I’m going to die tomorrow morning.
That’s what the Inquisitors tell me, anyway, when they visit my cell. I’ve been in here for weeks—I know this only because I’ve been counting the number of times my meals come.
One day. Two days.
Four days. A week.
I stopped counting after that. The hours run together, an endless train of nothingness, filled with different slants of light and the shiver of cold, wet stone, the pieces of my sanity, the disjointed whispers of my thoughts.
But tomorrow, my time ends. They’re going to burn me at the stake in the central market square, for all to see. The Inquisitors tell me a crowd has already begun to gather outside.
I sit straight, the way I was always taught. My shoulders don’t touch the wall. It takes me a while to realize that I’m rocking back and forth, perhaps to stay sane, perhaps just to keep warm. I hum an old lullaby too, one my mother used to sing to me when I was very little. I do my best to imitate her voice, a sweet and delicate sound, but my notes come out cracked and hoarse, nothing like what I remember. I stop trying.
It’s so damp down here. Water trickles from above my door and has painted a groove into the stone wall, discolored green and black with grime. My hair is matted, and my nails are caked with blood and dirt. I want to scrub them clean. Is it strange that all I can think about on my last day is how filthy I am? If my little sister were here, she’d murmur something reassuring and soak my hands in warm water.
I can’t stop wondering if she’s okay. She hasn’t come to see me.
I lower my head into my hands. How did I end up like this?
But I know how, of course. It’s because I’m a murderer.
It happened several weeks earlier, on a stormy night at my father’s villa. I couldn’t sleep. Rain fell and lightning reflected off the window of my bedchamber. But even the storm couldn’t drown out the conversation from downstairs. My father and his guest were talking about me, of course. My father’s late-night conversations were always about me.
I was the talk of my family’s eastern Dalia district. Adelina Amouteru? they all said. Oh, she’s one of those who survived the fever a decade ago. Poor thing. Her father will have a hard time marrying her off.
No one meant because I wasn’t beautiful. I’m not being arrogant, only honest. My nursemaid once told me that any man who’d ever laid eyes on my late mother was now waiting curiously to see how her two daughters would blossom into women. My younger sister, Violetta, was only fourteen and already the budding image of perfection. Unlike me, Violetta had inherited our mother’s rosy temperament and innocent charm. She’d kiss my cheeks and laugh and twirl and dream. When we were very small, we’d sit together in the garden and she would braid periwinkles into my hair. I would sing to her. She would make up games.
We loved each other, once.
My father would bring Violetta jewels and watch her clap her hands in delight as he strung them around her neck. He would buy her exquisite dresses that arrived in port from the farthest ends of the world. He would tell her stories and kiss her good night. He would remind her how beautiful she was, how far she would raise our family’s standing with a good marriage, how she could attract princes and kings if she desired. Violetta already had a line of suitors eager to secure her hand, and my father would tell each of them to be patient, that they could not marry her until she turned seventeen. What a caring father, everyone thought.
Of course, Violetta didn’t escape all of my father’s cruelty. He purposely bought her dresses that were tight and painful. He enjoyed seeing her feet bleed from the hard, jeweled shoes he encouraged her to wear.
Still. He loved her, in his own way. It’s different, you see, because she was his investment.
I was another story. Unlike my sister, blessed with shining black hair to complement her dark eyes and rich olive skin, I am flawed. And by flawed, I mean this: When I was four years old, the blood fever reached its peak and everyone in Kenettra barred their homes in a state of panic. No use. My mother, sister, and I all came down with the fever. You could always tell who was infected—strange, mottled patterns showed up on our skin, our hair and lashes flitted from one color to another, and pink, blood-tinged tears ran from our eyes. I still remember the smell of sickness in our house, the burn of brandy on my lips. My left eye became so swollen that a doctor had to remove it. He did it with a red-hot knife and a pair of burning tongs.
So, yes. You could say I am flawed.
Marked. A malfetto.
