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Castles were not so different than alleyways. Both were dark and seemingly endless, both hid shadowy dangers. Though in an alley it was most likely to be a ruffian robbing you for the verdallion in your purse, while in a castle it was a deranged loremaster forcing you to go to some wicked cult in the sky.
But if Marion thought of the castle just like the alleys around their little apartment on Enola Avenue, it was much easier to keep her wits about her. Even though she wanted to hide in bed. Even though she wanted to cry.
But she couldn’t. Not while her family counted on her.
Marion’s soaking wet cloak had been taken by one of the servants when they arrived at the castle. Now she wore one of the fine down blankets around her like a shawl, her hair wrapped up in a silken pillowcase. The castle was still quiet, though dawn loomed on the horizon. The clouds were brightening from black to grey. At least the rain had stopped.
Marion crept through the corridors of the castle, doing her best to avoid servants. She needed to get out of the castle and back into town without notice. They didn’t have much but they had a stash of verdallions hidden under their mattress at the apartment, and she’d need to grab the frozen leeches. Those jars would last a few months, but she’d have to think of something else after that. A problem for a later time.
For now, she knew they couldn’t stay in the capital any longer. They had already stayed too long. Now that the loremaster had labelled them some fictitious Star Children, they would be forced up to the Academy. Father had told them enough for her to know the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars was a place of evil.
Vivian and Timothée wanted to go. Wanted answers. But there were no answers in that place. If there had been, Father would have told them. Marion was sure of it.
She’d decided to return to the apartment on her own. It would be less noticeable than the three of them together. A part of her felt guilty for leaving while Vivian was out of the room, but she couldn’t stand the pained look on her sister’s face. She knew Vivian and Timothée thought her unbending. Cruel, even.
But it had been her unbending self that had kept the Greywicks alive. When Father died and all that was left was his blood splattered on wet stone…when Vivian had been attacked, and the sickness came, and she spent a month screeching and clawing at them like a feral animal… It was Marion who forged a spine of iron so as not to break. The life they had, as pathetic and dreary as it was, was possible because she had made it so. Not once in the last three years had she let herself shed a single tear.
So, she would be the villain then. A coward even, if that’s what they needed to call her. As long as it kept them safe.
Her plan was simple. She would return undetected to their apartment, collect their valuables, and wait in front of the leech shoppe. Timothée and Vivian would meet her there after dawn, when all the Starlings in the castle should be fast asleep. Then the Greywicks would make their escape. Maybe they’d go north to the mining town of Aberina. Or east, to the islands of Medihsa. She’d always wanted to see the flower meadows, said to sprawl like a rainbow sea.
Finally, after trailing a mousey-looking scullery maid for an obnoxiously long time, Marion found the servants’ entrance and snuck outside the castle. The air was cold and damp and grey, typical of Wolfhelm. Next moon or so the snows would come, and the idea of anything green or growing would become a distant memory for months.
There were a few guards posted along the servant’s trail, leading out of the castle grounds and toward town, but with the blanket wrapped tight around her like a shawl, and her hair swept up in a dark pillowcase, she looked nothing more than every other bent-headed serving girl leaving the night shift.
A fine mist hung in the air like gauze above a wound. The sun, hidden behind the thick clouds, shrouded the city in grey light. The streets were empty. Everyone was still asleep, warm in bed with their families. Dawn was like the moment where life passed to death, a time for ghosts to wander. The air sat wrongly on her skin. She would not be sorry to never see this city again.
She avoided the courtyard, not wanting to know if the rain had washed the blood away or not. The streets were thick with shadows, and as she approached the avenue leading to the apartment, there was a peculiar shadow leaning against the wall.
Not a shadow at all, but a man in a dirty brown cloak.
“Well, well,” the shadow said and flung back his hood, “my wishing star is so fickle. Always trying to make me catch her.”
Marion stood before Khalid. Immediately, her back teeth began to grind, her body grew tense. She could run, but likely he was faster. She wasn’t much good at running, and didn’t have the clothes for it, besides. “What are you doing here?”
He flashed her a charming smile. “If you’re running away, I thought I’d come with you. I do love a good adventure.”
“I’m not running away!” Marion’s face flushed. He’d seen right through her plan. He was Khalid, and though she’d only met him hours ago, she knew three things clearly.
