The Little Baths of Bethesda turn out to be a set of ruins at the edge of Merroutas.
Early the next morning, as the sun crests the horizon and fishing boats set out into the bay, Violetta and I make our way down the dirt path leading out of the city-state’s main gates and to a smaller cluster of abandoned domed houses, all situated beneath the stone arches of a former aqueduct.
It looks like a place that once bustled with activity. But the bathhouse itself—or what’s left of it—was built on soft ground, which must have sealed its fate. As people abandoned the bathhouse, so must they have abandoned the small settlement of homes around it. Or perhaps the aqueduct delivering its water crumbled first. The once-glorious pillars at its entrance have now collapsed, and the stone foundation has sunk into the marshy soil. Vines crawl up the stone, their flowers vibrant green and yellow. I feel a strong attraction to this place’s ruined beauty.
“He’s here,” Violetta whispers beside me, her brow furrowed in concentration.
“Good.” I adjust my mask across my own ruined face and approach the entrance.
The bathhouse is cool and dark inside, its arched stone ceiling covered with mosses and ivy. Narrow shafts of light cut through the ceiling’s openings, illuminating the pools of water below. We step carefully through the halls of ancient marble colonnades. The air smells wet and musky, the scent of something green and alive. The sound of dripping water echoes all around us.
Finally I stop where the bath pool begins. “Where is he?” I whisper.
Violetta lifts her eyes to the ceiling. She spins in a half circle, then focuses on a dark corner. “There.”
I strain to see into the shadows. “Magiano,” I call out. My voice startles me—it bounces off the walls, over and over, until it finally fades away. I clear my throat, a little embarrassed, and continue in a quieter tone. “We were told we could find you here.”
There is a long silence, so long that I start to wonder whether Violetta might be mistaken.
Then, someone laughs. As the sound echoes from surface to surface, a flurry of leaves rain down from the bathhouse’s mossy banisters. A trail of dark braids flashes in and out of the light. I instinctively extend one of my arms in front of Violetta, as if that might protect her.
“Adelina,” a voice calls playfully. “How nice to see you.”
I try to pinpoint where the voice comes from.
“Are you Magiano, then?” I reply. “Or are you just taunting us?”
“Do you remember a comedy called The Temptation of the Jewel
?” he continues after a pause. “The play opened in Kenettra a couple of years ago, to great fanfare, right before the Inquisition banned it.”
I do remember it. The Temptation of the Jewel
was about a dull, arrogant knight who continually bragged that he could steal a jewel from an ogre's lair—only to be bested by a cheeky young boy, who snatched the prize first. It was penned by Tristan Chirsley, the same famous scribe who’d written the Stories of the Star Thief
collection, and its final performance had happened in Dalia, in a theater overflowing with people.The Star Thief.
I shake my head, trying not to think of Gemma and the others. “Yes, of course I do,” I respond. “How is this relevant? Are you a Chirsley admirer?”
Another laugh sounds through the vast space. Another shuffle of feet and flurry of leaves high above us. This time, we look up and see a dark silhouette crouched on a rotting wooden beam right over our heads. I step aside to look more properly at him. In the shadows, all I can make out are a pair of bright gold eyes, fixed curiously on me.
“It’s relevant,” he replies, “because I was the inspiration for it.”
A laugh escapes my mouth before I can stop it. “You inspired Chirsley’s play?”
He dangles his feet over the beam. I notice that he’s not wearing shoes today. “The Inquisition banned the play because it was about the theft of the queen’s crown jewels.”
I catch Violetta’s skeptical glance. The rumors we’d heard along the way, about how Magiano had stolen Queen Giulietta’s crown, come back to me now. “Did you inspire the clever boy, then, or the arrogant knight?” I tease.
Now I can see his bright white teeth in the darkness. That carefree smile. “You wound me, my love,” he says. He reaches for something in his pockets and tosses it at us. The object falls in a clean line, gleaming as it goes. It splashes into the shallowest part of the pool.
