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       The Emperor of Evening Stars (The Bargainer Book 3), p.1

           Laura Thalassa
 
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The Emperor of Evening Stars (The Bargainer Book 3)


  Prologue

  270 years ago

  Larissa

  I won’t be like the others.

  I’m surrounded by women with sharp eyes and lying smiles. Time and experience have made them bitter. I don’t blame them; I might’ve been this way if I had to sleep with my child’s executioner over and over again. But though I pity them, I do not trust them. They would offer me up for slaughter if they knew what I intended.

  I wait to flee until the night is at its deepest. Until long after my husband comes for me, his gaze glinting with excitement as he pulls me from the rest of his wives and takes me to his chamber. I wait until I return, until I manage to scrub the last of his scent off my skin.

  I wait while I lay my head on my pillow, the sounds the other concubines’ quiet murmurings filling our chamber. I silently thank the Undying Gods that I was trained to listen rather than talk. Loose lips would surely unravel my entire plan.

  Secrets are meant for one soul to keep. How many times had I whispered that into the Shadow King’s ear? He thought me coy and alluring then, but soon he’ll realize this entire time it was my little inside joke, and he was the fool who bought it.

  I wait until every last breath in the beds around me evens out, and then I wait some more.

  I wait until, eventually, the moment to act comes upon me.

  I sit up in bed. Reaching a hand down the tight bodice of my nightgown, I pull out a small vial. I gave up 400 years of my life for this thimbleful of tonic.

  It was the only way.

  I dig my nails under the cork and unstop it. It smells like the earth after a long rain, a smell I always associated with hope because it meant an end to the storm.

  I hesitate only a moment. Then I bring the vial to my lips and down the liquid in a single swallow.

  The tonic’s effects don’t take hold immediately, but, when they do, I smile. Ever so slowly, the hand still holding the empty glass begins to vanish. The vial slips from my grasp. I close my eyes as the rest of my clothes and the blankets that cover me suddenly pass through me.

  Silent like the night, I slip out of bed, my exposed skin prickling in the cool chamber—though it’s wrong to call what’s left of me skin. I’m as insubstantial as a thought. I try to touch my face but my hand passes through my cheek, the sensation of it like a phantom wind brushing against me. My stomach bottoms out.

  It worked.

  I’m incorporeal.

  At last.

  This is what 400 years of life bought me.

  Wish I could see the look on that bastard’s face when he realizes I’m gone.

  I float up from my bed, my eyes moving over my shared chambers, with all its soft sheets and softer women. I am no longer one of them.

  Praise the Mother and the Father.

  I drift through the window, grimacing as my body passes through the glass. The sensation isn’t unpleasant, but the strangeness of it is.

  I keep floating up until the city below me is nothing more than twinkling lights. From here Somnia looks beautiful. From here it doesn’t look like the cage it became to me.

  It’s not until I’m some distance away that I allow myself to laugh. And once I start, I can’t seem to stop.

  I outmaneuvered my husband. How many times has that happened?

  My eyes move to the stars and my laughter dies. All those millions of stars, each one a tiny beacon of brightness against the oppressive night.

  A wave of hope fills me.

  How do you fight the darkness? You refuse to let it snuff out your light.

  I let the wind carry me away, knowing it’ll eventually deposit me where I need to go.

  Every so often pixies flitter by me, chittering wildly. Less often, I see two sets of wings, lovers meeting high up in the night sky under the cloak of darkness.

  Once I might’ve felt something at the sight of them—wistfulness perhaps—but now I feel nothing.

  My husband stamped that notion out.

  Now, as I float on the soft wind, I’m more concerned with the single sets of wings I see every now and then. Soldiers looking for me?

  I knew long before I drank the vial that I’d be leaving breadcrumbs behind—my nightclothes, the glass container itself. One whiff of it and any curious fairy would know exactly what I drank, and thus, exactly what I did.

  My sick, ardent husband will do something about it. He’ll have to. His pride will demand it.

  I float high in the sky for what must be hours, but, at some point, I begin to drift down. I catch sight of my arm shimmering back into existence. Seconds later it solidifies, along with the rest of my body, and the drifting becomes tumbling, then falling.

  An instinctive bolt of fear shoots through me. No sooner do I feel it than my wings manifest. Paper-thin, they shimmer the palest of purples. They catch the wind, slowing my descent. I continue to drop from the sky, my body seeking lower elevations where the air is thicker.

  Only once I’ve reached a reasonable elevation do I pause.

  The night air bites into my bare skin. I’m as naked as the day I was born, my waist-length hair my only covering. The ebony locks slide over my torso, swaying in the wind.

  I need clothes and shelter, and I need to not be seen.

  Capture at this point means certain death. Certain, slow death. My husband isn’t known for his kindness.

  My hand drifts to my stomach.

  He would give me death either way.

  I take a steadying breath and my eyes move to the horizon. Somewhere beyond it is Barbos, the City of Thieves. And beyond that—

  Home.

  Part I

  In the Beginning, There was Darkness

  Chapter 1

  Misbegotten

  257 years ago

  Bastard.

  Bastard. Bastard. Bastard.

