Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult
“I do,” I reply.
Magiano lets out a short laugh, but I can tell he’s studying me seriously now. “Then please, Adelina, share it. You really think the entire Kenettran royal treasury can be yours?”
” I correct him. “If you join us, you would never need to scramble for gold again.”
He laughs again. “Now I know you’re lying to me.” He leans forward. “What—are you planning to cloak yourself in illusions and sneak into the treasury to take one armful of gold at a time? Do you know how many lifetimes that would take you, even if you made dozens of trips a night? And even if you
steal all that gold, how does one even begin to transport it out of the country? Out of Estenzia, even?” He
stands up on the beam, hops lightly to a spot where he can reach a higher beam, and starts to turn away.
“I never said anything about
it,” I call out.
He pauses, then turns to face me. “Then how do you plan to take it all, my love?”
I smile. A memory burns through my mind: the cold, rainy night; my father talking to the stranger downstairs; I’m sitting along the stairs, pretending from my perch that I am a queen on a balcony. I blink. The power of that desire rushes through me like a wild wind. “Simple. We take away the throne from Queen Giulietta and the Inquisition Axis. Then the Kenettran royal treasury becomes ours by right.”
Magiano blinks. Then he starts to laugh. The laughter grows louder, until his eyes shine with tears, until he finally stops to let himself catch a breath. When he composes himself, his eyes slit, glowing in the darkness. In the silence that follows, I press on. “If you join us, and we take the Queen of Kenettra’s throne, then
will have a ruler like themselves. We can stop Teren’s thirst for our blood. You can have more gold than you ever dreamed of. You can have a thousand diamond-encrusted lutes. You would be able to buy your own island and castle. You’d be remembered as a king.”
“I don’t want to be a king,” Magiano replies. “Too many responsibilities.” But his answer is halfhearted, and he doesn’t move.
He’s considering my plan.
“You don’t need to be responsible for anything,” I say. “Help me win the crown and save the country, and you can have everything you’ve ever desired.”
Another long silence drags on. His gaze wanders to my mask. “Take it off,” he mutters.
I hadn’t expected an answer like that. He’s buying himself some time to think, distracting me in the process. I shake my head. After all this time, the thought of showing a new stranger my greatest weakness still sends fear through me.
Magiano’s expression flickers, if only slightly, and some of the wildness seeps out of his eyes. Like he knows me. “Take off your mask,” he whispers. “I do not judge a
’s markings, Adelina, nor do I work with someone who hides her face from me.”
When Violetta nods, I reach up and fiddle with the knot behind my head. The mask loosens, then swings completely off to dangle in my hand. The cold air hits my scar. I force myself to stare steadily back at Magiano, bracing myself for his reaction. If I’m going to have my own Elites, they will need to trust me.
He steps closer and takes a long look. I can see the slashes of honey gold in his eyes. A slow, lazy smile starts to creep onto his face. He doesn’t ask about my marking. Instead, he lifts the lower corner of his silk shirt and bares part of his side.
I inhale sharply. A hideous scar snakes its way across his skin, then disappears up under his shirt. Our eyes meet, and a moment of understanding passes between us.
“Please,” I say, lowering my voice. “I don’t know what happened to you in your past, or what your full marking looks like. But if the promise of gold doesn’t entice you
enough, then think of the millions of other
in Kenettra, all of whom will die in the next few months if no one saves them. You are a thief, so perhaps you have your own code of honor. Is there a place in your heart where you would mourn for the deaths of all who are like us?”
Something about my words strikes Magiano, and his eyes take on a faraway look. He pauses and clears his throat.
“It’s just a rumor, you know,” he says after a moment. “The story about the queen’s crown jewels.”
“The crown jewels?”
“Yes.” He looks at me. “The Kenettran queen’s crown jewels. I never stole them. I
to—but couldn’t manage it.”
I watch him carefully. There is something shifting in the balance of our conversation. “Yet you still want them,” I reply.
“What can I say? It’s a weakness.”
