Night Spinner – Addie Thorley

DARKNESS WAITS LIKE A DEVIL OUTSIDE MY WINDOW—curling its shadowy fingertips beneath the shutters, drawing its inky claws across the latch, raising every hair on my body as temptation trickles down my spine. Enebish, it whispers. Not with words that anyone else can hear; the ghostly plea lives inside my mind, inside my entire being, coursing through my veins like blood and filling my lungs with breath. I grit my teeth and nestle deeper into my bedroll, one hand clenched around my prayer doll, the other fingering the small circular stone embedded at the base of my throat. The harder I press, the quicker its calming tingles flow into my bloodstream, filling me with warmth and steadiness and light. The perfect antidote to darkness. Tonight, I will not listen. Tonight, I am in control. The night slams against my window in protest, lashing the glass like rain. Enebishhhhh, it cries. It feels like thousands of tiny fire ants are burrowing beneath my skin. I toss and turn and sweat for as long as I can stand it. Then I bolt upright and turn to the window. Just a peek. One tiny glimpse and I’ll be satisfied.

There’s no danger in simply looking at the darkness…. Lies! my conscience screams. A glimpse is never enough. Remember what you did. Remember why you’re imprisoned. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to picture the rolling fields of Nariin drenched in vicious orange flames. I press my fists to my stomach, trying to evoke the shredding pain I felt when the monster inside me ripped through my bones and seized control of my Kalima power. But thanks to the glorious, gleaming moonstone in the center of my collarbone, there’s nothing. No monster. No memories.

Just a swirling, amorphous darkness and a crushing weight upon my chest. Making the incident feel less real, less horrific. Hardly dangerous, the night coaxes. With a pathetic squeal, I kick out of my blankets like a fly escaping a spider’s web, and limp across my chamber to the window. Even though I know what I’ll find, I gasp when I fling the shutters wide. Millions of ebony tendrils crash against the glass. To anyone else, the midnight sky would look empty and quiet. Peaceful, even. But to me, it looks like a tangled mass of coal-black snakes: frenzied and teeming and alive. Each ribbon of darkness is roughly the length of my forearm, and together they form the undulating tapestry of night.

I lift a finger to the frosted pane and trace a slow, looping spiral. The whorls mimic me, so close that I can feel their heat through the glass. Begging me to flatten my hand. To press my entire body against the window. Needing more, More, MORE. I stagger back and stab my nails into my palms. There. You’ve seen them. Now close the shutters, bury your head beneath your pillow, and pray to the skies for forgiveness. But the night won’t let me go so easily.

Not when it’s lured me this far. Come, it beckons. My throat tingles. I won’t give in. Sweat beads along my hairline. I can’t. The moonstone severs my ability to wield the darkness. Precisely, it hums. There’s no risk, no reason to resist…. My resolve snaps like a bowstring, and I snatch my crumpled cloak off the floor and steal into the dormitory hall.

The narrow corridor is twice as long as the throne room at the Sky Palace, and I limp past door after door with careful, measured strides. Unfortunately, no matter how softly I tread, the thump-slide of my injured leg echoes off the unforgiving tiles and high, frescoed ceiling. I tighten every muscle and will my body to cooperate. One wrong step will bring every monk at Ikh Zuree running. They all watch me like hungry, circling hawks. Eager to earn their salvation, and more important, the king’s favor and a seat on his Council of Elders, by “saving” sinners like me. Which isn’t done through selfless service and finding harmony with one’s family, one’s enemies, and one’s self, as the First Gods taught. No, followers of the New Order attain exaltation by reporting the mistakes of others. The more grievous the infraction, the closer they come to rapture. And I, the most notorious criminal in the empire, am imprisoned in the heart of their den.

Constantly bombarded by hundreds of predatory eyes and salivating mouths. Thankfully, the rushes I laid this morning help to muffle my uneven gait. The rushes aren’t technically my duty, but the old ones always smell of rat piss, so I’ve taken to changing them out of the goodness of my heart. Not because I plan on sneaking out. At the end of the hall, I crack the door and slip like smoke into the moonlit courtyard. The night chitters in welcome, flocking to me like bees to budding globeflowers, delighted to have won our battle of wills again. Now that I’ve submitted, the tendrils no longer growl like hungry panthers, but rub against my hands like sweet, purring kittens. I sigh and tilt my face skyward. The sensation is euphoric. More freeing than galloping across the grasslands with the wind in my hair.