The first was though he hid behind a veil of apathy, he was watching. And listening. She felt as if he could see the very blood running within her veins, hear her heart pumping.
The second was this made him very dangerous. Not to speak of the fact he had the Prince’s ear, or he was from the traitorous land of Medihsa, or even that he was a Starling for that matter. He seemed to store away information like a squirrel hoarded nuts.
And the third was she was keenly and infuriatingly aware of how one glance from him could render her speechless.
Well, almost speechless. What good was a lady without her words?
“How are you always by yourself? Shouldn’t you have guards or does the Prince not care if you get murdered?” She narrowed her gaze accusingly at him.
He laughed and flashed a toothy smile. “The Prince does in fact care if I get murdered which is why he insists I take guards wherever I go. But I like my privacy. So, I know if I keep Ser Henrietta supplied with Medihsan wine, she gets sloppy. And Ser Cash and I have an agreement. I go where I like, and he gets to keep lying to his wife about his late nights.” Khalid gave an exaggerated wink. “The secret is knowing everything about everyone.”
Marion blinked at him. “You’re despicable.”
“We’re getting personal now, are we?” He straightened to his full height, forcing Marion to look up at him. She didn’t like that and took a large step backward. “Why did you leave the castle?”
“I’m getting my affects,” Marion said, which was not entirely untrue.
“Wonderful,” he said. “I shall accompany you.”
Marion sighed. She didn’t even bother asking how he’d found her. She’d come to accept that Khalid was a stasher of secrets.
“How delightfully wonderful,” she said. “Follow me.”
He walked in step beside her, hands in the pockets of his dirty cloak. She kept sneaking glances up at him as they walked. It annoyed her, the consistent smirk, the shimmering eyes. She wondered what he looked like behind that nonchalant mask he always kept his face in.
It was silly though, to wish to see him in the raw. She’d have to lose him sooner or later, and then never intended to see him again.
They walked down the avenue, grey mist parting before them like a carpet rolled out. What would Father think of her walking at dawn with a Starling? Of all the dangerous, no-good, foolish ideas, Timothée Greywick! It was Father saying Timothée’s name in her head, of course. She was always well-behaved.
But she didn’t feel afraid. It was almost nice to have company on her last walk to the apartment.
“Here we are,” she said. The door was made of decaying wood, the lock sticky. Khalid held the door for her and gave a little bow as she passed through. The narrow stairs creaked as she walked up. She threw a pointed glare behind her. “Don’t dare stare at my bottom.”
“I wouldn’t dream,” he said with a gleaming smile.
There were four separate apartments at the top of the stairs, and each one was hidden behind a rotting wood door. It was easy enough to tell which belonged to the Greywick’s. It was the one with a sprig of dried lavender hanging from the handle. Vivian’s note was still hung to the door, the one saying she was going to the festival. Marion scrunched it in her hand and dropped it to the ground.
A flush of embarrassment hovered over Marion as she unlocked the door. Khalid had grown up in the castle. Here, he would be lucky to avoid falling through a decayed floorboard. Marion and her siblings had done their best to make the apartment homey by bringing things from Seagrass: a colourful quilt on the bed, a garland of dried lavender above the window, a misshapen candle.
But it was no Seagrass. And certainly no palace.
“Make yourself comfortable.” Marion gestured vaguely. “I’d offer you refreshments, but I’m not inclined to host my kidnapper.”
Khalid flung himself down on a moth-eaten chair in the corner of the room. “Kidnapper? Is that what you think I am? I like it. Makes me sound daring.”
“Taking us from our home without a choice. What else am I to call you?” She didn’t miss the way Khalid’s eyes searched the room, taking in every detail, every piece of her. She busied herself with dragging out the dusty houndstooth bag from under the bed and throwing clothes into it.
“Like I said, I merely came to escort you. Though I’m surprised to hear that a night in the palace and an invitation to join the Celestial Academy is akin to kidnapping.” He raised a brow. “Anyone else would cheat, steal, or murder for one of those things.”
Marion hucked one of Timothée’s bed shirts into the bag. “I’m not anyone else.”
Khalid said without humour, “I’m fully aware.”
Silence settled over the room. The back of Marion’s neck tingled as she felt Khalid’s eyes on her, watching every movement. She’d never been in this room with anyone but her siblings. She felt vulnerable, like she was on display.
