She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t get out of the balloon.
Marion Greywick’s foot hovered over the grass, but she couldn’t take the step. Vivian and Timothée had already exited the hot air balloon and were looking around wonderstruck as Setviren preened over them like a mother hen. Marion was the last one in the basket. All she had to do was step out.
But she couldn’t.
A castle in the sky…more like a kingdom in the sky. She has seen it from below, how it had blocked out the sun when it passed over and shrouded the land below. But to see the massive landform so close, to see it just hanging in the air…
It didn’t matter that a great green field stretched out before them, leading to a white campus. It didn’t matter that the basket sat on this grass, or that her siblings were walking around.
If Marion placed her foot on the Isle of Argos, she was quite certain she would fall through.
“If you find the grass so fascinating, just wait until you see the cobblestone.” It was Khalid, of course, bowing low before her, hand extended. It felt like mockery, a ward of the Prince stooping to her. She looked up only long enough to glare at him before returning to her hovering foot.
She had nearly let herself fall for Khalid back in the leech shoppe of Wolfhelm. But she had seen what he was firsthand on the trip here. He had lit the balloon with fire made from nothing.
No. Not nothing.
Made from star magic.
It was a revered and honorable trait in the kingdom, to be chosen to train at the Academy and swallow your own star, allowing you to wield its magic.
But Marion knew better. Father had told her. There was evil here, lurking behind the shine of the stars.
But she’d have to be brave enough to put her Three-damned foot on the grass before she found it.
“Are you alright?” Khalid tried to grab her hand and Marion slapped it away.
Her siblings walked ahead with Setviren, Darius, and Carmilla. Of all the humiliating, shameful things to be afraid of. Marion gritted her teeth. “I…I can’t do it. I can’t get out of the basket.”
Khalid looked from her to the ground. “Why not?”
“I don’t know!” Marion snarled in a harsh whisper. “I just can’t touch the ground.”
Khalid stroked his chin. “This is a thorny situation, isn’t it? Well, not to worry. I, Khalid Ali Bagheeri, am at your service.” With that, Khalid swept Marion into his arms.
She was so shocked, she didn’t even protest. At least until Khalid stumbled away from the basket, musical laugh chiming into the night, arms full of skirts and girl.
“Let me down!” Her arms wrapped tight around his neck.
“I’ll carry you for your entire time at the Academy, if that’s what you need,” Khalid said despite the bead of sweat forming at the tip of his brow.
“You fool!” Marion broke out of his arms. Damp grass squished underneath her thin slippers.
But she didn’t fall through. She was still here.
Khalid’s smile was brighter than the stars in the sky. Marion sighed. Curse the Three for making Khalid Ali Bagheeri so handsome. It was distracting.
“Quickly now!” Setviren called from ahead. “We don’t want to keep the Archbishop waiting.”
Khalid grabbed her hand and tugged her forward. She understood now why Timothée and Vivian looked so wonderstruck. A strong breeze whipped at her skirts and hair, blowing the crisp scent of the night. And when she looked up…
The sky was a blanket above them, quilted with inky tendrils. And the stars…
Marion reached up, swearing she could pluck them from the sky like juicy peaches.
Khalid smiled at her. “Beautiful.”
She dropped her hand, blushing. The way he looked at her…she didn’t think he was talking about the stars.
Ahead, the field melted into a courtyard made of shimmering, moon-frosted stone. Towering lamps lit by multifaceted crystals scattered rainbows of soft light over the ground. A massive ivory fountain spouted water in every shade of yellow, blue, and purple, and each gush was a different creature: this one a fish, the next a whale, the other a dolphin. Some sort of star magic trick?
Great fir trees decorated the courtyard in between the lampposts, casting vast shadows through the coloured lights. The courtyard itself was caged in by buildings with painted windows and bright doorways bursting with music. Marion caught sight of one sign: Crescent Cakes, Lunar Lattes, and Fengari Tea. A little town upon the island. Shoppes before the school. What a strange place this was.
She darted her head back and forth, trying to take note of each bit of magic that might attack her.
Movement flittered under the soft lamplight: shapes coming out of the buildings, wavering shadows against the trees.
“Are those…?” Timothée asked.
