To Riley and Logan
But he that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.
IN the beginning was the darkness, and in the darkness was a girl, and in the girl was a secret. The secret was as old as the cracked cobblestone streets of Yuan, as peculiar as the roses that bloom eternally within the domed city’s walls, as poisonous as forgotten history and the stories told in its place.
By the time the girl was born, the secret was all but lost. The stories had become scripture, and only the very brave—or very mad—dared to doubt them. The girl was raised on the stories, and never questioned their truth, until the day her mother took her walking beyond the city walls.
In the wilds outside, a voice as fathomless as the ocean spoke to her of a time before the domed cities, before wholes became halves and bargains were made in blood. It told of a terrible choice and even more terrible consequences. It begged her to listen, to live.…
In the early days, I was one, the voice whispered. I was this world and this world was me, and the dance was seamless and sweet.
Then the ships came from a faraway world. They came belching smoke and fire, stinking of space and beings living and breathing, loving and hating, hoping and despairing in close quarters for too many centuries.
I watched the humans spill from their ships, blinking in my sun, marveling at my moons, weeping as they set foot on land for the first time, and I was … curious.
I teased my magic between their spindle fingers, into their seashell ears, around the pulsing heads of their babes, finding them as delightful as my native creatures, but soft and unprepared for life on our world. Knowing they would die without my help, I began to touch them, to transform them.
It was what I had done since the beginning, when I was only the land and the sea and a longing for something more to keep me company.
But the humans were afraid of my touch, of the magic that caused their smooth flesh to scale and their bodies to bunch with unfamiliar muscle. They cursed me. They praised me. They retreated into the great domes they had built and hid themselves away, locking those already touched by my magic outside their gates and calling them Monstrous.
They made promises and offerings and dangerous bargains, pulling at me until I was no longer one but two: the Pure Heart and the Dark Heart, something both more a n d much, much less.
The Dark Heart, my shadow self, soon developed an equally dark hunger. It told the Smooth Skins in the domed cities of its longing, promising them safety and abundance in exchange for blood and pain, for the voluntary laying down of a life, the ultimate act of devotion. It gave them magic words to speak and took their rulers as offerings, and in each city, in the place where the sacrificial blood was spilled, enchanted roses grew, a symbol of the covenant between the Smooth Skins and their new god.
Decades passed, and the Dark Heart fed and grew powerful, stealing vitality from the planet, determined that none but its chosen few should thrive. And so the Smooth Skins in the cities learned to bleed, and the Monstrous outside learned to hate, and I faded away, stretched thinner with every passing year, until only a precious few heard my voice.
Finally, I realized I had to reach out to the Smooth Skins in a new way.
Before it was too late. Using the power of transformation upon myself for the first time, I took the form of a Monstrous woman with long black hair and white robes, a body to give the Smooth Skins one last chance to show compassion.
I went from city to city, introducing myself as an enchantress, a priestess of the planet. I begged to be allowed inside. I begged the Smooth Skins to abandon their dark worship and accept the gifts of their new world.
I begged them to make me whole, to restore the innocence I’d lost when they had begun to call me god and devil.
But the gates of the domed cities remained shut. The Smooth Skins had no concern for the rest of the world, so long as their own desires were met. They spit harsh words through the cracks in their walls. They shot weapons through slots in their gates. Arrows pierced my chest, and my new blood spilled onto the ground.
I stumbled into the wilds, seeking shelter, but in the camps of the Monstrous I found no aid. Sensing I was not truly one of their own, they bared their teeth, called me witch, and turned me away.
My new body dying and my hopes for peace shattered, I gathered the last of my magic and sent a curse sweeping across the world. I cursed the eyes of the Monstrous to run dry, never to know the release of tears, but I cursed the Smooth Skins even more terribly. From that day forward, a precious few of their babes would be born kissed by the Monstrous traits they despised. The rest would be born with missing pieces, trapped in bodies as twisted and wrong as the Dark Heart they worshipped.
The Dark Heart managed to spare a few of the city dwellers—those from the families who had spilled blood for their god—but my curse had its way with the rest. The rest of the Smooth Skins became more monstrous than the creatures they feared, and no amount of blood spilled in their royal gardens could make them whole again.
