The Young Elites

Page 2

I continued staring out the rain-slashed window for a long while.

Tonight. Tonight was the night.

I hurried to my bed, bent down, and dragged out a sack I’d made with a bedsheet. Inside it were fine silverware, forks and knives, candelabras, engraved plates, anything I could sell for food and shelter. That’s another thing to love about me. I steal. I’d been stealing from around our house for months, stashing things under my bed in preparation for the day when I couldn’t stand to live with my father any longer. It wasn’t much, but I calculated that if I sold all of it to the right dealers, I might end up with a few gold talents. Enough to get by, at least, for several months.

Then I rushed to my chest of clothes, pulled out an armful of silks, and hurried about my chamber to collect any jewelry I could find. My silver bracelets. A pearl necklace inherited from my mother that my sister did not want. A pair of sapphire earrings. I grabbed two long strips of silk cloth that make up a Tamouran headwrap. I would need to cover up my silver hair while on the run. I worked in feverish concentration. I added the jewelry and clothes carefully into the sack, hid it behind my bed, and pulled on my soft leather riding boots.

I settled down to wait.

An hour later, when my father retired to bed and the house stilled, I grabbed the sack. I hurried to my window and pressed my hand against it. Gingerly, I pushed the left pane aside and propped it open. The storm had calmed some, but rain still came down steadily enough to mute the sound of my footsteps. I looked over my shoulder one last time at my bedchamber door, as if I expected my father to walk in. Where are you going, Adelina? he’d say. There’s nothing out there for a girl like you.

I shook his voice from my head. Let him find me gone in the morning, his best chance at settling his debts. I took a deep breath, then began to climb through the open window. Cold rain lashed at my arms, prickling my skin.

“Adelina?”

I whirled around at the voice. Behind me, the silhouette of a girl stood in my doorway—my sister, Violetta, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. She stared at the open window and the sack on my shoulders, and for a terrifying moment, I thought she might raise her voice and shout for Father.

But Violetta watched me quietly. I felt a pang of guilt, even as the sight of her sent a flash of resentment through my heart. Fool. Why should I have felt sorry for someone who had watched me suffer so many times before? I love you, Adelina, she used to say, when we were small. Papa loves you too. He just doesn’t know how to show it. Why did I pity the sister who was valued?

Still, I found myself rushing to her on silent feet, taking one of her hands in mine, and putting a slender finger up to her lips. She gave me a worried look. “You should go back to bed,” she whispered. In the dim glow of night, I could see the gloss of her dark, marble eyes, the thinness of her delicate skin. Her beauty was so pure. “You’ll get in trouble if Father finds you.”

I squeezed her hand tighter, then let our foreheads touch. We stayed still for a long moment, and it seemed as if we were children again, each leaning against the other. Usually Violetta would pull away from me, knowing that Father did not like to see us close. This time, though, she clung to me. As if she knew that tonight was something different. “Violetta,” I whispered, “do you remember the time you lied to Father about who broke one of his best vases?”

My sister nodded against my shoulder.

“I need you to do that for me again.” I pulled far away enough to tuck her hair behind her ear. “Don’t say a word.”

She didn’t reply; instead, she swallowed and looked down the hall toward our father’s chambers. She did not hate him in the same way that I did, and the thought of going against his teaching—that she was too good for me, that to love me was a foolish thing—filled her eyes with guilt. Finally, she nodded. I felt as if a mantle had been lifted from my shoulders, like she was letting go of me. “Be careful out there. Stay safe. Good luck.”

We exchanged a final look. You could come with me, I thought. But I know you won’t. You’re too scared. Go back to smiling at the dresses that Father buys for you. Still, my heart softened for a moment. Violetta was always the good girl. She didn’t choose any of this. I do wish you a happy life. I hope you fall in love and marry well. Good-bye, sister. I didn’t dare wait for her to say anything else. Instead I turned away, walked to the window, and stepped onto the second-floor ledge.

I nearly slipped. The rain had turned everything slick, and my riding boots fought for grip against the narrow ledge. Some silverware fell out of my sack, clattering on the ground below. Don’t look down. I made my way along the ledge until I reached a balcony, and there I slid down until I dangled with nothing but my trembling hands holding me in place. I closed my eye and let go.