Finally, Khalid said, “You don’t intend to go.” His voice was matter of fact, without blame or emotion.
She looked over her shoulder. He sat forward in the chair now. Was it only her imagination that his eyes looked kind? “What does it matter what I say, Mr. Ali Bagheeri? If I tell you we don’t intend to go, you’ll send the guards after me. If I tell you I do,” she sighed, “we’ll both know I’m lying.”
He stood. Crossed the room with slow, light-footed steps. Grey light filtered through the window, making his single gold earring gleam. He rose his hand to the wrap around her hair and pulled.
Her golden tresses fell over her shoulders in a shimmering wave. The gleaming light was gone, but a dimming glitter from the lingering stars still made them shine like dragon’s treasure.
“They say you are a child of the gods,” he murmured. Slowly, he caressed a strand of her hair, gently wound it round his fingers. Marion was perfectly still, scarcely able to breathe. “They say you are a blessing sent to save us.”
“Is that what you believe?” she whispered.
He closed his eyes, brought the strand of hair to his lips. Then in an instant, it trailed out of his hand, and he smiled that infuriatingly hidden smile. “That’s the thing, wishing star. It doesn’t matter what I believe. It all matters what they believe.” He darted his eyes toward the window.
People were beginning to start their day; the streets were filling with vendors and workers now.
“I don’t want anyone’s love,” Marion whispered.
“And what of their fear?”
She realized heatedly that she didn’t mind so much how he seemed to look straight inside her. It felt good to be seen to the bone.
Marion darted her gaze to his hand. “Is it true?” she whispered. “You have caught a falling star and can do m—m—”
“Magic?” Khalid said. “Miracles? Whatever you prefer to call it, yes. I couldn’t be a student at the Celestial Academy if I hadn’t been able to catch a star of my own.” He looked to the window. “Though you’ll have to wait to see my tricks. Dawn is upon us.”
So that was true…Starlings could only do magic at night.
Marion could stash information, too.
Khalid stepped back. “You’re not even tempted? Not even a little bit? Setviren has offered you a place at the school. You know what that means, don’t you? You’d get to catch and swallow a star of your own! You could have magic, Marion Greywick.”
“There’s enough strangeness in the world without me adding to it,” Marion said matter-of-factly and returned to packing.
“It’s a shame you feel that way.” His voice was silk over bare skin. She felt him come up behind her, felt the warmth of his body, the shiver of his breath on the back of her neck. “I’m quite inclined to strangeness. Stasis is the true evil. And there’s one thing I believe above all else.”
Marion tried in inhale, couldn’t. Swung around so she could see him. He was so close, a breath away. Her legs bumped the bed. She stuck her nose in the air and tried to make her voice calm. “And what is that?”
A thousand thoughts and memories and feelings seemed to flash in his green eyes. “The world is not enough.”
A sad smile crept over her face. “Then your world must be very small indeed.”
She thought he may pull away or laugh or decide it was time to call the guards after all. But instead, he cupped her cheek, his hands smooth and warm, and leaned down a breath away from her mouth. “Come with me,” he whispered. “To the stars.”
Maybe Timothée was right all this time. Maybe there was something in forgetting yourself, pretending you were in a story where a noble would sweep you off to starlight and castles in the sky. She leaned in so close her nose brushed Khalid’s, and her hand drifted to the back of his neck.
She grazed her lips over his and whispered, “No.”
Marion was not Timothée. She did not lose herself in games of pretend, no matter how good smelling they were. Because as wonderful as it was to forget everything for a moment, it also filled her with surging guilt. Father had said the school was evil, and so it was.
She dropped her arms and shoved him away. “If you excuse me, Mr. Ali Bagheeri, I need to pack.”
Khalid put his arm behind his head. “You sure know how to hurt a guy.”
Marion worked in silence, throwing the last of their meager belongings into the bag. Two changes of clothes each, a pouch of verdallions, a pot and pan, a few utensils, and a single bunch of dried lavender.
She sighed and stared at the room. There had been happy memories here, through the grief.
“Where to now?” Khalid asked as he followed her out of the building.
“I have to go to the leech shoppe.”
“Then I shall—”
“Escort me. I got it.” Marion heaved the heavy bag higher up on her shoulder and stormed through the foggy streets.
The breaking dawn had awoken all of Wolfhelm, and shapes darted in and out of the fog. Marion walked quickly, although she was hindered by Khalid trying to carry her bag (which she vehemently refused) and him endlessly trying to change her mind about the Academy.