“You forgot your ring last night,” he says.
My ring? I hurry over to the pool, kneel, and peer into the water. The silver ring sparkles in a ray of light, winking at me. It is the ring I’d worn on my fourth finger. I roll up my sleeve, reach for it, and clench it in my fist.
He couldn’t have taken it from me last night. Impossible. He didn’t even touch my hands. He didn’t even come down from the balcony!
The boy laughs before tossing something else down, this time in Violetta’s direction. “Let’s see, what else…” As it floats down, I see that it’s a ribbon of cloth. “A sash from your dress, my lady,” he says to Violetta with a mock bow of his head. “Right as you walked into this bathhouse.”
He throws down more of our things, including a gold pin from my head wrap, and three jewels from Violetta’s sleeves. The hairs on my arms rise. “You two are very forgetful,” he chides as he goes.
Violetta bends down to retrieve her belongings. She shoots a glare at Magiano as she carefully clips the jewels back onto her sleeves. “I see we’ve found an upstanding citizen, Adelina,” she mutters to me.
“Is this supposed to impress us?” I call up to him. “A demonstration of cheap street tricks?”
“Silly girl. I know what you’re really asking.” He hops into the light. “You’re asking how I managed to do it. You have no idea, do you?” He’s the same boy we met yesterday. Thick ropes of braids hang over his shoulders, and he’s wearing a colorful tunic that has everything from patches of silk to enormous brown leaves sewn into it. When I look more closely, I realize that the leaves are actually made out of metal. Of gold
His smile is the one I remember—feral, sharp in a way that tells me he is observing everything about us. Studying our possessions. Something about his eyes sends a chill through me. A pleasant chill.
The famed Magiano.
“I admit I don’t know how you took our possessions,” I say, with a stiff jerk of my head. “Please. Enlighten us.”
He pulls his lute from behind his back and plucks a few notes. “So, you’re impressed, after all.”
My gaze shifts to the lute. It’s different from the lute he had yesterday. The instrument he has now is an opulent one, encrusted with glittering diamonds and emeralds, the strings painted gold, the knobs on the lute’s neck made out of jewels. The entire thing looks like a gaudy mess.
Magiano holds out the lute for us to admire. It twinkles madly in the light. “Isn’t she amazing? It’s the best lute that a night of gambling can buy.”
So this is how a famous thief spends his winnings. “Where do you even go to buy a monstrosity like that?” I say, before I can stop myself.
Magiano blinks at me in surprise, then gives me a hurt frown. He hugs the lute to his chest. “I think it’s pretty,” he says defensively.
Violetta and I share a look. “What is your power?” I ask him. “All the rumors say that you’re a Young Elite. Is it true, or are you simply a boy with a talent for theft?”
“And what if I’m not an Elite?” he says with a grin. “Would you be disappointed?”
Magiano leans back on the beam, hugs his lute, and regards me in the way that an animal might. He says, “All right. I’ll enlighten you.” He picks at his teeth. “You are a worker of illusions. Yes?”
He gestures at me. “Create something. Anything. Go ahead. Make this broken place beautiful.”He’s challenging me.
I look at Violetta, and she shrugs, as if giving me permission. So I take a deep breath, reach for the threads buried inside me, pull them out into the air, and begin to weave.
All around us, the interior of the bathhouse transforms into a vision of green hills underneath a stormy sky. Steep waterfalls line one side of the landscape, and baliras lift ships from the ocean to the top of the falls, setting them safely on the shallow, elevated seas. Dalia, my birth city. I keep weaving. A warm wind blows past us, and the air fills with the scent of oncoming rain.
Magiano watches the shifting illusion with wide eyes. In this moment, his mischief and bravado vanish—he blinks, as if unable to believe what he’s seeing. When he finally looks back at me, his smile is full of wonder. He takes a deep breath. “Again,” he whispers. “Make something else.”