“Starling students,” Setviren confirmed. “Yes, of course. You’ll have time to meet your classmates later. Hurry now.”
Marion pulled her hand from Khalid’s and stepped in front of her siblings, as if to shield them. But there was no way to escape the stares. They were mice to owls. She pulled her hair over her shoulder, trying to hide herself as much as possible; ribbons of coloured light made her hair shine blue and red and purple.
The students clustered together, staring, whispering. Some had little lights floating around them, others carried candles or torches. They wore a mix of blue and golden uniforms, though none were quite the same. Some had long dresses, and others wore trousers with belted tunics and woven stars. There were capes or hoods and felt hats or gauzy veils. The only consistency were the colours: gold or blue. Marion knew from the balloon that it differentiated the Morning Star students from the Evening Star.
But there was a third house, Carmilla had said. The former imperial princess wore a purple uniform and a black choker around her neck. Where were those students?
“Back to class!” Setviren called, shooing away the students. But it did no good. More gathered, their eyes curious and questioning as the siblings shuffled through them like livestock heading for the slaughter.
Khalid threw his arm around Marion. “Guess word has already spread of the Star Children.”
Marion didn’t miss how bug-eyed and feverish the students got when Khalid casually touched her. She shrugged him off.
“Look ahead,” Vivian murmured. “Is that…is that really where Dad lived?”
Marion stared forward, knowing what was to come. She had seen it from the balloon. Could see it now, behind the buildings, trees, and lampposts.
A great citadel of white stone. Two massive mahogany doors, rich as blood, marked the entrance. The doors were carved with intricate runes and strange animals. Each immense tower or turret had gaping windows, where soft white light radiated outward. And the roof…the entire roof was made of glass.
“To let the starlight in,” Marion murmured to herself.
The Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars.
Their new home.
No, Marion thought. Not my home. Never my home. I don’t belong here.
Setviren looked up at the position of the moon and then turned to the Prince and his wards. “Look at the time. You’ll all be late for class.”
The three let out a collective sigh of disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding, Teach!” Khalid cried. “We almost got assassinated last night and we still have to go to school?”
“We’ve only just arrived.” Carmilla kept her voice calmer than Khalid’s. “Surely, there can be an exception—”
“There are no exceptions for members of the courtly house or even princes.” The loremaster gave an adoring look to Darius. “Hurry now. Your professors are waiting.”
“Come on.” Darius laughed and placed a hand on each of his friend’s shoulders. “We have to set a good example for the new students.”
“I’m always a shining example.” Khalid winked.
Marion didn’t miss the way the Prince grabbed Vivian’s hand, the lower pitch of his voice as he said only to her, “Setviren will take good care of you. Enjoy your first night at the Academy. There’s truly nothing like it.”
“This place is so…vast.”
“You’ll be fine.” Darius unclasped his heavy blue cloak and draped it around Vivian’s shoulders. “Although the wind can bring quite a chill this high up.”
“Will I see you soon?” Vivian touched the cloak’s clasp under her neck: a wolf made of silver.
“I’ll find you after class.” He held up his wrist, exposing a ribbon of blue. “I always do.”
Marion jumped as a warm voice caressed her ear, shocking her out of her eavesdropping: “Would you like a romantic send-off as well?”
Marion merely rolled her eyes at Khalid.
“I’d give you my cloak, but my Medihsan blood doesn’t handle the chill that well.” He placed a hand on her waist and swung in front of her. His jade eyes twinkled beneath the coloured lights. “If anyone gives you trouble, remember,” he leaned close, his lips upon her ear, “you belong among the stars.”
Marion’s heart stuttered against her chest. He was gone as quick as he had appeared, a shooting star. He was back with his friends, throwing his arms over Darius and Carmilla’s shoulders. “Be good, little Greywicks!” Khalid called as they melded into the night.
Marion touched the side of her face, where his warm breath had been just a moment ago. She shuddered.
She suddenly felt exposed without Khalid and his friends. Even though they were dangerous. Even though Darius was the damned prince of the whole kingdom. Even though Carmilla looked at her like she was evaluating her every movement. Even though Khalid made her want to simultaneously smack him and ask him what his favourite food was. She couldn’t deny there had been something comforting about their presence.
