We went north because the stars told us to.
They stayed behind because they were too weak to follow.
This is the one great truth of the Glass Sea.
Fire! the heavens cried and opened up. The Star broke through the crust of the dark sky, red and yellow and burning up the night. I was the first to my horse—the youngest, the fastest, and I was the first to lean into the wind and soar across the desert. First among firsts, and in that moment, I was singular. I was the Princess of the Dunes.
Together we ran, the horse and I, as the wind howled and the waves of sand whipped overhead, trying to swallow us. I charted our course by the Glass Sea in the east, where the sand has hardened under the sun’s cruel gaze, its black surface burnished copper in a crude reflection of the Star’s path. Later, when I found a small shelf of stone jutting out from the dunes and I stopped in the shade to suck the water from my horseskin, I finally looked back. Four, five, six other figures trailed across the slopes, hooves plugging at the sand where I had already been.
“Where is everyone?” I cried before they could answer, greedily sucking down another two gulps of water so I wouldn’t have to share, gagging, belly pinching. Life is hard and hot and the soft are turned to glass. Eat as much as you can, drink more than you think you can, take what you want beyond what you need. Live. “Where is everyone?” I asked again when they were closer.
“They stayed back to pack their things. They’ll come and meet us soon.”
I squinted off into the north and burned my eyes on the Star’s bright arc. Then back to the south, where the sandstorm swept across the desert and hid the world, our little cloth-and-stick village with its clay cups and wrinkle framed smiles, from me. I knew better. I wasn’t a child anymore, and they wouldn’t be coming: Marta, Braten, Gorta, Shira, Orla, I’m already forgetting all their names. The sun burns everything away. I turned the glass ring on my index finger, Mother Marta’s gift—her last gift. There was a pain in my belly, a fear, pushed down and covered over.
“Is that how it happens?” I asked.
“Hm?” Bravig took the horseskin from my hand, sucked the last drops from it, then reached for his own.
“You get old, you get slow, you die?” Round and round Mother Marta’s ring went as the numbness grew, as I piled cold truth upon hot pain.
“It’s more complicated than that,” he said.
“Not really,” Embra answered. “You’ll be the same one day. Bit by bit, day by day. When the next Star comes, you might run off slower. You’ll be cautious, you’ll want Bravig there, maybe, he’s a tough bastard. Or maybe you’ll have some stone carvings you want to keep, or a patch of sewing you were working on—”
“No,” I said, and wiped the sweat from my face. I climbed back into the saddle, the horse sweating and half dead half a ride ago. I wanted to ask Bravig to trade with me, to take his horse. She was lean and fast. I deserved her, really. I was first among firsts, the strongest. I would outlive Bravig. But I was young still, small, and Bravig was a tough bastard, it was true. If I asked him, he would cuff me on the head and I would have to kill him or be made small, and I didn’t care enough to kill him. I bit my chapped lip and tasted blood.
“It’s not so bad.” Embra stroked her horse’s mane. She was a woman grown since two years past, the braids of her blonde hair thick with grit and spilling out of the white folds of cloth wrapped around her head. “A year ago, you would have already run. Now you linger with us here. Maybe next Starfall you’ll have a child. Maybe you’ll get lost in the storm helping your child get away, but they survive. You die but your children live. Life goes on.”
“How does that help me? I’ll still be dead.”
“You’ll understand one day.”
But that sounded like another pretty lie. I knew the truth—the real truth.
I prized the glass ring from my finger and gave it to those nameless dunes, and then I left ahead of them. I chased the Star into the north, until the earth swallowed the sun and the land turned flat and hard. My horse died somewhere in that foreign land, under the crescent moon. Her legs started moving slower at first, twitching. She fought the bit, pulling. But I pushed and pushed and then she died. Collapsed and nearly crushed me. And then I went by foot.
Should’ve taken Bravig’s horse.
But I found the Star first, all the same.
She was asleep and beautiful, silver with stripes of red, the shell hardly damaged, the narrow flanks just sticking out of the crater it had made in the dunes. At first I thought she survived the crash and I spent the better part of the night in the dark, fingering every rivet, every seam of her flank still warm with life, until I felt the cool spot where the air pushed out from the little hole half buried in the sand, and I could just glimpse the pale blue light inside, washing over glistening silver.
I was tired, so I sat down and covered the hole up with my back. I slept.
Embra and Bravig arrived with the sun the next morning, trailed by three others, blistered and slick with sweat.
“Storm almost got you,” I said, picking grit out of my eyes.
“Didn’t, though,” Bravig said. “We need the cutter?”
“I got it,” I said and leaned away enough to show the little gap. Everyone gathered around, fighting for a look, hunger in their eyes. But I was the one small enough to squeeze through the hole and I didn’t give anyone else a chance to try. I made Bravig give me the last of his water and then I made myself small, small, small as I could and squeezed through the hole, her cut hide scraping at my arms and shoulders, fighting me.
I won. I pushed inside, stumbled, the sound of my footfalls ringing sharp in the cramped space. Inside I basked in the pale blue light, the cold air, the soft pressure that always seemed to exist inside the heart of a Star. As if the world were more real there, somehow. Sharper. Better. I brushed my fingers across silver tables, sucking in a breath as I felt the gooseflesh rise up my arms.
