Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult
They reach his sister. She is huddled in a corner of the courtyard, hiding her face behind a shawl. When she sees Raffaele approach, she makes herself even smaller and lowers her eyes.
The boy leans down to Raffaele as they reach her. “An Inquisitor seized her on the night they broke shop windows in Estenzia,” he murmurs. He bends closer and whispers something in Raffaele’s ear. As Raffaele listens, he studies the girl, noticing a scratch here, a bruise there, black and blue marring the skin of her legs.
When the boy finishes talking, Raffaele nods in understanding. He tucks his robe under his legs and kneels beside her. A wave of her energy washes over him. He winces. Such overwhelming sadness and fear.
If Adelina were here, she would use this.
He’s very careful not to touch the girl. A few clients had done the same to him in his bedchamber, left him bruised and trembling—the last thing he ever wanted afterward was a hand on his skin.
For a long time, Raffaele sits and says nothing. The girl watches him in silence, transfixed by his face. The tension in her shoulders doesn’t go away. At first, Raffaele senses a wave of resentment and hostility from her at his presence. But he doesn’t look away.
The girl speaks at last. “The Lead Inquisitor is going to
enslave us all. That’s what we’ve heard.”
“They say the Inquisition has set up slave camps around Estenzia.”
She seems surprised at his refusal to soften the blow. “They say after they’re done with us, they’re going to kill us all.”
Raffaele is silent. He knows he doesn’t need to say anything in order to give her an answer.
“Are the Daggers going to stop him?”
“The Daggers are going to destroy him,” Raffaele responds. The words sound strange in his gentle voice, like metal slicing through silk. “I will see to it personally.”
The girl’s eyes wander across his face again, taking in his delicate beauty. Raffaele holds a hand out to her and waits patiently. After a while, she extends her own hand. She touches his tentatively, then gasps. Through their contact, Raffaele tugs gently on her heartstrings, sharing in her heartache, soothing and caressing as much as he can, replacing her sadness with comfort.
Tears prickle the girl’s eyes. She keeps her hand there for a long time, until at last she pulls away, huddling back into her crouch with her face turned down.
“Thank you,” her brother whispers. Others cluster behind Raffaele, watching in awe. “It’s the first time she’s spoken since we left Estenzia.”
Lucent’s voice cuts through the scene. Raffaele turns to
see the Windwalker cutting her way through the crowd, her copper curls bouncing in the air. She looks every inch a typical Beldish girl here in her homeland, with furs thick around her neck and wrists, and a trail of beads clinking in her hair. She pauses in front of him.
“I hate to interrupt your daily healing session,” she says, motioning for him to follow her, “but she arrived late last night. She’s asked to see us.”
Raffaele nods a farewell to the
in the courtyard before matching Lucent’s pace. She looks agitated, possibly at having to track him down, and she rubs her arms incessantly. “Kenettran summers have turned me soft,” she complains as they go. “This cold is making my bones ache.” When Raffaele doesn’t respond, she turns her irritation on him. “Do you really have so much free time?” she says. “Making sad eyes at
refugees every day isn’t going to help us strike back at the Inquisition.”
Raffaele doesn’t bother looking at her. “The bald boy is an Elite,” he replies.
Lucent makes an incredulous sound. “Really?”
“I noticed it yesterday,” he continues. “A very subtle energy, but it’s there. I’ll send for him later.”
Lucent glares at him. He can see the disbelief in her eyes, then annoyance that he has surprised her. Finally, she shrugs. “Ah, you always have a good reason for your kindnesses, don’t you?” she mutters. “Well, Michel says they’re out on the hills.” Her footsteps speed up.
Raffaele doesn’t add that his heart is still heavy, as it
always is after he meets the
. That he wishes he could have stayed longer, that he could do more to help them. There is no point in mentioning it. “Your queen will forgive me,” he says.
Lucent huffs at that and crosses her arms. But underneath her nonchalant show, Raffaele can feel the threads of her energy twist painfully, a knot of passion and longing that has tightened and tightened for years, anxious to be reunited with the Beldish princess. How long has it been since Lucent was first banished from Beldain—how long has she been separated from Maeve? Raffaele softens toward her in empathy. He touches her arm once—the strings of energy around her shimmer, and he reaches for them, pulling on her powers, to soothe her. She glances at him with a raised eyebrow.
