If Timothée compared himself to the heroes of all the stories he’d read (which of course he wouldn’t, because that would get him laughed at by his sisters), then he was on track with some of his favourite legends. He had the pleasant childhood (lavender farm), the deep sadness (dead father), a fateful encounter with an archenemy (Dark Prophet), and a pathway to destiny (the Celestial Academy). All he needed now was to fall in love and overcome great evil.
But he noted quite unpleasantly that most heroes didn’t have older sisters constantly trying to thwart said destiny.
Setviren had left them to rest in the infirmary. There were no patients currently, just beds with green-grey sheets and grey-green curtains hanging around them. There weren’t even any windows, this part of the castle tucked snugly into the middle of the Academy.
Setviren had not seemed overly pleased to leave them in the infirmary. In the two days since Timothée had known the loremaster, he had only seen him as flustered once—and that was when the vampires were attacking the city. “The West Wing is for the Evening Stars, the East is for the Mornings. And of course, you can’t stay in the tower. Don’t want you anywhere near there.”
Timothée never found out what the tower was. But they were without a house of their own, so the infirmary it was. With the hard beds and cool stone floors and carts full of bric-a-brac: vials and glass pitchers that flickered in the light of the room.
The infirmary wasn’t lit by candles. Strange crystals in fixtures along the walls cast pastel pink, purple, and teal light.
Timothée picked up a bottle. It was filled with a vibrant liquid and a fading parchment label, which written in elegant handwriting read: Vitality with the essence of bergamot and hibiscus – V. Sun – 1st year
“Timothée!” Marion snapped. “Don’t touch that.”
He fumbled, barely catching the potion, and set it down. He walked back and sat on the hard bed across from his sisters. Yvaine curled up at the bottom and flicked her tail.
“This place is enchanting, but we’re here for Vivian,” Marion said. “We can’t let the glamour of it get to us.”
“Or the enchantment of green eyes.” Vivian raised a brow and smirked.
A flush broke out over Marion’s face. “No, of course not.”
Timothée studied his sisters. They were beautiful. Back in Seagrass, many of the village boys had fallen loopy in love with them. But none of it was ever serious. By the time they lived in Wolfhelm, well, Vivian had kept her distance from everyone, and Marion barely had time for Huxley MacGregor.
Darius was clearly infatuated with Vivian, which caused all sorts of problems they couldn’t properly talk about. And Timothée hadn’t seen Marion quite so hateful of anyone ever—which clearly meant she was infatuated with Khalid. Did that mean he was destined for Carmilla…
She had saved him from the Dark Prophet, and she was beautiful…but she was cold.
But not quite so cold as Lady Kassandra.
“How come she didn’t let me kiss the staff?”
His sisters blinked at him. “What?”
Timothée picked at an invisible thread on his shirt. “Lady Kassandra let both of you kiss her staff. But she didn’t offer it to me. She didn’t seem to like me very much.”
“Think nothing of it.” Marion began fluffing her flat pillow. “That lady’s a kook, like the rest of them. Probably the kookiest.”
Vivian looked down nervously and began rubbing her arm. “I’m sure you’re right, Mare, but…”
“But what?” Marion gave a lemon-suck face.
Vivian’s eyes shone. “I swear when I kissed the staff…it said my name.”
Marion’s hands stilled on the pillow. Her body tensed. Then she returned to fluffing, more aggressively this time. “I’m sure it was nothing. We’re all over-tired and overwhelmed. We’ll play the priestess’s little game, but she’s no mother of ours.”
Something sat wrong in Timothée’s belly, twisting and turning. A memory that could only be felt, not recalled.
“There was something odd about that staff,” Vivian pressed. “I just know it.”
“It was made of gravastarium.” The memory clicked into Timothée’s mind like a key in a lock. The forbidden metal. “Just like the Dark Prophet’s sword.”
“Another reason not to trust this place,” Marion said. “That lady outlaws a metal then hoards an entire staff of the stuff? And she called Father a thief and traitor. What a bother!”
Vivian slipped beneath the stiff-looking bed sheets. “A bother it may be, but tomorrow we become a part of it. If we’re going to go through with this, we’ll have to swallow a star.”
