Nobody taught me how to believe in something, but I am good at it. I have learned this about myself in dreams the past few nights, as a collection of ten voices request my help. Sometimes they take me to the hill, and other times they simply wrap me in their collective energy. They’ve taught me to believe in the sacred nothings of my little life, the peaceful moments that remind me I am still alive. The Cerani want me to believe in their ten chiefs of the stars—my dream guides—and I do. I dream about the Decuriate whenever my eyes are closed. I ache to meet the ten beyond the stars.
As much as I yearn to comprehend my true place among the Cerani, and how that concerns the Decuriate, I believe in my own freedom above all else. Belief is my greatest liberator. If I had not believed in the image of Aron in my dreams, I would have died in Q with a needle in my arm. That most of all is the reason I choose to believe.
My doubts are fraught with irrational thoughts. I am too easily trapped in my head, and sometimes my belief turns into paranoia or yearning. I believe that when we are not speaking, Aron stares at me. I believe if I am careful and let my head heal properly, my eyesight will recover. I believe Riva has second thoughts about my divine purpose. That is partially my fault for not speaking of my dreams, but I do not know how to share a vision so intimate.
Riva speaks to me only through Emira or Hali, and never about anything of consequence. Sometimes they deliver me a prophetic phrase, a single word, or a name, as if they will mean something to me. I am afraid Riva thinks I am just a girl from Arcis who was struck by accident, and went blind instead of becoming their god.
Do you have to believe you are something to become it? Maybe they mistook me for their diviner. That would be humiliating, but if someone would be kind and walk me back to Q, I would return to my cell, where nobody expects me to be anyone at all. A part of me longs for it, but there is nothing in Q to have faith in. At least in the wilds, I can believe.
From the moment we wake until our eyes close at night, everything we do is methodical. We wear long-sleeve cloaks with hoods to combat the sun, drink our weight in water to fight dehydration, sleep on stone slabs at night to absorb the cooling calm, cover ourselves with blankets to fight the nightly chills, sleep to make the night pass faster, and stay awake as late as possible to stave off the dreams. Traveling is a grueling task. My skin is burnt, my body hurts, and I have not had a restful night’s sleep the entire journey. Sleep does not equate rest, at least not while you are on the road. And the strange thing is: I do not feel so broken anymore. I am incredibly tired, but even my injuries are a change for the better. Change is the antidote for darkness. Light is a lie, but change is inevitable. It is constant; I can count on it happening. Knowing the darkness will not last? That is a type of happiness. Even solitude has been left behind, except in my dreams. Aron no longer appears in them. Whether by virtue of his proximity or his own will, he keeps to his own. On our sixth night on the road, I fall asleep a few feet from him.
I stand somewhere outdoors, where buildings or trees do not bend the wind. The tallest hill? No, there is far too much wind. The pebbles in the soil are jagged and bigger than any on our journey so far; my bare feet ache for walking on the toothed ground. Aside from the whistling breeze, my surroundings are virtually silent.
Distantly, footsteps approach, determined but not desperate. They are calm, despite their speed, and light, as if the person walking is not a corporeal body but a hovering spirit who deigns to touch the ground for their own amusement. The footsteps draw near. She carries a powerful vital signature with a prickling fierceness that threatens to break against any rambling cloud. But as much as it is fierce, the energy reassures me—holds me. Surrounds me in recognition and the promise of protection.
It is her. I cannot see her, but I know it is her.
Familial warmth wraps around me. I have not thought of her in a while, but she leaps into my head. She simply... breathes. Despite all the frightening noises I encounter daily, the sound of her breathing is most disturbing. Each breath roars in the black like the flicker of a raging flame.
“Tu dator lucis,” she says, hundreds of feet above me, now. Untied to the soil or the conventions of weight, she may fly where she wishes. I yearn to follow her, but I cannot. Fingers curl around my wrist and tug me. My feet leave the ground and I float upwards like smoke, towards my mother’s voice. With her, I can fly.
“Undecimus astro estis,” she says. “Noli timere, filia mea.” The air is electric. She releases my wrist and I hang in the air, anchored there by a bubble in my chest.
“Are you there?” I ask. She presses her hand to my heart in reassurance.
“Oportet demonstrant uri.” When she pulls her hand away, electricity arcs between us. Pain shoots through my chest like it did with the shattered star. A hand touches my shoulder and I drop out of the sky—
“ZAFRE!” Aron bellows and I jolt upwards, gasping.
