Heir To The Sky
“Have you spoken to the Monarch?” he says. His voice sounds off.
I shake my head. “He’s been so busy with the celebrations. I’m going to tell him as soon as I return tonight.”
“I would advise against it,” he tells me. “The Monarch has so much on his plate. I can assure you whatever the issue is, my father and the Elite Guard in Burumu can handle it.”
His advice annoys me. It’s like a patronizing pat on the head. “That’s the thing,” I say, before I can stop myself. “If this was a serious matter, you’d think the Sargon would’ve spoken up by now. Surely he doesn’t allow rebellion to take over Burumu?”
Jonash presses his lips together, likely to stop whatever words are dying to flow out. “Are you saying you have no confidence in my father, nor in me?” he says.
The question snaps me back into diplomacy. This is my fiancé, and I’m speaking without any tact at all. I don’t really care what he thinks of me, as I quietly seethe at him not taking me seriously. But I love my father, and I’m risking too much fanning flames between our families.
“Not at all,” I say, and I’m sure my face is flashing my irritation. “But something isn’t right about all this, and I won’t stop until I understand what it is. And that begins with informing my own father, who should know all rumors floating about the length of the sky.”
Jonash nods, but his eyes seem dim and distracted. “I see,” he says, but his tone disagrees. I assume he’s embarrassed, that whatever this rebellion is, it’s gone beyond the reach of his father, the Sargon, to deal with it. It’s a losing situation for him—if he doesn’t know of the rebellion, then he’s incompetent, and if he knows but can’t handle it, then he’s equally ill-equipped. Neither bodes well for an heir like him.
But the thought is mean-spirited. I didn’t know about the rebellion, either. Perhaps it’s new information that the lieutenant will share on their return. “I... I’m sure you will be able to address it when you return,” I offer.
“Indeed,” he says, and his eyes still look sunken in his face, but at least the anger has faded from his voice.
The path is dark now, the shining crystal of the citadel far behind us. Elisha reaches into her bag and pulls out a cast-iron lantern, carved all over with the shapes of stars and feathers for the light of the candle to dance through. We stop so she can strike the flint and light it, and she passes the lantern to me as well as the flint, which I slip into my pocket.
“Are we really going to go all the way to the outlands?” she says, and the candlelight flickers across her worried face. “I was only joking about the outcrop, you know. The sun’s set too quickly.” She looks around, and I know she fears the animals in the forests around us. We don’t have many predators on the continent, and they’re no bigger than deer—dwarf bears and wild boars mostly—but they’re protected by law in case we’re ever in desperate need to hunt for meat in years of drought or famine. There have been sightings of small dragons before, lighting up Lake Agur with fiery breaths, but they turned out to be a combination of lizards, fireflies and children’s wild imaginations. Monsters have never flown this high, but Elisha still fears the darkness. I’m sure our discussion of rebellion isn’t helping.
“We can turn back if you want,” I say. “And go tomorrow, in the light.”
“I was hoping to see the fireflies,” Jonash says, crestfallen. “I’ve heard they flash in every color in Ashra.”
“You two go ahead, then,” Elisha says, and I shoot her a warning look in the lantern light. You’re going to send me alone with him?
She arches her eyebrows in protest. He’s the son of the Sargon, she’s thinking. He’s a gentleman. But neither of us knows him, not really. I doubt he’d hurt me or force anything on me, for that would certainly break off the engagement and cause a terrible feud between our families and our continents. No, I’m much more afraid he’ll try to win me over, or that he’ll lean in for a kiss and I’ll lean away and everything will become terribly awkward.
“Let’s all go on, then,” Elisha says after a moment. “But only for a quick look, and we’ll head straight back.”
“Agreed,” I say. “It’s only about ten minutes to the clearing anyway.”
We walk the rest of the forest path in silence, listening to the wind rustling the leaves. I wish I’d brought my cloak. The nighttime air is always freezing in the sky.
The trees pull away then, and the outlands are before us. The tall grasses bend in the wind, rustling with the sound of the cold breeze. Fireflies thread through them like garlands of candlelight, flashing green and yellow and orange. I hold the lantern behind us to let our eyes adjust, and then the pink and purple and blue fireflies lift up, hovering above the grasses in wreaths of color.
Jonash steps forward, watching their colors flash. They go dim in front of him, blacking out along his entire path in their fear. But a moment later they light behind him, surrounding him in distant light.
“Go on,” Elisha whispers, nudging me forward. I wish she’d stop pushing me. But seeing Jonash in the field surrounded by those lights, seeing him appreciate the beauty of Ashra, makes me realize there’s so much about him I don’t know yet. Maybe this is an opportunity. He listened to my concerns about the strange extra tome that Aban and the lieutenant whispered over, even if he was a little patronizing. He didn’t take offense to what I said in the village. Elisha’s right that I do owe him more of a chance.
The grass scrapes against the sides of my ankles and the gaps between my sandal straps. The edges of the blades are sticky with sap and dry from too much sun. Dimmed fireflies accidentally bump into my arms and legs as I walk, and the lantern swings patterns of stars and feathers around the grasses. The fireflies darken in swarms around me, like snuffed-out candles.
