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13– In Which Vivian Attends the Cosmic Rite

Vivian’s father never spoke of the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars. Not unless he was making a point of how horribly evil it was. But that had not stopped Vivian from hearing about the Cosmic Rite.

Thraina was full of magic but magic only came from one source: falling stars. And catching falling stars was only permitted at the Celestial Academy once a year.

A cold chill spread through the air as Setviren led them into the dark and murky night. Dozens of students followed behind them as they left the stone trappings of the Academy and headed toward the Meadow of Shattered Stars.

Some of the Starling students held lanterns, while others used their fingers to direct small bobbing lights in front of them. Low, murmuring voices of excitement echoed in the quiet night.

There had never been two Rites in a year, never an exception in all the centuries the Academy had existed. But as Setviren had repeated multiple times, they were exceptional.

Vivian certainly didn’t feel exceptional, shivering beneath Darius’s cloak and feeling like a big imposter.

Timothée and Marion walked beside her. Timothée’s hair was still damp, curls only now forming. Marion had insisted he stay in the bath until all the stink of the sewer-pit left him, and sadly Vivian could still catch a whiff of it on him.

Honestly, she thought, locked in the sewer room by a beautiful lilac-eyed boy. Only Timothée could manage that, and on his first night here.

Though she would have a few choice words for that boy if their paths ever crossed. They’d spent the rest of the day in the infirmary, and Timothée had been gloomy for all of it.

She reached out and grabbed his hand, squeezed it three times. “Tonight, you’ll catch your star.”

The thought seemed to brighten his mood, and he flashed a smile. Of them all, Timothée had dreamed of this the most.

A figure came into view at the horizon of the meadow. Lady Kassandra.

Vivian could barely take such beauty in. With each step they drew closer, Kassandra appeared more goddess than woman. She was dressed in such ornate grandeur, any queen would pale beside her. Her gown was orange and fire-red. The colours wove together like rippling flame. A sparkling gold breastplate was bespeckled with jewels, shining every colour. Her white-blonde hair was piled upon her head in tiny braids and Vivian wondered at the poor soul who was trusted with the Archpriestess’s hair. Her headpiece was a golden tiara with a massive red ruby at the centre. Layered red and orange glass spread out from the sides like wings.

“She looks so powerful,” Vivian whispered, unable to hide the awe in her voice.

Marion gave a loud huff. “If she’s so powerful, how come she wasn’t able to find her three lost children? Seagrass isn’t even that far from Wolfhelm! She’s nothing but flash and no substance.”

Marion’s words were dismissive, but they held a truth. If the church really was as powerful as it seemed, how come they hadn’t found them before?

Vivian crossed her arms and tucked her hands into her sleeves. Her stomach twisted and clenched, but it was not in fear. It was in guilt.

She had tried to convince Marion this was the right course, because it felt like the right course. But if what Setviren said was true, and their father truly had been the headmaster here…then why had he taken them away?

This was where they were meant to be…where she was meant to be. But she still couldn’t help but feel the tremor of wrath her father would have if he’d been alive, if he knew where they were going, what they were about to do…

This was a betrayal to his memory.

They approached Lady Kassandra and she raised her arms out in greeting. Flowing fabric, the colour of flames, glittered from her wrists to her breast plate. It looked like wings of fire. Then Vivian remembered: the Archpriestess was a Morning Star, a disciple of Rhaemyria. The phoenix was a sacred animal to the goddess.

“Welcome.” Her voice carried like thunder on the wind. Though she smiled at them, the glinting black staff in her hand and the host of Celestial Knights, faces shrouded by white hoods, kept the expression from feeling warm. “You have reached the terminus of destiny. Behold, the Meadow of Shattered Stars.”

Vivian looked past the Archpriestess and her knights. A steep hill sloped downward to a great field beyond. It carried such a familiarity, for a moment, Vivian felt like she was home. The rolling plains were sapphire in the night, like deep ocean waves frozen still, and the moonlight sparkled over white rocks, clustered together like seafoam.

But as vast as the field appeared, the sky was huger still, swallowing up the horizon.

Her eyes trailed back to the crowd of students. One stepped forward and her heart quickened. Darius. His blond hair fell across his brows, and he wore a heavy navy cloak with silver embroidery and crystal buckles. His gaze caught hers, as stunning and bright as the sky beyond.

She hadn’t seen him since they arrived at the school.

