Chapter 1: The Girl who Held the Sun
I was born July 23rd amid a Lunar eclipse. ‘The brightest day of the century.’ My mother claimed that dates and events hold prophecies. For my birthday in particular, she claimed that it foretold that I’d be a bright mind and soul. A person of honesty and who’d brighten even the dullest of souls. She claimed I was born laughing.
‘If by laughing you mean making me and the people around us deaf.’
That’s what they’d argue about the most—not about what I sounded like when I was born, though that wouldn’t be all that surprising knowing them—but the idea that the past holds doorways to the future. My father had always been more of an evidence-based individual. ‘I’m a realist,’ Is what he'd always tell me, ‘And you ought to be one too.’
Like my blood, I can’t escape or embrace either of their ideals. They mix within me, which similar to my appearance, the mix seems to be one of the worst ones possible. I’m Shu where it’d hurt me and Ravkan where Shu would be more flattering. I suppose it doesn’t help that my parents would have the hardest time getting me to eat growing up. It never interested me; I suppose. My body did however always crave something. What? I did not know.
My parents, not being formally educated citizens, quickly got taken by the draft. I was eight yet could very well take care of myself. I suppose the one ounce of pride I had resided entirely on that. Living on the edge of The Fold near a military camp was never a fun experience. ‘The Military Trolls,’ some would call us children whose parents are off at war. I suppose having something in common made it easier to trust one another.
The first group of friends I ever had, ‘The Trolls of Terminov.’ is a group of misfits who would cause all sorts of trouble throughout the seemingly non-ending city in which we live. Mostly petty theft, or mild destruction of property, but enough to attract the attention of the city guard. We sliced our hands open as a promise to never reveal our comrades' positions if caught. I could’ve sworn I saw a flash of light.
The first time I had gotten caught, it was a mere slap of the wrist. It stung for days after, but still, I was let off easy by their standards. They didn’t even know I was a part of, ‘The Trolls of Terminov.’ Who could? I looked hardly capable of movement, just a bag of bones. Only stealing an apple—not even for myself. It wouldn’t have made it different in their eyes anyway.
The second time was—tough to say the least. There was no mistaking my associations of the group this time around. I planted a stink bomb in the city square; however, some people reported my less than normal behavior as I moved about the crowds. I had assumed that my slight figure would be enough to shield me from the gaze of the suspicious. Spending a month in the cells ensured that I ended my ties with the group. They simply shrugged before snatching my gloves, cloth mouth cover, and materials. I had hoped they’d been more appreciative. Then again, what was I expecting from a group of abandoned children?
I still remember the day the letter arrived. Like most days, it was hot, sunny, and sweat combined with body odor flooded throughout the city. Carriages and horses of the troops pulled into town. I could immediately tell who was Grisha, not just by their distinct kefta, but by the waft of perfume that seemed to follow them. I kept telling myself I’d take the smell of musky odor over fake florescence any day. Somedays I could almost fool myself.
I had been productively ignoring my homework when the thud of my door banging caught my attention. A military guy stood in front of me, clearly not a newer recruit from the distant, cold sheen over his eyes. The eyes of war. He almost seemed faintly surprised by just a half-Shu tiny girl being the only occupant, but he seemed to cast it aside just as quickly as it came. He handed me the letter, leaving me with only a gruffly muttered phrase.
“I’d pack if I were you.”
I didn’t have time for the confusion to set in as I hastily grabbed the nearest pocket knife and sliced the top of the envelope. The scent of the paper was my first warning. It had a faint fluorescence instead of its typical cedar. It was folded neatly in three equal sections. That was the second warning. My throat almost closed as my eyes took in the first words.
‘To Miss Starkov,’
That is what confirmed it. The third and final warning. I could already feel my eyes glossing over with moister but chose to continue. Perhaps if I continued I might be pleasantly surprised? I knew deep down it was a stretch, but my optimism ceased to falter. I suppose I am a mix of them both after all.