Now, the siblings were out in the open, where Setviren could shred them apart and lay out their pieces to examine.
A huge bridge lay before them, leading to the school. “This way,” Setviren said. “The headmistress awaits.”
Marion followed after Setviren and her siblings. Timothée and Vivian looked all around, their heads on swivels, taking in every stone, every sound. Marion could still feel the eyes of the Starlings back in the courtyard. Khalid was wrong about her. She didn’t belong here. Maybe Timothée and Vivian did, but not her. She belonged firmly on the ground.
The massive blood-coloured doors opened with a wave of Setviren’s hand. “You will be meeting with Lady Kassandra, the Archpriestess of the Celestial Church and the headmistress of the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars.”
He walked swiftly ahead of them, but the triplets stopped all together in a line. As if they all had the same feeling.
“You may refer to her as ‘Your Holiness’, ‘Holy Mother’, ‘Your Eminence’, ‘Your Grace’, or ‘my lady’. Is that under—?” His voice echoed as he stepped into the entrance atrium. Setviren turned, noticed the triplets weren’t following him. “Whatever is the problem?”
The triplets held hands, their toes just reaching where the white brick of the bridge became the black stone of the Academy. The feeling sung in Marion’s heart, and she knew it sung in her siblings’, too.
A terrible destiny.
To take one more step…to enter the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars…it would ignite a change within them that could never be undone. It would be to accept this terrible destiny, to give way to whatever wickedness sat dormant within their hearts. It would be to leave the earth for the constellations, never knowing if they would come down again.
With one hand, she held tight to Timothée, and with the other, Vivian.
A breeze rustled through their hair, slowly playing with the strands, and wafting through their clasped fingers. The breeze…
“Is that...?” Timothée asked.
“Lavender,” Vivian confirmed. “And salt air.”
For Father. For Vivian. Marion squeezed her siblings’ hands three times. They would face their terrible destiny together.
The Greywicks stepped through the doorway.
It was like stepping into a dream. The atrium was immense and felt like walking on the sky itself. Opulent navy rugs covered dark stone. Grand staircases led this way and that, leading up, up, up. The walls were decorated with shimmering constellations in the shape of winged horses, and giant bats, and flame-shrouded phoenixes. And the sky…starlight shimmered in from the glass roof. Marion felt it dance on her skin.
“Chop chop!” Setviren had a renewed confidence upon entering the Academy. “The Archpriestess has been waiting a long time to meet you.”
They followed dutifully behind the green-haired loremaster. “Lady Kassandra is a disciple of the goddess Rhaemyria. That makes her a Morning Star, and the most powerful one in Thraina. You’ll mind your manners around her. Don’t speak unless spoken to. If she offers you her staff, kiss it. Oh, and of course, genuflect!”
“What does genuflect mean?” Timothée whispered.
Setviren led them down a dark blue carpeted hallway until they came upon two mahogany doors with no handles. They slid apart with a whish of his hand. Marion’s skin pricked with the magic.
“Please enter.” He motioned them through the doors. It led only to a small room, slightly bigger than a closet, carpeted in the same night blue.
“There’s nothing here—” Marion began, when Setviren stepped in with them. The doors whooshed shut with another flourish. “Wait, are you locking us—”
The loremaster rose his arms upward, white sleeves waving like an albatross’s wings. And the room…it moved. Upward! The triplets shrieked and held on to one another.
“Heavens me, I wouldn’t ask you to walk all the way up on your first night,” Setviren said as if the moving room were the most normal thing in the world. It surged up, up, up, and the prick of magic was so strong, tugging at the hairs on the back of Marion’s neck.
Setviren was doing this. Marion concentrated on his rising hands. Somehow, he was using star magic to move them.
“Steady now. Here we are.” With a jolt, Setviren lowered his hands and the room shuddered to a stop. The triplets were nearly on top of one another, sweating and shaking.
“Somehow, that was worse than the hot air balloon.” Vivian touched her forehead.
“Prepare yourself.” The doors slid open at Setviren’s command. “This is her office.”
