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A village in the kingdom of Ambar
2nd day of the Month of Moons
Year 20 of King Lohar’s reign
They come for us in the night and shoot my father through the skull.
I expect his head to crack open, to burst like the melon my cousin Pesi shot with the old atashban he found outside our village schoolyard when we were twelve.
“See, Gul?” he panted, pointing out the fruit’s pulpy yellow carcass. “See what I can do?”
My father’s head does not burst open, but it does ooze blood. Red, trickling down his cheek and neck. Into the dark-green collar of his tunic. He falls, his body thudding to the floor.
“Look around for the daughter.” The Sky Warrior who killed my father is a woman, her voice musical, oddly dissonant. Unlike Pesi, who used up so much of his magic to shoot the atashban that he had to rest for a whole day afterward, this Warrior shows no sign of exhaustion. Her atashban, a weapon that looks like little more than a golden crossbow with an arrow permanently nocked into place, glows from recent use. It rests casually against the silver armor on one shoulder. Crouched next to the railing that rings the first-floor balcony, I see the tip of the arrow and the top of the woman’s silver helmet, the shimmer of sky-blue cloth winding it like a turban. “She must be here somewhere,” she says.
“Yes, Major,” a man responds, his voice so quiet I wouldn’t have heard it if I hadn’t been listening closely.
Ears of a shadowlynx, that Gul, Papa used to say with a laugh. My daughter can catch any sound, anywhere and at any time.
Kind words for a child whose magic emerges only on rare occasions, a child with nothing to her name except the single star-shaped birthmark on my right arm, a finger’s length above the elbow. Twenty years ago, when Lohar, the current king of Ambar, first ascended the throne, his priests prophesied that a magus girl would vanquish him at some point during his reign:
The sky will fall, a star will rise
Ambar changed by the king’s demise
Her magic untouched and unknown by all
Marked with a star, she’ll bring his downfall.
When I was born, Papa said, my magic surrounded me in a glow of orange light, my skin singeing anyone who tried to touch me. “It wasn’t normal,” Ma admitted. “There is some magic that cloaks a baby when it is born, but your magic was unusually powerful. And then there was that mark on your arm.”
But my magic faded within a few hours, to a point that it became nearly nonexistent. Unlike other magi children, who grow into their powers, wielding them with ease by the time they’re nine, over the past thirteen years, I have performed magic only unintentionally—during moments of anger or terror—and even then, not always. Among magi, children like me are considered a curse and are usually sent away to the tenements to live with non-magi. While I’m grateful that my parents didn’t send me away, I have never understood why my father believed I was the girl from the prophecy.
Because of this prophecy, hundreds of magi girls with star-shaped birthmarks have been taken or killed over the years. A few families try to hide their girls in the tenements by passing them off as non-magi, but that ruse never lasts long. Now even non-magi girls with birthmarks aren’t spared, the slightest suspicion of “magical abilities” instantly making them targets.
Because of my birthmark, my parents and I have moved from town to town, village to village, ever since the day I was born. Because of my birthmark, my father, who said I was worth a dozen children, is now dead.
My body has frozen. My scream ties itself in a knot, buries itself somewhere between my throat and my tongue. I know my next move is to find Ma and run, to leave the house the way Papa instructed me to years ago, but I am glued to the scene, eyes burning, turning the tall Sky Warrior into a blur of blue and silver.
“Come.” A sharp, familiar voice pricks the inside of my ear. Ma.
My mother herds me up the stairs to the roof terrace my father was going to renovate and plant a garden of roses in. “A garden? Here in Dukal?” Zamindar Moolchand, the richest landowner in the village, laughed when Papa told him about it. “See if your plants survive the desert wind first.”
Today, there is nothing except for a raised bed made of wood and, next to it, a gunnysack of dirt.
My mother makes me lie in the raised bed; I’m small enough to just fit in. “Stay still.”
“Ma, what are you—”
“Do you trust me?” My mother’s pale-gold eyes stand out against brown skin warmed deep by the Ambar sun. She is what Papa said I would have grown up to look like if I hadn’t inherited his bone structure. In the moonlight, she looks delicate, as ethereal as a winged peri in a painting. The fingers that grip my wrists, however, feel like stone.
“I trust you with my life.” I give her the oath daughters have given to their mothers from generation to generation, before the Great War divided the four kingdoms of Svapnalok—Ambar, Prithvi, Jwala, and Samudra.