His admiration of my powers makes me stand a little straighter. I wave away the illusion of Dalia, then plunge us into the twilit depths of a nighttime ocean. We float in the dark water, illuminated only by shafts of dim blue light. The ocean transforms into midnight on a hill overlooking Estenzia, with the three moons hanging huge over the horizon.
Finally, I take the illusions away, bringing back the ruins that surround us. Magiano shakes his head at me, but doesn’t say a word.
“Your turn,” I say, crossing my arms. My body hums with the ache of using energy. “Show us your power.”
Magiano bows his head once. “Fair enough,” he replies.
Violetta takes my hand. At the same time, something invisible shoves against my hold on my dark energy—and the world around us vanishes.
I throw my hands up to shield my eye from the brilliant light. It is searing bright—is this his power? No, that can’t be right.
As the light gradually fades, I chance a look around. The bathhouse is still here, still all around us… but, to my shock, it has transformed into its former self. No ivy or moss hangs from broken pillars, no holes in its crumbling dome roof let light paint patterns on the floor. Instead, the rows of pillars are new and polished, and the water in the pool—its surface adorned with floating petals—gives off clouds of steam. Statues of the gods line the pool’s edge. I frown at the sight, then try to blink it away. Beside me, Violetta’s mouth hangs open. She tries to speak.
“It’s not real,” she finally whispers.It’s not real.
Of course it’s not—with those words, I realize that I recognize the energy this place is giving off, the millions of threads holding everything together. The renewed bathhouse is an illusion
. Just like something I would have created. In fact, the threads of energy that created this image of the perfect bathhouse feel exactly like my own threads.
Another illusion worker?
I don’t understand. How could he have created something with a power that should belong to me?
The illusion breaks without warning. The brightly lit temple, the steaming water and statues—all disappear in an instant, leaving us back in the dark recesses of the broken bathhouse and its overgrown shell. Spots of light still float across my vision. I have to adjust to the darkness, almost as if I’d been blinded by something real.
Magiano swings his legs idly. “The things I could’ve done,” he muses, “had I known you earlier.”
I clear my throat and try not to look too stunned. “You . . . you have the same power as I do?”
He laughs at the hesitation in my voice. With a grandiose half bow, he jumps onto his feet and spins once on the beam, like he is dancing. It looks effortless. “Don’t be stupid,” he replies. “No two Elites have the exact same power.”
“I imitate,” he continues. “Whenever I encounter another Elite, and she uses her power, I can briefly glimpse the weave of her energy in the air. Then I copy what I see—if only for a moment.” He pauses to give me a grin so large that it appears to split his face in two. “This is how you saved my life, and you didn’t even know it. When you were in the dungeon cell next to mine, I mimicked you. I tricked my way out of my cell by making the soldiers think my cell was empty. They came over to investigate, and I stepped right out when they opened the door.”
Gradually, the realization hits me. “You can mimic any Elite?”
He shrugs. “When I was lost and penniless in the Sunlands, I mimicked an Elite named the Alchemist, and transformed an entire wagon’s worth of silks into gold. When I ran from the Inquisition in Kenettra, I mimicked the Lead Inquisitor’s healing abilities in order to protect myself against the arrows his men launched at me.” He spreads his hands, nearly drops his lute, and grabs it again. “I am the brightly colored fish that pretends to be poisonous. You see?”
A mimic. I look down at my hand and move my fingers, watching my ring glint in the light. I eye the sash Violetta has tied back onto her dress. “When you stole our things,” I say slowly, “you used my power against us.”
Magiano tunes one of the lute’s strings. “Why yes. I replaced your ring with an illusion of it, slipped it off while convincing you that I was just idling on the balcony.”
Of course. It’s something I would have done—something I have
done before—when stealing money from noblemen’s purses. I swallow, trying to grasp the sheer extent of his power. My heart beats faster.
Violetta’s mistrust of him has turned to fascination. “That means—around the right people—you can do anything.”