The triplets stepped out of the moving closet. The office was a circular room made entirely of glass. It was like standing in a great orb. They were so high up, they seemed closer to the stars. Marion felt like she was sitting in the heavens upon a moon-carved throne, or swimming in a sea of starlight.
The room’s floor was shimmering gold, with a large ivory desk inlaid with gold leaf. The legs of the desk were two golden wyvern claws. White wooden easels held up strange maps of places Marion didn’t recognize. Crescent-moon bookshelves held tomes with runes instead of letters on the spines. A massive pearl statue of a phoenix, wings outstretched, body ensconced with fire, shimmered with nearby candlelight. And everywhere, everywhere, the stars watched, and waited, and—
From behind the phoenix statue, stepped out a creature.
Calling her a woman seemed an injustice, for her beauty was so immense. Marion’s heart stuttered in her chest.
“My lady,” Setviren rasped and the reverence in his voice made Marion’s spine tingle.
This woman…she looked like one of the elven princesses from Vivian’s favourite fairytales. Her hair was white-gold like moonlight, her skin an alabaster than seemed to shimmer as she walked. Her eyes were pale, two diamonds twinkling. She wore great white robes with golden trim, heavy and billowing enough to hide her figure. The robes were adorned with hundreds of tiny bells so she tinkled as she moved. In one hand, she held a black staff. Marion found herself nearly unable to look at her, she was so beautiful. And yet, she could not look away.
Setviren fell to a knee and bowed his head. Then he looked back at the triplets, standing dumbfounded. “Genuflect,” he snarled under his breath.
Clumsily, they all knelt. Marion was thankful she was forced to look down.
With slow, deliberate steps, the woman approached. Her feet were silent, but Marion could feel her presence as it neared.
“My dearest Setviren.” The woman’s voice was like an orchestra of every harp, every sweet bird song, every lullaby. “Is it true? Have you brought me this mighty gift?”
Marion peered through her golden sheath of hair to watch the woman extend a hand to Setviren. He looked up at her with a fervorous gaze. Something wilder than love, deeper than reverence. Complete and utter loyalty.
He accepted her hand and stood. “Yes, yes, Your Holiness. I have brought them. It is true. I saw it with mine own eyes.”
The Archpriestess walked over to them. Quickly, Marion looked down again. Her heart leapt like a rabbit.
“Look at me.”
Lady Kassandra gazed down at the triplets, her diamond eyes drifting from one to the other. Her face was stoic. Standing above them in her immense white robes, she looked like a statue, carved of marble, forever staring. Marion felt tiny beneath her.
Eternity seemed to pass by as the Archpriestess watched them. Finally, she spoke: “Who is the eldest?”
Marion wanted to cry out, to lie and claim it was her. But Vivian’s voice rang strong: “I am.”
Lady Kassandra walked before her. “What do you call yourself, child?”
“Vivian. Vivian Greywick.”
Another beat of eternity passed before Lady Kassandra held out her staff to Vivian. Behind the Archpriestess, Setviren mouthed: “Kiss the staff!”
Marion had a better view of it now: it was the strangest thing, long and straight, but made of a curious black metal. It almost seemed as if the metal were moving. Trapped shadows, misting up and down its length. And at the tip, caged in by metallic tendrils, was a large black gem. It certainly wasn’t any gem Marion would have chosen to adorn a special staff; this was lumpy, and the colour of coal except for a few veins of purple. The whole thing seemed entirely out of place for the lady’s starlight-white office.
Vivian looked anxiously from Setviren to the staff and then placed a tentative kiss upon the gem. When she removed her lips, her eyes were wide and questioning.
“You wear the Prince’s cloak.” The Archpriestess eyed Vivian.
“He placed it over her shoulders himself.” Setviren scurried forward before Vivian could answer. “And he was vehemently protecting her during the Dark Prophet’s attack.”
Marion had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. How about when Vivian had saved him?
“As your report stated,” the Archpriestess said.
“He met her before the festival, Your Grace,” Setviren continued. “It seems fate had already led him to a child of the stars. Perhaps it’s as we’ve discussed. The young prince may be the one—”
“I am well aware of your thoughts on the heir to Andúrigard, loremaster. Now,” the Archpriestess turned back to them, her robes filling the air with a musical chime, “who is the second eldest?”
