By Christina Im
The suitors smile, and I resist the urge to cover my eyes from the light stabbing them. It is late evening in the palace ballroom; the windows are firmly shut so the dark cannot touch us. But the gleeful, sharp brightness of the chandelier overhead, such a mockery of true daylight, only reminds me that all of tonight’s finery and posturing, meant as an honor, is only making a mockery of me.
“Is everything to your liking tonight?” one asks. The son of a baron of someplace or other, he is the image of courtesy hiding a wary conscience. As is proper, he kneels to kiss my hand. I can feel the disgust in his gaze, but I lift my head sternly. He stiffens, barely stopping himself from flinching at the sight of my birthmark. It covers half of my face like lacework.
“Yes, it is,” I reply. “My only hope is that this banquet is as auspicious an occasion for the remainder of the Noon Kingdom as it is for myself.”
“Certainly,” he says, though his eyes flit this way and that. Anything to avoid being chosen for marriage to the Noon Princess, the witch-stained girl. Only the most obsolete of customs, the one that my mother has so tirelessly upheld, calls my birthmark beautiful.
ii. Eleven Years Earlier
“You were born at sunrise, Eirian,” my mother says, her eyes shining. “I lifted you up and you were completely silent . . .”
“ . . . staring at you with those big brown eyes of mine,” I finish. I am five years old, so sure of my place in the light that my voice dulls with the knowledge of it. The proof of it is all around me—this sun-streaked nursery, Mother’s arms around my fidgeting frame, the distant promise of a crown.
“Yes, dear. And I’d held out for most of the night, to save you from . . . that, so it was sunrise. I could never let you be born in the dark. There was light in the sky; everyone could see it, pinks and golds streaking the clouds. I swear, the imprint of those clouds was painted onto your face at that moment. But it was mostly night, all that hideous indigo disfiguring the sky. The palace midwife didn’t know what to do with you, whether to name you a dayborn or nightborn, but as if you could see what she was thinking . . .”
“. . . I started to laugh, brighter than anything you’ve heard since. And that decided it. I was undoubtedly the rightful Noon Princess.”
I see Mother frowning, annoyed by my being able to tell her favorite story word for word in such a jaded manner.
She can hardly blame me, I think, petulant. I have already heard it more times than I can endure counting.
The banquet dinner is served, and for the longest time, I find myself unable to eat. All sixteen years of my life my mother has told me to be proud, and now, at my most important hour, I am failing her. I’ve only just managed to down my wine when my stomach ties itself into knots again.
One of the noblemen is boring a hole in my back with the sheer force of his eyes.
He looks ordinary enough, is obsequious enough, is just slightly disrespectful enough. At first glance, he is simply another unwilling suitor in a suffocating room full of them.
But why do I feel his stare like fire? I shift uncomfortably in my seat, trying to rid myself of the tension. Head high, chin up. The flute quartet is playing a song so harmonic that it is irritating. Small talk floats its way up to the ceiling. Lurking in the smoky scent that permeates the Noon Palace, traitorous thoughts taint the air with the bite of malice.
Then the room goes black, and my heart seizes with the terrible wrongness of the shadow stretching over my head.
Arms slide like a vise around me, and a man begins whispering menacingly in my ear. I stiffen. I can make out no more than snippets, but it’s enough for me to put together the words “what you deserve” in the low voice of the suitor who’d been staring. It’s enough to wipe my mind blank of any thought but one: this is treason, to darken any part of the Noon Palace. The absence of sunlight invites predators, beast and man alike.
“There is no need to panic, lords and ladies,” a man announces from the other side of the room. “We are the Cloaks of Dawn, and we seek only the one with the stained face, the one you call the Noon Princess, the one who will be taken to the nightborn as she should have been sixteen years ago.”
Everyone is too petrified to speak, myself included, though some buried part of me still has the presence of mind to be indignant. We know that each and every light in this castle is guarded by a Noon Sentinel, a lethal warrior who will give his life without hesitation to defend his piece of daylight. Whoever is speaking, then, is more than capable of killing at least twenty Sentinels, and will strike again if anyone makes a move.
