The Pink Ravyn
The Songs They Sing
by R. N. Headlam
The year 6,997 OI (300,000 BCE)
Ismael took another step closer to the marble stairs. He timed each step he took with his heartbeat. Then, he exhaled. His breath swirled before him, condensed by the cold air that cloaked his skin.
Ismael had held the Contending Seat for a few years—eight years, to be precise. Eight years ago, the Triune had actually considered opening up the position to ehols living within the Palace.
Yet, Ismael had made a mess of things since his time there.
He knew what was next: the Asayli would either punish him or expel him from the Palace.
Ismael didn’t want to be here. He’d rather if They kicked him out—told him he was no longer welcome.
Ismael clutched his cloak. The air around was dense. It was the heart of winter, and though Ynacci wasn’t as cold as the other Empires, there had been times when the temperatures dropped lower than the Kalér Mountains. Today was one of those rarer moments. Seemingly, the cold mirrored the dread that swathed his heart.
Ismael stopped at the base of the stairwell, looking up toward the three Asayli who stood above him on the top stair in front of the mahogany double doors. Three of Them all dressed from head to toe in Their usual black robes, hoods down, concealing most of Their face. Eons ago—Ismael hadn’t been keeping track of time—he remembered standing right in front of these stairs, eager to find work as a couturier.
He had been younger, thinner, with lilac-colored hair and rosy cheeks. He had also been a bit naïve since his optimistic stride and empty-brained decisions were the beginning of a cold-blooded revolt led by Luce, who’d managed to slip into Ịtoba back then.
It happened years ago—three hundred and fifty-three years ago, now that Ismael took a few seconds to calculate when the actual Rebellion had ended. He bit his lip and exhaled, another rush of condensed air swarming in front of him. Since then, things happened. The bloodied lace dress was still etched into his memory, the depraved look on Kasi’s face when A’Mara had succumbed to her injuries and died….
This Palace, its white walls and gleaming ivory columns, held many memories. Ismael longed to forget some of them, but most, Ismael had cherished.
“You’ve made it,” Kasi said, stepping down toward Ismael. Though most of His face was concealed, Ismael could pinpoint the distant smirk on the Asaylin’s face.
Ismael knew when Kasi was disappointed, even when He wore a smile. Today was no different.
“You know why we called you here.” Kasi tipped His head to the side. A bit of light caught underneath the hood, and Ismael could see the glint of His eyes. Gold.
Golden eyes for the Asaylin, who held the most powerful sẹda in the realms.
Ismael pulled a frown, then fixed His attention on Kasi. He knew exactly why They’d called him here.
When Ismael had come here to work as a couturier, Isa cautioned him not to bother the Worshippers. Not to find himself in bed with them. It perhaps was his only warning—or at least, that’s how Isa had intended it to be. Of course, as a good child should, Ismael followed Isa’s rules for the better half of the time he’d spent living in the Palace. But as time passed and he got more comfortable in the establishment, he made friends—and lovers….
Ismael glanced at his father, who remained slightly to Kasi’s left on the top of the stairs. Some of His bone-straight black hair peeked out from His hood, and a frown stained His face. Ismael’s stomach twisted. He glanced back at Kasi.
Ismael could be honest with himself. After A’Mara’s death, Ismael had found comfort in the arms of a few Worshippers. Then, he’d moved to Celipha Empire to begin training as a Winged Fortress. That’s where he’d committed more of his crimes. The Worshippers there were different. They had a knack for being too welcoming.
That had been Ismael’s first mistake.
Isa was forgiving too—much to Yo’s dismay and Ismael’s surprise. But that never meant the Asaylin was tolerant. At first, it was a frown or a reprimanding look whenever Isa would see him out with the females, but soon those frowns became off-putting comments. Most of them had come from Ismael’s father.
Yo wasn’t shy about making His opinions known. “You’re an incompetent disappointment.” His father’s words burnt a hole inside him. Not once or twice. But seven times. Ismael had kept count. Each time was worse than the last.
Ismael knew he and his father would never see eye to eye on anything. But maybe Ismael had denied too much of reality—he wasn’t cut out to be an Asaylin’s son. It wasn’t in his personality.
Ismael swallowed the lump in his throat and waited.
Then, when Ismael’s eyes landed on Nyalah, Isa gave him a gentle but poison-laced warning, wrapped in His soft honey tone and witty eyes. “Have nothing to do with her, saurayi.”
Ismael should’ve taken Him seriously.
