The Midnight StarMarie Lu
Also by Marie Lu
THE YOUNG ELITES
THE ROSE SOCIETY
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Copyright © 2016 by Xiwei Lu.
Map illustration copyright © 2014 by Russell R. Charpentier.
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Ebook ISBN 9780698174191
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To those who, in spite of everything, still choose goodness
Also by Marie Lu
Tarannen, Dumor, The Sealands Adelina Amouteru
Raffaele Laurent Bessette
Maeve Jacqueline Kelly Corrigan
Raffaele Laurent Bessette
Raffaele Laurent Bessette
Maeve Jacqueline Kelly Corrigan
Raffaele Laurent Bessette
I saw her, once.
“She passed through our village, through fields littered with dead soldiers after her forces overwhelmed the nation of Dumor. Her other Elites followed and then rows of white-robed Inquisitors, wielding the white-and-silver banners of the White Wolf. Where they went, the sky dimmed and the ground cracked—the clouds gathered behind the army as if a creature alive, black and churning in fury. As if the goddess of Death herself had come.
“She paused to look down at one of our dying soldiers. He trembled on the ground, but his eyes stayed on her. He spat something at her. She only stared back at him. I don’t know what he saw in her expression, but his muscles tightened, his legs pushing against the dirt as he tried in vain to get away from her. Then the man started to scream. It is a sound I shall never forget as long as I live. She nodded to her Rainmaker, and he descended from his horse to plunge a sword through the dying soldier. Her face did not change at all. She simply rode on.
“I never saw her again. But even now, as an old man, I remember her as clearly as if she were standing before me. She was ice personified. There was once a time when darkness shrouded the world, and the darkness had a queen.”
—A witness’s account of Queen Adelina’s siege
on the nation of Dumor
The Village of Pon-de-Terre
28 Marzien, 1402
Moritas was sealed in the Underworld by the other gods. But Amare, the god of Love, took pity on the young, dark-hearted goddess. He brought her gifts from the living world, rays of sunshine bundled in baskets, fresh rain in glass jars. Amare fell in love—as he was frequently wont to do—with Moritas, and his visits resulted in the births of Formidite and Caldora.
—An Exploration of Ancient and Modern Myths, by Mordove Senia
I have had the same nightmare for the past month. Every night, without fail.
I am asleep in my royal chambers at the Estenzian palace when a creaking sound wakes me. I sit up in bed and look around. Rain lashes the windowpanes. Violetta sleeps next to me, having crept into my chambers at the sound of the thunder, and under the blankets, her body is curled close at my side. I hear the creaking again. The door of my room is slightly ajar and slowly opening. Beyond it is something horrifying, a darkness full of claws and fangs, something I never see but always know is there. The silks I’m wearing turn unbearably cold, as if I am neck deep in a winter sea, and I cannot stop myself from trembling. I shake Violetta, but she does not stir.
Then I jump out of bed and rush to close the door, but I can’t—whatever is on the other side is too strong. I turn to my sister.
“Help me!” I call to her desperately. She still does not move, and I realize that she is not asleep, but dead.
I startle awake, in the same bed and same chambers, with Violetta sleeping beside me. Just a nightmare, I tell myself. I lie there for a moment, trembling. Then I hear that creaking sound, and I see the door is starting to open once more. Again, I jump out of bed and rush to close it, shouting for Violetta. Again, I realize that my sister is dead. Again, I will bolt awake in bed and see the door opening.
I will wake a hundred times, lost in the madness of this nightmare, until the sunlight streaming through my windows finally burns the scene away. Even then, hours later, I cannot be sure I am not still in my dream.
I am afraid that, one night, I will never wake. I will be doomed to rush to that door over and over again, running from a nightmare in which I am always, forever, lost.
A year ago, it would have been my sister, Violetta, riding at my side. Today, it is Sergio and my Inquisition. They are the same white-robed, ruthless army that Kenettra’s always known—except, of course, they now serve me. When I glance back at them, all I see is a river of white, their pristine cloaks contrasted against the somber sky. I turn around in my saddle and return to gazing at the burned houses that go by as we ride.
I look different from when I first took the throne. My hair has grown long again, silver as a sheet of shifting metal, and I no longer wear a mask or an illusion to hide the scarred side of my face. Instead, my hair is pulled back in a braided bun, jewels woven into the locks. My long, dark cape billows behind me and down my horse’s quarters. My face is fully exposed.
I want the people of Dumor to see their new queen.
