Vivian was hot. This castle felt so hot. Maybe that was because she had only ever known a cabin that always was damp with salt spray from the stormy sea or a dripping apartment that grew frost on the inside of the windows every morning.
Now, she wore a long-sleeved wool dress, standing in a lavish room that had not one, but two, roaring fires.
The Greywicks had been ushered straight from the carriage, surrounded by a tight line of guards on either side and through huge doors and long hallways of the castle. It had all happened so quickly, Vivian could not even stop to wonder at the splendour of it all.
After that, they had been stuck in the castle infirmary. A palace physician, a graduate from the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars, had come to examine them. Marion had screamed all sorts about that—until the green-haired man, Setviren—had brought in a non-magical doctor. Marion had still grumbled at that, but less so.
She had to thank her sister in those moments. She could tell the physician had wanted to poke and prod them all night but Marion had adamantly refused. Thank the stars. She didn’t want anyone looking too closely at her.
Then they’d be stuck in what looked like a drawing-room. Outside, they’d overheard a great deal of arguing between Setviren and some others. She swore she’d even heard Darius’s voice.
The last she’d seen of him had been when he’d bowed in that raining square. The Prince of Andúrigard had bowed to her. She could barely comprehend it.
Finally, the door had opened, and Setviren, as well as a whole host of guards, had led them down more twisted halls until they’d be ushered into a new set of rooms.
And now, she, Marion, and Timothée were standing in a giant room all alone. Yards and yards of silken curtains hung from the towering windows. The floors were covered in plush rugs, and the room had three beds heaped with blankets and feather pillows. Gilded gold-covered every inch of the place, from the doorframes to the fireplace mantle to the posts of the bed.
A single pillow from this room could pay for everything in her little candle shoppe thrice over.
Vivian sat down on the edge of the bed and sunk deep within it. Everything in the room seemed too soft, too clean, compared to the world outside. Compared to the Greywicks.
They looked normal now. With the thick velvet curtains covering any starshine through the windows, Marion’s hair looked its usual golden, and Timothée’s skin was merely pale and freckled.
It was the first thing Marion had done when they were alone in the room. Shut the drapes as tight as she could, as if she were ashamed of Vivian’s eyes, of her hair, of Timothée’s skin. As if hiding from the light could protect them.
But nothing could hide what they were, what they’d done.
Setviren had called them the children of the gods.
How could that be possible? Vivian’s thoughts raced. Deep down, she’d always know she wasn’t the same as everyone else. But still—
Marion shoved a cold jar into her lap. “Here,” she said. “You should eat these.”
“Are these Sigrud leeches?”
“What of it?” Marion dismissed the question with a wave of her hand.
Vivian wrinkled her nose but sucked one between her lips. Blood exploded in her mouth as she chomped the wriggling creature in half. She hated Ms. Sigrud’s leeches; they always had a stale rose taste to them.
When she was done, Marion tucked the jar back in her bag, then handed her a dried mint leaf. Vivian chewed it thoroughly, lest her siblings have to endure her leech breath. They should try eating one, she thought bitterly as the taste of mint filled her mouth. Only after she ate leeches could she could taste anything but blood.
Marion’s eyes were heavy upon her.
“We don’t have to, you know,” Vivian said quietly.
“Have to what?” Marion asked. “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“We don’t have to run away again. We could just—”
“Go see the Archpriestess?” Marion’s lip curled. “At that school? Dad wouldn’t even let us look at it when it was in the sky! What would he say if he knew—”
“He can’t say anything.” Timothée scooped Yvaine off the ground. “He can’t ever know because he’s dead. And now we’ll never figure out why he hated that school so much. Why he was so afraid of it.”
“Why he was so afraid of us,” Vivian said. “Setviren knew who we were right away. That’s more answers than Dad ever told us.”
Marion scoffed. “Setviren’s a fool. People like that will believe in anything. I know there’s magic in this world. There’s lots of strange stuff. And we’re part of it. But just because we fit some line in an ancient text doesn’t mean we’re the Star Children.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered why we’re like this?” Vivian asked.
“Of course.” Marion flashed her steely gaze from Timothée to Vivian. “But when did we stop trusting Dad? He said never go out on a moonless night. Never look up at the school. And now you’re ready to go there, all because some fanatic with green hair says so? Or is this about the Prince?”
