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First 3 Chapters - Wicked Academia: Lost Stars

Wicked Academia

The Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars Book 1

By Jasmine Jenkins and Sophie Suliman

Author’s Note: Please be aware Wicked Academia is a new adult fantasy and contains mature themes. It is intended for audiences 18 years and over.

Content Warnings

Parental death (flashback), graphic violence, explicit sexual scenes, blood, murder

1 - In Which Vivian Gets a Very Peculiar Customer

Vivian Greywick wished she could fly. But in the land of Thraina, wishes weren’t granted from falling stars. They were granted by those who caught them. And Vivian knew better than to place her wishes in a Starling’s hand.

So, she couldn’t fly over the massive crowd blocking her path. Couldn’t even wish for it. She was going to be so late and in so much trouble.

“Excuse me!” Her words were lost to the noise of the streets. If only she’d left the apartment when Marion had. Her sister, younger by several minutes, had no difficulty pushing her way through a throng.

The sun had barely risen, golden rays cresting between the tall turrets of the castle, melting the frost on the town’s roofs and windowsills. Already the warmth of summer had faded, and autumn had fully encapsulated Wolfhelm. The morning cold prickled her cheeks and ungloved hands.

The crowd was meandering, looking into foggy shoppe windows, pausing at every statue, marveling at the blue and gold flags strung between houses. There were so many visitors from out of town, all here for Unification Day. All here to catch a glimpse of the Prince.

Her sister Marion said festivals were self-indulgent nonsense. Vivian wouldn’t go that far, but they certainly were a nuisance. It really was all Prince Darius’s fault for having Unification Day in the first place.

And all these visitors were potential customers; another reason Mrs. Meryladon wouldn’t tolerate her being so late. Vivian dodged horses, carriages, and people alike, her worn boots slipping over the slick cobblestone. As she ran, she swept her chestnut hair up on her head with a blue ribbon.

She turned the last corner. Lanterns shone halos through the lingering mist. There was the Wondrous Wick, the candle shoppe in which she worked. They did not sell the dull candles that provided light in the dark, or the strange narrow kind alchemists melted over their creations. These candles were purely for smelling, or as Vivian liked to think of it, to escape. To capture a whiff of the sea or feel the chill of a crisp autumn day. Shoppers bought these to relive their most fantastic memories with absolutely no magic at all—because, for an ordinary person, magic was forbidden.

And today everyone seemed to want a bit of that magic. A line curved around the shoppe.

“No, no, no.” Vivian pushed through the crowd, mud splashing up her hem as she didn’t bother dodging the puddles.

Orange buttery light spilled onto the damp cobblestone from inside the shoppe. Silhouettes shifted within. So busy already. Maybe I can slip in and avoid Mrs. Meryladon…

Darkness crept along the path beside her, and she skidded to a stop in front of the shoppe door. An enormous shadow slithered over the buildings, causing street lanterns to bloom as if it were night. Her heart beat wildly in her chest. Gasps of awe sounded from the crowd, townsfolk straining their necks to look up.

A curtain of clouds split and out soared a floating island, so great it eclipsed the rising sun as it sailed across the grey-blue sky.

She could only see the bottom: jagged brown rocks, like the tip of an upside-down mountain. Waterfalls cascaded off and disappeared into the mist surrounding the massive island. Through the clouds, Vivian swore she caught a gleam of white towers.

The floating Isle of Argos.

Upon which lay an enchanted forest, the Glass Cathedral, the Pond of Galaxies, and… “The Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars.” Vivian heard herself whisper the name along with the rest of the swelling crowd, who rejoiced as the school floated above.

“Are the Starlings looking down on us?” the people wondered, laughing and clapping. Already the sky was full of hot air balloons and sky skiffs as students flew down to Wolfhelm for the Unification Day Festival. Students who had swallowed a falling star, who had discovered their magic.

But Vivian could not smile. Her father’s voice roared in her head: “Get inside. Never let its shadow touch you.” Though her heart still beat with the same fear, she couldn’t make herself move.

This was as close as she would ever be—to the clouds, to the school, to the stars themselves.

