“We are the Cerulean. Our blood is magic.”
That’s how The Cerulean begins, a brand new fantasy that toes the line between glitteringly magical and a brutally fast-paced fight for survival. Welcome, readers, to the City Above the Sky.
Sera, one of those aforementioned Ceruleans, never truly felt like she fit in amongst her people. Ever curious about the world anchored below and unsure of what she’d like to dedicate her life to (wow, relatable tho), Sera’s shameless humanity among the inhuman leads her down a path she never imagined—she’s called to be the Cerulean’s sacrifice, the life required to break the tether between their city and the planet below. But, when she survives, she quickly learns the dangers her mothers warned her of were not just stories.
We cannot wait for you to dig into this mysterious read from Amy Ewing (the author of one of our original faves, The Jewel trilogy!), where Cerulean and human alike must dig deep to find the magic within in order to survive. Start reading The Cerulean bewow!
THE CITY ABOVE THE SKY
We are the Cerulean. Our blood is magic.
Sera’s mothers had told her this since the day she was born, before she could speak or think or understand what it meant. Every Cerulean child knew there was magic in their blood; it had healing powers, for one, and it could form the most intimate connection of the blood bond.
None of that magic was helping Sera today, though.
The cloudspinners’ grove was cold, the only place in the City Above the Sky that wasn’t perfectly temperate. Grass crunched under her bare feet as she reached to grab a fistful of clouds from where they clung, delicate as a spider’s web, to the black leaves of the nebula tree. The thin strands were slippery and floated up to a higher leaf, out of Sera’s reach.
“Drat,” she cursed, and a couple of girls closest to her gasped. Koreen shot her a discerning look, then tossed her bright blue hair over one shoulder, spinning her cloud into the most delicate thread, as if to show Sera how it was really done. Sera looked down at her own cloudspun dress, the one her green mother had made for her, and knew she would never be able to spin enough clouds to make one herself.
“Don’t try to catch them,” Leela said, getting up from her wheel, where she already had a thick spool of spun thread ready to be woven into fabric. “Let them come to you.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Sera said. “We’ve been working in the grove for three weeks, and I’m no better at cloudspinning now than I was then.”
“We’ll be moving on to the stargem mines soon,” Leela said. “Perhaps you’ll find your calling there.”
Leela was Sera’s best friend. Her only friend, really. She didn’t seem to mind Sera’s outbursts or endless questions or the way Sera liked to laugh so big and loud she could scare the birds in the Aviary.
She was looking so hopeful now that Sera couldn’t bring herself to say that she didn’t think she was meant to hunt for precious jewels in the mines either. She wasn’t sure what her purpose in the City was supposed to be. And she was turning eighteen soon, an adult. She feared the High Priestess might simply assign her to the temple to be a novice because she wouldn’t know what else to do with her, and Sera couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do less. She loved Mother Sun, of course, but she didn’t see the need to sing songs about her and clean the temple all day just to prove that.
But it had been a year since her lessons with her green mother had ended and she and the other young Cerulean had begun learning the various trades of the City Above the Sky. She knew her green mother had been hoping she’d take to cloudspinning—it had been her occupation before Sera was born, and she had spun all of Sera’s dresses. Her orange mother would love if she became a novice, but Sera had a suspicion that she knew better than to hope for that, based on Sera’s consistent tardiness to evening prayers. Her purple mother played the most beautiful music on the miniature harp—she was always asked to play at festivals and celebrations—but Sera had no musical talent whatsoever, and her purple mother had understood this early on and never pressed her. She was too boisterous for the Aviary; she got bored and distracted while overseeing the seresheep in the Meadow; she was too impatient to tend to the bees in the Apiary.
“Perhaps Sera will be the first Cerulean with no true calling at all,” Koreen said in a tone that was at once honeysweet and laced with tartness.
Treena and Daina exchanged a glance. Daina had already found her calling, to help care for the orchards, and had received a blessing from the High Priestess. She would begin her work there soon. Sera was fairly certain Treena would be asking for a blessing to work with the midwives any day now.
“Of course she will find a calling,” Leela said brusquely.
“She hasn’t yet,” Daina pointed out.
“Neither have I,” Leela shot back.
“I would like to tend to the tether,” Sera said. She didn’t know where the words came from, but once they were out, she knew they were true. The other girls stared at her as though she had just sprouted an extra head.
“The tether?” Elorin gasped.
“No one tends to the tether,” Koreen scoffed. “It hasn’t needed tending in years and years. That was the whole point of attaching our City to that planet down there in the first place.”
The City Above the Sky wasn’t like the many planets of the universe—it was not a planet at all. It wasn’t round like a ball, but flat, a floating oval disk with a temple in its center and two sprawling gardens at either end. A fine membrane of magic protected its outer rim and encased it like an egg, securing its edges so no mindless Cerulean would wander off it and fall into space. Since it had no rain, or snow, or any discernible weather, the City must attach itself to a planet by means of a tether, a tangible, finely wrought chain of magic in links of gold and silver and blue, invisible to the human eye, but perfectly visible to every Cerulean. This tether gave the City life—it drew nutrients up from the planet, minerals and molecules of all kinds, the way grass draws water up from soil. It kept the Great Estuary full and the orchards watered. It kept the air pure and the animals healthy.
Sera’s green mother had told her of how dangerous the journey to this planet had been, nearly nine hundred years ago, after the Great Sadness had happened and Cerulean life had changed irrevocably. It had taken so long to find the green-blue-brown orb below, the Estuary had nearly dried up and the moonflower fields had withered and blown away and the seresheep had begun to die.