There is only one way to undo the curse: if even one Smooth Skin and one Monstrous can learn to love the other more than anything else—more than safety or prejudice, more than privilege or revenge, more even than their own selves—then the curse that division has brought upon our world will be broken and the planet made whole.
For a time, I had hope that my last act of cruelty would sway the humans in a way my pleas for mercy had not. But as time passed—hundreds and hundreds of years slipping away as I tossed on the wind, a ghost haunting lands where I used to live and breathe—I saw I had accomplished nothing. The world outside the domes continued to die. The land and the creatures upon it cried out for aid, but I could only watch as elders suffered and young ones starved. I had nothing left to give. I had lost everything but my voice.
And what good is a voice when so few will listen?
Will you listen, child? the Pure Heart of the planet asked the girl. Will you do what the others would not? There is proof of the story I tell. I can show you where to look. I can help you find the truth.
The truth had been hidden away, the voice told the princess, but she could find it, if she was brave.
The girl wasn’t brave. Her fifth birthday was still three months away.
She wasn’t a hero with a sword; she wasn’t even allowed a knife to cut her food, for fear she’d sever a finger. But still, the voice haunted her dreams. It cried out for justice, but the girl learned to cry louder, to stand on her tower balcony and howl, terrifying the common people living in the center of the city.
She screamed and fought the servants who were sent to care for her.
She clawed at her father’s face and bared her teeth at him in rage. She wept and ripped her dolls to pieces—heads and arms and legs pulled asunder, every dress torn in two, every tiny crown bent and broken—but she never spoke of the secret. She never admitted, even to herself, why she was so angry. And sad. And afraid.
Months passed, and eventually the Pure Heart spoke to her no longer. The girl’s misery and rage slipped away, and the secret sank like a stone, deep, deep, deep inside her, until the truth was as forgotten as hope and beauty and all the other things given to the darkness.
THE city is beautiful tonight. I can tell by the smells drifting through Needle’s open window—the last of the autumn flowers clinging to their stalks, their perfume crisper and cleaner than the summer blossoms that came before; fruit sweet and heavy on the trees; and above it all, the heady fragrance of the roses blooming in the royal garden.
I will be out among it all soon. The tower holds me by day, but by night I am a wanderer, a good fellow of the moons. The yellow moon, the blue moon, even the red moon, with its beams that cut angrily through the dome when the Monstrous light their funeral fires in the desert. I call the moons by secret names; they call me Isra. I am not their princess, or their mistress, or their daughter, or their prisoner. I am Isra of the wild hair and quick feet clever in the darkness. I am Isra of the shadows, my secret made meaningless by moonlight.
I am ready to see my moons, to see anything.
It’s been four endless nights since I visited the roses.
The Monstrous draw closer to Yuan than ever before. There are city soldiers everywhere, prowling the wall walks, fortifying the gates, testing for weaknesses in the dome, padding the trails from the city center to the flower gardens to the orchards to the fields, and back again, in their soft boots.
They would never survive in the desert outside. Their boots are glorified house slippers, their feet soft and vulnerable beneath. I’m certain I have more calluses on my feet than any of Baba’s soldiers, rough spots on my toes and heels that catch and hold on stone.
I can practically feel the stone of the balcony’s ledge digging into my skin now, grounding me as I hover in the hungry air at the edge of the world.…
My toes itch. My tongue taps behind my teeth. My skin sweats beneath my heavy blanket. Just a few more minutes. Surely Needle will put out her light soon. My maid insists it’s impossible to smell wax melting from across the room, but I can smell it, and it keeps me awake, even when I’m not biding my time, waiting for the chance to escape.
An untended flame is dangerous, and this tower has burned before.
I dream about that fire almost every night—flames blooming like a terrible flower, devouring the curtains and the bed, licking at my nightgown. Baba’s strong hands throwing me to the ground, and my head striking the stones before the world goes black. And finally, the door splintering and my mother’s cry as she hurls herself from the tower balcony.
