Written in Starlight – Isabel Ibañez

Legend says if the jungle wants you, it will have you. The tree line looms ahead, smothering and terrifying in the dying light. Long tentacles of fog snake around thick trunks, as if readying to choke the life from anyone foolish enough to enter. The sharp trill of birds and buzzing locusts are the only sounds coming from the jungle fringes, but even I know there are monsters lurking beneath the vivid green canopy. Anacondas. Jaguars. Black caimánes with teeth the length of my palms. And that’s only the bigger creatures. I’ve read books about toads capable of bringing a grown man to the brink of insanity. Piranhas that ravage flesh straight to the bone in seconds. Then there are the rumors of terrible dark magic—magic that comes from the earth, hungry and wanting to devour. Only the Illari know how to survive it, becoming monsters themselves in order to reign over the forest. I’ve been sentenced to die here. My final resting place, cut off from the life I’ve always known back in La Ciudad Blanca. There’s nothing I could have done to prepare for my journey.

No books to read. No conversations to be had. No amount of training to defend myself. A sharp screech echoes beyond the trees. My stomach swoops as if I’ve launched myself off the Illustrian tower, screaming the whole way down. Don’t be a coward, Catalina. You’re the condesa, born to rule Inkasisa. You will survive this. Or you’ll die with dignity, damn it. I force out a long exhale and shove all thoughts of the jungle’s creatures far from my mind.

But the pressure in my chest curls, tight like a clenched fist. What do you know about being brave? The voice is close and intimate, utterly resistant to silencing. It’s been one week since my fate was decided, and I’m still coming to terms with my exile and how badly I messed up my life and my people’s future. I study the six guards crowding me. They are my enemies, armed with swords and pikes and knives, traveling close at my elbows and high up on their horses, while I clutch the reins of my poor sweaty mule. Not one of them has offered me anything to drink or eat in hours. As for taking a minute to rest, forget it. We’ve been riding nonstop since dawn. At least my ride is cute. The sweetest animal I’ve ever seen, with big brown eyes and soft tufts of hair.

I lean forward and curl my fingers in her thick mane, wishing I could take her far away from this place. Maybe the guards will leave her behind with me. At least I’d have a friend. “Adelante,” one of the guards says. I dig my heels and attempt to move us forward. Diosa, I hate being told what to do. The creature whines but obeys the sharp whistle that comes from the captor on my right. I shoot the Llacsan a disgruntled look while attempting to hold on as the mule propels us forward. My heart thuds painfully in my chest as we approach the tree line. The tall grass slowly transitions to the dappled jungle floor under the mule’s hooves.

Thick fog descends, casting the ropy vines as villainous snakes. Panic curls deep in my belly, like the mist clutching the tree trunks. My dark hair sticks to the back of my neck, a knotty mess. I want to take the time to properly braid it, to coil it high on the crown of my head, but no one spares a minute for grooming or bathing. All I need is twenty minutes to look presentable. Maybe then I’d feel more like myself. I shift my attention from the chokes of leafy bushes and the serpentine vines clogging the path to stare at Rumi—the boy responsible for the mess I’m in, and a last-minute addition to my entourage. He’s dressed in typical Llacsan gear: darker-hued pants and a long-sleeved tunic with a striped vest bursting in vibrant colors and a broad hat hiding an abundance of brown hair. Tied around his waist are a wooden slingshot with leather straps and a long sword. Dirt and sweat stain my once startling white tunic and trousers.

No one thought to pack me a change of clothes. My palms are filthy, and there’s grime caked under my nails. Dirty half-moons. I shove at my tangled mess of hair, again, sighing heavily. Rumi feels my gaze and his coffee-colored eyes flicker to mine, assessing the curves of my face. His intent study of my features startles me until I realize what he’s doing. He’s searching for Ximena. The friend who betrayed me. We were like sisters, in appearance and friendship, if not in blood. I avert my gaze.

He can look all he wants. He won’t find her in me. I’d never dishonor the memory of my parents, conspiring with our enemy to put a Llacsan princesa on the throne—instead of me, the rightful heir. I’d never turn against my people for a boy. I’d soon as take a knife to my heart. And I’d never hurt the one person I was closest to. Best friends aren’t supposed to do that. My voice scratches the air, hoarse from disuse. “Why’d you volunteer to escort me? Shouldn’t you be off on a harebrained adventure, dressed as El Lobo?” This Llacsan was a popular vigilante who once drove Atoc, my enemy, mad with his antics. The discovery of his identity still sours my mood.

I assumed, like all Illustrians, the vigilante was one of us. I thought he could be a friend to my cause. A brave hero to fight alongside my people. I was very wrong. I’ve been wrong about too many things. He cuts me a look. “The days of El Lobo are over. No one needs a vigilante, not when we can all work toward peace.” His expression is pointed and loaded. “All you had to do was accept Princesa Tamaya as your queen.

You and I both know she’s the better ruler.” His judgment stings like the angry bite of a fire ant, and his words are flavored with my worst fears. I’m not enough. I’m not a leader worth following and not a queen people will love and respect. I swat away a fat mosquito, but another three replace it, buzzing loudly. I grip the reins tighter. “I can’t.” He’s already shaking his head, discarding my words as if they’re fruit rotted through. “You don’t know her like we do. She’ll—” “You don’t know me either.

” A hint of a smile plays at his mouth. “Oh, I don’t know, Catalina. I think I know enough.” He doesn’t use my official title: condesa, countess. “I hardly think whatever she”— there’s no reason to speak her name out loud—“told you is an accurate picture of my person.” Rumi hesitates. “Maybe. It certainly was gracious.” A guard behind us snorts loudly. Blood rushes to my cheeks.