Finally, as we pass through an abandoned temple square, I find who I’m looking for. Magiano had initially left me and the rest of my Kenettran troops right after we entered the city of Tarannen, no doubt wandered off somewhere in search of leftover treasures from homes abandoned by fleeing citizens. It’s a habit he picked up soon after I became queen, when I first turn
ed my sights on the states and nations around Kenettra.
As we approach, he rides through the empty square and slows his horse to a trot beside me. Sergio shoots him an annoyed look, although he says nothing. Magiano just winks back. His mess of long braids is tied high on his head today, his menagerie of mismatched robes replaced with a gold breastplate and heavy cloak. His armor is ornate, dotted with gemstones, and if one didn’t know better, one would assume at first glance that he was the ruler here. The pupils of his eyes are slitted, and his expression is lazy under the midday sun. An assortment of musical instruments is looped across his shoulders. Heavy bags clink at his horse’s flanks.
“You are all looking magnificent this morning!” he calls out cheerfully to my Inquisitors. They just bow their heads at his arrival. Everyone knows that openly showing any disrespect for Magiano means instant death at my hands.
I raise an eyebrow. “Treasure hunting?” I say.
He gives me a teasing nod. “It took me all morning to cover one district of this city,” he replies, his voice nonchalant, his fingers floating absently across the strings of a lute strapped in front of him. Even this small gesture sounds like a perfect chord. “We’d have to stay here for weeks for me to collect all of the valuables left behind. Just look at this. Never saw anything this finely crafted in Merroutas, have you?”
He edges his horse closer. Now I see, wrapped in cloth in the front of his saddle, bunches of plants. Yellow thistle. Blue daisies. A small, twisted blackroot. I recognize the plants immediately, and suppress a small smile. Without saying a word, I untie my canteen from the side of my saddle and hand it to Magiano so that the others don’t see. Only Sergio notices, but he just looks away and guzzles water from his own bottle. Sergio has been complaining of thirst for weeks now.
“You slept poorly last night,” Magiano murmurs as he gets to work, crushing the plants and mixing them into my water.
I had been careful this morning to weave an illusion over the dark circles under my eyes. But Magiano can always tell when I’ve had my nightmares. “I’ll sleep better tonight, after this.” I motion at the drink he’s preparing for me.
“I found some blackroot,” he says, handing my canteen back to me. “It grows like a weed here in Dumor. You should take another tonight, if you want to keep the . . . well, them at bay.”
The voices. I hear them constantly now. Their chittering sounds like a cloud of noise right behind my ears, always present, never silent. They whisper at me when I wake in the morning and when I go to bed. Sometimes they speak nonsense. Other times, they tell me violent stories. Right now, they’re mocking me.
How sweet, they sneer as Magiano pulls his horse slightly away and goes back to plucking at his lute. He doesn’t like us very much, does he? Always trying to keep us away from you. But you don’t want us to leave, do you, Adelina? We are a part of you, birthed in your mind. And why would such a sweet boy love you, anyway? Don’t you see? He’s trying to change who you are. Just like your sister.
Do you even remember her?
I grit my teeth and take a drink of my tonic. The herbs are bitter on my tongue, but I welcome the taste. I’m supposed to look the part of an invading queen today. I can’t afford to have my illusions spinning out of control in front of my new subjects. Immediately, I feel the herbs working—the voices are muffled, as if they have been pushed farther back—and the rest of the world comes into sharper focus.
Magiano strums another chord. “I’ve been thinking, mi Adelinetta,” he continues in his usual, lighthearted manner, “that I’ve collected far too many lutes and trinkets and these delightful little sapphire coins.” He pauses to turn around in his saddle and digs some gold from one of his heavy new satchels. He holds out a few coins with tiny blue jewels embedded in their centers, each one equivalent to ten gold Kenettran talents.
I laugh at him, and behind us, several Inquisitors stir in surprise at the sound. Only Magiano can coax joy out of me so easily. “What’s this? The great prince of thieves is suddenly overwhelmed by too much wealth?”
He shrugs. “What am I going to do with fifty lutes and ten thousand sapphire coins? If I wear any more gold, I’ll fall off my horse.”
Then his voice quiets a little. “I was thinking you could dole it out to your new citizens instead. It doesn’t have to be much. A few sapphire coins each, some handfuls of gold from your coffers. They’re overflowing as it is, especially after Merroutas fell to you.”
My good mood instantly sours, and the voices in my head start up. He’s telling you to buy the loyalty of your new citizens. Love can be purchased, didn’t you know that? After all, you bought Magiano’s love. It is the only reason why he’s still here with you. Isn’t it?
