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14 - In Which Marion Witnesses the Order of Stars



Marion Greywick sat on the grassy hill looking over the Meadow of Shattered Stars. There was so much commotion around her, students laughing and eating and singing shanties and worst of all: trying to talk to her.

Marion Greywick did not like talking to strangers.

But…she did enjoy sweets. And everyone kept supplying her with goodies. When her mug of apple cider ran dry, it was replaced with a thermos of hot coco. Tins of cookies and warm croissants and sugary figs kept being passed around and she was urged to taste everything.

When one is filled with nerves and most out of their element, eating sweets is always the best course of action.

When did I become like this? Back in Seagrass, she spent her evenings twirling around their little cabin, pretending to be at grand parties. She would drag Vivian into the village so they could flirt with the farm boys and gossip with the other girls.

Now, every well-meaning congratulator seemed a threat. And everyone was dressed head-to-toe in gold.

They were Morning Stars.

And so was she.

Marion placed a head on her heart. What happened to me? It had been like dancing through a dream, starfall all around her, and that star…

It had called her.

You belong among the stars. That’s what Khalid had told her. She knew it wasn’t true, she didn’t belong here. But…

She had belonged to that star. And it to her.

Even now, she felt a new warmth within her chest, a fire within her that could never be extinguished.

How odd to have something that belonged only to her, and not to her siblings, as well. They were three points of the same triangle. To be different—

She looked down the hill, where Vivian was still surrounded by a host of blue-clad students. An Evening Star. Already, they were separated.

Prince Darius had his arm around Vivian’s waist, and she looked equal parts awed and comfortable. I will have to warn Vivian of this prince, Marion thought, and soon. It was all well and good to play the part of princess, but Vivian could not continue this little game any longer.

Not with how sick she was.

Marion picked nervously at a tassel on the blanket she was sitting on. An exuberant red-head had insisted she sit on her blanket and Marion was grateful to have something between her and the cold grass. She hoped the star magic had not affected Vivian’s illness in any strange way. There was so much that could go wrong—

A shiver of worry coursed through her. There would be no end to the fear until all the triplets were at the top of the hill. Timothée was still out in the field. It had been an hour since Vivian had caught her star, maybe longer. At times, it seemed Timothée was getting close. A star would skitter to a stop in front of him, considering, wondering. But the moment, he reached out, it would throw itself down into the moor and fizzle out.

She had to give his silly black cat credit, though. The poor girl pranced dutifully around him the entire time, almost as if she were trying to catch her own star.

“The moon is high, the stars are falling, and the most beautiful girl in Thraina has joined my house!”

A presence fell onto the blanket beside her. She was instantly washed in the smell of mint and orange trees. Khalid Ali Bagheeri looked every bit the dignified scoundrel, with that perfect tendril of hair falling between his brows. He leaned against her, and she didn’t pull away.

“I told you there was nothing to fear.” Khalid gave a lop-sided smirk.

She could educate him on all the things there was to fear, but a sensation of relief flooded through her at his presence. In a sea of strangers, it was nice to have a…a…

A friend, she thought decidedly.

And besides, she was much too distracted by the glittering sugar glaze all over his face and lips.

“Look at you,” she murmured. “What a mess.”

With the edge of her sleeve, she rubbed at the sticky sugar on his face. As she approached his full lips, her sleeve dropped. Tentative fingers ran over his swollen, plush lips. His mouth parted slightly against her touch, and he stared at her with a green-eyed gaze that made her heart beat double within her breast.

“What can I say?” His warm breath drifted over her fingers. “Maeve is giving out cinnamon buns.”

Marion dropped her hand and focused on the grass before her, hoping her blush was invisible in the night air. “Fair enough.”

A boisterous commotion drew nearer: a crowd of Evening Stars approaching her cluster of people.

What a strange thought, she realized. Her people. The Morning Stars were her people. Her house.

But you’re not like them, a wicked voice chided in her mind.

Khalid stood and gave a hearty laugh, embracing Prince Darius, who was at the front of the group.