More satisfying than the whistle of an arrow flying straight and true toward the center of a target. Even better than the memory of Ghoa’s proud smile. The thought of my sister makes my stomach lurch. Ghoa wouldn’t be smiling if she could see me now. She risked her reputation and position as commander of the Kalima warriors to secure my sanctuary here. These midnight jaunts could jeopardize everything she’s worked for—and possibly her life. If I’m caught meddling with the darkness, the king could easily execute us both. And while I came to terms with my own execution long ago, I would rather die a thousand deaths than watch Ghoa swing beside me. The horrifying image nearly sends me scuttling back to my room, but the night kisses my cheeks and buzzes in my ears, singing my worries away. In order to punish me, the king would have to visit Ikh Zuree to witness my disobedience, and since neither he nor Ghoa have set foot inside the monastery compound since my banishment, they never need to know I’ve allowed myself this tiny taste of freedom.

The chilly autumn breeze whispers through my cloak, and I draw the hood around my face as I hobble down the pebbled pathways. The monastery at Ikh Zuree is massive, with hundreds of bone-white prayer temples and dormitories encircling a towering jade assembly hall that stands in the center like an ever-watchful eye. Tonight, the moon hangs heavy and full overhead, bathing the snow-dusted pathways in brushstrokes of light. Beautiful, yes, but it makes sneaking around far more difficult. My fingers twitch out of habit. Before my imprisonment, I could have gripped the threads of darkness spooling down my arms and swathed myself in shadow. I could have flounced across the complex as I pleased, invisible as a ghost. The only one able to see through the oppressive blackness. But now I’m forced to dart from temple to temple like a petty marketplace thief, my Kalima power nothing more than a fuzzy memory that passes swifter than the glacial breeze. When at last I reach the mews at the northern edge of the compound, my convocation of eagles screeches in welcome.

They flap their wings and blink down at me from their perches. Feathers litter the floor like gold-spun carpet, and the familiar sounds of nesting and preening make the tightness in my chest and shoulders vanish. At least the birds are always glad to see me. The king keeps his hunting eagles at Ikh Zuree, and it’s my duty to feed and train them. In the kingdom of Ashkar, even prisoners must make themselves useful. Most dig trenches or haul heavy artillery to the war front, so I’m grateful to have a position I like so well. With the birds that never cower in my presence or call me ugly names that make me cry in my chamber late at night. They are my only friends. Other than Serik. I flit around, patting and scratching a few, until Orbai shrieks with impatience and scuttles back and forth on her perch.

“You’re even more demanding than the night,” I mock-scold her. She always encourages my midnight rebellions because it means she gets a few extra hours of freedom—and she has developed a taste for bats. I offer her my arm. “Just because you’re my favorite, doesn’t mean you get to boss me around.” Except it does. And she knows it. We return to the waiting darkness, and Orbai shoots into the blackness like a comet. Her feathers glint like liquid amber and her massive wings send the ribbons of night swirling. I smile at the chaos. Wanting to follow.

Needing to be up there too. While she stalks the skies, I duck behind the smallest prayer temple and run my fingers along the mosaic wall until I find the bloodred eye of a serpent, which I accidentally wiggled loose when I scrubbed the temple last month. I jam my boot into the hole, hold my breath against the pain, and heave myself up. Between my ruined arm and wounded leg, it’s difficult to get a firm hold on the ledge, and while I hang there, grunting and wriggling like a marmot, Orbai dives past me. The tips of her feathers tickle my cheek. What’s taking so long? she seems to say. “Impatient eagle.” I shake my head at her. “Not all of us have wings.” Eventually I swing my leg over the edge and roll onto the roof.

The ceramic tiles are cold and wet through my cloak, but I hardly notice the chill. I’m too consumed by the towering ebony swells crashing over my body like waves. The sky doesn’t care that I am wicked and ugly. The clouds never rain down judgment for my crimes, and the moon shines without flinching on my injured limbs and scarred face. The majority of Ashkar may despise me, but the heavens will always embrace me in arms of frost and wrap me in a blanket of starlight. In the eyes of the Lady of the Sky and Father Guzan, I am accepted. Wanted. The king can decree all he likes about the First Gods being dead, but I refuse to believe it. I cannot believe it. Not when I feel the Lady and Father thrumming in every wisp of blackness.