That night is my clearest memory from the time before. One of my only memories. I don’t remember my mother’s face or the color of Baba’s eyes. I don’t remember romps in the garden or holiday dinners at court, though Baba swears we had them. I don’t even remember the sight of my own face. My mother forbade mirrors in the tower, and after her death, I had no need of them. My eyes never recovered from the night Baba saved me from the flames. For a day or two, the healers thought they might—I saw flashes of light and color in the darkness—but within a week it was obvious my sight was gone forever. I’ve been blind since I was four years old, the year my mama joined the long line of dead queens.
“Terribly unfair,” I’ve heard people whisper when they don’t realize the figure in the garden with the cloak pulled over her head isn’t another noble out for a walk, “that the princess should lose her mama and her eyes all at once.”
I want to tell them my eyes are not lost. See? Here they are. Still in my head. But I don’t say a word. I can’t reveal myself. No one knows what the princess of Yuan looks like these days. I haven’t been knowingly allowed out of the tower since my tenth birthday. If the Monstrous breach the walls, Father is certain I’ll be safe here until the mutants are destroyed.
There is only one door leading into the tower, and Baba and his chief advisor, Junjie, are the only ones who know where the key is hidden.
They have no idea that I don’t need a key. Or a door.
I only need my sentry to put out her light and go to sleep!
I muffle a frustrated sigh with my fist. She’s probably sewing in bed again. Needle has sewn me a dress each month for the past year. This one is green, she told me.
Lovely, I said, and rolled my eyes. As if I need another dress. I’m drowning in dresses. I’ve begged her to stop—or at least make something for herself—but she won’t listen. One would think she’s deaf as well as mute. If one didn’t know better. If one hadn’t been caught sneaking out of one’s bedroom a dozen times, betrayed by the squeak of the bed frame or the crack of an anklebone.
That’s why I have to wait. I have to be sure.…
Another half hour ticks away with maddening slowness. I’ve decided Needle has indeed forgotten to put out her candle— again!— and am about to throw off the covers, when I hear the shup of the silver cap smothering the flame, and catch a whiff of smoke and the tail end of Needle’s soft sigh as she curls beneath her blankets. Needle doesn’t make many sounds, but of those she does, that sigh is the saddest.
I’m suddenly ashamed of myself. Poor, tired Needle, the common girl without a voice, sworn to serve the princess without sight.
When I’m queen, I will give her a better job. Something far away from me and the burden of my misbehavior. When I’m caught sneaking from the tower—and I will be caught, no matter how careful I am; there are only so many precautions a blind girl can take—she will be the one who’s punished. I know that, but I can’t stop. I need the night. I need the feel of my hair lifting from my shoulders as I run.
There is no wind in Yuan. Wind is a fairy tale, a magical, invisible force that stirs the planet, assuring living things that the world still moves.
Under our dome, the air is too still. It smothers, clutches, a hand tightening into a fist that will someday crush the city to pieces.
It’s been nearly a millennium since those outside the domes were mutated by the toxic new world, but the past two hundred years have been the most devastating for the people living in the cities. All but three of the original fifteen settlements have fallen to the monsters in the desert. The messenger birds from the king of Sula and the queen of Port South come less and less frequently. One day they will stop altogether.
Or perhaps our birds will be the first to have their freedom. Either way, Yuan is living on borrowed time. Though probably not as borrowed as mine.…
I wait a few more moments—until Needle’s breath comes slowly and evenly—before slipping out of bed and eating up the thick carpet between my bedroom and the balcony with eager feet. Seventeen steps to the bedroom door; twenty-seven down the hall, past the sitting room, through the music room, and out onto the balcony; then three more and the careful fall to freedom. Careful, so I don’t follow in my mother’s footsteps. Careful, so my escape is only for the night, not for forever.
I brace my hands on the balcony ledge and push off the ground with bare toes, drawing my knees up to my chest, landing atop the parapet in an easy crouch. My fingertips brush the cold marble; my cotton overalls draw up my shins.
The overalls are an orchard worker’s suit with wide legs and deep pockets. I stole them from a supply shed near the apple orchard two years ago. Now the legs grow too short. I am seventeen and very tall for a person.