Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult
“I’m sorry,” Teren finally says. His eyes stay turned to the floor, their pale, pulsing color subdued. His words echo between the statues and pillars until they fade away, incomprehensible.
He hesitates, unsure how to continue.
“I shouldn’t have questioned my queen,” he adds after a moment. “It is an insult to the gods.”
No one answers.
Teren frowns as he talks. “But you have to help me,” he continues. “I know I am no better than the
wretches out there in the camps, and I know I should obey Her Majesty. But my mission is to rid this country of
The queen … she has so much love in her heart. Her brother was a
, after all. She doesn’t know how urgently she needs to destroy them.
” He sighs.
The statues stay silent. Behind him come the tiny footsteps of the priests’ apprentices as they replace the plates of water and jasmine. Teren doesn’t move. His thoughts wander from Giulietta and the
to the morning in Estenzia’s arena, when he’d run his sword through Prince Enzo’s chest. He rarely dwelled on those he killed, but Enzo … he can still remember the feeling of the blade pushing through flesh, of the prince’s terrible gasp. He remembers how Enzo had collapsed at his feet, how flecks of bright red blood dotted his boots.
Teren shakes his head, unsure of why he keeps thinking about Enzo’s death.
A childhood memory comes to him, of golden days before the fever … Teren and Enzo, still little boys, racing out of the kitchens to climb to the top of a tree outside the palace walls. Enzo was first, being older and taller. He reached down to offer Teren a helping hand, pulled him up, and pointed toward the ocean, laughing.
You can see the baliras from here,
the little prince said. They unwrapped leftover cuts of meat from the kitchens and skewered them onto the branches. Then they sat back and watched in awe as a pair of falcons swooped down to grab the food.
That evening, when Teren’s father struck him for being late to his Inquisition training, Prince Enzo stood between Teren and the towering Lead Inquisitor.
Let me discipline my son, Your Highness,
his father said.
A soldier cannot be taught laziness.
He followed my orders, sir,
Enzo replied, lifting his chin.
It was my fault, not his.
Teren’s father spared him that night.
The memory fades away. Teren continues to kneel for a long time, until the metal of his armor cuts his knees, making him bleed even as the wounds heal immediately. He looks up at the statues of the gods, trying to understand the mess of emotions crowding his mind.
Was it right for me,
he asks silently,
to kill your crown prince?
A boy and girl—the priests’ apprentices—come into view in their temple robes, placing fresh flowers at the statues’ feet. Teren watches them with a smile. When the little girl notices his Lead Inquisitor uniform, she blushes and curtsies. “I’m sorry for interrupting your prayer, sir,” she says.
Teren waves off her apology. “Come here,” he beckons, and she does. He takes one of the flowers from her basket, admires it, and tucks it behind her ear. She’s a perfect child—flawless, free of markings, with a head of red-gold hair and wide, innocent eyes. “You serve the gods well,” he says.
The girl beams at him. “Thank you, sir.” Teren places a gentle hand on her head and dismisses her. He watches her scamper away to join the boy.
This is the world he is fighting to protect, from monsters like himself. He looks up at the statues again, certain that the little girl and boy are the gods’ way of telling him what he needs to do.
It was right of me. I
to be right.
He just has
to convince Giulietta that he’s doing this for the sake of her throne. Because he loves her.
Finally, Teren rises. He straightens his cloak and his armor, and heads toward the temple entrance. He throws open the doors. Sunlight washes over him, bathing his white robes and armor in gold. Before him is a sea of tents and dilapidated shelters. He looks on with disinterest as two Inquisitors drag a dead, whipped
through the dirt, then toss the body onto a burning pile of wood.
Several of his captains are already waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. They straighten at the sight of him.
“Halve the rations for the
,” Teren says, adjusting his gloves. His irises shine clear in the light. “I want this cleansing sped up. Do not inform the queen.”
This Documente of Assurance, executed 11 Toberie of 1315, witnesses that Sir Marzio of Dalia may enter into monitored trade with His Eminence the Night King of Merroutas, with knowledge that failure to provide His Eminence with eighty percent of acquired monies will result in arrest and execution.
—Document of Assurance between Sir Marzio of Dalia and the Night King of Merroutas
Like everything else about Magiano, his little challenge to me is probably a trick.
“He said he’d make his move tomorrow morning,” Violetta says to me that evening, as we sit together on the floor of a small tavern room on the edge of Merroutas. We are practicing our powers, just as we do every night.
“He’ll make his move sooner than that.” I weave a tiny ribbon of darkness on the ground and let it dance in a pattern. “Tricksters don’t tell the truth.”
“Then what should we do? We don’t have much time if we want to beat him.”
I shake my head, concentrating on weaving the ribbon into a miniature, dancing faerie. I mold as much detail as I can into its face. “Remember,” I say, “our goal isn’t to steal the diamond pin before Magiano can. Our goal is to convince him that we are worth following.”
Violetta watches as I shift my illusion of the dancing faerie, hunching its back, replacing its beautiful hair with hideous spikes. I grow it into a hulking monster. “You’re thinking about what he said, aren’t you?” she asks after a moment. “How the Night King has ten thousand mercenaries and an army at his back. You’d love to have that kind of support at your disposal.”
“How did you know?”
Violetta gives me a timid smile before putting her chin in her hands and admiring my illusion. “I’ve known you my whole life, mi Adelinetta. And I think Magiano told you about those mercenaries for a reason.”
“And what reason is that?”
“Perhaps he wants you to win them over to your side.”