“What is it?” I ask, gripping his arm. I swing my legs to the side, ready to stand, but then I hear her: a woman nearby, sniffling, while other voices speak softly to calm her. “What happened?” I ask. I cannot tell who is crying and a lump rises in my throat.
“Pera tried to wake you,” Aron says, removing my hand from his arm and grasping it. He sits beside me. “You were writhing, and she was worried about your wounds. You grabbed her hand and... you sparked her.”
“No, you electrocuted her!” Neci screams above Pera’s sobs. She spits in my direction. “Maybe in Arcis you hurt people for no reason, but we do not use our gifts on each other!”
“What is she talking about?” I ask Aron. He squeezes my hand.
“Remember what you saw Vesper do to that officer?” Riva asks from behind me. It is the first time she is spoken to me in days. I do not understand; I did that to Pera? How could I have done what Vesper did? I do not have the faintest idea how she did all that. Nobody conjures lightning out of nothing. And why would I use it on Pera, even if I did?
“I would never, Riva—”
“She is right, Zafre,” Aron says. “You did not spark the way Vesper was capable of doing, but I saw a bolt from your hand myself.”
I do not understand. My hands are not hot; in fact, there is nothing to indicate I had interacted with a spark at all. They’re numb, even. And yet, they all saw me do it, while I slept. Some people just talk in their sleep. Why must my dreams be more than strange fantasies?
“Oh, Pera, I am sorry!” I say, edging myself off my cot. Aron holds me back.
“Leave her be,” he whispers. “You scared her more than anything.”
“I have to make sure she is all right,” I reply. I pull my hand from his.
“No. Fawning over her will tell her you think her weak. Even though she is showing weakness now, you must not acknowledge it. She will take it as an insult.”
“I do not think she is weak! I have been struck by lightning; I know how she feels—”
“No, you do not. Leave it alone,” he insists.
“I want to help to her!”
“No!” Aron wraps his arms around my waist and pulls me away from the commotion until Pera’s whimpers are as soft as the crackling remains of the fire. He sets me down on the ground and I wrench myself from him.
“I should be over there,” I mutter, crossing my arms.
“You really do not understand the way we operate,” Aron says with a sigh. “Now, what were you dreaming about? Another climbing dream?”
“My mother,” I reply. My ribs ache with my arms crossed, but I am still angry with Aron for picking me up, so I keep my arms folded.
“What happened with your mother?” he asks.
“She told me something in your language.” I give in to my aches and let my arms drop. I long to lie down.
“What did she say?”
I think back on her words. “Tu dator lucis. Un...decimus astro esis—wait, estis.”
“You, the light giver,” he translates. “Something about the eleventh star. You are the eleventh star, maybe? What else?”
“Noli timere, filia mea.” Now, the words come easier than they came into my head, as freely as she spoke them.
“Fear not, my daughter.”
My breath catches. “Oh,” I whisper. I have not been called daughter in five years. Hearing the endearment jars me, even more than the knowledge she is dead. “She was there,” I breathe. “I mean, I felt her with me. I have spent my whole life wondering who she was, and still I knew her, even though the only thing I had to go on was the way she bore me into this world.”
“Tell me?” Aron asks, tugging at my elbow as he sits beside me.
I reach for his shoulder and join him in sitting on a flat rock. “She was running away from Arcis on the day I was born,” I say, folding my hands in my lap. All they want to do is shake. “She only made it to the gate.”
“Arcis has a gate?” Aron asks.
“Yes, the whole city is walled,” I explain. “There is only one way in and out. And that is where I was born: in the doorway.”
“That is where she went into labor. She delivered me as the sun came up, face to the wilds.” I close my eyes. It does not much help for remembering the story of my birth, but it does force back a strong wave of tears.
“You talk about it like you saw it happen,” Aron says.
“That was all my father told me about her.”
“So, you did not know her, then?”
“My mother was struck by a lightning bolt as I took my first breath,” I say. A tear escapes. “She might have survived giving birth if it were not for that. I have been struck twice, and yet here I am. And the thing is: I survived without her, but there has always been this one place in my heart that cannot be illuminated. A shadow in me. When I was in Q, I forced it out of my mind, but if she is going to start appearing in my dreams, I cannot ignore it anymore. I wish to know her. I wish she had been there to hold me when Father did not know how to comfort me. I wish she had been there when they took me. She would have fought for me.” I stand and turn away from him, wiping my cheeks. Aron’s feet shuffle in the dirt and I expect him to come to me, but someone else’s footsteps approach.