  It’s an ugly word, one I’ve come to hate a great deal, mostly because I can’t escape it.

  I hear it whispered beneath people’s breath as I pass. I see it in their eyes when they look at me. I smell it in the sour breath of the town kids who like to push me around for it. My knuckles are scabbed over from the number of times I’ve had to fight for my honor.

  But the worst is when people use it idly.

  “That Flynn boy came at my son again.”

  “Who?”

  “You know, the scrawny bastard.”

  “Oh, him. Yes.”

  The word is only a step or two up from slave. And I have to wear the title like a badge of shame.

  I head into the Caverns of Arestys, twisting my way through the tunnels, the flickering candle in my hand my only source of light. Not that it matters. I can see quite well in darkness, light or no.

  My mood blackens as I pass through the roughshod door to our house. A bastard son living in the worst area of the poorest floating island in all the kingdom.

  My mother still isn’t home from her work as town scribe, so I move about our house, replacing the nubs of candles with the fresh candlesticks I procured.

  All the while, I seethe.

  Every plink of water dripping from the cavern ceiling, every draft of chilly air that slides through the myriad of tunnels—it all mocks me.

  Bastard, bastard, bastard.

  I grab the beets that are laid out on the table and drop them into the cauldron in our kitchen. It’s only once I pour water into the mix and then light a fire beneath the hanging pot that I actually relax enough to rub my split knuckles. Flecks of dried blood coat the skin, and I’m not sure whether it’s mine or someone else’s.

  Bastard.

  I can still hear the name, spoken like a taunt, on my way ho
me from town.

  Beneath the fresh cuts are old ones. I’ve had to defend my shitty title for a long time. Of course, it’s not necessarily bastard that set me off. Sometimes it’s all the insults that spawn from it.

  You’ll never be anything more than your whore mother. The street kid had said that to me today. His voice still rings in my ears.

  It was the wrong thing to say.

  The next time you say that, I warned, you’ll have a few less teeth to work with.

  He hadn’t believed me then.

  I slip a hand into the pocket of my trousers and touch the tiny, bloody incisors resting there.

  He does now.

  Behind me the front door opens, and my mother comes in. I know without getting close to her that she smells of old parchment and her fingers are stained black with ink.

  A scribe cries words and bleeds ink, she used to tell me when I was little and didn’t know better. I thought it was true, that this was part of her magic. That was before I truly understood what magic was—and what it wasn’t.

  “Desmond,” she says, flashing me an exhausted smile, “I missed you.”

  I nod tersely, not trusting myself to speak.

  “Did you do your reading?” she asks.

  We might be the poorest fairies to exist in this godsless world, but Larissa Flynn will spend what little hard-earned money she makes on books. Books about kingdoms I’ll never see and people I’ll never meet. Books about languages I’ll never speak and customs I’ll never endure. Books about lives I want but will never live.

  And under her roof I’m to learn everything within their pages.

  “What’s the point?” I ask, refusing to admit that I did in fact do the reading because I can’t help but return to those damned books day after day, determined to change my life. Our lives.

  My mother’s eyes move to the candles.

  “Desmond.” Her voice drops low as she gently chastises me, “who did you swindle this time?” She gives me her no nonsense look, but her eyes twinkle mischievously.

  As much as she pretends to disapprove of deals I strike, she subtly encourages them. And on any other day, I might say something to butter her up even more. Because most days I enjoy helping her.

  “Does it matter?” I say, pausing over the small cauldron I’m stirring. I smell like beets and my clothes are stained a reddish-purple where the juice has splattered onto me. I gave up a decent meal to trade for those candles. Hence, beets for dinner.

  I should be thankful. It could always be worse. There are nights I go to bed with a full mind but an empty belly. And in the morning, I wake up with sand in my eyes and between my toes, like I’m the Sandman’s favorite damned person, and the whole nightmare starts over again.

  I hate poverty. I hate feeling like we’re only entitled to the worst this realm has to offer simply because. But more than anything, I hate having to make hard choices. Books or food? To learn or to eat?

  “This wouldn’t even be an issue if you would just let me use a bit of magic,” I say.

  I can feel my power burning under my skin and beneath my fingertips, waiting for me to call it forth.

  “No magic.”

  “Mom, everyone thinks we’re weak.” The strongest fairies wield the most magic, the weakest, the least. Everyone who’s met me believes I’m one of those poor, rare souls born without it entirely.

  A fatherless, powerless fairy. Aside from slaves, this might be the worst fate for a person living within these realms.

  The rub of it all is that I have plenty of magic, and now, so close to puberty, I can feel it like a storm beneath my veins. It’s taking increasing effort just to leash it.

  “No magic,” she repeats, setting her satchel next to our rickety table before taking over the stirring from me.

  “So I’m to have powers but never use them?” I say heatedly. This is an old, scarred battle of ours. “And I’m to read but never speak of my knowledge?”

  She reaches for my hand and runs her thumb over my knuckles. “And you are to have strength without abusing it,” she adds. “Yes, my son. Be humble. Speak, but listen more. Rein in your magic and your mind.”

