27 - In Which Timothée Makes a Wicked Bargain
Timothée’s mind hummed with wicked purpose.
Marion had opened the door to the fated room. The starcraft needed to open the door had been astounding. If such power was needed to unlock the door, Timothée could only imagine the magic within...
“It spoke to me,” Marion whispered beside him.
“I heard it too,” Vivian said.
Khalid gave a little huff. “Now I’m worried. What did I do to offend a castle into ignoring me?”
So, it wasn’t just Timothée that could hear the castle. It was his sisters, as well.
And Archpriestess Kassandra.
The four Starlings stepped into the room. Timothée inhaled; the air felt thick with magic, crackling down his throat.
Timothée once again took in the shape of the room: the natural rock walls, the circular floor that opened to the sky below, and the giant celestial cloud hovering above it all. Dark as the night sky, it rippled with purple dust and flashed with bursts of light.
Timothée watched his sisters’ entranced faces as they stared up at the celestial cloud. He wasn’t sure what it was…a piece of the night sky? Magic condensed? Whatever it was, it was very much alive. And watching them.
What a way to spend the Eve of Yuletide. If he had just been a normal student at the Celestial Academy, he could still be at the party. And he had been enjoying this ball, far more than the last one, especially now that he wasn’t the centre of attention. He could be eating chocolates, and dancing…
Maybe dancing with Val. Flirting with Val, getting annoyed by Val…
But he was here at the very bottom of the Isle of Argo, and Val was at the party, probably still looking as beautiful as he always was, drawing lingering glances from everyone around him…
Something flashed in his mind: stone walls dripping with lava. The vision expanded and he saw himself on a moonlit throne, a long glistening black sword in his hand. And Val…Val sat on his lap, wearing gauzy fabric, with long hair held back by a crown of purple jewels, lips grazing along Timothée’s neck.
He stumbled, the vision fading like smoke. Khalid caught his arm.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah.” Timothée blinked, shook his head. He had to stop thinking about Val. This place was strange, full of old and ancient magic that seemed to crawl under his skin.
He had to concentrate. This was more important.
This was for Vivian.
A celestial cloud sparked above them, a massive thing that seemed cut straight from the edges of the universe: light and darkness swirled in a rhythmic dance of colossal power.
Vivian and Marion made it to the bottom of the steps, hands clasped together, their Yuletide dresses sparkling with the galaxy’s light. Khalid walked tentatively, hand still trembling on his arm. Timothée realized this was the first time he’d seen Khalid look out of his element.
Marion stopped beneath the swirling cloud, lifted her chin.
But Timothée spoke first. He said the words aloud, though the castle could read his thoughts. “You said you would help us if we found you.”
The cloud shifted, light sparking. And found me you have, the castle spoke inside his mind.
Everyone but Khalid flinched, exchanged a wary glance. It either refused to talk to Khalid or couldn’t.
Vivian narrowed her grey gaze. “What are you?”
Less than I once was.
“That’s hardly an answer,” Marion said stubbornly, then gestured to Khalid. “Why do you speak to us and not him?”
“A just question, Marion.” Khalid nodded.
Apologies, little firebird. A bargain not only binds my soul here, but it binds my words too. I may only speak to the blood that bound me, or whom they allow.
“The blood that bound you…” Marion whispered, brows creasing.
A bargain? Timothée remembered what the castle had said to the Archpriestess: I keep Argos in the air. I take you where you wish to go. “You have a deal with the Archpriestess. Are you...are you keeping the castle in the sky?”
“No,” Marion interrupted. “He has a deal with Rhaemyria herself. She built this Isle. She put this—whatever you are—here. That’s why you can speak to us. We’re her…” Marion stiffened, as if a great weight had fallen across her. “Because we’re her blood.”
There’s the clever one. Indeed, my bargain is with Rhaemyria herself, the cloud said. This isle floats in the sky due to my magic. It is a great deal of work to stop it from crashing down to Thraina’s surface.
Timothée looked underneath the swirling cosmic creature, past the grey clouds to the ocean and land below. He had never stopped to think about what was keeping them in the sky. He’d heard the legend that Rhaemyria had risen the Isle into the air centuries ago. He’d believe it had all been the goddess’s magic.
“A bargain with a god,” Timothée whispered.
One you’re going to help me break.
The three siblings shot a look at each other, and Khalid looked positively pained that he was only hearing half a conversation.
“Why would we help you break a bargain with a god?” Marion said. “If everything you say is true, she is our blood. Why should we incur her wrath?”
Everything I say is true on account of my bargain, little firebird. The cosmic cloud swirled and sparkled. You’ll break this bargain, and free me because you came to me for a reason. You need my help. Now speak your desires.
