I wiggle my fingers, reaching for my magic, but only puffs of air float up from my fingers. What’s wrong with me?
Excerpt from the last scene of chapter two of Ashes of Gold, the conclusion to the Wings of Ebony duology by J. Elle. Used with permission from Denene Milner Books: a division of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
I wake with Jhamal’s hand cupped around mine, his eyes glazed with something I can’t place.
“We ready for today’s rehearsing?” he says when he spots me studying him. I sit up and he reaches to help me, but I push his hands away and do it myself.
Guilt turns in me like a corkscrew. I straighten, the prison cell wall at my back, and sift through the collection of memories in my mind for any more hints. Meaning. They come back in a rush.
I remember waiting to gain an edge on the Chancellor when the dome fell. I remember smoke plumes from Yiyo. I can almost taste the bitter smoke in the air, screams scratch my ears. I blink and see long eyelashes.
What have I done?
“Ah!” I claw my hands through my hair, trying to push the images from my mind, but they take over. I can’t look away, vivid memories of the battle consuming me in a rush.
“Rahk . . .”
Piles of bloodied armor folded over fallen Patrolmen. I tug harder at my roots, trying to tear the haunted memories out of my head. Jhamal’s hand is warm around mine. He tugs gently on my wrist, trying to unlatch my hands from my hair.
“Jelani,” he says, and his words are soft as silk. But I don’t deserve to be wrapped in their comfort.
What happened to everyone? I sent them to the mountain. They couldn’t have all made it into Yiyo that fast, but still. How many survived? Are they still out there? How long have we been in here?
I grip Jhamal’s shirt.“Tell me what happened!” I don’t mean for it to come out like a yell but it does. He startles, biting his lip.
“I’m sorry for yelling.”
He sighs. “You—” The clang of our breakfast tray slapping the stone and sliding underneath the bars to our cell steals our atten- tion. Breakfast Lady hovers a moment, eyes darting between us, before slipping a book out from her robes. She slides it between the grates. Jhamal hands back two hiding in a shadowed corner of our cell. She’s out of sight without a word to me.
“We should use this time to practice, my Queen, not dwell on things we can’t change.” He reaches for my fingers. His are warm and I remember how he worked over my wounds, put me back together, helped me heal. But I tug my fingers away, curling into myself. I need to get up, walk around. I wiggle my fingers, reaching for my magic, but only puffs of air float up from my fingers. What’s wrong with me? I hate this feeling. I hate feeling weak.
“It won’t work in here.” He runs his fingers across the bars of our prison cell.“These lead bars sedate magic. I overheard a guard say.”
Great, so I’m in prison, without the ability to use my magic, and I can’t quite remember how I even got in here?! I try to stand but my knees buckle. Jhamal catches me, and for a moment I let him be a wall around me. A wall against the storm raging through me. But even that sears after a moment.
“Thanks,” I say, pulling away from him and steadying myself on the wall.“I got it.”
I can’t even stand on my own two feet? I did this. I got us in here. Or I let the Chancellor do this? I-I should have fought harder or been smarter or listened to the Ghizoni in the forest when they wanted to think out a plan. But no, no, I had to storm out there and take him on myself. The guilt chokes and I slide down the wall to the floor, hugging my knees. Tears sting my cheeks, shredding everything inside me that used to beat with hope. I’ve saved one home but lost the other one.
Jhamal sits next to me, tucking his lip in understanding. His warmth soothes, but I can’t look at him. Not after what I’ve done.
“Jelani, I forgive you. You could not have known—”
“Stop!” Excuses. I won’t listen to it. They looked to me to protect them out there, to make decisions, and I failed. That’s the truth of it. And I won’t let him water it down. I’d pace, but my body feels like it’s barely glued together. If I even breathe too hard, I might break. I gaze at his chin on his chest and shame burns my cheeks. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s done nothing but mend me.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter.
His gaze meets mine. “It’s okay. I hate that you even—” His shoulders slump next to me and for a moment I let my head lie on his shoulder.
“My people. They need me,” I breathe, and I’m not even sure Jhamal hears it until he turns to me. Everything kind and warm hangs in his ebony eyes.
“We will not think of these things. Right now, getting you strong is the focus. It has to be.”
My eyes sting. “I’m the only one with magic a-and they’re just out there. Without me.”
“Jelani.” He caresses my jaw with his thumb. But the flutter I feel is buried in memories of Yiyo, Rahk, a battlefield full of blood, until it’s an ember smothered in the ash of my failure.
“You should eat. It usually helps.”
I nod begrudgingly as he sets out the tray. I blow out a breath, trying to keep quiet the panic tugging at me. The angst to feel like not only a prisoner of the Chancellor but a prisoner in my own body. The meal is some sort of oats and purple berries with a peanut-buttery aftertaste. Once we’re done eating, the world is heavy, like I used up every bit of energy I had with anger and have none left for practice. Jhamal warned me of that. But I hold my eyes open as best I can,
focusing on Jhamal as he feeds me spells. I repeat and recite until every other syllable is a yawn.
“Sticky spell,” he says, the first one open.
“Cord of light.”
“You’re remembering so well.”
“I just want to know why I don’t remember.” I touch a spot on my forehead and it’s rough with a scab. “Ow.”
“Breathe, it’s going to be okay. Maybe that’s enough for today.” He lays a leg over mine. “What is it you call it, again?”
“Pretzel legs.” A smile tugs at my lips, but the wail of dying people is a ghost in my ears. I untangle my legs from his. Jhamal must sense the question in my pained expression.
“You are remembering, Jelani. That is what matters.”
“How long have we been doing this?”
“Too long. Moons? I don’t know. Every time you wake, we have good progress though. You’re going to be so strong, so good at your magic by the time we get out of here.”
I close my eyes again, reaching for a memory of getting in this cell. For what happened after the Chancellor captured us. But find only a burning battlefield.
My breath hitches, my pulse picking up. What have I done? And what about Tasha . . . Ms. Leola . . . they need to know I’m okay. I—
My strength falters, my hands shake. But his eyes find mine and they urge me to listen.
I inhale, then let it out. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one.
His hand closes around mine.
“Wh-what did they do to me?”
He rubs the inside of my palm, stretching my fingers, and I scoot closer to him, to comfort, understanding. His nails massage circles on my hairline, and my shoulders sink.
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is what you do next.”
“I will get stronger. I’m going to get us out of here.”
“I know you will, my Queen.”
Houston author J. Elle is a New York Times bestselling author of young adult and middle-grade fantasy fiction. She is best known for her debut novel, Wings of Ebony, and her work has been translated into three languages. The former educator and first-generation college student credits her nomadic lifestyle and humble inner-city beginnings as inspiration for her novels. When she’s not writing, Elle can be found mentoring aspiring authors, binging reality TV, loving on her three littles, or cooking up something true to her Southern roots. Read the Lone Star Literary Life interview.