Marion took a deep breath, wishing she could smell the lavender and sea spray from earlier. It had given her courage. She looked up and met the priestess’s diamond eyes. “I am.”
“What do you call yourself?”
“Marion Greywick.” Her voice was steady.
And then the gem was before her, that hideous rock, like smoke trapped in hardened soot.
“Kiss it!” Setviren hissed.
The room began to spin. The rock and starlight, mixing together in terrible destiny. All she needed to do was place her lips upon it and the sky would stop swirling and she wanted to, desperately wanted to—
A shadowy writhing in her heart yearned for the rock and she had an image of yanking the whole staff out of Lady Kassandra’s hands—
“KISS IT!” Setviren’s shrill voice cut through the image.
Marion placed a kiss upon the gem.
A voice hissed inside her mind, Maaarionnn.
She looked up, startled. Who had said her name?
Lady Kassandra had already moved on to Timothée. She stood above him while he quivered. Marion longed to rush to him, but fear held her still.
“What is your name?” Lady Kassandra asked tentatively.
“Timothée.” The way the Archpriestess said it…it sounded like a snake’s hiss, a winter’s wind. The priestess looked at Marion. “This is your brother?”
“Yes,” Marion said. Who else would he be?
Lady Kassandra bent down, examining Timothée like a precious metal. “Child, tell me. Do you glow during the moonless nights? Like your sisters?”
Marion could see the fear and courage warring in her brother’s eyes. Her dear brother. He was always so foolhardy and brave. “Yes, ma’am—Your Holiness.”
Lady Kassandra stood, looked at her staff, but did not offer it to Timothée for a kiss. “Very well.” She returned to her desk and placed the staff down. “Rise, Greywick children. Rise and stand before me.”
With shaking legs, Marion obeyed. Her siblings stepped closer to her, and they huddled together, cowed beneath the Archpriestess’s presence.
The stoic expression upon Lady Kassandra’s face melted, and she offered a strange smile. Her sparkling eyes grew watery, and she placed a hand to her heart. “It is true. My children have returned to me. After nineteen years, my children have returned!”
She rushed to Vivian and brought her hands to her lips. To Timothée, she grabbed his shoulders, almost as if she would pull him into a hug. He stood stiff and offered an awkward smile. Then she looked at Marion and gave a shuddering breath. The Archpriestess placed a palm upon her cheek. It was cool and smooth as a rose petal. Marion felt herself lean into the touch.
“This must be so strange for you,” Lady Kassandra murmured. She ran her long fingers through Marion’s hair. “All your life, not knowing who you are…”
“We know who we are,” Marion said. “We’re the Greywick children.”
“Your Holiness,” Setviren said under a cough.
“Y-your Holiness,” Marion added.
Lady Kassandra smiled. “Of course you are.” She dropped her hand and stepped back. “Do you know who I am?”
The Greywicks looked at each other.
Timothée said, “Y-you’re Lady Kassandra, the Archpriestess and headmistress here, My H-Holy Graceness.”
Setviren slapped a palm against his forehead.
Lady Kassandra smiled graciously. “Yes, my child. I am charged with the wellbeing of all the students of the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars. But my greatest blessing…is the three of you.”
Marion felt a hollow pit open in her stomach. Lady Kassandra kept looking through each of them, this strange, longing expression on her face. And she kept raising and dropping her hands, as if she wanted to touch them but couldn’t. Marion crossed her arms over her chest.
“Setviren has told you the story. That you are the Lost Star Children. You were made in the heavens and gifted to Thraina.” Lady Kassandra’s lip quivered. “You are the children of the gods.”
The head of the whole bloody church believes this nonsense, Marion thought. Could this help us find Vivian’s cure…or hinder us?
Lady Kassandra turned away, a hand to her heart. “I was given life in this land to be a messenger for Rhaemyria, to pass on her teachings, and lead the flock in celestial righteousness. For this mission, I serve as Archpriestess and headmistress. But no role is so important as the one Rhaemyria gifted me nineteen years ago.” She turned back to them, jewel eyes flashing. “The role of mother.”
