Rain soaks through my hair, stretching my coils to wavy locks streaming down my face. A cold gaze follows me through dark windows, reminding me of Lisa’s face. I complained about my parents, once.
“At least they’re there,” she told me. “Be grateful.”
“I am!” I said, mindful of her situation. “I’m just lonely.”
Lisa nodded along, distracted by a problem in her textbook.
Lisa, who was chosen for the Light Market.
Water fills my rainproof boots. I shake them out. This is the only time I can visit the Guardian’s Tail. With the full moon in three days, I need to find the so-called sorcerer, Tarek.
I roam the uneven streets, looking for anyone who will tell me about him. An old man squatting under an awning ignores my questions. I keep asking, until he huffs and spits next to my boot. A woman hurrying with groceries sucks her teeth at me without stopping. Either they hate the sight of someone like me, neither Tail nor Head, or the rumours are right, and Tarek the Lost is a traitorous, unlucky figure.
Rounding a corner, I spot a group of three men, huddled just past a lump of black cloth hunched against the wall. One has a tattoo of the Guardian’s tail on his cheek. They stand over a crate, with cards decorated with the lovely blues and silvers of the Guardian’s scales. They glare at me as I come closer. I smile, having dealt with worse reactions.
“Do you know where I can find Tarek the Lost?”
Fish Tail raises an eyebrow at me. “Even if we did know, why would we tell you?”
I stand straighter. Rain stings my eyes. “I can pay you.”
One of the men spits. “Curse your offal money.”
I deflate. “I just want to know. The least you could do is tell me.”
Fish Tail once-overs me. “This district has never seen nor heard from you or your family before. I guess they abandoned their birthplace. Where was your money during the last storm? The last flood?” He shakes his head. “We owe you nothing.”
My cheeks burn. I don’t want to feel ashamed. My father told me his own family cast him out of the Tail, mistaking his ambition for a better life as betrayal of his kin. Ignorant fools, he calls them.
But I’m not ignorant, and I’m not a fool. The stories are true and I will find Tarek.
The lump of black shudders against the mouldy wall. Next to its folds, a silver bowl winks up at me. Out of guilt, maybe, I plop a gold coin inside, then a second, and reach for a third.
The lump tilts its head. A flash catches my eye. I hold my breath.
“Do you know where I can find Tarek the Lost?”
The lump rises, adjusting into a tall, assured man, the way my father carries himself, down to the edge in his smile. He throws back his hood, revealing a face that reminds me of the old celestial maps my father collects, a perfectly symmetrical illustration marred by stray scars. I stare at his eyes: one silver next to the brown, just like the rumours say.
“My name is Tarek,” the man greets me. His locs reach the bottom of his black coat; his hands hide in his pockets. “I usually round up the lost, but you seem to know exactly what you’re looking for.”
I drop the third coin, trying not to grin too wide. It rings as it lands. “My name is Mukamwezi. Please show me the way to the Light Market.”
• • • •
Tarek slurps his soup, spraying green drops on my napkin. He’s back to a semblance of the lump hunched against the wall. I sip from an overflowing mug of tea, leaving a milky crescent on the table. We’re sitting at a booth secluded from other patrons in a rumbling eatery. I feel safer now that we’re in the Guardian’s Scales, not quite slums but still a ways from the Head. His satisfied slurping makes me hopeful that he’ll actually help me.
“Why do you call yourself a sorcerer?” I ask.
Tarek smiles. He shoves his empty bowl away. “Let’s clean the trout first, shall we? Like they say, I can get the Unchosen to the Light Market, but here’s the catch.” He leans forward, all teeth. “I need the blood of someone who was chosen as a key ingredient.”
Lisa’s blood. “Why?”
“If you cannot guarantee that ingredient, then I owe you no explanation.”
He seems sure of himself. If he is the sorcerer rumours say, then his request is not as bizarre as it sounds. At least, not for me. If the Light Market is real, then so is magic.
