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The Midnight Star, Page 2

Marie Lu

  My Inquisitors spread out too. Our captives shrink back at the sight of us all, their stares fixed hesitantly on me. It is so quiet that if I closed my eye, I could pretend that I am standing alone in this square. Still, I can feel the cloud of terror blanketing them, waves of their reluctance and uncertainty beating against my bones. The whispers in my head dart out like hungry snakes at scurrying mice, eager to feed on the fear.

  I nudge my stallion forward several steps. My gaze travels from the people up to the roofs of the square. Even now, I find myself searching instinctively for a sign of Enzo, crouched up there like he used to do. The pull between us, the tether that binds him to me and me to him, tenses, as if from somewhere over the seas he knows that Dumor has fallen to my army. Good. I hope he senses my triumph.

  My attention turns back to the captives. “People of Dumor”—my voice rings out across the square—“I am Queen Adelina Amouteru. I am your queen now.” My gaze goes from one person to the next. “You are all part of Kenettra and can consider yourselves Kenettran citizens. Be proud, for you belong to a nation that will soon rule all others. Our empire continues to grow, and you can grow along with it. From this day forth, you shall obey all laws of Kenettra. Calling a marked person a malfetto is punishable by death. Any abuse, harassment, or mistreatment of a marked person, for any reason, shall bring not only your own execution, but the execution of your entire family. Know this: The marked are marked by the hands of the gods. They are your masters and untouchable. In return for your loyalty, each of you will receive a gift of five Dumorian safftons and fifty gold Kenettran talents.”

  People murmur in mild surprise, and when I look to my side, I see Magiano glance at me in appreciation.

  Sergio jumps down from his horse and moves forward with a small team of his former mercenaries. They go through the crowd, picking out a person here and there, then drag them forward where Sergio forces them all to kneel before me. Fear washes over these chosen ones. As well it should.

  I peer down at them. As expected, all those chosen by Sergio and his team are strong, muscled men and women. They tremble, their heads lowered. “You have the chance to join my army,” I tell them. “If you do, you will train with my captains. You will ride with me to the Sunlands and the Skylands. You will be armed, fed, and clothed, and your families will be looked after.”

  To make my point, Magiano descends from his stallion and approaches them. At each one, he makes a show of digging into his bag and dropping heavy satchels of gold Kenettran talents in front of them. The people only stare. One of them grabs his satchel so frantically that the coins tumble out, glittering in the light.

  “If you refuse my offer, you and your family will be imprisoned.” My tone deepens. “I shall not tolerate potential rebels in my midst. Pledge your loyalty, and I will make sure that promise is worth your while.”

  From the corner of my eye, I see Sergio stir uneasily. His eyes turn to the perimeter of the square. I stiffen. I’ve become very good at knowing when Sergio senses danger. He mutters to several of his men, and they head off into the shadows, disappearing behind a door.

  “Do you pledge?” Magiano asks them.

  One by one, they answer without hesitation. I motion for them to rise, and a patrol of Inquisitors comes to lead them away. More able-bodied men and women are brought before me. We repeat the same ritual with them. Then, another group. An hour passes.

  Someone in one of the groups refuses to pledge. She spits at me, then calls me some name in Dumorian that I don’t understand. I turn my glare on her, but she doesn’t back down. Instead, she curls her lips. A defiant one.

  “You want us to fear you,” she growls at me, speaking now in accented Kenettran. “You think that you can come here and destroy our homes, kill our loved ones—then make us grovel at your feet. You think we will sell you our souls for a few coins.” She lifts her chin. “But I am not afraid of you.”

  “Is that so?” I tilt my head at her curiously. “You should be.”

  She challenges me with a smile. “You can’t even bring yourself to spill our blood.” She nods in the direction of Sergio, who has already started to draw his sword. “You have one of your lackeys do it for you. You’re a coward queen, hiding behind your army. But you cannot crush our spirits beneath your Roses’ heels—you cannot win.”