Something hard hit her in the back, and she stumbled, smacking into a customer exiting the shoppe. There was a clatter and a smash. Vivian looked up to see the distraught face of a woman, a child wrapped in her arms, and a candle shattered on the ground. The child started to cry.

“I’m so sorr—”

Mrs. Meryladon herself stalked out of the candle shoppe at the sound. She may have been pretty if not for the twisted scowl, and her permanently squinted eyes from counting every verdallion.

“Greywick! There you are, and late as usual.” Mrs. Meryladon’s bird-like gaze swept from the broken candle to the crying child, up to the Isle of Argos, floating beyond the horizon.

“I was on my way in,” Vivian tried to explain, “but the crowd, and the school, and I–”

“Always with your head in the clouds.” She smacked Vivian on the back of her skull. “You should have saved me the grief and gone up with the rest of those hopefuls earlier this moon. That magic would have burned you from the inside out, and I’d have hired a decent worker to replace you.”

“I-I’m…” Vivian stuttered. “I didn’t mean—”

Mrs. Meryladon narrowed her eyes even more. “This is your last chance, Greywick. See if anyone else will hire a moon-headed spinster like you.”

Vivian wanted to protest she should hardly be considered a spinster at nineteen, but she was shaking, and tears threatened to fall. Mrs. Meryladon had yelled at her before, but never in front of such a crowd. She deserved it, always being so late, for spending more time daydreaming than dusting…

“Clean this up, girl.” Mrs. Meryladon shoved a broom and dustpan into her hands, and turned to the customer, voice dripping in remorse. “Now, let’s get you a new candle. My clumsy worker will pay for the replacement.”

Vivian’s heart tightened. Candles were a luxury. Compensating for one would mean another night her siblings went hungry. She wanted to fight her case, tell Mrs. Meryladon it wasn’t fair. But what was the point? She dropped to her knees, broom in hand.

“Excuse me,” a deep voice said, and suddenly there were shining black boots in front of her. “Let me pay for the candle. It was my party that knocked the girl.”

Vivian’s face burned; she didn’t need some stranger’s pity. She already got enough of that from her siblings.

Mrs. Meryladon clucked like a proud hen and happily accepted the coins. She went back inside to replace the broken candle.

“Of course he did that,” a female voice sighed behind Vivian.

“What did you expect, Mills?” A male laughed. “He sees a pretty girl in need and must save the day.”

“I needn’t interfere if you hadn’t been so clumsy, friend,” the first man said.

Vivian’s face grew hotter, but she kept her gaze down, concentrating on carefully sweeping every shard of glass into the dustpan. The last thing she needed was for someone to cut themselves.

“You dropped this.” The man kneeled before her.

She flicked her eyes up. The man wasn’t much older than she was. His eyes were deep blue, the color of the sky on a stormy day. He wore a fine cloak over his hair, fabric joined at his neck by a golden clasp: a crescent moon. He looked familiar, but she was sure they’d never met.

In his outstretched hand, he held a blue ribbon. It must have fallen from her hair.

“Thank you…” She reached for the ribbon, her fingers brushing against his. A tingling shock jolted through her.

His breath hitched, and he smiled. It was suddenly like she was staring at the clouds again, lost and wondering.

She shook her head and tied her chestnut brown hair back with the ribbon before picking up her dustpan and standing. “You didn’t need to do that.”

“No one should be punished for watching the wonders of the sky.” He rose too. By the Three, he was tall. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“And it wasn’t yours.” She sighed. “We can blame the ruddy Prince and his stupid festival for drawing the crowds.”

Laughter erupted from behind them, where the young man’s two friends stood. The girl muttered, “It is a stupid festival, isn’t it?”

The man in front of her laughed but seized her gaze as he said, “Don’t the people love it, though? Exciting games and food and music? The sweep of a dance?”

Despite herself, Vivian smiled and held up her broom. “Well, first I’ll sweep the candle shoppe, then I’ll surely owe the Prince a dance for all the loveliness he has brought me today.” She gestured to the long line outside the shoppe. There would be no enjoying the festival for her. And it wasn’t as if she could go after work. Not with it being a moonless night and all.

