The Rose Society – Marie Lu

“I think he might be here.” I’m startled from my thoughts by my sister Violetta’s voice. “Hmm?” I murmur, looping my arm through hers as we wind our way through a crowded street. Violetta purses her lips in a familiar expression of concern. She can tell I’m distracted, but I’m grateful she decides to let it go. “I said, I think he might be here. In the main square.” It is early evening on the longest day of the year. We are lost in the thick of a celebration in the city-state of Merroutas, the wealthy, bustling crossroads between Kenettra and the Tamouran Empire. The sun has nearly dipped below the horizon, and the three moons hang low and plump, ripe golden orbs suspended over the water. Merroutas is alight with festivities for the Midsummer Feast of Creation, the start of a month of fasting. Violetta and I wander through the throngs of revelers, lost amid the celebration’s rainbow of colors. Both of us are dressed in Tamouran silks tonight, our hair wrapped up and our fingers adorned with bronze rings. People draped in jasmine garlands are everywhere, packed into the narrow alleys and spilling out into the squares, dancing in long lines around domed palaces and bathing temples. We walk past waterways swollen with cargo-laden boats and buildings carved in gold and silver with thousands of repeating circles and squares.

Ornate tapestries hang from balconies in the smoky air. Soldiers pass us by in small clusters, wearing billowing silks instead of heavy armor, a moon-and-crown emblem stitched onto their sleeves. They’re not the Inquisition Axis, but no doubt they’ve heard news of Teren’s orders from across the sea to find us. We steer clear of the soldiers. I feel as if I were in a haze, the celebrations floating around me. It’s strange, really, to look out at all of this joy. What do I do with it? It doesn’t feed my energy. Instead, I stay silent, letting Violetta guide us through the busy streets, as I return to my dark thoughts. Since leaving Kenettra three weeks ago, I have woken to whispers at my bedside that fade away seconds later. Other times, the hushed voices talk to me when no one else is around.

They are not always there, and I cannot always understand them even when they are speaking to me. But I can always feel their presence lingering in the corners of my mind. There is a blade there, a rotation of sound and silence, a lamp that burns black. A grim, growing fire. This is what they say: Adelina, why do you blame yourself for Enzo’s death? I should have had better control over my illusions, I respond quietly to the whispers. I could have saved Enzo’s life. I should have trusted the Daggers sooner. None of it was your fault, the whispers in my head argue. You didn’t kill him, after all—it was not your weapon that ended his life. So why are you the one cast out? You didn’t have to return to the Daggers—you didn’t need to help them rescue Raf aele.

And still they turned on you. Why does everyone forget your good intentions, Adelina? Why feel guilty for something that isn’t your fault? Because I loved him. And now he is gone. It’s better this way, the whispers say. Haven’t you always waited at the top of the stairs, imagining yourself a queen? “Adelina,” Violetta says. She tugs on my arm and the whispers scatter. I shake my head and force myself to concentrate. “Are you sure he’s here?” I ask. “If not him, then another Elite.” We’ve come to Merroutas to flee the Inquisition’s prying eyes in Kenettra.

It is the nearest place outside of Kenettran control, but eventually we’ll make our way south to the Sunlands, far from their reach. But we also came here for another reason. If you had heard stories about only one Young Elite, they would have been about a boy named Magiano. Raffaele, the beautiful young consort who was once my friend, mentioned Magiano during my afternoon training sessions with him. Since then, I’ve heard his name on the lips of countless travelers. Some say he was raised by wolves in the dense forests of the Ember Isles, a tiny chain of islands far east of Kenettra. Others say he was born in the hot Sunland deserts of Domacca, a bastard brought up by wandering nomads. He’s rumored to be a wild boy, almost feral, dressed from head to toe in leaves, with a mind and hands as quicksilver as a midnight fox. He appeared quite suddenly several years ago, and has since avoided arrest by the Inquisition Axis dozens of times, for everything from illegal gambling to stealing the Kenettran queen’s crown jewels. As the stories go, he can lure you straight off a cliff and into the sea with music from his lute.

And when he smiles, his teeth shine wickedly bright. Though we know he is a Young Elite, no one can say for certain what his power is. We can only be sure that he was recently seen here, in Merroutas. If I were still the same girl from a year ago, before I knew I had powers, I’m not sure I would have the courage to search for such a notorious Elite. But then I killed my father. I joined the Dagger Society. I betrayed them, and they betrayed me. Or perhaps it was the other way around. I can never be sure. What I do know is that the Daggers are my enemies now.