The hours fly like minutes, and too soon the first rays of pink kiss the horizon, cutting like a saber through the gray. Stay. Just a little while longer, I beg. But as the treacherous sun creeps higher, the spools of night slip through my fingers like tadpoles. Abandoning me, yet again. My lungs heave against my too-tight rib cage as I watch the darkness race frantically toward the east. Toward the shadow of the Ondor Mountains in the distance. The last place the light will touch. I would give anything to leave the monastery so easily. It has been two long years since the king banished me to this holy prison.

“A sanctuary,” he said. “Be grateful,” he said. “It is more than you deserve.” But what does a criminal like me truly deserve? Sighing, I slump down hard on the tiles and stare out at the hazy landscape. I can see everything from up here: the outer wall of the monastery compound, white with twisting iron spires; the endless frost-tipped plains I used to gallop across in full armor, the grass rolling beneath me like a great green sea; and far, far in the distance, the capital city, Sagaan, where Serik and I dueled in the streets with sabers made of sticks, and lay beneath the larch trees, imagining what our Kalima powers might be, telling stories of how we’d ride into battle side by side. That part, at least, came true. We’re together. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse. I sit there, fingers pressed against my eyelids, wishing I could turn back time, until the shuffle of slippered feet rips me from my desolation. In perfect harmony with the rising sun, the monks emerge from the dormitories in lines of two.

Their crimson robes look like a gash against the silver-white snow, and they spread like a slow-moving stain toward the prayer temples. Toward me. Blazing skies! I always return to my chamber long before they can spot me up here, committing treason. If I’m caught, I’m certain my punishment will be worse than the twenty lashes and fifty serenity prayers I’m assigned each time I skip midday supplication. They could alert Ghoa. Or the king. I scramble to my feet and duck behind one of the snarling stone gargoyles perched on the corner of the rooftop. The statues are meant to ward off evil spirits—that’s why they look so fearsome—and with the three jagged scars marring the left side of my face, marking me as an imperial traitor, I fit right in. The king made the cuts himself, slashing his keris dagger alongside my nose, through my eyelid, and over my cheekbone. The wounds bled and festered for weeks—healers weren’t permitted to clean or dress the cuts—so I suppose I should be grateful I didn’t die of infection or lose my eye.

Many criminals do. I hold my breath as the abba shuffles into the prayer temple. A brass censer swings from his sunspotted fingers and he chants the Song of the Sky King in his dissonant voice. The other senior brethren follow him without a glance in my direction. As the highestranking monks at Ikh Zuree, with secured seats on the Council of Elders, they have no need to meticulously scan for infractions. The younger acolytes at the rear of the convoy, however, spot me immediately. “You aren’t permitted to leave your chamber until after morning supplication, when it’s fully light!” One of them points up at me. “Or desecrate our holy temples with your bloodstained hands!” another calls. “Are you plotting to murder us as well, Enebish the Destroyer?” That terrible name makes me flinch. I blow out a breath and scan the line of crimson robes for Serik’s freckled nose and devious smile.

He’ll shut them up. But he’s late for morning supplication. Like always. “Of course she’s plotting our murder!” the first acolyte jeers. “And the Sky King will immediately promote me to Abba when he learns I stopped her rampage.” “Only if you reach her first!” A dozen of them rush toward the temple, leaping over one another like snarling jackals as they scale the mosaicked wall. I stumble back with a yelp. Which is mortifying. The old Enebish—Enebish the Warrior —could have silenced these sniveling fools in seconds. But now my bad leg snarls in my cloak and I thump down hard on the tiles.

I whistle and Orbai dives at the monks with her talons bared. A few stragglers wail and lose their grip, but the majority surge across the roof like a swarm of frenzied bees. I barely have time to curl into a ball before their bruising hands paw my sides. Before their grasping fingers tangle in my hair. “Stop!” I cry. But that only makes them more zealous, more ravenous. “What are you going to do, Enebish the Destroyer?” The monster inside me rears its head and flicks its pronged tail, exhaling a fiery breath up my throat. I squeeze the tiles so hard, one cracks beneath my fingertips, splintering like my feeble control. Before I realize what I’m doing, I fist a shard in my good hand and lash out blindly. I may not be able to wield the night, but that doesn’t mean I’m helpless.

My makeshift knife collides with something warm and soft, and a second later there’s a wail. The acolytes fall back. I barely nicked the blubbering monk’s forearm, but the way the others are hollering, you’d think I stabbed him through the heart. They attack as one: a ten-headed, twenty-armed beast. I swing the shard wildly and dodge to the left— dangerously close to the upturned ledge. But they anticipate my move. What they don’t anticipate is the combined force of so many people lunging at once. Instead of pinning me to the rooftop, we plummet over the edge. My arms pinwheel and the wind steals my scream. I close my eyes and brace for impact —thankfully, the temple is barely taller than two men—but before I hit the ground, someone calls my name.

