Ruin of Stars – Linsey Miller

A hand snuffed out the light. I leaned over the edge of the greenhouse trellis, wooden beams creaking beneath me. The guards, as they had done every night I’d been spying, left soon as Lord del Aer tucked his daughter in, and they followed him through the halls of his estate. His daughter’s room was left unguarded except for the ones patrolling the grounds. He couldn’t comprehend someone killing his child to get at him. I could. I could because of him. Lord Mattin del Aer was a good father and a terrible leader. North Star. Deadfall. Riparian. Caldera. Winter. The five secret names of the Erlend nobles who allowed Nacea to be destroyed by shadows. I knew only North Star, Caldera, and Winter by their real names—Gaspar del Weylin, Mattin del Aer, and Nevierno del Farone.

I heard his name in my nightmares of the massacre he’d caused. I felt it on my skin every time I wore my Opal mask. I tasted it every time I muttered the last words my targets would ever hear. Caldera. Caldera. Caldera. The fourth Erlend lord on my list to kill and only the second one to die. I had carved their names into the inside of my mask. Our Queen had named me Opal, her assassin and protector, and given me leave to kill my list. I’d the whole of the Igna court to help me hunt them down.

And the hunt was on. He was predictable as an Erlend. He rose at dawn, flipped through reports sent to him from the other traitor Erlend lords who’d seceded from Igna barely two months ago, woke his daughter for breakfast, and spent the day with a series of advisers, guards, and tutors, each more boring than the last. He did not hear his citizens’ concerns or worries. He didn’t talk to them at all, just told them war was upon us and the time to take up arms and reclaim Erlend was now. Didn’t even speak to them in person to draft them. The flyers went up overnight, and the rangers from North Star’s stronghold up north went out hunting for dodgers the next day. War. Again. Always.

Never ending so long as North Star and his Erlend lords still clung to power and greed. There’d been no attacks yet. Only the dead, stripped of clothes and skin and life, strung up across the trees near the border. We figured they were folks speaking out against the war. Wasn’t much left of them to identify. Wouldn’t be much of Caldera left either after I was done with him. Caldera’s daughter snored. I slid a knife from its sheath, slipping the point beneath the glass pane of her window. She slept on, and I pushed the window up, the oil I’d squeezed into the tracks last night keeping it quiet. A paper shade or shutters would’ve been easier, but this worked just as well.

They’d wonder how I entered with no shades cut or shutters broken. They’d think the killer a shadow. I looked like one at least. The Left Hand of Our Queen—Emerald, Amethyst, Opal, and Ruby—were her royal assassins and named for the rings she wore. And I, the new Opal, had been gifted six masks. Three of bone white and three of pure midnight blue, the sort of purplish black that made you think of deep caves and missing stars. I’d carved my list into each one. North Star. Deadfall. Riparian.

Caldera. Winter. The Erlend nobles who’d let the shadows tear my family to shreds, who’d ten years to atone for hundreds of thousands of deaths and done nothing, would know me as I knew them. Bitterly. Painfully. A wound so raw it still ached in the night when the dark twisted like mage shadows. They’d made my whole world a nightmare. And I would be theirs. Caldera’s daughter shifted, blankets tumbling to the floor, and I crawled into her room, knife slicing through the leftover smoke of her reading candle. The key to her father’s study, one of only two, hung from the chain round her neck.

I unhooked the chain from her head and took the key. I had to return it. It would be better, Our Queen had said to me, one hand clutching my chin, if Caldera’s fellows thought no doors or locks or guards could keep them safe. “Let Erlend think we have made shadows anew and sent them after the nobles who betrayed us,” she’d said. “After all, they made you the same way they made the shadows —through violence and fear.” I’d not given her an answer, didn’t think she’d deserved one yet, not with so many deaths staining her soul, but she was right. I was Our Queen’s Honorable Opal, and I would kill Caldera as she saw fit. If I did, she’d let me have the other lords on my list, and I wasn’t passing that up. North Star. Winter.

