Heir To The Sky
My heart seems as loud as the citadel bells. Aban rushes the tome to the cupboard, locking it as the lieutenant looks around nervously. I’m not sure what I’ve stumbled on to, but I know it isn’t wise to let on that I’ve been here the whole time. Even with my rank as the Eternal Flame and heir, I feel the fear flicker inside me. They could erase me, too, if they wanted. It would be easy. I’m just one person, noble or not.
“Kali, are you in here?” Elisha shouts. Her voice echoes in the domed ceiling of the library. I glance down the row of annals, press my hands against the thick concrete wall at the end. There’s no way to leave this corridor without walking past the two men.
Aban slips the string with the key back under the neckline of his robe and clasps his hands. He and the lieutenant step toward the entrance of the library just as Elisha appears in front of them. She knows how much I love books. She knows where to find me.
“Oh,” she gasps, surprised. “Elder Aban. And the lieutenant, isn’t it? From the Elite Guard?”
“Elisha,” Aban says, his voice cool and collected. I can’t see any of them now because I’ve shrunk back against the wall. It’s as if I’m watching a play, like this couldn’t really be happening.
“I’m just looking for Kali,” she says cheerfully.
I hear the swish of his robes as he steps forward. “She isn’t here,” he says, his voice strange and urgent. “She’s in the courtyard, I’m certain.”
“Oh, I doubt it,” Elisha says. Her voice is unburdened and innocent. She has no idea what’s transpiring. “She hates crowds. Don’t you know she’s always in the annals?”
“Elisha, if you’ll just check the courtyar—”
“I’ll only be a moment, Elder.”
No, I think. Elisha, listen to Aban for once. The world beats to my heightened pulse. Nothing seems real, as if life has become a theatrical performace. If only the stage would open up and swallow me into the darkness. What will happen if they find out I’m here?
And then she’s there, staring at me as I look back like a pika caught stealing fireweed. “I told you!” She laughs in a peal of bells. “But what are you doing all scrunched up like that?”
Aban steps around the side of the shelf, his face a mask of horror. He quickly recovers, bowing his head. “Your Highness,” he says.
I rise to my feet. I can’t show them how I’m shaking. I clear my throat and nod my head. “Aban,” I say as calmly as I can manage. “Elisha. Ashes and soot, I must have fallen asleep.” I rub my eyes, blotting out the horrible scene around me. When I look again, the lieutenant is staring back, his mouth slightly open. I can’t read Aban’s expression at all.
Elisha laughs in disbelief. “Well, that’s not like you,” she says. “Falling asleep in the library? With the annals? You love reading the annals!”
Adrenaline pumps through my veins as I stare at her. She’s not helping, not at all.
“The Rending Ceremony,” I try. “It must have taken it right out of me.” I stretch my arms out wide and try to force a yawn. None comes. Do they believe me? Or can they see the worry on my face?
A single bead of sweat drips down the side of the lieutenant’s forehead. “Your Highness,” he says.
I nod and put on my official voice, lifting my chin up. “Lieutenant.” My voice wavers, just a little. He doesn’t know me well enough to notice, but Aban will.
I wonder for a moment if I should just confront them, ask what it was all about. I’m the Monarch’s daughter, after all. Their job is to protect me.
But something in me warns it isn’t a wise move to tell them I know. Something whispers inside me to run, and to run as far as I can. Someone changed the first annal two hundred years ago, if I understood Aban correctly. And the Elders and Elite Guard don’t want us to know what, or why.
“Well, now that I’m awake, Elisha, let’s get to the celebrations in Ulan.”
She smiles and takes my hand, pulling me through the stacks of the library and away from the frowning faces of Aban and the lieutenant.
I’m not sure what I’ve stumbled upon, but I know it’s something big. I know my father will explain it to me if he knows, and if he doesn’t, he’ll protect me. Once he knows what I’ve seen, they won’t be able to do anything to me. And anyway, as the next in line to govern Ashra and her lands, there’s no reason I shouldn’t know what Aban and the lieutenant were talking about. I don’t know why the incident made my heart race; it’s either for the good of the kingdom, or it’s treason, and either way I would be in the right to question it.