I know it exists. I didn’t do all of this for nothing. All I need to do is get inside, and the Market will grant my wishes. I’ve pored through enough lore, I’ve waited, I’ve prepared for this day.
“How much blood?”
Tarek raises an eyebrow. “A promising start.” He swipes my napkin and scribbles a few lines.
I watch the lines rip through the fragile paper. My stomach tightens. What if the blood isn’t—what if she isn’t—
He places a thumb-sized vial on the table. “Just a drop, in here. I’ve written the other ingredients for the formula here, to justify the price you’ll pay me to gather them. All you need to do is meet me at the Guardian’s statue—the one at Rwego’s Reach, not the docks—on the night of the next full moon.”
He slides the napkin over and I look through the ingredient list. Half the words are gibberish. “How can I trust you not to take my money and run?”
Tarek laughs. “This is classic!” He leans towards me. “What exactly brought you, the worst kind of rich girl, to the worst possible district in Cael? What made you think a sorcerer, of all people, exists? What possessed you to think that an urban legend—a seabait fantasy! —was real?” His one silver eye flashes. “Now you struggle to trust?”
Point taken. I slide the advance towards him. “The rest will come on the full moon.”
The most I have to lose is this money. And possibly Lisa’s trust, I realise, staring at the vial. At least Rwego’s Reach is in the Head.
“Perfect,” Tarek tucks the money into his coat.
I stand, feeling awkward. “See you on the full moon then.”
“One last thing.” Tarek slides another item across the table. “Use that for the blood.”
• • • •
Lisa’s braids sway in the distance, piled into a precarious bun. She is easy to spot in the hallways of Highlands Academy: everyone else is moon-hued. We both stand out because of our so-called seabait looks. Lisa more so, because she’s actually from the Guardian’s Tail.
I wave. She raises a hand in greeting. Tarek’s needle is cool against my fingertips, hidden in my skirt pocket.
I feel guilty.
When I first heard we were getting a scholarship student, I was like the Guardian somersaulting over water. Lisa was cross and hard-faced, but I eventually won her over with my charming personality and unwavering conviction that we would be friends. My mother opened our doors to her, if she so wished, for a place to study or stay the night. The trip to the Tail is long, after all, almost three cable transports over two hours of travel.
Lisa is the only one who didn’t laugh at me when I told her I believed in the Light Market. The only one who listened. Classmates pinched their noses around us, or muttered seabait under their breaths. Lisa alone smiled when I declared I couldn’t wait to turn eighteen. That’s when I’d finally see the Guardian’s fins in the moon and gain access to the Light Market, where none of those unpleasant things could reach me.
It’s been three weeks since we turned eighteen. I haven’t seen a hint of scales.
Lisa, on the other hand, has shown sudden interest in the lore. I know she didn’t truly believe in the stories before, so her constant questions are unsettling.
As she gets closer, I note the shadow under her eye, which looks like a swollen bruise. One knee is bandaged under the ripped edge of her skirt.
“What happened?” I ask. “You look like you’ve been through a fight.”
“Yeah, made the mistake of not changing clothes for it,” she says, taking books out of her locker. “Listen, can I borrow your notes for astronomy? I know I shouldn’t assume you’re an expert just because of your dad, but. . . ”
“Yeah, no worries,” I say, already fishing them from my folder. “May I ask what this fight was about?”
Her shoulders tense. “Tail stuff. Rougher than being called seabait.”
I feel pricked. “Okay.”
The clock rolls into lunch hour without an opportunity to complete my mission. Lisa sits across from me in our corner of the canteen, opening her notebook while I unpack my lunch. I offer part of my roll, but she refuses. I place it next to her anyway. She lets it be for another two seconds before ripping into the fluffy bread and going back to writing. School is one of the only places where she can concentrate on her schoolwork, so she even studies through lunch.
I feel guilty for not joining her. Lazy, my dad would call me. To gain respect, I need to work like there’s no other option but first place.
Lisa looks drained.