When you’re all alone in a world that hates and fears you, you want to find others like yourself. New friends. Elite friends. Friends who can help you build your own society. Friends like Magiano. “Salaam, lovely Tamouran girls!” We enter another large square near the bay. All along the sides are food stalls with steaming pots and street operators in long-nosed masks, performing table tricks. One of the food vendors smiles when we look at him. His hair is hidden behind a Tamouran wrap, and his beard is dark and welltrimmed. He bows to us.

I touch my own head instinctively. My silver hair is still short and scraggly from my attempt to cut it off, and it stays hidden tonight behind two long strips of gold silk, adorned with a headdress of gold tassels dangling above my brows. I have woven an illusion over the scarred side of my face. To this man, my pale lashes are black and my eyes are flawless. I glance at what he’s selling. Steaming pans of stuffed grape leaves, lamb skewers, and warm flatbread. My mouth waters. “Pretty girls from the homeland,” he coos at us. I don’t understand the rest of what he says, other than “please, come!” and “break your fast.” I smile back at him and nod.

I’ve never been in a city so heavily Tamouran. It almost feels like coming home. You could rule a place like this, say the whispers in my head, and my heart fills with glee. Once we approach his stall, Violetta digs out a couple of bronze talents and hands them over to the man. I stay back. I watch as she makes him laugh, then he leans over to murmur something and she blushes demurely. Violetta responds with a smile that could devastate the sun. At the end of this exchange, she turns away with two skewers of meat. As she leaves his stand, the vendor stares at her back before turning his attention to new customers. He switches the language of his greeting again.

“Avei, avei! Forget the gambling and come have some fresh flatbread!” Violetta hands a bronze talent to me. “A discount,” she says. “Because he liked us.” “Sweet Violetta.” I arch an eyebrow at her as I take one of the skewers. We’ve kept our purses full so far because I can use my powers to steal coins from noblemen. That is my contribution. But Violetta’s skill is entirely different. “At this rate, they’ll be paying us to eat their food.” “That’s what I’m working toward.

” Violetta looks at me with an innocent smile that’s not innocent at all. Her eyes wander the square, pausing where an enormous bonfire burns in front of a temple. “We’re getting closer,” she says as she takes a delicate bite. “His energy isn’t very strong. It shifts as we go.” After we eat, I follow Violetta as she practices her power, guiding us in a long, jagged pattern through the mass of people. Every night since we fled Estenzia, we’ve sat across from each other and I’ve let her experiment on me, like how she used to braid my hair when we were little. She pulls and tugs. Then I blindfold her and walk silently around the room, testing whether or not she can sense my location. She reaches out to touch the threads of my energy, studying their structure.

I can tell she’s getting stronger. It frightens me. But Violetta and I made a promise after we left the Daggers: We will never use our powers against each other. If Violetta wants protection with my illusions, I will always give it. In return, Violetta will always leave my abilities untouched. That is all. I have to trust someone. We wander for almost an hour before Violetta stops in the middle of the square. She frowns. I wait beside her, studying her face.

“Did you lose him?” “Maybe,” Violetta replies. I can barely hear her over the music. We wait a moment longer before she finally turns to her left, nodding for me to follow. Violetta pauses again. She turns in a circle, and then folds her arms with a sigh. “I lost him again,” she says. “Perhaps we should go back the way we came.” The words have only just left her mouth when another street vendor stops us in our tracks. He is dressed like all the other operators, his face entirely obscured by a long-nosed dottore mask, his body shrouded in colorful, mismatched robes. At second glance, I notice that those robes are made of luxurious silk, finely woven and dyed with rich inks.

He takes Violetta’s hand, holds it up to his mask as if to kiss it, and puts a hand over his heart. He gestures for both of us to join the small circle around his stand. I recognize the scheme right away—a Kenettran gambling game where the operator places twelve colorful stones before you and asks you to choose three. He’ll then mix the stones underneath cups. You often play as a group, and if you are the only one to guess where all three are hidden, then you not only win back your own money, but everyone else’s bet along with the operator’s entire purse. One look at the operator’s heavy purse tells me he has not lost a round in a while. The operator bows at us without a word and motions for us to choose three stones. He does the same to the others gathered beside us. I look on as two other revelers pick their stones enthusiastically. On our other side is a young malfetto boy.