“Lie down, little one.” Ma rips open the gunnysack with brutal efficiency. Her voice, however, is soft. In the sky overhead, two moons shine full and bright, one yellow and one blue. A beautiful night, Papa said earlier this evening. Perfect for the moon festival. For lovers to unite. For spirits to leave their graves and meet the sky goddess in her cloudy home.
“Am I”—my voice catches—“am I going to meet the goddess tonight, Ma?”
“No, daughter.” Ma’s hard hands push down my head, rub earth over my face. “You are destined to live long and burn bright. To end all this. You will not let our sacrifice go in vain. Now close your eyes.”
In the years to come, I will wish I had listened to her this one final time. But I don’t—and so I see everything that happens next.
My mother’s hands glow green with magic, scouring the soil from her hands and her dress. A shadow covers the doorway to the terrace.
“Where is she?” the woman with the musical voice asks.
“Gone.” Ma’s voice brings goose bumps to my skin, even though the night is warm. “You’ll never find her.”
“Don’t play with me, foolish farmer!” The arrow tip of the atashban glows red with magic against the Sky Warrior’s shoulder. “Where is she?”
“I am not playing.” My mother holds up the sickle that normally hangs on the wall at the back of our house, used to harvest wheat and safflower during the Month of Flowers. Tonight, though, the crescent blade glows faintly pink at the edges when Ma dives in, slicing into the tunic sleeve of the Sky Warrior, who dodges the blow.
“A farmer with the spirit of a fighter.” The Sky Warrior sounds mildly intrigued. “A shame that we must meet like this today. A shame your death magic isn’t as strong as mine.”
Shadows struggle above me. Something clatters to the floor. Then, a scream that could have been a laugh of triumph. The air clouds with the rust-metal smell of blood. My mother drops to the floor between me and the dark shadow of the Sky Warrior, a thin red line curving her neck. The Sky Warrior wipes the bloody dagger with the edge of her long blue tunic. She looks around, kicks at the gunnysack, still half-filled with dirt.
“Are you in there, little witch? Or have you suffocated and made my life easy?”
I bite back a shout when the hammered heel of a boot presses over my palm. Tears bleed out, along with urine: a hot trail inside my woolen leggings. My mouth fills with the taste of brass. The Sky Warrior peers into the ground. She is staring right at me, the lower half of her face covered by the same sort of cloth that winds around her helmet. Her eyes narrow for a brief moment, but she does nothing. For some reason, she does not appear to see me.
A clatter of boots up the stairs. “Major Shayla, we searched the whole house,” a woman says. Her face is similarly masked. “No sign of the girl.”
The Sky Warrior straightens. “Send Emil ahead of us to look, Alizeh. The little witch couldn’t have gone too far.”
Her boot rises off my hand. She follows the woman back into the house without another glance at the damp patch of earth she just stood on, or the layer of girl underneath.
* * *
When someone dies, even a loved one, grief takes a back seat. Terror reigns in me, instead, for a good hour, the ebony star on my arm aching like a wound.
Ma tried so hard to get rid of my birthmark, even going so far as to try to burn it off my skin when I was five. It was the first time my magic resurfaced: when my fear made the fire ricochet off my skin and race up the long sleeve of Ma’s favorite blue tunic. Knives did not seem to do the trick, either, my fear once more shielding me, hardening my skin to the consistency of metal. Armor.
“A protection spell,” Ma muttered back then, almost as if it was as big a curse as the birthmark. My mother said the spell was a sign of the magic lying dormant within me, except that I had no control over it, no way of summoning any of its power or harnessing it at will. By the time I turned nine, my parents withdrew me from school because it got too difficult to explain why, out of an entire classroom of reasonably competent magi children, my performance remained the worst.
“Perhaps you should take her to the tenements outside the village,” the schoolmaster suggested quietly. “Non-magi children don’t have to go to school; they don’t have to worry about any of these things.”
“You mean non-magi aren’t allowed in schools with magi anymore,” Papa responded in a cold voice.
“Savak,” Ma told Papa. “Now is not the time—”
“Where is your honor, schoolmaster?” Papa demanded, ignoring Ma’s terrified face. “Why do you still keep this in your school?”
He pointed to a scroll that spelled out the Code of Asha hanging on a nearby wall. A system developed by the first queen of Ambar, the code declared that every human, regardless of gender, or magical heritage, must be treated with honor and respect. Originating first in Ambar, the code spread across Svapnalok before the Great War. It had been our kingdom’s greatest contribution to the united empire.
“You go too far, Savak ji!” the schoolmaster exclaimed. “How dare you question my honor!”