While my sister emerged from the fever unscathed, I now have only a scar where my left eye used to be. While my sister’s hair remained a glossy black, the strands of my hair and lashes turned a strange, ever-shifting silver, so that in the sunlight they look close to white, like a winter moon, and in the dark they change to a deep gray, shimmering silk spun from metal.
At least I fared better than Mother did. Mother, like every infected adult, died. I remember crying in her empty bedchamber each night, wishing the fever had taken Father instead.
My father and his mysterious guest were still talking downstairs. My curiosity got the best of me and I swung my legs over the side of my bed, crept toward my chamber door on light feet, and opened it a crack. Dim candlelight illuminated the hall outside. Below, my father sat across from a tall, broad-shouldered man with graying hair at his temples, his hair tied back at the nape of his neck in a short, customary tail, the velvet of his coat shining black and orange in the light. My father’s coat was velvet too, but the material was worn thin. Before the blood fever crippled our country, his clothes would have been as luxurious as his guest’s. But now? It’s hard to keep good trade relations when you have a malfetto daughter tainting your family’s name.
Both men drank wine. Father must be in a negotiating mood tonight, I thought, to have tapped one of our last good casks.
I opened the door a little wider, crept out into the hall, and sat, knees to my chin, along the stairs. My favorite spot. Sometimes I’d pretend I was a queen, and that I stood here on a palace balcony looking down at my groveling subjects. Now I took up my usual crouch and listened closely to the conversation downstairs. As always, I made sure my hair covered my scar. My hand rested awkwardly on the staircase. My father had broken my fourth finger, and it never healed straight. Even now, I could not curl it properly around the railing.
“I don’t mean to insult you, Master Amouteru,” the man said to my father. “You were a merchant of good reputation. But that was a long time ago. I don’t want to be seen doing business with a malfetto family—bad luck, you know. There’s little you can offer me.”
My father kept a smile on his face. The forced smile of a business transaction. “There are still lenders in town who work with me. I can pay you back as soon as the port traffic picks up. Tamouran silks and spices are in high demand this year—”
The man looked unimpressed. “The king’s dumb as a dog,” he replied. “And dogs are no good at running countries. The ports will be slow for years to come, I’m afraid, and with the new tax laws, your debts will only grow. How can you possibly repay me?”
My father leaned back in his chair, sipped his wine, and sighed. “There must be something I can offer you.”
The man studied his glass of wine thoughtfully. The harsh lines of his face made me shiver. “Tell me about Adelina. How many offers have you received?”
My father blushed. As if the wine hadn’t left him red enough already. “Offers for Adelina’s hand have been slow to come.”
The man smiled. “None for your little abomination, then.”
My father’s lips tightened. “Not as many as I’d like,” he admitted.
“What do the others say about her?”
“The other suitors?” My father rubbed a hand across his face. Admitting all my flaws embarrassed him. “They say the same thing. It always comes back to her . . . markings. What can I tell you, sir? No one wants a malfetto bearing his children.”
The man listened, making sympathetic sounds.
“Haven’t you heard the latest news from Estenzia? Two noblemen walking home from the opera were found burned to a crisp.” My father had quickly changed tack, hoping now that the stranger would take pity on him. “Scorch marks on the wall, their bodies melted from the inside out. Everyone is frightened of malfettos, sir. Even you are reluctant to do business with me. Please. I’m helpless.”
I knew what my father spoke of. He was referring to very specific malfettos—a rare handful of children who came out of the blood fever with scars far darker than mine, frightening abilities that don’t belong in this world. Everyone talked about these malfettos in hushed whispers; most feared them and called them demons. But I secretly held them in awe. People said they could conjure fire out of thin air. Could call the wind. Could control beasts. Could disappear. Could kill in the blink of an eye.
If you searched the black market, you’d find flat wooden engravings for sale, elaborately carved with their names, forbidden collectibles that supposedly meant they would protect you—or, at the least, that they would not hurt you. No matter the opinion, everyone knew their names. The Reaper. Magiano. The Windwalker. The Alchemist.
The Young Elites.
