"The first step to channeling your star is understanding a simple truth: It is alive."
- Neranian's First Degree
Valura Rayn shrieked, and her starlight flared. She heard her warden's plated armor clang off of the city-home's leystone walls. Three guards burst into her chamber and rushed to her side, though they stayed out of range of the heat pulsing from her body.
She pointed her twitching fingers at her bed, guiding her wardens to the horror she'd found inside the silk canopy. They approached with measured steps, and then used the tips of their swords to shift the drapes aside.
A single black arrow rested atop her pillow. It was tipped by a serrated blade and had metallic fins for feathers.
"Lady Rayn?" asked Captain Levant as he lowered his sword. It glinted in the soft glow of decorative candlelight. "Are you all right?"
She snapped from her shock.
"Fool, keep your steel ready. They are here!"
Levant arched his eyebrows, but obeyed. He nodded his head to the corners of the room and his men spread out, weapons at the ready.
Valura watched them with contempt. Her wardens were as decorative as her candles, but her father demanded their presence at all times. How could starless men hope to keep her safe?
She grabbed the arrow from her pillow and abruptly fled the room, nightwear swishing behind her. Levant and his wardens followed without question.
Her mind reeled as she hurried through the city-home, oblivious to the stares from servants and sycophants roused at such a late hour. She knew the parables of the black arrow left on a pillow. It was a dark fairly tale for the naughty, an omen for those who were marked for death by Saryx.
But such superstitions were beneath the Astral families, and her belief displeased her family. She didn't care, pushing aside any concern as she navigated to her brother's chambers, dodging between white pillars and rushing past towering sculptures of Starsingers from an age long past. The rubble of defeated apostles lay scattered about the Singers' feet.
Valura glared down the wardens posted to her brother's room, then crashed open oak doors and swept inside.
Antarro paced beside a map of the Dominion of Vespri that stood ten feet high and stretched from wall to wall, illuminated by the glow of twinkling stars that streamed in from a windowed ceiling. The glow was reflected by a cascading pattern of mirrors arranged around the room. His eyes were fogged red, and he bounced an orb of incandescent red light in his palm. The ball of starlight cast a halo over a portion of the map, focused on the Sundered Valley.
"Shouldn't you be sleeping?" he asked. "Tomorrow's negotiations with House Lokka are quite important."
Her brother hadn't even bothered to turn from his map, and his voice hinted at boredom. He was so damned consumed with politics.
She hissed, and her starlight flared again as she propelled the black arrow at her brother's map with a conjured wind; the arrow buried into the map, directly in the center of the Sundered Valley.
Antarro's wardens gripped the hilts of their swords, watching, and prepared to defend their charge. But their gestures were meaningless, for they were not defiant—only simple, starless men—and posed no threat to a Starsinger.
Attention seized, Antarro flicked the still reverberating arrow shaft and ran his fingers down the cold metal. He grasped and pulled it from the map, leaving behind a jagged hole where it had stuck, and examined the serrated arrowhead.
"Fascinating. It looks just like I'd imagined. Such craftsmanship is admirable."
"Fascinating? You consider a threat on your sister's life to be fascinating?" She clenched her fists and shook in place.
"A threat on your life? Really, Val', it's too late at night for drama."
"This is serious, 'Tarro."
Her brother sighed, finally turning from his map. He still wore his formal attire, a red tunic with blue trim—the sigil of their House branded across his chest—with straight black pants that seemed as if they'd never before been creased. Black boots shone from beneath the cuffs. He looked at her with kind eyes sunk beneath his brow, but nestled above high cheekbones. His upper lip was quite thin, a Rayn trait, and his face gaunt, framed by medium-length white hair.
"I never believed the stories." Valura strained to hear her brother's whisper. "I still don't, and I want you to know that. Still, I am of course concerned when my sister appears in my chambers at this late hour in a frenzy. So, where did you find this?"
"On my pillow, 'Tarro, and it didn't come from any story." She raised her voice, frustrated at her brother's calm. He was treating her like a child that needed consoling.
He raised a finger to his lips, and with it the arrow.
"Let's maintain our composure, shall we?"
She caught her tongue, but her face reddened.
"As you say, 'Tarro." She pulled tight her nightdress to smooth the wrinkles. "Are you going to ignore this?"
"Of course note." Antarro chuckled. "If this was truly laid on your pillow, then we have a prankster in our midst. A prankster who must be found," his next words flowed like ice, "and dealt with."