Timothée could barely stifle his smile. His thoughts turned to the ceremony tomorrow. All this time, he’d thought himself stuck as a poor baker boy. That he’d waste his life away in the slums of Wolfhelm, with only his books for adventures. Maybe Marion was right, and it was all nonsense. But it had given him this chance.
To wield magic would be to change his entire life. He’d never be a nobody, ignored or loathed by society.
He was going to be a Starling.
This would make a very good story.
Marion, on the other hand, did not seem enthused about the idea. She tentatively climbed into her own bed, wringing at the sheets.
“What are you worried about, Mare?” Timothée leapt beside her and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. “You’re not going to get all burnt up. You’ve got the strongest heart I know!”
“It’s not just that,” Marion snapped. “Didn’t you notice on our way in? Gold and blue uniforms only. And haven’t you been listening to Setviren? Morning Star this, Evening Star that. There’s another house, you know. And they treat them like lepers.”
Timothée thought of Carmilla in her purple uniform, the black choker tight around her neck. “The Dark Stars.”
He’d heard the stories. To swallow a Dark Star meant to have your magic bound. Maybe it has something to do with that strange choker Carmilla wears.
But that wouldn’t happen. Not to the Greywicks.
They would be heroes.
Timothée squeezed his sister tighter. “You worry too much! Jenny Cotswood told me it’s very rare to swallow a Dark Star. They’re the smallest house. Only one in a hundred catch a Dark Star.”
“Well, I have very rotten luck,” Marion mumbled.
“Aren’t Dark Stars supposed to wield the magic of Noctis?” Vivian whispered. “The same magic he was banished for a millennium ago?”
The name echoed in Timothée’s head, a haunting chorus. Reverence and agony.
Shame crept into his words as he whispered, “The Dark Prophet…he looked at me and called me Noctis. Why?”
Marion clicked her tongue. “Are you sure he was calling you Noctis? He’s a raving cultist. He was blathering on and on about Noctis before he tried to murder Vivian’s prince.”
“But what if Noctis is really our brother?” Timothée urged.
Marion patted his hand. “I have one brother, and he is right beside me.”
Timothée wanted to be reassured by her words, but he wasn’t. Because the Dark Prophet had called him Noctis and in that moment, that name had belonged to him more than his own.
“Let us focus on the task at hand and do what we’ve always done.” Vivian’s steel-blue eyes shimmered in the low light. “Take one step at a time. Whatever happens, we’ll get through it together.”
Timothée kissed Marion on the head, then did the same to Vivian. He settled into his own stiff, hard bed. There was no telling what time of night it was. The wee hours, leading toward dawn, probably. They’d have to get used to sleeping during the day, like Starlings.
The infirmary was night dark, besides the pale glowing crystals along the wall. The lights had dimmed as soon as they’d laid down to sleep. As if the room had been waiting for them. He squeezed his eyes shut. He knew he was exhausted, could feel the heaviness in his eyes.
Something slithered into his mind: a whisper, someone’s breath brushing the curls from his forehead. He shot up, throwing his hands out, but there was no one there.
Vivian and Marion slept peacefully on either side of him.
He rubbed his ear; he swore he’d heard someone whispering to him. He lay back down, eyes wide on the ceiling.
A cold chill slithered from one end of his mind to the other: This way.
He shot up. The voice was coming from the other side of the door.
“Hello?” Timothée whispered.
The crystal lights on the walls blinked in response.
He carefully looked over at Vivian and Marion. If he were to wake them, they would just say he feared being in a new place and tell him to go back to sleep. But he had heard something.
He swung his legs over the bed, and Yvaine, who had been sleeping, gave an angry growl and hopped over to Vivian’s bed.
“Fine,” Timothée whispered, “I’ll go alone.”
He was only wearing a light long-sleeve shirt and pants; both had been given to him at the palace. The sleeves were a little short, and the cuffs of the pants hung just over his ankles. He tugged on his old boots, laces undone, and shuffled out the door.
A frigid breeze travelled through the room, strong enough to make him stumble. He swore the breeze carried words: This way. Except…there could be no breeze. There were no windows.