My eyes fly open just in time to see Serik leap forward. My stomach slams into his bony shoulder and while I wheeze, he curses. Words a monk shouldn’t even know, let alone shout. “Have you lost your mind?” he groans as we collapse into the frosty grass. “Why would you attack them? You know they’re going to run straight to the abba.” “I didn’t attack them. They attacked me. They’re still attacking me.” I point to the other acolytes, thumping down around us like the world’s largest, and loudest, hailstones. “You’ll pay for this with your life!” the one I cut bellows.

Serik struggles to his feet and steps in front of me. “Leave her be.” “Why would we listen to you?” The other acolytes sneer at the hundreds of thin white scars climbing Serik’s forearms. After six years at Ikh Zuree, there’s hardly an inch of him that hasn’t felt the sting of the abba’s whip. He’s nearly as scarred as I am. “I said leave her be,” Serik snarls. “Or what?” I expect Serik to bunch back his crimson sleeves and start throwing punches like he does every time they corner me, but he squares his shoulders and says in a strange, official tone, “Or you’ll have to answer to Commander Ghoa. She just arrived from the war front and has requested I bring the prisoner.” The acolytes halt and their eyes widen. This is not what they expected.

This is not what I expected. A warbling sound halfway between a sob and a laugh bursts from my lips, and a spark of pure joy flares through me before fingertips of dread slowly close around my throat. Ghoa has no reason to come now, after all this time. Unless the abba somehow alerted her to my treason … Unless she knows I’ve been meddling with the darkness … My heartbeat throbs at my temples. Serik’s bluffing; it’s just a clever lie. I would have seen Ghoa arrive. I was on the rooftop all night. And you were so consumed by the darkness that you wouldn’t have seen your own hand waving in front of your face. I gape up at Serik, praying he’ll flash me a quick smile or wink. But he continues glaring at the other acolytes until they finally retreat toward the assembly hall, their lips curled into gloating sneers.

Then it’s just Serik and me, gulping back the chilly morning air. He exhales and scrubs his palm over his head, tugging at phantom locks of floppy brown hair. His hair was shaved to the scalp when he joined the brotherhood, like every acolyte at Ikh Zuree, and I’m still not used to it. Neither, apparently, is he. Though it does make his chin look stronger, the angles of his face sharper. Less like the boy I grew up with and more like a man. “Thank you,” I say, panting. “That was a brilliant lie. Though they’ll find out soon enough and make you pay for it.” There’s a long beat of silence before Serik looks down at me.

His lips are pressed into a thin line and his cheeks are so pale, his light brown freckles look like peppercorns. “It wasn’t a lie.” I scrabble to my feet and spin around, as if Ghoa might materialize behind us in the courtyard. “When did she arrive? And why?” I add in an anxious whisper. “Just this morning. And I don’t know why. Do you?” He shoots me a meaningful look, then glances up at the temple rooftop. “What were you doing up there, En?” “I just needed some air.” The thought of having to admit, even to Serik, how desperate I feel and how reckless I’ve become makes my cheeks burn. He’s no lover of rules, but even he would scold me.

Or pity me. Or worse, think me a thankless wretch. Serik crosses his arms and narrows his hazel eyes. They’re the same color as the grass poking through the frost, which is convenient, as I’d rather stare at the ground than answer his questions. He clears his throat loudly, but I keep my eyes fixed on the dirt. Finally he lets out a dramatic sigh and pats the cherry-sized lump on his forehead. “Do you think the abba will believe it’s from spending so much time with my head to the floor in prayer?” I bark out a laugh. “Not a chance. You are the worst monk at Ikh Zuree.” “That’s the finest compliment you’ve ever given me.

” “It wasn’t a compliment.” “Exactly.” Serik grins—a rare, true smile he once shared with every gardener and chambermaid when we were carefree wards running wild on Ghoa’s parents’ estate. A smile I’ve only seen a handful of times at Ikh Zuree. “She’s really here?” I knot my hands and look toward the assembly hall. Part of me wants to sprint across the compound and fling myself into her arms. I’ve dreamed of this moment every day for two years. Missed her every day for two years. But the other part of me is sweating and trembling and compulsively licking my lips. Blood thunders in my ears, beating a frantic refrain: She knows, she knows, she knows.

“She’s really here,” Serik affirms. “And she summoned me?”

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