The Birthing of Stars
There was no way the babe could be alive.
Not in the biting cold of the páramo mountains, where demons crawled out of burrows and prowled from stunted trees to barbed shrubs. Where in the height of night the breath came out smoky white, and icicles crusted the spikes of cacti. Here, an abandoned babe was nothing more than an easy meal.
So Reyna hurried. Her transplant heart thrummed as she hiked the tundra in the company of shadows. Cacti tugged her trousers and dead twigs snapped under her weight. A lone breeze sang past the sparse trees, then chilled her, despite the density of her doublet.
It wasn’t so much that the darkness frightened her. It was what her presence meant, that had her spine tingling. What rescuing the babe meant.
Cold perspiration clung to her palms underneath her leather gloves. Her hand found the hilt of her sword on its own, the feel of it a reassurance. She couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed.
Perhaps the páramo had wards. The sorceress doña Wilgeva could have employed any kind of spell to alert her whenever someone with Reyna’s exact intentions crossed these paths. It was almost stupid of her to come on her own, thinking she had the power to change anything.
A shadow shifted from the corner of her eyes.
The tall grass stopped breathing. Or maybe she did.
Reyna leapt away from the sounds of a pursuer, scrambling over stumps and slippery, mossy rocks.
With a bold arch she swung her sword around. From the shadows came the pursuer, and Reyna blocked them out of instinct, or sheer luck. Then her breath died at the depths of her throat as she realized who hunted her.
Her attacker froze with recognition washing over their face. A girl, whose scythe clanged against Reyna’s sword, stopping but a hair away from the tender flesh of her neck. The girl gasped like a fiend-dragon breathing condensation, “Por la Virgen.”
“Celeste,” she said, “Please don’t kill me.”
Celeste huffed and shoved her scythe away. “You gave me a fright!” Her words were deep and throaty, like the sound incense would make it if had a voice. “What are you doing here?”
Celeste wore a tight-fitting jacket that accentuated her sharp shoulders and small waist, the fabric embellished with a brocade finish. Her stunted antlers, the mark of her valco breed, jutted out of the top of her blunted bangs like a brutal crown. She carried a magical scythe, one she had summoned from an incantation enabled by iridium metal. Celeste was the first and only daughter of Enrique Águila, the caudillo of Sadul Fuerte, and everything about the way she carried herself attested to that.
Reyna took a shaky step back, her transplant heart calming. “I should be asking you the same,” she said and sheathed her sword. “There are whistlers in the páramo, and who knows what kind of traps doña Wilgeva could have planted here.”
Her gaze lingered on Celeste a little too long, so she looked away. But no matter how often she was entangled in this dance, in this realization of her staring, Celeste’s face always drew her back. To eyes that were a cloudless midday sky, or to lips with that overused plum lipstick, the pigment so rich the stain persisted even after she wiped it off.
It wasn’t jealousy that took Reyna’s gaze prisoner. It was… the flutter in her chest.
“I came to intervene,” Celeste said.
A laugh broke out of Reyna’s lips.
“What’s so funny?”
“I came for the child,” Reyna said.
“For your grandmother?”
Reyna shook her head. “I’m saving them.”
Celeste regarded her with a smile she almost missed to the darkness. “You came to betray your grandmother.” There was incredulity in her tone.
“It’s not betrayal. I’m loyal to doña Wilgeva.” It was a reminder to herself—a disclaimer. “I’m not here because of her. I’m here because I can’t let this ritual keep claiming the lives of babies.” She tucked behind her ears the curly hairs sticking out of her braid. “They’re innocent—used as tools. It’s not their fault your father’s entire court is obsessing over Rahmagut’s legend. Unlike them, I can’t watch idly anymore.”
“Oh, and you think I put up with this… ridiculous legend?”
Reyna shook her head. On second thought, she shouldn’t be surprised to see Celeste here. Despite the fact that Celeste’s father, don Enrique, was who orchestrated the pursuit to unearth Rahmagut’s legend, Celeste was one of the few in his court who cared.
If anything, Reyna was more complicit. For it was her grandmother, doña Wilgeva, who had abandoned the babe near the mountain summit, where the nights were colder and the fiends hungrier.
Abandoning them was part of the ritual to determine whether doña Wilgeva and don Enrique Águila had in captivity a Dama del Vacío—what they called the reincarnations of Rahmagut’s nine wives. Doña Wilgeva’s imprisoned girls were forced to give a blessing of protection to an unbaptized babe. If they were truly a reincarnation of a wife, the blessing was meant protect the babes overnight.