“How can we be sure the tether is still healthy?” Sera said to Koreen. “My green mother told me that there used to be Cerulean who would look after it and warn the High Priestess when it was time for the City to move again. Our City used to move all the time, didn’t it? And now we’ve been stuck here for almost a millennium.”
“Because Mother Sun gave us a great gift,” Elorin said piously. Elorin would definitely end up as a novice. “This planet has so many resources to share, we need not move at all.”
“But we’re meant to move, aren’t we?” Sera said. “In all the oldest stories, the Cerulean would move from planet to planet, sometimes even twice in one year!”
“I don’t know what your green mother has been teaching you,” Koreen said. “But mine has never said anything about any Cerulean tending to the tether.”
All green mothers were educators, imparting to their daughters the history and stories of the Cerulean people, passed down from generation to generation. The Cerulean had no books or written language, just the symbols on the temple doors, the language of Mother Sun that only the High Priestess could read.
“Maybe that’s because you never asked,” Sera muttered.
“Not to mention the fact that we are safe here,” Koreen continued. “What if we go searching for another planet and can’t find one? What if we move and there is another Great Sadness? Is that what you want, Sera?”
She felt stung. “Of course not.”
The Great Sadness had happened on the last planet the City had been attached to. It was the single worst tragedy in Cerulean history—two hundred Cerulean had been murdered by the humans who lived on the planet, and the City had been forced to move before its time.
Sera would never want that to happen again. She loved her City, she truly did. She just felt a bit . . . bored sometimes. She had become so familiar with the planet beneath them, the shapes of its two countries, Kaolin and Pelago, etched into her brain. She could probably draw them in her sleep—Kaolin was a hulking swath of land shaped like a lopsided star, Pelago a myriad of islands. Besides, she had already gleaned every scrap of information about them that she could from her green mother, who could only tell her what her green mother had taught her, and so on and so on. Sera always wondered what stories might have been lost or changed over the generations. For now, she felt there was nothing left to learn. As long as they were attached to this planet, the tether was the only mystery that remained to her. She could see it from the edges of the City, the fine bluish-silvery-gold line cutting through the darkness of space. She wondered what it looked like where it stuck into the underside of the City, if it attached like a spiderweb, or simply thrust out proudly from the City’s belly.
Koreen smiled smugly and changed the subject. “Anyway, my orange mother told me something in confidence last night. . . .”
The other girls leaned in, eager to hear what Koreen had to say. Leela rolled her eyes and Sera suppressed a giggle.
“There will be a wedding season soon!”
There were squeals of delight and clapping of hands at this proclamation, and Sera couldn’t help joining in—she had not yet lived through a wedding season and had always wanted to see one.
“Are you sure?”
“Oh, this is so exciting!”
“The High Priestess mentioned it at her prayer group,” Koreen said, pushing her hair back again. Every Cerulean had skin as silvery as moonlight and blue hair and blue eyes that matched the color of their blood, but for some reason it all looked better on Koreen than on Sera. Sera didn’t like looking at herself in the one mirror in her house. She felt like her skin was a lie, hiding a secret even Leela didn’t know.
“I’ve been waiting for a wedding season my whole life,” Treena said. “Imagine the dresses!”
“Imagine the food,” Sera said with a grin that Treena returned.
“How many triads will be married, do you think?” Elorin asked.
“How many do you think will form in advance of the season?” Daina said with a mischievous look.
“Come now,” Leela said. “Marriage is sacred. Mother Sun would not allow a triad to marry if they were not truly in love.”
Daina shrugged but did not look convinced.
The girls chattered on about who would be marrying and which in the newly formed triads would be the purple or green or orange mother and what flowers they would use to make garlands for their hair and whether they would finally get their first taste of sweetnectar and feel its heady effects.
As the conversation wore on, Sera turned to her spinning wheel and picked up a clump of unusable thread. “I’m not going to tell Green Mother about this,” she said with a sigh. “She’ll only be disappointed.”
“Your green mother wants you to be happy,” Leela said. “She just has more time on her hands now that you are not pelting her with questions from morning until night.”
Sera laughed. “I was a difficult pupil, wasn’t I?”
“Your green mother is a very patient woman.”
Sera dropped the clump of cloud onto the frosty grass. The oldest stories said the nebula trees had come from one of the first planets the City Above the Sky had tethered itself to, long before Sera or her mothers or her mothers’ mothers were born, someplace cold and dark and full of mystery. That was another part of the magic of the tether—it could grow little pieces of whatever planet it was connected to in the City Above the Sky, be it a flower or a beetle or a type of stone. “Planetary gifts,” the High Priestess called them. There were fish in the Estuary whose scales could light up in all sorts of colors, with long glassy filaments that hung over their eyes—they had come from the last planet, the one that changed everything, where the Great Sadness occurred. Most Cerulean avoided these fish, but Sera thought they were lovely. She liked to sit very still with her hand under the water until they would come and nibble at her fingers.
The gifts from their current planet were rather boring— short, scrubby olive trees and soft white shells from Pelago; gray birds with bright red chests and a bronze-colored metal from Kaolin that could be dug up in the stargem mines.
Leela put a hand on her wrist, and Sera was startled out of her thoughts.
“You will find your purpose in time,” she said. “I know it. Besides, you’re good at plenty of things, not just at asking more questions in two days than Koreen asks in a year.” Sera’s lips twitched as Leela ticked things off on her fingers. “You’re the fastest runner in the City. You can eat more squash blossoms in one sitting than any twelve Cerulean combined. You climb everything with limbs and many without—I know you still sneak up to the top of the temple.”