“So, what will you do? Will you join us?”
He holds up a slender finger covered with gold rings. “How do I know that you’ll keep your promise, if I do help you get what you want?”
I shrug. “Are you going to spend the rest of your life stealing a handful of jewels at a time and running gambling stands in Merroutas?” I reply. “You said yourself, you wonder what you could have done if you’d known me earlier. Well, here’s your chance.”
Magiano smiles at me with something akin to pity. “The girl who would be queen,” he murmurs thoughtfully. “The gods play interesting games.”
“This is no game,” I say.
At last, he lifts his head and raises his voice. “I do owe you a life debt. And that’s something I never play games with.”
I stare silently at him, thinking back to the night before, when he’d originally met us to pass along his thanks for saving his
Magiano holds out a hand in my direction. “If you want to take on the Inquisition, you will need a whole host of people at your back. And if you want people at your back, you need to build a reputation. I don’t follow anyone until I’m convinced that they’re worth following.”
“What can we do to convince you?”
Magiano smiles. “Beat me in a race.”
“A little game between us,” he says. “I’ll even give you a head start.” His smile takes on a wicked tilt. “A man called the Night King rules this city. He has many soldiers, as well as a secret army of ten thousand mercenaries scattered throughout the island. You may have seen his men patrolling the streets, with moon-and-crown emblems on their sleeves.”
I fold my arms. “I have.”
“He is the most feared man in Merroutas. They say that every time he uncovers a traitor in his ranks, he skins that man alive and has the skin sewn into his cloak.”
As I imagine the scene, my skin prickles … not just from horror, but from fascination.
A kindred soul,
the whispers say. “What does that have to do with us?” I ask, raising my voice to drown out the whispers.
“Tomorrow morning, I am going to gain access to his estate to rob him of the prized diamond pin he always wears on his collar. If
can steal it before I can … then I will join you.” He gives me a mock bow that makes me blush. “I only work with the worthy. And I just want to make sure you understand the risks of this mission.”
Neither Violetta nor I am an expert thief. I can disguise us or make us invisible, but my powers are still imperfect. What if we are caught? I imagine us lashed to a pole, our skin stripped from our limbs.
It’s not worth it.
Magiano smiles at my expression. “You’re too afraid,” he says.
The whispers in my head stir, urging me on.
The Night King controls ten thousand mercenaries. What wouldn’t you give for ten thousand mercenaries at your service?
I shake my head—the whispers fade away, leaving me to ponder Magiano’s offer. This is one of his games. His famous tricks. Maybe even just a challenge for himself. I watch him carefully, searching for what the right answer should be. Can I actually get to the prize before Magiano runs away with it? I don’t know. Power and speed are two different things.
“I’m only giving you this chance, by the way,” Magiano says in a lighthearted tone, “because you helped me escape the Inquisition Tower.”
“How generous,” I quip.
Magiano just laughs again, a bright, tinkling sound, and extends a decorated hand. “A deal, then?”
I need him. I need my little army. Even Violetta touches my hand and nudges it toward him. So I only hesitate for one more second.
“A deal,” I reply, taking his hand.
“Good.” He nods. “Then you have my word.”
The outskirts of Estenzia, and a cool early morning. Along the wall that surrounds the city are dozens of dilapidated shelters of wood and stone, covered with mud from the evening rains.
wander between them.
Clusters of dirty white tents are scattered among the shelters. Inquisition guard points.
Teren Santoro lounges inside his personal tent on a long divan, looking on as Queen Giulietta dresses. His eyes wander up her back. She is exquisite today, as she is every day, wearing a brilliant blue riding dress with her dark locks piled high on her head. He watches as she carefully pins her curls back into place. Just moments ago, they had been loose, tumbling over her shoulders, brushing against his cheeks, soft as silk through his fingers.
“Are you running a full inspection of the
this morning?” she asks. They are the first words she has said to him since she came to his tent.
Teren nods. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“How are they doing?”
