The Emperor of Evening Stars

By: Laura Thalassa
(The Bargainer Book 3)


Prologue


270 years ago


Larissa


I won’t be like the others.

I’m surrounded by women with sharp eyes and lying smiles. Time and experience have made them bitter. I don’t blame them; I might’ve been this way if I had to sleep with my child’s executioner over and over again. But though I pity them, I do not trust them. They would offer me up for slaughter if they knew what I intended.

I wait to flee until the night is at its deepest. Until long after my husband comes for me, his gaze glinting with excitement as he pulls me from the rest of his wives and takes me to his chamber. I wait until I return, until I manage to scrub the last of his scent off my skin.

I wait while I lay my head on my pillow, the sounds the other concubines’ quiet murmurings filling our chamber. I silently thank the Undying Gods that I was trained to listen rather than talk. Loose lips would surely unravel my entire plan.

Secrets are meant for one soul to keep. How many times had I whispered that into the Shadow King’s ear? He thought me coy and alluring then, but soon he’ll realize this entire time it was my little inside joke, and he was the fool who bought it.

I wait until every last breath in the beds around me evens out, and then I wait some more.

I wait until, eventually, the moment to act comes upon me.

I sit up in bed. Reaching a hand down the tight bodice of my nightgown, I pull out a small vial. I gave up 400 years of my life for this thimbleful of tonic.

It was the only way.

I dig my nails under the cork and unstop it. It smells like the earth after a long rain, a smell I always associated with hope because it meant an end to the storm.

I hesitate only a moment. Then I bring the vial to my lips and down the liquid in a single swallow.

The tonic’s effects don’t take hold immediately, but, when they do, I smile. Ever so slowly, the hand still holding the empty glass begins to vanish. The vial slips from my grasp. I close my eyes as the rest of my clothes and the blankets that cover me suddenly pass through me.

Silent like the night, I slip out of bed, my exposed skin prickling in the cool chamber—though it’s wrong to call what’s left of me skin. I’m as insubstantial as a thought. I try to touch my face but my hand passes through my cheek, the sensation of it like a phantom wind brushing against me. My stomach bottoms out.

It worked.

I’m incorporeal.

At last.

This is what 400 years of life bought me.

Wish I could see the look on that bastard’s face when he realizes I’m gone.

I float up from my bed, my eyes moving over my shared chambers, with all its soft sheets and softer women. I am no longer one of them.

Praise the Mother and the Father.

I drift through the window, grimacing as my body passes through the glass. The sensation isn’t unpleasant, but the strangeness of it is.

I keep floating up until the city below me is nothing more than twinkling lights. From here Somnia looks beautiful. From here it doesn’t look like the cage it became to me.

It’s not until I’m some distance away that I allow myself to laugh. And once I start, I can’t seem to stop.

I outmaneuvered my husband. How many times has that happened?

My eyes move to the stars and my laughter dies. All those millions of stars, each one a tiny beacon of brightness against the oppressive night.

A wave of hope fills me.

How do you fight the darkness? You refuse to let it snuff out your light.

I let the wind carry me away, knowing it’ll eventually deposit me where I need to go.

Every so often pixies flitter by me, chittering wildly. Less often, I see two sets of wings, lovers meeting high up in the night sky under the cloak of darkness.

Once I might’ve felt something at the sight of them—wistfulness perhaps—but now I feel nothing.

My husband stamped that notion out.

Now, as I float on the soft wind, I’m more concerned with the single sets of wings I see every now and then. Soldiers looking for me?

I knew long before I drank the vial that I’d be leaving breadcrumbs behind—my nightclothes, the glass container itself. One whiff of it and any curious fairy would know exactly what I drank, and thus, exactly what I did.

My sick, ardent husband will do something about it. He’ll have to. His pride will demand it.

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