It was and it wasn’t. Vivian walked to the pitcher of water, poured some into a crystal glass. She swirled the cold liquid around her mouth, washing away the last taste of the leeches and mint, then spit it back into the cup. Darius had come into her life like a flash of lightning. But she couldn’t go back to how it was before. None of them could.
“I want to go to the Academy,” she said softly, knowing the words were a betrayal. “I want to know what’s above the clouds.”
“I believe that Dad wanted to keep us safe,” Timothée said. “But we haven’t been safe. Not for the last three years. And Vivian is getting…uh…”
Is getting worse. They never said it. Never voiced it outright. But it was true. She was too skinny, too pale. She touched the protruding bones of her shoulders. And if she dared let her siblings know about…
Marion gave Timothée a sharp look. He’d done the taboo: he’d almost talked about it. Maybe they all lived with a secret sort of hope that if they didn’t mention it, maybe it wasn’t true. Maybe she wouldn’t get any worse.
Vivian couldn’t stand when Timothée and Marion looked at her like that, dissecting her with their eyes. Searching for the parts that were the most wrong, the most monstrous. As if they could identify and hide those parts, and then the rest of her would be normal.
“I’m just saying,” Timothée continued, “no matter what, things are bad. At least at the Academy, we could find answers about ourselves. About Dad.”
“What, are you planning on enrolling now?” Marion crossed her arms.
“Why not me?” Timothée said. “Why not face this danger head-on instead of forever running? I could do it. I…I could be accepted.”
Marion let out a haughty breath. “Noble and brave Timothée doing something he’s dreamt about for years and masquerading it as heroism.”
Marion rounded on him. “You don’t think I haven’t noticed the stories you’re always reading, of Starlings, and wars, and the gods? How when Argos flies over, you still peek at it?”
“I—” Timothée ran a hand through his hair. “I’m trying to help. If that weird green-haired man was right, we were born at that school. It’s where we came from! All I know is I can’t go on like this anymore.”
“On like what?” Marion put her hands on her hips.
“Surviving! Slithering in the dark.” Timothée was shouting. He never shouted. Yvaine jumped from his arms. “Dad was hiding something from us! It’s past time denying it! Haven’t you ever wondered where we came from? Why we glow on moonless nights, and why Vivian can—”
“Enough,” Vivian yelled. They both looked over at her.
Marion rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You’re right. This is enough. Enough of silly dreams and fairy tales. Tonight, we sneak out of this terrible place.”
And that was that.
There would be no talking her out of this one. Because her sister still had the fear of it all, the fear their father had laid brick by brick. And no matter what Vivian wanted, she had the fear too. Layered so many times, all she could do was follow her sister.
“Marion!” Timothée said, then looked pleadingly at Vivian. “Viv?”
Vivian couldn’t meet his hurt gaze. “You’re both hungry. Let me find you some food. Setviren said we could ask the butlers for anything. We can discuss it later.”
“I can do it,” Marion started. “You should rest—"
“I’ll be fine,” she assured, not wanting another lecture. Between the heat of the fire and her siblings’ tempers, she needed a moment to herself. She popped out the door, closed it quickly behind her, and let out a shuttering breath.
She hated when it was like this. When they were fighting. If…if she had never gotten sick, at least she could feel united in their pleas. But now she was different, and all their arguments always seemed to circle back to her.
She knew they wouldn’t discuss anything later. That no appeal or quest for answers would ever make Marion go to that school. And if Marion didn’t go, then neither would she or Timothée. They would stick together, no matter what.
She looked up and down the hall. No one to ask for help. When Setviren and a host of other very official-looking people had brought them to their room, they hadn’t been explicit with the instructions. Setviren had said they would bring them anything they needed, that they were to rest and recover. He repeated again and again how excited everyone was they had been found. She hadn’t been told to stay in…
He hadn’t made her feel like a prisoner. So, she was free to wander the halls if she wanted… right?
Something soft brushed against her ankles. Yvaine. “You best be careful,” Vivian whispered. “We don’t belong in a place like this.”
The little black cat, bearing more appearance to rat than feline, blinked her yellow eyes.
“Now to find some food for those cranky pants.”
Yvaine padded off down the gilded hallway, and Vivian figured it was as good of a direction as any.