Sera felt grateful for the millionth time that she had Leela in her life. But the truth was, the only things Sera seemed to be good at besides running and climbing were loving her mothers and being friends with Leela.
She blew on her hands to warm them, thinking she would bathe in the Estuary this evening after dinner. She hoped her green mother would be cooking tonight—now that Leela had mentioned squash blossoms, Sera found herself craving them. Her orange mother loved trying her hand in the kitchen, but she always overcooked everything, and her purple mother would joke that she should content herself with making only salads.
Suddenly, from deep within the City, the clear, rich boom of the temple bells rang out. All the girls in the grove stopped what they were doing, every face turned toward the sound. It was not time for evening prayers. So why would the bells be ringing?
“Perhaps they are announcing the wedding season today!” Daina exclaimed.
There was a rustling sound and Baarha, one of the adult cloudspinners, appeared in the clearing, flushed and out of breath. “Come, girls, come! Leave the spinning wheels; we must get to the temple.”
“What’s happening?” Leela asked.
Baarha’s eyes were so wide Sera could see whites all around her brilliant blue irises, and they sparkled with fear. “Mother Sun has spoken,” she said. “A choosing ceremony is about to begin. The time has come for the City to move.”
The bells were still ringing when Sera, Leela, and the other girls ran, panting, over Faesa’s Bridge to the island in the middle of the Great Estuary, where the temple stood.
They joined the throng of Cerulean pouring over all three of the bridges that connected the island to the rest of the City, and uncertainty hung like a cloud over the crowds, as black as the leaves of the nebula trees. Sera looked for her mothers but saw no sign of them. Perhaps they were already inside.
“Who do you think will be chosen to break the tether?” Koreen whispered.
“Someone strong, I imagine,” Daina whispered back.
Freeda ran the orchards and had broad shoulders and muscled arms. But Sera did not think Mother Sun would choose a Cerulean for her physical strength alone.
“No, someone pious,” Elorin said. “Perhaps an acolyte.”
Sera just hoped it wouldn’t be one of her mothers who was chosen. Some traditions may have been lost or forgotten over the hundreds of years attached to this planet, but the ceremony to make the tether and break the tether was not one of them. And what the ceremony required was blood—the sacrifice of a Cerulean.
“Why now, do you think?” Sera said. “What happened to make the City need to move after all these years?”
“Why don’t you ask your green mother? She seems to have all the answers,” Koreen said.
Sera pressed her lips together. The fact was, her green mother’s answers to all of Sera’s most important questions were merely guesses. No one remembered if the Cerulean had actually tended to the tether in the past. No one remembered the name of the planet they had left, or how choosing ceremonies had come about; and no one could satisfactorily explain why Cerulean could not visit the planets anymore when it had been so long since the Great Sadness, and this planet was not the same as that one.
Her green mother had taught her as much as she could about Kaolin and Pelago. Sera learned that parents in those countries consisted of one male and one female, and they could have as many children as they wished. Sera didn’t like the sound of that, to be honest—she enjoyed being her mothers’ only child. Her purple mother would be able to have another daughter only after Sera had left their dwelling to live on her own, and only when a new birthing season was announced. But there were no birthing seasons in Kaolin or Pelago. They could have children any time, in any
year. Cerulean birthing seasons lasted anywhere from five to fifteen years—the season Sera had been born in lasted eight. Once the season was over, no children would be born until the next birthing season began, years and years later. Population had to be carefully controlled in the City Above the Sky. It had been eighteen years since the last birthing season.
Sera was curious to see what a male looked like. Cerulean did not need males to procreate; they contained that power within their own bodies. Her purple mother had explained it to Sera when she was twelve, how she carried an egg inside her womb that had split when it was ready and formed Sera. But in Kaolin and Pelago it took one male and one female to make a child, and of course, any information about the planet had unleashed another round of questions, and her green mother did not know nearly enough about the two countries to satisfy Sera’s curiosity.
“Other green mothers in times past knew more,” she had said. “Especially in the days of old, when we used to visit the planets themselves. But we do not go down onto them anymore.”
“Why not?” Sera had asked. It appealed to her greatly, the idea of visiting Kaolin and Pelago. What did the people look like? What sort of clothes might they wear? Were their dwellings made of sunglass like the Cerulean homes? Did they live in the light and love of Mother Sun, too?
“Long ago,” her green mother had begun, in the low, smooth voice she used to tell all the best stories, “the Cerulean would travel to a tethered planet to get to know its people and have a better understanding of the wide ways of the universe, in which we are all interconnected.”
“How would they get to the planet?” Sera asked eagerly. That sounded like fun, a real adventure, something she would surely like to do.
“I do not know. It is not remembered.”
Sera huffed. It was always the most interesting parts of the stories that seemed to be lost in antiquity.
“How would they know its people? Does the whole universe speak the Cerulean language?”
Her green mother had laughed at that. “No, my dear. There are many languages spoken in the universe. But part of the Cerulean magic is that we can understand them all, and learn to speak them in turn. Some were easier to learn than others—I remember my own green mother telling me a wonderful tale of a planet populated by giant birds with colorful plumage and crests of jade and gold. It took quite some time for the Cerulean back then to communicate with these birds, but once they did, they were allowed to fly upon their backs and see the planet as the birds saw it.”
Sera could not think of anything more wonderful than flying around a strange new planet on the back of a giant bird.
“I do not know if it is true,” her green mother said, as if reading Sera’s mind. “It may only have been a story my green mother made up to entertain me.”