Setviren gave out a reverent sob.
“Rhaemyria sent you to me, so I may raise you in her stead. But I failed. You were stolen…” And then if she could not hold herself back, Lady Kassandra surged at them, grabbing their hands, touching their shoulders. The triplets stiffened in unison. “Now you have returned. Three babies of Rhaemyria and Xydrious! A union not seen since…since the time of…” Her eyes shimmered. “A power not seen in an age.”
“But, my lady,” Vivian said quietly, “we have no power. We just…glow. And only on moonless nights, at that.”
She smiled and stroked a gentle hand down Vivian’s face. “Of course, dear one. Your powers lie dormant within you. We must ignite them.” She turned to her desk and snapped a finger. “Setviren!”
Like a flapping bird, he was behind her. “Y-yes, Your Eminence!”
“There is to be a star shower tomorrow. Rhaemyria’s kin will not go a moment longer than necessary without their celestial fires burning within. Begin the arrangement immediately.” She sat behind her desk in a flourish of white robes. “Tomorrow night, the Greywick children will swallow their stars.”
Like an arrow to the heart, Marion stumbled backwards. Of course, this would be a requirement of attending the school. It was for Starlings, after all. But tomorrow…
To have that magic inside of you was to have it forever. And Father…
“No.” The word was out of her mouth before she could stop it.
Setviren gasped and nearly swallowed his lip. Even Vivian and Timothée gaped at her. But Lady Kassandra’s only betrayal of emotion was the barest quiver of her shoulders.
Marion stuck her chin in the air. I will not fear these people. “If we are the children of the gods, as you so claim, then why should we need to swallow a star to wield magic? We glow all on our own just fine.”
Slowly, Lady Kassandra rose. “Dear one, how do you think your mother Rhaemyria got her power?”
From the legends of desperate fanatics, Marion thought.
“Even the gods get their powers from the celestial bodies.” Lady Kassandra smiled as if she were explaining how to button a coat to a child. “It is what can be ignited within that marks the power.”
Fear and rage blazed through Marion in ragged breath and tightening fists. “And what if nothing ignites? What if it burns us from the outside in? Don’t lie to us! We know it can happen!”
An unspoken horror: every year hundreds of hopefuls attempted to catch a star upon the Isle of Argos. To swallow a star and be chosen meant attendance at the school, prestige and wealth, and a life in servitude to the church as a Starling. To fail to catch a star at all, as was destined to happen to most, meant returning home to whatever dull vocation you could acquire.
But to catch a star, to swallow it, and welcome the celestial flame into your body…but for it not to choose you…
Marion had seen the bodies returned from the Isle of Argos. The charred corpses. The screams imprinted upon the scorched skin.
Kassandra kept her soft smile as she walked to Marion, dragged a hand through her hair as if soothing a petulant dog. “Of course, it can happen. And it does. For if there is nothing to ignite, the star will feast instead. But you, child, were made in the heavens, crafted by the First Mother and the First Father. You were given life so as to save life. You were made to be ignited.”
No, no, she wasn’t made. She was a Greywick, born in Seagrass, a farmer’s daughter. “But Father said—”
Kassandra’s face shifted in a moment. Such loveliness changed into a vicious snarl. Terrible and beautiful, like a crack of lightning. “The man you call Father was a thief and a traitor. He has filled you with fear and poison. It is my greatest regret that he was able to smuggle you away from me.” Her hand tightened painfully in Marion’s hair. “And I will never lose you again.”
Then in an instant, her hand was lovingly petting Marion, and she smiled a soft and sunlight-bright smile. “Now, you must be very tired. Setviren, have them stay in the infirmary until we determined their houses and proper rooms can be prepared.” She turned, but said with a half-lidden gaze, “Children, I’m so very glad you’re home.”
The triplets followed Setviren out of the office and into the moving room. They stood in silence as it sailed downward and stopped in another strange, sumptuous hallway. Walked in silence as Setviren led them deeper within the academy.
Great fear gripped Marion with every step. But so did great determination.
She would meet this terrible destiny. She would meet it for her sister.
And if that meant she had to swallow a star, so be it.
No star would burn Marion Greywick from the inside out.
She was already on fire.
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