The misha comes to me on my eleventh summer. I awake in the middle of the night to pain in my stomach, as though I’d eaten a bad batch of fwah fruit and it is spoiling me from the inside out. Sitting up, I press my hand to my swollen abdomen, taking sips of air through clenched teeth.
Something is moving inside me, and it is sharp and it is painful. It tears through my body like the rolling thorn bushes tear across the open plains. But these thorns rip through flesh, not dirt.
I crawl to my aksá’s sleeping pallet, fighting the urge to cry out. I fear my teeth will break, but I will not scream.
“Aksá,” I say as I press shaking hands onto their arm. “Aksá please awaken. I am gravely ill.”
Aksá’s gentle face rolls my direction sleepily. Eyes like the night sky look my way, flickering a luminescent blue before settling into their natural color. Seeing my face so close and in such pain, Aksá’s expression shifts to worry.
They sit up quickly. “Child, what ails you?”
“My stomach... I’m being gutted!”
“Move your hands so I may see.”
Slowly, carefully, I remove my hands from my painfully engorged midsection. I fear my insides will spill out if I’m not holding tight. A blue light emanates from beneath my palms. It is a slash of color across my torso, and as we watch, the line extends. With it comes more excruciating pain.
Aksá’s brows raise in shock, then furrow with concern. Arms strong from digging lift me and set me on the soft bedding.
“This is not good.” Aksá clucks their tongue with worry. “Not good at all.”
“What is it?” I ask through gritted teeth. The light is expanding outward, swirling across my stomach like vines.
“It is the misha.”
“But... the misha is the sign of a warrior. Why is it bad?”
“I did not say bad,” Aksá says, moving towards the pot of water against the wall. “I said not good. To have the misha here in Ushadel... it is dangerous.”
“There are messages, Aksá. I have seen them. White paint drawn on walls in the lowers. They invite misha’ra to the palace. There is to be a celebration of peace.”
Aksá shakes their head softly, age lines deepening with their frown. “It is not so, my child. When the uprising began, misha’ra were the only of our people strong enough to resist. They killed many Ushadel fighters. It may be calm now, but they will not forget. Just as we will not.” Aksá places a cool rag to my face, rubbing away my sweat even as it pools anew. “The Usha fear us. They fear what our people can do. You must not let them know.”
I can only nod and grunt as the piercing light continues to force its way through me. Cutting slowly like a blunt knife through tough meat.
“The misha is checking your worth. If you survive this night, Eratu, you will be misha’ra.” Aksá presses their forehead to mine. “I will stay beside you.”
I am uncertain of when I fall asleep, but when I awake, the pain is gone. Nervously, I peer at my skin. The blue lines are no longer glowing, but they are vibrant against my black skin. They swirl together toward my heart and leave no inch of my torso unmarked.
I trace the lines in awe with soft fingertips.
“You most cover it up,” Aksá says, startling me. They hand me long strips of torn fabric. “Let no one know.” Their face shows age. Worry.
I look to the floor. My stomach churns.
“I will tell no one,” I promise.
To have the misha is not bad, but it is not good. I lift a strip of fabric to my torso and begin to cover the vibrant blue. Aksá stops me. They stare at the markings, tears filling their eyes. A smile pulls their face taut.
“Misha’ra,” they say softly, with pride.
I cannot help but to grin, and blue lines glow once more. It is gentle now, soothing and warm. Me. Misha’ra.
At fourteen summers, I have learned to wrap bandages around my torso with ease and quickness. The misha glows with my emotions, and if there is any gap in the bandages the blue light will shine out from beneath my threadbare tunic.
Aksá sits on their soft bed pallet. Sunlight streams in from slits in the top of our clay home, throwing streaks of light across their face. In the light, Aksá’s skin, once a rich black, has faded to grey. Arms once firm from working are now soft with loose skin. A dry cough shakes their body. Desert lung has pulled the strength from Aksá’s bones.
But I am strong for us both.
“Aksá, the festival is today, and I only have one repair. After, shall we go together?”
They click their tongue. “I will not go. But you enjoy yourself.”