Behind the Prince, stood Marion’s sister. Vivian looked like a player in a stage performance, made up by starlight, hair a romantic tumble over her shoulders, eyes rich with desire. Marion leapt up and darted to her sister’s side.

“We did it—” Vivian began, but Marion snatched her wrist and pulled her away from the group. “Alright, alright, I’m coming!”

When they were a few feet away, Marion allowed herself a breath.

“How are you feeling?” Vivian asked.

“Fine, fine,” she responded. “More importantly, how are you feeling?”

“Good. Surprisingly well. Just thirsty.”

“We’ll get you fed up as soon as this whole ordeal is over. I’m worried, Viv. He’s been out there for ages.”

They looked through the throng of people, down the hill, and across the field. Timothée had wandered far away, now just a meandering silhouette against the starshower.

“Ah, don’t be worried! Your brother’s perfect star just hasn’t fallen yet.” Khalid appeared between them. Marion’s spine stiffened. She hadn’t realized he’d been close enough to hear.

“Remember that, Dare?” Khalid grabbed Darius’s cloak and yanked him into the conversation. “Star catching. Seems like it was only yesterday we were all out here finding our own stars. Now we must let the younger generation carry on!”

“Not yesterday.” Darius laughed. “Just earlier this moon.”

Despite herself, Marion felt a smile tug at the corners of her lips as they all laughed together.

“A memory I treasure deeply,” a smooth voice said, and a new boy walked up behind them. He wore a dark purple cloak and moved like a cat, stalking and silent.

But what Marion noticed most about him was his hair: silvery lilac, with eyes the same colour.

There could only be one boy like that in the school. One boy who had harassed her little brother.

Before she could say anything, a new host of students appeared behind the boy, all garbed in purple and black uniforms. Carmilla stood among them, her blood-red hair bright against the night.

Khalid turned to the newcomer. “Ah, the majestic Valentine Sun graces us with his presence! A memory we treasure together, my friend.” His eyes flashed, and something unspoken passed between them.

Setviren scuttled over, a great fluttering bird in his white robes. “Uh, ah, oh, ah!”

Carmilla crossed her arms. “We’re allowed to witness the Cosmic Rite, Professor.”

Setviren’s watery eyes shone, and then he flapped over to where Lady Kassandra stood. Marion watched her closely, observed how the Archpriestess’s body tensed as she turned and stared at the purple-clad students. Saw her lip curl, the way one might look at mud smeared on their new shoes. Setviren mumbled something to her, and Lady Kassandra responded, “Let them watch.”

Then this could only be the Dark Star house.

Marion licked her lips. There was something hard about them, in the way they stood knitted so tightly together. And each one, from Carmilla, to this Valentine, wore a thick black choker around their neck.

“Good evening, Carmilla,” Darius said, then turned to the lilac-haired boy. His voice deepened. “Valentine.”

“What? No hello kiss?” Valentine said mockingly. “Don’t dare say you didn’t miss me?”

Darius didn’t even acknowledge him, but Marion could feel the heat in the air, the sparks of tension between them.

“You offer him a kiss, but not me?” Khalid placed a hand on his heart and feigned an expression of offence.

Valentine gripped the taller boy’s neck. “Khalid, my darling, if we began, we’d never stop.”

The crowd began to chuckle. Vivian mumbled, “Are they…? Have they…?”

Marion felt Carmilla’s presence between them. “Have never and will never.” The gorgeous Dark Star girl picked at an invisible thread on her purple jacket. “They’re both just too enraptured with the idea of themselves, it’s manifested into this chaos whenever they’re together. The whole thing is quite annoying.”

Marion wanted to laugh, crack a joke with Carmilla about the size of Khalid’s ego, but she was too focused on Valentine. He had hurt her brother.

Marion leaned into her sister, hissed: “Is that boy the one who locked Tim in the sewer?”

“Purple hair, purple eyes,” Vivian whispered back. “Beautiful enough for Timothée to lose his wits over. A likely culprit.”

Justice had to be served.

Presently, Darius walked stiffly over to Vivian. “I just remembered I have to speak with Professor Setviren about something. If you’ll excuse me.”

He walked away from the group. A cluster of Evening Stars trailed after him.

