Hunted by the Sky - Tanaz Bhathena Page 0,1

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