“We seek only Eirian.” The way he says my name makes it sound like I really do belong with the nightborn, alone and lost, hungry and savage. That I am really dark by nature.
And yet I wait for my mother to object, to cry that I have always been undoubtedly the rightful Noon Princess, but there is only silence and fear and what must be the smell of death, though no one in the room knew what it was until this day. My eyes cloud with a sense of betrayal, and I try to shake it off by lifting my head, although weakly. Head high. Proud. No one will defend me because no one wants to. The logic is simple, but it is the most difficult thing I have had to understand in my life.
Two pairs of arms grip me now. They drag me across the floor to augment my shame. I try to stay as still as possible, fully aware that it is useless to struggle. My life is still dearer to me than pride or pretense. At some point, I lose consciousness.
The first time I am certain that I am awake, I am being thrown hard to the cobblestones of a street outside.
I didn’t expect my first outing to be quite like this, I think wryly, and slip again under the confusion of darkness.
The second time I am certain, a hand is pulling me to my feet.
I still cannot see. My eyes are useless in a dark they have never encountered before. The only thing I can feel sure of is the hand pulling me forward, letting me know that I’m alive. Ahead of me, I can just barely make out the silhouette that the hand belongs to, slender and possibly female and maybe even around my age. My better judgment screams turn back, but then again, my better judgment was formed in the light-soaked hallways of a palace, not the street I find myself on now, and I can’t afford to trust it.
We run, breathless, and a thrill of excitement rushes up my spine. The fabric of my gown rips and seams burst all along the sides. It is an unsettling rhythm—gasp, rip, sob, step. Gasp, rip, sob, step.
Soon my legs begin to ache, unaccustomed to such exertion. My throat is too dry for me to beg for an explanation, for some rest, for some water. My body would like nothing more than to give out and die, but my heart is alive, thrum-thrum, thrum-thrum. Uncertainty makes me exhale, makes my breath rush into the whistling night wind.
Our breakneck speed slows just enough for me to crane my neck upwards. Lights wink down at me, forbidding harbingers of the settling night. I have heard of these. They are forbidden, whispered about. They emit something distant and cold and fragile, not at all like the sun.
I have to stop to gape at them. There are so many that it makes me dizzy, and for the first time in my life, I am brought low by these stars upon stars, like a kingdom of their own, one greater even than the one I was raised to rule. Before I register this properly, a white globe— which can only be the moon—appears alongside the bright, faraway pinpricks.
I let go of the hand so that its owner, just visible out of the corner of my eye, must stand beside me to take me any further. I tear my eyes from the night sky to see who has led me here, finding with surprise that my eyes have adjusted. A girl with dark hair and brown eyes, all skin stretched over protruding bones, is scanning the stars, as if trying to see what has captured me so. She has a hollowness that I am unable to place but can use to easily identify her as one of the nightborn.
With some trepidation, I tap her shoulder. “Where are you taking me? Are you with the”—I struggle to say it—“Cloaks of Dawn?”
“Who?” She looks at me askance. “You’re not from down here, are you?”
“No,” I say, and I let myself have a little inward sigh of relief, though my mind swims with more questions. If the Cloaks of Dawn would attack the Noon Palace but don’t stand with the nightborn, what do they really want?
As if a dayborn being condemned to the night is a common occurrence, she does not pry. Instead she takes my hand, and we pick up our pace again. For a time the only sound is that odd pattern again, gasp, rip, step. I do not notice that the sob is gone until the girl remarks on it in a hushed voice: “You aren’t crying anymore. That’s a start.”
Finally a collection of ramshackle buildings appears, all built of old, rotting wood and leaning slightly to one side. Every window is completely dark, but for some reason, none of these houses seem sinister. The girl’s steps quicken, and she leads me through the front door of the tallest building with a sense of purpose I hadn’t sensed before—like someone going home. It seems like the most natural thing in the world, the shadows wrapping around me in a strangely comforting way, until I see the eyes, so many eyes, all fixed on me.