It was cold without a blanket, even the starchy green-grey one, and the halls had a silence that hadn’t been there earlier. But it was approaching dawn now, and that was when the Starlings went to sleep. So, who is whispering?
He turned a corner. Curved windows with polished golden frames lined the long hall. Grey autumn light dusted through the windows, confirming his suspicion: not yet dawn. Outside, a dark sky was heavy with swollen clouds, and rain pierced down in sheets.
Timothée turned corner after corner, looking for any source of the voice. The Academy was built with huge, polished stones, and each hallway was lit by those crystal light fixtures. He passed suits of armours holding flags of the Celestial Church and Andúrigard. Regal doors were closed along his path. Some had small scrolls hung outside listing the names of different classes: History of Thraina, Study of Celestial Bodies, Astronomical Arithmetic.
This way, this way. Now it felt like the voice was demanding from between his ears. He knew he’d heard it before but could not place who the voice belonged to.
There was something unsettling about the only sounds being the echo of footsteps, the pattering of rain. And that voice in my head.
He rounded another corner and realized he was going deeper to the centre of the school, his path now lit by those pulsing crystal lights. He came to a huge hallway, one he recognized from earlier when Setviren had ushered them in. It must be one of the main corridors through the school.
Giant portraits covered this hall, all the way to the ceiling. He had to crane his neck to take them in. He wanted to stop and examine them, but the whisper in his mind became more insistent: This way. This way. This way. He caught glimpses of vast landscapes of Thraina, but most were paintings of the night sky.
He passed by a small alcove. A shadow tremored from within. There’s someone in there. Timothée slowed his steps, then turned back. This way, the voice in his mind hissed.
But he was curious and peered into the shadowy alcove. It was lined with more paintings, and suits of armour, and someone stood at the end staring up at a huge portrait the light didn’t reach.
Turn around, the whisper said.
Timothée began to obey the voice, carefully turning around so as not to disturb the figure. But he stepped on his bootlace and stumbled forward. Reaching out to steady himself, he grabbed onto a suit of armour. It clanged loudly as he crashed to the floor, amidst the steel chest plate and gauntlets. The helmet rolled loudly, very loudly, down the alcove.
The person at the end didn’t flinch. They must have known I was there, even before I made any noise.
They turned as the helmet clanged its way toward them and stomped their boot down upon it.
A crystal light fixture flared to life, revealing the figure in a fuchsin shimmer. It was a boy, a student…a Starling. He wore the broken parts of a uniform, the dark purple cloak inlaid with silver stars thrown over one shoulder, a grey shirt partly buttoned, dark navy pants rolled up above his pale ankles, and low-cut boots.
“It isn’t wise to wander the halls once the sun rises.” The boy walked closer to Timothée.
He was…he was beautiful.
Beautiful in the way a lightning storm was beautiful: deadly, striking, enchanting.
His hair was so light it could almost be called grey, rippling with lilac shadows. His eyes were that colour as well, as bright as the lavender flowers on their old farm.
And Timothée was sitting in a pile of broken armour, looking like a complete idiot. He felt annoyed about it. “Well, it’s hard to sleep when someone’s whispering outside my door.” He stumbled to his feet, clattering the armour some more. “Was that you? Were you using magic?”
The boy stared at Timothée, the way one would study the most fascinating book. Timothée would gladly lay his pages out to be read. “I was wondering when our paths would cross, Morbris.” He spoke his words slowly, in a cunning, distinguished voice, rasping slightly at the edges, like a brittle winter tree. Then he turned from the alcove and started down the hallway.
Morbris? Timothee was pretty sure he didn’t even want to know what that meant. “Hey, wait.” Timothée trailed after him, his annoyance shifting to curiosity. “Was it you doing magic?”
“How could I do magic?” The boy laughed darkly and touched something at his neck. A choker, like Carmilla wore.
He’s a Dark Star! So it’s true. They do have their magic bound.
“Don’t tell me you’re like all the other first years,” the Dark Star boy continued, “saying the castle is haunted.” He cast a discerning glance back. “Come on now. I expected more from you, Timothée Greywick.”
