Heir To The Sky
“You’re right,” I say, and she is. I can’t help but wonder if my imagination is running away with me, if the pull for escape and adventure isn’t making a bigger deal out of this than it really is.
“They probably just don’t want to worry you, and it will all smooth over. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Besides, the Elite Guard is based in Burumu. They can deal with problems there. Isn’t that the Sargon’s job? And so what if the drawing in the annals isn’t as old as you thought, or the Elders can read them? What does that have to do with us now?”
I sigh, trying to let go of everything.
Elisha nods as we approach the fountain. It gurgles with cool water filtered down from the lake, and one of the women from the village gathers it up into a mauve clay urn which she rests on her shoulder. She smiles at us, and we smile at her.
“We’re safe now, Kali,” Elisha says. “Monsters can’t reach us this high. Any rebellion will quickly fizzle out when they remember how fortunate we are. We’ve been safe for hundreds of years, and things will continue this way when you’re Monarch, too.” She sidles closer, her voice dropping. “Or is it Jonash that’s on your mind?”
I nudge her away as she giggles. She thinks I’m lucky, and that the whole thing is romantic. She’s bought into the royal distraction like everyone else. “I don’t love him, Elisha.”
She stops giggling and sits on the edge of the fountain, her fingers wrapping around the cool stone. “I’m sorry,” she says. “But you have a whole year to get to know him. Maybe you’ll fall for him.”
I sit beside her, the stone lip of the fountain scratching the pads of my fingers. The trickling water sounds like the gurgle of the waterfall on the edge of Lake Agur, and it fills me with the urge to run there, or to my outcrop on the edge of the continent. “What if I still don’t love him in a year?”
She shrugs. “Then break the engagement.”
I let out a laugh. “My father would kill me.” I dip my fingers into the water and splash her. She winces dramatically as the drops spatter on her cream tunic.
She splashes me back, the water spraying my dress a dark crimson. “He’d come around,” she says. “You’re everything to him.”
She’s right, I know. He would understand if I broke off the engagement. But it would disappoint him so much. I don’t know if I have it in my heart to do that to him. He wants Ashra’s future to be secure. Jonash is a good match, politically, and in almost every other way. And then I remember that the night isn’t our own. “By the way, he’s joining us tonight.”
Elisha’s eyes just about pop out of her skull. “Jonash is?”
I roll my eyes, leaning back against the edge of the fountain and swinging my sandaled feet in the air. “After dinner he wants to meet us here. There’s some sort of party for the lieutenant’s birthday first. Unless, you know, rebellion calls them both away.” One can hope.
“Unlikely. Well, we better get in all the fun we can before our night turns political.” Elisha jumps to her feet. “Come on.”
Elisha is like the sun to me. She’s always shining, always optimistic. She has moments of sadness and hardship when she dims, like everyone else, but it doesn’t bother her that she’s fixed in one spot. She has no desire to leave Ashra, no curiosity about the monster-ridden earth below or the strange past before the Rending. I try to shed my worries now, to enjoy the fun of the Rending celebration.
Ulan is vibrant and bustling with out-of-town guests. Groups of Initiates walk through the crowd in their white robes, carrying sticks of chicken glazed with honey and tiny cakes of puffed flour and dusted sugar. Villagers dance in the square, wearing dresses of red and orange and yellow, the colors of the Phoenix and of our redemption. Elisha runs to the open window of one hut, where a man passes her the sticky-sweet skewers of honeyed chicken. We lick the hot, sweet meat as the honey dribbles onto our fingers. After, we buy two glasses of foamed pygmy goat milk blended with crushed red field berries, and then stuff our mouths with miniature puffed cakes and gluey spirals of bright orange melon paste. We eat and drink until the sugar overwhelms us and our foreheads pulse with headaches, and then Elisha grabs my sticky hands in hers and we dance in the square, spinning around and around as the sun begins to set, as the candles are lit in every window and along the edges of the wall.
Ulan is the only part of the floating continent to have a wall. It begins at the citadel and curves past the fountain and around the edge of the farmlands. It ends abruptly in the tangled forests, where the trees make their own wall of roots and thorns and brambles. At first, our ancestors never bothered to build a wall, since the edge of a floating continent isn’t something to be defended, nor is the village built directly on the brink. The schoolhouse is between the town and the farmlands, and children learn from an early age not to go wandering in the grassy fields that stretch toward the southern edge.
But when I was two, a terrible accident happened. One of the teachers in town was running late that morning. She’d raced to the henhouse to gather the eggs, and one of the chickens had gotten out into the farmlands. She’d just chased it down when she smelled her morning loaf burning in the oven. And so she rushed in to deal with that as well, and the whole time she’d left the door to her cottage open and her toddler son had wandered out into the long grasses to look for her. The villagers are still haunted by his screams, the helpless cries that pierced the morning quiet as he toppled suddenly off the edge of the continent.
His mother never got over the horrible tragedy. No one blamed her, of course, but she drowned in the guilt that my father said only a parent can suffer. Her heart heavy with grief, she jumped off the edge six months later, and so we built the wall to protect others from the same tragic fate.