“My my.” Setviren’s gaze was trained upward. “There has not been such a night in some time.”

“The stars have been waiting for you,” Lady Kassandra’s voice rang. “The gods have opened up the heavens in celebration of your arrival.”

Setviren turned to the children. “We usually have an extensive ceremony with speeches before all this, but Lady Kassandra wishes you to begin training with your classmates straight away.”

“These are extraordinary times, my friend,” Lady Kassandra said calmly.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Setviren replied. “The Prince, his wards, and the missing Star Children, all starting in the same year…ahh, how the stars have aligned.”

Marion’s eyes flicked from the sky to the loremaster. “So, what do we do?”

Setviren said simply, “When the stars fall, you catch one.”

Lady Kassandra narrowed her eyes at the loremaster then stepped forward. “One of the falling stars is meant for you. Perhaps a star of the morning, blessed by the goddess Rhaemyria.” Her voice lowered a pitch. “Or one of Xydrious, an Evening Star.”

And what of the stars of Noctis? Vivian thought. Dark Stars. She cast a glance at Timothée, and a chill ran through her.

After he’d taken his hours-long bath, he’d led them through the halls, all the way to a portrait of the fallen god.

“Do you still think this is all a big coincidence?” Timothée had pointed at the portrait. “He looks like me…or I look like him. And not just me. Look closely. Vivian’s eyes, Marion’s lips…he’s our brother!”

Vivian had turned to Marion, expecting some further denial, but she’d been staring at the portrait as if it were speaking to her.

Finally, Vivian had said: “That’s why we’re here. We need answers.”

Her mind turned back to Lady Kassandra, whose rich and ethereal voice held captive all the watchful students. “The star will come to you and hover in your hands. That means it has chosen you. You must not let the star touch the ground, for then it dies. Once a star has chosen you, place it between your lips, and its celestial magic will bind with your heart.” Her glass-bright eyes held each of them still. “Catch a falling star and the world becomes yours. Create new destinies. Change your fate. You shall become Starlings and Thraina shall bow before you.”

Then with an elegant flick of her wrist, Lady Kassandra bid them forth unto the field.

“I wish there wasn’t an audience,” Marion said, casting a distasteful glance back at the throng of giddy students.

Starlings gathered at the crest of the hill. Clumps of blue and gold uniforms spread out on the cold grass. Some had even brought quilted blankets and steaming thermoses.

Timothée too was gazing at the crowd, but his eyes were frantic, almost as if he was looking for someone.

“Don’t worry,” Marion said. “If Purple Eyes returns, I’ll have a word with him.”

“W-what?” Timothée stuttered. “No, I—I mean, it’s fine.”

“Would you prefer I clock him in the nose? Remember when I did that to Evvie Thorson? She never teased you again!”

Timothée groaned, skittering down the hill, and away from the crowd. His little black cat trailed dutifully at his heels.

“What, she deserved it!” Marion shrugged. “I better go after him. You get ready.”

“’kay,” Vivian said.

She watched her sister run after their brother. Here, on the crest of the hill, the stars looked stuck in the sky. She couldn’t imagine them falling like rain.

A warmth spread over her, and she knew who approached even before she turned. Darius touched her shoulder. “I wish I could help you out there.” He flashed a rapturous grin. “But I don’t think you’ll need it.”

“I appreciate the thought.” She looked down, then back up at him. “I’m sorry, I still have your cloak.”

“Keep it.” He traced a gentle hand down her arm. “I tried to find you after class, but Setviren assured me you were well asleep. He actually threatened me if I disturbed you.”

“He threatened you?”

“Yes.” Darius cast an anxious look over at the loremaster. “As much as I wanted to see you, I’m rather attached to my—” He coughed, cutting himself off.

“It’s alright. I’m just glad I get to see you before all of, well, this.”

“Remember what I said? The stars will line up to greet you.” He tucked a curl behind her ear. “I do believe the stars were made for you, Vivian.”

Something shot across the vast blue of his eyes, a single white streak. Vivian whirled so fast Darius had to catch her in his arms. There it was! A white blur across the horizon—the first fallen star of the night.

As if on a silent cue, other stars shook and rattled from the sky, dropping from the tapestry of black. They sparkled with sharp edges as they drew closer, then burst up in sparks as they hit the ground.

Vivian realized the rocks she thought scattered across the field were not rocks at all but fallen stars—uncaught and dead.