The halls were long, with towering ceilings. She craned her neck back to see they were all painted with constellations. If she had gone to school in the capital, she would have learned all about Rhaemyria and Xydrious, their fallen son, and all the lesser gods that ruled under the Three. But while her father had taught them to read and write and the history of Thraina, he had never told them stories of the gods above.
Why had that been?
They rounded a corner and Yvaine let out a startled hiss, darting back around Vivian’s legs. There was someone standing in the hall.
“Hello,” Vivian said.
Carmilla Vladimirovna turned her attention from one of the many oil paintings on the wall. She had changed from the regal attire she’d appeared in earlier, and now wore a simple grey shirt, a long red scarf, and…trousers.
“I’m surprised Setviren let you out of his sight,” Carmilla said. Her words were thick with the cold Kirrinstovan accent. “I’ve never seen him in such a state.”
“I think my sister scared him off for a little while,” Vivian said, a surprising smile to her words.
“Right. The girl with the glowing hair. Quite fascinating. All three of you are.” Carmilla stepped toward Vivian. “What are you doing wandering the halls?”
“I’m looking for food.”
Vivian and Yvaine trailed after the former heir to the Kirrintsovan Empire. She was quite a bit shorter and smaller than Vivian yet held so much more confidence and authority in every movement. Vivian had only caught a glimpse of it, how Carmilla had stabbed the Dark Prophet. She had saved them all with her bravery.
“There’s a huge gathering of nobles in the royal meeting room,” Carmilla explained as they walked. “If you thank Setviren for anything, it’s that he’s keeping that horde away from you. He insists the first person you talk to be Kassandra.”
“Kassandra,” Vivian echoed. “Archpriestess Kassandra of the Celestial Academy?”
“Archpriestess and headmistress,” Carmilla said. “Been so for about 20 years now.”
Setviren had said Bram Cavald had been the headmaster and then disappeared with the Star Children twenty years ago. Bram Cavald…could he, a headmaster of the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars, have been their father? Regardless, Lady Kassandra must have taken the mantle of headmistress after he disappeared.
Carmilla stopped in front of a plain wooded door and threw it open. Thousands of mingling smells wafted out from the kitchen, and none were appealing. “Skoog,” she called. There was the banging and pots and a series of foul exasperations.
Carmilla turned to Vivian and smirked. “Wait here.” She ducked into the kitchen, and a moment later appeared again, the hint of a smile on her face. Strands of blood-red hair had come loose from the pinned braid atop her head and now hung in sharp plates on the side of her face.
“I was too young to remember much of the Blood War,” Carmilla said, “but I cannot imagine it being more chaotic than Skoog’s kitchen. Here.”
She handed Vivian a cookie. It was big and round as the ones Timothée made in his bakery, the ones they could never afford.
“Some trays will be sent up to your room,” Carmilla continued. “I hope you’re hungry. I told him he was cooking for gods.”
If Vivian had consumed any more leeches, she may have blushed. Not knowing what to say, she bit into the cookie. It was soft and fluffy and tasted like ash in her mouth. “Delicious.”
“Khalid and I used to steal platefuls from the kitchen,” Carmilla said. “We’d bring them back to Darius’s room, and he’d always pretend to be so mad…then eat more than both of us combined.”
Vivian realized Carmilla wasn’t wearing shoes. But why would she? This was her home. She had grown up in the palace with Darius and Khalid. They were family. Vivian suddenly remembered Darius had come to her candle shoppe to buy presents for his friends. Was he getting gifts for Carmilla and Khalid?
Carmilla walked past her, munching on her own cookie. Vivian became aware that it was her time to say something. She wanted to tell Carmilla of the lavender icing she used to make. How Timothée would lick the bowl, and one time she found him covered from head to toe in icing, and she and Marion had dragged him down to the ocean to wash him off. But they had all ended up swimming, even though the water was so cold.
But that was a silly memory, of a simple life and a simple family, and not something the ward of Andúrigard would care about.
Here, in this castle, everyone thought she was something more than a simple girl. And anything she said could shatter that illusion.
They made it back to the hall where she’d first encountered Carmilla.
“Think you can make it back from here?”