‘We regret to inform you that on the 20th of July presumed around the time of 13:45-16:45 both your parents had valiantly sacrificed their lives for the honor of Ravka. Their sacrifices have not been overlooked. Teardrop. We cannot begin to apologize enough for the suffering you must be enduring, Teardrop. but we can assure you Teardrop. that their lives helped Teardrop. our great mother country prevail Teardrop. and serve Teardrop. victorious at the battle. Teardrop. Once again, Teardrop. we deeply Teardrop. apologize on behalf Teardrop. of your sorrow, Teardrop. and hope Teardrop. that you feel Teardrop. pride and one day Teardrop. join them Teardrop. amongst the ranks Teardrop. to Teardrop. protect Teardrop. your Teardrop. community. Teardrop. ’
My body seemed to react, yet my mind remained frozen. ‘No. They can’t be gone—it’s impossible. They promised. They promised me they’d come back. They can’t leave me now. I—can’t…’ My hands began to tremble and clench, taking the letter with it, crumpling within my hands.
“No.” The word comes out as a whisper; you could miss it if the wind blew the wrong way. My knuckles shift white. “No.” This was firm. This was certain. “No. No. No. No! No! NO!” My voice echoes through the walls of my now empty home. The one thing that made it worth it—gone. I almost believe that I’m imagining my skin turning a few shades lighter and continuing to do so.
I can’t convince myself otherwise when my skin begins to glow bright white. Brighter. Brighter. A little bit more. I do not doubt that the light can be seen from outside my house, although the feeling of completeness for the first time ever, cuts off all thought. ‘This is what I’ve been craving. This sweet rush of energy. It flows through my veins. It gives me strength.’
It’s not until I open my eyes, that I begin to panic. Black spots begin to form in my vision, a stark contrast to my world of blinding white. I open my mouth to scream but nothing comes out. I am completely under the control of whatever power has a hold of me. When the light abruptly stops and my senses fail me, I find myself falling. I don’t comprehend the arms that break my fall.
I awaken to a blasting chill rushing through me, causing me to jolt up with a shriek. It takes me a moment to realize that ice water is what had just been poured over me, and I wrap my arms around my tremoring torso. My clothes are the one thing that protects me from the cold, and with it soaked through, combined with the fact that I have no body fat, I’m entirely unable to fend off the violent chills sending shockwaves through my nerves.
I hear someone mutter something in a tongue that I almost don’t recognize. I don’t understand it, however, I can vaguely remember my mother using a similar tongue when she believes herself to be alone. ‘Oh.’ My gaze turns to the people looming over me. ‘They’re Shu.’ When they look at me, there is not an ounce of empathy, or even sympathy, one of them simply grabs my wrist and pulls me out of the room with a bone-crushing grip.
‘I suppose I did always ask to not be treated like a helpless kid. How wrong I had been.’
“Please let go, you’re hurting me I—” A sharp sting is the first thing I sense, her hand had moved too fast to be seen clearly. My knees almost give out from the shock of it, and I cling my one free hand to my cheek, too stunned to be able to emit any noise.
“Speak only when spoken to.” Her words come out like a lash, her tongue being the whip. At that moment I begin to understand my mother’s talent for verbal punishment. She would’ve never hit me though, nor would my dad. ‘Is this—normal for Shu children to experience?’ Still clutching a hand to my cheek, teary-eyed, I nod. “Clever girl.” Despite the phrase being a ‘compliment’, the tone feels like anything but. She doesn’t pause for long before dragging me once more.
Even the walls are different from common Ravkan ones. Ravka, using mostly wood, clay, and plaster; these walls shone with an intricate layering of stone, paint, and stained glass. Different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. The flooring beneath was covered with mats, which confused me since they didn’t seem to have any practical use. Too distracted with my surroundings, I hadn’t even noticed the differences in clothing. Where Ravkan clothing focused on structure and functionality, Shu clothing seemed to have more of a draped, yet flowy silhouette.
I felt deathly out of place.