The test was cruel, and though so far it had worked on six babes, a dozen or so had been forsaken to their gory deaths by the claws of páramo fiends. Reyna couldn’t allow another bloodstained dawn. Especially not when it was her who doña Wilgeva barked at to retrieve the “results” of the test.
Reyna resumed the hike, climbing on a slippery rock and extending a hand to Celeste. Thunder rumbled in the distance, despite the glow of the crescent moon and her shimmering companions peppered around her.
“But you shouldn’t be here,” Reyna said.
“I shouldn’t be here?”
“It’s not proper that you’re sneaking out in the middle of the night to meddle with doña Wilgeva’s work.”
Celeste scoffed. “Spoken like a true lapdog.”
Reyna stopped; gave her a look. It wasn’t the first time she heard the words, and every time it didn’t hurt any less.
Celeste squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“You know what I mean. If we’re caught and talk gets out that you’re intervening, they’ll start to wonder why you’re betraying your father’s cause. If I’m found…” Maybe it was the chill of páramo making her blood run cold. “I’ll just be punished.” She grasped for a rock to pull her up to the next ledge, avoiding the cacti to the side. Then gave Celeste a hand.
“You’ll ‘just be punished?’ If doña Wilgeva gets wind of this she’ll lash your back until you can’t tell your flesh from your blood. It’s not beyond her. And you’re more worried that the idle oligarchs of Father’s court will realize I hate your grandmother? Which, let me be clear here, is a fact.”
Reyna chewed the insides of her lips, a ghost itch running down her back at the memory her last lashing, when doña Wilgeva beat her for daring to attend don Enrique’s latest ball.
In a ballroom full of humans and valcos, the attendance of doña Wilgeva’s half-breed nozariel granddaughter had sparked an outrage. Reyna had shown up because of Celeste’s insistence. “You’re my best friend,” she had said, “I’m old enough to be important in the gentry. They’ll respect that.” The governor and the noble families of Sadul Fuerte had respected it, at the moment, only whispering their outrage between toasts and behind closed doors. It turned out, Reyna’s presence had been an insult. In their eyes, her nozariel blood made her unworthy of such a night.
Celeste flew to her once doña Wilgeva had finished with her. And she nurtured Reyna with her signature pity and indignation through a sleepless night made bearable only thanks to her company.
“A lashing isn’t worse than the death of an innocent,” Reyna murmured the same words she had told herself, over and over, as she gathered the courage to come for the babe.
She listened to the sounds of night, to what was ahead and to what they were leaving behind. The cacophony of night shrouded them only so much. The song of tall grass. Crickets committed to their chorale. The faraway, timid cry of a fox. None were the sounds she expected this high in the mountain. What she awaited, as they drew nearer to the location of the abandoned babe, was the signature song of a whistler.
“I hope my future husband is as noble as you are,” Celeste said lightly behind her.
Reyna stopped. “Future husband?” That didn’t sit right in her chest.
A sigh escaped Celeste’s lips. “Father just told me. He ‘found a candidate,’” she said in a mocking manner.
“But… I thought you said you were going to be like your grandmother—that you were going to marry on your own terms.”
They had talked about it while lying on the grass under a starry sky. That night, Reyna’s feelings hadn’t seemed as inappropriate as they did all the time.
“Trust me, I’m trying to avoid it as much as I can. But your grandmother, I swear, she wants me gone. I bet she’s whispering ideas of alliances and how happy I’ll be to have a man by my side. That devil—” Celeste’s voice trembled, her nostrils flared. “The moment I take over I’m going to send her packing to a place so far from here she’ll forget what the páramo ever looked like.”
“You’re never going to send her packing anywhere if she summons Rahmagut’s favor for don Enrique.”
A silence hung pregnant between them. It would happen soon—if the latest girl brought into Águila Manor turned out to be the seventh. Once they found all nine, don Enrique and doña Wilgeva meant to parley with God Rahmagut, lord of the Void, and demand his reward. If the legend was true, they could ask for the prize of ascension; to sit beside him like a god.
A soft whistling cut through their pause. The melody of climbing notes, one over the other. It came from far away, easy and without intent, as if being whistled by an unsuspecting traveler. But Reyna knew the song—from the horror tales told by the children and country folk of the páramo—and the realization brought gooseflesh all along her arms.
Moments passed and the whistling faded. Stopped. Then it started again, faint and broken as if coming from very far away.
