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The stars had always been a refuge for Aya. In the frigid, intemperate winter, when tension within her home became too hot to handle, Aya took to her village’s lookout tower. For many years, it had been abandoned, a relic of the Battle Years. The rusted metal creaked under her weight as she climbed 100 rungs for 100 feet. She savored the burn of her thighs and her lungs, a rare sensation she would forever equate with freedom.

The tower dwarfed everything in her village, from the thatched-roof homes to opal, almost iridescent manor estates. Each person who milled below was a tiny dot, no matter class or creed. From that height, they were the same speck of humanity, a collective force that had turned the tide of the war, but could’ve just as easily been snuffed out by barrage or insurgence.

But it wasn’t the ground Aya cared for. Aya barely paid it any mind in her younger years. If the answers she sought were down there, that is where she would’ve stayed. What Aya needed—sometimes desperately—was the sprawl of the midnight sky: diamond-studded, and decorated with clouds so light Aya wondered if they tasted like the thinly-spun cotton candy they resembled.

It was the constellations that always stilled her, drawing her breath in awed gasps no matter how many times she bore witness to their beauty.

This night is no different, although the rest of her life is thoroughly marked by change.

The village beneath Aya has gone dark, nary a candle flame in a windowsill to be spotted. No one wanders the streets. There is now putter of an engine or croon of a solo songstress. A rule of the curfew. So many new rules.

“What is white and black and red all over?”

Aya cocks her head to the right, catching her compatriot, Elvin—glinting gray eyes and rugged auburn hair—in her periphery, just as a collective groan rises from the tower watchers. There are four of them, stationed north, south, east, and west. Each is armed, weaponry draped their shoulders, binoculars clasped too tightly in their hands. Each has heard too many of Elvin’s trademark riddles on this shift alone to stomach another.

“Your corpse if you keep this up,” Hal—the south—replies. While the size and the sheer force of Hall typically convey seriousness, his wry lilt says otherwise.

A laugh rumbles through the group as Elvin pantomimes an overly enthusiastic guffaw.

“A bloody snow creature,” Sena—the east—proffers, and Elvin immediately dismisses it..

WIth two guesses down, it’s Aya’s riddle to solve, but her attention is elsewhere, slipping between the horizon and the formations of light in the sky. Her grandmother, Alexana, had told Aya the stories when she was younger, enthralling Aya by the glow of an orange flame. Their shadows danced on the cracking alabaster wall as Grandma Alexana spoke of young heroes vanquishing daunting monsters and God’s battling each other and their own creation. Sons murdered by their fathers, daughters betrayed, worlds destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed over petty jealousies.

“Why are these so sad?” Aya asked as Grandma Alexana plaited her chestnut hair into two braids.

“Because in many ways, they are stories of survival. They’re almost guidebooks of sorts,” her grandmother said. “Heroes are not born, they are made, and one does not become a hero without trials. The world did not become the world it is without battles. But it survives.” Grandma Alexana grasped Aya by her shoulders and slowly turned her granddaughter to face her, caressing Aya’s cheek.

Grandma Alexana’s skin was weathered, calloused from years of work in the mill, in the field outside the manor, and in their squat home, where she was the only source of light. But it was still the most comforting thing Aya knew. “That’s what I want you to take from the stars and these stories, my love. That sad things can happen, terrible things, but you can survive. You must.” Grandma Alexana bent her head to Aya’s, planting her forehead on the child’s as if the contact could transfer years of knowledge and wisdom. “Promise me, you will survive.”

At the time, the Peace was unbroken, the world remade from the desolation that Aya had only read about at school.

She had not heard the whispers in the village, the scared murmurs of their enemy reawakening. She did not know what Grandma Alexana could see in the future, or all she had endured in the past, or that her story deserved to be immortalized in the galaxies, or that in 10 years, Aya would endure some of the same. All Aya knew was that her grandmother was asking for her word, and to her grandmother, Aya always obliged.

“I promise,” Aya nodded and buried her face in the crook of Grandma Alexana’s neck, cocooned in the scent of jasmine, vanilla, and dish soap. Smells she would forever equate with safety.

At the top of the tower, Aya heaves a deep breath, as if she could drink in the starlight above her, swallow the hope and bravery of the constellations, and wherever she is, of Grandma Alexana.

If only survival didn’t mean going on without most people she loved. If only bravery didn’t require so much fear. If only her eyes could stay on the heavens forever.

“Aya, what’s your guess? Black and white and red all over?” Elvin prods, snapping Aya back to the land and her mind from the solace in her childhood bedroom.

“Um.” Aya’s gaze falls to the horizon, where the blanket of blue velvet sky has changed. The curve of it glows like the sun is ready to rise, but that’s hours away and not even the sun makes the entire rim of the world blaze with orange and red.

But the enemy can.

Insurgents do.

War does.

“Embers,” Aya replies. She slams her hand against the warming bell, praying that this won’t be the night she breaks her promise to her grandmother.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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