“And the food! The food, you’ll never taste anything like it. Peach sorbet anytime you want. And apparently at Yuletide, they have an endless fountain of smashed potatoes with gravy. A fountain!”
Marion ignored him, though she did like the sound of endless peach sorbet.
“It’s a castle in the sky, Marion. It flies over everything.” He grabbed her arm so she looked back at him. “You can see the world.”
He didn’t suit this, the foggy grey of Wolfhelm. Even in his dirty cloaked disguise, Khalid appeared to her like a spot of sunshine. It made her angry. She’d spent the last three years trying to be as unnoticed as possible. Being with him felt like being forced into the light.
“I like the world fine from what I can see from the ground.”
“Then you’ve never seen Medihsa.” His gaze drifted upward. “Beaches of white sand and rose-gold cliffs. The biggest museums and libraries you could ever imagine! And of course, we have the Sea of Flowers. You would like that, I bet. You grew up on a lavender farm, right?”
Marion couldn’t remember telling Khalid that, but maybe she had. Or maybe he’d seen all the lavender in the apartment.
“Enough!” Her bag slipped off her shoulder and splashed in a puddle at her feet. Khalid dove to get it and she smacked his hand away. “Why do you even care if we go to this school? You don’t seem to particularly believe we’re some god children like the other zealots. What’s the point?”
Khalid widened his eyes then laughed. “Zealots? Watch your mouth, wishing star. That kind of talk will find you at the end of a rope.” He winked salaciously. “Don’t worry. It will be our little secret.”
Khalid seemed like the type of person who was good at keeping secrets in the very worst way.
“I just don’t understand you,” Marion said, kicking her now soaking bag. “Why does it matter to you what I do? You have everything you could possibly want in the world.”
“Everything I could possibly want?” he asked coldly. His smile dropped. “Is that what you think?”
“You live in a castle. Eat the best food. Wear the finest clothes.” Marion waved her hand flittingly. “Your best friend is a prince.”
He caught her wrist, pulled her so she stared straight up at him. “My captor is a prince. Don’t you know your history, wishing star? No one else forgets who I am. You shouldn’t either.”
Marion inhaled. His hand was warm around her wrist. He pulled her so close they were chest to chest, his breath hot on her face, smelling deliciously of mint and orange. Every thought in her brain was a swirl and the only thing that seemed to keep straight was his face in front of her. The mist drifted around them. There were people through the fog, going about their day, but they seemed no more real than ghosts.
She thought of the waves that broke upon the shore at their home in Seagrass. She was caught up in his current and very close to smashing against the rocks.
She pulled away from him and made a show of massaging her wrist and pouting. “I know my history.” Father had played the role of teacher, too. She knew that fourteen years ago, Medihsa had tried to reclaim its independence from Andúrigard and organized a rebellion. After two years of violence, Andúrigard had squashed it and taken the son of Medihsa’s minister as a ward to ensure their compliance. Just like they had done to Kirrintsova.
Khalid said nothing, his eyes intense. Though Marion kept her face dour, there was the slightest flicker of satisfaction in her belly. She’d gotten a rise out of Khalid. So it was possible.
“It’s just over there.” She heaved the soaking bag over her shoulder.
“The little leech girl,” Khalid murmured, looking ahead to the shoppe. “Who would have thought you’d be the one?”
“Not me, and I still don’t.” Marion dug in her bag for the key. Little leech girl. Well, he’d looked at that little leech girl with a fire in his eyes, so what did that make him? She sighed. It was all pretend anyway. Best for this whole morning to fade away to a distant memory, more dream than truth.
But if this were a dream, surely it was a nightmare. For leaning against the door of the leech shoppe was Huxley Macgregor.
He wore his usual leather apron, cracked with dried blood from his work at the tanner’s. His eyes were red and swollen, like he hadn’t slept a wink. His thatch of red hair, usually slicked back with sweat and leather oil, was mussy. His pale hands were wrapped tight around the leash of his pet rabbit, Bill. Why he insisted on dragging the poor thing everywhere…
“What is he doing here?” Marion growled under her breath.
“A client?” Khalid asked.
“Worse,” Marion said. “A friend.”