“But the Cerulean did used to go down to the planets,” Sera insisted.
“What if a planet had monsters on it? Or a poisonous atmosphere?”
“The magic in our blood can withstand any atmosphere,” her green mother reminded her. “We can breathe in places where colorful birds or monsters cannot.”
“But if we haven’t gone down onto this planet since we arrived here, how do you know anything about Kaolin and Pelago at all?” she asked.
“The High Priestess has ways of discerning a planet’s life, its populations and resources, and occasionally its customs. But those ways are secret, and not to be confided to a lowly green mother. They require a magic more powerful than you or I possess.”
Sera felt that if the High Priestess knew how to do this, she should share it with everyone. Wasn’t sharing a significant part of Cerulean life?
“She has told us what little she knows of this planet, and that is enough,” her green mother said, sensing Sera’s irritation. “All she does is to protect us. You spoke of monsters before, but you hit nearer to the mark than you might think. Not all monsters have horns or sharp teeth and claws. On the last planet, the humans who lived there were cruel and selfish. They did not trust the Cerulean who came to visit, and they wished to harness our magic for their own purposes.”
Sera gasped. “Can they do that?”
Her green mother held up a glowing finger. “Our magic lives in our blood, but it can be removed, yes. Or consumed, as in the case of the sleeping sickness.”
The sleeping sickness was the only disease that could kill a Cerulean—it fed on their magic, and Cerulean could not survive without the magic in their blood. But there hadn’t been a case of the sleeping sickness in the City since before Sera was born. She stared at her hands, fascinated. What did her magic look like outside her body, outside her blood?
“So if we were to go down onto the planet, the humans would try to steal our blood?” Sera asked.
“They might. We do not know for certain. But is it not best to be safe, rather than suffer another tragedy like the Great Sadness?”
Sera wasn’t sure about that. Of course, she did not want any Cerulean to die, but she also felt there was so much they did not know, and how could they be sure the humans on this planet were like the humans on the previous one? She found herself spending lots of time in the Day Gardens, perched in the old willow that bent over the end of the Estuary where it spilled out into space, watching the planet below and wondering what lives were being lived on it and how they might differ from her own. No one else seemed to care as much about the planet, so Sera had buried those thoughts deep in the place where she kept all her secrets and questions and longings she could never share.
But now, finally, at long last, one of those questions was to be answered. A choosing ceremony! What would it be like? And then a journey through space to a new planet. Maybe, after so many years of safety, the Cerulean would be allowed to visit it as they once had. Maybe Sera would
find her purpose with a new planet.
Her heart felt as though it was about to beat its way out of her chest as she and Leela walked up the stairs to the temple, its great golden doors flung wide and covered in the mysterious markings of Mother Sun. Once inside, Sera caught sight of her orange mother.
“Sera, come!” she called.
Leela squeezed her hand. “I’ll see you after,” she said.
Sera nodded and made her way through the crowd. The orange ribbon around her mother’s neck glowed against her silver skin as she bent to smooth Sera’s hair and adjust her dress. Mother Sun had created the Cerulean by taking a token from each of her three Moon Daughters—a tear from devout Dendra, a strand of hair from wise Faesa, and the sound of gentle Aila’s laughter. Each daughter was represented by a color—orange, green, and purple—and each color was given to a Cerulean woman when she married to indicate her role in the family. Orange mothers taught prayer and devotion, green mothers were in charge of education, and purple mothers were nurturers, and also birth mothers, blessed to produce life.
They fell in love in threes, seeking in some sense to reunite the tokens, or so her purple mother had said. Sera knew her mother did not mean it literally—the Moon Daughters were sisters, after all, and not wives. But she knew when she saw her mothers together, in the quiet moments after dinner when they thought Sera was preparing for bed, or in the soft looks they gave each other while working in the garden, that not one would be complete without the other two.
As Sera and her orange mother made their way to their family spot, Sera could not help but be slightly disappointed at the normalcy around her. The temple looked the same as it always did, its wide circular room laid out with cushions like at evening prayers, its vaulted ceiling covered with illustrations of the sun and moons and stars. The only difference was that usually everyone wore hooded prayer robes to the temple, made of soft seresheep wool and dyed pale blue, but since the ceremony had been called so abruptly, no one had had time to change. It was strange to see everyday clothes inside the temple.
Sera’s family spot was on the right side near the alcove that housed the Altar of the Lost: a huge, mounted sun made of intertwining threads of sungold and moonsilver. Tiny, dark blue stargems in the shape of tears adorned its gleaming surface, one for each Cerulean who had died in the Great Sadness.
“Are you excited?” her purple mother asked as she took her seat on a cushion.
“You will get to see another planet, at long last,” her green mother said with a knowing look.
“Who do you think will be chosen?” Sera asked. She felt a twinge of guilt—it did not seem right to be so eager when the ceremony would sentence a Cerulean to death, however honorable and worthy that death might be. But she also could not help herself.
“Hush, that is not for us to decide,” her orange mother said.
Sera craned her neck, looking for Leela—her family was seated not far from Sera’s. Her best friend gave her an excited wave.
As soon as the temple was full, the High Priestess appeared, crossing the chancel to stand behind the pulpit. The novices filed in along the temple walls, and the three acolytes stood behind the High Priestess with solemn expressions.
