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A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Someone will win Titania today.

She is the greatest spaceship that has ever been built—the warship that cannot be beaten. And the star system has talked of little else for weeks. From the gods in their lofty celestial realms to the garuda that live on the sun to the mortals on our planets and ships, Titania has shaped our every word: what she can do; who’s likely to win her; what the outcome of the contest will mean for our world. It’s a vast galaxy, spread across space and stars, and yet it feels so small when war and its infinite reach tiptoe closer.

It’s like a game of Warlords. Wychstar is the checkered board where the battle for the crown must be fought today, the competition is the battle, and Titania is the crown. And as the minutes tick down, the pieces move into place.

A usurper king.

A heroic exile.

A jealous prince.

An old warrior.

A cursed mother.

A war goddess.

And a girl.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the girl is irrelevant. The other players are powerful, important, the kinds of people around whom legends are spun. They are mighty pieces on the board. The girl, on the other hand, is a pawn, noticed by almost no one, the least important piece in the game. She has no wealth, no glory, no power, and no family.

But she’s not irrelevant.

I’m not irrelevant.

I tell myself that, day in and day out, and I’ve fought for every bit of pride I now have. And even then, it’s hard sometimes to believe the thought. Even today, as the competition promises to electrify the world and I teeter on the edge of every desperate, secret wish I’ve ever made, I’m more afraid than I am sure. I’m afraid of losing my nerve. I’m afraid of failing.

I’m afraid I won’t be enough.

“I know what you’re thinking,” says a voice behind me.

My arms are buried to the elbows in hot soapy water, so I don’t turn around. “I’m thinking I shouldn’t have promised Madam Li I would wash the dishes before the competition,” I say, “because now I’m going to be late if I don’t hurry.”

The speaker moves silently. One minute she’s behind me, the next she’s at my side. She’s in the form of an unremarkable young woman today, but I recognize her stern, impossibly dark brown eyes. Gods take on all kinds of forms to hide among us, but their eyes always give them away if you only know what to look for.

Amba, the war goddess.

“Esmae, I know about the dream,” she says. “That dream you dare to lose yourself in when you think even the gods aren’t paying attention. I know you too well. You want home, you want family.”

“Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

“Not everyone will fight for it the way I know you want to. I know you picture Alexi with Titania at the head of his army. You picture yourself with him as he flies her into war. He shines like gold in the sun, and the world explodes in fire. When the dust settles, you see him with a crown on his head. The war is won and you’ve both come home.”

She says this without mockery, but hearing the words aloud makes me suddenly feel as though this dream I’ve clung to is nothing but a foolish fantasy.

Alexi Rey, the heroic exile, the banished prince of Kali, the rightful heir to the throne. He, his brother, and his mother were exiled from their home, their kingdom, by his uncle, the usurper king. Now, four years later, everyone knows he’s preparing for a war to take his throne back. And who wouldn’t want an unbeatable warship on their side in such a war?

“Are home and family really such impossible things to hope for?” I ask her very softly. “You can see ahead, can’t you? Is it really so impossible?”

“You know I can only see snatches of what is to come, and even then, it’s often only what may come.” Amba pauses, considering me. “It is not an impossible thing to hope for, Esmae. Just an unlikely one. Alexi will certainly win the competition today, and I have no doubt he will fly to war with Titania at the head of his army, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be at his side. And frankly, you are better off here. You’ve lived your life in the dark while his has always been lived in the light, but you must remember you are safe in the dark.”

“You used to tell me I belonged on Kali,” I remind her. “You told me my mother sent me away because of a curse, and you told me I could go back to her when I was older and could defeat the curse. You were the one who planted the dream.”

“That was before the coup. Before Elvar stole the throne. Now Kali isn’t safe for you.”

“It’s not the kind of dream that goes away just because it’s not safe.”

If I close my eyes, I can see her. A silhouette in the distance, too far away to touch. The sun around which I orbit, fighting to get closer. Mother.

Amba sighs, a frustrated breath of air that’s weighed down by what she won’t say. She puts one hand over my wrist, stopping me from scrubbing the bowl in the sink. “I am a goddess and I shouldn’t have to ask you twice.” Her voice is gentle but firm. “Do not go to the competition today, Esmae. Do not seek out Alexi.”

I tug my wrist away. “Tell me why not and maybe I’ll listen.”

“Can’t you just trust that I wouldn’t ask this of you if it wasn’t for your own good?”