“What was her name?” Riva. She speaks gently, almost tearfully.
I turn to her. Mother’s name has been buried in the back of my mind, but I know it as well as my own. “Lia,” I say. Riva does not reply, but stiff arms encircle me. “I am all right,” I tell her. She lets go of me, but her rough hands cup my cheeks.
“Your mother was Antista Lia,” Riva says, “Daughter of Vesper, who you saw with your own two eyes. She was one of our sisters. You are our sister, Zafirah. Antista Zafirah.” Riva lets go of my cheeks and I step back from her in shock.
“I am?” I breathe. My mother was Cerani? Why did my father not tell me? It explains so much about me: my eyes, my dreams, my predisposition to getting struck by lightning, even the way I have assimilated into this group of Cerani.
“What does ‘Antista’ mean?” I ask.
“The mentor for all Cerani who call the lightning. So should your mother have been, like her mother before her,” Riva says. “Now that Antista Vesper has passed the honor to her own blood, you are the Antista.”
“Wait,” I stop her, rubbing my temples. “I am the... Antista, I am the one, true Eye, I am Cerani, I have sight, I can—what did you say? Call the lightning? If there is anything else I am, please, let me know!”
“You are overwhelmed,” Riva says, grasping my elbow. “Sit with me. I will council you in whatever way you choose.”
“All right,” I sigh, winding my arm through hers. She pulls on my arm to walk away, but a breeze picks up and I shiver. “Wait a minute. Aron?”
“Yes, Antista?” He asks respectfully, but I bristle.
“Do you know where I have left my cloak?” I ask.
“Yes. I will bring it to you,” he says. His tone is... subservient. I do not like it.
Riva leads me to the fire, where the rest of the Cerani women meet us. One by one, they all embrace me, take my hands, and pull me towards the heat of the fire. When I am seated, they all crowd around my feet.
“Oh, Antista, thank you for sharing your gift with me,” Pera says, laying her head on my knee. “You did not hurt me; I was merely frightened. Oh, thank you, Antista!”
“Share your gift with me!” Several other voices cry together.
“Enough!” Riva barks. “The Antista wishes to speak with me alone. You may all seek council with her tomorrow, after she rests.”
The women grumble and groan, but they obey and leave us. I may be the Antista, but Riva is the clear leader of the group. Does she have this hold on the rest of the tribe? In a few words, I went from being their burden to their icon. Riva told me when we met that I was the girl they sought, but she sure has not acted like it since the ritual.
“Your cloak, Antista,” Aron says timidly, several feet behind me. Timid is not a way I have ever thought of him before, and I hope never to do so again. I open my mouth to say so, but Riva speaks first.
“Deliver it here and go,” she says.
“No,” I protest, grasping Aron’s wrist as he wraps my cloak around my shoulders. “I want Aron to stay.”
“Aron has other responsibilities, which do not include being your shadow,” Riva says.
“Aron is not my shadow, Riva,” I say evenly, despite the anger I feel, like a fist in my stomach. “He is my guide. He walks beside me. I want him here, not off doing whatever thing you think he ought to be doing instead.” I tug Aron’s wrist and he sits beside me wordlessly. He presses against me.
“There are words that must be said, which he is not entitled to hear.”
“It is all right, Antista,” Aron says.
“No, it is not. And do not call me that,” I reply. “I like you better when you are rude to me. At least then, you make your own choices!” I stand, pulling Aron with me. “Riva, I am tired, as you said. The fact that I am the Antista does not mean I am some kind of god, and you are the only person allowed to talk to me. Whatever you have to say to me can wait.”
“You must be counseled—”
“I do not want to be counseled, I want to go to sleep! Goodnight!” A creeping prickle permeates the air. Riva must sense it because she says nothing else. I will not attempt to use whatever this electric ability is without practice, but it is comforting to know she is afraid of it. As long as she is afraid of me, I have the power.
Aron tries to pull me away, but I hold my ground. It is Riva who must go, not I. She huffs. The gravel twists beneath her feet as she stands, and she promptly turns. Her footsteps are even, though heavy as she attempts to walk away without stomping.
