May wasn’t sure what she wanted to say in response to Rue’s casual confession. Her mind whirled; hadn’t Em just told her that she was the last known Starborn?
“Do you know what a Starborn is?” Rue asked as if she were broaching a sensitive subject. Her eyes flicked almost imperceptibly to Em, but May caught it and understood. They knew – or at least they suspected – what Em was. This was their chance to confirm it.
Up until that point, May had avoided looking to Em for fear it give them away when they lied. But now she didn’t know what else to do, and so she cast an uneasy glance at her girlfriend, whose crystal eyes were already waiting for her.
Em exhaled slowly. “People like me, you mean?”
Even the flickering shadows of the fire couldn’t mask the fact that everyone was frozen in place. Jeremy held his breath. Everyone waited.
“Come on, don’t act like you’re surprised.” Em laughed off everyone’s tension with an ease May wished she could master. While the others gaped, fish-like and equally wordless, Em eased back onto her palms and gazed around the circle, her expression aloof.
“Who?” Connor blurted at last. “Your parents – who are they?”
“A Star and one of the Emandi,” Em replied with ease.
“What?” Rue gasped.
“Why?” Jeremy demanded.
May balled her hands into tight fists, her nails digging into the soft flesh of her palms. She was lost – she had no idea what an Emandi was – but the others clearly did. May knew if she asked about it now she would blow Em’s story, so she bit her tongue and tried not to let her uncertainty swallow her whole.
“Why would a Star and an Emandi choose to create a life together?” Jeremy scoffed.
Em raised an eyebrow; her stare firm and challenging. “That’s a pretty personal question, don’t you think?”
Her tone was dangerous. May was so overwhelmingly curious she worried her questions would bubble over in a scream.
“Is that why…” Rue looked at Em but pointed to her own eyes. Whatever was implied in Em’s nod seemed to satisfy Rue. “How interesting.”
“Anyway,” Em drawled, draping an arm around May’s shoulders and squeezing in a way May knew was meant to be reassuring. “You were about to tell us about your people?”
“Right.” Rue shook off her daze and forced a smile. “Seeing as you performed the story of the Moon and the Ocean, I’m guessing you’re both already familiar with the legends?”
“The Moon fell in love with the Ocean and the Sun fell in love with the Earth,” May answered, reciting the summary of the creation myths she had grown up listening to on the island of Hoku. “One pair gave birth to all flora and the other to all fauna.”
Rue nodded. “Because the lovers so adored for their new children, they asked the ancients to write them into the story of the universe; to give them destinies and help guide them.”
At this point May could no longer hide her confusion. That she was floundering in new information was clear to Em, who smiled and gave her shoulder another gentle squeeze.
“The Stars,” she explained quietly. “They’re the ancients.”
“Okay, but what does any of this have to do with your people?” May asked, trying to get to the crux of the story – to figure out what the Starborn had to do with any of this. Her brain felt as foggy as it had the night Em had shared her secret and admitted to being part Star.
“For as long as the universe has existed, the Stars have played a part in creating the life within it,” Rue said. “But because they had nothing to do with the new life on this planet, they had to find a new way to write them into their great Story; their plan for all life in the universe.”
Sudden comprehension blew out the fog in May’s mind; something Em had said on the bus came back to her.
‘We were a bit more common thousands of years ago…’
“The Stars parented children so they could have a part in the new life.” May hadn’t grown up with this part of the legends; she was dazzled by how much she still had to learn. “Those children were the first of the Starborn.”
Rue smiled. “And they were supposed to be the only ones, but…” she motioned to Em, who shrugged.
“Wow,” was all May could manage in response.
“As you can imagine, most of that Starborn blood has been significantly diluted over the many millennia between then and now,” Rue continued. “My people are the only group who have managed to keep the lineage strong.”
“Does that mean you have abilities like mine?” Em asked, playing up her supposed ignorance.
Rue’s smile hinted at something she wasn’t sharing. “The only thing my people can do is commune with the Stars.”
“Seriously?” May was awe-struck. “How?”
Rather than answer, Rue stood and stretched. “That is a long story better saved for another night. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m exhausted.”
“Not to mention we’ve got another long day ahead of us.” Priva rose, dusting off her pants. She looked down at Jeremy and held out her hand. “Bed?”
“Yeah, I’ll come,” he answered, accepting her help and getting to his feet.
“You guys go ahead,” Em said. “May and I will clean up here.”
“There’s a river to the north,” Priva instructed, pointing in the right direction. “It’s not far. You can use it to douse the fire.”
As the others disappeared into their tents, May and Em collected the discarded bowls and cleared up the site in silence. When she was satisfied with their work, Em grabbed a waterproof sack and beckoned for May to follow.
The woods were cold and cloaked in a haunting darkness that kept May huddled close as they walked.
“Can Rue really talk to the Stars?” she asked as the sound of the river swept through the trees to greet them.
“She can’t talk to them the way we’re talking now,” Em replied, her voice betraying something like exhaustion. “But she’s able to create a connection with them. Her people are the only humans who can communicate directly with the Stars, so they act kind of like the liaisons between us mere mortals and the powers that be.”
May laughed. “‘Mere mortals’; that’s funny coming from you.”
The sound of rushing water grew louder. May swept her flashlight along the ground until the trees gave way and the riverbank came into view through the gloom.
“I feel like every time I learn something new about your world – Audrey’s life – I end up with more questions than I started with,” she admitted, stepping lightly through the tall lush grass at the water’s edge. “It’s a little overwhelming. But at the same time, it’s kind of exciting. I guess, in a way, it’s kind of part of my history too, you know?”
Carefully she tip-toed across smoothed river stones until she was as far as she could get and waited for Em. It took a moment, watching the dark water rush past her feet in the white glow of her flashlight, before May realized Em wasn’t coming. She turned.
Back on dry land, Em stood transfixed, gazing up at the glittering dome of stars above. Her skin glimmered, emitting a gentle, dreamlike light. But the expression on her face was one of sorrow and remorse; her eyes shimmered with tears.
Slowly, Em’s feet rose from the earth and she hovered, suspended in her trance.
“I’m sorry,” she wept through a cracking voice. “I’m sorry for everything.”
Frozen in place, May watched in a mix of fearful curiosity. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but it didn’t seem as though Em was talking to her.
“I know you were trying to do what you thought was best for me.” Em’s arms were outstretched in an welcoming, hopeful gesture. “You were always doing the best you could. I didn’t mean to be so hard on you all the time.”
May looked up – up at the millions of winking stars – and blinked away new tears of her own.
She knew who Em was talking to now.
This was the first time she had witnessed Em’s attempts to reach Welkin first-hand. Until now, Em had waited until May was asleep or sought privacy; the ritual was all at once mesmerizing and heartbreaking.
Em let out a tragic wail.
“Please,” she cried. “Please talk to me. Where are you? Why won’t you answer me?”
Her light faded. The great, swirling magic that kept Em aloft dissipated into the night. She landed heavily on her feet before collapsing onto her knees.
May rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Em as tightly as she could.
“Why won’t they answer me?” Em asked, her tears soaking through the shoulder of May’s shirt. Her sadness gripped May’s heart and twisted mercilessly.
“I don’t know, love,” May whispered, stroking Em’s back with a tender hand. “But we’re going to find them, I promise.”
She didn’t know how she was going to keep that promise. All May knew was she’d do whatever she could to bring Em peace.
For now, she hoped being there for Em would be enough.
[ Next Chapter ]