I turn away from the Llacsan and focus on remaining upright on the mule. We cross the tree line in single file. I’m somewhere in the middle, with three guards ahead and three at the tail. Rumi is directly behind me. The canopy overhead tangles together until not even a ray of moonlight escapes its snares. Twilight disappears and only the living dark remains. “Luna,” I whisper to my diosa. “Where are you?” But the jungle is skilled at blocking out the heavens. The horses are skittish, neighing every so often, stomping against the hard earth. Ahead, the guards have lit torches and the firelight draws angry shadows against the prickly leaves surrounding us.

It only illuminates a few yards into the dark depths of the forest. Past its glow, the jungle hides its sinister face. The guard at the front of the line holds up a hand and we all come to a stop. I frown and turn to peer over my shoulder. The tree line is still visible. Do they mean to leave me within sight of it? The pressure in my chest eases, and I almost laugh. This was the plan all along. It’s a scare tactic. That princesa never wanted me to actually die. Once they’re gone, I’ll head back, reach the nearest village, and— “We walk from here,” one of the guards up front calls over his shoulder.

“Too thick for the horses.” My jaw clenches. Rumi softly laughs as he throws a leg over, sliding off his mare in one fluid motion. “You didn’t really think it’d be that easy, did you?” “No,” I mutter, my cheeks flushing. “Do you need help climbing down?” Because he’s being polite, I’m compelled to answer in kind, even if it grates me. “I can manage. Gracias.” I hop off the mule. I gently pat her neck and she swerves, offering me her rump instead. Despite the danger, I smile and scratch her soft fur.

“Are we stopping to rest?” I shake my head and use my most commanding voice. “I insist we stop to rest.” No one within hearing range replies. Rumi motions to my small leather pack, attached to the mule’s saddle. “Don’t forget that.” He throws it at me and then turns his attention to the last guard in line. He gives him the reins of my mule and says, “We’ll join you after we leave behind …” He trails off. “Be alert. Nothing in this jungle wants you here. Take care on the journey back out.

And touch nothing.” It’s almost time. They’re leaving me tonight. I have to come up with a plan before then. Maybe I can follow them back out? Maybe I can read the constellations, even without my telescope. The idea crashes before it can fully take flight. I’ve never been good at reading the stars, despite my calling. My shoulders slump as the guard nods and takes hold of all the reins and leads the horses and my sweet mule back the way we came, back to the little light that remains. Rumi nudges my shoulder, and I reluctantly turn away from the sight of freedom and march alongside him as the rest of the guards use thick swords to cut at the dense foliage. Rotted logs peppered with white mushrooms and yellow mold block our trek.

My boots tread on a decaying mulch of damp leaves and cloying vines. Buttress roots supporting massive trees curl under the greeneries. If I somehow don’t twist my ankle, it’ll be a miracle. A guard ahead slaps at his neck. “Damn mosquitos.” They’re bothering me too. Annoying pricks I feel up and down my arms and legs. My thin trousers and tunic are a paltry shield. “Be thankful it wasn’t a black scorpion,” another guard says. “The rainy season brings them out.

” I shudder and pull the sleeves of my tunic down as far as they can go. Then I shove away a thick batch of tangled branches, slick with slime. Luna knows what I’m touching, what I’m seeing. Nothing looks familiar. “Want me to explain what you’re staring at?” Rumi asks conversationally. “¿Qué?” He gestures to the surrounding plant life. “That’s a foxtail fern. Over there are orchids. I’ve always thought they looked graceful. These rope-like vines are called lianas.

Ever seen them before?” I haven’t seen much of anything before. For most of my life I’ve been hidden behind the Illustrian fortress walls. I shake my head. He’s a walking guidebook. Prudence tells me to set aside my aversion to this Llacsan and listen closely. Because after tonight, I’ll be alone, and the idea of dying in this jungle makes fear seep into the very marrow of my bones. Whatever knowledge of the forest this Llacsan knows, I should learn also. My life may depend on it. Rumi spends the next few minutes pointing out the various wildlife. Jungle yams, avocado, orange and fig trees, and my personal favorite, maracuyá.

I listen and study each one, knowing my small pack of food won’t last forever. I’m amazed by the amount of sustenance readily available at my fingertips. “How far in are we going?” “We walk until we’re too tired to continue,” he says over his shoulder. “Keep up.” “I’m moving as fast as I can.” I stumble after him, noting how Rumi moves like her. Sure-footed, weapon raised, ready to face the world. I’m cowering in his shadow, flinching as the branches scratch at my face, tangling in my hair. He ducks under the liana vines and skirts around thorny bushes that are sharp enough to tear flesh. I try to mimic his steps but end up slipping on a particularly slimy stretch of forest floor.

“Oh, cielos.” I lurch forward, reaching for a vine to stop my fall— “Don’t!” Rumi yells, jerking me away. The tips of my fingers brush the vine and the effect is instant. Hot, searing pain flares, burning the skin where I touched the plant. I try to wipe my hand on something, but Rumi grabs my wrist like a manacle. “¡Para!” he yells to the other guards. “Necesito fuego.” The guards encircle us, torches raised, as Rumi examines my fingertips. “Don’t touch anything—it’ll spread and only make it worse. I’ll be right back.

” I’m hardly listening. The pain is excruciating. Blisters form as each finger swells, and my palm feels as if it’s on fire. Carajo, it hurts. My breath comes out in sharp pants as I try to stop myself from crying. They already think I’m weak—spoiled, even. Maybe it’s true. A hoarse laugh escapes me in between huffs. Look at me. I’m a joke.

I’m not strong or brave like my friend. I’m not a warrior. I’m a condesa without a country.

.

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