Shatter the Sky
Breathe. My lungs burned as I pushed myself to go faster up the mountain trail, keeping my eyes fixed on the girl who ran just a few steps ahead of me. Twigs snapped beneath my feet, and my bag thumped against my back with every stride. The scent of pine hung in the air around us, and the muscles in my legs strained as the path steepened. Kaia pulled farther ahead, and I could imagine her laughing at me. She had always been the faster one. Breathe. I lifted my gaze just enough to see the crest of the hill, the promise of sky ahead—but instead of following Kaia up and over, I darted off to the left. Navigating through the underbrush, I coasted downhill toward the narrow beach and the water that lay beyond.
The lake of Ilvera was a crystalline blue body nestled into a dip in the side of the mountain that most downmountainers didn’t even know existed. As usual, the beach was empty. Most Verrans avoided this place, hating to see the ruins that loomed on the other side of the lake—a cruel reminder of all that had been lost when the tyrant conquered Ilvera. But Kaia and I never minded the solitude.
Giddy triumph caught in my chest as I reached the sand, my steps slowing. I dropped my bag and flopped down on the
ground, breathing deeply. The race had seemed like a good idea at the time—something to take our minds off what was coming tonight. But I had dressed for the morning’s misty weather, not this unseasonably warm afternoon. I wiped away the sweat beading on my forehead and shaded my eyes as Kaia stumbled to a stop next to me. She bent over, hands on her knees. “No fair! You cheated!”
“So you missed the turn,” I said. “That’s not my fault.”
“You’re impossible,” she said.
“And what are you going to do about it?” I sat up, shrugging off my jacket.
She paused, considering. “Not a thing, Maren,” she said finally, letting her bag fall off her shoulders. She arched an eyebrow. “Not a single thing.”
Two boots hit the ground. A tunic and undershirt followed, and after that her trousers, and then she was laughing at me from the lake. I stripped off my clothes and splashed in after her, the frigid water raising gooseflesh on my arms and shocking the air from my lungs. I dove under and surfaced next to Kaia, gasping and laughing at the same time. The sky was clear and the sun bright, and in this instant I felt painfully small and larger than the entire mountain all at once.
Kaia’s skin was a deeper brown than mine, though I tanned over the summer months—a trait I’d inherited from my Zefedi father, along with black hair so straight even the wind couldn’t curl it. Her hair, on the other hand, was proper Verran: a tumbling mass of rich brown curls when dry. At present it was an unruly mess, streaming water down her back.
I reached out and tugged a curl playfully. Kaia pulled me
close, framing my face with her hands. “I missed you,” she said.
“We were in the kitchens all day, we barely saw each other!”
I laughed, but I couldn’t help kissing her. There were a lot of things I couldn’t help when it came to Kaia. For a moment we treaded water, close enough to trade breaths in between kisses. Finally I forced myself to move away, slow, like thickened honey.
“I’ll miss this next year,” she said dreamily.
Next year. I didn’t want to think of that, not now. So instead I ducked my head below the water and came up splashing. Kaia mock scowled and returned fire, which led to a brief battle that ended only when I was out of breath, my hands raised in capitulation.
“You surrender?” Her eyes were narrowed in suspicion, hands at the ready.
“I do, I do!”
“Then as the victor, I demand tribute.” She tossed her hair back. “A kiss.”
Her cheeks were flushed from exertion, her eyes bright and challenging. One thick curl snaked its way over her bare shoulder and dipped below the surface, and I couldn’t help my gaze lingering on where her skin met water. Kaia. She looked like a goddess, a legend, one of the dragon mistresses of old. It was times like these that I felt so keenly what everyone else in our village knew to be true: She was meant for greater things.
And for some reason, she had chosen me.
I smiled and swam to her, put my arms around her so one hand rested on the small of her back, so I could feel my heart beating against hers, and kissed her.
Not too long afterward we emerged from the lake and flung ourselves onto the sand. We lay side by side as the sun dried us, our faces turned up to the sky. I should have felt peaceful. The lake was our place—it had been this way since we were children. Instead, the dread that had woken me this morning reared its craggy head.