Timothée stumbled. “How do you—”
“Know your name? All of the Celestial Academy knows who you are. Everyone’s enthralled with the Lost Star Children. Information spreads as fast as light here.” The boy turned around, hair falling across his face. “We all have stars after all.”
Timothée was so struck by him—the bright spark of his eyes, the knife-edge curve of his smile, the effortless elegance in which he moved—that he couldn’t think of anything to say, didn’t even realize it was his turn to say something.
The boy scrunched his nose. “Hearing ghosts again?”
“You know my name,” Timothée said. “What’s yours?”
“Valentine Sun.” His long, elegant fingers stroked the violet stone on his thick black choker.
Timothée hadn’t expected the boy to offer his name so freely. He mouthed the word silently. It sounded as strange as it did familiar.
The whisper in his mind echoed him, the voice the same but different all at once.
Timothée, startled, grabbed Valentine’s wrist. And Timothée didn’t think Valentine could look more displeased if he’d looked down and saw a big fat rat crawling up his arm.
“I heard the whisper again, Val.” He dropped his hand.
“What did you call me?”
“Val.” Timothée’s cheeks burned.
Crystals flickered along another hallway. Timothee was sure that hall had been dark before. He stepped toward it.
“That way, huh?” Valentine said, mirroring his steps.
“You heard the whisper too?”
“Maybe this school is haunted. Stars know I wouldn’t be able to go in search of the mystery if I wasn’t following behind the Timothée Greywick.”
The Timothée Greywick. His cheeks burned. For once, he was glad the halls were so dark.
Timothée followed the pulsing crystal lights, and the whispers in his mind dulled to an encouraging murmur.
He wasn’t imagining it. Val heard it too.
He gave the boy beside him a quick glance. A Starling. Someone he would take classes with, and eat with in the dining hall, and even walk around the grounds with. If Dark Stars were even allowed to do that sort of thing. It would be a shame if they weren’t allowed to spend time together because they were in different houses.
In Seagrass, Marion and Vivian had several friends. And even though they tried to invite him, no one was ever interested in talking to him. It was like he was an eel, and every friendship he ever tried to make just slipped off him.
“Why do you need me?” Timothée asked.
“You’re a Star Child, aren’t you?” Val replied. “So you must be brave. Setviren recounted great tales of you three from the events in Wolfhelm.”
Did scaring vampires away with glowy skin count as bravery? He certainly hadn’t felt brave, flat on his back with the Dark Prophet’s sword about to impale him.
Val didn’t know that. It didn’t sound like he had been among the Starlings who watched the ceremony.
“Well,” Timothée said, running a hand through his hair. It fell and flopped over his eyes. “There were a lot of vampires there.”
“At least fifty. Led by the, y’know,” he lowered his voice, “the Dark Prophet.”
“Oh, the Dark Prophet.” Valentine arched a brow. “I did hear he returned. Everyone assumed the little prince got him years ago. I’d love to hear your firsthand account.”
Timothée couldn’t remember the last time someone was interested in anything he had to say. Certainly not his sisters, nor the customers at the bakery, or Lingrint or Jenny Cotswood, or the fake witch from next door. Occasionally Yvaine, but she didn’t count because she was a cat.
Valentine seemed genuinely interested. The crystal lights on the wall played off his sharp cheekbones and flashed in the lavender shine of his piercing eyes. The mint and turquoise and pale pink light painted his pale face and hair in every colour.
“Well, Prince Darius was lying defeated on the ground, and my sister was in trouble, and I saved her and,” he captured Val’s gaze, “the Dark Prophet came after me.”
“And then, I knocked him to the ground and—” Timothée lowered his voice, took a step closer, “the Dark Prophet ran away.”
“Ran away from you?” Val’s eyes widened.
Timothée shrugged. “You could say that.” It would be a lie, but you could say it. He may have left out a couple of details.
“Well, it would be a pity if I crossed you, then.” Val stepped closer and his voice dropped in a way that made a shiver course through Timothée’s body.