The wall is mainly stones mortared together with a thick clay paste. I don’t know how well it would stand up to someone who wanted to topple it over, but it’s strong enough to hold against the strength of any child. I was only two at the time myself, so I can’t imagine the symbol of grief the wall is for the older citizens of Ulan. It is hauntingly beautiful with the Rending candles placed along the length of the edge, villagers bending to light them as the sky grows darker. The flames flicker against the stones, casting dancing shadows and light echoed by the fireflies gleaming in the forests to the north. They look like tufts of Phoenix down floating on the wind, carried any way they please, lighting the continent with their orange-and-yellow glow.
I feel claustrophobic suddenly, longing to go back to my outcrop and think about the hidden tome Aban concealed in the cupboard. I can’t face Jonash, or my father, or any of the politics ahead of me. It’s risky to climb the outcrop at night, although I’ve done it before to watch the rainbow of fireflies alighting on the wildflowers. Maybe I can go to the edge of Lake Agur and listen to the waters, close my eyes and pretend I’m sitting on the shore of the ocean.
I close my eyes now, imagining away the crowds of celebration. “Elisha,” I say, “let’s ditch the festival. Let’s go where that Burumu boor can’t find us.”
A deep voice answers, and it isn’t Elisha’s. “And where’s that?”
I open my eyes, and Jonash’s blue eyes study mine, the pale purple dusk shadowing the crinkle of his forced smile.
I’m horrified. The guilt sinks deep in the pit of my stomach, resting uneasily. Elisha stands to the side, her eyes wide and full of shared embarrassment.
“I’m so sorry,” I blurt out. “I didn’t mean anything against you.”
Jonash laughs a little. “I’m certain you didn’t,” he says, but I know he’s only being polite. I can see the confusion in his eyes, the expectation of an explanation. “Do I really come off as boorish?”
My cheeks blaze. “Of course not. I’m only feeling a little claustrophobic,” I try, waving my hand around at the crowds. By now the barley and malt have made their ways through the crowds, and the dancing has become much louder and far less coordinated. “It’s...it’s just been a long day.”
One of the dancers approaches, singing the verse of a ballad too loudly as he merrily shakes his glass at us. Jonash gently rests his hands on the man’s shoulders and turns him so he dances away, back toward the crowd. “I think I understand,” he says. “Shall we all three escape, then?”
Elisha’s eyes twinkle, and I know she thinks it’s Jonash being perfect again. And she’s right, of course. He’s being a gentleman about the whole mortifying situation. He offers his arm, and in front of the crowds, with my embarrassing words in mind, there’s nothing I can do but take it graciously. I link my arm around his and we walk toward the fountain, the blue light of the citadel’s crystal shining like a beacon in the growing dark. “I thought we could go to Lake Agur.”
“Too many mosquitos and flies at dusk,” Elisha says. “Why not the outcrop?”
Jonash raises an eyebrow. “The outcrop? Sounds intriguing.”
I want to shake Elisha. I will, later. The outcrop is my place, one I refuse to share with Jonash. “It’s nowhere important. But the outlands near the lake would be lovely.”
“Anywhere,” he says. “I’ve had enough politics for one night, as well.”
“The lieutenant’s birthday,” I answer, and the scene in the library floods back along with all my doubts.
The lights and songs of Ulan fade behind us as we start down the dirt path toward the citadel. Halfway along we turn down the northeastern path, past the landing pitch where the airship bobs like a puffy cloud in the dim light.
I slip my arm away from Jonash, pretending to smooth my hair back in the cold nighttime wind.
“The lieutenant seemed a bit off today,” I hazard. “Has anything happened?”
“The unrest in Burumu is perhaps on his mind?”
Jonash slows, his head tilted to the side as he thinks. “Not that I’m aware.”
“What is the unrest, exactly?”
He pauses for a moment as we walk in silence. “Just a little grumbling over ration allotment,” he says finally. “Nothing to trouble Your Highness.”
“Kali is fine,” I remind him. “And I’m glad to hear it. Because the strangest thing happened today, and I’m not sure what to make of it.”
I’m hesitant to share with Jonash what’s happened, but maybe he’ll know more about it than me. “The lieutenant and Elder Aban were in the library. They were discussing a rebellion, and the annals.”
“The annals are rather dusty and educational for the lieutenant’s tastes.” Jonash laughs, and Elisha politely laughs with him.
But I don’t like that he’s avoided the word rebellion. My instinct says it isn’t the first he’s heard of it. “The lieutenant had a paper from the rebels,” I tell him, and the laughing stops.
I tell them the rest of the story, about the drawing of the Phoenix covering up part of the original illustration, about the red rings and the machine scribbled out by her tail. I tell them about the secret first volume Aban had under lock and key, and the discussion of an Initiate who may be causing trouble from Nartu. I tell them how the lieutenant wants to discredit the information as lies, which means there’s a dangerous truth embedded in it. Jonash’s face darkens, and then I know I was right to worry, that it hasn’t all been in my head.