Some dare to love the night. They wax poetic on the velvet warmth of the air wrapping around them, write odes to the nightingale and to the bright stars that twinkle and provide only a smudge of light
—a lit candle in a yawning abyss—
—a campfire that casts as many shadows as light—
—a crystal sewn into a wedding gown’s silk for color—
Light. But swallowed up by darkness.
Of course, you wouldn’t find those kinds of people around here. And of course, I am not one of those people. I wish I were back in bed right now, but instead, I am stumbling through the woods at midnight.
I squeeze the stone The Goodmother gave me at dinner.
—well dinner is a bit of a stretch isn’t it—
—but The Goodmother knows best—
Normally, I’d take dinner with the other acolytes in the Hall’s dining room; this last week, I have been cloistered in a room of my own, carrying out traditional penance and Purgatory, preparing for tomorrow.
I found the stone tucked underneath the pannikin of gray mush on my dinner tray. On it is a painted map of the Hall of Golden Fire and its surrounding woods. I could smell the ground charcoal, still fresh, in the ink tracing my path to the lake in a nearby forest clearing, and could easily detect The Goodmother’s strong, forceful handwriting, present in all my textbooks, in the strokes of the one character painted on the stone: you must seek.
My thin cotton dress snags on a spearlike tree branch. I huff and jerk away from the offending branch, wincing as the fabric rips free: The Goodmother may be censuring this voyage, but she will not approve of sloppiness.
Serves her right, though. Only the heroines in fairy stories ever actually trip over their dresses, get stuck on a low-hanging vine, and such. I am hardly the type of person who would make a good adventuress, and yet here I am, in the middle of the night, stumbling my way through a dense forest in hopes I’ll find the place to practice my magic.
My toe, encased in a rather feeble cloth slipper, stubs on a thick root, and I bite my lip to swallow my yelp of pain. Most definitely not a good adventuress.
—what am I thinking I’ll be mauled to death by a bear—
It’s been a long time since I actually read a fairy tale, or any kind of storybook for that matter. What I can remember is the memory of what The Goodmother told me in my first lesson as a fresh acolyte in the Hall: people like us are not heroines. We were not born golden-haired and apple-cheeked with flowers and silver spoons in our mouths. No, The Goddess chose us to act on the sidelines as witches.
Maybe as the evil witch who decorates apples with poison. Hopefully as a good witch, who provides an invisibility cloak with which to spy on the twelve princesses who revel ceaselessly through the night. Perhaps both.
A pretty picture, a pretty story. I smooth a curl of black hair out of my eye. I remember sitting at the feet of The Goodmother, one fist clenched on a cloth bundle of clothes that I suppose my parents gave me before abandoning me on the Hall steps.
The Goodmother’s eyes twinkled kindly at me as she asked, “Do you understand why you are here, dear?” I nodded, jiggling my chin as fast as I could, to show her just how much I understood. I wanted to be that romantic, shadowy figure hovering around the edges of a story, the most talented kind of weaver who could smooth out the rumples of life. If being a witch only required determination, I would have been inducted that very day.
A breath of wind curls around me, its fingers stabbing my shoulder blades and massaging them into a shiver. I again wish for my bed, and my soft blankets, far more comfortable than a mantle of night air. But I am out of time.
When I was younger, I watched The Goodmother and the other mistresses command air with a deft twitch of the fingers, fling fire onto faraway candles with a bronzed flash of their eyes, and coax water to envelop them in skirts of blue sheets by casually waving a hand. It’s been ten years, and I cannot do the same.
Maybe this is Anli’s gentle nudge to quash my hope and find some other job outside of the Hall before I am expelled. Expulsion would make me a pariah. I can sew beautifully, and I know all the secret recipes for the vividest dyes, but expulsion would steal any future I have.
No one would want me.
But try as I might, I cannot summon my power. Tomorrow is the capstone of my Purgatory. My eighteenth birthday, my Ceremony. I’m not sure what it requires, but it is my final chance to prove I have some calling in magic and some—any!—ability. So here I am, practicing at midnight.
I shove my shoulder through the final barrier of stubborn brush and burst into the clearing, Lake Anli lying ahead of me. I suppose it’s foolish to name a lake after the sun Goddess when water is the domain of her brother, Azyan. But after all the trouble I’ve taken to sneak out and practice my spells for the Ceremony, I’m counting on any luck I can find, even if it’s simply finding a lake named after the One who is supposed to fuel my magic.
Any scrap of luck.