It was forbidden to collect dead stars. Well, forbidden for anyone except Starlings. If legend held true, that was how they made their mystical weapons of stellarite.

“They’re so beautiful,” she whispered.

Darius still had his arms around her, and she leaned into him. “You said you’ve never seen a starfall. Isn’t that so?”

“Only glimpses of them,” she whispered, ashamed of the fact. “My father never let us out during one.”

“The man who stole you,” Darius said.

Was that who he was now, who he would always be?

What about the man who had carried her on his shoulders, laughing as he dunked them both into the cool waters of the Seagrass surf? The man who toiled in the lavender fields to get enough verdallions to buy them each a spinning top for their sixth birthday? What about the man that tucked them into bed at night, swearing he would keep them safe? The man who had given his life to do so…

She blinked away hot tears then concentrated on the crowd before them, on the sea of gold and blue coats. Setviren spoke with two other official-looking people, one a middle-aged woman wearing a hooded cape of gold, the other a handsome man in a purple waistcoat.

“Everyone’s watching us,” she whispered.

“Everyone’s watching you.”

She wondered if it was more than just her being a Star Child. That perhaps standing so close to the Prince of Andúrigard might be drawing the students’ attention.

“Go get your star,” he whispered in her ear.

“’kay.” She took a deep breath. The night air was cold as she stepped away from his warmth.

Her throat was a bone dry no amount of water could quench. She forced her hands into fists so no one would see them trembling.

Each step squelched with mud as she descended the grassy hill into the meadow. Her siblings awaited her in the field. Stars flew down like scattered showers, bursting upon the ground in brilliant sparks.

Marion and Timothée turned to her as she approached.

“Does anyone remember what the instructions were?” Timothée grinned.

“Don’t tell me you were daydreaming during our first lesson?” Vivian poked his arm.

Marion gazed up at the sky. She didn’t appear to have heard the joke in his words. “Catch a falling star and the world becomes yours. Create new destinies. Change your fate. You shall become Starlings and Thraina shall bow before you.”

Vivian and Timothée exchanged a glance. Their sister’s eyes were faraway, lost in the symphony of raining stars.

Then Marion drifted from them, moving as if in a dream. Her long hair billowed behind her. And it couldn’t be, because it wasn’t a moonless night, but Vivian swore she saw Marion’s hair sparkle.

“What is she doing?” Timothée asked.

“Shush,” Vivian whispered. “I think she’s…”

Marion looked like a stained-glass painting, her body alight with starfall. Celestial bodies plunged around her, but she weaved between them. She was a dancer, and the stars were her music. Her eyes were curiously glazed: an artist selecting paint, a writer trying different pens. A farm girl collecting the best lavender.

Then her eyes darted up the hill toward the students. Toward Lady Kassandra. They blazed with fiery starlight. And a star descended before her.

Vivian’s little sister became a silhouette against the star’s light. It burst brightly around her, illuminating the moors. Even the blades of grass seemed to tremble in anticipation.

Marion held out her hand. Her hair blew upward, lit up like a halo. Gusts of celestial wind whipped her dress against her legs, but Marion did not flinch. The star bounced tentatively around and then gently descended into her palm. Marion did not look at the star as she brought it to her lips: her gaze was locked with Lady Kassandra’s.

The star touched Marion’s lips, and then white light radiated down her throat, through her chest, to her heart. Marion’s hands flung out to the side, fingers spread wide. Her head shot up to the heavens. A brilliant golden light ignited around her.

Then there was another sound: a triumphant cheer. On the hill, a crowd of golden uniforms leapt up. Balls of fire, sprays of water, and clouds of snow erupted in the air. The Morning Star screamed and hugged each other. The whole lot of them raced down the hill, a howling mob of bright yellow light. “Morning Star!” they cheered. “Hail Rhaemyria! A Star Child is a Morning Star!”

And Khalid was at the front of it all. He scooped Marion into his arms, lifting her off her feet and twirling her around. She must have been in a good mood because she actually let him. Even through the dark horizon and star shower, Vivian could see the smile on her little sister’s face. It was so unfamiliar. She didn’t think she’d seen her sister smile like that in a long time.

Vivian cast a look up the hill. In the glimmer of a falling star, she could see the shine of tears down Lady Kassandra’s cheek, a shaky and emotional smile. The middle-aged woman in the golden cloak who Setviren had been talking to earlier approached the Archpriestess. To Vivian’s surprise, they embraced, sharing a hug.