I take another swig from my canteen, and the voices fade a little again. “You want me to show these Dumorians some kindness.”
“I think it could reduce the frequency of attacks on you, yes.” Magiano stops playing his lute. “There was the assassin in Merroutas. Then we saw the beginning of that rebel group—the Saccorists, wasn’t it?—when your forces set foot in Domacca.”
“They never got within a league of me.”
“Still, they killed several of your Inquisitors in the middle of the night, burned down your tents, stole your weapons. And you never found them. What about the incident in northern Tamoura, after you secured that territory?”
“Which incident did you have in mind?” I say, my voice growing clipped and cold. “The intruder waiting in my tents? The explosion on board my ship? The dead marked boy left outside our camps?”
“Those too,” Magiano replies, waving his hand in the air. “But I was thinking about when you ignored the letters from the Tamouran royals, the Golden Triad. They offered you a truce, mi Adelinetta. Their northern strip of terrain in exchange for releasing their prisoners and the return of the farmlands near their only major river. They offered you a very generous trade deal. And you sent their ambassador back bearing your crest dipped in the blood of their fallen soldiers.” He gave me a pointed look. “I seem to remember suggesting something subtler.”
I shake my head. We already argued about this, when I initially arrived in Tamoura, and I’m not about to debate it again. “I’m not here to make friends. Our forces successfully conquered their northern territories regardless of their deals. And I will take the rest of Tamoura next.”
“Yes—at the cost of a third of your army. What will happen when you try to seize what remains of Tamoura? When the Beldish strike at you again? Queen Maeve is watching you, I’m sure.” He takes a deep breath. “Adelina, you’re Queen of the Sealands now. You’ve annexed Domacca and northern Tamoura in the Sunlands. At some point, your goal should be not to conquer more territories but to keep order in the territories you do have. And you won’t achieve that by ordering your Inquisitors to drag unmarked civilians out into the streets and brand them with a hot iron.”
“You think me cruel.”
“No.” Magiano hesitates for a long moment. “Maybe a little.”
“I’m not branding them because I am cruel,” I say calmly. “I’m doing it as a reminder of what they’ve done to us. To the marked. You’re so quick to forget.”
“I never forget,” Magiano replies. This time, there is a slight sharpness to his tone. His hand hovers near his side, where his childhood wound continues to plague him. “But branding the unmarked with your crest will not make them any more loyal to you.”
“It makes them fear me.”
“Fear works best with some love,” Magiano says. “Show them that you can be terrifying, yet generous.” The gold bands in his braids clink. “Let the people love you a little, mi Adelinetta.”
My first reaction is bitterness. Always love with this insufferable thief. I must appear strong in order to control my army, and the thought of handing out gold to the people who once burned the marked at the stake disgusts me.
But Magiano does have a point.
On my other side, Sergio, my Rainmaker, rides on without comment. The color of his skin looks pallid, and he seems like he still hasn’t fully recovered from the chill he’d taken several weeks ago. But other than his silence and the way he wraps his cloak around his shoulders even in this mild weather, he tries not to show it.
I turn away from Magiano and say nothing. He looks ahead too, but a smile plays at the corners of his lips. He can tell that I’m considering his suggestion. How does he read my thoughts so well? It irritates me even more. I’m at least grateful to him for not mentioning Violetta, for not confirming out loud that part of why I am sending my Inquisitors to force the unmarked into the streets. He knows it is because I am searching. Searching for her.
Why do you still want to find her? The whispers taunt me. Why? Why?
It’s a question they ask over and over again. And my answer is always the same. Because I decide when she can leave. Not her.
But no matter how many times I answer the whispers, they keep asking, because they don’t believe me.
We’ve reached the inner districts of Tarannen now, and although it looks deserted, Sergio’s eyes stay focused on the buildings surrounding the main square. Lately, the insurgents known as the Saccorists—taken from the Domaccan word for anarchy—have attacked our troops on several occasions. It has left Sergio searching constantly for the hidden rebels.
A tall archway leads into the main square, its stones engraved with an elaborate chain of the moons and their various shapes, their waxes and wanes. I pass under it with Sergio and Magiano, then pause before a sea of Dumorian captives. My horse stamps the ground in impatience. I sit straighter and lift my chin, refusing to show my exhaustion.
None of these Dumorians here are marked, of course. The ones in chains are those with no markings at all, the sort of people who used to throw rotten food at me and chant for my death. Now I lift a hand at Sergio and Magiano; they guide their stallions away from me to stand at either end of the square, facing the people.