When I was a little girl, my mother would spend long afternoons telling me old folktales. I remember one story particularly well.
Once upon a time, a greedy prince fell in love with a wicked girl.
The prince had far more than he needed, but it was never enough. When he grew ill, he visited the Kingdom of the Great Ocean, where the Underworld meets the living world, to bargain with Moritas, the goddess of Death, for more life. When she refused, he stole her immortal gold and fled to the surface.
In revenge, Moritas sent her daughter Caldora, the angel of Fury, to retrieve him. Caldora materialized out of the sea foam on a warm, stormy night, clad in nothing but silver silk, an achingly beautiful phantom in the mist. The prince ran to the shore to greet her. She smiled at him and touched his cheek.
“What will you give me in return for my affection?” she asked. “Are you willing to part with your kingdom, your army, and your jewels?”
The prince, blinded by her beauty and eager to boast, nodded. “Anything you want,” he replied. “I am the greatest man in the world. Even the gods are no match for me.”
So he gave her his kingdom, his army, and his jewels. She accepted his offerings with a smile, only to reveal her true angel form—skeletal, finned, monstrous. Then she burned his kingdom to the ground and pulled him below the sea into the Underworld, where her mother, Moritas, was patiently waiting. The prince tried once again to bargain with the goddess, but it was too late. In exchange for the gold he’d stolen, Moritas devoured his soul.
I think of this story now, as I stand with my sister on the deck of a trading ship, looking toward the shore where the city-state of Merroutas rises out of the morning mist.
Someday, when I am nothing but dust and wind, what tale will they tell about me?
Once upon a time, a girl had a father, a prince, a society of friends. Then they betrayed her, and she destroyed them all.
CITY-STATE OF MERROUTAS
They were the flash of light in a stormy sky, the fleeting darkness before dawn. Never have they existed before, nor shall they ever exist again.
—Unknown source on the Young Elites
“I think he might be here.”
I’m startled from my thoughts by my sister Violetta’s voice. “Hmm?” I murmur, looping my arm through hers as we wind our way through a crowded street.
Violetta purses her lips in a familiar expression of concern. She can tell I’m distracted, but I’m grateful she decides to let it go. “I said, I think he might be here. In the main square.”
It is early evening on the longest day of the year. We are lost in the thick of a celebration in the city-state of Merroutas, the wealthy, bustling crossroads between Kenettra and the Tamouran Empire. The sun has nearly dipped below the horizon, and the three moons hang low and plump, ripe golden orbs suspended over the water. Merroutas is alight with festivities for the Midsummer Feast of Creation, the start of a month of fasting. Violetta and I wander through the throngs of revelers, lost amid the celebration’s rainbow of colors. Both of us are dressed in Tamouran silks tonight, our hair wrapped up and our fingers adorned with bronze rings. People draped in jasmine garlands are everywhere, packed into the narrow alleys and spilling out into the squares, dancing in long lines around domed palaces and bathing temples. We walk past waterways swollen with cargo-laden boats and buildings carved in gold and silver with thousands of repeating circles and squares. Ornate tapestries hang from balconies in the smoky air. Soldiers pass us by in small clusters, wearing billowing silks instead of heavy armor, a moon-and-crown emblem stitched onto their sleeves. They’re not the Inquisition Axis, but no doubt they’ve heard news of Teren’s orders from across the sea to find us. We steer clear of the soldiers.
I feel as if I were in a haze, the celebrations floating around me. It’s strange, really, to look out at all of this joy. What do I do with it? It doesn’t feed my energy. Instead, I stay silent, letting Violetta guide us through the busy streets, as I return to my dark thoughts.
Since leaving Kenettra three weeks ago, I have woken to whispers at my bedside that fade away seconds later. Other times, the hushed voices talk to me when no one else is around. They are not always there, and I cannot always understand them even when they are speaking to me. But I can always feel their presence lingering in the corners of my mind. There is a blade there, a rotation of sound and silence, a lamp that burns black. A grim, growing fire. This is what they say:
Adelina, why do you blame yourself for Enzo’s death?
I should have had better control over my illusions, I respond quietly to the whispers. I could have saved Enzo’s life. I should have trusted the Daggers sooner.
None of it was your fault, the whispers in my head argue. You didn’t kill him, after all—it was not your weapon that ended his life. So why are you the one cast out? You didn’t have to return to the Daggers—you didn’t need to help them rescue Raffaele. And still they turned on you. Why does everyone forget your good intentions, Adelina?
Why feel guilty for something that isn’t your fault?
Because I loved him. And now he is gone.
It’s better this way, the whispers say. Haven’t you always waited at the top of the stairs, imagining yourself a queen?
“Adelina,” Violetta says. She tugs on my arm and the whispers scatter.
I shake my head and force myself to concentrate. “Are you sure he’s here?” I ask.
“If not him, then another Elite.”
We’ve come to Merroutas to flee the Inquisition’s prying eyes in Kenettra. It is the nearest place outside of Kenettran control, but eventually we’ll make our way south to the Sunlands, far from their reach.