Valentine worried his bottom lip and pulled away from Khalid. “I get the feeling he doesn’t like me.”

Khalid barked a laugh. “Well, yeah. Maybe you shouldn’t have stolen his lover.”

Valentine grabbed Carmilla’s waist and drew her close. “Can you blame me?”

Alarm bells clanged in Marion’s mind. What were they saying? Did that mean Darius and Carmilla had been together? Marion looked at her older sister. To anyone else, her face was perfectly nonchalant. But Marion could see it in the stuttering of breath, the slight tremble of her bottom lip.

Her sister had gone and fallen for this prince. And to know he had been with this staggering red-haired beauty—

No, no, no. It was enough that her brother was running around in a field. She couldn’t have her sister collapsing in heartbreak.

“Khalid?” she said sweetly. “Can I borrow you?”

He gave a roguish, white-toothed grin. “For any time, any reason.”

“Great.” She grabbed his earlobe and yanked him away from the Dark Star crowd.

“A-a-ah!” he cried and stumbled after her.

A cool breeze flipped her hair across her face. “What’s the story, huh?”

“What?” He rubbed at his earlobe and made a pouting face. “You want the gossip?”

Marion scowled at him.

He gave a mischievous grin in response. “You know I deal in gossip and secrets, right? Everything has a price. Even words.”

Heat simmered in the bottom of Marion’s feet, rose up her legs, and shot through the top of her head. And it wasn’t the delicious heat Khalid had made her feel in the leech shoppe.

It was the heat of rage.

“I don’t care about your stupid rules!” she whisper-yelled.

He snatched her wrist. “Well, you should. You’re a Morning Star, Marion. Secrets are your currency now. The more you know, the more power you have. The more power you have, the more likely you are to survive.” His eyes flickered. “Remember, I know why you’re at the Academy. It’s not going to be so easy as just finding a cure. You’re going to need to cheat, steal, barter, bargain, and eliminate to get what you want.” He licked his glistening lips. “Consider this your first lesson.”

Something flickered between them — mutual frustration, anger…acceptance. Khalid was her friend, but he was also a lifeline for this terrible world she’d found herself in. As much as she didn’t want to, she’d have to adapt. Or she’d be left behind.

“Alright,” Marion spat out. “I want to know about Darius and Carmilla. And Valentine and Carmilla, for that matter. What’s the cost?”

Khalid examined his nails. “A half-hour of your time. Doing an activity of my choosing.” At her aghast look, he sighed. “Don’t worry your little matronly heart. It will be something most chaste.”

She crossed her arms, stuck up her nose. “Fine.”

“Fine.” He smiled. “It all began—”

At that moment, Vivian wandered up, moving like a lost ghost. “What are you talking about?”

Khalid gave Marion a wry look. “An hour of your time if you want her to know too.”

She threw her hands up in the air. “Yes, yes! Just get on with it!”

“Are you talking about Darius?” Vivian said sadly.

“Yes,” Khalid said, “and he seems quite taken with you, so you might as well know the facts. He and Carmilla started dating at the tender age of fifteen—”

“Wait,” Marion cut in. “Didn’t you all grow up together? Isn’t that like…dating your brother?”

“I’m just glad she went for him and not me.” Khalid shrugged. “But don’t worry. They both claim the only thing between them now is politics. But there’s some bad blood between Darius and Val.”

“Why?” Marion asked.

“Well, Carmilla and Darius were like lovebirds a year ago. But that summer, she went home for her recess in Kirrintsova…and she came back with Val. And there you have it: one heartbroken prince, a very smug former empress, and a whole lot of awkward family dinners.”

Marion stared at her sister, watching the fear play across her face. Was Darius still pining over Carmilla?

“So, Valentine and Carmilla are…” Vivian said, her voice a little too nonchalant.

Khalid barked a laugh. “That didn’t last long. They’re both too dramatic. And I think Carmilla is jealous that Val looks better in eyeliner.”

Marion looked back to where Valentine and Carmilla stood in front of their crowd of Dark Stars. They certainly appeared a powerful duo, both so blasé, looking around like everything was placed before them to be judged.