The man didn’t answer, and she turned, regretfully, pushing her way back into the shoppe. There was wax to melt, and oil to boil, candles to sell, and no time to dwell about princes and boys with storm-filled eyes.

The day’s bustle of activity had no end. Mrs. Meryladon left as soon as Vivian came in, lamenting that Vivian had given her such a headache she must rest. With Mrs. Meryladon gone, Detvar Gibbons took off at the noon bell, complaining of a weak constitution. Shortly after, Kendra Ohlsen contracted a case of the chills. But Vivian knew they all wanted to attend the festival, to experience what the boy with the stormy eyes had spoken of: the games and food and music and dancing.

She didn’t mind. The shoppe kept her busy, and it wasn’t like she would attend the festival anyhow.

As the light turned from gold to red, customers trickled in slower and slower. Everyone was heading to the town square for the main ceremony. It was unusual for an event to occur at night.

The night was for magic. And monsters.

But the Prince was now a Starling, a student at the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars, so she’d heard. No doubt they wanted a show of his abilities.

Finally, she could breathe. Vivian wiped the sweat from her brow and loosely tied her matted brown hair up in a knotted nest with her blue ribbon. It was a gift from her brother, Timothée. She was glad she hadn’t lost it.

Vivian padded over to the entrance and was halfway through flipping the sign to closed when the door burst open.

She stumbled back. It wasn’t a group of tourists.

“Oh, we’ll only be a moment,” a girl said. Vivian’s age, but with ashen hair perfectly coiled around her rosy cheeks, and a hat trimmed with cherries made of shining baubles and lace. “You don’t mind, do you, Viv?”

Tilda Dovetail and her friends were locals of Wolfhelm. She delighted in talking loudly about her trips and her studies at the Royal Drunning Academy. Success meant little unless you had someone to show it to.

Vivian would be twenty soon, and she tried not to think about it, how other girls her age traveled to far-off schools. To learn about the world, the people, and places.

The door opened again, and a man walked in. The man in the fine blue cloak she’d met this morning. Why was he back? Had he regretted his choice to pay for the candle and wanted his money? Or perhaps he was some royal zealot and had taken offense to her jeer of the Prince? Perhaps he’d set the Celestial Knights on her. She almost laughed. It sounded like a story her brother Timothée would make up.

The young man still wore the cloak over his head, but she felt his gaze on her. She took a deep breath and flipped the sign over. At least that would prevent anyone new from coming in.

First deal with Tilda, then the boy. Once she finished serving them, she’d be out of here well before sunset.

“Oh, must have been quite busy today.” Tilda worried her brow as she looked across the shoppe at the near-empty shelves and her heels crunching over the brown and yellow leaves that had blown in. “I’d hate to see you stuck here all night.”

Vivian sucked in a tight breath and busied her hands folding tissue that didn’t need folding. Words didn’t come easily to her; they hardly ever did. While her sister, Marion, made words her weapon, Vivian was often at a loss for them entirely.

“Everyone left to get ready for the festival,” Vivian said. But Tilda and her friends had already turned away.

Vivian was once again reminded Tilda wasn’t her friend. She had no friends besides her brother and sister. Marion hated Tilda. But Vivian didn’t. She enjoyed watching her. Not when she was busy gossiping in the shoppe, but other moments when she and her friends were sharing crumb cakes in the town square or laughing at a local theater troupe.

Tilda swished over, carrying a dyed blue candle. “Will we see you at the festival tonight, Vivian?” Tilda’s voice was as squeaky as the mice that burrowed around Vivian’s apartment. She leaned far over the counter, the veins in her thin white neck visibly pulsing. Vivian took an involuntary breath. The blueberry candle’s scent was mercifully potent.

“I-I’ll be with my sister and brother.” Vivian busied herself wrapping the candle.

Tilda gave a clucking noise, partly between a snort and a laugh. “Of course. Why did I ask? You three are always boarded up inside that sad little apartment of yours.” She looked around for her friends. “Can you imagine the stench? You, stinking of cheap candle, and your sister reeking of those putrid leeches!”

