The Midnight Star Page 2

He gives me a teasing nod. “It took me all morning to cover one district of this city,” he replies, his voice nonchalant, his fingers floating absently across the strings of a lute strapped in front of him. Even this small gesture sounds like a perfect chord. “We’d have to stay here for weeks for me to collect all of the valuables left behind. Just look at this. Never saw anything this finely crafted in Merroutas, have you?”

He edges his horse closer. Now I see, wrapped in cloth in the front of his saddle, bunches of plants. Yellow thistle. Blue daisies. A small, twisted blackroot. I recognize the plants immediately, and suppress a small smile. Without saying a word, I untie my canteen from the side of my saddle and hand it to Magiano so that the others don’t see. Only Sergio notices, but he just looks away and guzzles water from his own bottle. Sergio has been complaining of thirst for weeks now.

“You slept poorly last night,” Magiano murmurs as he gets to work, crushing the plants and mixing them into my water.

I had been careful this morning to weave an illusion over the dark circles under my eyes. But Magiano can always tell when I’ve had my nightmares. “I’ll sleep better tonight, after this.” I motion at the drink he’s preparing for me.

“I found some blackroot,” he says, handing my canteen back to me. “It grows like a weed here in Dumor. You should take another tonight, if you want to keep the . . . well, them at bay.”

The voices. I hear them constantly now. Their chittering sounds like a cloud of noise right behind my ears, always present, never silent. They whisper at me when I wake in the morning and when I go to bed. Sometimes they speak nonsense. Other times, they tell me violent stories. Right now, they’re mocking me.

How sweet, they sneer as Magiano pulls his horse slightly away and goes back to plucking at his lute. He doesn’t like us very much, does he? Always trying to keep us away from you. But you don’t want us to leave, do you, Adelina? We are a part of you, birthed in your mind. And why would such a sweet boy love you, anyway? Don’t you see? He’s trying to change who you are. Just like your sister.

Do you even remember her?

I grit my teeth and take a drink of my tonic. The herbs are bitter on my tongue, but I welcome the taste. I’m supposed to look the part of an invading queen today. I can’t afford to have my illusions spinning out of control in front of my new subjects. Immediately, I feel the herbs working—the voices are muffled, as if they have been pushed farther back—and the rest of the world comes into sharper focus.

Magiano strums another chord. “I’ve been thinking, mi Adelinetta,” he continues in his usual, lighthearted manner, “that I’ve collected far too many lutes and trinkets and these delightful little sapphire coins.” He pauses to turn around in his saddle and digs some gold from one of his heavy new satchels. He holds out a few coins with tiny blue jewels embedded in their centers, each one equivalent to ten gold Kenettran talents.

I laugh at him, and behind us, several Inquisitors stir in surprise at the sound. Only Magiano can coax joy out of me so easily. “What’s this? The great prince of thieves is suddenly overwhelmed by too much wealth?”

He shrugs. “What am I going to do with fifty lutes and ten thousand sapphire coins? If I wear any more gold, I’ll fall off my horse.”

Then his voice quiets a little. “I was thinking you could dole it out to your new citizens instead. It doesn’t have to be much. A few sapphire coins each, some handfuls of gold from your coffers. They’re overflowing as it is, especially after Merroutas fell to you.”

My good mood instantly sours, and the voices in my head start up. He’s telling you to buy the loyalty of your new citizens. Love can be purchased, didn’t you know that? After all, you bought Magiano’s love. It is the only reason why he’s still here with you. Isn’t it?

I take another swig from my canteen, and the voices fade a little again. “You want me to show these Dumorians some kindness.”

“I think it could reduce the frequency of attacks on you, yes.” Magiano stops playing his lute. “There was the assassin in Merroutas. Then we saw the beginning of that rebel group—the Saccorists, wasn’t it?—when your forces set foot in Domacca.”

“They never got within a league of me.”

“Still, they killed several of your Inquisitors in the middle of the night, burned down your tents, stole your weapons. And you never found them. What about the incident in northern Tamoura, after you secured that territory?”

“Which incident did you have in mind?” I say, my voice growing clipped and cold. “The intruder waiting in my tents? The explosion on board my ship? The dead marked boy left outside our camps?”

“Those too,” Magiano replies, waving his hand in the air. “But I was thinking about when you ignored the letters from the Tamouran royals, the Golden Triad. They offered you a truce, mi Adelinetta. Their northern strip of terrain in exchange for releasing their prisoners and the return of the farmlands near their only major river. They offered you a very generous trade deal. And you sent their ambassador back bearing your crest dipped in the blood of their fallen soldiers.” He gave me a pointed look. “I seem to remember suggesting something subtler.”

I shake my head. We already argued about this, when I initially arrived in Tamoura, and I’m not about to debate it again. “I’m not here to make friends. Our forces successfully conquered their northern territories regardless of their deals. And I will take the rest of Tamoura next.”

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