Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult
“It’s not so hard, really.”
I give her a withering stare. “Maybe not for an unmarked
Violetta just lifts her chin and gives me a teasing look. It is the same look she used to give our father whenever she wanted something. “You are powerful, mi Adelinetta,” she says, “but you have all the charisma of a burnt potato pudding.”
burnt potato pudding. It’s smoky.”
Violetta rolls her eyes. “My point is that it doesn’t matter what
like, it matters what
like. All you have to do is listen and look for what makes the other person happy, and feed it.”
I sigh. Violetta may not be able to lie about important things, but she does know how to charm. My gaze lingers on the dancers at the gate, and with a sinking feeling, I imagine us down there with them. Too many memories of the Fortunata Court.
I only work with the worthy,
Magiano had said. If we can’t survive tonight, then we aren’t worthy.
Maybe the loyalty of Magiano
worth all this. Surely there are plenty of other Elites, lesser ones, who might join us without us risking our lives with the Night King. Magiano may be the most notorious of them all, but he is making us enter a snake pit in order to win him over.
Then I remember Teren’s pale, mad eyes. I think back on
the massacre in the arena, Enzo’s death, and Teren’s taunts. With his versatile power, Magiano may be the only one capable of fighting Teren. If I’m going to return to Kenettra, I can’t afford to go with a ragtag bunch of Elites. I need to have the
. This goes far beyond Magiano. This is about us taking the Night King’s strength, of gathering our
You have to be brave,
the whispers say.
I start to weave a small illusion across the scarred side of my face. “Fine,” I mutter. “I’ll follow you.”
There are six guards at the entrance when we arrive. I can tell immediately that most of them are seasoned soldiers, too experienced to be tempted by the pretty faces of dancers. I take a deep breath and adjust the silk wrap around my hair. Violetta does the same. By the time we approach the gate, the guards are inspecting each of the dancers. They kick several out of the group. One of them tugs on a girl’s hair. She yelps.
,” he says to them, putting a hand on the hilt of his sword. “The Night King’s orders.”
His eyes fall on Violetta. My sister doesn’t beg like the others; instead, she meets the soldier’s gaze shyly, her expression full of innocence, and approaches him reluctantly.
The soldier pauses to take her in. “Ah, a new girl,” he says, his gaze flicking to me before returning to my sister. “This one looks nice.” He glances at his companion, as if looking for a vote of approval. “Too much golden hair surrounding the Night King tonight. What about this one?”
The other soldier studies Violetta in admiration. My sister
swallows hard, but gives them a small, demure smile. I’ve seen her win over many a suitor with that expression.
Finally, the first soldier nods. “In with you.” He waves Violetta over.
“This is my sister,” Violetta says, motioning to me. “We go together, please.”
The soldier shifts his attention to me. I can see the spark of desire in his eyes as he recognizes my beauty, a sharper, more sinister version of Violetta. I step forward, then keep my voice firm and my shoulders straight. “You cannot take my sister in and leave me out here,” I say. I remember the way Raffaele used to tilt his head, and I do that now, offering my own smile at them. My smile is different from Violetta’s—darker, less naïve, promising other things. “We entertain the best when together,” I add, looping my arm through Violetta’s. “The Night King will not be disappointed.”
The other soldiers laugh, while the first one watches me thoughtfully. “An interesting pair, you two,” he mutters. “Very well. I’ve no doubt the Night King will have his fun.”
I let out a quiet breath and we join the dancers who have been accepted. As the guards open the gate and let us walk past, I notice the soldier’s eyes staying on us, his envy for the Night King obvious on his face. I lower my head and try to hide my thoughts.
Inside, the garden is lit with lanterns. Fireflies dance in the darkness, mingling with the low hum of laughter and movement. As we approach the center, the soldiers following
us begin to fall back. Finally, the first soldier stops and turns to us.
“You know the rules,” he says. Then he remembers us, the newcomers, and adds, “You go where you’re invited, nowhere else. Stay in the courtyard grounds. Touch no wine or food unless offered to you by a guest. I’ll not hesitate to escort out anyone who causes a scene.” Then he gestures his permission for us to wander the garden.
