bothers these days with the dusty tomes and endless red annals stacked along the back shelves. There’s no need to look into the past anymore. Life is busy enough to just survive the present.
But I love to read the rich stories of the earth and the world before the Rending. I want to dive into the oceans teeming with rainbow fish and turtles and dolphins. I want to feel the soft manes of horses, which seem to be a type of giant goat, and the striped tails of the raccoons. I want to know about the cities that used to be, ones where thousands of people lived all in one place. I want to know about the strange customs and technologies that have been lost to us for nearly three hundred years. And just once, perhaps, I’d like to see a dragon, or how small the two moons must look, gleaming down onto a world so far below the floating continents.
The oldest annals are difficult to read because the language is archaic and the print faded. I’ve asked the Elders for help, but even Aban doesn’t have the knowledge to read them. It’s surprising, really, because the original Elders were the first to write things down at the beginning of the Rending, to keep track of old memories and wisdom from earth to save our heritage. You’d think the Elders would have taught each other as they went along, keeping the knowledge alive.
I run my fingers along the tops of the tomes, aching to know what’s written in the gold-edged pages. I grab the fiftieth one in the row, the one where the language is almost readable. I open it up about one hundred pages in, where one of my favorite illustrations is splashed on the page. The manuscripts hold so few images, but this is one where the Elder scribe couldn’t help himself. He has imagined what the ocean would look like, a lake without end. He’s drawn what he imagines sea snakes and dolphins and fish to look like, and he’s painted them all with the reddish-brown iron ink they manufacture in Burumu. He’s tried his best to be accurate, but he’s never seen the ocean, either, except for glimpses from the edge of the continent. We have fish in our lakes, but I imagine the ones in the ocean are larger and vividly colored, splashing about with fangs and fins and glittering scales. I wonder if his sketch is even close to what sea creatures really look like, frothing about against the shore.
I fit the book neatly in its space on the shelf and take out the very first of the annals. I’ve looked at it many times before, but its faded ancient letters just stare back at me, their looping script holding secrets I can’t unlock. I run my fingers along the red text, flipping the crinkled pages slowly. There’s a single illustration in this tome, on the ninetieth page. It shows the bottom of the continent Ashra, the roots of the trees bound in a tangle around the dirt that lifts into the sky. There is a fissure sketched in, where Burumu and Nartu are breaking off from Ashra under the pressure of the Rending. Below the continent the Phoenix rises into the air. Her dark red-brown wings gleam with a cloud of sketched glory, and she clasps monsters of every type in her talons. They are miniscule in the drawing, but I can make out twisting horns, slithering limbs and feathers. A great hole has been ripped in the earth below her, and along the rim of the hole tiny sketches of people wail upon their knees, reaching out for Ashra as it rises up. These were the unbelievers, who didn’t heed her call and were devoured by the monsters. I press my thumbnail against them, thinking how small they are. I pity them, but I envy them, too. They knew about the oceans and the mountains. They knew all the things I wish to know. Even if their lives ended in despair, they were free until that last bitter moment.
No, I think. There’s no freedom in being hunted down. Their lives were forfeit before they were even born.
A shuffling in the library startles me. It’s always quiet here, especially when everyone must be out celebrating the Rending. I quietly slide the first of the annals back into its place on the shelves so I can peek at who’s approaching.
I call out softly. “Elisha?” Maybe she’s searching for me to talk about Jonash and the engagement. But then I hear two men’s voices arguing just beyond hearing. Something doesn’t feel right, and I shrink behind the shelf as they approach.
“One of the Initiates must have said something,” the first voice says.
The second one snaps, “We don’t share it with the Initiates. It’s reserved only for the senior Elders.”
That’s Aban’s voice. I’d know it anywhere. A moment later, Aban steps into view, his cream robe swishing against the floor and the tassels of his red belt pounding against him with every step.
“Then how did it reach them?” the first man says. He stands in a crisp white uniform, two dark red plumes laid on either shoulder and a gold chain draped over his chest. The lieutenant of the Elite Guard. Why would he be here? Jonash had said they would be out to celebrate his birthday, but the lieutenant’s brow is creased and his face anxious. The Elders use the library all the time, but I’ve never seen anyone from the Elite Guard set foot in these dusty stacks of tomes.
“It can only be the work of an Elder,” the lieutenant insists. “The others cannot read the early texts.”
“The Elders are loyal to the Monarch,” Aban spits back. “They would never join the rebels.”
Rebels? Rebelling against what? I wonder. Life on Ashra and her lands is peaceful, with no need to rebel.
“An exile, then,” the first voice says.
Aban shakes his head. “And how do you suppose they got off Nartu?”