But a feeling of doubt casts a shadow darker than the hallways of the citadel, and for the first time in many years, I feel truly frightened.
“HERE,” ELISHA SAYS, pulling a pair of beige sandals out of her bag. “I grabbed these for you.” She giggles, holding the shoes out to me as she keeps pulling me forward.
“Elisha.” I tug gently against her hand, and we stop in the corridor near the stairway. “Wait. I have to talk to my father.”
She frowns, the shoes resting in her hand against her slacks. “What’s wrong?”
I shake my head. “I’m not sure, but I need to talk to him first. It’s Aban and the lieutenant.”
She nods and helps me slip on the sandals before she follows me to the meeting room. Two guards flank either side of the doorway, tall spears in hand. It’s just a formality, of course. The number of humans left in the world is too small to fear each other.
At least, that’s what I’d thought. The sketch of the Phoenix and the talk of rebellion has shaken everything I thought I knew. I wish the lieutenant hadn’t burned the paper. I need to see what was on it.
I rest my fingers on the cold door handle, and one of the guards turns his head. “Are you looking for the Monarch, Princess?”
“I don’t mind if he’s occupied with the Elders,” I say. “It’s an urgent matter.”
“I’m afraid he’s not in there,” the guard answers as I push in the door to the meeting room, empty and still. “He left fifteen minutes ago, I believe for the village square with the Elders. Some meet-and-greet celebrations.”
My chest feels empty, as though I’m out of breath. Everything feels so wrong, and I can’t explain why. What does it mean that there are two first volumes of the annals? What was dealt with two hundred years ago? And what in ashes is the unrest now in Burumu?
“Thank you,” I tell him, my throat dry, and I turn toward the citadel steps.
Elisha wraps her arms around my arm, leading me into the sunlight outside the great doors. We pass the Phoenix statue, a few stragglers from the celebration still wandering the courtyard. They wave at me, no longer enthralled as I’ve become one of them again. I do my best to smile and wave weakly at them.
“Kali? You’re acting so weird,” Elisha says. “What happened back there?”
“I wish I knew,” I say. “Your uncle lives in Burumu, doesn’t he? Have you heard anything about a rebellion?”
Elisha’s eyes widen with surprise and she shouts, “A rebe—” Then she notices my urgent face and drops her voice down to a whisper. “A rebellion?”
I nod. “The lieutenant and Aban were talking about it. They had some kind of paper being passed around with some big secret on it. Aban had a key around his neck, Elisha, and he brought out this duplicate of the first annal that he could read. The first volume!”
“They have been studying it a long time,” she says. “Maybe they’re finally getting somewhere?”
“No, I mean, he could really read it. The ancient language and everything. I heard him.”
She frowns. “Why would the Elders pretend they can’t read it when they can?”
“I don’t know. And earlier, Jonash told my father there was unrest in Burumu.”
“That’s nothing new,” she says. “You know life is harder there. Work is grueling and there’s little space to live. They all want to move to Ashra. Maybe they’re just exaggerating when they say it’s a rebellion.”
But I’m unconvinced. “Aban was really worried,” I say. “He said something was ‘dealt with’ two hundred years ago. The ink in the first volume was different somehow. The Phoenix looked newer than the rest of the drawing. And there were these rings and some kind of a machine buried in the drawing, under the Phoenix.” I know how crazy I must sound. I can see it on Elisha’s face. But she’s my best friend, and I know she’ll take me seriously, even if she thinks it’s nothing.
We reach the end of the courtyard and start along the dirt path to Ulan. It’s not a long way, and we can already see the tops of thatched roofs and wooden shingles. Folk songs played on goat-string harps and carved flutes float up like a cloud from the town.
“Aban is the most loyal person I know,” Elisha says after a moment. “He’d die for the Monarch and for you. He would.”