Vivian’s hands wavered on the tissue paper as the laughter of Tilda’s friends echoed in the shoppe.

“Their brother works in a bakery,” one of the other girls said as she waltzed over to the counter. “He must smell of fresh cookies.”

Tilda pretended to plug her nose. “He’s worse! Stinking of horse from always rolling in the hay with the boy from the stables. But Jenny knows, doesn’t she?”

Tilda poked the short girl beside her. Jenny Cotswood twirled one of her silky black curls around her finger. “All I remember was he was slobbery, like a dog.” She giggled, then added, “He has those big puppy dog eyes, though.”

Squawking laughter filled the shoppe.

Vivian’s lips tightened over her teeth. Her vision blurred, only able to see Tilda’s white throat bobbing up and down.

“Please don’t talk about my brother that way.” Her voice was barely a whisper over their never-ending cackles. Vivian chanced a look at the boy, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention, his back to them, inspecting a candle. For the best.

“Oh, are you jealous of how popular your brother is around town?” Tilda worried her lip. “If you weren’t stuck here all night, you could come with us. Catch a man of your own.”

“I—” Words caught in her throat. It was an empty offer. She would never be welcome to spend time with Tilda and her friends. Vivian hated the tiny flicker of excitement that sparked inside her. To be a normal girl.

“Of course, Tilda’s going to go right up to the stage to see the Prince,” Jenny said. “They say he’s more handsome than the gods.”

“He’s just a man.” Tilda laughed deviously before turning to Vivian. “But I’ve heard the ward from Medihsa is quite the scoundrel. Perhaps he’ll be the one to first take poor little candle girl’s—”

“Your candle.” Vivian placed it in front of Tilda with more force than necessary, a perfect bow completed on top of the tissue. “One verdallion.”

Tilda wrinkled her nose, clearly irritated with being interrupted. She slammed the gold coin down on the counter. “It’s for your house. To get rid of the leech odor.”

Silence echoed through the shoppe. Vivian kept her eyes down, feeling Tilda’s gaze burrow into her.

The sound of boots broke the hush, the steps so heavy it made the candles tremble and chime together. It was the man. Vivian had nearly forgotten he was still in the shoppe.

“Excuse me,” he said, his voice like steel. He stepped in front of Tilda and her friends, who gave an indignant look at being pushed back.

The man put his hands on the counter. “What time shall I return to pick you up for the festival this evening?”

Vivian was so taken aback, she looked behind her, as if there were someone else he was talking to. “Pardon?”

The man’s hood dropped. Golden strands of hair fell across his storm blue eyes.

There was murmuring, a low rumble like thunder. But she couldn’t concentrate on anything except the boy standing before her.

He was familiar because she had seen him in paintings, in statues, etched into the coins she counted in the shoppe every day.

Because he was not just a man at all. He was a prince.

“I do recall,” he smiled, leaning on the counter, “you owe me a dance.”

Darius Störmberg, Starling of the Celestial Academy, and heir to Andúrigard, was in her candle shoppe.

Marion would not be happy about this.

Bonus Chapter

Want to read this chapter through Darius's POV? Click here.

Chapter Art

Portrait of Vivian

2 - In Which Marion is Struck by Fate

Marion Greywick was known in Wolfhelm as the leech girl.

It wasn’t a lovely nickname in the slightest. She’d much rather be known as the kind girl, or the beautiful girl, or even ‘one of the triplets’ would have been just fine. Who would want to be associated with fat, slimy critters found at the bottom of swamps?

Though it wasn’t a lovely nickname, it was accurate. She was, in fact, the leech girl, and she was quite good at it, thank you very much.

Marion watched with perfectly hidden impatience as the slinking black slugs slithered up Mrs. Sigrud’s wrinkled legs. Mrs. Sigrud suffered from a distressing case of gout and had been one of Marion’s best customers. Not because of the leeches, Marion was certain. It’d been three years since she’d started renting the shoppe from the last bloodletter, and she still wasn’t halfway convinced the darned things did anything but leave nasty little crosses in your skin. No, Mrs. Sigrud was here for the conversation. Because that was the other part of being the leech girl. You had to listen.