We fall into a comfortable silence as I play with the illusion. The monster gradually changes into a sleek, golden doe, Violetta’s favorite animal. My sister’s smile expands at the sight, encouraging me to make it even prettier for her. “Magiano is arrogant,” I say. “If we really want to win him over, we can’t just steal a diamond pin.” I look at her again. “We need to surprise him with what we can do.”
Violetta looks away from the doe illusion and arches an eyebrow at me. “How do we plan on doing that? You heard Magiano. And you saw the soldiers during the Midsummer Festival too. They are all intimidated by the Night King. He rules with fear.”
At that, the doe’s golden hide turns black, and the
creature’s eyes glow scarlet. Violetta instinctively shrinks away from it.
“So do I,” I say.
Violetta realizes what I want to do. She laughs a little, both uneasy and admiring, then shakes her head. “You were always good at playing games,” she replies. “I could never beat you.”
I’m not that good,
I think, even as her words warm me to her.
I tried to play Teren’s game against him, and I lost everything.
“Adelina,” she whispers, seriously this time. “I don’t want to kill anyone.”
“You won’t,” I reply, taking her hand. “We are just going to show off what we can do. Mercenaries can be persuaded to turn against their employer. If we can show how much more powerful we are than the Night King—if we can make him
us, and make sure his men see—some of them may switch their allegiance. They could follow
Violetta looks up at me and searches my gaze. There is guilt there, for how she had once left me to fend for myself. “Okay,” she says.
It is her way of telling me that she’ll never betray me again. I squeeze her hand, then lean back. “Go ahead,” I say to Violetta. “Take my power away.”
She reaches out and tugs at my threads of energy. My illusion wavers wildly. When Violetta uses her power, it feels as if an invisible hand were reaching down my throat and pulling the energy out of my body. She holds on to it tightly—my illusion dissolves. I try to access my power, but I can’t
anymore. A feeling of panic bubbles up like bile, the sudden and familiar fear that I will never, ever be able to defend myself again, that I am now exposed for all to see.
I remind myself of our promise and force myself to relax. “Hold on,” I murmur to Violetta through gritted teeth. I have to let her do this. She needs to practice her stamina.
The seconds crawl by as I continue to push back my panic, trying to get used to the feeling. There is a certain solace in it, yes. The absence of darkness. The lack of twisted whispers in the night. But without it, I feel helpless, and I spiral into the version of myself that used to cower before my father. Again and again, I try to reach out for my energy. Again and again, I find nothing but air, emptiness where there had once been a churning pool of darkness. More minutes.
When I feel like I can’t stand it any longer, I finally choke out, “Give it back.”
My power rushes back to me, and I crumple in relief as strength floods me again, filling every nook and crevice of my chest with its sickness. Both of us lean back in exhaustion. I give Violetta a small smile.
“How long was that?” Violetta asks after she manages to catch her breath again. She looks pale and fragile, as she always does after she uses her power, and her cheeks are unnaturally flushed.
“Longer than yesterday,” I reply. “That was good.”
To be honest, I want her to learn faster, so that we can
confront Teren again sooner. But I have to be careful when I practice with her, lest she fall ill. I go slowly, gently, encouraging her along. Maybe I also do this because I am afraid of her, because her power is the one that I can never defeat. She is, after all, partly responsible for all my childhood abuse, for holding me back without ever telling me. If she wasn’t my sister, if I didn’t love her, if she had a harder heart … “Well, what do we do?” Violetta asks. I turn in the direction of the Night King’s court. My eye narrows at the glow of the setting sun. The whispers in my mind awaken as they sense what I’m thinking, and then they start to twitch and chitter in excitement, pushing and shoving against my thoughts until they crowd every dark corner. This time, I listen to them. This is my chance to send a signal to the Inquisition that I am coming for them, that they have not crushed me.
“We make the Night King cower at our feet,” I say.
It is a hot and humid evening, and the city shimmers under the light of a setting sun. Violetta and I make our way through the smoke-filled streets until we end up on a hill, overlooking a lush garden estate in the center of the city. Here, blue-and-silver flags depicting the symbol of a crown and moon hang from every balcony. The Night King’s main quarters.
I can see why Magiano chose a night like this to steal the pin. Because it’s so hot, everyone is eating and lounging outdoors, and a bustling outdoor space must be easier for a
thief to work with. Sure enough, the garden inside the Night King’s estate now buzzes with servants, all setting up for the evening meal.
Violetta and I hide in the shadows under a row of trees. We stare at the guards posted along the estate’s walls. Farther down the hill, soldiers patrol near the main entrance.
“We can’t go over the walls,” I whisper. “Not without causing a scene.” If the Windwalker were with us, she could have effortlessly lifted us onto the walls—but now that we are no longer with the Daggers, I can rely only on my own powers.
“Look,” Violetta says softly, touching my arm. She points to the main entrance below. There, a cluster of young dancers gathers by the doors, waiting to be let in. They laugh and talk with the guards.
“Let’s find a different way,” I mutter. I don’t like the sight of them. Somehow, their ornate hair and colorful silks remind me too much of the Fortunata Court—of sensual consorts I once knew, who could hypnotize their audience with a sweep of their lashes.
“Do you want to waste all your energy on keeping us invisible for hours?” Violetta says. “It will be the easiest way to get in. You said Raffaele trained you while you stayed in the—”
“I know,” I interrupt, perhaps more harshly than I intended. Then I shake my head and soften my voice. She’s right. If we want to get in, we should go as dancers, and we need to play nicely with the guards. “But I never could
charm clients like Raffaele did,” I admit. “I only played a novice who never needed to speak.”