That heat was back, and it needed to be expunged.

“Thank you, Khalid.” Marion turned away from him and her sister. “If you excuse me, I have justice to enact.”

She stormed over to Valentine—although the squelching of her boots in the mud lessened her intimidation.

His lavender eyes were lined in thick kohl, and he smiled as she approached. “Back so soon from talking about me? I can’t blame you, I supp—”

“Why did you do it?” she snarled.

Val’s smile was pure wicked ecstasy. He didn’t ask what she was talking about. The glimmer of delight in those evil eyes revealed his understanding. “Simple,” he said. “I don’t like him.”

He spoke so candidly, curiosity clouded her anger. No one liked Timothée, and she and Vivian could never find out why. “It can’t be because he’s a Star Child. You didn’t try anything with me!”

“I don’t mind you, actually.” He blinked. “It’s his face I can’t stand.”

His face? Marion shook off her curiosity. This boy was a fox. “Well, next time you decide you’re annoyed with my brother, remember you’re not just dealing with one of us.”

A presence appeared beside her, cold and tall. “You’re dealing with all three of us,” Vivian said.

Valentine’s face held that calm, bemused smirk for a beat too long. Finally, he said, “Trust me, darlings, I’m counting on it.”

Marion felt her hand tightening into a fist, but Khalid threw his arms around both Marion and Val. “First month of school! So stressful, isn’t it? You know what we need? Music and sugar. I’ve got the music, if someone’s got the sugar!”

Khalid carried on with his merrymaking, but Marion held Val’s stare. He’s trouble, that one. Khalid is right. I need to find out my own secrets. She whipped her skirts and returned to her Morning Stars.

The night waned on, and a soft pink glow fluttered across the horizon. The hours had passed with more food and drink and song and conversation, but now many of the students were drifting off to their dorms for sleep. Starlings came over to Marion and Vivian, congratulating them before casting an anxious glance toward Timothée.

Marion shared a blanket with another Morning Star girl. She had abandoned her decision not to talk to anyone when a bubbly girl approached her offering cinnamon buns. It would be positively rude to avoid talking to someone with cinnamon buns, Marion had reasoned.

Maeve Thatcher sat beside her now, warming her hands on a cup of steaming cider. “You’ll love it, Marion,” she gushed. “The Morning Star common room is amazing. There’s a huge balcony that overlooks the school grounds. Sometimes we even get up super early—at dusk!—and do stretching and prayer while the sun sets.”

“You’ll never see me up that early,” laughed another. It was Mara, the crimson-haired Morning Star girl who had offered Marion the blanket at the beginning of the night. Now she wrapped a second blanket around Marion and Maeve’s shoulders, and then sat beside them. “The beds are even better than the balcony. Soft pillows, fluffy duvets. Trust me, waking up is the hardest part of being here.”

“That all sounds lovely,” Marion said. And it did. She’d been using a blouse stuffed with another blouse as a pillow for the last three years. And she dreamed of the view from the balcony—how different it would be from the dirty alley their apartment opened up into.

Marion snuck a glance at Maeve beside her. Her reddish-brown hair was done up in a braided crown upon her head. What would it be like to befriend this kind, upbeat girl? To sit in front of her and ask if she could braid Marion’s hair in the same way? To ask to attend morning stretches with her on the balcony?

Khalid strode in front of them, whistling a tune. He did not seem tired at all, despite the approaching dawn. “Marion, Maeve, and Mara. My Morning Star ladies. I should write an ode to you.”

Mara chucked a half-eaten cinnamon bun at him. “You should be so lucky to capture us in poetry!” Her heavy Kirrintsovan accent, mixed with the rest of the cinnamon bun stuffed in her mouth, made her words come out a muffled growl.

Maeve and Khalid laughed, and then Marion began to laugh too, and there she was, just laughing with three people she didn’t know. And yet, they were all bonded by this fire burning within their chests. This celestial blaze would unite them for eternity.

Marion’s chest ached. The starfall was much softer now, and Timothée was still in the field. He stood clutching his hair, pleading up at the sky.