And there was oh so much to listen about today. Mrs. Sigrud was old, past seventy, and being so old, a festival was nothing but a disturbance.

“Gaudy, isn’t it?” Mrs. Sigrud sighed, totally unbothered by the fat black leeches gobbling at her paper-thin skin. They had a form of anesthetic. They numbed the spot where they bit, then sucked the blood up. “In my time, death was never celebrated but lamented.”

Marion looked over her shoulder, out the one small window. Crowds of people jostled past, carrying flags with Andúrigard’s crest, and shouting the name of the late king.

“It’s not just a memorial. It’s Unification Day. It fills the people with hope,” Marion responded, if only to contradict Mrs. Sigrud. She had to get her fun where she could. “You should treat yourself to one of those sugar sticks the vendors are selling and tuck yourself into bed and forget all about it.”

“Sugar sticks?” Mrs. Sigrud scoffed. “You young things. All you know is dancing and games and sugar sticks. Not like us old goats. Those of us who are old enough to remember the war.”

Yes, yes, Marion knew all about the war. Mrs. Sigrud had droned on through countless leeching sessions. And they weren’t quick, mind you. The leeches or Mrs. Sigrud’s stories. Marion stared at her leeches intensely, watching their bellies swell and their color darken as they drank more blood. Normally, she was of the utmost patience, but not today. Not when dusk neared, and it was a moonless night.

Tonight, she wanted to grab her siblings and run to their little apartment on Enola Avenue and shuttered the windows tight. They’d huddle beneath a blanket and she and Timothée would split a loaf of bread and a block of cheese while Vivian cracked open her old drawing notebook, filled with sketches of the lavender farm.

Marion was pushing it even now, taking a customer to almost dusk. But there were no days off for the leech girl.

Not when Vivian was so sick.

Finally, when the leeches were full to the bursting, Marion plucked them off Mrs. Sigrud and stuck them in a bowl. “I agree with you, Mrs. Sigrud. Everyone throws themselves into such a fuss to get a sight of the Prince. I’m not bothered in the least. You know us Greywicks though. We’re a practical sort.”

Mrs. Sigrud gave a rumbling laugh. “I wouldn’t say that of your brother! But your sister and you, good heads on your shoulders. Won’t find you running off into some silly celebration.”

Marion popped the leeches off, slapping their fat black bodies thick with blood, into the bowl, wiped Mrs. Sigrud down roughly, and pulled her to her feet. The old lady gave a small sound of indignation but still left a gold verdallion on the counter before scuttling outside.

A girl like Marion really had no business going to a festival. As she had told Mrs. Sigrud, she was a practical sort. The sun hung low in the grey sky. It wouldn’t be long before dusk fell and shadows crept over the city.

The leech shoppe was small, a tiny front room and an even tinier back workspace. The front had a lounge chair with a covering of vinyl over it to easily wipe up the spilled blood. A collection of cobwebs decorated the corners, but Marion never swept them down. It’d seemed fitting for spiders to make a home in a leech shoppe. The floorboards squeaked, and there was some form of plant life growing on the windowsill; it was always so damp and cold in Wolfhelm, and the window wasn’t sealed properly.

Perhaps the most distinct feature of the shoppe was the smell: the sickly sweetness of mold from the rotten wood, with the swampy, wet odor of the leech tank in the back room, all mixed with the coppery tang of blood.

No wonder Vivian could never visit here.

Marion rushed her bowl of leeches to the back and separated them into two jars: five leeches bound for the icebox, where they would freeze and keep nicely with her other jars of frozen, blood-filled leeches. Three leeches were left alive. She placed those in a short jar that she stuck in the small, quilted bag she used as a purse. Vivian would need them tonight, and fresh was better than frozen.

She took a worried glance out the window as she quickly wiped the counters. Then she took a worried peek at her leech tank, only ten or so left swimming through the murky water. ­The triplets would have to make the journey to the lake soon, wearing their thickest clothes, and wading through the water with nets. Other bloodletters reused their leeches, but Marion’s were one-and-done. Wasn’t like she was the leech girl for the money (poor) or because she genuinely believed in the power of leeching (a hoax). The only thing that mattered was how much blood her little black slugs could suck up.

