Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult
.” The boy continues playing his song for a while. Then he stops abruptly, leans down toward us, and holds both hands up. He smiles again, flashing his teeth. “
I smile back. “Magiano’s tricks, you mean.”
“Is that where the word comes from?” he asks lightheartedly before slouching backward again. “I didn’t know.” His fingers find the lute’s strings and continue playing. I can tell we’re losing his interest. “Nothing more than sleights of hand, my love, tricks of the light and a perceptive use of distraction. And, you know, the help of an assistant. He’s probably still hiding somewhere, stupid boy, scared out of his wits. I warned him not to run.” He pauses. “That’s why I’m here talking to you, you know. I wanted to tell you both that I’m grateful you saved my helper, and now I’m going to leave you to enjoy your night. Best of luck to you in finding your Young Elite.”
was working with him all along.
I take a deep breath. Something about the way he says
triggers an old memory. He
sound familiar. I know I’ve
heard his voice before. But where? I frown, trying to place the memory.
Where, where …
And then I realize it.
My prison mate. When the Inquisition first arrested me and threw me in their dungeons, I had a half-crazed companion in the cell next to my own. A laughing, giggling, singsong voice, one belonging to someone who I’d thought had gone mad from his long imprisonment.
Girl. They say you’re a Young Elite. Well, are you?
He sees the recognition in my eyes, because he pauses again in his playing. “You’re making a very odd face,” he says. “Did you eat a bad lamb skewer? That happened to me once.”
“We were in prison together.”
He stops at my words. Freezes. “I’m sorry?”
“We were in the same prison. In the city of Dalia, some months ago. You must remember—I know your voice.” I take a deep breath, revisiting the memory. “I was sentenced to burn that day.”
When I squint at him in the darkness, I notice that he has stopped smiling. He turns his full stare on me.
“You’re Adelina Amouteru,” he murmurs to himself, his gaze wandering across my face with renewed interest. “Yes, of course, of
you are. I should have sensed it.”
I nod. For a moment, I wonder if perhaps I’ve told him too much. Does he know that the Inquisition wants us? What if he decides to turn us in to the Merroutas soldiers?
He considers me for what seems like hours. “You saved my life that day,” he adds.
I frown in confusion. “How?”
He smiles again, but it’s different from the sweet grin he gave Violetta. No, I’ve never seen a smile quite like this—cat-like, one that slants the corners of his eyes and gives him, for a moment, a fierce and savage look. The tips of his canines gleam. His expression has transformed his entire face, turning him into someone both intimidating and charismatic, and every thread of his attention is now trained on me, as if nothing else in the world existed. He seems to have forgotten about Violetta entirely. I don’t know what to make of this, but I can feel my cheeks starting to flush.
He stares at me without blinking, humming with the music as he plays. Then he looks away and speaks again. “If you are searching for Magiano, you will have better luck finding him in the abandoned bath halls of southern Merroutas, a building once called the Little Baths of Bethesda. Go there tomorrow morning at first light. I’ve heard he prefers negotiating in private places.” He holds a finger up. “But be warned—he doesn’t take orders from anyone. If you want to talk to him, you’ll have to give him a good reason.”
And before Violetta or I can say anything in return, he pushes away from the balcony, turns his back, and disappears inside the building.
Raffaele Laurent Bessette
Fog. Early morning.
A memory of a young boy crouching barefoot outside the door of his family’s squalid home, playing with sticks in the mud. He looked up to see an old man making his way along the village’s dirt path, his bony nag pulling a wagon behind her. The child stopped playing. He shouted for his mother, then stood up as the wagon came closer.
The man stopped before him. They stared at each other. There was something about the child’s eyes set in his thin face—one as warm as honey, the other as bright green as an emerald. But there was something more than that—as the man continued to stare, he must have wondered how someone so young could wear such a wise expression.
He went inside the little home to speak to the mother. It took some convincing—she did not want to let him in until he said that he had an opportunity for her to make some money.
“You won’t find many customers in this region to buy trinkets and potions,” his mother said to the man, wringing her hands in the tiny, dark room that she shared with her six children. He sat down in the chair she offered him. Her eyes darted constantly from thing to thing, never quite able to settle. “The blood fever has ravaged us. It took my husband and my eldest son last year. It marked two of my other children, as you can see.” She gestured at the young boy, who looked on quietly with his jewel-toned eyes, and to his brother. “This has always been a poor village, sir, but now it is on the verge of collapse.”
The child noticed the man’s eyes darting to him again and again. “And how are you faring, without your husband?” the man asked.
The mother shook her head. “I struggle working in our fields. I have sold some of our possessions. Our bread flour will last another few weeks, but it is full of worms.”
The man listened without a word. He showed no interest in the boy’s marked brother. When the mother finished, he sat back and nodded. “I make deliveries between the port cities of Estenzia and Campagnia. I want to ask about your littlest boy, the one with the two-toned eyes.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I will pay you five gold talents for him. He is a comely boy—he will fetch a high price in a large port city.”
At the mother’s stunned silence, the man continued, “There are courts in Estenzia that have more jewels and riches than you’ve ever dreamed possible. They are worlds of glitter and pleasure, and they are constantly in need of new blood.” At that, he nodded at the child.
“You mean you’ll take him to a brothel.”
The man looked down at the child again. “No. He is too fine featured for a brothel.” He leaned closer to the woman and lowered his voice. “Your marked children will have a hard time here. I have heard stories about other villages that have cast their little ones out into the forests, in fear that they will bring sickness and misfortune to all. I have seen them burn children,
, alive in the streets. It will happen here too.”