They would be mine and mine alone. I tucked the blanket back around Caldera’s daughter and left. I could comprehend killing his kid to get at him, but I wasn’t him. Caldera’s daughter was no more at fault for her father’s deeds than Elise was for hers, and only Caldera was dying tonight. The hallway outside her room was empty. I pressed my ear to the door of his study, the only room with a lock on the outside and inside. Nothing. Too thick for me to hear through and too thick for folks to hear Caldera scream. I unlocked it, muffling the click with my hand, and darted inside. The mechanisms reset behind me.

Caldera was talking to himself. He gestured to the windowless walls, hands flying through the air and back to me. A map twice as tall as me and even longer detailed the continent in deep forest greens, wheat yellow, and spring-water blue. The sliver of coastal land to the east of Erlend was labeled as Erlend too, but instead of rolling green hills, the cartographer had scratched it out in black and labeled it Fallow. Only the northernmost tip of Nacea, the little snaggletooth of land embedded in North Star’s mountain range home, was green. It was labeled as Erlend. “Absurd!” Caldera flung the letter he’d been reading aside and ran his fingers through his long, light hair. “That woman is absurd.” I walked up behind him till I was close enough to taste the gold-cold scent of his gilded form and the lantern behind me cast three flickering shadows against the wall. He froze.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You won’t have to deal with her much longer.” He shrieked and tried run. I grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked him down, sending him flailing to the floor. “No one can hear you, Caldera.” No windows. No guards. No threat of being interrupted since the only two keys to the door were in this locked room. “No one is coming to help.” He crawled to his knees and pulled a chair between us.

“How did you get—” I pulled out his daughter’s key. “How well do you know your daughter?” I dropped it, let it clatter between us, and pulled out a second knife. “I watched the shadows you let loose in Nacea flay my family. I know every bloody part of them. Do you know what your daughter’s bones look like?” He whimpered and I lived, furious and alive, Sallot Leon, auditioner Twenty-Three, and Opal all crushed together by his hands. He didn’t know fear like me. He didn’t know anything. “Please,” he said. “Please, I don’t know anything. Don’t kill me.

” I leapt over the chair and grabbed him, dragging him to the center of the floor. He was tall and broad, healthier and heavier than most folks I’d fought, and he ripped from my grasp once. I let him know freedom for a breath. “Help!” He stumbled into the wall, knocking over a lamp and leaving the room at the mercy of one single candle. “Help me!” He pounded against the door. I laughed, and it echoed between my mouth and mask. The sound died too quick to be natural. “You’re Caldera. Your old flame Lena told me. No one likes you.

” I leaned over him, and my two shadows flickering at my feet followed. “She only nodded when I said you’d been responsible for killing a whole country. Said it sounded like you. Was it you?” Lena was one of the only Erlend nobles to stand with Igna and pledge her loyalty to Our Queen again, and she’d given me Caldera’s name. He’d tried to marry her once, to get ownership of her land back when they’d both been Erlend and Erlend land could only be inherited by Erlend lords, and he’d told her his secrets to make her fall in love. “It wasn’t my idea.” He choked on the words. I stepped on his ankle. “But you agreed to it.” “I’m sorry.

” He flinched. “I’m sorry. I am. I have been since it happened, all those people. I didn’t want to, but they made me.” “Who?” I asked, and when he shook his head, no names ready, I pulled out my knife. “Who went by the names Riparian and Deadfall?” “I don’t know.” He raised his arms like a shield. “I don’t know. Other than North Star, we never shared.

” He took my silence for consideration. “I’ve regretted it since. What do you want? Whatever you want, it’s yours.” “You’ve nothing I want.” I took his tear-streaked face in my hands. “Apologies won’t bring my family back. They won’t clear the shadows from my mind. They won’t change anything at all except the weight of your guilt.” I pulled him up. “And it’s not heavy enough for what you did.