Nyalah was shy. A busy Worshipper whose only job seemed to be cleaning the Celiphan Palace and ensuring that Isa was served all His meals. Her bountiful curls tumbled over her light skin. The rosiness to her cheeks grew redder when she smiled. She hummed a tune to herself and had very little to say.
When Ismael would greet her for the mornings, she would return a shy smile in response and continue with her daily duties. Until one day, Ismael found her crying at the base of the stairwell. Perhaps Ismael should’ve left her be or offered a few words of condolence before finding someone else to deal with her. But Ismael had taken it upon himself to invite her to his quarters.
And that had been his second mistake.
Isa was the EzeDanzya. The one in charge of the Reapers, Ground Fortresses, and Winged Fortresses. Though His demeanor was carefree with child-like humor. Though He was witty and, most times, forgiving, He was the dangerous one. He wasn’t like Kasi or Yo. He was different—and Ismael had underestimated the Asaylin.
That was Ismael’s third—and final—mistake.
“It was one too many offenses, my friend,” Isa said. There was a sliver of humor hidden inside His voice. It came unexpectedly. Even though the shadows created obscure shapes on Isa’s face, Ismael could see His eyes. And there was something in them that Ismael couldn’t quite make out.
Both Isa and Yo descended the stairs closer to Kasi. Ismael’s heart palpitated.
They were going to force him out of the Palace.
At first, Ismael had lost sleep over it when They’d asked for the meeting, but Ismael had come to terms with the consequence of his actions. He wanted to leave.
The storm of Ismael’s own heartbeat brewed in his ears. How was he going to tell Them he was okay with leaving? They would come up with a different punishment, and Ismael resented that. He held his tongue and waited.
“We’re terminating your—”
“I’m granting you the opportunity to stay,” Kasi said, cutting Isa off.
Isa frowned. He glanced at Yo, then both fixed Their eyes on Kasi, who stood in the middle. “What?” Isa asked, not as though He didn’t hear Kasi but rather didn’t believe the Asaylin had actually said what He said.
“I’m allowing him to stay,” Kasi repeated, more relaxed.
Ismael twisted his mouth at the odd statement.
“Why?” Yo asked.
Ismael wanted to know the same.
“I have my reasons.” His response was simple, but then….
“Kotak, isn’t it?” Isa asked.
Ismael’s stomach turned. It had to have been.
Kotak was the regency that wars had been fought over. The Luciferian Rebellion happened all because of it. Kotak was centered in the heart of the busy Kingdom of the Central Octeract. When Ismael was young and not bright, his father told him stories of the regency: about the Zamŷni Wars and how many aingeals had died to build it, to protect it.
Years had passed since the Zamŷni Wars, and when it was found that the regency housed a planet lovingly called Earth by the aingeals and sanyas who lived in Ịtoba, the Rebellion happened.
“Are you sure?” Isa pressed.
Kasi folded His lips. His gloved fingers fixed His collar and the gold chain that dangled around His neck. “He holds Chaos,” Kasi said.
Yo glanced at Isa. His face hardened into something cold.
“I’m going to need him for something.” Kasi turned to Isa. “We’re going to need him for something.”
Isa dropped His shoulders. The glimmer of the pendant that hung around His neck cast a silver light that sparkled as He turned to face Yo.
Ismael sucked in a breath, his heart pounding against his chest.
Do I have to stay?
He looked down at the floor, his reflection staring back at him. No longer did he have those lilac waves. His hair was a dead brown, and his eyes were a lifeless hazel. His skin was red from the cold. His fingers were shaking because of the Asaylin who threatened his life.
He could stay if he wanted. But did he actually want to?
Ismael looked up.
“We’re waiting,” Isa said. There was something in His tone that was disconcerting.
Ismael bit his lower lip. “I’m not sure I want to stay.”
A frown spread across Kasi’s face. “Why not?”
“I want to expel him,” Isa said. “If he doesn’t want to stay, let him go.”
“I can’t.” Kasi’s words had cut deep. “There’s a reason I need him here. To let him go will be too fatal for these realms right now. Trust me on this.”
Yo thought for a while, then glanced at Ismael before returning his attention to Kasi. “Your word stands,” He said before vanishing.
Isa lingered on for a bit.
Ismael’s stomach twisted even more.
The Asaylin tapped His talons together, His gaze lightening. “I trust you,” Isa said mainly to Kasi, though He’d formed a half-smile in Ismael’s direction.
Ismael swallowed another lump in his throat, watching Isa disappear into a cloud of thick, dark smoke.
Kasi returned His attention to Ismael. “Why do you want to leave?”