Aksá has declined going to the festival the past three summers, but it is bitter still the same. The event is all bad feelings for those who were young when the uprising first began. The day is a celebration for the Usha but a day of mourning for our people. The misha’ra were able to fight, but the miska, the rest of our people, were not so lucky. Our war ended not because misha’ra couldn’t destroy the Usha but because we refused to destroy ourselves. To do one was to do the other, Aksá said.
The day was not particularly mournful to me; it is how it’s always been. I was too young to remember the destruction of my family; Aksá was the only family I recalled. But Aksá had seen our people, their children, my parents, all slain by the Usha. To them the festival just meant despair.
I smile stiffly and nod, grabbing a sack of wet clay dug the night before and swing it over my shoulder. Having soaked all night, the clay has doubled in size and weight, and a trail of silty black water runs down my back. “I will bring you back a treat. There should be roasted meat for cheap.”
“Go well,” Aksá says.
“Stay well,” I reply, and I push out onto the street.
The summer in Ushadel is always lively although stifling. There are bright cloths fluttering in the wind, the smell of food cooking in the streets, but few clouds this time of year and the suns’ rays beat down with no mercy. The heat is a tangible thing; you can taste it in your mouth, hear it crackle, see it rise in waves off the dark earth.
The street is dusty and hot against my bare feet, hotter than usual, and I move quickly towards the uppers. Here wealth is more abundant and houses are stacked two or three high. They tower impossibly tall, and today the harsh sunlight makes them look like a forest of shadows trying to block out the suns. Black clay is the most common material to build with; easy to find and strong when it dries. Building with it, though, is long and grueling work.
Labor only the rich can afford to pay for.
My people are the original architects of the city, and though we have largely lost our status, we still maintain the buildings. Architecture is our pride and passion, and even under Usha rule, the black city is one to behold.
The streets of the uppers are beginning to fill as crowds bustle toward Central street, where the evening festival will be held. The Usha plan all their events around the retreat of sunshine, but the streets will be crowded all day. A bead of sweat rolls down my back as dust kicks up and coats my bare legs. I adjust the bag of clay on my shoulder, redistributing the weight. The home that needs repair should be close now.
“What are you doing in the uppers, dirt merchant?” a voice calls.
I look up to see a group of youths, not much older than myself, blocking where our paths will intersect. They are swathed in cloth from head to toe, awash in vibrant colors. Their faces are visible but only just. A slit of pale skin hidden from the suns rays. The more fabric, the greater their wealth.
The youths know why I’m here, they can see the black-stained sack I’m carrying. I continue to walk, but I do not respond. I am younger, yes, but digging and hauling the black clay has given me a strength they do not have. Obvious corded muscle unhidden beneath layers of cloth.
“Its skin is as dark as the mud it slings,” one scoffs. They chortle as if this is a new insult. As if I should be ashamed.
My skin protects me from the harsh heat of the two suns. I can tolerate being outside even with no clouds. Fabrics are all they have.
“Maybe it’s mute.”
“Hey! Can’t you hear me?” One youth takes a few steps closer, now near enough to touch. The others clamber behind. “You should speak when your betters are talking to you.”
The misha burns beneath my clothes, and I am glad I tied my bandages tight. Aksá says not to speak to those that disparage you; our breath is worth too much to waste. The Usha will always be afraid of us, and scared beasts lash out.
I push my chest forward and extend to my full height. I lock eyes with the youth in front of me, and I see their fear. I do not speak but show my teeth; canines capped with precious metal, a right of passage for my people. They are long and sharp. The youth takes a step back.
“Animal,” they spit as I make my way past.
I spare them no second glance.
When I reach my destination, I quickly perform the repair to the door frame. If I hurry, there may still be sweet bread for sale on Central. It is Aksá’s favorite.
“Do not touch this area for three rises,” I tell the homeowner. “If this sun remains the same, it should cure by then. If the cloud cover thickens, wait longer.”
The homeowner nods impatiently, likely also eager to get to the festival. Their fine blue and gold fabrics flutter with a meager breeze.
“You should not close your door fully until it is cured,” I say, pointing to wet clay. “Otherwise it will warp.”
“Well how am I supposed to keep my house secure?”
“You can have someone home, or remove the right panel on your door so it does not disturb the clay.”
“I’m not paying you more to remove the panel.”
I shrug. I do not want the extra work today.
“What can you do about this?” the homeowner asks. “I am going to the festival, and no one can be here.”