The man shook his head. “I’ve heard that even the suitors who refuse Adelina still gape at her, sick with desire.” He paused. “True, her markings are . . . unfortunate. But a beautiful girl is a beautiful girl.” Something strange glinted in his eyes. My stomach twisted at the sight, and I tucked my chin tighter against my knees, as if for protection.
My father looked confused. He sat up taller in his chair and pointed his wineglass at the man. “Are you making me an offer for Adelina’s hand?”
The man reached into his coat to produce a small brown pouch, then tossed it onto the table. It landed with a heavy clink. As a merchant’s daughter, one becomes well acquainted with money—and I could tell from the sound and from the size of the coins that the purse was filled to the brim with gold talents. I stifled a gasp.
As my father gaped at the contents, the man leaned back and thoughtfully sipped his wine. “I know of the estate taxes you haven’t yet paid to the crown. I know of your new debts. And I will cover all of them in exchange for your daughter Adelina.”
My father frowned. “But you have a wife.”
“I do, yes.” The man paused, then added, “I never said I wanted to marry her. I am merely proposing to take her off your hands.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “You . . . want her as your mistress, then?” Father asked.
The man shrugged. “No nobleman in his right mind would make a wife of such a marked girl—she could not possibly attend public affairs on my arm. I have a reputation to uphold, Master Amouteru. But I think we can work this out. She will have a home, and you will have your gold.” He raised a hand. “One condition. I want her now, not in a year. I’ve no patience to wait until she turns seventeen.”
A strange buzzing filled my ears. No boy or girl was allowed to give themselves to another until they turned seventeen. This man was asking my father to break the law. To defy the gods.
My father raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t argue. “A mistress,” he finally said. “Sir, you must know what this will do to my reputation. I might as well sell her to a brothel.”
“And how is your reputation faring now? How much damage has she already done to your professional name?” He leaned forward. “Surely you’re not insinuating my home is nothing more than a common brothel. At least your Adelina would belong to a noble household.”
As I watched my father sip his wine, my hands began to tremble. “A mistress,” he repeated.
“Think quickly, Master Amouteru. I won’t offer this again.”
“Give me a moment,” my father anxiously reassured him.
I don’t know how long the silence lasted, but when he finally spoke again, I jumped at the sound. “Adelina could be a good match for you. You’re wise to see it. She is lovely, even with her markings, and . . . spirited.”
The man swirled his wine. “And I will tame her. Do we have a deal?”
I closed my eye. My world swam in darkness—I imagined the man’s face against my own, his hand on my waist, his sickening smile. Not even a wife. A mistress. The thought made me shrink from the stairs. Through a haze of numbness, I watched my father shake hands and clink wineglasses with the man. “A deal, then,” he said to the man. He looked relieved of a great burden. “Tomorrow, she’s yours. Just . . . keep this private. I don’t want Inquisitors knocking on my door and fining me for giving her away too young.”
“She’s a malfetto,” the man replied. “No one will care.” He tightened his gloves and rose from his chair in one elegant move. My father bowed his head. “I’ll send a carriage for her in the morning.”
As my father escorted him to our door, I stole away into my bedchamber and stood there in the darkness, shaking. Why did my father’s words still stab me in the heart? I should be used to it by now. What had he once told me? My poor Adelina, he’d said, caressing my cheek with a thumb. It’s a shame. Look at you. Who will ever want a malfetto like you?
It will be all right, I tried telling myself. At least you can leave your father behind. It won’t be so bad. But even as I thought this, I felt a weight settle in my chest. I knew the truth. Malfettos were unwanted. Bad luck. And, now more than ever, feared. I would be tossed aside the instant the man tired of me.
My gaze wandered around my bedchamber, settling finally on my window. My heartbeat stilled for a moment. Rain drew angry lines down the glass, but through it I could still see the deep blue cityscape of Dalia, the rows of domed brick towers and cobblestone alleys, the marble temples, the docks where the edge of the city sloped gently into the sea, where on clear nights gondolas with golden lanterns would glide across the water, where the waterfalls that bordered southern Kenettra thundered. Tonight, the ocean churned in fury, and white foam crashed against the city’s horizon, flooding the canals.