A swoosh cut the air behind her, and Celeste gasped, yanking her forward and out of the way of a slash.
The sound was sucked out of the night as Reyna whirled around to face the bipedal fiend. A tall whistler emerged from behind a crooked tree, hunched, claws outstretched and ready for a second strike. Its eyes were shrouded in the shade of a straw hat, the bottom half of its face gnawed bloody, probably by the other whistlers of the territory. Caked blood stained the sides of its lipless mouth, trailing down to the tattered clothes of a farmer.
Reyna forgot to breathe as the whistler regarded them with a gaping grin. Her gaze found Celeste’s. She was saying something, but Reyna couldn’t hear a thing. She couldn’t hear the crickets; the rustle of grass. She couldn’t hear her own thrumming heart.
It was what whistlers did, jumbling sound to confuse those they hunted, their whistling loud when they were far and faint when they were close to their prey.
The whistler slashed a second time. In forgetting how to breathe, Reyna also forgot how to move.
Celeste wrenched her out of the way. They hurled to the ground, slamming on rocks and on a cactus as the whistler shredded the air where Reyna had stood.
“Reyna!” Celeste’s voice snapped her back to reality, “Remember your training.”
Reyna sprang to her feet. Her sword whizzed out of its scabbard to become an extension of her arm. With the sword she was in her element. And she swung at the slashing claw, severing it in a clean swipe.
Celeste swung her scythe at the other arm, hacking through sinew and bone and nearly getting stuck along the way.
The whistler let out a deafening high-pitched whistle as Celeste rammed her way through the cut. Without its arm, it ran at Reyna, snapping bloodied teeth for a desperate victory. But this time Reyna didn’t hesitate. She swerved out of her way, her legs acting on muscle memory, and muted the whistler with a thrust right through the heart.
The smell of sweet, rancid flesh slapped her across the face.
Reyna let the body fall to the ground and yanked her sword out. She was wet with foreign blood and tendrils that smelled of corpses. A smell she knew well.
Despite the stickiness, Celeste took her in an embrace that grounded her. Reyna shuddered in her arms. Celeste’s touch made her remember she was here, in the páramo, and not in the hellish memories of her childhood.
Together they took a deep breath that seemed to return the sounds of the mountain.
Celeste let go. She watched her, eyes surfing Reyna’s curly braid and tawny face. The scale on the bridge of her nose and pointed tips of her ears. The marks of her nozariel blood.
Reyna’s pride made her say, “You didn’t have to do that. I could have handled it.”
Reyna was supposed to be the one saving Celeste. She was supposed to be the better warrior, because it was all she had. If she wasn’t worthy to humans, and if she didn’t have a family or a fortune to her name, the least she could do was be self-sufficient. And not freeze.
So she offered Celeste a very reluctant “I mean—Thank you.”
They turned to the fallen body. Sores and cuts oozed with black-red blood all along the whistler’s pale skin. It looked like it had been a farmer, or a shepherd, its human clothes still clinging to the body despite the decay.
“That was my first time slaying a whistler by myself—well—with you,” Reyna said, stepping back to the path.
Celeste followed her and chuckled. “Yeah. Father’s guards always made it look so easy.”
Reyna just swiped the blood of her trousers—her good pair. Thankfully none was theirs.
“Are you using an iridium spell?” Celeste asked as she caught up, “Your chest is pulsing.”
As Celeste was valco, she was capable of seeing the ebb and throb of magic as a tangible rift in light and space. She was probably seeing the iridium in Reyna’s heart, pounding from leftover terror.
Reyna reminded her, “You know I don’t use iridium.” She hated to, in fact. A complex system of an iridium ore and potion fueled her transplant heart. If she ever dared use it in combat, the same way Celeste or doña Wilgeva did, she wasn’t sure she’d know when enough was enough. The thought of running out, mid-swing or mid-jump, terrified her.
Celeste gave her a smug look that made the heat rise to Reyna’s cheeks. By the Virgin, she needed to stop staring so much.
“It’s okay, you know,” Celeste said, relentless, “We’re here for each other. The Virgin sent me here to save your life because she knows one day I’ll need the saving, too.”
“I’m not useless.” And gods don’t look out for me.
“I’m not saying you are.”
“You think I’m weak because I don’t use iridium.”
Celeste loved to harp about it. She loved to encourage Reyna to do things out of her comfort zone, and sometimes, like in don Enrique’s last ball, those things simply blew up on her face.
“I—no—well, you could be stronger,” Celeste said.