—this is pathetic Su-enna, you’re more rational than this—
—you could run away, already halfway—
The lake looks astonishingly peaceful; I expected more pesky possums to be frolicking around. The moon looms large and heavy in the sky.
—shards waiting to break—
—a giant pearl weighting the center of a necklace—
—a pregnant belly, cradled and treasured for the potential inside—
—a compass? a wheel of time—
—a spinning wheel creaking above and below the water—
The moonlight sings strong and bright over the entire clearing. I wade knee-deep into the water. My nightgown flows out in tendrils, like the hair of a mermaid, and sends ripples across the lake, fractures the moon’s image into vaguely circular waves and enjambed parts.
I wade purposefully, if such a thing is possible when water pushes against me and whispers to slow down, toward the moon floating restlessly on the surface. Just a few hours siphoning its energy should be enough—morphing a toad or two into doves, healing the pinkish scar on my knee. All very easy, beginner’s magic that I probably should have performed years ago. I know the technique, at least.
Strengthen my core. Dip my head forward in reverence. Gather power by thrusting my hand into the image of the sun . . . well, the moon will have to do. It is a disrespect to Anli, but
—one celestial object is so like another—
—no time to worry, I’ll pray forgiveness later—
Surely The Goodmother would not have aided me if she did not allow me this indiscretion. My fingers tremble, an inch away from the surface of the lake. I take the plunge before my thoughts can hunt me down.
And the yellow moon, so invariably round, disappears, dissolves through the cracks and calluses of my fingers.
—is this magic?—
My palm fills with golden powder.
—did I just scoop it out of the water?—
The moon glows, alight with fire, above me.
—a paper lantern, finally lit—
The scar on my knee seals itself. Was it ever there?
—this is magic—
The air seems to quiver around me, to glow with the light of midday. And the glow snakes in, coils around my insides.
—magic is a drink of silken water after wandering for years in the desert—
—a tree that has burst from an acorn—
—a blinding light after days of slumber—
—it is me, I am magic—
It is terrible. Who am I?
I gasp and cry the tears I stored inside when I
—summoned no spark of power at any end-of-year examination—
—was shooed away from the seamstresses’ hall with flicks of their glowing fingers—
Well, I am no longer a failure. The Goodmother will be proud when she sees my performance tomorrow.
—or will she?—
A crack echoes, jerking me out of my stupor. It’s the unmistakable noise of a person stepping on a twig, which means someone is here, not fifty paces away from me.
Me, as in I, I who am breaking a law and a handful of Hall rules by cavorting in the darkness—the ultimate disrespect to Anli.
The warmth that was inside me just a few blinks ago fades into a whisper, waiting but out of reach. I can’t possibly expect to escape—it’s nearly as bright as day. We have learned about the perpetually full moon, but never had the chance to see it. No moonlight filters through the gaps between the walls’ bricks.
—no sunlight either—
—heavens above I have to hide—
I have nowhere to hide. As I turn in the water, running critical eyes over my surroundings, a figure marches out of the trees, gently coaxing a fussy horse. Its back is turned to better administer to the horse, giving me a few precious seconds to send up a prayer to Azyan and dive underwater before I’m seen.
Bubbles rush around me and fill my nose. I paddle backwards with frenzied, weak flaps of my hands toward the other side of the lake. My feet scrabble the ground for footholds, but the mud is soft and cloudy and doesn’t provide much to push off of.
It’s a small lake, barely larger than a pond. Something thick and solid bumps against my back—I’ve reached the opposite shore. I plant a hand behind me and turn to face the earth, digging my toes into the slightly-less-soft mud here and shooting up to the surface with a bounce of my knees. Air sticks to my face, and I suck it in with eager pulls. That’s when I look across the lake and see the figure brought friends.
The gods are well and truly laughing at me: after all my careful rule-following and toeing the line, my one night of adventure teeters on implosion. I will be expelled. I will be thrown into prison for an amazingly long time for my crimes. I will have no future. No future, and no life. What starts as a yawn, a gap in my chest, races into my throat as a sob.
—but there’s no one to cry for—
—no one to see and no one to care—
—not a person worth caring for—
I am mourning my own death, and realizing I have not had a life.
A voice cuts across the clearing; I squint, and guess that it belongs to the first person, with the horse. “Did you all get the plan?” It’s a husky voice, with a slight magnetic pull. The timbre of charisma—I’ve heard it in The Goodmother’s voice.
And it’s a man’s voice. It must be. At least, I think so, I wouldn’t know. If The Goodmother were here, she would sniff and say, “and a good thing, too.” No boys allowed in the Hall of Golden Fire, because none have ability anyway.