“Excuse me,” Marion said lowly and slipped out of Maeve and Mara’s company.

Khalid walked in step with her, for once mercilessly silent. They went and sat beside Vivian, who was on her own, staring down at their brother.

“It’s almost dawn,” she said sadly.

Marion and Khalid said nothing.

Another half-hour passed when a shadow appeared over the trio. “I knew this was going to be a disaster.” Valentine sighed.

Marion didn’t have the energy to fight with Val anymore. Let him be a miserable bully. Her stomach twisted itself into knots she might never untie.

“Will he get to try again?” Vivian whispered. “If he doesn’t catch one tonight?”

Purple hair flew across Val’s face with a cold breeze. “No. Lady Kassandra’s decree. If a star doesn’t come to you now, it won’t come to you ever. Isn’t that right, Khalid?”

“So right, my dear Valentine.”

“What will happen,” Vivian whispered, “if he can’t catch a star?”

Khalid crossed his arms. “For us ordinary folks, it means heading back down to the ground. For a Star Child…I don’t know. Regardless of if he gets a star or not, they can’t just—”

“He’ll catch one,” Val said darkly. Then he loosed a long sigh and started stomping down the hill toward their brother.

Vivian shot an anxious look at Marion. “We can’t let him go down to Timothée alone.”

Marion nodded. They hurried down the hill after Val, Khalid stumbling behind them.

The four Starlings tramped over to the darkest part of the field, where the rays of dawn hadn’t quite reached. Stars fell lazily, as if they were as tired as the students. Standing among them, looking lost and forlorn, was Timothée.

Val stopped right before him. “You’re doing it wrong.”

Timothée’s startled gaze passed over them before settling on Val. “Why should I listen to anything you’re saying?”

“You really shouldn’t,” Val sneered. “Normally if you do, things will turn out very poorly for you. But in this case, you need to listen.” He was so much shorter than the gangly Timothée, and yet Val conveyed such power in his stance, in the way he held Timothée’s gaze. “If you want to catch a star, you have to stop trying to choose one. Let one choose you.”

“But—”

Val sighed dramatically, then snatched Timothée’s wrists. Marion bristled at their contact but didn’t move to stop it. With the sun threatening to pour over the meadow, they needed a miracle.

“You’re afraid,” Val said.

“I’m…” Timothée’s hands trembled. Marion couldn’t be sure if it was the fear of catching a falling star or being touched by Valentine.

With a tenderness that didn’t match his expression, Valentine turned Timothée’s wrists, so his palms opened to the stars. “You’ll never catch a star if you’re afraid of it.”

Marion’s nervousness came to a bite: “What are you filling his head with?”

“All manner of things, I’m sure.” Val dropped Timothée’s wrists and turned, walking up the hill. Marion got the distinct feeling he very much intended for everyone to follow him.

“You can do this, Timothée,” Vivian urged.

“No matter what happens, we’ll be together,” Marion breathed.

Timothée just shook his head, staring blurrily down at his hands.

They were halfway back up the hill when they heard the gasp of a student. Marion whirled. There it was: a star, hovering before Timothée.

“I’ll be,” Khalid muttered. “Val, you bastard, you were finally right. For once.”

Val said nothing, though his eyes flashed.

Timothée’s stance was nervous; he shook like a caught rabbit. He’d been close to catching one before.

“Please,” Marion prayed under her breath. “Let this be the one.”

The star pulsed and wavered in front of him, tendrils of light flickering in and out. Timothée reached a hand out, and this time, his movement was not tentative.

He was sure.

This star belonged to him, and he belonged to it.

The star shot inside him—no moment of delicate wondering as there had been with her and Vivian.

And then Timothée screamed.

It was a tortured sound. He clutched at his throat, back arching. And he glowed a white so brilliant it reminded her of the night in the square. Light struck him like arrows. Was…was the star burning him from the inside out? No! No!

Then…his inward light went out. Like the eclipse of a sun. The outward iridescent beams coiled over the ground, as if heavy and weighted by intense gravity. And the light turned black as pitch. Black as shadows.

No…

Timothée…he couldn’t be…

Marion whirled to look at Lady Kassandra. A single tear ran down the slope of her face.