“You will see her,” Raffaele says. “I promise. I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”
Lucent relaxes a little at his touch. “I know.”
They reach a high stone entrance that opens out onto the vast grasslands behind the castle. A smattering of soldiers are training out in the yard. Lucent has to lead Raffaele in a wide arc around the dueling pairs until they leave the castle behind and enter the tall grass. They crest a small hill. Raffaele shivers in the wind, blinking through the snow flurries, and pulls his cloak tighter around his shoulders.
The other two Daggers finally come into view as they reach the top of the hill. Michel, the Architect, has traded in his Kenettran attire for thick Beldish furs that hide his neck from view. He talks in a low voice to the girl beside
him—Gemma, the Star Thief, still dressed stubbornly in her favorite Kenettran dress. Even she has a Beldish cloak draped over herself, though, and trembles in the cold. They both look up from their conversation to greet Lucent and Raffaele.
Gemma’s gaze lingers the longest. Raffaele knows that she is still hoping to hear word about her father, that maybe Raffaele will bring news. But Raffaele just shakes his head at her. Baron Salvatore is another former Dagger patron who has not answered their doves. Gemma’s face falls as she looks away.
Raffaele shifts his attention to the others in the clearing. Inside a circle of soldiers lining the edges are a handful of noblemen—princes, judging from their dark blue sleeves—and an enormous white tiger with stripes of gold. Its tail swishes lazily through the grass, and its eyes are narrowed into sleepy slits. Everyone’s attention is fixed on two dueling opponents in the center of the clearing. One is a prince with light blond hair and a frown on his face. He stabs forward with his sword.
His opponent is a young woman—a girl, even—with furs lining her cloak. A fierce smear of gold decorates one of her cheeks, and her hair, half black and half gold, is tied up into an elaborate series of braids that resemble the hackles running down an angry wolf’s back. She easily dodges the stab, flashes a grin at the prince, and swings her own sword to clash with his. The blade glints in the light.
Michel steps closer to Raffaele. “She is queen now,” he murmurs. “Her mother died several weeks ago. I accidentally
addressed her as Her Royal Highness—don’t do the same.”
Raffaele nods. “Thank you for the reminder.”
Her Majesty Queen Maeve of Beldain.
He frowns as she duels. There is an energy around her, the unusual threads that must belong to an Elite. No one had ever mentioned this about the Beldish princess—but the signs are all there, glittering in a sheet of moving strings around her.
Does she even know?
Why would she keep such a thing secret?
Raffaele’s attention then shifts to one of the princes watching. The youngest one. His frown deepens. There is an energy about this one too. But it is not like an Elite’s energy, threads of vigor, of the world that is
. He blinks, confused. When he reaches out to touch this strange force, his own strength immediately recoils, as if burned by something cold as ice.
The clash of swords brings him back to watching the duel. Maeve swings again and again at her older brother. She pushes him to the edge of their circle, where the soldiers stand guard—and then, all of a sudden, her brother starts striking back viciously, forcing her into the center again. Raffaele watches them closely. Even though the prince is taller than Maeve by a good foot, she doesn’t seem intimidated. Instead, she calls out a taunt as she pushes against his blade, laughs again, and spins. She tries to catch her brother off guard, but he sees her move first. He suddenly crouches down, aiming for her legs. She catches her mistake too late—and falls.
The prince stands over her, his sword pointing at her chest. He shakes his head. “Better,” he says. “But you still strike too eagerly before you can tell exactly where my
attack will go.” He gestures to his arm, then makes a slow, swinging motion. “See this? This is what you didn’t catch. Look for the angle before you choose to strike.”
“She caught it, Augustine,” one of the other princes chimes in. He winks at Maeve. “She just didn’t react fast enough.”
“I would’ve reacted fast enough to dodge
attacks,” Maeve calls backward, pointing her sword at her second brother. Several of the other princes chuckle at her answer. “And you’d be limping home by nightfall.” She sheathes her sword, walks over to rub the tiger behind his ears, and nods at Augustine. “I’ll do better, I promise. Let’s practice again in the afternoon.”