She shook her head and took a worried glance—goodness, did everything have to be such a worry? Had she always been like this? Certainly not. At the lavender farm, there was nothing at all to worry about. Back then, Father had done the worrying and she, Vivian, and Tim had done the laughing and the eating and the playing.

But that was three long years ago. Her childhood had ended at sixteen and in Father’s absence, it was up to her to keep the family together. Vivian was too ill for it despite being the eldest, and Timothée was… well, hopeless wouldn’t be an unfair thing to call him.

With the shoppe clean enough for closing, Marion took off her blood-stained apron. Beneath, she had only a plain grey dress with buttons all down the front. At the farm, she’d had splendid dresses, light shifts brocaded with flowers, hats with lace, even a petticoat. Whatever became of them?

All she had now was a blue ribbon, a gift from her brother Timothée, tied into her golden curls. No one would see, of course, not when she swung her dark cloak over her shoulders and pulled the hood up over her hair. It wasn’t quite dusk yet, let alone night, but she’d fully embraced being the fuss of the family.

With her cloak firmly wrapped around her, and her purse with the jar of leeches slung over her shoulder, Marion locked up the shoppe, ready to head home.

“Good evening, Marion.”

At the sound of the mopish voice, Marion stiffened. Oh bother. Just what she needed, on today of all days. She forced a deep inhale of the cold air and turned, unable to muster any semblance of a smile. “Huxley. You’re here. At my shoppe.”

Huxley Macgregor stood before her, a gangly stick of a boy, resembling one of the ceiling spiders with his too-long legs. He had a shock of red hair and wide eyes that always dashed around like he was waiting for something to leap out at him.

Huxley reached for Marion’s hand. She turned and pretended to preen in the window reflection. It was so dirty, she could barely see herself. At least it kept her hands occupied.

“Of course I’m here, Mare. It’s the festival.” He offered a nervous smile. He was dressed well, for him, wearing a dark brown frock coat about a size too big, and what appeared to be a new necktie. With his meager salary as the tanner’s assistant, it must have cost him a week’s wages, at least.

Oh bother. Marion knew where this was going. There could only be so many times she took him into the back of the leech shoppe before he either left or started pushing for more.

“I thought you and I could… Well, I thought we could go. I’ll buy you one of those pretty blue flags and we can have a dance.”

Marion snorted. Forced herself to cross her arms and look him up and down with disdain. There would be no dancing with the tanner’s assistant. No handholding or promenading or whispering sweet nothings.

Huxley Macgregor had proven himself an adequate distraction, a convenient outlet for the annoyance of base need. Once in a moon, she bid him come at closing, where she would slip off her blood-soaked dress and stand naked before him.

There would be no ripping of clothes or declarations of desires. No hands dragged through hair or swollen lips from rough kisses, the way she’d read about in the scandalous books her clients devoured as they were leeched.

She would simply let him bury himself deep within her, her skin still wet with lake water from the leech tank, and his hands brown with dried blood from the cattle he skinned for their hides. There was no romance in the work, and no romance in the act. All she felt was the rough counter on her thighs, as her mind went blissfully numb.

“You know I do not attend festivals,” Marion said with as much dignity as a leech girl could muster. “I’m quite busy tonight, but please enjoy yourself. Alone.”

She turned away from him, but he caught her arm. She looked down at it scornfully. He did not touch her outside of the leech shoppe.

“Come on, Marion.” Huxley’s face was pleading. “It’ll be fun. You never do anything but go to work and go home. It’d be good for you.”

That was the problem. It would be fun. In a different life, she would have loved the chance to get glossed up with Vivian and tsk over Timothée’s hair. She and Viv would parade down the street, while Timothée and Father would sell the lavender and use the earnings to buy big balloons in yellow and purple and blue. They would stay out under a moonless sky and marvel, rather than fear, the falling stars.

Father wouldn’t have allowed that, even if he had been alive.