“Your definition of my own good seems to be synonymous with making me unhappy,” I reply, and the words open a jagged wound of unhealed pain that I haven’t been able to forget or forgive, “so you should understand why I’m not exactly keen to obey.”

Amba tightens her lips. “What you don’t understand could fill the cosmos.”

“Then explain it to me!”

“I cannot,” she says. “And I cannot stop you from going to the competition either. Go if you must.”

I laugh without any real humor. “Your limitations must really chafe at you. What would you do if you weren’t afraid it would kill you? Lock me up to keep me from going?”

“It is an easy matter for a mortal like you to joke about it, Esmae, but death is not a thought that sits well with a goddess. The age of the gods will end sooner or later, and I would quite like to remain in the celestial realms until then. You cannot possibly fathom how wretched and painful the idea of a mortal life is when you are part of the stars themselves.”

It’s true. I can’t possibly understand that, but I do understand she’s afraid of it. They say that in the early days of our world, when the galaxy was new and the war between gods and demons finally ended and humans started to carve out spaces for themselves, the gods were dangerous to us. Celestial, star-born, a race of creatures who can bend the fabric of the world because they are the fabric of the world; we revered them and prayed to them and they, in turn, helped us and blessed us as they saw fit. But back then, they could also hurt us. They could seize us in their hands and rip us apart if they chose. We didn’t stand a chance against such power.

A handful of gods, unwilling to hold such power over mortals, made a decision to grant us protection. The stories say they bound the power of all gods so that their kind could not harm us without falling from the celestial realms. Gods may provide weapons and play tricks and grant boons or level curses if they please, but they can no longer hurt us with their own hands, and they cannot physically interfere in our human wars. If they do, they will lose their immortality, and old age will kill them sooner or later.

Which is why Amba can’t physically stop me going today, but I know she wishes she could.

“Tell me,” I ask her one last time. “If it’s really so important to you that I stay behind and live the rest of my life on this ship, tell me why, and I’ll do as you ask.”

“The truth will do more harm than good,” she replies.

“Then I have to go.”

Amba takes me in for a moment, grave and sad, and then vanishes abruptly into thin air.

This is not unusual. There’s nothing constant about the gods; Amba has always flashed in and out of my life like a particularly stern bolt of lightning.

This time, though, she’s left doubt behind and I don’t have room for more doubt. My hands scrub dishes while my brain rockets through a thousand different permutations of possibilities—all the ways this day could go wrong, all the ways I could fail—and I can almost feel the fragile tension of my courage stretched too thin across too much.

The dishes are done. I must go.

I’m already late; the house has been quiet for almost an hour now. I’ve lived here all my life, in Madam Li’s home for orphans and foundlings, and I’ve never known it as quiet as it is at this moment. Everyone’s out in the streets, clustered near whatever tech screen they can get closest to so that they can watch the competition when it starts in less than an hour.

I dry my hands and grimace at my reflection in the polished metal freezer door. Untidy brown curls, a pale bronze elfin face with a pointed chin, gray eyes, smallish, sturdy. Years of training taught me to move gracefully and I’ve just about mastered the art of holding my head high, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I don’t look like much. Not in the world of palaces and royalty, where my faded navy shift dress marks me as poor, a servant rather than a guest. A nobody.

I turn away from the freezer door and go outside.

The competitors have been arriving all day, a parade of starships swooping in to dock below the palace. Every hour or so, an electronic voice over the speakers announces updates on the level of resources in the base ship our entire kingdom is built upon. Today Wychstar is almost at a hundred percent human capacity. I don’t think it’s ever been this close to capacity before.

The narrow, crooked streets are busy and noisy as the market stalls and peddlers make the most of the crowds. At the end of every few streets, tech screens gleam while floating sun lamps beat heat down on the masses. The dizzying smells of roasted meats, spiced wines, and honey have almost drowned out the sharp, lemony tang of the air purifier that always lingers just beneath.

The kingdom doesn’t look like it’s built on top of a space station. It looks no different from the kingdoms on planets, which was a deliberate choice to make the first citizens’ transition to life on a ship that much easier. The streets are like crooked, pastel teeth, each side crammed with colored shops and stalls and elevators and machines. Life on Wychstar is never quiet—the base ship beneath us is always at work—so even when there are no crowds and no chatter and no music, there’s always the steady chug of water in the pipes below the streets, the whir of the engines even farther down, or the periodic creak of metal as machines power the atmosphere, water, electricity, and technology.

The constant hum doesn’t bother me. On a spaceship kingdom, noise means all is well. Silence is far more frightening.