“Guess Marion doesn’t have such rotten luck after all,” Vivian whispered to Timothée, only to realize he had drifted off to another part of the field.

Well, there was nothing much to it then—she might as well get on with trying to catch her own star. She wanted to ask Marion how’d she done it and so quickly. But that was probably one of those invisible rules that Lady Kassandra knew and everyone else knew, but no one ever spoke aloud.

She tried not to look back at the peering eyes of the crowd or the hollering group of Morning Stars and walked to a quieter part of the field. The grass was wetter here, and her boots sunk into the marshy ground. Little pools looked like portals to another universe, with white light reflecting throughout them.

She closed her eyes and tried to make herself as serene as possible, like Marion had seemed to be. Light flashed against her lids. But when she opened her eyes, the stars still fell around her, none of them hovering nearby.

She tried to focus, but her mind was wandering. She couldn’t help but think of Seagrass, where all the food tasted like sea salt, and the warm grit of her father’s hands, a place where she still belonged in the same world as Marion and Timothée.

Salty tears fell from her eyes. She was worlds away from them. A fear that had coiled deep in her heart slithered its way out.

What if it wouldn’t work? What if she was too sick? She still glowed the same as before, still knew the warmth of the sun, and the taste of bread. But still… What if I’m too far gone?

“Please,” she whispered. “Stars, please.”

She tilted her head back and gazed up. Her hair fell loose from her bun and tumbled down her shoulders. Looking up like this…it was just her and the stars and nothing else. Misty lines streaked across like sky, making it look like a spiderweb.

There was a storm of stars spinning, raining down in sweeping circles.

And she thought again of her father, who was not her father. But if that were so, then why had he had the same wave to his hair as Timothée, the same stubborn grin as Marion, and had she only imagined the same flecks of blue in her and her father’s eyes?

She didn’t want to cry, but it was happening anyway, her gaze still skyward. The stars were falling so hard, and they had the most particular sound as they shimmered past, the lightest twinkle on the piano, or seashells tossing in the waves, or the smooth chime of ice breaking.

The stars were singing and dancing. And she needed to as well.

She moved until she was twirling and twirling, and water splattered her ankles and the hem of her dress. And the stars were ribbons of white light spinning ‘round and ‘round her. Breathless and broken, she saw above her one star, hovering above her head. An odd sort of halo.

Her feet slowed and with her vision still spinning, she shot her hand up, straining her fingertips until they brushed the glittering edge of the star. It was a ball of light, a million colours and none at all.

Slowly, it shifted into her grip. She clasped it, and it was as frozen as ice and hot as a flame. Quickly, she cupped it in her palms and brought it to her body.

“It would seem,” she whispered, “we’ve got a great deal to live up to. If you want to jump into that nice pool of water, I won’t blame you.”

But she did not fear it leaving, because somehow, she knew this star was hers, and she was its. It cracked and sparkled in her hands, giving her its answer.

Slowly, she brought the cupped star to her lips and let the light press against her face. Something surged inside her chest, and she was suddenly filled with a great weight. A heaviness gripped her feet, and her blood hummed beneath her skin. And for the first time in so long, she was unafraid.

Vivian Greywick swallowed the star.

Her vision contracted until she was surrounded by the heavens: the black tapestry of night and pinpricks of stars everywhere she looked. She seemed to be moving at a great pace, sailing through the cosmos, herself and yet more.

“Vivian,” a voice said from all around her. “My Vivian. Forged by starlight.”

It was her father’s voice.

She kept speeding through the night sky until a bursting white light appeared ahead. She could stay here among the stars…but the light beckoned her. She must return to the earth. Her star had fallen for her.

Vivian’s eyes shot open, and she was again upon the meadow. But she was surrounded by a shimmering blue glow.

The magic of the Father God, Xydrious, hummed beneath her skin. But for whatever reason, all she could picture was her father—who was not really her father at all.

“Evening star,” she gasped.

And the word was echoed by an applauding crowd atop the hill, and loudest was the brilliant cheer from Prince Darius himself.

She touched a hand to her heart.

An Evening Star—their fates intertwined tighter still.

One triplet a Morning Star, one an Evening Star…she cast her gaze to the Meadow of Shattered Stars, where her brother stood all alone.

What fate awaited Timothée Greywick?

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