The woman, along with a small entourage following behind us eventually did turn down a discreet hallway before entering a room at the very end of it. There was a table, a small wooden structure protruding on the floor, which I could assume to be a bed from the cloth draped across it. That was pretty much it. A barren room consisting of mostly open space.
The woman spat commands in Shu to the servants, which they quickly scattered about the room in response. I couldn’t tell what they were trying to do from their quick movements. They moved swiftly with precision, something that seemed to be a theme for the Shu—or at least, from what I could tell.
It wasn’t even a second later before the ladies began to swarm me. I barely had time to register anything when I could feel my clothes being stripped from me. I couldn’t even be ashamed of my nakedness before new clothes were replaced with my old ones.
‘Oh.’ The material was soft. Softer than anything I’ve ever worn before. The most interesting aspect of the clothing to me was how it was applied. Cloth being wrapped and draped. Covering, but not with thick materials that increase body temperature. I vaguely remember the maps I had seen at school, where Shu had been further south and consisted of more mountain and desert terrains.
Things around here must move fast because as soon as my hair had been pinned up in a way I had never seen before, I was being pulled away again. I almost wanted to snap at them, ‘Stop dragging me everywhere, I feel like my arms going to fall off.’ The memory of the woman’s palm causes me to bite my tongue. Besides, I doubt many of them can even speak Ravkan, similarly to how well I can speak Shu—which is none.
I’m led through a courtyard of sorts, however, with my new outfit and hairstyle, I’m no longer stared at like a freak of nature. Most even glance past me, which causes me to appreciate my Shu heritage in public for once. I notice several statues and structures woven throughout the courtyard, at least one person around each one. I couldn’t help but feel calmer there. I’m dragged away sooner than I would’ve liked.
Finally, we approach these large red-painted doors with two people sanctioned at the front of them. With a gesture from the woman, they open the doors. The servants, having stayed in my room or scattered to a different post, leaves just me and the woman to walk in alone, my wrist still firm in her grip. I almost gasp as soon as I take in the surroundings.
Colors are floating all around me in a beautiful display of light, causing me to glance up. The stained-glass ceiling. I almost don’t notice the hand-crafted banners and portraits and scrolls and polished stone flooring and—my eyes drift to the table at the center. Dozens of faces have their eyes on me. Some expressions are neutral, some seem deviously pleased, some scowl. I shrank under their gaze.
The woman roughly pulls me back upright snipping in my ear, “Don’t slouch.” I swallow and nod slightly praying to the saints that she doesn’t hurt me again. When she switches her attention to the people sitting at the table, she says something loudly in Shu. Her voice bounces off the walls, powerful and certain. ‘I wish I had that confidence and respect.’ She commands the room with the flick of her tongue.
One of the people at the table responds to her, mid-sentence gesturing to me. I flush under their gaze, trying my best to stand upright when they look at me as if they’ll tear me down at any moment. The woman replies with ease, and I almost feel like I can keep up with the conversation despite not being able to understand them. ‘What do they want with me? I don’t know.’
They speak to each other back and forth for a while, taking scare glances and gestures towards me every once in a while. I can do nothing but stand there, making sure not to slouch. I hope she doesn’t notice me fidgeting with the draped cloth of my shirt.
“Girl.” The woman's voice snaps my focus to her. She gestures from me to the council before adding, “State your name.” I freeze for a moment, not a sound goes through the hall as their gazes bun through me. I swallow the lump in my throat, letting out a shaky breath.
“A-alina Starkov,” I say, trying to project my voice as loud as I could, but it still came out like a whimper. I expect the woman to reprimand me for the lack of celerity in my voice, however, she just continues, speaking to them once again in Shu. A couple of minutes later, she turns back towards me.
“State the events that happened before you were taken here.” She tells me and I almost freeze. ‘I—what exactly happened?’ I remember opening up a letter and reading—well, reading about my parents' deaths. What happened after was a blur. All that I remember what my grief and blinding light. ‘What was that light?’