  At one time, I might have been intimidated by words like these. But now I just sigh. You see, Magiano? This is what happens when I show kindness. So while the woman continues her speech, I swing down from my stallion. Sergio and Magiano watch me in silence.

  The woman is still talking, even as I stop before her. “The day will come when we strike you down,” she’s saying. “Mark my words. We will haunt your nightmares.”

  I clench my fists and fling an illusion of pain across her body. “I am the nightmare.”

  The woman’s eyes bulge. She lets out a choked scream as she falls to the ground and claws at the dirt. Behind her, the entire crowd flinches in unison as eyes and heads turn away from the sight. The terror flowing from her feeds directly into me, and the voices in my head explode into shouts, filling my ears with their delight. Perfect. Keep going. Let the pain force her heart to beat so rapidly that it bursts. So I listen. My fists clench tighter—I think back to the night when I’d taken my first life, when I’d stood over Dante’s body. The woman convulses, her eyes flickering about wildly, seeing monsters that are not there. Crimson drops fly from her lips. I take a step back so that her blood doesn’t reach the hem of my dress.

  At last, the woman freezes, falling unconscious.

  I calmly turn back to the rest of our captives, who have become as still as statues. I could slice their terror with my knife. “Anyone else?” My voice echoes in the square. “No?” The silence lingers.

  I lean down. The bag of coins that Magiano had originally thrown at the woman’s feet now lies untouched next to her body. I pick the bag up delicately with two fingers. Then I walk back to my stallion and swing up into the saddle.

  “As you can see, I keep my word,” I call to the rest of the crowd. “Do not take advantage of my generosity, and I will not take advantage of your weakness.” I toss the woman’s satchel of coins to the closest Inquisitor. “Chain her up. And track down her family.”

  My soldiers drag the woman away, and a new group is brought before me. This time, they each accept their gold quietly and bow their heads to me, and I nod my acceptance in return. The procedure continues without incident. If I’ve learned anything from my past and my present, it’s the power of fear. You can give your subjects all the generosity in the world, and still they will demand more. But those who are afraid don’t fight back. I know this well enough.

  The sun rises higher, and two more groups pledge their loyalty to my army.

  Suddenly, a sharp object glints in the light. My gaze darts up. A blade, a needlelike weapon, hurled from the roofs. On instinct, I pull on my energy and whip an illusion of invisibility around myself. But I do not react quickly enough. A dagger flies right past my arm, slicing deep through my flesh. My body lurches back at the impact, and my invisibility flickers out.

  Shouts from the captives, then the sound of a hundred swords scraping against sheaths as my Inquisitors draw their weapons. Magiano is at my side before I can even sense his presence. He reaches for me as I sway in my seat, but I wave him away. “No,” I manage to gasp out. I can’t afford for these Dumorians to see me bleed. It’s all they need to rise up.

  I wait for more arrows and daggers to rain from the roofs—but they don’t. Instead, in the far corner of the square, Sergio and his men reappear. They drag four, five people between them. Saccorists. They’re dressed in clothing the color of sand to blend in with the walls.

  My anger rises again, and the pain in my bleeding arm only fuels my energy. I don’t wait for Sergio to bring them to me. I just lash out. I reach for the sky, weaving, using the fear in
the crowd and the strength inside myself. The sky turns a strange, deep blue, then red. The people shrink away, screaming. Then I reach out for the rebels and send an illusion of suffocation around them. They hunch forward in the grips of Sergio’s men, then arch their backs as they sense the air being pulled straight out of their lungs. I grit my teeth and strengthen the illusion.

  The air is not air at all, but water. You are drowning in the middle of this square, and there is no surface for you to breach.

  Sergio releases them. They fall to their knees, struggling to breathe, and thrash on the ground. I expand my illusion, reaching out for the rest of the captives in the square. Then I lash out with all of my power.

  A net of pain blankets all of the captives still sitting on the ground. They shriek all at once, clawing at their skin as if hot pokers were burning them, yanking at their hair as if ants were crawling through the strands, biting at their scalps. I watch them suffer, letting my own pain become theirs, until I finally wave the illusion away.