The High Priestess was the tallest Cerulean in the City, and she held herself with an otherworldly grace. She wore cloudspun robes of brilliant blue that matched her hair, and on her head was a circlet of sungold, a precious moonstone set in its center. Moonstone was exceedingly rare; Sera’s green mother told her it had once possessed its own sort of magic, though she could not say exactly what. The only moonstone remaining in the City were the three statues in the Moon Gardens, the obelisk by the birthing houses, and the High Priestess’s circlet.
And the stone that Leela had found, but that was a secret that only Sera knew.
The High Priestess was beautiful, the fresh flush of youth still evident in her silver cheeks, though she was ancient. Mother Sun would decide when her work was over and the time came for her to pass on.
The High Priestess placed a bowl on the pulpit, one Sera had never seen before. There were various bowls used for different things, ceremonies and celebrations and such, always filling with the light of Mother Sun in hues that varied from pale yellow to darkest green. But this bowl looked old and crumbling. It was not as stately or impressive as others Sera had seen. She could just make out indecipherable markings scratched around its outer edges, reminiscent of those on the temple doors.
“Welcome, my children,” the High Priestess said, raising her hands above her. “May Mother Sun favor us with her light and love. This we pray.”
“This we pray,” the congregation echoed back.
“The time has come at last,” she continued. “Mother Sun has spoken. We are ready to leave this planet behind, to search the recesses of the universe for a new home. Are you ready, my children? Are you prepared to make this sacrifice?”
“We are,” the Cerulean chorused back.
The High Priestess placed her palms gently on either side of the bowl. Sera feared for a moment that any pressure might crack it into pieces, but the bowl was sturdier than it appeared.
“Who among us is strong enough to break the tether? Who here is pure of heart and valiant in her faith? Tell us, Mother! Give us the chosen one.”
The novices began to hum, a prayer song Sera had never heard before, so she imagined it must be special for this particular ceremony. She wondered how the novices had learned it so quickly or if it was one of those songs they had been taught and then forgotten, and had to brush up on as the bells rang out. She swayed on her cushion along with her mothers and the rest of the Cerulean as the High Priestess closed her eyes and bent her head over the bowl. From within its depths, a rich golden light began to shine. Softly at first, then brighter and brighter, until it was painful to look at and Sera’s green mother had to shield her gaze from its radiance. Sera thought she heard strange whispers in foreign tongues coming from the light.
The humming of the novices grew louder. Many of the orange mothers in the congregation began to pray fervently, swaying faster and faster. Some purple mothers were openly weeping. Sera’s orange mother had her eyes closed, transfixed in the swath of light. Sera’s ears began to ring, the sound growing in pitch until she thought she could bear it no longer. She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t seem to move a muscle, not even to blink. Just as she thought she must do something, that she could not bear to keep looking at the sacred bowl or her eyeballs would surely burn in their sockets, the markings moved. And though she could not explain how or why, Sera understood them.
They read: Heal them.
Then the ringing stopped and the light vanished. The markings were once more illegible and Sera rubbed her eyes, her heart pounding, unable to comprehend what she had just seen. The High Priestess was bent and out of breath, her hands clutching the side of the podium for support. Her three acolytes looked at each other nervously, but as one moved forward to help, the High Priestess straightened.
“Mother Sun has spoken,” she said, her voice dull and fatigued. Her eyes scanned the crowd once, twice, then finally came to rest.
“Sera Lighthaven,” she called, and the ripple of heads turning was like a wind running through the temple. Sera was vaguely aware of a gasp from her orange mother and a soft whimper from her purple mother. She was mostly conscious of her blood boiling under the surface of her skin, a frightening heat filling her from head to toe, and a prickling sensation in the corners of her eyes.
“Sera Lighthaven.” The High Priestess called her name again, and her orange mother whispered, “Stand up, darling.”
Sera’s legs trembled as she rose to her feet. She could feel every pair of eyes on her, like little points of light stabbing her skin. She wanted to look for Leela but found she could not tear her gaze away from the High Priestess’s face. Her heart, which had been thunderous in her chest a moment ago, now felt profoundly silent.
“You have been chosen by Mother Sun,” the High Priestess said. “It is you who will break the tether.” She held her arms out to the congregation. “Praise her! Praise the chosen one!”
And everyone in the temple bowed low, pressing their foreheads to the ground. Even the novices. Even the acolytes.
Sera had always longed to know what else the magic in her blood might be capable of, besides healing and blood bonding. She always thought there must be more to it, especially once her green mother had told her of how the evil humans on the planet tried to steal it. But she had never truly believed a choosing ceremony would happen in her lifetime and so had never considered the dangerous side to her blood.
“In three days’ time, Sera Lighthaven will make the greatest leap of faith a Cerulean can make,” the High Priestess announced. “She will throw herself from the dais in the Night Gardens and spill her blood to break the tether. She will be honored and cherished by us all as we travel to our new home!”
Hearing her say the details out loud, Sera felt numb. Her brain refused to believe the information, as if the High Priestess were talking about someone else.
We are the Cerulean. Our blood is magic.
The words held a new and terrible meaning for her now.
Her blood meant death.
All eyes were on Sera as she left the temple with her mothers.
The High Priestess had declared an evening of silence and meditation, so everyone was sent to their dwellings to pray and prepare themselves for the days to come.
Sera was eager to get away from the crowds. She hadn’t even tried to find Leela in the mass of Cerulean that surrounded her, praising her or gazing at her with awe, as if she had become something worthy of wonder over the course of thirty minutes. She didn’t like it. She was still the same Sera she had been this morning in the cloudspinners’ grove.
“It is an honor,” her orange mother said once they were out of hearing of the others. Her throat sounded tight as she spoke.
“It is a necessity,” her green mother said quietly.
