L U M I
Lumi sat in the long shadow cast by her father’s statue, on the steps that went down towards the training grounds. She could see her brother, Tai, sparring with an older boy in an army uniform. Their swords glinted in the harsh summer light. Every so often the blades caught the light and directed it straight at her, so she would close her eyes and see burning white inside her eyelids.
Tai had made friends with all the young soldiers. They all grinned when they saw him and offered to spar with him, or to polish his blade, or bring him water. He was younger than all of them but he was already tall, with the same cutting cheekbones and square jawline of the gold statue watching over him. They worshipped Tai like they’d once worshipped the Burning King.
They paid no attention to Lumi. She was ghostly quiet and they thought she was sullen, and not one of them glanced up at her as they parried and played. Instead she watched them with frightened eyes, hoping that Tai would beckon her to join. She imagined that one day he would look up and smile at her, and extend his hand and wave, and introduce her to his friends. He often pretended he didn’t care about her but she knew they had a bond, forged by time spent with only each other for company: in the womb; in the snow; in the war.
A clatter of blades and the fight was over, and the older boy bowed deeply to Tai. Then there was a ring of bells and the soldiers hurried back towards the barracks, each nodding respectfully to Tai as they passed. Tai placed his sword lovingly back in its scabbard before crossing the yard and towards the steps where Lumi sat.
As he approached, Lumi felt that familiar surging of power inside of her. She had always felt stronger when she was near him, like he stoked the flames within her. She knew he must feel it too. How could he not? But he regarded her with contempt.
“Following me, again?” he said, as he passed her on the steps.
Lumi sprang to her feet, following her brother. She remained silent.
“Putrid little pest. Dirty mosquito,” he muttered.
His words stung, but Lumi followed him obediently, up the path through the gardens, towards the palace.
At the highest point of the gardens they were afforded a view of the Singtsu palace grounds, bathed in golden summer light. From here, there was the illusion that they were in a valley between two mountain peaks. In reality, the grounds were built into the crater of a dead volcano. They were high and untouchable in their mountain palace.
She was distracted, watching the monkeys in the trees, their lithe bodies lit up by golden light as they sprang from branch to branch. She didn’t notice Tai had stopped until she almost ran into him.
“Why are you following me?”
Tai’s black eyes finally met hers, and he glared.
She stared back, willing him to soften, to accept her.
He spat in her face.
When she’d reopened her eyes and wiped her face, he was already halfway up the steps. She watched his retreating figure, took a breath to steel herself, and then followed him into the palace.
Lumi didn’t have the courage to seek out her brother for the rest of the morning. She allowed herself the refuge of the steam rooms, built deep into the black volcanic rock of the depths of the palace. The servants cleared a room for her and laid out cotton sheets on the wooden benches. But when the servants were gone and no one was watching, Lumi lay her pale naked body on the scorching black rock.
After, there was food laid out on a trolley, waiting for her in her chamber. Lumi took the soup to her window. From here she could see the true shape of the palace grounds, the crater, and the valley far below. Here in the mornings she liked to watch the royal soldiers training. It was from here that she’d seen Tai join the soldiers in their morning drills.
They were supposed to do it together. They were supposed to do everything together. But Lumi had joined him. Every morning now, she followed him. Followed him as she would follow him for the rest of her life. He was her brother, her future King, her future Emperor, and she would follow him through any fire.
• author’s note •
thank you for reading the first chapter of my new young-adult fantasy novel, Starrlings. I hope you’re a little intrigued by the premise of this novel and want to read more!
What do you think so far of Lumi and her... relationship with her brother Tai?