“It’s wonderful,” Jonash says as I reach his side. “We only have yellow and orange fireflies in Burumu.”
“Most villagers in Ulan don’t come out as far as the outlands,” I say. “The edge of the continent is uneven here and difficult to see in the fields.” He looks alarmed, so I raise my hands to reassure him, the lantern swinging back and forth. “It’s out that way,” I say. “You can see it easily if you look for the moons hitting the rock.”
He peers over, so I take him closer to the edge to look. To me it’s like a lighting strip, silver and shiny as it loops along the side of the clearing. The two moons in the sky, one a crescent and one waxing full, beam down on the sparkling crystal fragments embedded in the stone of the continent’s edge. It’s like a glittering warning sign curving along the outlands. “See? Easy to spot once you know what to look for,” I tell him.
He crouches down to look at the sparkling stone. “I see it. It’s like a thread of glistening silver.”
I turn away, swinging the lantern at my side. The fireflies scatter from its light. “We should go back soon. Elisha will get spooked if we wait too long.”
“Of course,” he says, straightening up. “Only a little longer, and then I’ll escort you both, I promise.”
I roll my eyes, glad he can’t see my face. I don’t need his escort. I know every stone of Ashra, every curve of rock and packed earth. Nothing can harm me here. Only the wild animals need be avoided.
He follows a flashing blue firefly then, dangerously close to the edge. I wonder why he continues to veer so close now that he knows how to look for the silvery lip of the continent. Perhaps he’s fearless like me. Or perhaps he’s just foolish.
Now it’s as if he’s walking along a thin rope. My heart is fluttering. It wouldn’t do for my fiancé to drop off the side of the world. The Sargon wouldn’t be pleased, and neither would my father. “You’re too close, Jonash.”
He doesn’t answer, but stretches his arms out to the side to help balance. The fireflies shy away in clouds of twinkling light.
I take a step forward. “Jonash,” I try again. “Come away from the edge. The sheer crystal is slippery.” I take another step. “I’m sure it’s different on Burumu, but here...”
I don’t have a chance to finish my sentence. He begins toppling from side to side, and the horror claws at my insides. Before I realize it I’m leaping forward, throwing my arms around his waist to pull him into the tall grasses. He whirls around from the impact, the weight of him unbalancing my own footing.
I feel the scrape of the sharp crystals as they dig into my ankle, as my foot slips over the edge of the continent.
There’s no time to scream or think. My balance is off, and I’m falling backward, away from Jonash’s grim face. The lantern jangles against the cliff as it drops from my hand and tumbles sideways over the edge. Jonash’s hands on are my wrists, pulling them from his sides before we both go over. He falls stomach-down onto the grasses as my other foot slips over the side, shards of rock and dirt scraping the insides of my arms as I cling to the continent.
The cold wind gusts against me as I hang on. My feet swing and flail, but there’s nothing but air around them. The world is dark except for the glowing fireflies and the silver strip of crystal rock.
My wrists are slipping from Jonash’s fingers. I can barely breathe. “I can’t...”
“Kali, hang on,” he says. “Elisha! Help!” His shouts send the fireflies whirling in clouds.
I can hear Elisha yelling something, but my pulse is racing in my ears and I can’t make out a thing.
Jonash’s hands slide up my wrists, and he curls my fingers into the grasses and the thin layer of earth that clings to the bedrock. I grasp at them, but the grasses come up in handfuls. Is he that much of an idiot to think they’ll help keep me from falling? “Pull me up!” I scream at him.
The coolness of his fingers is gone, and the grass slips away. The edge of crystal rock scrapes the skin from the palms of my hands as I fall off the edge of the world.
I can hear screams, but I can’t tell if they’re mine. My body tumbles through the air, spinning over and over until I don’t know anything but cold gusts of black wind. The moons blink their stark white faces in a blur of light that tumbles over itself until I’m completely dizzy. The rainbow lights of the fireflies stretch away like stars until I see nothing but blackness.
I’m going to die. I’m going to hit the earth and the impact will kill me.
I can’t see in the darkness as I tumble round and round. I don’t know when I’ll hit, but it’s coming. I can’t tell if I’ve been falling for minutes or hours. The skirts of my dress are tangled around my legs. The wind whistles in my ears until I can’t hear or feel anything else.
I start to slow then, and the world stops tumbling. Have I died? They say when you die, the Phoenix burns a hole in the world and clasps you gently in her talons to take you away. But there’s no fire here, only cold air and a strange humming noise. And then a pale light spreads around me.
I look at my hand, drenched in a faint kaleidoscope of colors. It’s almost invisible, like when I catch a glimpse of rainbow light dancing on my hand from the ripples of Lake Agur. I’ve slowed so much it’s like floating in honey, the air thick and sluggish around me. I’m still falling, but drifting like a feather, buoyed gently down like I’m sinking into the lake.
And then there’s a strange sucking sound, and the rainbow lights waft from my fingers. I’m falling at full speed again, my back to the earth and my eyes cast upward. I look up at the two moons as they beam, unyieldingly bright in the sea of darkness.
I hear a great crash as if I’m in another world, and I feel a sharp pain everywhere at once. Then there is nothing but blackness and void.