“Is she gone?” I whisper.
“Yes,” Aron says.
“Why does she speak to you that way?” I ask, sitting back down. My head is pounding, and my legs do not agree with the idea of walking, at the moment. Aron joins me, placing himself away from me so we do not touch.
“She believes you are the most important thing to happen to us,” he says.
“That does not explain her rudeness towards you,” I reply.
“Well, I am a traitor. Traitors do not deserve civility.”
These seven days, Aron’s been constantly at my side, so I have not witnessed the way anyone treats him. Now that I think about it, most people have not spoken to me when he is present. With the exception of the first night, nobody has spoken to him at all. Riva has been especially quiet. It is as if they are cutting him out of their lives by ignoring him.
“Why does Riva allow you to be near me if you are a traitor?” I ask, lowering my voice. I scoot closer to him, but he jumps back the second my skin touches his. Somebody must be around, still, watching.
“She knows what I am made of,” he says. “Riva is my mother.”
“She is?” I exclaim, but Aron shushes me.
“Softly, now,” He whispers.
“You do not act like family!”
“How are families supposed to act?” Aron asks, jumping up. He paces in front of me like his shoes are on fire.
“Like they are fond of one another,” I say. Aron stops pacing.
“For someone who was imprisoned for five years, you have an awfully idealistic view of us,” he says. He is irritated. I am not sure if his frustration is with me, or Riva. “I do not call her Mother. She does not kiss my knees when I scrape them. She allows me to accompany you because I am of her bone, and that is all.”
I have lived my whole life without a mother to comfort me, but I still feel terrible for Aron. The truth is: all I want in this moment is to stand close enough to him that the hairs on our arms stand on end, close enough to feel his breath on the cool air, close enough that a childhood without closeness is forgotten. It means more to me to be close than it means to be free. I do not know if he feels the same, but he has not abandoned me yet. Maybe that is all that matters. Not a daily devotion, just the mere act of remaining close. Neither of us have anything beyond this tribe, nor do we want to be the people this tribe demands.
“She would adopt you when I am dead, if you are interested,” Aron says.
“Do not tease,” I seethe, standing up. As the air prickles again, the currents bend around him as they talk to my skin. I grasp the front of his cloak in my fist and wrench him towards me. My ribs zing, but I do not wince.
“She is your mother. She will remember that when I am through,” I growl. “Even if I have to throw myself in front of the knife, you will not be sacrificed for the pride of the tribe.”
“You cannot save me, Zafirah,” Aron whispers. His breath warms my cheek, and though I wished for that to happen, my cheeks heat up. “Even should you wish it.”
“It will be my honor.”
“It is your honor that got you into this,” I say. “Customs will change, even if I have to shock every Cerani in the tribe.”
“You are a bit scary when you are determined,” he says. His lips graze my skin and I shiver, but I do not step back.
“I will not be timid anymore. If I truly am going to figure out what I am meant to be, I cannot let other people dictate my life.”
“Ah,” Aron says, curling his fingers around my fist. He pulls his cloak out of my hand. “For that reason, allow me to bid you goodnight.”
“I am too worked up to sleep,” I protest, but he steps back.
“That is unfortunate. I was going to ask to kiss you, but you are deciding your own life now,” he says, amusement coloring his tone.
“You are not allowed,” I say, as sternly as possible.
“I know. But I was going to break the rule. Goodnight, Zafirah.”
“You—Gah!” I turn away from Aron and sit on the rock, arms crossed. He is infuriating.
“We will meet up with the tribe in a few days; get some rest!” He calls back.
I suppose, it is my fault for wanting to comfort him. I hate the way Riva treats him, and he does need an ally.
No! No. He is the one who is hot and cold. One minute he is rude, the next he is kind... then angry, then joyful, then talking about kissing me and almost succeeding. I have a lot more to worry about than Aron. I am the one with powers I do not understand. I have to learn an entire planet that is unfamiliar to me. I have to make it one day without thinking of Aron and his infuriating angles.
But I will not abandon him; he is my guide, after all, and none of the other women speak to him. How terrible to be traveling with a group of your own people and be ignored! All right. I must not think about him and his lips and his niceness. I must instead consider the fact that an entire tribe is counting on me to save their imprisoned people, and that I may in fact be blind for the rest of my life. Easy.