They were standing close now, whispering alone in the hallway. Uneven strands of lavender hair fell on either side of Val’s face. His hair was cut shorter in the back. It looked soft as it fell across the delicate planes of his cheekbones.
And Timothée realized he hadn’t replied. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It could have been a second or a thousand years.
“Your freckles have a pattern.” Valentine’s voice was pitched so low Timothée wasn’t sure the words were meant for him to hear. “A very distinct part of the night sky.”
Timothée was pretty sure even the darkness couldn’t hide how red his cheeks were.
“Why are you awake?” Timothée swallowed in a dry throat. “Don’t Starlings usually go to bed around this time?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Val said simply, and Timothée felt like there was more behind his words.
“I know what you mean.”
Val turned sharply. “Did you hear that?”
Timothée blinked. He hadn’t heard anything that time, but he had been…distracted.
“Follow me.” Val took off down the twisting hallways until they came to a wooden door with a rounded top and brass handle. Val tore it open. A stone staircase spiraled downward.
“Are you sure this is the way?”
“What?” Val crossed his arms. “Are you the only one allowed to hear things?”
Timothée followed him. If Val trusted him, Timothée could do the same.
Candles dripping hot wax lit these walls instead of crystals, and soon Timothée lost count of how long they’d been walking.
He wanted to say something to Val, to ask about the school, about catching a star, but every time he was about to, he’d catch a look at Val’s face, the curve of his full lips, or the brush of candlelight along his hair, and end up swallowing his words.
An urgent whisper shuddered through him, and the candles flickered and pulsed in response. This way. Timothée stumbled and grabbed the wall.
Val whirled. “What?”
“We’re going the right way.” He smiled. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was smiling, because following the orders of a ghost or whatever was calling him, was certainly not the best idea. Especially after his father had warned him about this school.
But he’d never ever done anything adventurous with anyone.
And certainly not with a beautiful Starling.
“Stop smiling.” Val got that look again, like a rat was crawling up his arm, but this time the rat was Timothée’s face. “We’re exploring a haunted castle, not heading to the Yuletide Ball.”
Timothée ran a hand through his hair. Now he was imagining Yuletide, feasts, and glowing trees, and…a ball?
Pressure grew the deeper they went, and he felt dizzy with the constant spiral. Acrid moisture seeped down the side of the walls. Moss and dirt now covered the previously clean stone. They must be deep underground now…
Could it still be considered underground if you were floating above the air? Timothée wasn’t sure.
“So, how was catching your star?” Timothée asked. “Tomorrow night –”
“Stop.” Val held out his arm. Timothée stumbled into him.
He heard it: not whispers, but the clicking rhythm of steps. Then a different light bloomed along the walls.
“Someone’s coming,” Val said.
“What do we—”
“Leave it to me.” He slammed Timothée against the stone wall. White specks sparkled in his vision.
Val lifted one hand to the black choker around his neck. His fingers danced over the gem. It loosened and fell into his palm. He closed his eyes and tucked the choker into his pocket.
Timothée withheld a gasp. I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.
The rhythm of steps grew louder. He knew he shouldn’t be down here. What if it was Setviren and he sent him all the way back down to Wolfhelm?
“Val—” Timothée hated the wavering in his voice.
Val’s hand clasped over his mouth; the light ends of his hair brushed Timothée’s shoulder. “Try not to scream.”
Why would I…
Dark shadows spooled at Val’s feet and wrapped around their legs. Timothée did make a sound, muffled against Val’s hand—because this boy…this Dark Star…
It was all true. Dark Stars did have the power of Noctis.
Run and catch a falling star
To you heart, bind flame and flare
But mind the dark and mind the tricks
For Noctis, you must beware
The children dream of light and fire
They dream of a starlight throne
But the sky is made of not just stars
Light is never alone
Darkness waits for its masters return
Or a child who will serve the part
For the legend of shadows sings its truth
A Dark Star seeks a dark heart
The nursery rhyme leapt back into his head like a haunting chorus.
The light on the walls grew brighter, the clicks of the steps louder. Shadows wrapped around their bodies.
Timothée felt the shadows and didn’t feel them. It was like the brink of cold at winter and the ever press of heat under the Red Corn Moon.