My legs crumpled beneath me when I landed. The impact knocked the breath from my chest, and for a moment I could only lie there in front of our house, drenched in rain, muscles aching, fighting for air. Strands of my hair clung to my face. I wiped them out of my way and crawled onto my hands and knees. The rain added a reflective sheen to everything around me, as if this were all some nightmare I couldn’t wake from. My focus narrowed. I needed to get out of here before my father discovered me gone. Finally, I scrambled to my feet and ran, dazed, toward our stables. The horses paced uneasily when I walked in, but I untied my favorite stallion, whispered some soothing words to him, and saddled him.

We raced into the storm.

I pushed him hard until we had left my father’s villa behind and entered the edge of Dalia’s marketplace. The market was completely abandoned and flooded with puddles—I’d never been out in the town at an hour like this, and the emptiness of a place usually swarming with people unnerved me. My stallion snorted uneasily at the downpour and took several steps backward. His hooves sank into the mud. I swung down from the saddle, ran my hands along his neck in an attempt to calm him, and tried to pull him forward.

Then I heard it. The sound of galloping hooves behind me.

I froze in my tracks. At first it seemed distant—almost entirely muted by the storm—but then, an instant later, it turned deafening. I trembled where I stood. Father. I knew he was coming; it had to be him. My hands stopped caressing the stallion’s neck and instead gripped his soaked mane for dear life. Had Violetta told my father after all? Perhaps he’d heard the sound of the silverware falling from the roof.

And before I could think anything else, I saw him, a sight that sent terror rushing through my blood—my father, his eyes flashing, materializing through the fog of a wet midnight. In all my years, I’d never before seen such anger on his face.

I rushed to jump back on my stallion, but I wasn’t fast enough. One moment my father’s horse was bearing down on us, and the next, he was here, his boots splashing into a puddle and his coat whipping out behind him. His hand closed around my arm like an iron shackle.

“What are you doing, Adelina?” he asked, his voice eerily calm.

I tried in vain to escape his grasp, but his hand only gripped tighter until I gasped from the pain. My father pulled hard—I stumbled, lost my balance, and fell against him. Mud splashed my face. All I could hear was the roar of rain, the darkness of his voice.

“Get up, you ungrateful little thief,” he hissed in my ear, yanking me forcefully up. Then his voice turned soothing. “Come now, my love. You’re making a mess of yourself. Let me take you home.”

I glared at him and pulled my arm away with all my strength. His grip slipped against the slick of rain—my skin twisted painfully against his, and for an instant, I was free.

But then I felt his hand close around a fistful of my hair. I shrieked, my hands grasping at the empty air. “So ill-tempered. Why can’t you be more like your sister?” he murmured, shaking his head and hauling me off toward his horse. My arm hit the sack I’d tied to my horse’s saddle, and the silverware rained down around us with a thunderous clatter, glinting in the night. “Where were you planning on going? Who else would want you? You’ll never get a better offer than this. Do you realize how much humiliation I’ve suffered, dealing with the marriage refusals that come your way? Do you know how hard it is for me, apologizing for you?”

I screamed. I screamed with everything I had, hoping that my cries would wake the people sleeping in the buildings all around me, that they would witness this scene unfolding. Would they care? My father tightened his grip on my hair and pulled harder.

“Come home with me now,” he said, pausing for a moment to stare at me. Rain ran down his cheeks. “Good girl. Your father knows best.”

I gritted my teeth and stared back. “I hate you,” I whispered.

My father struck me viciously across the face. Light flashed across my vision. I stumbled, then collapsed in the mud. My father still clung to my hair. He pulled so hard that I felt strands being torn from my scalp. I’ve gone too far, I suddenly thought through a haze of terror. I’ve pushed him too much. The world swam in an ocean of blood and rain. “You’re a disgrace,” he whispered in my ear, filling it with his smooth, icy rage. “You’re going in the morning, and so help me, I’ll kill you before you can ruin this deal.”