None of them speak. They all stand, unblinking, and form a circle connected by their joined hands. A break in the circle invites me in; when I step forth to fill it, no one objects.
The circle turns into a long, curling line by some tacit agreement. The nightborn file outside one by one. Like the girl who brought me here, they all seem empty, carved-out, hardly real. I have to stamp down the part of me that wants to reach out and touch them to see if they are really living, breathing people.
I keep my head down now, intimidated by eyes that are far more probing and perceptive than any that have ever swept across my blemished face. I brace myself for the customary gossip that always followed the staring in the palace, courtly yet cruel, but the nightborn are wordless. Far uneasier because of this than anything else, I bite the inside of my cheek.
All at once, with a heaving and rushing like a churning river, the nightborn launch into a run. The drumming of footsteps, a rain of people, fills me with a frenzied fear. Light falls on each person with a lance-like precision, silvery with an edge of lunacy. I am one in a throng of movement, insignificant and utterly alive. Around me, bodies move like the breath of an ancient beast. Somehow I make my way to the girl who pulled me here and grasp at some bit of knowledge that I can hold.
“What is your name?” I shout. I feel the need to, despite the noiselessness that blankets all of us. Us. I catch myself. Warily, I think it again. Us.
It sounds so right.
“Seren,” she says, grinning wildly. Star. How fitting. Noticing my terror, she jabs my shoulder, throws back her head, and laughs. Her eyes glint with something like joy. “You?”
I cannot bring myself to say Eirian, which is a dayborn name that means bright and beautiful, something that I am no longer. I lift my arms and barely think before saying, “Ri.”
“Well, Ri, look up, won’t you?”
I follow her instructions.
Again the chilling glory of the moon and stars steals my breath, but now I see them and their offering to the earth, making the nightborn alive. The dayborn never felt so much, never meant every word they said like this. Every move the nightborn make is heartfelt, reveling in the beauty of all this risk and mystery. Jubilance, pouring out of them and mingling high in the sky. I feel a quiver in me, a response. I make no effort to stop the hoot that tumbles out of my mouth. Dreams swirl around me.
We keep running, never resting, never needing food or water when we are drunk with the heartbreaking, dazzling promise of night. Gasp, rip, laugh, step. Again the pattern has changed. Seren and I lock eyes a few times in perfect understanding.
The nightborn hold starlight in their hands and pour it over themselves and become transcendent, at least for the duration of the dark. I let out a throaty whoop of glee. Ri, Ri, Ri. And that is who I have become, in my transcendent moment.
I love the night.
It has been one month since I joined the nightborn, one month of quiet sympathy and strange, enormous joy. Tonight, our circle is broken by an authoritative knock-knock-knock outside the door of the main room.
“Cloaks of Dawn. Routine concubine collection. All women over the age of fifteen, surrender to the Noon Palace or forfeit your lives.” A man’s voice, brash and overconfident. And in the back of my mind, a horrified thought: the Noon Palace collects concubines? For whom? But I’m sure that I know something else about that voice, something . . . I freeze, suddenly recognizing this voice.
The man who grabbed me on the night of my sixteenth birthday, the night I was thrown outside. I clench up, gripping Seren’s hand until my knuckles turn white in the gloom. We have taken to standing next to each other every night. Cloaks of Dawn. The name sounds eerily familiar until I remember the announcement at the banquet. We are the Cloaks of Dawn . . . We seek only Eirian. I have almost forgotten my old name, a blessing until now. They use the Noon Palace as their source of authority—what of my mother, then? The one who, in the end, failed to believe that I was the rightful Noon Princess?
They must have seized power, I realize, and for the first time in weeks, I’m gripped by the terrifying question of what do they want?
We do not move other than to resume our quiet shuffling out to the stars. The one who appears to be the leader furrows his brow. He must think we are mute simpletons, exposed to so much blackness, I think.
He repeats his command.