“I’ll be fine,” Vivian said, then noticed the painting Carmilla had been looking at. It was huge, adorned in an elegant golden frame. The portrait was of a tall man with a crown, a magnificent woman beside him. In front were two children: a young girl with a sly smile and golden curls and beside her…Darius. A few years younger, but undisputedly him. Though there was a lightness to his smile.
Yvaine meowed up at her, clearly ready to keep exploring.
Carmilla stood beside her, eyes trained on the painting. “Darius has more reason than most to be devastated by the Dark Prophet’s reappearance.”
“I thought he’d been killed.”
“So did everyone,” Carmilla said. “So did Darius. It was the Dark Prophet who led the attack that night three years ago when the vampires invaded Wolfhelm.”
“Did you…” Vivian asked slowly, “did you kill him tonight?”
Carmilla gave a low laugh. “It will take more than a dagger to kill the Dark Prophet. I suspect he ran because he was frightened. Frightened by you.”
Vivian grabbed her elbows. “I don’t even…”
Carmilla put her hand on Vivian’s arm. “If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. Doesn’t matter whether you glow under the stars or not.” She turned and walked down the hall. “Get some rest, little star. You’ll need it.”
Vivian stood there a moment longer staring up at the painting. The royal family was all gone. All gone except him.
“I suppose we should head back,” she said to Yvaine. She would have to face Marion and Timothée eventually. Hopefully, the food would help.
Yvaine gave a little meow that sounded more like a snarl, then trotted off in the other direction.
“Hey, come back!” With her luck, some servant would come across Yvaine and mistake her for a rodent. “Yvaine!”
Yvaine began to sprint, taking turns Vivian would never remember. She dashed around a corner, finding herself in a large hallway, decorated with silver suits of armour and grand vases brimming with blue and yellow roses.
A door was cracked open. And Yvaine was sitting in front of it, looking back as if she was waiting for Vivian.
Voices carried from the room. Voices she recognized.
Khalid and Darius. Darius.
Vivian crept closer. She shouldn’t listen but looked down at the cat. You’re a bad influence.
“You can’t blame me for being worried,” Khalid was saying.
“Well, you’re worrying in vain, my friend,” Darius said. “I am fine.”
The two boys seemed to be in the middle of an argument or skirting around the edge of one.
“Wolfhelm gets ambushed, Ser Dedont falls, at least twenty guards were killed, the Dark Prophet returns, and you’re fine.”
There was movement. “It is not ideal. But those guards died for what they believed in. We secured Wolfhelm and we found—”
“Yes, the Star Children. But the Dark Prophet—”
“It is a shame he lives,” Darius replied, “and a greater one that he escaped. But you and Carmilla were not harmed. I will continue my training and the next time I meet him, he will fall.”
“That simple, huh?”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Vivian couldn’t see them from behind the door, and she wondered exactly what expression Khalid was giving the Prince.
“Dare,” Khalid’s tone edged on frantic, “you know why. I just don’t want—”
“I told you I’m fine.” Darius’s voice silenced everything.
Vivian gasped, pressing herself against the wall. And Yvaine seemed to take her motion as a signal because she pranced ahead and darted into the room.
“Khalid, wait,” Darius said. “You don’t have to leave…”
“I’m need some air,” Khalid said. “Besides, there’s someone that wants to see you. Hey, kitty.”
Vivian gritted her teeth and cursed under her breath. Stupid, stupid cat.
Before Vivian could figure out an escape plan, Khalid walked through the door. He too had changed, wearing a loose white tunic and trousers, like Carmilla.
“Vivian Greywick.” Khalid leaned against the doorway. “You certainly are magical, and you don’t even need to glow to do it.”
“What are you…” she started.
“Nothing,” Khalid said, then: “He’ll be happy to see you.”
She looked through the doorway. She couldn’t see Darius, only the red glow of a fire as its light licked across a plush rug.
“And Vivian,” Khalid called back, already halfway down the hall.
“On a scale from one to getting my head lobbed off, how happy do you think your sister would be to see me tonight?”
Vivian looked at the mischievous glint in his green eyes. “Imagine the one thing worse than getting your head lobbed off, and that’s your scale.”
His eyes widened and he laughed. “Point taken. Good night!”
When he had disappeared around the corner, Vivian took a deep breath and walked into the Prince’s room.