” I jammed my knife into his chest, watched his last breath leave his lips, and dropped him. “If you were sorry,” I said to his corpse, “you’d not be doing it again.” The gaping wound in my soul that never healed and ached with each breath only grew deeper at the sight of him. Each breath was cold and empty, a sharp pain between my heart and ribs. I was split—the Sallot Leon that could’ve been if Nacea stood whole, one that knew all of their nation’s rituals and words, and the Sallot Leon that was, one that knew only the press of five names against their face and the fractured bones that came from offering mercy. I’d let Winter live at Elise’s request, and he’d thrown me from a window. Folks devoted so deeply to themselves never changed. They stole and stole and stole. “Nothing can fix this.” I rifled through his desk and shelves, turning over every scrap of paper for anything Our Queen would find useful.

“Nothing can help me, but I can help the world.” Erlend had reduced us to nothing, to casualties in a ledger. They would do it again. I couldn’t let that happen. A fake wall shifted under my fingers. I pried the thin wood away from the bottom of his desk drawer and shoved my hand into the space. Papers crinkled. I grabbed them all. Scraps and envelopes heavy with broken seals tumbled to the floor. I bent to pick them up.

Not seals. Not wax. An ear. A tattered, runed human ear. Chapter Two The ear didn’t rot. I’d seen plenty of dead things and rot always won. During the civil war ten years ago, after the shadows had razed Nacea, Our Queen had banished magic from the land. Losing magic had destroyed the shadows, ripping apart the runes stitching their bodiless, mindless souls together, and every single rune within the borders of Erlend, Alona, and Nacea. Without magic, the flesh the shadows stole from the dead and tried to stitch into some broken memory of their faces rotted and stunk. I’d always been able to smell them coming before I saw them.

No one had been able to use magic since then. It was why historians had named that date the first day of the Empty Age. Magic was gone. Shadows too. But an ear that didn’t rot meant Erlend had alchemists who could preserve body parts good as magic. What else did they have that we didn’t? “It’s faded,” I said to Emerald once I got back to the palace grounds two days later. The jagged edges were lined in ink, like someone had traced out where to cut before setting the knife to flesh. “It was darker when I found it. Now, it’s more gray than black.” Nacea hadn’t used runes, hadn’t dared use the magic making up the Lady, and I’d no idea if these were proper runes.

Sight of them set my teeth on edge. “It’s a child’s right ear.” Emerald turned it over, plated nails scraping across my palm. She’d met me in Willowknot, her cloth armor simpler than the exquisite dresses she used to wear, and when she turned away from me, she looked no different than the city guards she’d been talking to. “Did Lord del Aer do this?” She wanted to ask if the person who’d cut off a kid’s ear was dead. She loathed nothing as much as people who killed children. “Don’t know. It was in a secret drawer.” I had to jog to keep pace with her long strides, and the guard she’d made walk on her right glanced over his shoulder each time she paused. The guard stopped.

A new set of footsteps neared. I turned, and Lord Nicolas del Contes, Our Queen’s spymaster, stepped from the path to our left. He bowed. Took all my effort not to bow back. I was Opal, not Sal, and bowed to no one but Our Queen unless I wanted to be polite. And I didn’t. Not with any of them. Not with the whole of her court ignoring Nacea’s slaughter to make sure Erlend didn’t resist being combined with Alona to form the new nation Igna under Our Queen. “What did Lord del Aer say?” Nicolas’s voice was low and rough. He’d grown ashen and more frantic since the night I’d been named Opal.

The night Elise’s father had been revealed as Winter and restarted this whole damned war with Erlend. He and Five had killed Ruby, tried to kill Ruby’s sister, Isidora dal Abreu, abducted Elise, and nearly killed me. The next night, every Erlend noble except three had seceded from the ten-year-old nation of Igna. Before the war a decade ago, before Igna existed, there’d been three nations: Erlend to the north, with Nacea tucked into its southwestern side, and Alona to the south. After Erlend’s atrocities in the war and their hand in making the shadows, Our Queen had tried to start over by combining what was left of Erlend and Alona into Igna, and only the northernmost tip of Erlend had held out. Lord Gaspar del Weylin, the king who’d bow to no woman title-thief, still ruled those mountain reaches. His constant attacks on Igna were why the Left Hand was even needed. Course, I knew him as North Star, the one who’d come up with the plan to let Nacea get slaughtered in order to buy Erlend time to escape the shadows. “Lord del Aer said nothing useful.” I handed him the bag from my shoulder.