“It’s—it’s just that I’m not cut out for this. I don’t want to stay here. I’ve already—” He didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
“I figured you wanted to stay.”
“I want my freedom.”
“And I want your loyalty. You do realize that you hold Chaos? I can’t just let you go. This is a critical moment, and I need you here.”
“Leaving the Palace means you’ll be leaving the Wall unattended. The Fourth Seat needs to be filled, and you’re the only person with the right sẹda capable of filling it.”
“But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want a Seat. I don’t want to be tied up in this political mess.”
Kasi nodded, listening intensively to each word Ismael spoke. “The Rebellion isn’t over. Just because it was put on halt all these years doesn’t mean there aren’t traitors in the realms. The Tabernacle Walls need someone to tend to it—”
“Isn’t there someone else who could do that?”
Kasi grinned. “It surprises me. Luce fought to be here, to have a Seat, and he was kicked out of the Palace—strangely, for the same reason I want you to stay.”
“I’m not Luce.”
“This isn’t something I want. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for this power—I didn’t ask to be born into this life.”
Kasi grunted, tugging the hood of His cloak further down. Ismael could still see a hint of His golden eyes. Even under all that darkness, Kasi’s embers still managed to penetrate it—gold and glowing, filled with Iyùn.
Kasi loosened a nasal sigh. “Fine,” He said. “But how would I ensure you’re not leaving to join the Zodiacs—and betray the Throne?”
Ismael knew there was a catch. After ten years of working as a couturier and several years training under Isa as a Winged Fortress, he ended up with the Fourth Seat. He wasn’t cut out for it; his father hadn’t stopped reminding him. Ismael was an artist by heart. And an artist he wanted to remain. Yet, he knew the pressure the Asayli were under. He perhaps should’ve—
The vow. The Illaryian Vow. Ismael could recite the vow, and perhaps all his problems would be solved. He looked at Kasi.
Ismael tried to hide the smile behind a stoic expression. He wanted his freedom, but Kasi wanted loyalty. The vow was a perfect exchange. His mother had taught him about the Illaryian Vow and its history.
Even in Ynacci’s cold, heat rose from his skin; sweat beaded on his forehead. When he was young, he’d thought about taking the vow but never got around to it. But now that he had the chance…
“I vow to let you guide my feet. My heart and life are yours to keep….” Tears dripped from his eyes as he recited the vow his mother had taught him. “I will fight all my battles in your name. From all other gods, I will refrain. I vow to do only your will. Whatever you command, I shall fulfill. Your words are my laws, your instructions my rules. I will be the vessel you shall use. As Karima-Yuuna, I promise my word to be true. I will remain an ever-burning candle for you. Áṣẹ-isa.”
“You swore on your true name?” Kasi arched His eyebrow.
Ismael’s eyes were wet, and no matter what he did, the tears wouldn’t dry.
A smile cut across Kasi’s face.
He’d sworn on his true name, Karima-Yuuna.
“That’s the Illaryian Vow,” Kasi said. “That’s not to me.” He grinned. “That vow binds you to Isa.”
The center of Ismael’s right palm burned, blue and gold lights flickering from its center, cascading into the air like thin threads: embers that didn’t belong to him. The harsh but warm scent of metal swarmed upward with the blue-violet embers. His skin blistered, blood bubbling from the wound.
Ismael watched as the embers cut a circle in his palm. His skin tore open as the embers danced and sliced, danced and sliced. Ismael wanted to fold his hand into a ball to ease the pain, but the dancing embers kept his hand open.
Tears dripped from his eyes. Blood trickled out his palm, first in bits and pieces, then as a rushing stream plummeting to the floor, staining the marble tiles red.
It was a rune.
The image took shape: two intertwined fish, perfectly inscribed in the circle’s center. When the embers had finished dancing, and the lights died down, the scar slowly began to heal, knitting itself together. His entire forearm was red. Ismael still couldn’t ball his hand, though some sense of touch had returned to his cold fingers.
This was the sacrifice he made—for his freedom.
The pain from the rune had left him dry, his breaths short and static. Sweat pooled on his forehead.
“Just keep breathing.” Isa’s words whispered in his mind.
The days he’d trained as a Winged Fortress when the pain was unbearable, and his breathing became thin, those were the words Isa would say.
Ismael dropped to his knees, trying to will away the pain that came in waves. The flicker of violet and blue came back. The embers danced around him like tiny balls of light, but this time it came with a song. He’d heard this song before. He’d seen these lights.
Ismael looked up, and Kasi was gone.