Whatever rebuttal Reyna was formulating dissolved at the sound of an anxious coo. A babe’s cry, it was loud enough it couldn’t be too far.
Reyna and Celeste met eyes.
The cries intensified.
“The baby—” Reyna said, taking off toward the sound. She hacked through the overgrowth until the path opened to an elevated clearing. There, a barricade of frailejón cacti circled a small pond in the center. And right on the banks was a bundle of hemp blankets, stirring and spilling with the cries of the abandoned child.
Reyna ran to the child first. But before she could fully reach to scoop them up, a shock of electrifying energy stopped her. Her hand reached again and the energy lapped her like fire.
She hissed and stepped away. “What in Rahmagut’s Void?”
Celeste stopped beside her, staring at thin air.
Celeste extended a hand, touching something invisible, her palm molding around the shape of a dome. “There’s a lithium barrier.”
Of course, Reyna thought. Not only could Celeste see magic summoned with iridium, she could also see magic generated by the other earth metals, like now.
“Is this what the dama’s blessing is supposed to look like?” Celeste’s gave breath to the same question flooding Reyna’s thoughts.
The babe’s cries became wails.
Celeste dissolved her scythe incantation and pick up the babe up in one smooth, unhesitant motion. She lifted them to her chest like she had an instinct for motherhood, the barrier never once inhibiting her.
“Why isn’t it stopping you?” Reyna said. She was suddenly reminded of her blood. Of all the things she couldn’t do for being nozariel.
The moonlight revealed the babe’s teary eyes and ruddy cheeks. It was a baby boy. He was distressed, but unscathed. Celeste squeezed him closer, cooing gracefully, and calmed him.
“I don’t know. I just had a feeling I could do it,” she said. When she looked up at Reyna, triumphant, it wasn’t her eyes or smile that earned Reyna’s attention.
Speechless, Reyna reached out to dislodge Celeste’s jacket from her shoulder, then her vest, revealing the paleness of her collarbone. She wasn’t thinking whether it was proper or not, and if Celeste ever objected, she never expressed it.
They were both too caught up in the sparkling dots hiving from her neck to her collarbone to her shoulder. The spots weren’t blinding, but pearlescent, shifting between a gamut of colors against the contrast of her skin. Celeste glanced at Reyna, her gaze an invitation to further pull down her jacket, vest, and shirt so they could inspect her bared shoulder.
Sure enough, the dots continued downwards. A constellation was birthing in Celeste’s body, wrapping around her shoulder toward her back.
Reyna ran her thumb along the dots, stopping where her clothes wouldn’t budge further down. Then she sobered up, pulling away like Celeste’s skin was smoldering metal. This touch was improper.
“What’s going on?” Celeste’s voice held the same panicked edge as the babe’s cries.
“You have… stars on your back.”
The babe sensed her distress and began stirring.
“Is it iridium?”
“No,” Reyna said, “I can’t see iridium, but I can see this. All of it. And I’ve seen it before—in the girls.”
“What?” Celeste snapped and startled the babe.
Reyna didn’t want to say it. Her transplant heart began to pound, dread licking its way up her spine. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not now, not here, not ever.
“They have… things that make them different. Like, their tears are crystals and their skins sometimes glow, like with stars.”
“But—” Real alarm filled Celeste’s voice. “I’m not like them. I am not.”
Despite the emphasis—the self-assuredness—it was futile to argue it. The signs didn’t lie. And they wouldn’t lie to doña Wilgeva, when she decided to risk the life of another babe on the ritual proving what Celeste was or was not.
Reyna shook the tension from her arms and shoulders, her hands navigating to the hilt of her sword. She met those blue eyes.
For months, Reyna had looked up to the skies and prayed. She didn’t just pray to the Virgin. She prayed in private to Soril, too, even if in Sadul Fuerte it was forbidden to revere Soril and Rahmagut. She looked to the skies that clutched the secrets of her destiny and begged for her luck to change. For don Enrique’s court to see her as more than a half-breed nozariel. For her grandmother’s kindness. She prayed for her heart to have the opportunity to fit in, and for a chance to prove herself to Celeste.
In a way, being the only one to witness Celeste’s manifestation—when both had come on their own and neither was supposed to be here—felt like a sign. Like the stars had heard those prayers and were giving Reyna the opportunity to seize her destiny.
But it was a cruel sign, because this would mean Celeste’s blood was all that stopped doña Wilgeva from achieving her invocation.
And Reyna would have no choice but to bear witness to Celeste’s sacrifice, or lose everything she had dreamed of for her life.