"You think this was a prankster?" she huffed. A commoner playing a prank on an Astral? No, it didn't make sense.
"Who else?" He raised an eyebrow, and his tone sounded just like her father's.
"You know damned well, 'Tarro." She spoke incrementally louder, and her face burned hotter as her brother laughed.
"Saryx is legend, Val', nothing more. Cautionary tales for children who stay out too late or cause too much trouble."
"Do you still think I'm a little girl?" She was shouting now, hands on her hips, eyes fogged red and skin glowing. The star within had begun to vibrate.
"Easy, sister." Antarro stepped forward and rested a hand on her shoulder. "The star can go wild in an instant. Breathe deeply. Feel it, control it, and don't let it govern you. You are the singer, Val', not the song."
She relaxed, as she always did when she saw the fear in her brother's eyes. He commanded the star much better, but her wild magic made her more dangerous.
"I promise you I will look into this—story, myth, or otherwise. Whoever is responsible will be brought to justice."
"Proper justice?" Her eyebrows lifted.
"Of course." Red mist began to seep back into Antarro's eyes, and a crimson glow began to shimmer from his fingertips.
"That is your justice, 'Tarro. You need to send for the Order's justice."
He pressed his lips together. "I will do no such thing."
"Please! For me! I'm scared of that," she pointed at the arrow, "thing, Brother. Even if this is just a prank, there is something nefarious about raising a legend from the ash. It must be investigated." She crossed her arms. "I want an Arbiter."
"Do not speak that word around me!" Antarro hissed between tightened lips, and his brow furrowed. "They cannot be trusted."
Valura sighed and squeezed her brother's arm, summoning a calm she didn't really feel.
"The war is over, 'Tarro. We lost, the Lion won—the balance has been restored. We must embrace the old ways."
"You almost sound like you believe that drivel."
She scowled. "Believe it or not, Brother, we've no real choice at the present."
Valura met his eyes, clear and sharp, and saw the deviousness within.
His demeanor changed immediately. "Of course. You're right, the balance has been restored. I'll send a herald to the Order at first light."
What was he planning, she wondered? She dismissed the thought and smiled, satisfied, then threw her arms around her brother. He hugged back, and she nestled in his embrace, a familiar comfort. Her older brother had looked after he and taken their father's place while he'd attended to family affairs.
While still grasping Antarro, Valura flicked her eyes to the map and the Sundered Valley. House Lokka controlled the eastern passage—the doorstep to the unexplored Expanse—and the meadows within the Valley provided the richest source of pure silkweave.
"Marcinian will never yield, Antarro. These talks are a waste of time, and I hate that I've wasted so much already while preparing."
"Do you still think this is about taxes?"
His question caught her off guard. Why else had she spent so many nights studying treaties which went back centuries, familiarizing herself with trade rights and the ebbs and flows of resources, and discussing strategy to bring back prestige to her family and remove the taint of their brutal defeat at the hands of the Order. She couldn't understand how the other families blamed her House when it was the Ferai who had sat on their blasted mountain and refused to fight. It wasn't Rayn's fault that the Astral had gone to war with four Houses, not five. She seethed.
Antarro chuckled again, but gently and without malice. "Marcinian Lokka doesn't need any more tokens—the coffers beneath his manor are full to the brim. No, this isn't about taxes. It's about much more."
"Tell me," she demanded.
Her brother moved to the southern window and looked out over Celaena, the largest city in the Dominion. He beckoned and she joined him. The view was not hte best, and most preferred to gaze out over the Unpassable Sea to the north of the island. But Celaena vibrated, wondrous in its own right.
The city housed a million commoners scattered between the quints and districts, living under the grip of the Astral families, fierce and feared, though always under the watchful gaze of the Order. Buildings of varying heights dotted the skyline, and lights from natural—and unnatural—sources twinkled, brightest at the city's center, where life in the Nightmarkets shimmered. And high above the city, in the deep back of the starry sky, she saw her family's familiar constellation—three points of a crown, a projection of her family's sigil.
"The Sundered Valley is just land, Val'. It is important land, to be sure, and a gateway form the silkweave we need for our cloth trade, but it is still just land. House Lokka will gouge us for the right to pass, even though they don't need it, and we'll pay more than required. That's the way of things, and there's no one to oversee any of it. And the families will keep on, forever, moving to and fro in the perpetual rhythm of the boring mercantilism to which we've been relegated."
She kept gazing out the window, waiting for his point.
