PrologueFive years ago
The hill they climb each year is steep. Father carries the straw rope, cooking pans, a faded quilt, but the two sisters are charged with heaving the large basket of kindling up the slope. In front, her arms full of vegetables collected that afternoon, their mother turns and hurries them with a wave.
“We’re coming,” Father says.
Miren, the elder sister, watches the other children scream and clamber up with only a twinge of envy in her stomach. Tonight will be her night; she knows it.
The sisters crest the hill and huff dramatically, dropping their basket with a clatter. The plateau shimmers green in the wind, cradled by whispering, rolling plains that reach past the edge of any map. Toward the east, Miren can see far beyond Crescent Bay, past the docks and over the shimmering Tehum Sea and even, on a clear evening such as this, the peaks of Avi’or: blue, snowcapped pillars of stone, their crags piercing the belly of the rising moon.
They are one of the last families to arrive. The fishermen and their wives chat with each other, sharing responsibilities. The blacksmith, flanked by his two burly sons, laughs heartily at a joke from the baker. And even the baron, whose motives and fashions are often a subject of gossip, chuckles with a couple of fishermen. Conversations are, as always, a blend of voices and signing hands.
Miren can’t stop smiling; warm excitement pools in her stomach and hums in her veins. She imagines opening her mouth as heat rises up her throat, her Voice ringing out with Song, catching everyone midconversation as the bundle of kindling bursts into flame.
The blacksmith’s elder son, only a year older than she, was able to Earth Sing at the gathering three years ago. Now he works with his father, apprenticed like most Singers his age, learning to Sing the more difficult Songs of metal. Miren sees him standing beside the blacksmith, his hanging arms and half-closed eyes part of a still, deliberate calm that she admires. Even his name, Jonath, feels like a cool stone in her mouth.
He catches her eye and grins, disrupting his stillness just for her. Her cheeks grow warm with a different kind of heat.
Mother, carrying a tray of sliced carrots and potatoes and sprouts, rushes over to the collection of food by the tall wooden structure: artfully arranged meats and vegetables and cheeses and bread of every shape—a spread fit for royalty, Miren is sure. She hopes her nerves will quiet enough to allow her to enjoy the food.
“Miren,” Father calls. “The wood goes over there.”
“Yes, Father.” Miren grins, and tells her sister, “We’ll put it by the fire.”
“I know,” Kesia says, but she’s smiling, her hazel eyes lighting up. She has a bounce in her curls and a spattering of freckles that Miren secretly envies, but her complexion is pale, her rosy cheeks a bit clammy. She hasn’t been feeling well lately, but she’s excited too.
The two sisters haul the basket toward the sea of quilts strewn around the edges of the plateau. On the far side sits a haphazard tower of wood twice the height of a man, branches of varying length stacked and tied together: the center beacon of the Skyflame ceremony.
The people look up and cheer as the family approaches. “The lightkeepers are here!” a fisherman cries. “Now Ami won’t have to cook!”
Everyone laughs appreciatively as Miren and Kesia set the basket down. Even timid Ami, huddled with her fellow fisherfolk, feigns a gasp of relief and brushes the front of her blue dress. Mother adds her tray to the spread and joins the group, signing excited greetings with her hands.
Beyond the adults, the children scuttle around the lush green. Those near the age of twelve are supposed to remain silent until the ceremony, but most of them scream and laugh, chasing each other or taking turns rolling partway down the hill. Kesia giggles as a girl flails wildly, her grass-stained dress billowing as she tumbles.
Miren spots one boy sitting on the grass alone, watching the other children with his head propped up in his hands. He is the baron’s son, though she can’t recall his name. He is about Kesia’s age, perhaps eleven years old; he may try to Sing tonight.
A twinge of doubt creeps up Miren’s neck. Already thirteen, her chances of finally Singing are slim. For the past year, there has been no denying that womanhood has come. The time to Sing—if there ever was one—is past. To attempt Song tonight would be childish, embarrassing.
But that can’t be, she reasons. Her parents have been only supportive. Every time her mother Sings, Miren pauses to listen, to catch every note, every breath, every bend in the melody. If it’s a Song she recognizes, one for lighting the fire or warming a pan, Miren will join in, her own voice nestling comfortably beside her mother’s. Mother will look up, surprised, and smile through her Song. Father will grin and sigh. “I feel warmer already.” Then Miren’s laugh will bubble through her concentration, and she’ll change notes, complementing the Song with harmony rather than competing with it. She will never bother to check if the pan is warmer than it should be, or if the wood in the fireplace smokes with promise.
And now, standing on the plateau, a creeping certainty tells her she’s wrong. She’s not a Fire Singer. All the heat of a moment ago drains from her.
“Want to go play?” Kesia asks, pulling Miren’s attention to the other children.
Miren blinks in surprise. “Do you feel well enough?”
Kesia shrugs, shy about her constant poor health. “Well, just for a little while.”
Miren glances at Mother and Father, but their attention is with the other adults, on the wooden frame for Skyflame and the pots of food. In light of their work, the scurrying children suddenly look like children, a distinction Miren has dreaded for moons now.
“You go ahead, actually,” Miren says. “I should help Mother with the food.”
Kesia frowns. “I want you to come.”
“It’s all right, have fun. Maybe ask the baron’s son to play with everyone. He seems sad.”
Kesia turns to follow her gaze, and Miren takes the chance to slip away.
She shouldn’t be this nervous. This is a celebration. Miren heads for the adults around the food, chopping vegetables and sorting meats as they talk, but her eyes catch on her father, who is leaning over the pile of wood. He ...