Raffaele looks on as the prince gives his little sister a smile and a bow. “As you wish,” he replies.
Then, at her brothers’ gesturing, she turns her attention to the Daggers. Michel and Gemma kneel immediately. Her eyes fall first on Lucent—a flash of recognition darts across her face—and her lighthearted mood instantly transforms into something serious. She says nothing. Instead, she waits while Lucent kneels and bows her head, her curls tumbling forward. Maeve watches her for a moment longer. Then her piercing stare darts to Raffaele, and he lowers his lashes. He follows Lucent’s lead.
“Your Majesty,” he says.
She leans one hand on her sword’s hilt. Her cheeks are still flushed with excitement. “Look at me,” she commands. When he does, she continues, “Are you Raffaele Laurent Bessette? The Messenger?”
“I am, Your Majesty.”
Maeve regards him for a moment. She seems to study the summer green of his left eye, then the honey gold of his right. Her teeth flash at him in a wild smile. “You’re as beautiful as they say. A lovely name, for a lovely face.”
Raffaele lets himself blush, tilting his head in the familiar, subtle way he always did to his clients. “You honor me, Your Majesty. I’m flattered that my reputation has traveled as far as Beldain.”
Maeve watches him thoughtfully. “You were Prince Enzo’s most trusted adviser. He spoke very fondly of you. And now I see you have taken his place as the leader of the Daggers. Congratulations.”
Raffaele’s heartbeat quickens as he tries to ignore the familiar pang that Enzo’s name brings. “It is not something I celebrate,” he replies.
Maeve’s eyes soften for a moment, perhaps in remembrance of her own mother’s death. There seems to be something else about Enzo’s death that intrigues her, a fleeting emotion that Raffaele senses in her heart, but she decides against mentioning it, leaving him to wonder. “Of course not,” she says in the end.
Augustine whispers something in her ear. The young queen leans toward him—and although she focuses her attention on Raffaele, he can tell by the shift of her energy that she really
to pay attention to Lucent. “Prince Enzo’s death is not in my favor, as I’d hoped he would open trade between Kenettra and Beldain. Nor is it in your favor,
Messenger, because he has left you leaderless. But the king, too, has died. Giulietta rules in his place now, you say, and new
refugees arrive in my country every day.”
“You are kind for taking us in, Your Majesty.”
“Nonsense.” Maeve waves a hand impatiently, motioning for all of them to rise. When they do, she whistles for her horses. Her white tiger rises from his resting spot and saunters over to her side. “The gods created the blood fever, Raffaele,” she says as they all pull themselves into saddles, “and so they also created the marked and the Elite. It is blasphemy to kill the children of the gods.” She taps her horse’s hindquarters with her heels, then starts leading them up a higher hill. “I didn’t take you in out of kindness, though. Your Daggers are weakened now. Your leader is dead, and I hear rumors that one of your own turned her back on you, that she was working with the Inquisition. Your patrons have either given up and fled or have been captured and killed.”
“Except you,” Raffaele says. “Your Majesty.”
“Except me,” she agrees. “And I am still interested in Kenettra.”
Raffaele rides in silence as the young queen guides them along the side of a sharp cliff, waves crashing against the rocks far below. “What have you sent us here for?” he asks.
“Let me show you something.” Maeve leads them along the edge for a while, until they reach an area where the land curves in on itself, forming a shelter from the wild winds. Here, they ride up so close that Raffaele can see the entire bay.
The sight below is astonishing. Behind him, Lucent sucks in her breath.
Hundreds of Beldish warships dot the beaches of the bay. Sailors bustle up and down gangplanks to the decks, loading crates on board. The ships stretch far down and out along where the cliffs trail off into the distance.
Raffaele turns to Maeve. “You’re planning to invade Kenettra?”
“If I can’t have your
crown prince sitting on the throne, then I will do it myself.” Maeve pauses, studying Raffaele’s face for his reaction. “But I’d like your help.”
Raffaele just sits quietly. The last time Beldain went to war with Kenettra was over a hundred years ago. If Enzo could see all this, what would he think? Handing over his crown to a foreign queen?
It doesn’t matter,
he reminds himself harshly.
Because Enzo is dead.