Lore says, those who have access to the Light Market can travel in and out every full moon, drawing whatever they want from its bounty, but Lisa curses the Guardian under her breath. Only Lisa could gain access to the Light Market and still be cross. The Market should be everything she ever needed.
I consider pricking her while she’s busy muttering over celestial bodies, but if she can notice the roll I placed next to her, then there’s no way I can make a move without raising her suspicions. I could ask for permission to prick her, but I don’t know how to explain. If I said that it was all for the sake of joining her in the Light Market, would she understand?
“Lisa,” I begin. “If you got into the Light Market, you would tell me, right?”
Lisa bites on the end of her pen and scribbles in her notebook. She responds without looking at me. “What if there was a rule that you couldn’t tell anyone you got in?”
Okay, that is basically admitting she got in. “Well, what if I wanted to get into the Light Market, and I hadn’t been chosen. Would you support me, no matter what I did to get there?”
Lisa snaps her head up. “No.”
My smile sinks. “Why?”
“You don’t need the Light Market, Muka. Have you ever considered that you already have everything you need?”
I rip a chunk off my roll. “Money doesn’t get me everything, contrary to what you believe. The Light Market could grant me what I’m missing.”
“And what are you missing?”
I roll my lips. “Can’t you trust me?”
Lisa sighs. “I’m just saying. Maybe it’s time you stopped turning to fairy tales to solve all your problems.”
“It’s not a fairy tale!” My voice echoes across the canteen.
Now we have an audience, including Claudia Hightower, silk-haired queen of the final years. Her lips tremble, a perfect picture of fragility. “Calm down, Muck-a.” She winces at Lisa’s black eye. “I know they don’t teach you to control your temper in the docks, but I beg you. I would hate to see you expelled.”
Lisa surges from her seat, and Claudia recoils. “Go ahead and expel me then, mudslider.” Lisa clicks her tongue, plopping her foot on a chair to tie her shoelaces. “I’ll gladly hand over the number one spot to Mukamwezi when I leave. Or did you forget that seabaits are smarter than you?”
I pinch the needle hard. Not smart enough.
A week after I won the achievement award for astronomy, my father called me into his office. I entered with a grin that dissolved when I saw his scowl.
“Why are you second in your class now, Mukamwezi?” he asked. “Are you slacking off now that you’re wasting time with that dock girl?”
“Dock girl?” I blinked. “But dad, aren’t you from the Guardian’s Tail too?”
“We’re different from her kind.”
How can we be different when all our classmates treat us like we’re the same? “She works just as hard,” I tried to explain. “I’m happy that she’s number one.”
“That girl? Are you slacking on purpose?”
I have never slacked a day in my life. And now Lisa is acting like the only way I could take her spot is if she left. Lisa who has the Light Market, who already has a place where she belongs.
I exhale. A fresh red film seeps through her once spotless bandages.
“Lisa, you’re bleeding.”
We walk to the nurse’s office in silence.
The nurse is out, so I sit Lisa on a stool while I grab a fresh roll of gauze. I hide the needle in my palm, ready.
Unwrapping Lisa’s old bandages reveals a gash on her knee. There’s a messy row of handmade stitches, and the wound is seeping. I take a clean pad and dab the wound twice before pressing hard on it, digging in with the needle.
“Ow!” Lisa jerks away from me. “Don’t use your nails.” She snatches the roll of gauze from my hand and wraps the wound herself.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I guess I’m still mad at you for saying I shouldn’t believe in fairy tales.”
“So you’re taking it out on my stitches? Grow up!” She huffs and sweeps out of the room.
As soon as she leaves, I take out the vial and dump the needle inside. Red blooms into a thin layer at the bottom. I stash the vial in a pocket.
Lisa shuffles back in, her eyes on the floor, and grabs her things. She leans on the door frame. “I’m sorry, Muka. I know how much the Light Market means to you.” She sighs. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”
I’m past disappointment. I will enter the Light Market.