Some of the other figures must be men, too. I hear more than one deep voice in their collective response. The first figure—the leader? I wonder—steps back and brandishes a club in the air. “We ride tonight, Shadows! We fight the powers that be!”
A raucous cheer explodes out of his followers. I compress my shoulders and flatten my palms against the bank of the lake, making myself smaller around their noise, which will surely have them caught and thrown in cells before long. The Goodmother will know, and she will come find them.
These rebels, or whatever they are, are not my problem. They are so wrapped up in their own sacrilegious mutterings they might not notice me.
—little old me—
This same time tomorrow, I may well find myself in the same woods with nothing but the clothes on my back, never mind any kind of future. But for now, at least, I have a home to go back to.
I hoist myself out of the water so that I’m sitting with my feet in the water and begin charting a route home in my head. The moon has almost set: when I called my power it was directly overhead, shining clearly onto the lake, but now it is sunken and pale as it sinks in the west. If I’m careful, I might be able to circle the clearing all the way to their side before going back through the woods to the Hall.
Mindful of the moon shining on the left side of the lake, I creep into the trees on my right, holding my breath to make less noise
—any scrap of luck—
and dart from tree to tree, pressing myself into each trunk and inhaling the moss and rough bark for a full ten counts while I peer at the group, checking that it remains oblivious to my presence.
I’m only a few paces from the trail The Goodmother indicated to me when two hands clamp onto my left and right shoulder. My reflexes kick in—hand-to-hand combat was one of the few classes at the academy that I could do just fine in, without adding a magical component. From the angles of the hand on each shoulder, I figure that I have two attackers. I place my arms diagonally across my chest, pinky to shoulder and other thumb to hip, and whip them around in the way I was taught. One arm coils back to my hip, my elbow jutting behind me. The person on my right lets go of me with a quick huff of pain. I don’t have time to dwell on my victory, once I break free of these people, I’ll have to rush back to the hall if I can hope to attend my Ceremony in time. I swing my left arm down and strike my fist against a tender pressure point on the side of my other attacker’s leg. But he or she does not let go. Instead, I’m pulled back into the clearing and forced to face a dozen moonlit, weathered faces, wearing a range of emotions, from shock to anxiety to sour hostility.
I exhale shakily. “Let me go. We can forget this ever happened.”
The Shadows’ leader steps forward. “You know of our existence now, maybe even our plans. You’re coming with us.”
I raise my hands and pray for strength, for a miracle, for some kind of shield. None comes. I stare at my stupid, powerless, pointless hands, clench them
—it is not too much to ask, to be loved—
and I think of the moon,
—glowing bright and soft and hot—
—hot, hot, hot, I feel it—
feel the moon. And my hands flame. The light illuminates the Shadow leader’s green eyes, etches his fearful expression with shadows. He stares. “You’re one of the witches.”
I nod impatiently and creep toward the trees.
He bars his teeth. “Then we’ll return you to the Hall, poor lost lamb.”
As if I would ever give help to rebels. But the sky is turning rosy, meaning I need to be back in bed right now. I send up another prayer of forgiveness to Anli,
—lots of praying tonight—
and lift myself onto a horse, imagining all of The Goodmother’s disapproving expressions.
But when the Shadows dump me on the front steps, no surprise or disappointment flits across her face. The Goodmother is as old as she is wise, with snowy white hair hanging down her back and her fingers warped by arthritis from years at the loom. Her face is a map of wrinkles: here is a dimple, showing only in true smiles, and there is where her jaw clenches when she is angry. Lines revealed when she worries, fumes, or laughs. As I stagger up to the door, she doesn’t blink—merely says, “Ah, Su-enna. We shall ready you for the Ceremony.”
I bathe with hot water, a luxury required to purify me to the Sun’s exacting standards. Then I dress in pure white and stick buttercups in my hair, bursts of sunlight in my dark tresses. Two sisters ride with me to the River Azure, which cleaves our country in half, and force me to the very center.
I’m trembling now. The Ceremony is a mystery, as unknown to me as men’s voices. I do not know if I will be flayed alive or asked to display my power. I lift my chin and wait for The Goodmother to explain. I see the image of my trembling fingers in the water, and I clench them out of sight, into fists.
“To please Anli and be accepted as a sister in the Hall of Golden Fire, you must prove your worth.” The Goodmother’s voice is high and clear and keen. “The water will wash away any sins you carry. To balance water is his sister, fire, and She will test you.”