He is marked by the blood fever with an unseemly black rash across his ear and cheek. Behind his thoughtful façade is an undercurrent of fear. Mmm. My energy turns toward him like a wolf drawn to the scent of blood. Violetta leans in close to me. “Let’s try a round,” she says, her eyes also pinned to the malfetto boy. “I think I sense something.” I nod at the street operator, then drop two gold talents into his outstretched hand. He bows at me with a flourish. “For my sister and me,” I say, pointing at the three stones we want to bet on.

The operator nods back at us silently. Then he starts to mix the stones. Violetta and I keep our attention on the malfetto boy. He watches the cups spin with a look of concentration. As we wait for the operator, the other players look in his direction and laugh. A few malfetto jeers are thrown out. The boy just ignores them. Finally, the operator stops spinning the cups. He lines up all twelve in a row, then folds his arms back into his robes and signals at all the players to guess which cups their stones are in. “Four, seven, and eight,” the first player calls out, slapping the operator’s table.

“Two, five, nine,” another player replies. Two more shout out their guesses. The operator turns to us. I lift my head. “One, two, and three,” I say. The others laugh a little at my bet, but I ignore them. The malfetto boy casts his bet too. “Six, seven, and twelve,” he calls out. The operator lifts the first cup, then the second and third. I’ve already lost.

I pretend to look disappointed, but my attention stays focused on the malfetto boy. Six, seven, and twelve. When the operator gets to the sixth cup, he flips it over to reveal that the boy had chosen correctly. The operator points to the boy. He whoops. The other players cast him an ugly look. The operator lifts the seventh cup. The boy has guessed correctly again. The other players start to look at one another nervously. If the boy gets the last one wrong, we all lose to the operator.

But if the boy has guessed the third one correctly, then he gets all of our money. The operator overturns the final cup. The boy is correct. He wins. The operator glances up sharply. The malfetto boy lets out a surprised shout of joy, while the other players glare angrily at him. Hate appears in their chests as sparks, flashes of energy that merge into black spots. “What do you think?” I ask Violetta. “Do you sense anything about his energy?” Violetta’s gaze stays fixed on the celebrating boy. “Follow him.

” The operator reluctantly hands over his purse, along with the money that the rest of us bet. As the boy collects the coins, I observe the other players muttering among themselves. When the boy leaves the operator’s stand, the others trail behind him, their faces tight and shoulders tense. They are going to attack him. “Let’s go,” I whisper to Violetta. She follows without a word. For a while, the boy seems too happy with his winnings to recognize the danger he has put himself in. It isn’t until he reaches the edge of the square that he notices the other players. He keeps going, but now at a nervous pace. I sense his inkling of fear grow to a steady trickle, and the sweet taste of it entices me.

The boy darts out of the square and onto a narrow side street where the lights are dim and the people are scarce. Violetta and I settle into the shadows, and I paint a subtle illusion over us to keep us hidden. I frown at the boy. A person as notorious as Magiano surely wouldn’t be this tactless. Finally, one of the other gamblers catches up with him. Before the boy can lift up his hands, the gambler trips him. A second gambler pretends to stumble over his body, but kicks him in the stomach as he goes. The boy yelps and his fear changes to terror—now I can see the threads of it hovering over him in a dark, shimmering web. In the blink of an eye, the other gamblers have surrounded him. One grabs him by his shirt and shoves him up against the wall.

His head hits it hard, and in an instant, his eyes roll back. He collapses to the ground and curls up into a ball. “Why did you run away?” one of them says to the malfetto. “You seemed to be enjoying yourself, cheating us out of all our money.” The others chime in. “What does a malfetto need all that money for, anyway?” “Going to hire a dottore to fix your markings?” “Hiring a whore so you can find out what it’s like?” I just watch. When I first joined the Daggers and witnessed malfettos being abused, I would go back to my chamber and cry. I’ve seen it enough times now to stay composed, to let the fear of such a scene feed me without feeling guilty about it. So as the attackers continue to torture the boy, I stand by and feel nothing but anticipation. The malfetto boy scrambles to his feet before the others can strike him again—he dashes down the street.

They pursue him. “He’s not an Elite,” Violetta murmurs as they go. She shakes her head, her expression genuinely puzzled. “I’m sorry. I must have sensed someone else.” I don’t know why I feel a desire to keep following the group. If he’s not Magiano, then I have no reason to help him. Perhaps it’s pent-up frustration or the allure of dark feelings. Or the memory of the Daggers’ refusal to ever risk saving malfettos unless they were Elites. Perhaps it’s the memory of myself pushed against an iron stake, pelted with stones, waiting to burn before an entire city.