Magiano pretends to have the same realization she does, and his jaw drops, mocking her. “Well, now. I do believe you’re right.” He swings the lute over his back again, skips along the ceiling beam until he reaches a pillar, then hops down to a lower beam so that he now crouches close to us, close enough for me to see the wide array of colorful necklaces hanging around his neck. More jewels. And now I can see what bothered me about his eyes. His pupils look strangely oval-slitted, like a cat’s.
“Now, then,” he says. “We have been introduced to each other and gotten all our pleasantries out of the way. Tell me. What do you want?”
I take a deep breath. “My sister and I are running from the Inquisition,” I say. “We are heading south now, out of their reach, until we can gather enough allies to return to Kenettra and strike back.”
“Ah. You want revenge against the Inquisition.”
“You and the rest of us.” Magiano snorts. “Why? Because they imprisoned you? Because they’re horrible? If that’s the case, then you’re better off leaving them alone. Trust me. You’re free now. Why go back?”
“Have you heard the latest news from Estenzia?” I ask. “About Queen Giulietta? And her brother’s—” I choke on the mention of Enzo’s death. Even now, I cannot bring myself to say it.
“Yes. That news spread rather quickly.” “Have you also heard that Master Teren Santoro is planning to annihilate all malfettos
in Kenettra? He is the queen’s pet—she will give him the power to do it.”
Magiano leans against the beam. If this news disturbs him, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he gathers his braids and pulls them over one shoulder. “So, what you’re trying to say is that you want to stop Teren’s ruthless little campaign. And you are trying to gather a team of Young Elites to help you do this.”
“Yes.” My hopes rise a little. “And you are the Elite we hear about the most.”
Magiano stands taller, and his eyes glint with pleasure. “You flatter me, my love.” He gives me a rueful smile. “But flattery won't be enough, I’m afraid. I work alone. I’m quite happy right where I am, and I have no interest in joining a noble cause. You’ve wasted your time on me.”
My rising hopes vanish as quickly as they came. I can’t help letting my shoulders fall. With a reputation like his, of course he must have been approached in the past by other Elites. What made me think he would agree to side with us? “Why do you work alone?” I ask.
“Because I don’t like to share my spoils.”
I lift my head and give him a small frown. He has to join us, the whispers in my head urge. The Daggers would have killed for an Elite with his powers on their side. What would Enzo or Raffaele have said to entice him to join the Dagger Society? I think back to the way Enzo had recruited me, what he whispered in my ear. Do you want to punish those who have wronged you?
Beside me, Violetta squeezes my hand in the darkness. She glances at me from the comers of her eyes. “Find his weakness,” she murmurs to me. “What he wants.”
I try a different tactic. “If you are the most notorious thief in the world,” I say to him, “and you are so good at what you do, then how did you get captured by the Inquisition?”
Magiano props an elbow up on one knee and swings his legs. He gives me a curious grin… but behind it, I see what I’d hoped for. A spark of irritation. “They got lucky,” he replies, his nonchalant voice a little bit sharper than before.
“Or maybe you were careless?” I press. “Or are you exaggerating your talents?”
Magiano’s grin wavers for an instant. He sighs and rolls his eyes. “If you must
know,” he mutters, “I was in Dalia to steal a chest of rare sapphires that had arrived from Dumor as a present for the duke. And the only reason the Inquisition caught me is that I went back for one more sapphire than I should have.” He holds up both hands. “In my defense, it was a very heavy sapphire.”He can’t help himself,
I realize. This is why one of the world’s most notorious Elites still runs petty street games for money, why he just spent an entire night’s pouch of gold talents on a useless, jewel-encrusted lute, why he has gold leaves sewn into his clothes. There are never enough gold talents in his pockets or jewels on his fingers—not when he knows there are more to gain. I glance at his fine silks again. Money pours into his hands and flows right out between his fingers.
Violetta’s tightened hold tells me she has come to the exact same conclusion. This is our opening.