Friend wasn’t exactly the right word for Huxley, because to be friends with someone, you had to enjoy their company. Laugh at their jokes. Care for them. Marion tolerated Huxley, but certainly had never shared laughter with him. In fact, this was the first she’d even thought of him since the whole ordeal last night. She was glad to see he wasn’t dead but…was that caring?
“Marion!” Huxley called out when he saw her approach. “Y-you’re here! I wasn’t sure if you were all right or not. I saw you at the festival. You…you…you were—”
“Glowing? Yes, yes, she was.” To her horror, Khalid draped an arm around her shoulder as if they were old schoolyard chums. “Wasn’t she ravishing? A vision that rivals Rhaemyria, if it’s not heresy to say. Even if it was, I’d say it! I’d scream it from the roof tops. Marion Greywick, you are positively the most enchanting creature to ever walk Thraina—"
Her face flushed so hot, she was surprised steam wasn’t coming from her ears. “Say one more word and I will make the Dark Prophet look like a nursemaid.”
Khalid whistled through his teeth but unhanded her.
Huxley looked from Marion to Khalid back to Marion again. “Is…is this a client?”
She supposed in his dirty cloak, Khalid could be mistaken for a commoner. She had done it herself only yesterday. But now she couldn’t understand it, how anyone could look at Khalid and see just another citizen of Wolfhelm. Everything from the calculated tilt of his head to the suspicious raise of his dark brows to the glint in his eye gave him away as something more. In a town of grim frost, he radiated.
What a bother.
Khalid stuck his hands in his pockets. “A client? Sure, I’ll be your client. Was that why you wanted to bring me here? Shall I undress for you, Marion?”
She weighed the key in her hand and wondered how hard it would be to lodge it in someone’s throat. She wasn’t sure what Khalid’s game was, trying to embarrass her so, but she wouldn’t take the bait. Ignoring both of them, she unlocked the door. “I have work to do.”
“W-wait!” Huxley lunged forward, grabbing her arm. He had touched her many times, yet only in the confines of the leech shoppe. In the daylight, it felt too intimate.
She wanted to pull away, but Huxley’s eyes were wide, desperate. “Marion…are you okay? What about Vivian and Timothée? Is everyone alright?”
He was worried about her. The idea of someone other than her siblings wondering over her…it made Marion’s stomach curl. It wasn’t that she hadn’t enjoyed their monthly trysts. They’d been a needed distraction from the pressures of keeping Vivian alive, of keeping Timothée out of trouble. But she couldn’t care for Huxley Macgregor, no matter how many times he left a daisy on her doorstep or let her pet his stupid cute rabbit.
She didn’t have any more room in her heart to care for someone else.
But as she stared into his watery brown eyes, she wished she could tell him many things. Yes, yes, don’t worry, everything is okay. I’ll be fine. I just have a little work to do, but why don’t you meet me this evening? No, not at the shoppe. At that café you always talk about. I’ll finally let you buy me a sweetcake. Everything’s going to be alright.
But all she could manage was: “I’m going to be just fine.” Because that was the truth. She would be.
Khalid looked between the two of them and began whistling a tune. The morning mist danced around his face.
Huxley scooped Bill into his arms, clutching it like a child would a teddy bear. His gaze settled on Khalid. “Wait…I recognize you from the ceremony. You’re…you’re the Medihsan ward, Khalid Ali Bagheeri.” He stumbled into a bow. “My lord!”
Some citizens of Wolfhelm regarded the wards as pseudo-royalty. Others considered them criminals dressed in fancy clothes. Thankfully, Huxley appeared to be the former.
Khalid, for all his smugness, merely ran a hand through his thick black hair.
The damp interior of the leeche shoppe had never seemed so inviting. Marion needed to escape this conversation. She turned the door handle. “If you excuse me—”
“Why have you packed such a big bag?” Huxley’s voice was soft. “You’re traveling with a member of the royal party. The loremaster called you a star child. You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
Marion’s mouth went dry. What do I say? I can’t tell him the truth.
“She’s coming with me.” Khalid grinned. “She’s going to be the newest student at the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars and change the world. What’s your name?”
“Just you wait, Mucksley! Marion Greywick is heading to the stars—”
Marion shoved the door open and grabbed Khalid’s hand. “I have to get going.” She pushed Khalid inside, then looked out the crack of the door for a last moment. Huxley’s eyes seemed redder than before, and his hands shook in Bill’s fur. She looked down at the wet cobblestone. “I-I’m sorry, Huxley. Your f-friendship was a kindness. Goodbye.”