We ignore him. It was an early pact of the nightborn, to never go into that which burns us and whips us. The dayborn have no good intentions for the children of the shadows. Though I’ve only lived among them a month, I’ve heard enough stories to pierce my very heart: children sent to work in secret mines, men and women alike forced to bear loads like mere animals.
He repeats it once again.
Now he cuts down one of our number with a wicked, glinting blade, swift as a nightmare, and a scream like the dawn breaking over our heads shatters us all.
The room erupts into combat. Snarling nightborn protecting our own descend on the Cloaks of Dawn, wolves with only our bare hands to defend ourselves. I careen headlong into the fray. Hardly noticing the myriad cuts that inevitably blossom over my skin, I swipe at soldier after soldier, delivering wicked slashes with my fingernails. The hilt of a sword pummels me from behind so hard that blood is forced from my mouth.
“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” the man who originally attacked me at the banquet says, “Eirian.” He turns to a cluster of men slowly gathering behind him and calls, “Leave this one to me. She won’t be going to the palace with the others.”
I am about to retort, but I have to spring into action to dodge the terrifying arcs formed by his sword. The nights of running have quickened my pulse, my reactions. He may have the weapon, but I have the territorial advantage, hard-won over thirty days of squinting in the dark; I can see perfectly, while he blunders. I feel more confident by the instant, ducking and diving smoothly.
Another scream, even more bloodcurdling than the very first, rips the night open and I crumple to the ground.
I only realize that the one screaming is mine when I see my blood spattering the floor, more shocking even than the mottled blemish on my face.
I can’t feel my left leg. I can’t feel any of it.
The crimson spreads like sunrise, when I was born, and now I regret that birth more than a little. The agony, the suffering, the torture, the burning. I think of a thousand, ten thousand different words for pain.
We have been left for dead; about a third of us are left, shivering. I scream and scream and scream.
My left leg is a ragged stump.
My throat gives out, but I keep screaming, with no sound. Red flashes in my vision, so much red, so many needles and stones and knives of pain.
It spreads even into my unconsciousness, although my mind insists that the night will protect me, shelter me.
I float into the soft arms of the darkness.
Ten years have passed. I am sitting on one of the nightborn’s few chairs, reserved for cripples like me, survivors of intermittent dayborn raids, and I am telling my favorite story with a wistful smile. I know it is there, always, whenever I think about that night, though the gentle night settling around me might obscure it. Nothing about me, other than the loss of my leg, has been much changed since then—my birthmark still stretches across my face, though I’ve learned to love it as my mother once tried to, and I’m told that I still have traces of a royal’s accent—but the newly forged peace between day and night has helped me find strength in spite of my wounds. I am truly at home in the dark, more than I ever was in any grand, echoing hall. The nightborn finally banded together a few months ago and forced the Cloaks of Dawn out of the Noon Palace; as it happens, most of the dayborn weren’t overly fond of them, either. The treaty that has been cobbled together since then has allowed us—hope and battle scars and all—to heal.
“They let me dance with them, and we laughed to see the moon shining so fully on us, though . . .”
“. . . you didn’t know why.”
The girl sighs. She is not my blood daughter, but she looks almost like it. She is five years old, and though she does not technically have a name, Bea seems to have stuck.
“We ran and we smiled and I think we even sang for a short while,” I continue. “The night was so full of joy as we conquered the empty streets. The dayborn all asleep, the air full of potential and whispering dreams—it was a powerful feeling, like sharing a wondrous secret. Most of all, I was fascinated with the people around me. At first glance they looked like shells of real people, but as soon as . . .”
“. . . they came outside, they were the most alive things you had ever seen. They held starlight, and you knew right then that you were one of them.”
She sighs again with a world-weary air and I am about to frown, but when I look more closely, I see she is smiling.
Christina Im is a teenage wordsmith and ardent believer in ghosts. She received a national gold medal in the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, as well as a national silver medal in the 2014 PUSH Novel Contest. Her work has appeared in several publications, including GREYstone, Hogglepot, and Foxglove Hymnal. Christina can be found online at clocksandcages.flavors.me.