• • • •
I gaze at the rising moon as it shines over Cael. No matter how intently I stare, its smooth white surface doesn’t reveal the dancing fins of the Guardian, doesn’t show his blue-lined scales racing across the moon’s pool. I’ve stared at this same view on this same chair through this same window for over a decade.
The first time I heard the Legend of the Light Market, I was eight and my mother had set aside an uninspiring picture book about the constellations that guide Cael. She told me about the Guardian in a deep, tide-ruling voice, how he slapped the ocean floor and made Cael out of the dirt that flicked up into a tumbling coastline, a rolling hill-face that met the sea at the deep harbour.
“And the Guardian’s favourites can enter the Light Market,” my mother said.
The Light Market, fulfiller of dreams, where all your wishes are yours for the taking. Those who wish fervently enough, who have a desire so deep that it lights the moon, can be granted access.
“But you don’t need to wish for a way in,” my mother assured me, tucking a stray coil behind my ear. “I named you Mukamwezi because you are a daughter of the moonlight, favoured by the Guardian,” she kissed my forehead. “You are special. And I don’t want you to ever forget that.”
That was the last time my mother ever spoke to me that way. They argued that night, my father growling about making sure she didn’t spoil me, that not everything could be just handed to me. I kept her story that much closer to my chest. Only those who are not chosen for the Light Market can doubt its existence. I strove to be different.
When my classmates treated me like a disease, when my marks weren’t high enough, I remembered her words. When everyone ignored me unless I did well in school, I prayed to the Guardian. All I had to do was enter the Light Market, and everyone would know. I am special. I am more.
The moon is halfway up the sky. I squint at its smooth mask, searching for a fin, a scale, anything.
Did I not wish enough? Did I not cry hard enough? Did I not suffer long enough?
I raise the vial to the light. Lisa’s blood is a black stain on the bottom. It’s a small price to pay. The Guardian should have known. I need the Light Market more than his approval.
• • • •
Rwego’s Reach is an hour’s trek from my house. The streets are deserted save for the occasional patrol zipping on swift-bikes. I deftly pick my hiding spots. This high up, the houses are half-obscured by foliage and the tiled streets weave in and out of forest. A tall pine marks the boundary of the reserve.
Squeezing past a hole in the park’s fence, I pick my way up the shrubby path, familiar with the bends in the dirt, where to avoid jutting rocks and roots. I know every shrine, every temple, every mural of the Guardian. Rwego’s Reach is where I direct my wishes to the Guardian from time to time. By the time I reach the top, the moon faces me. The statue of the Guardian gleams, his curved body whipping water in a circle that reflects the cycle of the moon and tides. I sit on the statue’s base and catch my breath.
“Took you long enough.” Tarek chuckles at my surprised yelp, rounding the statue as if he’s been circling for hours. He holds out his hand. “The blood.”
I hand him the vial.
Tarek produces an array of powders from his satchel, then spreads them in a circle around the Guardian’s statue. He mixes them on the ground, and a cloud of particles rises in a white glimmer. Tarek scoops up a bit of the white circle and dumps it in the vial. Then he fishes out another vial full of a cloudy liquid. “Saltwater from the bay,” he smirks. He tips some of it into the first vial and swirls the bloody mixture until it glows impossibly white.
Tarek drinks some of it, grimaces and hands it over.
I stare at the vial, willing my fingers to stop trembling. I empty the vial into my mouth. It tastes strangely like honey. Then a deep bitterness claws its way down my throat.
Light explodes from the circle, knocking me back. My ears ring. Blinking, I realise I’m lying on the floor. I push myself up and wince. Glass shards glitter on my bloody hands, the vial shattered. I pick them out, absently thinking that the Guardian won’t like glass-encrusted hands. A shadow eclipses me. I turn to the sky and scream.
Shadowy creatures swim above my head, gargantuan monsters with teeth and jagged fins, bodies the length of several cable transports.
I freeze like a fish out of breath. Slowly I realise that the creatures are aimlessly drifting across the sky, like catfish in a fountain. Constellations stud their inky bodies, reminding me of my father’s words during a rare astronomy lesson he gave me. He explained that objects in the sky are called celestial bodies because a long time ago Tail dwellers thought they were actual creatures.