“It will not,” the woman replied fiercely. “Our neighbors are poor, but they are good people.”
“Desperation brings out the darkness in everyone,” the man said with a shrug.
The two argued until evening fell. The mother continued to refuse.
The child listened in silence, thinking.
When night finally came, he rose and quietly took his mother’s hand. He told her that he would go with the man. The mother slapped him, told him he would do no such thing, but he did not budge.
“Everyone will starve,” he said softly.
“You are too young to understand what you’re sacrificing,” his mother scolded.
He glanced at his other siblings. “It will be all right, Mama.”
The mother looked at her beautiful boy, admired his eyes, and ran a hand through his black hair. Her fingers played with his few strands of brilliant sapphire. She pulled him close to her and cried. She hung on to him for a long time. He hugged her back, proud of himself for helping his mother, not knowing what it meant.
“Twelve talents,” she told the man.
“Eight,” he countered.
“Ten. I’ll not give up my son for less than that.”
The man was silent for a while. “Ten,” he agreed.
The mother exchanged a few quiet words with the man, and then released her son’s hand.
“What is your name, little boy?” the man asked as he helped him into his rickety wagon.
“Raffaele Laurent Bessette.” The child’s voice was solemn, his eyes still fixed on his home. Already he was starting to feel afraid. Could his mother ever visit him? Did this mean he would never see his family again?
“Well, Raffaele,” the man replied, tapping his mare’s hindquarters with his whip. He distracted the boy by giving him a hunk of bread and cheese. “Have you ever been to the capital of Kenettra?”
Two weeks later, the man sold the child to the Fortunata Court of Estenzia for three thousand gold talents.
Raffaele’s eyes flutter, then open to the faint light of dawn streaming in through the window. A flurry of snow is falling outside.
He stirs. Even the flickering fireplace and the furs piled high on his bed are not enough to keep away the bite of icy air. Raffaele’s skin prickles from the chill. He pulls up the furs to his chin again and tries to fall back asleep. But two weeks on a ship sailing through stormy waters from Kenettra north to Beldain have taken their toll, and Raffaele’s body aches from exhaustion. The Beldish queen’s summer castle is a cold and dank place, unlike Estenzia’s glittering marble halls and warm, sun-drenched gardens. He cannot get used to such a chilly summer. The other Daggers must be having trouble resting too.
After a while, he sighs, pushes away the furs, and rises from bed. The light outlines his taut stomach, lean muscles, and slender neck. He walks on silent feet to where his robe is draped over the foot of the bed. He’d worn this robe before, as it had been a present from a Kenettran noblewoman, the Duchess of Campagnia, several years ago. She’d become so infatuated with Raffaele, in fact, that she threw much of her fortune behind supporting the Daggers. The more powerful his clients, the more they tried to buy his love.
He wonders whether the duchess is well. After the
Daggers fled Kenettra, they sent doves out to contact their patrons. The duchess was one of the patrons who had never responded.
Raffaele slides on the long robe, covering his body from head to toe. The fabric is heavy and luxurious, pooling at his feet, and shimmers in the light. He runs his fingers through the weight of his long black hair, then pulls it up into an elegant knot on the top of his head. In the cold morning sun, tiny traces of sapphire glimmer in his hair. His hands trace the cool surface of his sleeves.
He thinks back to the night when Enzo visited his chambers, when he had first warned the prince about Adelina. His fingers pause for a moment, suspended in grief.
No use dwelling on the past. Raffaele casts a glance back at the fireplace, then exits the chamber on silent feet. His robes pull behind him in a sheet of heavy velvet.
The corridors smell stale—centuries of old, damp stone and the ash of ancient torches. Gradually, they lighten until they open up to the summer castle’s gardens. The flowers are dusted with a thin layer of snow that would melt by the time afternoon came. From here, Raffaele can see the castle’s lower grounds and, beyond that, the rocky shores of Beldain. A cool gust numbs his cheeks and whips strands of hair across his face.
His gaze shifts to the main courtyard within the castle’s front gates.
Normally, the space would be quiet at this hour. But today,
fleeing Estenzia litter the grounds, huddled around small fires and under old blankets. Another shipload of
must have just arrived in the night. Raffaele watches the clusters of people move and shift, then turns back inside the castle to head down.
recognize Raffaele as he makes his way out into the main courtyard. Their faces light up. “It’s the Daggers’ leader!” one exclaims.
rush forward, all eager to touch Raffaele’s hands and arms, hoping for a moment of his ability to soothe. It is a daily ritual. Raffaele stands still in the midst of them. So many people, begging for comfort.
His eyes settle on a bald boy quite a bit taller than himself, his hair taken long ago by the fever. Raffaele had seen him waiting yesterday too. He gestures at the boy to step forward. His eyes widen in surprise, and then he rushes to Raffaele’s side.
“Good morning,” he says.
Raffaele looks at him carefully. “Good morning,” he replies.
The boy lowers his voice. He seems nervous now that he has managed to get Raffaele’s attention before anyone else. “Can you come see my sister?” he asks.
“Yes,” Raffaele replies without hesitation.
The bald boy brightens at his answer. Like everyone else, he seems unable to tear his eyes away from Raffaele’s face. He touches the young consort’s arm. “This way,” he says.
Raffaele follows him through the groups of
rough, dark mark sprawled all across a forearm. A scarred ear and dark hair peppered with silver. Mismatched eye colors. Raffaele silently memorizes the markings he sees. Whispers erupt wherever he glides past.