“I’d rather inflict blindness,” Nova had asserted. “Why should we have to disappear just because men are animals?”
And now the moment of discovery was upon them. The suspense was almost unbearable. What would they be, once their gifts awoke? In what capacity would they serve the empire?
The hum surged through Kora. Once it had covered the whole surface of her body, it seemed to sink deeper, through her skin to the core of her, to penetrate her heart, the backs of her eyes, the insides of her knees, the pit of her belly.
Then in her mind: a presence. It gave her a start, but it was not unfamiliar. A short while ago, outside, she and Nova had spoken a plea in their thoughts—see us—and the telepath, Ren, had come into their minds, and he came again now into Kora’s.
Don’t think, he counseled from inside her mind. Don’t wonder. Just feel.
I feel...a humming in my skin, she thought experimentally, wondering if he would hear her.
He did. That’s the physical threshold. Go deeper. Our gifts are buried within us.
She tried to do as he said. She closed her eyes and imagined she was opening other eyes that would look inward instead of out.
Nova watched, marveling at the silky azure of her sister’s eyelids, a shade darker than the rest of her skin. She was beautiful like this, majestic even in her dingy smallclothes. The godsmetal glove lent her an elegance that even homespun couldn’t ruin, and her hair, which against her white skin was mild and pretty, became, set against blue, a drama of contrast. Even her pale brows and lashes stood out in a new and striking way. Nova wondered what was happening inside her sister. She wanted to be in Kora’s mind with her, sharing this experience as they had shared all their dreams for all their lives. What was she feeling?
At first, nothing. Kora was trying to look within herself, but she didn’t know what she was supposed to see, so there was nothing but the imperfect darkness of her eyelids, washed with wavering red where light glowed through.
Don’t see, said Ren. Feel. What feels different?
Maybe he guided her. Maybe she did it on her own, but Kora began to become aware of the discrete entity that was herself, apart from environment, expectations, and the watchful eyes of these important strangers. Apart even from her sister. It was like being suspended inside herself, hearing the blood moving in her veins, feeling the throb of the heart that pushed it, and her limbs, and her breath, and her mind. She envisioned herself turning blue to her bones, the mesarthium seeping into her, and not infusing her with magic, but waking the magic that was already there.
She felt a pressure in her chest. As soon as she did, the telepath did, too.
There, he said. There it is.
What is it? she asked.
Bring it forth, he said. Let it come.
The pressure intensified, and she felt something in her chest begin to give way. It unnerved her. It felt as though some essential part of her was about to spill out of her body—as though her rib cage were going to swing open and...let something out. There was no pain. It was like discovering that, all along, her body had been made to do this, that her chest was hinged like a gate and she had simply never noticed.
Nova saw her sister’s head tip back. Her eyes were still closed. Her hands flew to her chest and clawed at her undershirt, dragging at it so hard that it ripped right down the center to reveal the vale between her breasts, shadowed indigo and heaving with breath. “Kora!” she cried, and tried to go to her but found she couldn’t move her feet. Looking down, she saw they’d sunk into the floor, the godsmetal trapping them in place. She nearly fell. Then the telepath spoke into her mind: Do not interrupt her metamorphosis.
She stopped struggling and watched, helpless and then awestruck as Kora’s gift emerged.
Quite literally, it emerged.
Kora’s chest felt as though it had swung open, but it had not. It was intact. The blue channel of skin visible through the rent in her undershirt became, all at once, clouded. A milky vapor extruded from it, taking shape before her like smoke poured into an invisible mold. It was big, and growing fast. Very quickly it dwarfed her. Nova’s breathing matched exactly the rise and fall of her sister’s chest. She looked to the Servants, frantic, to take reassurance from their expressions that this was normal and expected, but she saw only astonishment. Whatever was happening to Kora, it was anything but normal.
It was a ghostly thing in the air, and it had wings, great, sweeping wings. Nova’s first wild thought was that it was a seraph, one of the six angelic Faerers who had cut the portals between the worlds. But as it took its final shape and turned from ghost to solid, she realized it was not an angel, but a bird.
The creature that spilled out of Kora took the form of an immense white eagle.
Kora’s head was still thrown back, and her arms had opened at her sides, in unconscious mimicry of the bird’s outstretched wings.