“I’m sorry.” Vivian kept her eyes on her feet, skirting over the marbled floors. “It’s my brother’s cat, and she doesn’t listen to me and—”
Soft cream breeches were before her. Slowly, she drew her eyes upward, over a loose beige tunic, untied at the neck, revealing a muscled, bandaged-wrapped chest. Darius. He still had the blue ribbon tied around his wrist, though the edges were splattered with blood. His blood, by the smell. He was staring at her.
And then as if in a spring’s breeze, all her worries drifted away, and she fell into him, and he into her.
Somehow, her hands knotted in his shirt, and he pulled her tighter against him. And she hated this—hated that since the moment he’d come into the candle shoppe, she hadn’t stopped thinking about him. She had gone to a festival on a moonless night just to catch a glimpse of him. And when he’d been in danger, she had found some sort of bravery in her blood.
Marion resented her for it.
But she couldn’t regret it. If the Greywicks hadn’t been there, glowing…
They had shown the world who they were, but more importantly, they had saved lives. They had saved Darius.
“I was hoping to see you before dawn.” His lips were against her temple.
She closed her eyes and breathed in a shuddering breath. What was this? Who was she? She hadn’t been this close to anyone besides her siblings or Father. How had she met this man only this morning? The way she could lean into his touch, the soft caress of his voice—it felt like she’d known him a thousand years.
He pulled away slightly, his forehead resting upon hers. His arms still held her body close enough to feel the hard panes of him against her jagged edges.
“There are so many things I want to ask you,” he murmured, and her stomach tightened. “But from what Setviren has told me, you may have more questions than anyone.”
“I had no idea,” she stammered, “that we were…that our father—”
“Worry not.” The stormy waters in his eyes had seemed to calm. “We don’t have to talk about it now. I’m just happy you’re safe. You’re here…with me.”
She pulled back a little to look up at him and hoped he could see the gratefulness in her expression.
“I feel very…protective over you,” Darius murmured. “When the Dark Prophet had you…I haven’t felt that helpless in a long time.”
“Helpless to save a girl you just met?” She smoothed a crease in his thin shirt.
“Perhaps the same feeling that had you running into the middle of the square surrounded by those vile vampires?”
She sucked in a breath. Vile vampires indeed.
But she could still remember it: how he’d ran to her, the magic he’d used to encase them in stone. In that moment, she’d known there was no going back. Marion could spirit her thousands of miles away and there would be no going back. Not for her. Not for anyone.
The words he’d said to her as they stood in the square…those she would remember for all time.
She leaned her head against his chest and listened to the steady beat of his heart and wondered if he could feel the unnatural beat of her own.
“I do have a little complaint.” He smirked.
He pulled away from her and walked to a huge four-poster bed. With him out of her arms, she finally found herself able to take in the room. Fine decorations, paintings of dreamlike landscapes, grand settees with billowing pillows, the reassuring crackle of a fireplace taller than she was…she really was in the room of a prince.
She may have fainted at that notion alone, but her horror continued. Yvaine—Timothée’s scraggly, matted, fake witch's cat jumped up on Darius’s bed as if she belonged there. She certainly didn’t suffer from any imposter syndrome of being in a castle.
Vivian scampered over to his bed and scooped Yvaine up, hoping she hadn’t left muddy pawprints on the fine linen.
The Prince looked down at the cat. “Is that—”
“The cat that attacked you during the ceremony?” she said sheepishly. “Yes.”
“Well, it was better than the other interruption.” A shade of darkness clouded his eyes.
“She doesn’t usually like anyone bedsides my brother,” Vivian said, surprised as Yvaine started purring in her arms.
Darius gave a little smirk and then held out a candle. The vanilla one he’d bought from her shoppe earlier. “I think you sold me the wrong candle.”
She clutched Yvaine tighter. “I take my job very seriously. I never sell the wrong candle.”
“I distinctly remember the smell of lavender.” He brought the candle to his nose. “But this smells nothing like that.”
Her face threatened to flush, remembering how close he had gotten to her in the candle shoppe. “That was probably me…”
“You?” He stepped closer.
She stumbled back, bumped into the edge of his bed. Thank goodness Marion made her eat those leeches. “I used to live on a lavender farm.” Why was it so hard to breathe? “I still put dried flowers in my hair.”