Father was dead. Vivian was sick. And if Marion did not get her siblings back into the apartment by nightfall, it would rip away whatever semblance of a life they had created here in Wolfhelm over the last three years.

“Only I know what is good for me,” Marion snapped and tore her arm aside. “Good evening, Huxley.”

At his fallen face, Marion’s cheeks heated.

There were some times when they’d lie together on the vinyl-covered leeching chair, when she’d let him wrap her in his arms. When she’d nestle her face in the crook of his neck and inhale something besides the butchered cow or tanning chemicals. She’d smell wood smoke or coffee or a pleasant musk. Huxley would wrap one of her golden curls round and round his finger and his body was warm against the chill. In those moments, Marion wondered if Huxley wasn’t such an impish, sop of a boy but actually a kind man, with a steady job, and a delicate heart that hadn’t been frozen by Wolfhelm’s ways.

But those moments passed as quickly as they came. Because to be married would be to leave Vivian and Timothée. And Vivian was sick with an illness no one could know about, and Timothée was clueless as a rock.

It was much safer to think of all the ways Huxley annoyed her than all the ways he could make her smile.

She sighed and plunged into the crowd so she couldn’t tempt herself by looking back. It was such a bother to be the responsible one.

Vendors and tourists and citizens of Wolfhelm crowded the streets. Such a fuss, all for some overblown holiday and the chance to see the Prince. Ahead, people were pushing to the courtyard before the castle; they’d been setting up a stage there all yesterday. It must be where the Prince and his wards were going to make their appearance.

Marion moved against the crowd. People shrunk away as she walked. Maybe it was the deep scowl she kept etched on her face. Maybe it was because she didn’t mind using a little elbow to make it through. Maybe it was because she smelled and would always smell of blood and lake water and she was the damned leech girl instead of the lavender girl, and Father should be here, and today was three years since everything had gone straight to pot—


Marion ran into something and fell hard on her rump, hood flung back, and purse fallen beside her. No, she hadn’t run into something, but someone. A person, a rude person had stepped right out in front of her when she was clearly in a hurry. All she could see was a shaggy brown cloak.

“Excuse me!” she said most indignantly. What else could go wrong on this horrid day?

The cloaked figure turned and pulled down his hood. A young man stood before her, eyes flashing green as a meadow. He had brown skin and black hair tousled over his brow, with one piece that looked too perfectly askew. A small golden ring hung in a single ear. A smirk slithered up his face, an expression that seemed all too comfortable for him.

And for a moment, Marion forgot her worries. Every single one of them. The night could fall, and she would sit here like a wobbling calf as long as she lit up enough to see those green eyes flashing in the dark.

What was wrong with her? Ogling was the equivalent of daydreaming, and Vivian and Timothée lost enough time with that sort of thing. There was no good to be wasted dreaming about princes and getting swept off by green-eyed cavaliers.

And yet… here she was… struck. By this stranger.

The young man’s smirk turned to a grin, and he said, “You are excused.”

Her moment passed, and every worry rushed back into her with a healthy amount of annoyance. The stupid O her mouth had formed turned into a scowl. “Excuse me?

“I already said it,” the boy said. His voice was light, teasing. “You are excused. Perhaps watch your step next time?”

A series of sputtering sounds sprung from her mouth. There were many things she wanted to tell this extremely rude fellow who had stepped in front of her, but words escaped her. What a fool she must look, sprawled in the dirt. Her cheeks burned.

She had been struck, in body and in heart. What a ridiculous notion. And it was this boy’s fault. He had made her look a fool and was blaming her for it.

He held out his hand. “Let me help you up.” His smile struck deep as an arrow, and she couldn’t imagine being more irritated if she’d actually been hit by one.

“No thank you,” she finally managed and angrily gathered herself from the ground.

“Come on, let me help you.” He picked up her purse. “You’re so clumsy you’re likely to hurt yourself just standing up.”

“I’m clumsy? You ran into me! And I am in an awful hurry!”

He clutched his heart as if she had seriously offended him. “I merely stepped out into the street to be struck upon by you, fair maiden! And I too am in an awful hurry and terribly late for an appointment.”