"But the families are small, Val'. There are far more people without stars than with. I can feel their resentment when I walk through the city, even at night when they are most vulnerable. If they were defiant, it'd be different, for they'd have nothing to fear. But that power is left to the Arbiters." Disgust laced his voice. "Only they stay the tide, prevent us from taking our rightful place as lords." He gestured in the air to an audience of one. "The way of things needs to change. We are just thugs, gangs who've used starlight to accumulate wealth, restrict supply, force scarcity. We are not kings or nobles." He paused. "But we should be."
"You're lost in the past, Brother."
Antarro did not smile. "I know you feel the same. You're a singer, too—an Astral—and you feel your birthright in your veins. Fabric and taxes will never be enough."
"Whether I agree or not isn't relevant," she said. How quickly he'd reverted to his lust for vengeance. Their family's defeat still clearly weighed heavy upon him.
"Perhaps not, but even you must see the truth of things. The war will never really be over, 'Val. After so many thousands of years, the gates finally broke—the dam burst. It cannot be put back together."
"Let's pretend for a moment, 'Tarro, that you're right: that the Astral are fated to another conflict with the Order, the only obstacle prevent us from enslaving the starless. What change do you propose to yield a different result."
"Remove the obstacles, of course." He grinned. "Not with fire and brimstone, but with subversion and deceit. Weaken them from within, strike when they're vulnerable."
Valura's curiosity was piqued. Maybe there were other ways to bring prestige back to House Rayn beyond just gaining incremental advantages in trade disputes.
"What are you planning? she asked.
Her brother grinned again. "Father says the Patron Ferai is seeking to resurrect the faith."
"What?" She stepped back, raised a hand to her mouth. The faith had been purged from the Dominion millennia ago, considered as much a fairy tale as the legend of Saryx. "That cannot be!"
"We'll allow it."
"You'll allow it? Antarro, this is madness—the faith cannot be restored. It will be the death of us all. Those damned Ferai! First, they abandon us in the war, and now this?"
"Relax. There can be no faith without dogma. It will be a cheap knockoff, nothing more."
"You can't know that! It must be stopped!"
"Again the dramatics, 'Val? Demons with metal arrows and celestial gods with weaponized faith? The truth is far simpler." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Think, Sister. Give the worthless commoners an illusion of power, given the a reason to be, and let them believe they have a voice. In time, their jealousy will subside, the tension between singer and starless will dissipate, and the Arbiters will be without meaning. There will be no more balance needing of preservation. We'll kill two birds with one stone, and then we'll be free to shape the Dominion as we want—on the backs of the people themselves, no less."
The information flowed as if from a hose. It seemed like only yesterday the Astral had been licking their wounds, settling their grievances, and accepting their defeat. Like the ringing of a bell, her brother's words resonated in her mind. Emotions surged inside her, turmoil from being born to a humbled House and shackled birthright. And then...stillness. She knew it to be true.
"It is a cunning plan, 'Tarro. One I think you will execute well."
He smiled as he rested another heavy hand on her shoulder. "We'll do it together, Sister."
"No, you will not."
The siblings startled at the intruding voice, but reacted in an instant, eyes fogging red and skin glowing. Valura swept her arms over her head and the air about her became a vortex of wind and light, while Antarro clasped his hands together, palm to palm recalling his orb and increasing its size until it enveloped him.
"You do not deserve such power."
The intruder's voice was soft, but deep. Antarro and Valura maintained their defensive stances, eyes scanning the room and seeking the source. Valura saw wardens lying disemboweled by the now sealed doorway, an act unheard and unnoticed. Levant was sitting in a chair across the room, facing the map, positioned as if taking in a grand show in the promenade. He looked peacefully asleep.
"There will be no more of your abuses, no more lies. Your arrogance is astounding, but not unexpected." The intruder spat the words as if they were poison, and they seemed to emanate from all corners of the room at once.
"Show yourself, starless!" she screeched, unsure and terrified, words dampened by swirling winds.
Antarro would believe now, he must. But the thought didn't matter and she shook it away, concentrating on maintaining her channel and control over her star. She repeated her brother's words to herself: the singer, not the song. Antarro stood firm next to her, pressing his palms together to expand his orb light to shield her, until she became enveloped in a pulsing intersection of her churning winds and Antarro's orb of light.
The intruder cackled. "Starless? I've not been called that for many years. In fact, I'd almost forgotten how imperious you singers could be."
Now Antarro laughed. "You are not worthy to stand in this home. We are wielders of the star of Rayn. Who are you? Just a bitter man. Go back to the shadows and rot."