The Star rattled gently and breathed out in a low, hush whisper, and cool wind washed over my hands, my arms, bits of exposed flesh where dried skin flaked and drifted off as I followed the soft pulse of a cold blue light down the hall. Gleaming silver shelves lined the narrow path, stacked with crinkling clear packets filled to bursting with liquid food, crushed and dried and pressed, making my stomach squeeze with need even as I took down four of them, five of them, six of them, scrunching them up in the waist of my pants, cold against my skin.
“Is there anything in there?”
“Be quick, don’t breathe too deep!”
“Is it still good?” they called from outside, peeping eyes at the hole in the flank.
Once, a star had come to us full of rot and disease. That had been a bad year.
The voices called after me, ghosts. “Are we going to live?” they might have said.
My lungs pumped faster, gobbling up every breath of thin air. The world twisted around me, sloping away from my feet, but I kept walking towards the light as starbursts of light appeared around me: pink and purple and glowing gold. I followed the one true light, shimmering, rotating. It hovered above me at the end of the path, a perfect circle enclosed in its silver cage. No matter what the others said, that was the true treasure.
I touched its cage and it shivered, rotating, spinning, reacting. I saw the world that might have been flash before my eyes, projected for me: a bauble glimmering in a sea of black, brilliant green and full of life. We flew above the world, my Star and me, and the world seemed like a shining dream in the dark with swaths of blue water so big I could drown in them. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, dry, dry, dry.
Once, when I saw my first Star, I made a drawing in the sand of the symbols that floated over the world and it said “SET CUOURS: HOME, ENGNE DMAGED” – shapes that have no meaning to me, that may be keys or a name or nothing at all, but to me they were a beacon. A reason.
That was where the Stars came from. One day, maybe they would take us back…
Back to water washing cool over everything. Back to forests of trees still living, to light and softness. I was a bird flying in the clouds, basking in the water spray, soaring over a sea of rolling green, and I knew I should leave that place. My heart was pumping faster, faster, faster, and my skin was tingling, but I screwed my eyes shut, I felt like maybe that was the Star taking me home, working some magic in me. I swear, I felt it shiver around me, felt the Star shake. The Star showed me all of this, and I was a ghost in a far-away world, flying over it all, drinking from the heart of it, full and fed and happy for the first time in my—
Hands gripped me. Pulled me. I hit the floor. No, I’d already hit the floor. I shook and shook and shook but they held me down—good, strong hands. I bit my tongue and swallowed blood. My last memory.
I woke in the sand, in the dark of night, spitting up gobs of blood.
Embra hovered over me, held me down, kept me whole.
“I’m fine,” I said, my voice dryer than I wanted it, cracked at all the edges. I pushed, she held. I fought, she held. And when I cried for all I lost, all she could never know, she held me too, even if she didn’t understand.
“You almost died,” she said. “You can’t stay in the Star that long. The air is bad. You’re just supposed to grab what you need and—”
“I know.” Images flashed through my mind: linen tents, cloth flapping in the wind. Old faces lined with sand clogged wrinkles. The men and women left behind in the storm. Family. Marta. Was I any smarter than them? Any better? I could have died, I could have… “I know.”
Later, later, in the silence, huddled there together…
“What did you see?” Embra whispered.
That night we made a place together and I told her everything as one by one the family worked to widen the hole in the Star, to kill her, to pull the food out. Careful, ever careful, they were, and I watched as her light went out. I fed Embra my stories and she ate them up. I don’t think she believed me, not really, my stories of that world were like a pretty bauble, glinting in the sky, beautiful and impossible. Only I knew the truth. One day, I would get there, even if I had to pile up all of the dunes, handful by handful, and climb there myself.
Embra said she would climb there with me—hold my hand, kiss my face, catch me if I fell. The days turned into weeks as we built our camp of cloth and sticks around the body of the Star, and at night I told her stories, and we fell in love—or she fell in love with me and I let her, because it was easier that way.
But I knew one day the wind would change.
One day the next storm would come, and then the Star, the way it always did. One day we would run again. And so one night when the sun went to sleep, I took the knife, the little one I kept close, and I put it in Embra’s chest while she slept, and I watched the light go out.
I’m not a monster. I cried. I wept and buried my face in the sand. But I would not let her pull me down, bury me in burning sand and nothingness. I moved on and the dunes took her, just like they took everything. Maybe a star would come again and turn the dunes to glass. Maybe Embra would live forever, encased in perfect prism. I don’t know. I no longer felt the pain in my belly, no great hollow, nothing.
But the point is, I lived.
One day the stars would tell us to move again, they always did.
I meant to run, free. To never stop, to never die.
Princess of the Dunes.
Zachary Tringali lives in sometimes sunny, always swampy Gainesville, Florida, where he’s a freelance writer of entertainment, lifestyle, and medical articles. In his free time he’s an avid runner, studies and loves mythology, and all things geek from comics to games. He’s represented by Carolyn Jenks of The Jenks agency.