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5 – In Which Marion is Reminded Why Her Siblings Should Never Attend a Festival

Electric energy had taken over the streets of Wolfhelm; people waved gold streamers and threw rice through the air. Girls had woven blue lilies through their hair in remembrance of the late King and Queen. Many wore strands of garlic around their neck, and a few even thrust wooden stakes into the air.

Marion hustled through the crowd, impatient to get home and reunite with her siblings in the safety of their apartment. For a girl who grew up on a farm with only her family, she had little issue shoving past the slow-moving celebrators. They were just like a herd of sheep; if they needed a bite on their heels, so be it.

There was too much danger about with all the young people in uniforms of blue and gold and purple eagerly waiting for night to fall so their magic could come alive. The uniforms meant they were students from that cursed school. Though Marion longed to push them the hardest, she avoided them. Her loathing was surpassed by her fear.

Besides, the sky had turned from orange to red. Time was running short. She needed to see Timothée and Vivian safe in their apartment with the boarded-up windows. Only then could she put the whole day, including that obnoxious boy with the green eyes, behind her.

It had been a horrid interaction, all in all. How he’d knocked her to the ground, her purse flying off, then teased her—

Wait. She reached for her purse with the jar of leeches—

Gone. It was gone! What could have—

She had dropped it. Dropped it when she bumped into that boy. The rage of a thousand fiery demons sprung up Marion’s body. It would have been no surprise if the top of her head blew straight off. Had he stolen it from her? Bumped into her on purpose as some sort of pickpocketing ruse?

Before she even realized what she was doing, she had turned around and was storming in the opposite direction. No, not back to the leech shoppe to get a store of frozen leeches. That would have been the sensible thing to do.

But that boy had stolen both her senses and her leeches. And she was determined to get them back.

The pickpocket had asked her if she would be at the festival. He was probably in the main square, trying to swindle more citizens. Well, she would have none of it. How hard would it be to find one green-eyed boy in a crowd of hundreds?

She chanced a quick look at the reddening sky. It wouldn’t be so bad, just going into a crowded festival, stealing back her purse, and returning home, all before the sunset.

Marion shoved into the main courtyard. She had never seen it so busy. The castle towered ahead, protected by a high stone wall and wooden gate. People travelled from all over Thraina to look upon the stone wall. It was painted with glorious murals, depicting legends of the gods and creation of Thraina. She often caught Vivian walking past the murals on her way home from work, staring transfixed at the flourishes of shape and bursts of colour. Perhaps one day Viv would pick up her paints and pencils again. Perhaps one day she would notice more than red.

Now, offerings to the gods were lined along the stone wall: flowers and fruits and feathers and even urns containing ashes of the dead mixed with burnt up star matter. Father had not been a holy man, and the triplets had never attended a day of church. Marion didn’t even know why the people left offerings, or what they would pray for. Maybe that’s why the Greywick’s life had been so full of sorrow the last three years — the gods were sick of being ignored.

Or maybe it was all a lot of pig dung and life was just cruel and you couldn’t count on anyone or anything to save you. Especially some sentient constellation that sat their arse on a star and never bothered to help the people they apparently created.

Marion gritted her teeth and scanned the crowd for the pickpocket. Yet, her eyes kept going back to the murals. The largest was of a woman in robes of pure white, hair golden as the sun. She stood with arms outstretched, rays of light bursting from all around her.

Rhaemyria, the Mother Goddess. The First Being and Grand Creator. Marion’s heart stalled, chest tightening.

A conversation leapt back at her: Mrs. Sigrud sitting in her leeching chair. “Tell me about yourself, girl,” the old lady had said, legs covered in leeches. “You’re a young thing. Where are your parents?”

“Dead. I’m an orphan,” Marion had responded proudly, as if saying she had gotten top marks at school. For if she wore her tragedy with pride, no one could battle her with pity.

“Aye, is that so?” Mrs. Sigrud nestled deep into the chair. “Your mother must have been a pretty thing like yourself.”