“Well perhaps no thieves will be here either,” I say.
The homeowner grumbles and drops precious stones in my hand. The repair is twenty, but only fifteen stones are in my palm.
“This is not the amount we agreed upon,” I say.
“Well, I can’t close my door.” The homeowner widens their stance and looks down their nose.
I want to argue, but I know it will get me nowhere. Instead I close my fist around the hard stones and walk away. ‘Be thankful the ingrates paid at all,’ Aksá would say. Usha always underpaid. Aksá said I would get used to it, but I have been working two summers now and still I am angry.
I have been working two summers now and I am more angry than ever.
‘What if we stopped mending the city?’ I asked Aksá once. ‘What if we just left?’
‘This city is my home. I will not leave.’
I do not understand the fervor, but I can not leave Aksá behind.
My sack of clay is empty, but I no longer wish to attend the festival. There will be misha’ra in the procession that moves down central, sitting at the feet of the Usha royals. The misha’ra that responded to the kingdom’s summons years ago. Their marks will glow and they will smile and wave as the carts pull them forward through the crowds. The people of Ushadel will clap and cheer, proud of their massacre. The misha’ra are proof that our people are content with our lowly status, that we accept the Usha as our betters.
If you look closely, you will see the chains around the misha’ras’ ankles.
I realize the festival bothers me more and more each year. I snort as I head to the outskirts of the city, wanting to sit amongst the meager plant life that grows there. I am more like my aksá than I thought. I will bring a flower when I return home, instead of salted meats and sweet breads.
When I awake from my nap at the edge of the wilderness, the city is on fire. The evening sky is red and purple, obscured by inky black clouds of smoke curling from the center of the city. The festival should be in full swing, but I do not hear music.
I leap up and sprint for home. The streets are empty and quiet, the only noise is my bare feet slapping the ground. The suns are lower in the sky, but the heat is much too hot. I am sweating, and my misha is simmering beneath my skin.
On the next street I see bodies. Bodies of the Usha collapsed in the street in puddles of colorful fabric. Blood stains their robes like black clay. Molten dread snakes through my veins, quickening my steps towards home.
I hear battle before I see it. The loud ring of weapons hitting weapons. The dull sound of metal cleaving flesh. I slow and peer around a home that towers two stories high.
Intruders wearing red armor hack apart the Usha. They are huge, bronze-skinned, with weapons as large as they are. The move swiftly for bodies so massive, cutting down anyone in sight.
A lone misha’ra is the only one holding their ground against the intruders. Their bright blue light shines in the shape of a sword and they trade blow for blow with an enemy. The misha’ra cuts through the intruder’s weapon, slaying the enemy in one stroke.
Aksá says our misha is our souls made deadly. With conviction, our weapons will never falter or wane. Each of our souls may take a different form, but all of them are deadly.
The invaders close in on the misha’ra. There are too many of them, and the misha’ra is struck down. Though our weapons are invulnerable, our bodies are not.
Sick, I retreat. I continue my winding path home, darting from building to building, avoiding the battles waging in the streets. Avoiding looking at the dead bodies of the Usha. There are not many of my people left in this city, but even their bodies are among the dead.
Houses are on fire and thick smoke chokes the air.
The door to our home is open. I run inside to find Aksá sitting on their pallet.
“Come! We must go!” I grab what possessions we have and stuff them into an empty clay sack that I tie to my back.
Aksá’s face is streaked with tears and soot. Their hands touch the walls of our burning home reverently. A hacking cough erupts and blood coats their wrinkled hands. “You go. I will stay here.”
“No! There are intruders, they will kill you. We must leave now.”
Aksá cups my face, and presses our foreheads together. “My children, our family, they are all buried here. I will not leave.”
“I am dying, my child. I will only slow you down.”
“No,” I cry and press closer. But I know it is true. Aksá has clung to life by will alone.
“Leave now, Eratu.”
“Aksá,” I say, to speak their title once more.
“Go well,” Aksá says, pushing me away.
“Stay well,” I whisper, and step into the smoke filled streets.
I leave my heart behind.
I head towards the edge of the city. If I can make it back to my napping place from earlier, I can hide among the vegetation. When the uprising ended most of our people abandoned the city, walking into the desert following the path of plants. Perhaps I could find them again.