“I’ll find you there!” Huxley cried. “I’ll find you in the st—”
But Marion shut the door, blocking out the last of his cries.
She leaned her head against the cold wood and took a few deep breaths.
Khalid was already squirming around, running a finger along the leeching chair, staring up at her spider friends in their cobwebs. “Lovely establishment you have here. What’s that smell? Is that lilac with a hint of sandalwood, perhaps? Absolutely luxurious. Reminds me of evenings sailing down the Harrine River—”
“You.” The word was a snarl. Then she was standing right below his nose, finger dug into his chest. “Humiliate me all you want. Laugh at me. Ridicule me. Whatever you try, it’s pointless. I will never go to your school.”
Khalid’s face softened, his smile dropping. His full lips pressed to a tight line. “I wasn’t trying to embarrass you, Marion.”
She sneered at him. “Sure. That’s why you were saying all those things in front of Huxley. Ravishing and enchanting.”
“The best way to lie is to tell the truth.” He grabbed her hand, gently removing the finger that dug deep into his chest. “You are ravishing. And not just when you’re emitting a light powerful enough to turn vampires into kindling. You’re beautiful, and I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so.”
Marion flicked her eyes to the door, where she last saw Huxley. Heat curled its way up her belly and into her face. “But why did you say I was going—”
“You want to run away, don’t you?” Khalid began to massage her hand. “Now everyone will assume you’re at the Academy. If the Celestial Knights coming looking for you, no one will be able to give them any clues of where you’ve gone.”
“You were…helping me.”
“Outlandish, I know.” His fingers were so warm against her. “Help from your kidnapper.”
She should pull away from her grip, but his hands were both soft and strong. “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
“You don’t.” Somehow, he had managed to step closer to her, their joined hands the only thing separating them. “But what can I say? I was jealous.”
“Jealous?” She couldn’t smell the leech shoppe anymore, so engrossed was she in the orange and mint of his skin.
“I saw the way he looked at you. Were you lovers? Did he bring you flowers and whisper sweet nothings?” Khalid’s own voice sounded both sweet and bitter.
“It’s none of your business.”
“You know by now, Marion, everyone’s business is my business.”
A wicked part of her heart flickered. I want to be your business. Instead, she held his gaze, said: “I have work to do.”
His eyes flashed with his own wicked desire. “So do I.”
He dropped her hand and laced his fingers through her hair, pulling her flush against him. Khalid closed his eyes, and his lush lips moved down toward her.
She placed her finger straight against his lips. They were oh-so-soft and plush against her skin. He opened his eyes, blinking. “I told you,” she said, “I have work to do.”
Then she whirled out of his grip, trying to ignore the regret settling in her chest.
“You’re quite the enigma, Marion Greywick.” Khalid picked an invisible piece of lint off his sleeve. The usual cockiness had left his tone. Marion wondered if she’d finally hurt his feelings.
“There’s nothing mysterious about me at all, Mr. Ali Bagheeri,” she assured. “I’m merely practical. Wait at the front, please.” It wouldn’t be any good to have him see her sticking frozen leeches in her bag.
“As you wish.”
Marion busied herself in the back of the shoppe. She didn’t have to tidy it before she left—she really couldn’t give a rat’s left ass cheek to what happened to the shoppe after she left. But once she did leave…that was it. She’d stick to her word. She’d get her siblings and run, as was the necessity. Green-eyed, silver spoon-fed boys had no place in her plan.
But these were her last minutes of freedom. The coming weeks, the coming moons, stars, even the coming years could be filled with running and hiding. She wanted to forget about how her siblings hated her, how her family was in very real danger. She wanted to lose herself for a moment, to forget her name and all the terrible things that came with it.
And Khalid Ali Bagheeri had tried to kiss her…
She looked behind her, at Khalid who had taken residence on the reclining leeching chair. What could one last distraction hurt?
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Marion busied herself to put Khalid out of her mind. The night’s madness had gone to her head. She had been a fool for thinking it was a good idea to mess around with the ward of Andúrigard, and a Starling none the less. Perhaps it was a blessing they had not gone any further than they did. She had denied him a kiss; he had denied her the completion of her pleasure. She shook her head. Not kissing him had definitely been a good idea.