“Wouldn’t know. Never met her. Died when I was a babe.”

“Well, take heart. We’ve all got a mother. Rhaemyria watches over us. She loves us all. Even a lowly leech girl.”

The words ringing in her ears, Marion stared at the mural of Rhaemyria. Behind the goddess’s image was Xydrious, the Father God. At their feet were three babes. The Lost Star Children.

Legend had it, Rhaemyria and Xydrious gave birth to a son called Noctis. But Noctis had not been gifted in the act of creation like his mother, or the will of change like his father. Noctis could only destroy. In his greed for his parents’ power, he perverted human beings into the first vampires. Rhaemyria was forced to destroy her son, and then hid in the stars forever after.

Well, not forever after. The church had made a big announcement, something like two decades ago. Rhaemyria had sent three children down to Thraina to save the world from the vampires her first son had created. But the children vanished, never to be seen or heard from again.

Marion scowled at the painting. Mrs. Sigrud might have said Rhaemyria was mother to all, but she wasn’t Marion’s mother. Marion didn’t need a mother, especially one that killed her son and then lost three of her children. Maybe if she’d been a better mother, Noctis wouldn’t have gone mad and created a cult of blood-sucking demons.

Marion rolled her eyes. It was nothing but bedtime stories for the elderly. There were real problems that needed solving.

Like finding that damned pickpocket.

In the centre of the square was a wooden stage with a cream tent boasting the flag of Andúrigard on the top. The edges of the stage were decorated with hanging blue tassels and golden string. Lipstick on a pig: that ‘stage’ was the gallows, where at least monthly some poor sob with a taste for the forbidden found himself with a short drop and a sudden stop. Marion didn’t understand why commoners were so keen to hunt down stars when they knew even a hint of magic without a badge from the Celestial Academy would find them at the end of a rope, but people did a lot of things she didn’t understand.

It seemed since she’d left her beloved fields of lavender three years ago, everything had stopped making sense.

Knights wearing both the sigil of the Kingdom and of the Celestial Church patrolled through the crowd, some standing by the many vendors along the courtyard’s walls, some up on the stage where a stern green-haired man ran hitherto, rearranging the blue bouquets of flowers.

The crowd buzzed like thousands of flies. The annual swearing of allegiance ceremony would begin soon — and the Prince would make his appearance.

Marion made note of the exits from the courtyard; there were two on opposite sides, both crowded with people but perhaps less so than the one she’d entered from. If she took the east exit, and skirted down the side streets past Taliesan Avenue, she would be home before the sky turned purple. Vivian and Timothée would be waiting for her—

Except it wasn’t true.

Because Vivian was not waiting for her at home.

Vivian was here. At the festival.

What in the bloody stars?

At the very front of the stage, a sheet of chestnut hair blew freely in the wind. Vivian was so tall she was easily seen among the masses. Marion’s heart thrummed. No, no, no. Everything was going so terribly, dangerously wrong.

What could have possessed Vivian to come to the festival? She had made it all the way to the very front of the stage. Marion put her elbows out on either side and shoved her way through the crowd with the grace of a bull in a pottery shop.

To anyone around them, Marion appeared a model sister, graciously grabbing her sister’s arm and greeting her with a smile. They did not see the way her fingers clawed into Vivian’s arm or hear the angry whisper: “What in the Three do you think you’re doing here?”

For her credit, Viv didn’t flinch. Her eyes were trained on the stage. “Didn’t you get my note? I left it on the apartment door. I just want to see a little of the ceremony. What’s the problem?”

“What’s the problem?” Marion cast her eyes to the heavens as if one of the Three would offer reassurance she hadn’t gone completely mad. “It’s a moonless night, that’s the problem. And the sun has nearly set. Besides,” she glanced at the stage where the green-haired man paced, “you don’t have to be here for this. Let’s go home and pretend it never happened.”

Vivian didn’t blink. “I can never forget it happened.”

