Hunted by the Sky - Tanaz Bhathena Page 0,2

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!”