The three of them exchanged a glance, then Vivian stepped forward. “I need a cure. For this.” She tugged on her upper lip revealing her teeth: the two long white fangs.
Marion startled at the sight, but the cosmic cloud seemed to only grow more curious, tendrils of light licking at Vivian’s edges.
You are fascinating, it spoke. A god and a vampire. You seek a cure for a blessing. Not only do you have the power of the stars, but the strength of vampires. And you lack their greatest failure, for the sun does not ail you.
Vivian shook her head, wiped the tears that spilled down her cheek. “I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
The cosmic cloud pulled back. I may not understand your wishes. But I can help you. I could remove that part of you, Vivian Greywick.
Vivian let out a gasping breath, clasped her hands over her mouth.
Marion caught Timothée’s gaze. Hope flickered between them. “How?” Marion pressed. “How could you do such a thing? With starcraft? With some other magic? What are you? Who are you?”
The bargain has bound my true name and my story. However, Timothée swore he caught a flash of a familiar smile in a flicker of light, even gods cannot bind all their secrets. The answers you seek are within these very walls.
“It doesn’t matter.” Marion shook her head. “Cure my sister, and I swear on everything I am, I will find a way to break your bargain and set you free.”
The celestial cloud was silent for a moment, then quaked in laughter. I can do nothing for her when my magic is bound like this. What is left of me is forced to keep this wretched school in the sky.
“No…” Vivian whispered.
“What is the nature of the bargain?” Timothée asked. “She commanded you to fly her island. What do you get out of it?”
The preservation of something direly important to me.
Beside him, Marion and Vivian were faltering. They had found hope after so long, but it was slipping away from them. But inside, Timothée’s mind was spinning, words tumbling. What is left of me…the preservation.
He remembered how Archpriestess Kassandra held her staff. How when she slammed it down in anger, the cosmic cloud had recoiled, like it experienced a flash of pain.
The goddess Rhaemyria had gifted the Archpriestess her own children…why not a way to control the castle, as well?
“The staff,” Timothée said suddenly. “Archpriestess Kassandra’s staff…it has something to do with you.”
Indeed, Timothée Greywick, the celestial cloud said. Bring it here and break it, and I shall have all that was lost returned to me.
But it was Vivian who said, “We can’t just steal her staff. The Archpriestess is powerful. We all saw her when the Exalted One attacked. And even so, it’s not just a priestess we’re breaking a bargain with, but Rhaemyria herself.” Vivian lowered her voice. “We don’t even know why this being is here.”
Marion crossed to her, grabbed her hands. “Does it matter if it can help you?”
Vivian flicked her eyes to the swirling magic. “You cannot tell us what you are. But can you tell us how you ended up here, and what you wish to do with freedom?”
I am here because of the will of a god and the incompetence of a foolish mortal. For a moment, the cosmic cloud lost colour, turning dark as the night sky, the shade of a shadow. As to what I’ll do when I return…I will create again. And walk upon the ground. I am tired of the sky.
Words fell like clues into Timothée’s mind. Create…create… Create was a Morning Star word. And walk…walk upon the ground. “You weren’t always like this,” Timothée said. “You were a human once.”
Was this being once a Starling? A Morning Star, perhaps?
I was like you once.
Timothée saw Vivian and Marion turn the words over in their minds. It was hardly an answer. They were all swimming in the unknown. But this was the closest they had ever gotten to helping Vivian. Truly curing her.
“If we decide to break this bargain,” Vivian trembled, “how could we defy a god? She must watch what we do even now.”
The gods wish they were omnipotent, but even Rhaemyria does not know everything. And you would be wrong to believe her more powerful than you.
A sharp line of fear ran through Timothée. When he looked at his sisters, all he could see was the reflection of the universe in their eyes.
She may be content to watch her children for now, the cloud continued, but one day you will grow more powerful than even her. What will she do then?
Timothée thought of what she had done to her last child. She had ripped the star from Noctis’s heart and killed him. But Noctis had been evil, and they weren’t. They weren’t.
“More powerful than Rhaemyria?” Vivian whispered.
The gods were born far from here, on stars distant in the sky. But you were born of Thraina, under these stars, under this sun. Each day they grow weaker, and their children grow stronger. I see it beginning. The celestial cloud shifted. Isn’t that right, little sun?
“The gods want us to guide them home,” Marion whispered. And Timothée remembered what she had told him: the prophecy of the Star Children. But a grand fate like that seemed foolish when one of them was dying, and he himself had wicked magic.
Do not fear her bargains, the cloud said. She will not be able to stand against you forever. You will learn and grow more powerful and then—