Her purple mother said nothing.
For once, there weren’t a thousand questions buzzing around in Sera’s head. There was only one and it thudded over and over, louder than the beating of her heart.
Why her? The details she knew of the ceremonies in the past were scant, but she’d always thought an adult Cerulean was chosen. And it wasn’t just her age—she wasn’t as devout as Elorin, nor as beautiful as Koreen. She wasn’t as pleasant as Daina or as patient as Leela. The High Priestess had even called her a nuisance once, when she discovered Sera climbing the temple’s spire. Why would Mother Sun choose such a mediocre, bothersome Cerulean to help the City?
“Are you hungry, Sera?” her green mother asked when they arrived home. “I could fry you some squash blossoms.”
But the hunger she had felt earlier in the day had vanished, and her green mother’s suggestion seemed like a cruel joke.
“Or we could pray together,” her orange mother suggested.
Her purple mother simply held out a hand, her index finger glowing bright blue as her magic swirled under her skin. All Sera had to do was call on her own magic and touch her glowing finger to her mother’s. Her purple mother would read her heart and she would not have to explain herself.
But Sera did not feel like blood bonding right now.
She turned and ran to her bedroom, wishing, for the first time, that there was a door she could shut. The only doors in the City were on the temple and in the birthing houses.
She heard her orange mother’s footsteps approach and threw herself onto her bed, facing the glassy wall.
“Otess,” her purple mother called. “Leave her.”
There was a pause, and then the footsteps receded. Sera felt shame wash over her, hot and stinging. She loved her mothers more than anything. She hated the thought that she was hurting them.
But she didn’t call her orange mother back.
Sera stayed there, staring at the star mobile hanging above her, as evening slipped into night. She heard her mothers preparing for bed, sheets rustling, pillows being fluffed, and murmured conversations. She heard her name mentioned several times, but they did not come to see her and she was grateful for it. Usually there was laughter as the house readied for sleep, and the gentle sounds of kissing, but not tonight. Sera wondered if they were feeling as confused and heartbroken as she was.
She could not understand it. It did not make sense for Mother Sun to choose her. Because there were other things, deeper things that made her different, not just her loud laugh or her endless questions. Hidden inside her was the secret she could never let anyone know—that she was incapable of love. Oh, she loved her mothers and Leela, but that was not the only sort of love she desired. She had listened wistfully a year ago when Leela talked of her first kiss, describing how her heart had felt about to burst right out of her chest, the heady pleasure of the feel of someone’s lips, of someone’s hands on her skin. And Sera had giggled and laughed and hidden her ache, knowing that she would never feel that way about any of the girls in the City.
She knew it instinctively, the way she knew how to run and climb and breathe. It wasn’t like the novices, who chose to forgo marriage in order to serve Mother Sun. And it wasn’t like the Cerulean who preferred to live solitary lives, like Freeda—they still engaged in physical pleasure from time to time; they simply chose not to be in a triad. Sera did not choose this.
And worse, she had learned to lie about it. Even during the blood bond. This secret she kept tucked away so deep, not even her purple mother had ever heard it in her heart. And lying was wrong.
The house was too cramped, too stifling, too quiet. Sera slipped out of bed, climbed out the window, and began to run.
She raced along the banks of the Great Estuary, reveling in the feel of the wind in her hair, the mud between her toes, dodging branches of oak and spruce, the golden leaves of polaris trees brushing against her hair, the soothing murmur of the water keeping her company until she came to the island where the temple sat, a giant glass cone pointing up to the stars, its spire glinting in their twinkling light.
Aila’s Bridge was bleached bone white in the moonlight. Sera’s feet whispered over the wooden planks, and she kept clear of the temple doors as if they had eyes of their own. The doors made her think of the bowl, the way the markings had suddenly made sense to her. Heal them, they’d said. Yes, she would heal them. She would heal her beloved City by removing herself from it.
She vaulted over the hedge surrounding the back of the temple and made her way through the Moon Gardens to where a jutting adornment hung over the door that led to the novices’ chambers. She hauled herself up onto the glass shingles. Her fingers and toes were sure, her muscles bunching and releasing as she climbed up, up, up, until she was perched by the golden tip. It was peaceful here. She felt as if she was leaving everything behind, the City, her mothers, the dark fate that awaited her. Up here, there was nothing but the stars.
She wished she could spread her arms and take flight, like the laurel doves that lived in the Aviary. Maybe if she could fly, she wouldn’t be so afraid of falling.
“Sera!” Leela’s whisper bounced across the glass shingles like a skipping stone. Sera could just make out her best friend standing on the ground below, waving up at her.
Leela was a bit of a scaredy-cat. Sera was impressed that she’d snuck out of her bed at all.
“What are you doing here?” Sera called back quietly.
“Come down,” Leela hissed.
Sera gave the stars one last glance and slid down the spire, dropping the last ten feet onto the ground to Leela’s muffled shriek.
“You look as though you haven’t watched me do that a million times.”
“Shhhh.” Leela held out her finger, which glowed bright blue. “We don’t want to wake the novices.”
Sera pressed her lips together and nodded. While the temple was technically open to all Cerulean whenever they wished to use it—as were most things in the City Above the Sky—it wouldn’t do to have the chosen one caught out of bed, on a night of prayer and meditation, climbing on it.
The chosen one. The words set Sera’s stomach in knots.
She held out her own finger, already glowing, toward Leela.
The blood bond was one of the most sacred aspects of Cerulean magic. It was deeply personal and intimate. Sera had only ever bonded with her mothers and Leela. It was not to be taken lightly, the reading of another’s heart.