“I—I don’t know, my mind is still fuzzy,” I replied after a short pause, biting my lip as a nervous tick. I nearly jumped out of my skin as a hand slammed on the table in front of me. A man stood up, his gaze hot on me.
“You Lie.” His accent was thick, but the words did not escape me as a tremor rushed through my body and my face pales. I shake my head reverently, hoping that he would believe me. His jaw tightened as he took a step towards me, however, the woman help up her hand to stop him and gestured firmly for him to sit. He reluctantly did so.
When the woman spoke again, her voice was louder, swifter. The people around her seemed to listen to her entirely, even the man who spoke out. She paces slowly around me as she spoke, and their conversation continues for over thirty minutes. Never had I ever wanted to speak Shu more than then. I hardly realized when the meeting had been adjourned, only the sight of the people at the table standing up alerted me to its end.
The woman didn’t wait a second before grabbing my wrist again. I was sure that there’d be bruising in the shape of her long skeletal fingers the next morning. I could hear the people’s voices behind me as we left the room. As soon as we made it to the hall, the guards shut the doors, effectively cutting off their voices. I was alone with her again.
“I know I’m not supposed to speak, but can you please tell me what’s going on?” I ask, hesitantly. I could see her glare, not even a second after I asked, shutting me up entirely. She didn’t say a word as she took me back through the courtyard and down the halls before finally ending at a place I vaguely recognized. The old chambers of which I had been changed.
She paused at the door before speaking, “The servants will take care of you now; I advise you not to speak for now. You’ll be informed of your—situation tomorrow. For now, follow instructions and don’t cause too many headaches.” I didn’t even have time to respond before she was gone, the only thing I saw was the sway of her clothing and the back of her head, her black hair cut short.
I did as I was told, simply because I had nothing else that I could do. I knew that it was likely impossible that I’d be able to escape on my own but even worse that I didn’t even know where I’d escape to. I had no more life. No more purpose. Not without them.
The servants changed me into an article of soft robe-like clothing, undoing my hair as well. They didn’t linger long after they finished, leaving me alone in my sparse room, too large for any person let alone a child. Sitting on the wooden ‘bed’, I tugged my knees up to my chest, burrowing my head into them. I lost count of the hours I had cried.
I awoke with a violent tug of my blanket off my small form. I barely had enough time to rub my puffy, sleepless eyes before I was being dragged again. Servants swarmed me stripping me to my skin before pushing me into a room that I could only assume was their version of a bathroom. As they pushed me in, water sloshed everywhere, although they didn’t seem to mind, quickly scrubbing and making work of getting the dirt off of my body. I was too tired to even have it in me to feel shy. ‘Nothing they hadn’t seen before, I suppose.’
Not even an hour later I was back into Shu clothing with my hair pinned, the servants waiting patiently beside me. Not a sound could be heard throughout the room as they waited, and I wasn’t going to be the one to break the atmosphere. Luckily, the door once again burst open to a face I’ve grown familiar with. The servants scatter at a mere phrase from her tongue, however, instead of gripping my wrist, she beckons for me to follow. I don’t have to be told twice.
Following right on her heel, she leads me a different way than the room I had been in before. I’m almost disappointed knowing that I’ll miss out on the courtyard and the stained-glass ceiling, however, I won’t miss the stares that followed. I can only hope that I won’t be led to a similar circumstance. My gut says I will. I’ve learned not to trust my gut so often.
There are fewer people in this area of the town we’re in. The buildings look older, more worn yet with history. I can’t decide which I like better. Perhaps both. There aren’t any guards at the doors we approach. A small wooden door. Chipped and unassuming. Mother always told me it’s what’s most unassuming that will surprise you the most.
I didn’t know what to expect as she opened the door. Perhaps another entourage of judgmental faces, maybe even an executioner—the reality was surprising. There doesn’t seem to be a lack of empty rooms here because that was all there was. Nothing—nothing except for an old woman standing in the center, waiting patiently.