She cups her hands over her mouth and hurls a bloom of fire at me.
—too late to close my eyes—
—death by a bear would have been mercy—
I am not burned. The fire spreads over me, sliding butter in a pan. My hair is burning away in a thousand pinpricks, the buttercups wilting. But my face feels no warmer than a blush. My fists flame. I welcome the fire, but what now?
—banish the orange beast—
My closed lids flash soothing yellow. The fire dies. I feel my scalp prickle in relief.
Then I feel The Goodmother’s slap. “Foolish girl! Irreverent girl!”
—well what should I have done—
“What did I do, Goodmother?” I lower my eyes.
“You should have waited,” she snaps, “for the fire’s color. Black for evil magic. White for Anli’s approval. But for you . . .
My heart clenches. “But I am magic!”
“Such audacity!” she squawks. “Magic is divine. You may receive the gift, that is all. And your magic . . .” She straightens. “Impure. You worship the moon, not the sun. Ultimate betrayal! You are dark. You—” her withered lungs wheeze. She points across the river, away from the Hall. “are not wanted here.”
“Where can I go, Goodmother,” I plead, “If I’m unwanted?”
She shrugs. “Join the rebels? They’re so desperate for any leverage, they’ll harvest you and your power happily.” She climbs out of the river with a splash.
—the slap of rejection—
I sink onto my knees and stay there. My face wavers in the water. When the tears come, it’s so easy to turn them loose, after years of suppressing emotion. They drip down my face and into River Azure’s steady current, a cycle returning to the water, where the salty drops instantly melt into a home.
—o to be gathered up as efficiently, lovingly—
It’s so easy to stay there, swaying in the river, curled over to keep my heart inside my chest. It’s so easy to accept this fate. I’ve always felt
Eventually, my hair dries; so does my face, sticky but warm. When my stomach rumbles, I finally climb out and walk, finding some berry bushes.
The sun is setting when I hear the clop of hooves along the bank. I peer out from behind the bush I’d picked to sleep under and see a band of people dressed in black, led by a familiar green-eyed man.
—I’m desperate and cold and aimless—
“Wait!” I implore with an outstretched hand, stumbling forward. “I can help you!”
The leader halts, signaling the others to do the same with a jerk of his head. “Explain.”
I’m in too deep now.
—jumped off this cliff a while ago—
“Whatever you’re trying to do . . . ” I pause. “My magic can help. I can summon rain, wind, fire—make plants grow, anything.”
—nothing left to lose—
“You want to overthrow the government? I can burn it all down,” I rasp.
The leader frowns. He turns to a fair woman just behind him and whispers hurriedly. She nods eagerly, casting hungry eyes over me. Finally:
“We can use you. My name is Kai, and that’s Rafiya.” A nod toward the blond woman. “Welcome to the Shadows.” Rafiya helps me onto her horse, settles behind me, and whips us into a gallop.
We ride north, hugging the river, for most of the night. I don’t know where I am going, and I don’t care. The grim black sky and stinging wind blind me
—and my judgment—
but I keep up with the group. I’m wanted here, maybe for all the wrong reasons, and it is enough. They promise me a roof and a bed, companions to chase away my loneliness, so I’ll do anything they ask.
—morality has stolen too much of my life for me to heed it now—
When the sun rises, it does so over a ramshackle village and, not too far off, a large, tall building of white stone, boasting turrets capped with gold. Clueless about any geography outside of the Hall, I raise my eyebrows at Rafiya.
“It’s the Governor’s palace.” She leans closer and whispers, “You’ll kill her. We have a few things to teach you first, but if you do this for us, we will officially accept you as a Shadow.” I’m dazed but weary, so I nod.
The Shadows have been scouting the palace of the current Governor, Nette Flysalle, for weeks. Their planted agent lets me into the kitchen through the palace’s back door, along with the local baker when he makes his daily bread delivery. He whispers hurried instructions to me as he stirs onion soup—how many lefts and rights I must make to reach Nette’s receiving room, where she will be alone and ready to receive petitioners. He slips me a maid’s uniform, which I pull over yesterday’s white robes.
I’m counting my left turns as I scurry down the plush carpeted corridors when someone pokes me in the shoulder. Whirling around, I see Rafiya in a costume similar to mine. She presses a finger to her lips and taps her dagger at her hip, mouthing just in case as she follows me. I contemplate whether the dagger is for Nette or for me as I race around the last turn and ease open the waiting red door
—why is the goodmother here?—
“Where is the Governor?” I scan the room frantically, noting possible escapes: there are no windows. There is a skylight, but the ceiling’s too high to reach.