For a fleeting moment, I imagine that if I were queen, I could make the act of hurting malfettos a crime. I could execute this boy’s pursuers with a single command. I start hurrying after them. “Come on,” I urge Violetta. “Don’t,” she starts to tell me, even though she knows it’s pointless. “I’ll be nice.” I smile. She raises an eyebrow at me. “Your idea of nice is different from others’.” We hurry along in the darkness, invisible behind an illusion I’ve woven.

Shouts come from up ahead as the boy turns a corner in an attempt to throw off his pursuers. No use. As we draw near, I hear the others catch up to him and his cry of pain ring out. When we turn the corner too, the attackers have completely surrounded him. One of them knocks the boy to the ground with a blow to the face. I act before I can stop myself. In one move, I reach out and push aside the threads hiding us from view. Then I walk straight into their circle. Violetta stays where she is, looking on quietly. It takes a moment for the attackers to notice me there—not until I walk right over to the quivering malfetto boy and stand in front of him do they finally see me.

They hesitate. “What’s this?” the ringleader mutters, confused for a moment. His eyes dart across the illusion still covering my scarred face. What he sees is a whole, beautiful girl. His grin returns. “Is this your whore, filthy malfetto?” he taunts the boy. “How did you get so lucky?” A woman beside him gives me a suspicious look. “She was the other gambler in our circle,” she says to the others. “She probably helped the boy win.” “Ah, you’re right,” the ringleader replies.

He turns on me. “Do you have other winnings on you, then? Your share, perhaps?” A couple of the other attackers don’t seem so sure. One of them notices the smile on my face and gives me a nervous stare, then looks back at where Violetta waits. “Let’s just finish this,” he protests, holding up a pouch. “We got the money back already.” The ringleader clicks his tongue. “We are not making a habit of letting people go,” he replies. “Nobody likes a cheat.” I shouldn’t be using my powers so carelessly. But this is a secluded alley, and I can’t resist the temptation anymore.

Outside their ring, Violetta tugs faintly against my energy in protest, sensing my next move. I ignore her and stand my ground, slowly unraveling the illusion over my face. My features quiver, transforming gradually so that a long scar begins to emerge over my left eye, then the disfigured skin where my eye used to be, the rough, abused flesh from an old wound. My dark lashes turn pale silver. I’ve been working on the precision of my illusions, how fast and slow I can weave them. I can wield my threads of energy more accurately now. Bit by bit, I reveal my true self to the ring of people. They stare, frozen in place, at the scarred side of my face. I’m surprised that I enjoy their reaction. They don’t even seem to notice the malfetto boy scrambling out of the circle to press himself against the closest wall.

The ringleader scowls at me before pulling out a knife. “A demon,” he says, with a subtle note of uncertainty. “Perhaps,” I reply. My voice comes out cold. It’s a voice I am still getting used to. The man is about to attack when something on the ground distracts him. He looks down at the cobblestones—and there, he sees a tiny ribbon of bright red snaking its way along the grooves. It looks like a little lost creature, wandering back and forth. The man’s brows furrow. He leans down toward the tiny illusion.

Then the red line bursts into a dozen more lines, all darting away in different directions, leaving trails of blood in their wake. Everyone jerks backward. “What in the gods—?” he starts. I weave the lines furiously across the ground and then up along the walls, dozens turning into hundreds into thousands, until the entire street is covered in a harsh field of them. I blot out the light filtering down from the lanterns and create an illusion of scarlet storm clouds overhead. The man’s composure cracks, revealing alarm. His companions take hurried steps away from me as the bloody lines cover the street. Fear clouds their chests, and the feeling sends a surge of strength and hunger through me. My illusions make them afraid and, in turn, their fear makes me stronger. Stop.

I can feel Violetta pulling on my energy again. Maybe I should. These attackers have already lost their thirst for more money, after all. But instead, I shrug her off and keep going. This game is fun. I used to be more ashamed of such a feeling, but now I think—why shouldn’t I hate? Why shouldn’t it bring me joy? The man suddenly lifts his knife again. I keep weaving. You can’t see the knife, the whispers in my head taunt him. Where is it? You just had it a moment ago, but you must have left it somewhere. Even though I can see the weapon, he looks down at his hand with rage and bewilderment.

To him, the knife has vanished completely.

.

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