“Very well. Ever since we moved them outside the city, my men have put them to work in the fields and busied them with weaving. They’ve been very efficient—”
Giulietta turns so that he can see a profile of her face. She smiles at him. “No,” she interrupts. “I meant, how are they
Teren hesitates. “What do you mean?”
“When I rode through the tents this morning, I saw the
’ faces. They’re gaunt and hollow-eyed. Have your men been feeding them as much as they’ve been working them?”
He frowns, then pushes himself to a seated position. The morning light shows the pale maze of scars on his chest. “They’re fed enough to keep them working,” he replies. “And no more than that. I’d rather not waste food on
if I don’t have to.”
Giulietta leans toward him. One of her hands rests on his stomach, then runs up his chest to the hollow of his neck, leaving a trail of heat across his skin. Teren’s heart beats faster, and for a moment, he forgets what they were talking about. She brushes her lips past his. He leans into the kiss eagerly, bringing a hand up to the back of her slender neck, drawing her toward him.
Giulietta pulls away from him. Teren finds himself staring
into her deep, dark eyes. “Starving slaves don’t make good slaves, Master Santoro,” she whispers, stroking his hair. “You aren’t feeding them enough.”
Teren blinks. Of everything she should be concerned about, she is asking about the welfare of her slaves? “But,” he starts, “they’re expendable, Giulietta.”
“Are they, now?”
Teren takes a deep breath. Ever since Prince Enzo’s death in the arena, since Giulietta officially took the throne, she has been pushing back against his original plans. It is as if she had lost interest in what he thought was her hatred for
But he does not want to argue with his queen today. “We are cleansing the city of them. For every
that dies, we’ll simply replace him with another, brought over from a different city. My men are already rounding up
“We are not cleansing the city of them,” Giulietta replies. “We are
them for their abomination, for bringing misfortune down on us. These
still have families within the walls. And some of them are unhappy about what’s happening.” She nods in disdain at the tent flap. “The water in their troughs is filthy. It is only a matter of time before everyone in these camps falls ill. I want them to work themselves into submission, Teren. But I don’t want a
Giulietta’s eyes harden. “Feed and water them, Master Santoro,” she commands.
Teren shakes his head, ashamed to be arguing with the Queen of Kenettra—someone so much purer than he. He lowers his eyes and bows his head. “Of course, Your Majesty. You’re absolutely right.”
Giulietta smooths the folds at her wrists. “Good.”
“Will you see me tonight?” he murmurs as she rises from the divan.
Giulietta casts him a casual glance. “If I want to see you tonight, I’ll send someone to fetch you.” She turns away and leaves the tent. The flap slaps closed behind her.
Teren keeps his head bowed and lets her go. Of course he lets her go. She is the queen. But a sinking feeling weighs down his heart.
What if I upset her, and she finds someone new?
The thought sends pain through his chest. Teren pushes the image out of his head and rises to grab his shirt. He can’t stay here—he has to move, to go somewhere and think. He dresses in his layers of armor. Then he steps out of the tent and nods to the guard stationed outside. The guard nods back, pretending not to know what happened between Teren and his queen.
“Round up my captains,” Teren says. “I’ll be at the temple. Have them meet me outside, so we can discuss today’s inspections.”
The guard bows immediately. Teren can tell he’s too
afraid to stare into his pale blue irises for long. “Right away, sir.”
Temples to the gods are built against the wall at every mile, their entrances marked by looming stone pillars with wings carved against the ceiling. Teren heads for the nearest one on foot, ignoring the horse tied outside his tent. Mud splashes his white boots. When he reaches the temple, he makes his way up the steps and into the building’s cool recesses. The space is empty this early in the morning.
Inside, the twelve statues of the gods and angels line both sides of a straight marble path. Plates of jasmine-scented water sit at the path’s start. Teren removes his boots, dips his feet in the water, and walks along the path. He kneels in the center, surrounded by the gods’ eyes. The only sounds in the temple are the occasional clinking of chimes hung outside the temple’s doors.