  Sobs wrack the crowd. I don’t dare reach up to clutch my own bleeding arm—instead, I focus my hard stare on the people. “There,” I say. “You have seen it for yourselves. I will tolerate nothing less than your loyalty.” My heart pounds in my chest. “Betray me, or any of my own, and I will make sure you beg for your death.”

  I nod for my troops to come forward and round up the crying rebels. Only then, with the Inquisitors’ white robes swirling around me, do I turn my stallion and ride out of the square. My Roses follow. When I’m finally out of sight, I let my shoulders droop and descend from my mount.

  Magiano catches me and I lean against his chest. “Back to the tents,” he murmurs as he puts an arm around me. His expression is tense, full of an understanding that goes unspoken. “You need to have that wound sewn up.”

  I lean against him, drained after the sudden blood loss and whirlwind of illusions. Another assassination attempt. Someday, I may not be so lucky. The next time we enter a conquered city, they may ambush me before any of my Roses can react fast enough. I am not Teren—my illusions cannot protect me from the cut of a blade.

  I will need to root out these insurgents before they can become a real threat. I will need to make a harsher example of their deaths. I will need to be more ruthless.

  This is my life now.

  Raffaele Laurent Bessette

  The sound of the surf outside reminds Raffaele of stormy nights at the Estenzian harbor. Here in the Sunland nation of Tamoura, though, there are no canals, no gondolas that have drifted away from their moorings to bob alongside the stone walls. There is only a beach of red and gold sand, and land dotted with low shrubs and sparse trees. High on a hill, a sprawling palace overlooks the ocean, its silhouette black in the night, its famous entrance illuminated by the glow of lanterns.

  Tonight, a warm early spring breeze comes in through the windows of one of the palace apartments, and the candles burn low. Enzo Valenciano sits on a gilded chair, his figure hunched over, his arms resting on his knees. Waves of his dark hair fall over his face, and his jaw is clenched tight. His eyes stay shut in pain, his cheeks moist with tears.

  Raffaele kneels before him, carefully undoing the white cloth bandages that run all the way up to the prince’s elbows. The smell of burned flesh and cloyingly sweet ointment fills the room. Every time Raffaele pulls the bandage from a segment of Enzo’s arm, tugging on the wounded skin as it goes, Enzo’s jaw tightens. His shirt hangs loose, slick with sweat. Raffaele winds the bandages in a roll. He can sense the agony hovering over the prince, and the feeling scalds his own heart as surely as if he were wounded himself.

  Underneath the bandages, Enzo’s arms are a mass of burns that never seem to heal. The original scars and wounds that had always covered the prince’s hands have now spread upward, aggravated by his spectacular display during the battle against Adelina in the Estenzian harbor. Destroying almost all of Queen Maeve’s Beldish navy with fire has taken its toll.

  A piece of skin tears away with the bandages. Enzo utters a soft groan.

  Raffaele flinches at the sight of the charred flesh. “Do you want to rest for a moment?” he asks.

  “No,” Enzo replies through clenched teeth.

  Raffaele obeys. Slowly, painstakingly, he removes the last of the bandages from Enzo’s right arm. Both of the prince’s arms are now exposed.

  Raffaele lets out a sigh, then reaches for the bowl of cool, clean water sitting beside him. He places the bowl in Enzo’s lap. “Here,” he says. “Soak.”

  Enzo eases his arms into the cool water. He slowly exhales. They sit in silence for a while, letting the minutes drag on. Raffaele watches Enzo closely. Day by day, the prince has grown more withdrawn, his eyes turned frequently and longingly to the sea. There is a new energy in the air that Raffaele cannot quite put his finger on.

  “You still feel her pull?” Raffaele asks at last.

  Enzo nods. He turns instinctively toward the window again, in the direction of the ocean. Another long moment passes before he answers. “Some days, it is quiet,” he says. “Not tonight.”

  Raffaele waits for him to continue, but Enzo falls back into his deep silence again, his attention still on the ocean outside. Raffaele wonders whom Enzo is thinking about. It is not Adelina, but a girl long gone, from a happier time in his past.