Curse her loose tongue. A hot wave of shame flooded Marion’s cheeks. Of course, Vivian couldn’t. She looked especially pale — she always did, of course, but she appeared almost translucent in the dimming sun. Her brilliant grey eyes were sunken deep into dark circles as if she had not slept in days. She was still beautiful…but unwell. And everyday a little piece of her seemed to slip further away.

“You should at least eat something,” Marion said crossly. That was the problem with worry. It always made her cross.

She just needed to find her bag, then Vivian could duck down, have something to eat and be more reasonable. She peered through the crowd. Cured of her initial rage, she realized she had just as much chance of finding one boy here as she did of finding a unicorn in the woods.

Damn that green-eyed boy and his scheme!

“I’ve lost my bag,” Marion admitted. “It was foolish to think I could get it back. Let’s go now. We’ll stop at the shoppe and pick up a frozen jar. There’s still time—”

But Vivian did not move, even when Marion tugged on her thin wrist. She stared as if seeing a ghost. Or a god.

The crowd erupted into cheers. Clapping, crying, screaming—all in fervent reverence.

For out of the tent on the top of the stage walked Darius Störmberg, crown prince of Andúrigard.

Marion stifled an eyeroll. She cared little of princes and even less for the crowds they drew. She had never thought Vivian had any interest in the Prince either. Yet today, it was like a fever had taken her.

Gods, she had eaten yesterday, hadn’t she?

“All hail Prince Darius!” the green-haired man said. He seemed a nervous sort. Marion recognized him from other ceremonies held in the capital: the loremaster of the Celestial Academy, Lord Setviren.

Prince Darius walked out and waved. Marion allowed herself to hesitate a moment. He was handsome, as handsome as all the ladies who came in for their leeching loved to gush about. He was so close she could see how his hair shimmered like golden thread in the dusk, his eyes flashing like shards of glass. He wore a dark blue uniform with silver embellishments.

Beside the prince stood a massive soldier, standing over a head taller than the already tall prince. Based on the sigil across his exceedingly large chest—a wolf’s claw—and the way he stood so close to Darius, he must be the Prince’s loyal guard, Ser Dedont. The ladies loved to talk about him in their leechings too, about how he was an undisputed warrior, the prized jewel of the Kingdom. Ser Dedont had served the royal line for generations, the star magic coursing through him keeping him young and strong.

Marion tugged on Vivian’s wrist again. She was surprisingly well grounded. “Now can we go?”

Still, her sister acted as if Marion were a breeze tugging on a curl; a small annoyance, but not enough to disturb. “I want to watch for just a moment more.” Vivian’s voice was breathy, like she’d stepped out of a dream.

“As above,” the green-haired man, Setviren, called to the crowd.

“So below,” the citizens chanted back. The customary opening to any ceremony.

Setviren cleared his throat and stepped forward. He wore robes of white and a sash around his neck embroidered with both the sigil of Andúrigard and the sigil of the church. “Today is the twelfth Festival of Unification, a celebration of the integration of the three nations and the ending of the Blood War.”

Another calamity overcame the crowd as they cheered and screamed. Marion knew all about the Blood War; though it had happened over a decade ago, no one here could let it go.

“On this day, King Halvor and Queen Elise squashed the rebellions of Kirrintsova and Medihsa. The traitors from Medihsa were welcomed back into Andúrigard, and the Kirrintsovan Empire was absorbed into the greater territory. We become one nation under the Three. And since then, Thraina has thrived!”

Cue another uproarious cheer. Yes, yes, Andúrigard good, rebellions bad. Marion had never had much interest in history or politics at the lavender farm and she had even less interest in it now, even though they lived in the Andúrigardian capital. Everyday was about survival: was there enough food? Enough money? Enough leeches?

She was about to be very cross indeed that Vivian was still staring moon-eyed up at the stage when a commotion clattered in the crowd beside them.

“Watch it, kid!”