“Those Tail dwellers thought too small,” he told me. “True, they didn’t have the resources that those in the Head have, but they were also lazy. They didn’t work hard to find the truth and elevate themselves.” He smacked his desk. The sudden clap made me jump. “Elevate yourself, Mukamwezi!”
I felt just as helpless as I do now. I’m trying, I wanted to say. Don’t you see that I’m trying?
Exhaling, I allow myself to relax. None of the creatures seem to care about my presence. The moon stares placidly, its surface smooth, no Guardian in sight.
I whirl on Tarek. “You tricked me!”
He laughs. “Oh, silly girl.” Both his eyes gleam silver now. “Can’t you see? This is the Light Market!”
He wraps an arm around my shoulder and sweeps a hand at the awful sight before us. “Look closely! The Guardian’s Court is feeding.”
Some of the creatures swim to the bottom of the hill, towards the Tail. I see them dive and disappear in a flash. A few reappear with a gleam on their scales. Others don’t.
I shiver. “What is this?”
“We are looking at the Light Market from the outside,” Tarek says.
“You promised to get me in!”
“No,” Tarek shakes his head. “I promised to show you the way. If you are not chosen, you can never get inside.”
Never get inside? A terrible dread fills me. “If you can never get inside the Light Market, how do you know so much about it?”
Tarek sighs. “I spent years trying to learn its secrets. Once tried to force my way in.”
The rumours never mentioned this. The days I spent poring over volumes of Tail lore as recorded by Head dwellers. The times I pushed Lisa to pry stories from her grand-aunt. None of them revealed why Tarek knows what he does or how far he has gone to know it.
“Then you should know how to get in by now,” I blurt, desperate. “If you can’t, what was the point of showing me the way?”
He squeezes my shoulder. “To show you why it’s a bad idea. The Market is for fish food.”
“What…” I widen my eyes. I stare at the sky. More creatures disappear and reappear, some with dark spots on their fangs. I bring my hands to my mouth and immediately regret it. My stomach flips at the warm tang of blood. I swallow. “No. The Market is where all your dreams come true.”
“Yes, if you survive. Even then, it’s nearly impossible to get what you truly want: freedom from the Market. Those who are chosen must enter it every full moon, no matter the horrors. It’s a curse.” Tarek glances at my bleeding hands and passes me a handkerchief. “But with you, perhaps anything is possible.” He considers me a moment. “You know someone in the Market. You found me. You helped me reach this point. Do you know what that means?”
I shake my head.
“It means you can do much more. You could save them, Mukamwezi.”
Save them. I could save Lisa? How many times has she stuck up for me? How many times has Claudia called me a spineless eel for letting her protect me?
“The Chosen can’t break free from the inside,” Tarek explains. “But with our help, now that we can see it . . . ”
My only hope had been getting inside the Light Market. I could start over there. I could be everything everyone wanted me to be and more. Exceed all expectations. I could belong.
“We can destroy this prison.”
He’s asking me to destroy my only hope.
“What do you say?”
I search the moon’s surface, the moon where the Guardian dwells, where he’s been ignoring me for the past ten years, where he watches his Court feed on human sacrifices, where he continues to hide from me. Even as I try to force my way to him, he refuses to look at me. Am I not good enough? Am I not special? Am I not Mukamwezi, daughter of the moonlight?
“Why won’t he look at me?” The moon stays mute.
“He won’t look at any of us,” Tarek says. “We’re just food to him.”
I wipe my eyes. “I’ll make him look. I’ll make him regret he didn’t choose me.” I glare at the moon. “I’ll destroy his precious Market.”
“And save everyone?” Tarek extends a hand, teeth gleaming.
I return the handkerchief, bloody like the fangs on those celestial beasts. They remind me of the rip in Lisa’s skirt, the gash on her knee.
“Yes,” I say. “I’ll show him I can.”
Spread the word!