Loud clangs and sounds of battle spur me on. There is fighting nearby, but the smoke is disorienting. I move slowly between buildings, trying to see through the haze.
A gust of wind clears the smoke in front of me, and I step directly into a clash. I retreat back into the smoke but the enemy has seen me.
A red soldier curls their lip. “I thought they’d abandoned this city. Their spirit energy is tough.”
Two soldiers break away from their slaughter and head my direction. They move cautiously, flanking me, anticipating my attack. But I have never molded my spirit into a weapon. I have never trained as a warrior. I move away as they draw closer, hands trembling and empty.
“Looks like this one won’t be a problem,” one soldier says. They relax their stances and close in.
My markings burn, a pulsing sort of agony. But no weapon appears.
I imagine a sword, an axe, a spear; I will them to manifest. Yet, nothing.
A blow to my face hurts much more than I expect. I lift my arm to block another strike, and it connects with my stomach instead. My breath is gone, my legs buckle, and I vomit on the ground. Bile stings my throat and nostrils; my eyes blur from smoke and tears. A kick connects with my unguarded midsection, and my misha ignites so hot I might melt from the inside out.
I thought I was dying when the misha first came to me, but I know I am dying now. I wish for protection. I plead with my soul as my head throbs from heat and disorientation.
And still no weapon.
“I’m a bit disappointed,” a soldier snorts, staring down at me. Their sword lifts high above their head.
“Wait, don’t kill it. We should take it back with us. The king would be interested.”
I will not be like the misha’ra in the Usha festivals. I will not live in shackles.
I lurch to my knees as a boot swings towards my face. It connects, and then nothing.
When I awaken, we are in the city center. The armor of the intruders and the blood of the fallen seem to paint the streets red. A soldier beheads a group of Usha, one by one. They hold up their hands, begging and pleading, but still the axe drops.
The red soldiers grab a child from the captured Usha.
Screams and wails fill the street:
“Please don’t kill my child!”
The Usha are no friend to me, but this is a massacre. I feel ill.
Is this what my people suffered at the hands of the Usha? Is this what Aksá witnessed?
The world begins to shake, and there’s a low hum that grows louder and louder. I’m hot, so hot, that I’m certain I will turn to ash. My fingers dig into the hard clay streets. My misha is glowing so brightly I can see it through my bandages.
There’s a low keening noise, and I realize it is me.
“Hey! What is that dark one doing?”
Boots move in my direction as my misha flares brighter than ever. My black skin peels away to luminous blue.
They are shouting, but I understand nothing around the pressure in my head.
The blue light spreads, engulfing my body before the red soldiers reach me. When they touch it, they fall. The remaining soldiers change course, now sprinting away from me. They shout in alarm, warnings to their comrades further away.
I will my light to expand, seeking red soldiers. One after another they fall. Ten, twenty, fifty, gone. My light spreads out and out, and I feel each of the intruders die. Their lives flickering briefly like weak flames extinguished by a fierce wind.
My head throbs and pulses, and my gut is in lumps. But I cannot stop.
I grab the last soldier, and my misha snaps back into my body with paralyzing force. I’m no longer blue, but I am cold to the bone. Shivering, I curl into a ball, hurting as I’ve never hurt before. My bones feel brittle and my flesh liquid. Every part of me throbs like a deep wound. The price of wielding my soul as a weapon.
I would rather the misha’s burning heat than this numbing cold.
When finally the pain subsides, I find a crowd of Usha gathering slowly around me, though they keep a healthy distance.
“Misha’ra,” they call. A title, not a slur. “Was it you who killed the red soldiers?”
“I believe so,” I say with lungs burning from smoke and fatigue. But I know it was my misha; it followed my command, killing only the soldiers in red. “Yes, it was me.”
“I thought so.” The speaker nods and the crowd is silent, watching. “You must leave. Your kind is not welcome in Ushadel.”
The city is in shambles, homes are on fire, and black clay crumbles to ash in the streets. There are more fallen than those alive. The red soldiers look as though they have been burned. Their bodies are now black, like earth.
I rise to my feet, hollow and weary, stumbling toward the edge of the city, toward the gentle forest. Toward freedom.
I wonder who will rebuild the city now that my people are all gone.