She herself did not see what had emerged from her. Her eyes were closed—a fact that should have rendered her blind, but didn’t. She beheld the Servants, their shocked faces, and she saw Nova, mouth agape.
“An astral,” said Solvay, her voice suffused with awe. “I don’t believe it. An astral here, in this forsaken place.”
“I’ve never even known one,” said white-haired Antal, quite forgiving the stench of uul.
“And a powerful one,” said Ren. “Just look at that manifestation.”
Kora, seeing only what it saw, didn’t know what they were talking about. She opened her real eyes, and was hit by a dizzying doubling of her vision, to be seeing through two sets of eyes at once. Dizzy or not, she perceived what had coalesced before her.
It was magnificent, as white as starlight on snow. Its face was fierce and beautiful, hook-beaked and black-eyed. It could be mistaken for a flesh creature—almost. But it floated with unnatural lightness, hardly needing to beat its wings, and the edges of its feathers had a melting aura that belied its seeming solidity.
“Does it have mass?” asked Solvay.
“Touch it and find out,” drawled Skathis, making no move to do so.
It was Nova who did. They didn’t stop her this time. Her feet remained trapped in the floor, but the eagle’s size had brought its wing within her reach. She touched it, running her fingers over its long feathers. If she had ever felt silk, or even known of its existence, then she might have been able to describe such softness. But she hadn’t. The closest she could come was the slippery smoothness of clean hair.
The Mesarthim talked amongst themselves, and Kora and Nova heard terms like “range” and “sensory connection,” not grasping what they meant. “Magnitude” they understood, though.
“Undoubtedly extremely high,” Antal said, and both sisters flushed with pride, Nova’s in no way less than her sister’s, though it was not her own gift in question.
There was talk of further testing, but it was vague, with Ren, Solvay, and Antal glancing to Skathis, apparently waiting for him to weigh in. He remained fixed on Kora and the bird, a hard glitter to his gaze, and at length he said, “The emperor will be pleased.”
And that decided the matter.
Ren helped Kora bring the bird back into herself, which seemed impossible at first. Wherever it had come from, it was real now, and massive, like something birthed that could not be put back. But she found that it could. As it had poured out of her chest, so did it pour back in, her doubled vision resolving, and the dizziness with it, so that she felt almost normal again—though it was hard to imagine ever feeling truly “normal” after this. “What does ‘astral’ mean?” she asked, breathless. “I’ve never heard of it before.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Solvay. “It’s an extremely rare gift, my dear.”
“Don’t go swelling her head,” said Skathis. “She’ll get the idea she’s special.”
“She is special,” said Solvay.
“Literally, ‘astral’ means ‘of the stars,’” Antal explained. “Because the first astral claimed he could voyage through the stars without ever leaving his home. It means that your senses, your consciousness, perhaps even your soul can take form outside your body and travel, leaving your physical self behind and returning to it.”
“And...I’ll be able to see what it sees, wherever it goes?”
“It’s not an ‘it,’” Antal answered. “It’s you, Korako. That eagle is you, as much as your flesh and blood is you.” He smiled, a glad sort of smile shared by Ren and Solvay, which made them vastly less intimidating. “And yes, you will be able to travel in astral form.”
The atmosphere in the wasp ship was so different from when the girls had first been brought in. The Servants had been stiff, with the aggrieved composure of those carrying out a tedious task made worse by a truly vile stench. All that had transformed into something almost giddy. It was evident that Kora was a discovery of great value, and it seemed most certain now that she was chosen. She would not be left behind here, bereft of the godsmetal that had brought out her gift. She would keep her blue skin forever, and her mystical eagle, too. She was what she had always believed herself to be: powerful.
“I’ve never heard of so large a manifestation,” said Solvay. “There’s an astral in the Azorasp whose projection is a finch.” She laughed. “Korako’s could swallow it whole.”
Korako. Hearing her sister’s name—her full name, no less— spoken aloud and not twinned with her own, gave Nova a flutter of nerves, as though some process had begun that would split them from one double person into two singular ones. No. She pushed away the thought. It would be as they had always planned: the pair of them as soldier-wizards, serving the empire together, together always.
The mesarthium released her feet, and Nova flung herself forward, wrapping Kora in her arms. “I knew it,” she whispered. “You’re magnificent.”
But the girls’ joy and vindication could be only half formed until Nova’s worth was proven as well.