It’s the first I’ve heard of exiled Elders. It’s true that the life isn’t for everyone, but Elders who retire or Initiates who give up their instruction often choose a life of solitude on Nartu. Don’t they?
“It is your fault for not keeping Burumu under control,” Aban says. “The rebellions should have been quashed by now, not spreading. And if they’ve learned of this!”
Learned of what? And who has read the early texts? Too many questions flood into my mind at once. I think of the unrest Jonash mentioned, the one my father hesitated to mention in front of me. Is it so serious as to pit the tempers of Aban and the lieutenant against each other? The Elite Guard and the Elders have always worked together to serve the lands of Ashra. All our roles build the Phoenix together to protect its beating heart, our people. And what the lieutenant suggests is ridiculous. Even the Elders can’t read the earliest texts.
None of it makes sense. But if the unrest is bad enough to worry either group and make them accuse each other, then there is more happening than my father has let on.
My thoughts muddle with confusion as I peek over the tops of the annals. Aban and the lieutenant have stopped at a small desk on the other side, where the Elders occasionally place the annals to study them. Aban reaches around his neck and produces a small key on a string. I’ve never noticed a key around Aban’s neck before. He turns toward a cupboard near the desk and fits in the key, turning it with a creak. He rustles through the darkness and produces a bloodred tome with gilded pages. It looks just like the rows of annals on the shelf, and every volume is accounted for. Why would there be one locked in the cupboard?
Aban lifts it onto the desk with an echoing thud and begins to flip the pages.
“I’m telling you,” the lieutenant tries again. Aban whispers to himself in what sounds like a foreign tongue, his eyes scanning the words as his finger runs down the page.
My hand goes to my open mouth. He’s reading the ancient script. He’s reading the early annals.
There’s an illustration on the page, but I can’t make it out from here. I can only see where the block of text ends and the fanciful sketching begins.
The lieutenant leans over, impatient. “Well?”
Aban falls silent, his finger stopping at one paragraph. “It’s just as they’re saying,” he says, his voice nearly a whisper. “The barrier, the generator...word for word, it’s what’s on the flyer. Show me again.”
The lieutenant reaches into his pocket and flattens the crinkled piece of paper. Aban compares the information on the paper to the lines he’s pressed his trembling finger against in the annal. He nods, his face ghostly white.
The lieutenant snatches the paper back and balls his hand into a fist. He quickly turns back to Aban. “And no one has seen this annal but the Elders?”
“And the Monarch, and you,” Aban says. My father knows of this secret tome, as well?
The lieutenant holds the edge of the paper to the candle that flickers on the desk. The flame licks up the side as the paper curls in on itself and burns. “Are there other copies of the book?” he asks.
Aban closes the massive tome with effort, and I stare over the tops of the shelved books to glance at the volume number. It glints, a single line golden in the dim light. The first of the annals. But that’s impossible. Another copy of the first volume hidden under lock and key? It makes no sense.
“Only this one,” Aban says. “And the one on the shelf, but it was dealt with nearly two hundred years ago. I believe the others were burned.”
Burned? Dealt with? Quietly as I can, I slide the first volume of the annals off the shelf and crouch down, placing the heavy book on top of my red skirts. I flip soundlessly to the image of the Rending, staring at it. What could be different about this volume than Aban’s special copy? What was “dealt with” two hundred years ago?
Then I see it, though I’ve looked at this drawing so many times before. Now that I know something’s wrong, it jumps off the page at me. The Phoenix is a much darker red-brown sketch than the rest of the fading drawing. I look carefully in its filled-in wings. There are rings of red encircling the space below the floating continent. There is some sort of mechanism buried in the Phoenix’s tail, some sort of...of machine.
The Phoenix has been drawn later, to cover something previously drawn. But what exactly, and why?
I slide the heavy book to the floor and peek through the shelves again to watch the men. Aban appears to think for a moment.
“Ashes,” he says. “There was an Initiate many years ago. He had a talent for deciphering the older annals. In the end he wasn’t suitable, and we sent him away. Perhaps he made a copy, or found another, and has deciphered its meaning. But he went to Nartu so long ago. And the retired Elders wouldn’t risk their safety by revealing the truth.”
“Then he’s made his way to Burumu, his message with him,” the lieutenant said. “It must be stopped.”
“I agree, but carefully. If you did your job, Lieutenant, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”
“I could say the same,” he grumbles.
“The Sargon better control the rebellion. It must not advance here.”
“The rebels are disorganized and marginalized anyway,” the lieutenant says. “We can easily stop the people. But ideas spread like wildfire. We need to discredit this information as lies.”
Then a lighter voice rings out, friendly and unburdened. “Kali?”
It’s Elisha, looking for me.