The Goodmother laughs. “There is no Governor. We at the Hall are blessed by Anli Herself. Heaven would not want any other ruler of this country.” She steps toward me, poised and calculating. “I’m only telling you all this because you’ll soon have no one to tell except your fellow inmates in Hell.”
I press a shoulder against the doorframe and gesture with my hidden hand to Rafiya. I hope I correctly make the shape she taught me a few hours ago: a warning to hang back, and get help. “You’re sure I’m going to Hell?” I toss out, listening for Rafiya’s footsteps to fade away.
“I have sensed something off about you since your childhood. As you grew, that manifested as a nocturnal sleep cycle, a fascination with the library’s moon myths. An irreverence for Anli, and for my authority. Oh yes, you tried to hide it! But I knew you failed your magic classes because you had the wrong kind of magic.”
Maybe before I would have cared. Now her words are rote, targeting the approval-seeking person that has slipped farther and farther away from my consciousness. I walk toward her and snarl, “If I can’t kill you, maybe they will.”
With beautiful timing, Rafiya, Kai, and the other Shadows appear in the doorway, knives gleaming in different parts of their clothing. “Finish it now!” I hear someone crow.
The old woman changes tactics. “You know you want to belong. Come home. Only I understand you. These rebels only want to use you—I sent you to them so you could realize this. Kill these rebels to show your loyalty, and we can overlook your taint.”
She has set up this whole situation—my encounter with the rebels in the woods, my flee to them after the Ceremony, my presence here to kill a nonexistent Governor.
—the most skilled weaver—
—engineering us all into place—
I turn to the rebels. Kai says impatiently, “It’s not true. You’d rather be with us than this manipulator. We don’t believe in rejection. Now kill her.” But his eyes are wide, and Rafiya’s knuckles are white. They fear me.
I step back, so I can see both sides at once. My heart squeezes and prompts me to imagine, just once, what life as a Hall inductee would be like. I’d finally be able to join in on games like flip the coin, where one had to do so only by controlling the air around the coin. I could live and die cushioned inside that community.
—they would never accept me—
—even with the Goodmother’s sanction, all of them will always distrust my power—
What about life with the rebels? With one killing blow, I’d win their approval. They have already welcomed me. I could put my fighting skills to good use, help them end the Hall’s iron-fisted reign over the land. We might go hungry, but always together. I may not grow old, living in such danger, but I would live fully. A hardscrabble life softened by company.
—if I were powerless they would eat me for breakfast—
—they don’t even know my name—
If I kill the Goodmother, I choose the Shadows. If I kill the Shadows, I choose the Goodmother. The thought spins in my head.
“I choose the good and righteous side. For all that I’ve railed on morality, it still lives inside of me,” I say, as much to myself as to my audience. “I’ll kill nobody.”
—the shadows aren’t heroes, nor is the goodmother—
—my life is not black and white—
—my life is not a fairytale—
—my life is Mine.—
I stop speaking, but my thoughts are pounding-loud, reverberating in my head.
I choose my side. I don’t care if I’m alone. My conscience can keep me company. And I choose not to be lonely, but happy.
“I choose myself.”
The skylight glass shatters, revealing the pale dawn sky. The moon and the sun twinkle in tandem, in this intermediary between night and day. The forever-full moon calls to me once more.
I let myself answer.
I dissolve out of my worldly body and reach the moon.
And that’s why the moon has phases.
Oh, did I skip ahead again?
And that’s why people see a man in the moon. It’s actually me. The moon seems a cold place, but it’s quite warm up here. Perhaps a bit pale and empty, but it’s not so lonely.
I am not unwanted either—rather, quite in demand. The witches distrusted my power, while the rebels lusted for it. Either way, they urged me to hoard it and hide it. But the ordinary people, the ones who seek a pinch of magic in small miracles—
I help them. My magic melts off the moon in small bits and pieces. Every time my territory melts away completely, their faith in the power of the moon—
—light in the darkness—
Restores it. Mortals are a thankful lot, even for the little help I can give them: in puzzle pieces with corners broken off, in small drops of magic swirling down different drains, in wrinkles ironed out. In broken shards reformed into souls.
And these souls may grow old and grey, but they will always understand the Moon. And me, Su-enna. I will be here for them. I will still be here for the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren, who have heard the stories.
Now I watch. I wait. I feel.
—I give myself away.—