Otherwise, she might have proven him right. She might have fallen in love with him.
Although, she was quite certain she would never forget the practiced rhythm of his hand between her legs, the wetness of his lips over her breast…
Work. She had to focus on the tasks ahead.
Of all the things she wouldn’t miss, the mouldy sweet smell of the leeches was one of them. Pulling fat, slimy slugs off elderly paper-thin flesh, trudging around the lake in the middle of the night with a net…no, she wouldn’t miss that.
But she would need to figure out a new plan for Vivian.
Marion went to the freezer box and stuck every frozen jar in the bag. It was enough for…two moons maybe. Two moons to get situated somewhere and figure out a new way to manage Vivian’s illness.
Marion took a deep breath in and shut her stinging eyes closed as much as possible. She could do this. She had to do this.
And thoughts of Khalid Ali Bagheeri were simply a distraction.
She motioned for them to leave, then locked up the shoppe for the last time.
Khalid stared up at the brightening sky. “It’s past my bedtime.”
Right. Starlings slept during the day and woke under the stars when their magic was alive.
“I’m all done,” she said.
“Are you wanting to leave now? I can get your siblings for you if you like. Or cause a distraction.” He winked. “I’m very good at distractions.”
“You would help me…leave?”
He held out his arm for her to take. “As much as I would love your company at the Academy, I would never trap anyone. What is life without freedom? And what is freedom without choice?”
She took his arm. It seemed at just the perfect height. “That’s…surprisingly gentlemanly of you.”
“I want you to be happy, Marion. I want your family to be happy.” He looked down at her. “That’s why I have to tell you: you will never find what you’re looking for by running away.”
“However could you know what I’m looking for?” she said breathily.
His face was soft, eyes seeing through hers. A wolf in the finest sheep’s clothing. “You want a cure for your sister’s vampirism. And you’ll only find one at the Academy.”
Every thought dropped from her head. Her heart stuttered once then surged. Like a bear poked to waking, Marion dropped the bag, snatched Khalid by his dirty robe, and slammed him against the leech shoppe door. Very unladylike. “Don’t ever say that word! Ever!” she growled. “Who told you? Answer me!”
Khalid did not seem bothered by being manhandled. He placed his hands over hers. “Easy, wishing star. I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
Marion drew back her teeth and tightened her grip. Then released him. She didn’t trust anyone beyond her family, especially the ward of the kingdom. But did she have a choice? “How do you know?”
“When you dance with kings and demons, you’re only worth what you know.” He smiled shrewdly. “I take it upon myself to know everything.”
“Is this blackmail? I do what you want, or you’ll tell the Prince?”
Real anger seemed to flare across his face. “How many times do I have to tell you? I won’t trap you, Marion. If you want to leave, fine. Do it. I’ll take Vivian’s secret to the grave. But I couldn’t in good conscience let you run away without telling you there’s hope.” He grabbed her wrist. “There is a magic hidden within the school powerful enough to cure your sister. Powerful enough to change the course of the future. And I’ve found it.”
A beat passed between them. His words filled her with hope. Hope was poisonous.
A mask fell hard over him, and a huge smile crossed his face. He closed his eyes and threw his hand behind his head and said lightly, “It’s up to you if you want to change your fate, Marion Greywick!”
The skies cracked open, and the rain began again.
A cure…Vivian could finally be free from the illness that had torn their family open three years ago. But it was at the Academy. The one place Father had told them never to go. It would be a betrayal to him.
If Khalid Ali Bagheeri was truthful, and there was a cure, it would be a betrayal to Vivian not to even try to find it.
“I told you, Marion,” Khalid said. “Your world isn’t enough either. You’re a Star Child!” He held out his hand. “Let’s change the world.”
“A cure,” Marion whispered, “hidden in a castle in the sky.”
“We’re on the edge of an adventure,” Khalid said, hand still extended. “Isn’t it exciting?”
“I don’t much like adventures.”
Go to the Academy.
Find the cure.
None of this changing the world business.
She reached out and took Khalid’s hand, knowing something quite unsettling.
Adventure liked her.
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The next chapter will be posted on our website Friday, September 17th, 2021.
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Can't wait? Chapter 10 will be available for early access on our Patreon Monday, September 13th, 2021. A new Darius POV chapter will also be posted on September 13th on Patreon!