At the vaguely intrusive sound of the door shutting behind us, the old woman seemed to reanimate, her eyes opening to gaze blankly at us. Her silvery-grey hair tied in an up doo different than how I’ve seen the majority of the other Shu woman, and her robes seemed a fair bit more distinguished than even the officials I had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting yesterday.
It didn’t surprise me when the woman began to converse in Shu as any other conversation has been. I had never wanted so badly to be able to speak Shu; I even felt a pang of guilt for not being remotely connected to the culture that composed half of my blood. They didn’t continue for very much longer, yet I could tell the woman acted differently around the older lady than with the others. Respect is the only word that comes to mind.
It wasn’t long before the woman turned to me, her once neutral expression turned hard upon meeting my gaze as she spat, “Behave. There will be no second chances.” That was the only and last thing she said to me before turning her back to me and exciting the doors. Just like that, I was alone in a room with a woman whom I had no idea what to expect.
“Girl.” The older woman’s voice came out pointed, easily slicing through my skin and skull. I almost didn’t dare to turn and face her, however, the fear of what she might do to me was more than enough to get me to push the fear down and turn to her.
I was surprised to see her so close. For an old woman, she sure moves fast. I averted my gaze to the floor to avoid her piercing stare, yet her bony fingers grabbed at my face, pulling me back to her gaze. I had to swallow back the lump in my throat.
Finally, after what seemed like forever gazing into her deadly stare she said, “Do you have the faintest idea of why you’re here?” She questioned, her eyes betraying nothing. I shook my head, ‘no’ hoping that she can see the truth in my eyes. Then a sharp pain began to pulse up my arm, causing me to gasp, pulling away for her. Her grip on my arm kept me put.
“A, ‘Yes ma’am, or No ma’am’ will suffice.” She tells me as I try to blink away the tears. I hadn’t seen what she hit me with, although it certainly seemed far harder than any hand. I couldn’t help to gaze at my arm watching as the red began to form and puff.
“No, m-ma’am,” I say, my voice soft as I continue to gaze at my arm. Not even a second later I’m struck again, this time on the hand opposite to the previously struck arm. I had been able to see precisely what had hit me. Well… I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but it appeared to be made of metal, well—and it hurt. I couldn’t suppress the shriek that passed through my throat at the impact.
Once again she dragged my face up to meet hers saying, “Do you have no respect, brat? You will look at me when speaking to me. Now try again and with less stuttering this time.” I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from sobbing as I felt my eyes begin to fill with tears. She only looked bored at my glossed-over eyes. Not even the guards from my old hometown were this heartless.
I swallow back another sob before replying, “No, ma’am.” I lift my chin for extra measure. Her gaze lingers on me before she seems satisfied, releasing me from her firm grip.
“Pitiful, but I suppose you’ll have time to do better.” She spits, circling me. All that I can do is stand and follow her with my gaze. “Now, tell me what you know of Grisha.” She tells me, the command taking me aback. Grisha? Why would she want to know what a kid is aware of Grisha? I suppose I don’t have much of a choice but to not question her commands.
“Grisha? Well—I know they’re basically… enhanced persons. People who can manipulate the elements around them. The only other thing I know about them is that they serve our—the Ravkan second army.” She mulls over my words, her gaze dissecting me apart as I speak causing me to sweat.
“And..?” She pries, and a furrow my brows in confusion. Does she believe me to be lying? What else could I possibly know? Is that why I’m here? Do they believe me to have some information on Grisha?
“I swear that’s all I know about them, ma’am.” I almost beg but think better of it knowing that she’d likely be displeased by such an action. She scoffs as soon as I finish speaking, once again eliminating the space between us. I flinch from her from impulse which causes her gaze to tint with something dangerous.
“You expect me to believe that? A ten-year-old girl unaware of what she is?” She questions, her cruel smile like a serpent. I do my best to show my honest confusion. What I am? What is that supposed to mean? I’m just a half Shu Ravkan girl. Nothing special.
“I’m sorry, I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I think there’s been some sort of misund—”
“There is no misunderstanding.” She cuts in, her words laced with venom that makes me flinch. I close my eyes for seconds? Minutes? I’m not certain, all that I know is that the feeling of stinging against the back of my head jolts me from my stoop.
