They come for us in the night and shoot my father through the skull. I expect his head to crack open, to burst like the melon my cousin Pesi shot with the old atashban he found outside our village schoolyard when we were twelve.
“See, Gul?” he panted, pointing out the fruit’s pulpy yellow carcass. “See what I can do?”
My father’s head does not burst open, but it does ooze blood. Red, trickling down his cheek and neck. Into the dark-green collar of his tunic. He falls, his body thudding to the floor.
“Look around for the daughter.” The Sky Warrior who killed my father is a woman, her voice musical, oddly dissonant. Unlike Pesi, who used up so much of his magic to shoot the atashban that he had to rest for a whole day afterward, this Warrior shows no sign of exhaustion. Her atashban, a weapon that looks like little more than a golden cross- bow with an arrow permanently nocked into place, glows from recent use. It rests casually against the silver armour on one shoulder. Crouched next to the railing that rings the first-floor balcony, I see the tip of the arrow and the top of the woman’s silver helmet, the shimmer of sky-blue cloth winding it like a turban. “She must be here somewhere,” she says.
“Yes, Major,” a man responds, his voice so quiet I wouldn’t have heard it if I hadn’t been listening closely.
Ears of a shadowlynx, that Gul, Papa used to say with a laugh. My daughter can catch any sound, anywhere and at any time.
Kind words for a child whose magic emerges only on rare occasions, a child with nothing to her name except the single star-shaped birth- mark on my right arm, a finger’s length above the elbow. Twenty years ago, when Lohar, the current king of Ambar, first ascended the throne, his priests prophesied that a magus girl would vanquish him at some point during his reign:
The sky will fall, a star will rise
Ambar changed by the king’s demise
Her magic untouched and unknown by all
Marked with a star, she’ll bring his downfall.
When I was born, Papa said, my magic surrounded me in a glow of orange light, my skin singeing anyone who tried to touch me. “It wasn’t normal,” Ma admitted. “There is some magic that cloaks a baby when it is born, but your magic was unusually powerful. And then there was that mark on your arm.”
But my magic faded within a few hours, to a point that it became nearly nonexistent. Unlike other magi children, who grow into their powers, wielding them with ease by the time they’re nine, over the past thirteen years, I have performed magic only unintentionally – during moments of anger or terror – and even then, not always. Among magi, children like me are considered a curse and are usually sent away to the tenements to live with non-magi. While I’m grateful that my parents didn’t send me away, I have never understood why my father believed I was the girl from the prophecy.
Because of this prophecy, hundreds of magi girls with star-shaped birthmarks have been taken or killed over the years. A few families try to hide their girls in the tenements by passing them off as non-magi, but that ruse never lasts long. Now even non-magi girls with birthmarks aren’t spared, the slightest suspicion of “magical abilities” instantly mak- ing them targets.
Because of my birthmark, my parents and I have moved from town to town, village to village, ever since the day I was born. Because of my birthmark, my father, who said I was worth a dozen children, is now dead.
My body has frozen. My scream ties itself in a knot, buries itself somewhere between my throat and my tongue. I know my next move is to find Ma and run, to leave the house the way Papa instructed me to years ago, but I am glued to the scene, eyes burning, turning the tall Sky Warrior into a blur of blue and silver.
“Come.” A sharp, familiar voice pricks the inside of my ear. Ma.
My mother herds me up the stairs to the roof terrace my father was going to renovate and plant a garden of roses in. “A garden? Here in Dukal?” Zamindar Moolchand, the richest landowner in the village, laughed when Papa told him about it. “See if your plants survive the desert wind first.”
Today, there is nothing except for a raised bed made of wood and, next to it, a gunnysack of dirt.
My mother makes me lie in 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.”
Excerpted with permission from Hunted By The Sky, Tanaz Bhathena, Penguin India.
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