Beyond the prison bar-gray skyscrapers of the ringwalled city of Dedalo, beyond the endless blue sky unmarred by clouds, beyond the brown empty wasteland plain, the green world was waiting. Soarsha was certain of it, was ready to narrow her bright blue eyes and stand tall and ride forth, a mighty new ten-year-old ready to take the bold leap from boring classroom to daring destiny—and then she sneezed.
Standing before the wall-mounted blackboard at the front of the classroom, Yadda paused and stared at Soarsha. Well, the kid’s name wasn’t really Yadda, but the dull-eyed, empty-faced eejit did nothing but yadda-yadda on about nothing, so Yadda was the name Soarsha liked to use. Though really, for that matter, any of the thirty kids in class could be named Yadda. And pretty much anyone in the city. Though right now it would have been nice not to feel like the entire city was staring at her.
The whole class was definitely staring at Soarsha. Even Mr. Adbad was. Usually he was nice, but now tension fluttered, barely restrained, throughout his short wiry frame. His thin limbs tightened behind his tweed suit, and his outstretched legs loosened as he tried to appear relaxed while he leaned against his desk, taking care not to disturb the full, dusty box of tissues sitting at the edge of one corner. Behind his gold-rimmed glasses, the skin around his brown eyes wrinkled and creased to match his brow. Overhead lights glinted off what seemed like a sudden sheen of sweat on the teacher’s pale bald head.
Soarsha drilled her gaze into the curved wooden back of Yadda’s empty desk in front of her. Her tan, freckled cheeks burned. She wanted to pull her purple hat down low. The hat already covered her head so much no one could see so much as one hair on her head—though right now Soarsha wished the hat was a helmet that could cover her entire face.
Soarsha tried to find some calm in her deep breathing, the way Garen—her and her dad’s happiness coach—had taught her, but all the calm fluttered away like dust on the breeze. The others always stared at Soarsha, especially when she did even the most normal things, like sneeze. Or dream. Or cry. The more normal she acted, the more they hated her. Mr. Adbad would try to say that wasn’t true, but he knew as well as Soarsha that this one sneeze might as well have been a violation of some ironclad classroom law, a piercing of some illusion that she wasn’t doing her part to maintain. Soarsha knew that punishment and retribution would be waiting outside, in the fenced-in paved recess area at the back of the skyscraper in the southwest quadrant of the circular city, closer to the outside, walled edge than the taller buildings near the center. The school ate up the first three of twenty stories. Sometimes there were rumblings that powerful people wanted nothing more than to tear up the meager playground and kickball area and put in more stacked floors for the resigned and bewildered souls that poured anew into the city each morning.
Soarsha sneezed again. Yadda glared at Soarsha with broken-glass eyes; something unfamiliar glinted too, but Soarsha couldn’t figure out what it was. Yadda’s eyes probably never knew what it was to cry, or to laugh so hard you cried. Eyes that didn’t see how hard it was to never know the warm soft coziness of being snuggled up between two parents instead of just against one. Soarsha glared at the yadda-yadda kid. Whatever their name was. This was exactly why Soarsha couldn’t be bothered to learn any of their names.
“Sorry,” said Soarsha. “Don’t mind me. Besides, we all know what you were going to say anyway.”
Mr. Adbad shook his pale bald head. “Soarsha…”
Soarsha sighed. She’d heard the expression her whole life. It was practically the city’s motto, shouting in silent big letters from billboards and murals all over the city. Everyone said it, usually when they were shaking their heads and talking about something difficult. As if anything beyond the city were impossible, just as anything hard wasn’t worth trying.
What did they know? They knew what the signs told them. They didn’t know anything for themselves.
“I know, I know,” said Soarsha. “They were just getting to the good part and I had to ruin it. Here, I’ll say it for you: The world beyond the wall is nothing to see at all. There, it’s like you didn’t miss a breath.”
Yadda’s eyes narrowed and darkened so much, you could have used the kid’s glare to lay down another stretch of black street. Not even one of the ring roads throughout the city. You could use it for one of the straight roads dividing the ringwall’s circle like a plus sign combined with an X across all eight compass points, spanning from the thick tall beige wall that surrounded the city’s perimeter like a manacle, to the sky-poking needle of the Spire at the center of Dedalo. Far outside the school window, the Spire gleamed, golden and pulsing like a heartbeat with a gentle light, and surrounded by its own gateless, doorless, impassable silver-gray wall.
Soarsha shrugged. “I guess it bears repeating,” she said. “Maybe for once—”
She sneezed again. The class almost laughed. But yadda-yadda kids didn’t laugh. No one in Dedalo ever did. Except her. And sometimes her father, Das. No wonder people thought they were so weird.
The chalk-clouded room always stuffed her up. She’d even sneezed out the memory of what she was going to say. She was certain it was going to be snappy, the sort of wit that Gleaming Head himself would have been proud of, the sort of wit that any hero worthy of being one of the Wandering Heroes, the roving joy warriors known as the Mrazas, would have at the ready, like a hard stick or some reliable knives or a pair of curved swords across your back. It was the sort of snappy comment only to be expected of a new ten-year-old, basking in her birthday power.