“Kenettra’s royal treasury holds a thousand times the sapphires you tried to steal in Dalia. You and I both know this. You managed to steal the crown jewels once before—now, imagine all the gold behind that crown.”
As expected, Magiano’s eyes take on a gleam so intense that I have to take a step back. He tilts his head suspiciously at me. “You tell me this as if I’ve never considered stealing the entire Kenettran royal treasury,” he says.
“Then why haven’t you done it yet?”
“You are so naïve.” He shakes his head, disappointed in my answer. “Do you have any idea how many guards watch over that gold? How many locations it’s scattered across? What a fool attempt it would be for anyone to think he could take it all?” He sniffs. “And here I thought for a moment that you had some magical idea to take it too.”
“I do,” I reply.
Magiano lets out a short laugh, but I can tell he’s studying me seriously now. “Then please, Adelina, share it. You really think the entire Kenettran royal treasury can be yours?”
,” I correct him. “If you join us, you would never need to scramble for gold again.”
He laughs again. “Now I know you’re lying to me.” He leans forward. “What—are you planning to cloak yourself in illusions and sneak into the treasury to take one armful of gold at a time? Do you know how many lifetimes that would take you, even if you made dozens of trips a night? And even if you could steal all that gold, how does one even begin to transport it out of the country? Out of Estenzia, even?” He stands up on the beam, hops lightly to a spot where he can reach a higher beam, and starts to turn away.
“I never said anything about stealing
it,” I call out.
He pauses, then turns to face me. “Then how do you plan to take it all, my love?”
I smile. A memory burns through my mind: the cold, rainy night; my father talking to the stranger downstairs; I’m sitting along the stairs, pretending from my perch that I am a queen on a balcony. I blink. The power of that desire rushes through me like a wild wind. “Simple. We take away the throne from Queen Giulietta and the Inquisition Axis. Then the Kenettran royal treasury becomes ours by right.”
Magiano blinks. Then he starts to laugh. The laughter grows louder, until his eyes shine with tears, until he finally stops to let himself catch a breath. When he composes himself, his eyes slit, glowing in the darkness. In the silence that follows, I press on. “If you join us, and we take the Queen of Kenettra’s throne, then malfettos
will have a ruler like themselves. We can stop Teren's thirst for our blood. You can have more gold than you ever dreamed of. You can have a thousand diamond-encrusted lutes. You would be able to buy your own island and castle. You’d be remembered as a king.”
“I don’t want to be a king,” Magiano replies. “Too many responsibilities.” But his answer is halfhearted, and he doesn't move. He’s considering my plan.
“You don’t need to be responsible for anything,” I say. “Help me win the crown and save the country, and you can have everything you've ever desired.”
Another long silence drags on. His gaze wanders to my mask. “Take it off,” he mutters.
I hadn’t expected an answer like that. He's buying himself some time to think, distracting me in the process. I shake my head. After all this time, the thought of showing a new stranger my greatest weakness still sends fear through me.
Magiano's expression flickers, if only slightly, and some of the wildness seeps out of his eyes. Like he knows me. “Take off your mask,” he whispers. “I do not judge a malfetto
’s markings, Adelina, nor do I work with someone who hides her face from me.”
When Violetta nods, I reach up and fiddle with the knot behind my head. The mask loosens, then swings completely off to dangle in my hand. The cold air hits my scar. I force myself to stare steadily back at Magiano, bracing myself for his reaction. If I’m going to have my own Elites, they will need to trust me.
He steps closer and takes a long look. I can see the slashes of honey gold in his eyes. A slow, lazy smile starts to creep onto his face. He doesn’t ask about my marking. Instead, he lifts the lower corner of his silk shirt and bares part of his side.
I inhale sharply. A hideous scar snakes its way across his skin, then disappears up under his shirt. Our eyes meet, and a moment of understanding passes between us.
