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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.”