  After a while, Raffaele takes the bowl of water away and gently dabs Enzo’s arms dry, then applies a layer of ointment to the burned skin. It is an old salve that Raffaele used to request back at the Fortunata Court, when Enzo would visit him at night to have his hands bandaged. Now the court is gone. Queen Maeve has returned to Beldain to lick her wounds and restore her navy. And the Daggers have come here, to Tamoura—what is left of Tamoura, at any rate. Adelina’s Inquisitors dot the hills in northern Tamoura, holding strong.

  “Any news of Adelina?” Enzo asks as Raffaele reaches for a fresh set of bandages.

  “Dumor’s capital has fallen to her army,” Raffaele replies. “She rules all of the Sealands now.”

  Enzo looks back to the sea, as if searching again for the eternal pull between him and the White Wolf, and his gaze seems very far away. “It won’t be long before her attention returns here, to the rest of Tamoura,” he says at last.

  “I wouldn’t be surprised if her ships show up next at our borders,” Raffaele agrees.

  “Will the Golden Triad meet us tomorrow?”

  “Yes.” Raffaele glances up at the prince. “The Tamouran royals say their army is still weakened from Adelina’s last siege. They want to try negotiating with her again.”

  Enzo gingerly moves the fingers of his left hand, then winces. “And what do you think of it?”

  “It will be a waste of time.” Raffaele shakes his head. “Adelina turned down their last attempt without a moment’s hesitation. There’s nothing to barter—what can the royals offer her that she cannot simply take by force?”

  Silence falls over them again, perhaps the only answer to Raffaele’s question. As Raffaele continues to wrap Enzo’s arms in fresh bandages, he tries to ignore the waves outside. The sound of the sea beyond the window. A pair of candles burning bright in the darkness. A knock on the door.

  The memory comes unbidden and unrelenting, breaking through the walls Raffaele has put around his heart since Enzo’s death and resurrection. He is no longer tending to the prince’s wounds but standing, waiting, frightened in his bedchamber at the Fortunata Court years ago, looking out at a sea of masked people.

  It seemed as if the entire city had turned out for Raffaele’s debut. Noblemen and noblewomen, their robes of Tamouran silks and Kenettran lace, fanned out across the room, their faces all partially hidden behind colorful half masks, their laughter mingling with the sounds of clinking glass and shuffling slippers. Other consorts moved amongst them, silent and graceful, serving drinks and dishes of iced grapes.

  Raffaele st
ood in the center of the room, a demure youth dressed and groomed to the height of perfection, his hair a curtain of dark satin, his gold-and-white robes flowing, black powder lining the rims of his jewel-toned eyes, staring out at a sea of curious bidders. He remembers how his hands trembled, how he’d pressed one against the other to steady them. He had been trained in the types of expressions to allow on his face, a thousand different subtleties of the lips and brows and cheeks and eyes, regardless of whether they reflected his actual emotions. So, in this moment, his expression had been one of serene calm, of shy allure and gentle joy, silent as snow, absent of his fear.

  Now and then, the energy seemed to shift in the room. Raffaele turned his head mechanically in its direction, unsure of what he was sensing. He thought at first that perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him—until he realized that the energy focused on a young stranger gliding between the crowds. Raffaele’s eyes followed him, mesmerized by the power that seemed to travel in his wake.

  The bidding started high and spiraled higher. It soared until Raffaele could no longer make out the numbers, the sights and sounds around him beginning to blur. Other consorts whispered to one another in the audience. He had never heard such amounts tossed back and forth at an auction before, and the strangeness of it all made his heart pound faster, his hands shake harder. At this rate, he could never live up to the winner’s payment.

  And then, as the bidding began to trickle down to a few—a young manservant hidden in the crowd doubled the highest offer.

  Raffaele’s calm expression wavered for the first time as murmurs rippled through the room. The madam called again for an offer to top it, but none did. Raffaele stood in the silence, willing himself to remain still as the manservant won the auction.