“How do you think Magiano will get in?” Violetta whispers as we walk.
“I’m sure he’s already here,” I whisper back. Several guests walk by us, their eyes lingering on our faces. Violetta smiles sweetly at them, and their expressions relax. I watch her carefully, trying to follow her example.
It works well. We draw the right amount of attention for a pair of hired dancers. Men brush a little too closely to us, so that the silk of their sleeves touches our bare arms. We even attract the attention of the Night King’s other scattered soldiers—one of them pauses long enough to rub my shoulder. I stiffen at his touch.
“They’ve let in some exquisite dancers tonight,” he murmurs, nodding a greeting at both Violetta and me. Violetta blushes prettily at him, and he beams before continuing on his patrol of the grounds. I’m too surprised to do the same. The last time a soldier touched me, he cut a scar across my chest with his sword.
Seeing my expression, Violetta loops her arm through
mine and bends close to my ear. “You must relax, mi Adelinetta,” she whispers. “Especially around the soldiers.”
She is right, of course. I remind myself that no one here can see the true, scarred side of my face. All they see is the illusion of my beauty.
The crowd turns steadily thicker as the evening lengthens. Gradually, as we search for the Night King, I begin to relax. Violetta points out a pair of handsome noblemen and, when they notice us, she giggles and turns away. I laugh along with her, letting her guide us as questions swirl in my mind. Are any of the Night King’s secret mercenaries here?
We wander the entire grounds of the garden before we finally stumble across the Night King’s entourage.
A circle of silk-clad noblemen talk and laugh in a private corner of the garden, where colorful cushions line the grass and a cheerful fire burns in a central pit. A whole roasted pig turns over the fire. Large plates of fragrant rice, dates, and stuffed melon surround the pit. Several dancers have clustered here, enchanting their audience with drumbeats and swirling silks. Others sit and laugh with their patrons.
I know immediately which of them is the Night King.
He is easily the most adorned of the circle, his fingers decorated with thick gold rings and his dark eyes accented with black powder. A slender crown sits on his head. A nobleman to his right is muttering something into his ear. On his left is one of his soldiers, draining the last drops from a wine cup. Several others stand guard nearby, their gloved hands poised over sword hilts. My gaze goes to the collar of his silk shirt.
An enormous diamond-encrusted pin hangs there. Small wonder why Magiano is after such a monstrous thing—I can see the glimmer of it from across the courtyard. I glance around. Magiano hasn’t made his move yet.
Violetta and I come upon the circle. When several noblemen glance up at us, I throw back my shoulders and give them my most dazzling smile. To my satisfaction, their eyes widen and they smile in return.
The Night King laughs as we approach. Then he gestures to a small space of cushions near him. “A night with the prettiest dancers in Merroutas,” he says as we fold our legs beneath us and sit. “Midsummer is kind to us.” His black-rimmed eyes linger on Violetta, then on me. It’s always in that order. “What are your names, my beauties?”
Violetta just gives him a coy smile, while I let myself blush. If only he knew that we are both
dirtying your estate,” says the man sitting next to the Night King. “It’s getting harder, sir. Have you heard the news coming out of Kenettra?”
The Night King smiles at him. “What is the new royalty doing there?”
“The Lead Inquisitor of Kenettra has handed down a decree, sir,” the man replies. “All
have already been removed from within the capital and set up in shelters outside the city walls.”
“And what’s to happen to them?” The Night King is still admiring both of us as he talks. He leans forward and offers us a platter of dates.
“Death, I’m sure. We’ve been turning away ships with
“The Lead Inquisitor,” the Night King muses. “The queen seems to be giving him quite a lot of power, isn’t she?”
The man nods. His eyes shine from the wine. “Well, you must know he’s always in her bed. He has been infatuated with her since he was a little boy.”
The Night King laughs, while we smile along. “Well,” he says, “congratulations to him on a royal conquest.”
So, Teren does care for someone—not only is he a loyal soldier to Giulietta, but he is in love. Is that even possible? I keep my face frozen in a smile and store this information away, wondering how I might be able to use it later.
The nobleman talking to the Night King now turns his attention to me. It takes me a moment to recognize him. I don’t know why I didn’t see him earlier.