As I round a bend, the palace appears, all white marble and white stone, its tallest tower twisted up toward the shields that keep us safe from deep space beyond. I approach the entrance to the servants’ quarters where I’ve worked a few times for extra money, where I know the guards will recognize me and pay me little attention. The advantage of not looking like much is that no one expects you to be a problem on a day when security is tighter than it’s ever been in my lifetime.

The rooms of the palace are full of guests and the halls look splendid for the occasion, white marble walls splashed with hothouse flower petals, stairways garnished with leafy vines and bells. Everyone is gradually moving toward the grand Reception Hall where the competition will take place. I move in the opposite direction, away from the crush, and take an elevator down to the dock below the palace.

The dock is an enormous structure, and right now there are close to a hundred ships of all kinds inside, a sea of silver and rust. The air has a faint tang of fuel. It’s a smell that conjures Rickard’s voice, metal wings under my feet, and the sting of the wind against my skin. Precious, painful memories.

At the other end of the dock yawns the short, wide tunnel through which ships enter and leave. I can see the open mouth, the tilt pointing upward over the top of Wychstar’s skyline, a perfect oval of stars and moons stretching into infinity. It’s always been one of my favorite sights, that oval window that opens out to the rest of the world.

I search the dock until I find the ship that arrived just a few minutes ago. There. It’s a simple vessel with a bulbous beetle body, no different from any other unassuming interplanetary starship, except for the crest on its side, a golden bow and arrow inside a circle. No ordinary bow, either. The crest is unmistakable.

Alexi’s ship. He’s here.

By the end of this day, Alexi will have Titania. And with her, he’ll win his war. Alexi’s uncle, the usurper king Elvar, will finally fall. Alexi will take his rightful place as king of the great spaceship kingdom of Kali. And I’ll be there, too, exactly where I’m meant to be.

Titania can’t be defeated in battle. She can’t be destroyed. Here on Wychstar, they say our ruler, King Darshan, the man who made her, took a vow of silence for ten years. The gods were so impressed with his discipline that they granted him a boon.

His voice was hoarse and rusty when he said the first words he had uttered in ten years: “I want to build the most extraordinary warship ever seen. I want a ship so fast and so strong that it will never be caught or compromised. I want a ship that will never be defeated.”

“You will have that ship,” the gods promised.

No one knows why the king wanted such a ship so badly that he kept his silence for ten years just so the gods would grant him a favor. But they were true to their word. Titania is real, and she’s here.

She sits on a special dais at the north end of the dock. She’s deceptively small, beautiful, and terrible, dark silver and shaped like an arrowhead.

She’s a bone for the hounds to squabble over, the prize of the biggest competition since the old days, when the gods would offer immortality to the human winners of their games. It seems absurd to reduce the greatest warship in the galaxy to a bone, but I think I know why the king has done it. Wychstar is his realm and I’ve lived here for all but a few days of my life. I’ve watched him for years. He’s a fair ruler but also a clever one.

He wants what I want. He wants—

“He wants Alexi to win,” Rama says behind me.

I whip around. “I knew it!”

Rama huffs. “I wanted to tell you something you didn’t know, Esmae! I wanted you to be impressed and grateful that I provided you with such insight! You were supposed to be so grateful, in fact, that you would have then promised to carry out all of my royal duties so that I could stay in my bed and sleep.”

“It was an admirable, if unsuccessful, attempt to continue down your path of irredeemable inactivity,” I say sympathetically. “Maybe next time?”

This cheers him up. “I live in hope.”

I’m grateful and he knows it. Rama is the king’s youngest son, and my only real friend, and he’s always shared more with me than he should. I expect his father’s advisers would be horrified if they ever found out how much he tells me.

“How did you know I was here?”

“One of the guards told me he saw you,” he says. “How I mustered the energy to come all the way down here to find you is beyond me, but here I am.”

“Why does your father want Prince Alexi to take Titania from him?”

“He says he wants something only Alexi can give him. And he thinks the only way to persuade Alexi to give it to him is to offer Titania first.”

“But what’s the something that he wants?”

Before Rama can answer, a servant steps out onto the balcony behind us. “Your sister says you’re wanted in the family quarters, my prince.”

“Is it important? I’m in the middle of—”

“No, it’s fine,” I say. I have to go, too.

The servant’s cheek twitches. He’s not the only one who hates that I speak to Rama like we’re equals.

Rama grins and meanders off, dragging his feet. He’s like an especially lazy cat, all yawns and groans and a constant refrain of “Esmae, leave me alone. I can barely cope with the strenuous demands of everyday existence without the added trauma of your involvement. Why do you always require so much movement from me?”