The hard stone grated against his back. Val’s chest pressed so hard against Timothée he thought his ribs might crack. Val was shorter than him, so Timothée’s mouth was in line with his forehead.
Val’s fingers curled on the stone wall, and he swept his gaze up, so now their faces—
“Don’t breathe,” Val hissed.
Timothée was going to pass out.
Shadows covered them entirely. The candlelight grew brighter and brighter until Archpriestess Kassandra came into view, long robes trailing, gravastarium staff held tight in her hands. Her beautiful face was fraught with worry and the tiny bells and ornaments sewn into her clothes jingled as she walked.
This hallway was too narrow. Even shrouded in Val’s shadows, she would certainly see them. Val locked eyes with Timothée. The shadows wavered, pulsing along his edges. His brows knit in concentration—and the Archpriestess passed through them and continued up the stairs.
Timothée’s heart flipped in his chest. She hadn’t just passed around them…she’d passed through them.
He didn’t move after one breath, then two, or three, and he thought he’d stay like that forever with Val’s chest pressed against his own, and the shadows wrapped around them.
Then the shadows fell away, dripping off him with the consistency of water that didn’t leave him wet.
Val didn’t back up. He could feel the frantic pulse of Val’s heart against his chest.
This was so different than dusty bakery storerooms or mouldy attics. The energy between them felt like a living thing. Was this the spark all his stories had talked about? Because, by the Three, it felt like the air might explode if he took another breath.
A hot rush of desire pooled through him as he felt Val’s heavy breath on his neck. So new. So different. It was immediate, demanding, urgent. He remembered how long it had taken with Lingrint, with Jenny, the others. It had often taken a long time to feel anything. But now—
He bit his lip. Being this close to Val was deliciously uncomfortable. Timothée shifted slightly, felt something against his thigh, and then Val tilted his face up.
A rush of ecstasy flooded through Timothée. Maybe, maybe, this beautiful, enchanting boy wanted him. Timothée took a shallow breath, and with great difficulty shifted his chin down to look at Val. Their faces were so close, Timothée noticed the wavy strands of his brown hair falling on Val’s forehead.
Timothée shuddered and closed his eyes, trying to gain some focus. But it was even worse. His other senses were heightened. The scent of pomegranate, the twinkling linger of magic in the air. He felt with sharpened clarity every place their bodies touched, the crushing pressure of Val’s chest, the sharp bones of his hips, the intoxicating hard shape of him pressed against Timothée’s leg.
Their rabbit-fast breath was an uneven cadence, the only sound in the cold stairwell.
He flicked his eyes open. Val was studying him with a calculating gaze. He dropped his gaze to Val’s lips, so full on his delicate face. He wanted to grab him, to spin him around and push him against the wall and kiss him until they were both dizzy with it.
But that was something only people who were good kissers did.
Val pushed him away and stumbled down a few stairs. His face was twisted, brows curved, like he’d been frozen into a snarl. Like he was furious. But it was so quick, the blink of a star, that Timothée almost thought he imagined it.
What just happened? “So…you’re a –”
“Indeed I am.” Val reached into his pocket, pulled out the black choker and slipped it on. “Let’s get this over with.”
Timothée trailed after him again. Val’s shadows had disappeared, but it still felt like a cloud hung over him. Had Timothée done something wrong?
Down and down they went until finally, the stairs opened to a dark hallway, filled with crumbling stone. It smelled like earth and something foul Timothée couldn’t quite place.
“I think we’re getting close,” Timothée said.
There was a fork ahead: to the left was a small metal door. To the right, the hall continued into darkness.
“This way.” Val headed toward the door.
Timothée stood still at the fork, eyes trained into the darkness of the path to the right. This way. A slight breeze lifted his long curls. “Wait. I think it’s—”
“I heard something from in here.” Val opened the metal door. “After you.”
Timothée shrugged and went in. They could always explore the hall after if this was nothing. It would make their adventure last longer. He wanted to ask Val about magic. He knew it was rare to catch a Dark Star. He had so many questions, he’d follow this boy anywhere.