  Which only leaves me my muscle. Even that she’d have me hide away from the world.

  “They call me a bastard,” I blurt out. “Did you know that?”

  Her eyes widen almost imperceptibly.

  “They call me a bastard and you a whore. That’s why my knuckles are always bloody. I’m fighting for your honor.” My anger is beginning to get the better of me, which is problematic. And under my mother’s roof, I had to live by two hard and fast rules: one, I must never use my magic, and two, I must control my temper. I’m decent at the former and shit at the latter.

  She turns to our sad pot of beets. “You are not a bastard,” she says, so softly I barely hear it over the bubbling cauldron.

  But I do hear it.

  My heart nearly stops.

  Not … a bastard? Not a misbegotten? The entire axis of my universe shifts in an instant.

  “I’m not a bastard?”

  Slowly, her eyes move from the pot back to me. I swear I see a flash of regret. She hadn’t meant to tell me.

  “No,” she finally says, her expression turning resolute.

  My heartbeat begins to pick up speed at an alarming rate, and I have the oddest urge not to believe her. This is the kind of talk you sit your son down for; you don’t just casually slip it into the conversation.

  I stare at her, waiting for more.

  She says nothing.

  “Truly?” I press.

  She takes a shaky breath. “Yes, Desmond.”

  Something that feels an awful lot like hope surges through me. Bastards live tragedies. Sons live sagas. All my mother’s books are very clear on that point.

  I am some man’s son. His son. Masculine pride rushes through me, though it’s quickly doused by reality. I am still the boy raised by a single mother, and I have lived a fatherless existence. Perhaps I’m no bastard, but the world still sees me as one, and knowing my mom’s love of secrets, the world will continue to see me as one even after today.

  “Did he die?”

  How? How did our lives come to this?

  She shakes her head, refusing to look at me.

  “Then he abandoned us.”

  “No, my son.”

  What other answer is left?

  The only one that comes to me has me scrutinizing my mother, my hardworking mother who keeps many, many secrets and who has taught me to do the same.

  “You left him,” I state. Of course. It’s the only logical answer left.

  She grimaces, still refusing to look at me, and there is my answer.

  “You left him and took me with you.”

  It feels like someone’s stacked stones in my stomach. This sense of loss is almost unbearable, mostly because I didn’t know I had anything to lose in the first place.

  “Who was my father?”

  My mother shakes her head.

  This is the kind of revelation that I shouldn’t have to pull teeth to get.

  “Tell me. You owe me that.” I can feel my magic hammering beneath my skin, begging for release. A name is all I need.

  Again, she shakes her head, her brows furrowed.

  “If you have any love for me, then you’ll tell me who he is.” Then I could find him, and he could claim me as his son, and all those kids that called me a bastard would realize I had a father …

  My magic builds and builds. I can feel it crawling up and down my back, pressing against the skin there.

  “It’s because I love you that I won’t tell you,” she says, her voice rising in agitation.

  This is where I’m supposed to drop the subject. But this is my father we’re talking about, one whole half of my identity that’s been missing all my life. She’s treating this conversation like it doesn’t matter.

  “What kind of answer is that?” I say hotly, my annoyance turning into anger. My power become
s frenzied at the taste of my heated emotions. Harder it presses against my back, becoming an itch.

  “Desmond,” she says sharply, “if you knew the truth, it could kill you.”

  My heart beats faster. Sharp, sharp pressure at my back!

  Who is my father? I need to know!

  “You’re the one who’s always droning on about educating myself,” I throw at her. “That ‘knowledge is the sharpest blade,’” I say, quoting her. “And yet you still won’t tell me my father’s identity.” My words lash out, and with them I feel the skin of my back give.

  I groan as the flesh parts, and my magic shoves its way out of me. I have to bend over from the force of it, leaning my hand on the nearby counter.

  My wings are sprouting, I think, distantly. My back throbs, tingling with my magic, and it’s not quite pain but it isn’t exactly pleasant either. My power consumes me, darkening my vision and making my body shake.

  Didn’t know it would be like this.

  I sense rather than see my mother turning away from the cauldron to give me her full attention. This is about the time I get a verbal lashing. And then her form stiffens as she takes me in.

  I breathe heavily between waves of magic.

  Why, now of all times, did my wings have to sprout?

  They tug at my back, and they should feel heavy, but my magic is making them buoyant, about the weight they’d be if I were submerged in water.

  I blink, trying to bring the room into focus. My sight sharpens for a moment, and I see my mother clearly.

  Her eyes are wide as they gaze at my wings. She takes a shaky step back, nearly knocking into the heated cauldron.

  “You have his wings,” she says, sounding utterly terrified.

  Her form slips out of focus, and my attention unwillingly turns inward. I fight against it, determined to finish the conversation.

  “Whose wings?” I say, my voice sounding very far away to my own ears. I feel like I’m in another room. My magic pulses tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump inside me.

  I don’t hear her answer, and I’m not entirely sure whether that’s because she never spoke, or I simply didn’t hear it over the whoosh of power deafening my ears.

  “Tell me and I’ll swear to the Undying Gods never to tell.”

 
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