“Please,” I say, lowering my voice. “I don’t know what happened to you in your past, or what your full marking looks like. But if the promise of gold doesn’t entice you enough, then think of the millions of other malfettos
in Kenettra, all of whom will die in the next few months if no one saves them. You are a thief, so perhaps you have your own code of honor. Is there a place in your heart where you would mourn for the deaths of all who are like us?”
Something about my words strikes Magiano, and his eyes take on a faraway look. He pauses and clears his throat. “It’s just a rumor, you know,” he says after a moment.
“The story about the queen’s crown jewels.”
“The crown jewels?”
“Yes.” He looks at me. “The Kenettran queen's crown jewels. I never stole them. I tried to—but couldn't manage it.”
I watch him carefully. There is something shifting in the balance of our conversation. “Yet you still want them,” I reply.
“What can I say? It’s a weakness.”
“So, what will you do? Will you join us?”
He holds up a slender finger covered with gold rings. “How do I know that you’ll keep your promise, if I do help you get what you want?”
I shrug. “Are you going to spend the rest of your life stealing a handful of jewels at a time and running gambling stands in Merroutas?” I reply. “You said yourself, you wonder what you could have done if you’d known me earlier. Well, here’s your chance.”
Magiano smiles at me with something akin to pity. “The girl who would be queen,” he murmurs thoughtfully. “The gods play interesting games.”
“This is no game,” I say.
At last, he lifts his head and raises his voice. “I do owe you a life debt. And that’s something I never play games with.”
I stare silently at him, thinking back to the night before, when he'd originally met us to pass along his thanks for saving his malfetto
Magiano holds out a hand in my direction. “If you want to take on the Inquisition, you will need a whole host of people at your back. And if you want people at your back, you need to build a reputation. I don’t follow anyone until I’m convinced that they’re worth following.”
“What can we do to convince you?”
Magiano smiles. “Beat me in a race.”
“A little game between us,” he says. ''I’ll even give you a head start.” His smile takes on a wicked tilt. “A man called the Night King rules this city. He has many soldiers, as well as a secret army of ten thousand mercenaries scattered throughout the island. You may have seen his men patrolling the streets, with moon-and-crown emblems on their sleeves.”
I fold my arms. “I have.”
“He is the most feared man in Merroutas. They say that every time he uncovers a traitor in his ranks, he skins that man alive and has the skin sewn into his cloak.”
As I imagine the scene, my skin prickles… not just from horror, but from fascination. A kindred soul,
the whispers say. “What does that have to do with us?” I ask, raising my voice to drown out the whispers.
“Tomorrow morning, I am going to gain access to his estate to rob him of the prized diamond pin he always wears on his collar. If you can steal it before I can . . . then I will join you.” He gives me a mock bow that makes me blush. “I only work with the worthy. And I just want to make sure you understand the risks of this mission.”
Neither Violetta nor I am an expert thief. I can disguise us or make us invisible, but my powers are still imperfect. What if we are caught? I imagine us lashed to a pole, our skin stripped from our limbs.
It’s not worth it.
Magiano smiles at my expression. “You’re too afraid,” he says.
The whispers in my head stir, urging me on. The Night King controls ten thousand mercenaries. What wouldn’t you give for ten thousand mercenaries at your service?
I shake my head—the whispers fade away, leaving me to ponder Magiano’s offer. This is one of his games. His famous tricks. Maybe even just a challenge for himself . I watch him carefully, searching for what the right answer should be. Can I actually get to the prize before Magiano runs away with it? I don’t know. Power and speed are two different things.
“I’m only giving you this chance, by the way,” Magiano says in a lighthearted tone, “because you helped me escape the Inquisition Tower.”
“How generous,” I quip.
Magiano just laughs again, a bright, tinkling sound, and extends a decorated hand. “A deal, then?”
I need him. I need my little army. Even Violetta touches my hand and nudges it toward him. So I only hesitate for one more second.
“A deal,” I reply, taking his hand.
“Good.” He nods. “Then you have my word.”
Copyright © 2015 by Marie Lu. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.