It’s Magiano, and he stares at me with a lazy grin. His eyes don’t look slitted tonight—his pupils are dark and round instead, and his mess of braids is neatly tied in a high knot on his head. He is dressed in luxurious silks. I have no idea how he charmed his way to the Night King’s side, but there is no sign of his wild side here. He is as coiffed and charismatic as the wealthiest aristocrat, his appearance so different that I didn’t even know it was him. I almost feel like I can read his thoughts.
Ah. There you are, my love.
“This dancer is new to the city, my friend,” Magiano says to the Night King. He swings an arm good-naturedly around
the other man’s shoulders. “I’ve seen her before. She’s very good—she is court-trained, I hear.”
I hide my irritation and just continue blushing. He’s taunting me, throwing little obstacles in my way. So be it. I smile back, wondering how I can lure the Night King away from his circle.
“Is that so?” The Night King claps. “Perhaps you can show us.”
I exchange a quick look with Violetta, then rise to my feet. I stare once more at the glittering pin on his collar. Then I stand before the fire and start to twirl in time with the drums.
I draw upon everything I learned at the Fortunata Court. To my surprise, my body remembers it—I fall into a popular Kenettran dance and make an elegant sweep around the central pit. The other nobles stop to watch me. A memory of Raffaele appears unbidden in my mind, of him teaching me how to walk like a consort, how to flirt and dance. It distracts me, and suddenly, he
here—the illusion of his hand pressing lightly against the small of my back, the silk of his hair falling over his shoulders like a dark sapphire river. I can hear his laugh as he guides me in a circle.
Patience, mi Adelinetta,
says his beautiful voice. I see Enzo walking in as Raffaele prepares me for a night at the court, and I remember the young prince’s deep scarlet eyes, the way he admired my glittering mask.
Violetta tugs on my energy in warning. I glance gratefully at her, then clamp down hard on my emotions. Raffaele’s illusion wavers and vanishes. No one else seems to have
seen what I created—perhaps I didn’t create anything. I take a deep breath. Raffaele isn’t here. He will never be here, so it is absurd of me to wish for it. I push the Daggers out of my thoughts and focus on the noblemen again. Violetta moves closer to the Night King, murmurs something to him, and laughs along. She’s helping me distract him.
Magiano leans back and watches me as I dance. The look on his face is interesting. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was actually pleased by the way I move. “Court-trained,” he murmurs, and this time he says it much too softly for the Night King to hear.
He has no idea that Violetta is very slowly whittling his power away right now, rendering him vulnerable to my illusions.
I make my way around the circle. As I do, I quietly weave a false diamond pin on the Night King’s collar. Then I cloak the real pin, making it invisible. As I make my first turn around the central pit, Magiano whispers something to the Night King. Then I see the Night King applauding.
I smile. Magiano has taken the false pin with him.
The Night King is staring at me now. I think back to the way Raffaele would respond to clients captivated by his charms. I lower my lashes and tilt my head in a shy bow.
The Night King applauds. “Magnificent!” he says as I sit again. “Where in the city do you live, my beauty? I would like to see you again.”
His voice makes my skin crawl, but I just laugh. “We are very new, sir,” I reply, changing the subject. “And know very little about you.”
This amuses him. He reaches for my hand and pulls me to him. “What do you want to know?” he murmurs. “I am one of the richest men in the world. Aren’t I, my friend?” He pauses to glance at Magiano.
Magiano keeps his eyes on me, his smile cunning. “The Night King is no ordinary nobleman, my love,” he says. There is an undercurrent of challenge in his words. “He sits on a pile of wealth and power that anyone would kill to have.”
The Night King grins at Magiano’s compliment. “Kenettra loves to trade with us. We enjoy her spoils more than anyone. Do you know how I earn that kind of trust in my power?” He puts an arm around me and nods at the soldiers with emblems on their sleeves. “I’ll tell you how. The world’s deadliest mercenaries always choose the most powerful to serve, and they choose to serve
. My city teems with them. So, if you ever want to see me, my dear, just whisper it into anyone’s ear on the streets. Word will get back to me. And I will send for you.”