Ilvera had bustled with activity for close to a week in preparation for the Aurati seers’ pilgrimage. Most people from our neighboring villages had arrived days ago, and all hands had been put to work. But now there were no more ducks to be dressed, no more buns to be stuffed. Our ceremonial attire was laid out, and the long tables in the dragon hall had been arranged in lines spanning the length of the floor, the Zefedi way. There was nothing left to do but wait.
Most Aurati were Zefedi women who acted as the emperor’s watchful eyes, masquerading as administrators woven into the fabric of the empire. But the seers were different creatures, rarely seen outside the pilgrimage. Every seven years they descended from the north and toured the five kingdoms of the empire, doling out prophecies and counting up the emperor’s subjects. It was said to be a service, a sign of benevolence from the emperor of Zefed, the Flame of the West.
We in the dragon mountains knew better. Prophecies might help us weather hard winters, but the Aurati’s services were just the tyrant’s way of keeping control over his kingdoms while he cast his eye across the waters toward his next conquest.
“You’re quiet,” Kaia said, interrupting my thoughts.
I let out a sigh. “I’m . . . worried. About tonight.”
“What’s there to be worried about? You were there last time.
We sit. Eat. Stand for a few minutes in front of some old Zefedi crone.”
“They’re not just some old Zefedi crones. They’re Aurati seers. What if they decide to—”
“How can you know that? Mother said it happened once to a girl she knew. Even your own mothers have told stories about when their cousin was taken.”
Kaia shook her head. “That was a long time ago.”
“But it did happen,” I said. “What’s to stop it from happening again?”
Kaia pushed herself up onto one elbow, her hair falling over her shoulder. “It won’t,” she said firmly. “I won’t let them. I swear. No one is getting taken by the seers tonight.”
She couldn’t know that. “But—”
“No more buts. Don’t you trust me?”
I did, but even Kaia—fierce, lionhearted Kaia—could not promise that. Still, there was some measure of comfort to be found in her surety. I nodded.
Her face relaxed, and she smiled. “Now, enough about the seers. Come here.”
It was an order I was happy to obey.
Sometime later, I was close to sleep as Kaia charted exploratory routes across my breasts and palmed my stomach, just below the indentation of my belly. The scents of damp sand and lake water were heavy in the air as I closed my eyes, awash in sensation.
“Here, that’s the mountain range of Anekta,” she murmured as her fingers brushed my hip bone. “We’ll cross that and be free
and clear until the winter sets in, then we’ll turn south to the ocean.” Her hand wandered lower, drawing a sigh from my lips.
“Do we have to go?” The words slipped out without thought. If I were fully awake, I would never have allowed myself to say them.
Kaia stilled. “What do you mean, do we have to go?”
“I mean . . .” The question was out—I couldn’t take it back now. “Why must you always talk of leaving the mountain? What’s so bad about Ilvera?”
She sighed, exasperated, one hand still flat against my skin. “We’ve been over this. I’ve always wanted to leave. You know that.”
I looked past her, toward the ruins that stood on the opposite shore. Of course I knew—I’d even agreed to go with her next year. And yet . . . “Would you stay?” I whispered. “If I asked you, would you stay?”
“Oh, Maren,” she said, and I couldn’t bear the tone in her voice. “Don’t ask me that. Please.”
I tried to keep my expression neutral, even though my stomach suddenly felt queasy. I shouldn’t have asked, not when I’d always suspected this answer. There was nothing I could say that would change her mind. If I did not bend, I would lose her.
I swallowed past the lump in my throat. “What about after? Adventuring will grow tiresome eventually. We can come back when . . . when we’re ready to settle down.”
“Maren, haven’t you been paying attention? Why do you think the emperor never installed an Aurat here, when they’re falling over each other in other cities? He doesn’t care what happens in Ilvera, because soon enough there won’t be an Ilvera.”