As soon as he’s gone, the old servant scowls at me. “This is what comes of goddesses sending gutter brats to the royal schoolroom.”

“So you elevate the prince above us,” I say, “but you’re happy to cast aspersions on the choices of a goddess? You do realize a god is more likely to smite you than a prince?”

In fact, the opposite is true because gods can’t smite without consequences. That said, they can certainly curse us. The servant glances skittishly over his shoulder as though afraid Amba might have appeared behind him to do just that.

“She’s not there,” I say helpfully.

His scowl deepens. “It’s not the goddess’s choices I have a problem with. The way you speak to the prince is a scandal. You should behave in a manner that better suits your station.”

“Rama doesn’t think he’s better than any of us, so what business is it of yours how I speak to him?”

The servant grunts dismissively and storms away. I turn back to Alexi’s starship.

And just in time, too. The door hisses open and a handful of people spill out. Guards and advisers, I assume, if their clothes and posture are anything to go by. After the advisers comes a tall woman in a warrior’s armored tunic and then Prince Alexi himself. The woman stops just outside the doors and waits for Alexi to catch up so she can have a private word with him.

I move closer, down the stairs, away from the balcony, and toward the pair, blending in with the bustle of servants, guards, and pilots tending to ships and organizing the arrivals.

The woman is in her late thirties, with toned limbs and light brown skin, black hair shaved almost to her scalp, and long, narrow eyes. She looks familiar, and I wonder if maybe I’ve seen her on one of Rickard’s many video cubes of Kali. She stands utterly still as she speaks to the prince, but it’s the stillness of the cobras coiled in the snake pits of Sting.

And Alexi—

After years of hopes and questions and wishes left with milk and honey at gods’ altars, we’re finally in the same place. Finally together.

I’ve heard so many stories about him. He’s known across the star system for his sense of honor, his bravery, his stupendous skills as a warrior. When he was five years old, he was kidnapped by a vicious raksha demon; when his father’s soldiers arrived to rescue him, they found the demon dead, Alexi’s knife buried in its heart. Dozens of warriors have tried to defeat Alexi in combat since then, boys and girls, adults across the entire gender spectrum, demons and half-demons. They’ve all failed. And yet, each time Alexi wins, it’s with such grace that even the defeated love him for it. He never forgets a favor or a kindness and he never fails to help those he calls his friends. He’s a prince of princes. And he’s just seventeen years old.

He’s tall and lithe and restless. There are coppery streaks in his short brown hair and a golden bow made of light is slung across his back. He has a handsome face, with a strong jaw and easy smile that have won more than his fair share of hearts across the galaxy. His eyes are clear and gray and so familiar that my throat feels tight.

I have to speak with him. This is your chance, Esmae. Use it.

I edge closer. A couple of the guards glance my way but then dismiss me as just another servant, no threat. A mere pawn on the board.

“Leila, don’t pin all our hopes on this,” Alexi says to the woman.

Leila. So she must be Leila Saka, his general and right hand. I’ve definitely seen footage of her before. She’s terrifying on the battlefield, fast and lethal.

“She’s just a ship,” Alexi goes on. “An extraordinary ship, but a ship, nevertheless. She has limitations, she can’t be everywhere at once. We won’t win this war on her back alone. We need help from inside Kali, but that’s become almost impossible since my cousin banished or locked up all our allies.”

Titania is the weapon that can turn the tide, Alex,” General Saka replies. “We may not need help from inside Kali if we have a warship that can terrify your uncle into surrendering. And if nothing else, we’re here because she is a weapon we cannot and must not ever let into his hands. I think the fire made it clear that he will do whatever it takes to be rid of you. And he’s sent your cousin here to compete against you today, so I’d advise keeping your eye on him at all times or you may find him stabbing you in the back again. Literally this time.”

Alexi laughs. He has a friendly, warm smile and his laugh is infectious. The corners of my own mouth tug up before terror flattens them again.

Move, Esmae.

But I don’t. I stand frozen, jostled by passing servants and pilots, and can’t quite bring myself to approach. What if he doesn’t want to talk to me? What if he laughs at me?

And then, from above us, a bell sounds.

General Saka uncoils from her stance, dangerous energy humming, and gestures upward. “That’s the first bell. We must join the other competitors.”

She and Alexi start walking away, and all I can do is watch him go, afraid, frozen, and furious with myself.

My nerve failed. I had my chance and I let it slip away.