Unless, of course, that birthday girl was Soarsha. Maybe quick wit was one more present she wouldn’t get. Like a school day without teasing and bullying. Or another day never knowing what happened to her mother in the dim days just before Das brought his daughter, all he had left in the world, behind the walls of the golden city, the only somewhere in a nowhere world, where the buildings reached like flightless angels to try to touch the cloudless blue sky above.
All the while, Yadda glared at Soarsha. Recess was going to suck even more than usual.
With Soarsha quiet, Yadda took the opportunity to drone on some more. It didn’t matter that there was nothing but barren wasteland beyond the wall. Yadda-yadda. All you ever needed or wanted was in Dedalo. Yadda-yadda. Soarsha rolled her eyes, then looked away from Mr. Adbad’s face and traced a swoop of fine yellow particles in the air above the desks.
Yellow chalk dust swirled around the classroom in pale imitation of the golden dust ever dancing above the black streets of the city of Dedalo, to the tops of the skyscrapers. Sometimes Soarsha wondered if the dust liked to start dancing at the lower skyscrapers near the ringwall, stair-stepping up the ever taller buildings as the dust loop-de-looped to the center of the city. But not even the dust could reach the top of the Spire. Nothing and no one could. No one ever went in or out. Which made sense. People said the Spire didn’t even have a door.
Soarsha glanced out the window, toward the northeast. The Spire rose beyond the tops of all the other skyscrapers, golden and gleaming, as if the endless flurry of dust were what happened when buildings had dandruff. It really did look like the thin, long, needlelike tip of the Spire pricked the sky. Did it poke through? If it did, what was on the other side? Whether day or night, the Spire always seemed lit with a pulsing golden light.
Inside the top of the Spire, a silver-gold light glinted, as if some celestial child had mixed sunlight and moonlight like paints.
The glint was gone just as soon as she had seen it, but Soarsha still smiled. That glint, that little gleam, was a promising thing to see on her birthday. Everyone said that the eye of god lived in the top of the needle of the Spire. If you saw the glint of light, god was looking at you.
A silence seemed to have come over the classroom. Along with a sense of something changed. Something vacant.
Soarsha looked away from the window. Sure enough, Yadda had finished yapping and had sat down, filling up the desk in front of Soarsha.
Mr. Adbad had straightened up and was staring at her. “Soarsha?” he said again.
“Aye, Mr. Adbad?” She tried not to smile. Her saying “aye” instead of “yes” always annoyed him, as if it reminded him of something he didn’t want to remember. But her dad liked to say how her mother always said “aye,” so Soarsha had long ago decided she would too.
Her teacher sighed. “No one is currently at the front of the classroom.”
Soarsha’s cheeks burned again. Sweat needle-pricked her underarms, threatening to turn her lavender T-shirt a dark purple. She hoped the dark purple corduroy of her overalls would be enough to give her some cover, though right now she was starting to worry she was going to pee all the way down to her purple boots.
“Sharing Day,” said Soarsha.
“That’s the day,” said Mr. Adbad. “And your birthday, of course, right, class?”
No one replied. There wasn’t even a nod.
“I thought that, well, you know, it’s my birthday.” Soarsha tried to smile, but it was hard with her bared clenched teeth. “So Sharing Day skips me today, right?”
Mr. Adbad shook his head. He even rolled his eyes. “You could share what you thought was so fascinating outside the classroom that you no longer needed to listen to your classmate’s sharing.”
“Oh,” said Soarsha. “That…”
She had a feeling that she shouldn’t mention seeing the glint of light at the top of the Spire. It was one of those things that people said happened, but if it actually did happen to anyone, no one ever talked about it happening to them. As if you didn’t want other people to feel left out. Or didn’t want them to get jealous and annoyed. That sort of fury could fall over the city like shadows after sundown, and the nighttime streets of Dedalo had enough problems.
“I…” Soarsha looked around, from classroom to window to the lump in front of her impersonating a person. Then Soarsha smiled. And pulled the smile back down, as if pulling the shades down in her and her father’s tenth-floor apartment in the southwest quadrant, even closer to the wall than her school was.
“There was a roar,” said Soarsha. She let her voice drop into a tight whisper. “I thought I heard the scathtor.”
Mr. Adbad rolled his eyes. He even stood up.
“The scathtor? Come on, Soarsha,” said Mr. Adbad. “Every city has its shadows. No city, not even this one, has a shadow monster that a few nights each year roams the night streets and steals people.”
Soarsha’s eyes narrowed. “The way you say that, Mr. Adbad,” she replied, her voice even and careful, “it’s as if you’re implying there are other cities out there somewhere.”
Now it was Mr. Adbad’s turn to go red-faced.
“The world beyond the wall is nothing to see at all,” he replied. Displeasure simmered in his voice, honing it sharp and flat, like a claw or a sword swinging toward Soarsha’s purple-hatted head.
“Please get up and share what you’ve brought to Sharing Day.” Mr. Adbad’s eyes narrowed. “Now.”