I stumble in her direction, landing on the ground on top of the silk train of her dress. I gaze up, not able to hide my tears, quivering tremors darting through my entire being. Never has an old woman ever looked so monstrous.
“You don’t know what I’m referring to—huh?” She questions, amusement seeping from her expression. I flush in embarrassment, despite not knowing what she’s referring to. I may be young but I’m fully aware of knowing when I’m being mocked. “You,” She continues, “Are the sun summoner.”
I freeze mulling over what she’s just said. I’m—I’m what?! No. This is ridiculous. I would know if I had anything of the sort within me. I would laugh if it weren’t for the pain scorching through my entire body. How can they possibly believe that—that I’m the sun summoner?!
“You don’t know.” She seems genuinely surprised for the first time; her gaze turned more curious than sharp. “This certainly makes this more interesting.” She adds, a spark within her gaze. She asses me again, her gaze less strict as she does so before she continues, “I’ll let you mull things over. We’ll start training tomorrow.” Her tone is dismissal, and she quickly pulls me up onto my feet before opening the doors.
She hands me off to one of the guards at the door, who holds a firm grip on my shoulder as I pushed back through the halls. This time, I have no thought to assess my surroundings, stuck in my head.
Sun summoner. Sun Summoner. They believe me to be the sun summoner. Is it—could it possibly be true? They seem to think so, so I suppose it does’ t matter what I believe. When they find out I’m nothing special they’ll likely kill me or toss me aside.
As the guard puts me in my room and maids surround me again, all I can think is how this might be my last day alive. I finch as the maids mindlessly brush past and or press on bruises and marks from the old woman, however, they also apply ointment.
I don’t pay any thought as they rinse me of my exterior blemishes and sweat. I don’t glance at any of them as they wrap me in a soft sleep gown. I do however miss their company as I’m once again left alone in my much too large room.
It’s my last night alive and I’m all alone.
The sun hasn’t even winked into the sky when the servants begin to flood my room again. It’s not like it bothered me considering that I hadn’t gotten an ounce of sleep. After all, I was mulling over everything that’s happened in my life and what I could’ve done differently. I suppose there’s no use in wondering past choices. It won’t change my current fate.
The routine of the day has all already become familiar as they strip and reclothe, scrub and apply, tug and pull. I almost want them to knock against the bruises, scrapes, and sores. At least they remind me that I’m still alive.
I don’t say a word as I’m led back to the door of the old woman, somehow looking far more mortifying as I freeze in front of it. ‘What has she in store for me today?’ I didn’t wish to find out, but with the forceful ushering of the guards, I had no choice but to enter the dreaded room.
She stood as she had before when I first saw her. Patiently waiting expectantly. I no longer wondered what their uttered phrases in Shu were, or the clothing draped amongst them, or the intention behind their words. I only existed. These are to be my last moments, so I don’t want to dwell on anyone else.
I do, however, flinch when the door shuts, my gaze jutting to the old woman. Her gaze goes right through me, as she sizes me up, pulling me apart with her gaze alone.
She sighs before uttering, “We have a lot of work to do.” I almost don’t process what she says. I was preparing myself for a million things, but this I wasn’t sure what she was insinuating. I just stand there as she looks at me, expectantly for a few painfully long moments.
“I’m confused, ma’am,” I reply, shying away from her gaze. I’ve always been the type of person who preferred lurking in the shadows anyways—even more so when she glances at me like I’m the least interesting thing in the world.
“Always with the confusion and denial.” She mutters hobbling over to me with startling swiftness. “Just do girl—as I say.” My wrist is now within her firm grasp and a almost flinch at the feeling of her dripping around my preexisting bruises, although I can only assume that she would punish me for flinching too, so I push it back. “Now.” She begins, creating some distance between us, “Let’s get started.”
I shrink from the implication of those words; the only thought running through my head being, ‘I fear this is only the beginning.’