“That’s all his papers.” I’d recognized names and maps but nothing more. Emerald glanced at me, the muscles of her neck tight with a scowl. “People will know what happened.” “No,” I said. “Made it look like he’d burned them. Made him look scared.” “We’ll see.” Emerald handed Nicolas the ear. “Runes?” “None I ever used.

” He held it up to the sun, shadows peppering his gaunt face. “You?” She shook her head. “Ask Isidora when she’s up to it.” “How is she?” I’d not seen Isidora since leaving the infirmary. “Physicians cleared her to leave?” She’d taken up teaching me to read, laying out books on the unused bed next to me, and had been a good teacher when she wasn’t crying. I’d have holed myself away if I’d lost my twin twice in one lifetime too. The silence Ruby had left behind was thick and cloying. “She’s mending.” Nicolas tucked the ear into his chest pocket—odd man—and took the papers from my hands. The servant who usually accompanied him to carry around his notes wasn’t here.

“She’s glad we have no time to audition a new Ruby.” She’d not gotten to burn her brother before, when he’d been Rodolfo da Abreu and the war criminal who’d killed the Erlend mages responsible for making the shadows. Least he got his funeral rites this time, even if only a select few knew we’d been saying farewell to Rodolfo and not just Ruby. Was it worse now with his pyre ash still clinging to our mourning clothes? Or did it feel more final? “You’re to meet with Our Queen after me,” Nicolas said softly. “I’m sure Isidora would love to see you alive and well after that.” He bowed again and left. Emerald grabbed my arm, fingers tight but not painful. “You’re being rude.” She pulled me away from the guard to her right and onto the shaded path to the inner workings of the palace. “You didn’t make me Opal because of my good manners.

” Nicolas was all right, teaching me to fence and turning over all his Nacean goods to me, but he’d still been part of the Igna court that had let Winter and Caldera and Coachwhip— Horatio del Seve, the Erlend lord I’d killed during auditions—take no responsibility for their hand in Nacea’s slaughter. I understood the decision. Didn’t like it. Emerald leaned over me, her breath puffing out from beneath her mask. “You should be more polite to the people who thought you the best candidate for Opal. We’re not too arrogant to refuse the opinions of confidants.” She let me go. “Which was my main concern about you. Your personal vendettas cannot trump the well-being of Igna.” As of right now, the northern lands that had been Igna’s only months ago were under Erlend rule yet again, but people remembered the strict rules of Erlend society and were fleeing south.

I didn’t blame them. Most were like me—their very existence outside of Erlend’s fragile standards threatened the old Erlend way of life. As if my existence was a threat because I didn’t hold to Erlend’s narrow definitions of man or woman. And they always said “or.” Those folks fleeing had no place in North Star’s fight. “I won’t put Igna in danger,” I said. “No more than you.” Emerald clucked her tongue against her teeth. “Clean yourself up before you meet with Our Queen.” I hummed to keep from speaking and ducked into one of the squat corridors servants used to traverse the buildings.

Maud had acquired clothes and soaps and a dozen other unnecessary things for me while I’d been laid up in the infirmary with one arm splinted and my chest bound in bandages. It had been overwhelming, the options she’d given me each morning, and she’d stopped asking. There were so many things happening it felt wrong to worry over whether I was wearing wool or cotton. She’d be in my quarters now, not quite used to the new white collar of her uniform that marked her as my servant, with more questions than anything, and I couldn’t handle it yet. I washed my face in a basin set aside for servants to clean their hands and shook the dust from my tunic. Wasn’t trying to impress Our Queen these days anyway.

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