“My lady?” Setviren said, a worried tone to his voice.

She gave the slighted incline of her chin.

“Do it,” Setviren said.

The Archpriestess’s host of Celestial Knights marched down the hill toward Timothée.

“What is happening?” Marion cried. “What’s going on?”

Val was rigid beside her, his feet digging into the muddy ground, his fists balled at his side. His mouth was a thin, firm line and he made a sound she could only describe as a growl.

Timothée stumbled across the meadow. Shadows kept springing from under his feet, slithering up his body. He looked down at them, horrified. They were like black flames, devouring the air.

“Faster!” Lady Kassandra shrieked. Panic laced her words. “Get him now!

The Celestial Knights surged forward, drawing weapons. Weapons! Why did they need those?

“Stop it!” Marion shrieked. “Don’t hurt him!” Tears rushed down her face. Her body was hot, too hot, too full of fear, and hatred for these knights and Lady Kassandra—

Arms enveloped her. Khalid gripped her tight. “You can’t stop it, Marion. It has to be this way.”

No! Nooo!” she moaned.

Through her hazy vision, she saw Vivian sprinting up the hill. “Darius!” she cried, looking wildly for a sight of him. “Darius! Stop this madness!”

The Prince was a blue beacon at the crest of the hill. Pain etched his features.

“Students, back to your dorms!” Setviren bellowed. “Follow Prince Darius. He shall lead you back to school.”

Darius stumbled to a stop, clearly torn between wanting to go to Vivian, and his duty to the loremaster.

“Let me go,” Marion growled to Khalid. He released her, and she noticed the look of anguish on his face. She stumbled over to Valentine. He was a Dark Star. “People have swallowed Dark Stars before. Why is she sending knights at him?”

“No one like him has ever been chosen by the darkness.” Valentine didn’t even blink. “At least…not in a very long time.”

Marion stared helplessly down as more shadows coiled around her brother, spiralling out of him in wild funnels, tearing across the grass. And a host of guards began to encircle him. Even they kept their distance.

Vivian returned to her side, this time with Carmilla. “Tell us,” her sister pleaded. “What happened to you when you swallowed your Dark Star?”

Carmilla’s face did not have the same pain as Darius’s or Khalid’s. There was something else in her steely gaze. “A flicker of shadow, but that was it.”

And Carmilla Vladimirovna, who had struck down the Dark Prophet, trembled as she stared at Timothée.

“We have to do something!” Marion screamed.

Khalid gripped her wrist. “Look at him. Your brother is not in control right now. The last thing he would want to do is hurt you.”

But Marion swore she heard her name, and Vivian’s, in the torrent of his screams. Vivian collapsed to the ground, head in her hands. Marion realized another fear—Vivian could not open her mouth, not when she was this scared or angry, less everyone see her sickness.

All of them…so helpless.

Timothée was almost completely covered in shadows. They had fully wrapped around his legs and now were clawing up his torso, pulling his arms down.

A Celestial Knight held up his hand, slowing as he approached Timothée. But one of Timothée’s shadows shot out, striking the guard through the chest like a lance. The guard gave a gurgling retch, and then the shadow lifted him off the ground, flinging him around like a ragdoll.

Timothée stared in horror. Tears streamed down his face.

Two more knights spurred forward. Shadows lashed at them like a whip. Khalid was right. Timothée couldn’t be in control. He would never hurt anyone.

“Contain him!” Setviren shrieked.

“I don’t—I don’t—” Timothée was screaming.

The Celestial Knights rushed at him all at once. Shadows flayed the ones in front, sending them sailing through the air. But a knight crept up from behind and tackled Timothée to the ground. There was a blur of silver, of gold, and darkness. And then nothing.

The surviving Celestial Knights rose and Timothée was lying in the mud, his face scratched, and a black choker around his neck.

The shadows were gone.

“There.” Lady Kassandra’s voice rang clear across the field. “Nothing to fret. The Dark Star has been contained.”


***


✨Thank you for reading this chapter! Mara and Maeve are special guest-star original characters from two of our first-month Patrons!✨

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