Their fingers touched. Sera felt the familiar rush of heat as Leela’s magic entered her, and the exhilarating sense of power as her own magic danced into Leela’s veins until it twined and curled around her friend’s heart. Sera could feel Leela’s heartbeat inside her, a second pulse in perfect rhythm with her own.
Frightened, Sera’s heart said.
Cerulean were not meant to be frightened. They were meant to be calm and loving. They were meant to value Mother Sun and their community over all else. They were meant to be better people than Sera was. All of this she poured, unspoken, into Leela.
Frightened, Leela’s heart answered, and Sera read her friend’s confusion and was surprised to find anger in Leela’s heart as well. Both of their fears mixed together and Sera felt a burst of relief, not because she wanted Leela to be scared, but because, for one moment, at least she didn’t feel so alone.
* * *
“Sera,” her purple mother called. “There is someone here to see you.”
Sera rubbed her eyes. Pale morning light filled her room—she had watched it turn from gray to gold as the sun rose, unable to sleep, the comfort of the night’s blood bond with Leela fading away, leaving her own fear to grow and gnaw at her.
“Sera.” Her purple mother stood in the doorway.
“I do not wish to see anyone,” Sera said, keeping her gaze on her star mobile. Why was it so hard to look at her mother?
“It is the High Priestess,” her mother said.
Sera sat up so fast her head spun. “Here?” she asked. “At our dwelling?”
The High Priestess had never visited a Cerulean dwelling before, as far as Sera knew.
“Your orange mother is making her tea,” her purple mother said, with a halfhearted attempt at a conspiratorial smile.
Yesterday it would have been fun to see her orange mother in a tizzy over such an honored visitor. Yesterday she would have laughed with her purple mother, and perhaps added a jest of her own.
Her knees felt wooden as she got out of bed. Her purple mother helped her into a fresh cloudspun dress and they walked down the hall to the sitting room, just as her orange mother was serving tea. The scent of lemongrass and sage filled the air.
“There you are!” she exclaimed. “Look who has come to visit you.”
Seeing the High Priestess sitting on the sofa was bizarre—it was like seeing a seresheep in prayer robes or watching a laurel dove fly backward. It didn’t make sense.
Her radiance made everything in the room seem a little plainer, from the upholstery to the teacups to the framed pressed flowers that hung on the walls.
“The chosen one,” she said in her honeyed voice, standing and holding out her arms. Sera wasn’t sure what the gesture meant, but her orange mother jerked her head and so she took a few wobbly steps forward. The High Priestess placed her hands on Sera’s shoulders—she could feel the heat of them through her dress. She had never been touched by the High Priestess before.
“Will you come for a walk with me?” she asked. “We have much to discuss.”
The thought of being alone with the High Priestess was stranger than having her in the sitting room. But Sera nodded anyway, wondering if she was even controlling her actions anymore or if her body was simply moving on its own through pure instinct. She followed the High Priestess out the door, catching a glimpse of her green mother in the kitchen as they left—she was bent over the table with a sewing needle in her hand.
The air was scented with sunlight and grass, a smell that declared a new day’s beginning. It was more pungent today, sharper and clearer, as if reminding Sera of how few mornings she had left. They skirted around her orange mother’s garden, a plump red tomato hanging ripe and ready to be picked on one of the stalks. Sera had never truly considered how perfect tomatoes were, their rich color, their earthy scent, their juicy flesh. How could such a simple thing suddenly seem so precious?
Then she saw several pairs of curious eyes watching from the dwelling next door and her mood soured.
“I imagine you have many questions for me,” the High Priestess said, turning away from the cluster of dwellings and heading down a lesser-used, hedge-lined path that led to the edge of the City.
“Why me?” Sera blurted out, once the last dwelling had disappeared from view and they were well and truly alone. “Why did Mother Sun choose me?”
“Because she found you worthy,” the High Priestess replied. “I know it may seem frightening and strange now, but you were chosen for a reason. You may not see it in yourself, but she sees all. She knows you, Sera Lighthaven, and she loves you.” She smiled and took one of Sera’s hands— Sera could not help but notice again how hot her skin was. “Do not fear. You will not feel any pain.”
Sera hadn’t actually considered the pain. She had been occupied enough with the fall. A new dread crept into her stomach.
“You are sure there isn’t . . . Perhaps Mother Sun . . . made a mistake,” Sera said hesitantly.
The High Priestess released her and took a step back. “Mother Sun does not make mistakes.” There was an edge to her voice that made Sera feel ashamed for even suggesting it. Koreen probably wouldn’t have questioned Mother Sun’s will, or Treena, or Daina. Why couldn’t Sera be like everybody else?
The High Priestess sighed. “It has been so long since a ceremony, I have forgotten some of my patience. I apologize. You are not the first to question your worthiness as chosen one.”
“I-I’m not?” she stammered.
The High Priestess leaned down so that her face was level with Sera’s, her blue hair partly obscuring her expression. “A Cerulean was chosen to create this tether, too. I would have thought you would have remembered that, what with your avid interest in the past.”
Sera felt uneasy, as if the High Priestess knew more about her than she realized.
“Your green mother could not answer all your questions,” the High Priestess said. “Sometimes she came to me for answers, and I told her what I could. But much has been lost. And some things are not worthy of remembrance.”
A day ago, Sera would have been amazed at the thought of her green mother approaching the High Priestess and asking for information on Sera’s behalf. But now only one thing was on her mind.