“Is that so?” He grabbed a lock of her hair and brought it to his nose. “Then accept my deepest apologies for doubting you.”
“Apology accepted.” Her voice was a breath.
Golden hair fell across his brow. He was so close, gazing down at her like there was nothing else in the world.
A shrieking howl filled the air as Darius’s body pressed against Yvaine. She leapt from Vivian’s arms, hissing and spitting the whole way down.
Nothing in the world except them and an annoying cat.
“She is a disaster.” Vivian sighed. “Just like my brother.”
“Khalid and Carmilla used to say the same thing about my little sister.” Darius laughed and didn’t look bothered in the slightest. He grabbed Vivian’s hand. “Come on, it’s almost sunrise. You’ll want to see this.”
Their fingers twined together as he pulled her through his vast chambers and out two glass doors to a sprawling balcony.
Her velvet skirt dusted the damp ground; the air still smelled of cold rain. Below the balcony lay the small roofs of Wolfhelm, where billowing grey smoke already rose as people began their day. Beyond the walls of the capital, rambling green fields led to tall and mighty mountains.
Vivian knew if she travelled over the fields and took a pass through the mountains, she would eventually make it to a small village by the sea. And upon a hill would be a lavender farm.
She wondered if anyone was there, or if the flowers had grown wild and free. “This is beautiful.”
Dim light flickered on Darius’s face, and she knew her eyes must still be glowing faintly from the lingering stars.
Darius led her to the edge where they leaned against the balcony railing.
“For most people,” Darius said, “a sunrise is a beginning. For me, it’s the end.”
Starlings could only use magic at night, and thus they began their days at sunset and slept during the day.
Darius yawned and, in that moment, did not look a grand prince, but a boy. He was nearing twenty, she knew, but seemed like a sleepy child, barely able to keep eyes afloat. “I would just be crawling into the bed right now, all scratchy sheets and pillows.”
“Scratchy sheets?” she mused, running her thumb along his wrist, feeling his pulse. “No special treatment for a prince?”
“Not at all. Speaking of…” Slowly, he reached his hand toward her chin and guided her to look out at the horizon.
A great shadow swept across the fields, but it was not caused by any cloud.
“When we were young, Khalid, Carmilla, my little sister Celeste, and I all used to wait out here for it to pass above. We dreamt of attending, and if we would become Morning or Evening Stars.”
When it passed over when I was a child, Vivian thought, my father used to shove us in crates filled with so much lavender I thought I was going to suffocate under it all.
And there was a part of her still, that wild frantic beating of her heart, that wanted to run and hide under the bed.
But Yvaine gave a soft meow up as the shadow drew closer, and Darius’s hand was still in hers and she realized, with him here, at least for right now, that fear her father had given her felt a little bit smaller.
“What star did you catch?”
“An Evening Star, the magic of change.” He held out his hand. “A Morning Star can create wind, but I can make it blow faster, slower, or grow it into a gale.”
He smiled at her and a light breeze blew the ends of her hair. She laughed, feeling the tickle of magic on her, like a dusting of mist.
“There are some who are unable to catch a falling star,” Vivian said, thinking of all the hopeful students that waited to be flown up to the school last month. “Why is that?”
“From what I’ve come to understand at the Academy so far, some people are born with magic inside them. Starlings are like a candle; we’re born with a wick inside of us. And think of the match as—”
“The star,” Vivian finished.
“Yes.” Darius smiled, then continued: “You’re the candle, the wick inside you in your magic, but it doesn’t really do anything until you catch a star, swallow it—”
“You ignite the magic within.”
“Do you like studying at the Academy?” she asked. Regret stirred in her chest. No matter what he said, it would only hurt. If he said it was terrible, it would only confirm Father and Marion’s belief. But if he said he loved it…
“I’ve only been there a month,” Darius said. “But in that month, it’s felt more a home than this place has felt like in years.”
With sickening agony, she realized she hadn’t felt at home…since three years ago. It was hard to feel at home when you were barely surviving each day.
The huge shadow drew closer until it covered the tiny houses and the wafting smoke turned from grey to black. She looked up just as it came into view. “The Isle of Argos.”
The last time it had passed overhead, it had seemed nothing but a faraway speck in the sky. Now, it felt even further away than that. It felt as far away from her as the stars themselves.
This was as