Ma finally put an end to what might have been a major shouting match between the two men by fervently apologizing to the schoolmaster and pulling my father out of the classroom.
Later that evening, when she found me crying at home, Ma gave me a warm hug. “Don’t be sad, my child. Look at the positive side. This way, you get a reprieve from five more tedious years of school.”
“You don’t mean that,” I said in a thick voice. “You were disappointed. Don’t lie to me, Ma.”
Ma sighed, not confirming nor denying the statement. “The sky goddess works in mysterious ways. Perhaps she has a reason for keeping your magic hidden.”
“Can we pray to Prophet Zaal or Sant Javer instead? How about the earth god from Prithvi or the fire goddess from Jwala? Maybe the sea god from Samudra—”
“Shhhhhh, my girl. We are from Ambar, a land named after the sky itself. Our souls are linked to the goddess who lives up there, the goddess who gave birth to Asha, our first queen. We do not share the same sort of affinity to the gods and the goddess from the other kingdoms, or to human prophets.”
“That’s not true!” I protest. “Several children at my school pray to the fire goddess. And nearly as many follow the teachings of Prophet Zaal!” The Zaalians, as I knew, didn’t believe in the gods at all, but in the raw power of magic alone. I didn’t really understand how praying to a prophet would help me, but I was willing to give anything a shot.
“Yes, people do pray to other gods and prophets, but you are different, my daughter,” Ma told me, her eyes bright, more intense than I’d seen them before. “Ten years ago, I prayed to the sky goddess for a child, and she answered my prayers by giving me you. Your connection to her will always be stronger than to any other deity.”
Yet, in the months that followed, the sky goddess never spoke to me, never responded to my prayers or pleas to strengthen my magic. By the time I turned ten, I stopped praying to her altogether.
Where are you, Sky Goddess? I think now, looking heavenward. Anger tempers my grief for a brief moment. Why didn’t you protect my parents?
As expected, there is no answer.
Something crawls over my right arm, bites the tender flesh. A bloodworm. Long-bodied, many-legged. The insect, found all across Ambar, isn’t poisonous. But it will feast on my blood until its body turns scarlet, leaving behind a jagged scar on my skin. I have many such scars on my feet and calves from my childhood—from playing barefoot in the sand with my cousin Pesi, before he accidentally saw my birthmark and told his mother about it.
“I didn’t push up my sleeves,” I cried out to my parents. “I promise!” It was the one promise I never broke, ever since I saw what happened to the only other girl in Sur village who had been cursed with a birthmark like mine. The sound of her screams as the local thanedars dragged her off to prison still rings in my ears at night. No one knows what happened to that girl, and even if they do, no one ever speaks of it.
“I will make sure it never happens to you, Gul,” Ma vowed.
We had already moved four times in the twelve years since I was born, but once my aunt and uncle found out, my parents didn’t want to take any chances. We packed our belongings and slipped out once more into a starlit night, journeying farther and farther west, until we reached a hamlet at the edge of the desert. Dukal. The smallest and sleepiest of Ambar’s villages, where the only newsworthy thing that ever happened was someone breaking wind in the marketplace. Two years have passed since then. A long stretch of boredom punctuated with terror.
My mother’s last three fingers are curled inward, the index finger pointing up, as if clutching an invisible weapon. Stiffness has begun to set in, the way it does when a body dies, the magic seeping from the skin and into the air, leeching it of vitality.
I wonder who tipped off the Sky Warriors about our newest location. Any one in the village might have been tempted by the reward King Lohar offers. A hundred swarnas is a lot of gold—enough to feed a family of four for a year. No one would have felt guilty about sending the Sky Warriors our way: a strange man, woman, and girl who kept apart from the rest of the villagers, rarely ever mingling with them.
Why did they report us now, though? I wonder. What tipped them off?
I guess I’ll never know.
I rise slowly to my feet, dirt falling off me in clumps, and stagger to my mother’s body. My gaze is drawn to her neck—bare of the necklace that Papa had given her only this morning. It lies next to her body now, broken, its silver beads scattered on the ground.
I pick up three of the beads with the foggiest idea of stringing them back together. Maybe this is a dream. Maybe if I string the beads together, I’ll be able to bring Ma back, I think before nausea sets in.
When my vision clears again, the air around me reeks of vomit. The bloodworm has left behind a red moon-shaped ridge on my arm.
I wonder if it’s meant to mock my cursed star.
Text copyright © 2020 Tanaz Bhathena