“Who was she?” she pressed, leaning forward like she could peer into the High Priestess’s memory. “The one who fell the last time. The Cerulean who created this tether.”
There had been so many, Sera thought with a start. Not just the Cerulean who had made the tether they were using now, but the one who had broken the tether after the Great Sadness, and the one who had created that tether before it was broken. . . . They had seemed only stories yesterday, but today they all felt overwhelmingly real to Sera, Cerulean who had lived and loved and died for their City.
For a moment, the High Priestess’s eyes darkened, the blue of her irises hardening and crystallizing like stargems. Sera thought she felt a chill emanating from the willowy figure before her, but then it was gone, and the High Priestess’s face was as it had been.
“Her name was Wyllin,” she said, straightening and looking away.
Wyllin. Sera turned the name over in her mind. It was comforting to think of another in her position, someone with a name and a life, someone who also might have taken this walk and asked these questions, even if they were nine hundred years apart.
“Was she young, like me?”
“She was. She was twenty-one when she was chosen. She was one of my acolytes.” The High Priestess’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “I was still a very new High Priestess then. The wounds of the Great Sadness were fresh in this City. The journey here had been a long and hard one. Many times I felt hope slip away. Wyllin was the one who first saw this planet. I remember thinking, ‘Mother Sun, she has saved us.’ I did not know how true those words would be. And then she was chosen.”
An acolyte seemed a much more appropriate choice than a Cerulean who was barely of age, with no special qualities to speak of.
“She thought herself unworthy as well,” the High Priestess continued. “We all doubt ourselves at times, doubt our power, our worth. I have shepherded this City through one of its greatest tragedies, and I often wonder if I have made missteps along the way.”
“You do?” Sera asked, shocked.
“I do,” the High Priestess said kindly. “At heart I am just another Cerulean, like all others in the City. But I trust in Mother Sun above all else. When I am frightened, she gives me comfort. When I am lost, she lights my way. She led us here, gave us this planet, kept us safe for so long. But the Cerulean are not meant to stay in one place forever.”
The hedges surrounding them, covered in thick, glossy leaves, had grown taller as they walked. Suddenly, the High Priestess stopped and raised a hand—one side of the hedge fell away, vanishing to reveal a breathtaking view of the planet below. Sera reached out a hand to touch the invisible barrier that kept her from falling off right this very moment. It was firm yet slightly pliant, like clear gelatin. Below, the many islands of Pelago looked like misshapen insects, crawling on a blue surface.
“You cannot imagine the joy when we first sighted this world,” the High Priestess said. “After so many dark days, so much loss . . . this was our salvation. I confess I will be sad to leave it.”
“Why now?” Sera asked. “After all these years . . . what happened to make the City move again?”
“We have taken enough from this planet. It cannot sustain us anymore.” Her face creased with worry and for a moment she looked old—Sera could sense the ancientness, the many lives that the High Priestess had lived. “Our City needs a new planet to keep us strong. I have faith that Mother Sun will lead us to a better home.”
“I wish I got to see it,” Sera confessed. The High Priestess lifted her chin with one strong finger.
“I know you do,” she said. “It is all you have ever wanted, isn’t it? But you will be safe in Mother Sun’s everlasting embrace. You will be loved for eternity.”
The only embrace Sera wanted was from her own mothers, but she felt it would be impertinent to say that out loud.
“Things will be different for you over the coming days,” the High Priestess continued. “That cannot be helped. But you will be free to live those days however you please. You no longer have to attend evening prayers if you do not wish to. You need not trouble yourself with apprenticeships, nor will you have to help with preparations that will be made for the move, harvesting and canning and such. You can stay in your dwelling all day if you wish, or live like a fish in the Great Estuary. You may even”—she gave Sera a knowing wink—“climb the temple spire and nest up there like a bird. The daily patterns of Cerulean life will not apply to you until the afternoon of the ceremony.”
Sera swallowed. “So I have today and tomorrow and then . . .”
The High Priestess nodded. “The following day will be the ceremony. At the hour of the light. In the Night Gardens. There will be a feast each evening in your honor. Those you will have to attend.” Her face twisted as if she were in pain. “I am terribly sorry. I am not explaining this correctly. There was a time when . . .” She shook her head. “I am sorry.”
Sera never thought she would be in a position where the High Priestess would be apologizing to her.
“It’s all right,” she said, even though it wasn’t, not really. The High Priestess wasn’t the one who would have to throw herself off the edge of the City in three days’ time.
The High Priestess stared into Sera’s eyes in a way that was nearly as intimate as blood bonding. Sera’s stomach squirmed, but she found she could not look away. The moment seemed to stretch for so long, Sera lost track of seconds or minutes or hours.
“You will save us, Sera Lighthaven. Your blood will keep this City strong and vibrant and alive.” The command in the High Priestess’s voice was chilling. It made the hairs on the back of Sera’s neck stand on end. She opened her mouth and found she could not speak. When the High Priestess finally broke their gaze, Sera felt trembly and out of breath, as if she had just sprinted the length of the Estuary.
“I will leave you now. You need time alone, I think.”
And Sera did. She was already tired of the weight hanging from her neck, the responsibility and dread all mixed together. She turned to look through the hedge again, staring down at the planet she had felt so tired of just the day before. She realized how much she would miss it. The lopsided
star that was Kaolin was just visible through a cover of thinning clouds, the three points close together on its lower left side almost like a hand waving to her, saying goodbye. So strange that she could feel such a sadness for a place she had never seen, a place that did not even know she or her
City or her people existed.
When she turned back, the High Priestess had vanished.