"Oh, child." Condescension dripped from the intruder. "You are not the first singers, and you will not be the last. Throughout my life I have seen zealots and martyrs and sycophants and all manners of filth who've placed their lives above mine. You are just apostates—no more, less."
At last, the intruder revealed himself as he stepped into the room from behind Antarro's map, seeming to appear like smoke from ash. He looked a man, but Valura was not so sure. He was tall, broad shouldered, and dressed in tight black robes. A single white rope circled his waist and a hood was raised over his head, concealing his face in darkness. Within that darkness, two white slits burned where eyes should have been. His appearance invoked haunting imagery in her mind, and she recalled the childhood fables that had been so good at keeping her awake at night.
"You stand there brandishing an unearned magic you don't even understand, and you think it makes you strong. Look," he pointed hat her, "she can't manage her star. I see it, the sweat beading on her brow, and the tremors in her arms, smoke billowing from her skin. Even now, her winds waver, unsure whether to obey or burst free. I hope she doesn't burn herself."
Antarro's eyes shifted for a moment from the intruder and toward her, a brief hesitation, but enough for the intruder.
"Ah, you're scared. You know she can't control it. What will happen, I wonder, if she let's go? Should we wait and find out? Unbridled fury from an unchecked star, can you imagine?" The intruder hid his arms within his sleeves, as if praying, and stood motionless in front of the siblings.
Valura intensified her vortex to dangerous speeds, the cold, black arrow floating in her mind. Death would not take her today, Saryx be damned.
"Sister, no!" Antarro yelled, but too late. She succumbed to the force of the star burning within, screamed from the pain of searing heat inside, and then released her starlight in a wild rage. Her winds became a tornado, thrust forward to the intruder, a spiral of destruction infused with starlight. Papers caught in the gale ripped apart, and carpet peeled back from the stone floors.
The intruder countered quickly, darting to the side and hiding his face from the storm the moving forward through it unharmed as he repeatedly lashed a whip with five tails and carved a tunnel through her winds until the attack washed over him without effect.
She blanched. This starless attacker was no Arbiter, yet he displayed defiance and resisted her magic.
In an instant, the intruder was by her side. He slipped a black dagger from his robe and aimed it at her torso, seeking to take advantage of her hesitation.
Antarro reacted instinctively and stepped in front of her. She watched in slow motion, a brief sensation of respite flooding her body as his light became redder.
But the relief left her when the intruder's dagger split Antarro's shield of light, unaffected, and entered her brother's torso. He screamed at the wound, his cry cut short as the intruder quickly slashed his windpipe. Antarro Rayn crumpled to the floor in a spray of blood.
Valura released a terrible cry of agony, her foggy eyes blazing with an unnatural flame. Her star grew again inside her, fueled by the horror of her brother's murder.
"Do you see your failure, apostate? Do you feel it burn?" The intruder taunted her further. "You are not worthy, and you will be culled along with the rest of the Astral. Your sigil will be purged from the annals of history, a forgotten blight on the Dominion."
She mustered her starlight and unleashed a torrential storm of electricity, the effort sapping energy within she never knew existed. Heat singed her face and white hair lifted from her shoulders and stood straight out from her head. Smoke rose from her skin, organs burning inside her, but she didn't care, too consumed with hatred.
The shadow man retreated to the edge of the room, watching the approaching fields of sparking electricity, waiting for his chance. At the very instant the storm filled the entire chamber, the intruder reacted, raising robed arms and pushing forward, then slashed at the field with his whip. He slowly tunneled his way toward her, and she pushed harder, willing the fire out from inside her.
It was no use. The intruder drew within range and lashed out with his dagger. She jerked away, but the tip struck her in the neck. She gritted her teeth as her skin ripped, ignored the warm blood trickling down into her nightwear, and focused on maintaining her channeled starlight. It was all she had left.
Too late. The intruder struck again, his dagger slicing across her face. She screamed and dropped to her knees, then grasped at her cheek and tried to stem the flow of blood. As she did, her star faded, the channel broken.
The intruder stepped up to her and grabbed her by the hair. She whimpered. Her brother's corpse lay next to her, and she allowed her mind to escape the room and wander through memory, settling on his laughing face. She remembered the way he'd looked at her fingers, and she relaxed, as she always did, staring up into the starry sky, eyes no longer fogged.
"There is no escape from me, child. Saryx has returned to the Dominion, and you have sinned." Without another word, he raised his arm and drove the dagger down into the top of her head.