My heart stumbled. Had this been true my whole life? Had I been the only fool who hadn’t noticed? My mind raced, tallying up the things I’d thought inconsequential. More homegrown foods, lesser-quality cloth, fewer visitors over the years. Young Verrans like my brother Tovin going downmountain. I’d known times were difficult, but bad enough to end us? If that was the case . . .
“Don’t you care?” I asked.
Her eyes shone. “I do care,” she said. “But I can’t change the tide. The best I can do is swim above it. With you.”
That had always been her plan. But how could we turn our backs on the mountain, the lake, our families?
Kaia nudged my shoulder. “Please don’t be angry with me.”
I pressed my lips together and closed my eyes, ignoring her. I wasn’t angry. I was terrified.
“Maren, look at me.”
I opened my eyes reluctantly and turned my head to meet her gaze. She placed one warm palm against my chest, right below my collarbone.
“I promise everything is going to be fine. Better than fine.” She moved closer, and I turned onto my side so that we faced each other, noses almost touching. “Shall I tell you about all the things we’ll do when we leave the mountain? All the adventures we’ll have in Zefed?” There was a world of enchantment tied up in that word—Zefed—as if the lake and our village and the mountain itself weren’t a part of the empire of Zefed to begin with.
She settled her head against the sand and matched her fingertips to mine without waiting for an answer. “It will be spring,” she said quietly, “just about this time of year, maybe a
little earlier, and I know you’ll want to throw the whole village into your pack, but I won’t let you. We’ll go down the mountain and spend a night at the inn, and then we’ll go on to Deletev. From there we’ll travel to Gedarin and see the ocean and then go north until we find the ice bears and finally we’ll meet the Flame of the West himself and prove ourselves worthy of becoming Talons, and he’ll give us dragons of our own—”
I sighed. “He’ll give you a dragon, maybe. You’ll probably save his heir’s life or something, and he’ll be thrilled to admit you to the dragon guard. But he wouldn’t give a dragon to someone like me.”
“No interrupting! Besides, he would,” Kaia insisted. “If there’s any saving of heirs to be done, we’ll do it together.”
“Even so,” I said. “You’ll dazzle the entire capital while I applaud from the shadows. Then he’ll give you a grand title—Chief Explorer, maybe—and you’ll be off across the empire, and every once in a very long while you might write a note—Wish you were here—and send it back to me. And I’ll be hiding at the palace, faithfully awaiting your return. I could never do what you do, anyway.”
Kaia reached out and squeezed my hand. “You don’t really think that.” The longer I was under her gaze, the more I believed she saw straight through the words I’d said only half in jest. The look she gave me was challenging, daring me to reject her declaration of my worth.
“No,” I said, locking away the part of me that had let those words out in the first place. “Of course not.”
“Good,” she said. “Because you’ll be brilliant too. You just don’t know it yet.”
I refrained from stating just how much I didn’t know anything of the sort, because it didn’t matter. Just as this talk of dragons didn’t really matter, for everyone knew the emperor of Zefed would never grant a dragon to a girl from Ilvera. As long as Kaia and I were together, we would be happy. It didn’t matter that she would leave without me if she had to, because I knew I could never leave her. We were going to be together. Even if it cost me the mountain and everything I’d ever known.
Kaia turned so that her back was to me and pulled my arm over her waist. I nuzzled my face against her neck, inhaling the distinct salt-sweet honeyed scent of her skin. Under the summer sun, we fell asleep.
The sky was purpling when I woke. We were clearly late. I shook Kaia awake, and we brushed sand off our bodies as best we could before scrambling into our trousers and shirts. We shoved our feet into our boots and trotted briskly up the beach and down the trail that my grandmother had said was once a wide road of polished white stone.
“Do you think they’ve arrived?” I said.
“Not yet,” Kaia replied, ducking around a tangle of thistleweed. “We would have heard the horns for sure, and—”
A deep, somber note sounded in the distance, reverberating through my chest. Kaia and I looked at each other, the alarm in her eyes mirroring the fear that quickened my pulse. The Aurati seers were here.