Something snapped inside me. My lips curled into a snarl.

A rush of energy, a gathering of blinding light and darkest wind. Suddenly I could see everything—my father motionless before me, his snarling face a hairsbreadth away from my own, our surroundings illuminated by moonlight so brilliant that it washed the world of color, turning everything black and white. Water droplets hung in the air. A million glistening threads connected everything to everything else.

Something deep within me told me to pull on the threads. The world around us froze, and then, as if my mind had crept out of my body and into the ground, an illusion of towering black shapes surged up from the earth, their bodies crooked and jolting, their eyes bloody and fixed straight on my father, their fanged mouths so wide that they stretched all across their silhouetted faces, splitting their heads in two. My father’s eyes widened, then darted in bewilderment at the phantoms staggering toward him. He released me. I fell to the ground and crawled away from him as fast as I could. The black, ghostly shapes continued to lurch forward. I cowered in the midst of them, both helpless and powerful, looking on as they passed me by.

I am Adelina Amouteru, the phantoms whispered to my father, speaking my most frightening thoughts in a chorus of voices, dripping with hatred. My hatred. I belong to no one. On this night, I swear to you that I will rise above everything you’ve ever taught me. I will become a force that this world has never known. I will come into such power that none will dare hurt me again.

They gathered closer to him. Wait, I wanted to cry out, even as a strange exhilaration flowed through me. Wait, stop. But the phantoms ignored me. My father screamed, swatting desperately at their bony, outstretched fingers, and then he turned around and ran. Blindly. He smashed into his horse and fell backward into the mud. The horse shrieked, the whites of its eyes rolling. It reared on its mighty legs, pawing for an instant at the air—

And then down came its hooves. Onto my father’s chest.

My father’s screams cut off abruptly. His body convulsed.

The phantoms vanished instantly, as if they were never there in the first place. The rain suddenly grew heavy again, lightning streaked across the sky, and thunder shook my bones. The horse untangled itself from my father’s broken body, trampling the corpse further. Then it tossed its head and galloped into the rain. Heat and ice coursed through my veins; my muscles throbbed. I lay there in the mud, trembling, disbelieving, my gaze fixed in horror on the sight of the body lying a few feet away. My breaths came in ragged sobs, and my scalp burned in agony. Blood trickled down my face. The smell of iron filled my nose—I couldn’t tell whether it came from my own wounds or my father’s. I waited, bracing myself for the shapes to reappear and turn their wrath on me, but it never happened.

“I didn’t mean it,” I whispered, unsure whom I was talking to. My gaze darted up to the windows, terrified that people would be watching from every building, but no one was there. The storm drowned me out. I dragged myself away from my father’s body. This is all wrong.

But that was a lie. I knew it, even then. Do you see how I take after my father? I had enjoyed every moment. “I didn’t mean it!” I shrieked again, trying to drown out my inner voice. But my words only came out in a thin, reedy jumble. “I just wanted to escape—I just wanted—to get away—I didn’t—I don’t—”

I have no idea how long I stayed there. All I know is that, eventually, I staggered to my feet. I picked up the scattered silverware with trembling fingers, retied the sack, and pulled myself onto my stallion’s saddle. Then I rode away, leaving behind the carnage I’d created. I ran from the father I’d murdered. I escaped so quickly that I never stopped to wonder again whether or not someone had been watching me from a window.

I rode for days. Along the road, I bartered my stolen silverware to a kind innkeeper, a sympathetic farmer, a softhearted baker, until I’d collected a small pouch of talents that would keep me in bread until I reached the next city. My goal: Estenzia, the northern port capital, the crowning jewel of Kenettra, the city of ten thousand ships. A city large enough to be teeming with malfettos. I’d be safer there. I’d be so far away from all of this that no one would ever find me.

But on the fifth day, my exhaustion finally caught up to me—I was no soldier, and I’d never ridden like this before. I crumpled in a broken, delirious heap before the gates of a farmhouse.

A woman found me. She was dressed in clean brown robes, and I remember being so taken by her motherly beauty that my heart immediately warmed to her in trust. I reached a shaking hand up to her, as if to touch her skin.

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