An orphan girl must face untold danger and an ancient evil to save her kingdom’s prince in Night Shine, a lush, romantic fantasy from author Tessa Gratton—available September 8th from Margaret K. McElderry Books. Read an excerpt below!
How can you live without your heart?
In the vast palace of the empress lives an orphan girl called Nothing. She slips within the shadows of the Court, unseen except by the Great Demon of the palace and her true friend, Prince Kirin, heir to the throne. When Kirin is kidnapped, only Nothing and the prince’s bodyguard suspect that Kirin may have been taken by the Sorceress Who Eats Girls, a powerful woman who has plagued the land for decades. The sorceress has never bothered with boys before, but Nothing has uncovered many secrets in her sixteen years in the palace, including a few about the prince.
As the empress’s army searches fruitlessly, Nothing and the bodyguard set out on a rescue mission, through demon-filled rain forests and past crossroads guarded by spirits. Their journey takes them to the gates of the Fifth Mountain, where the sorceress wields her power. There, Nothing will discover that all magic is a bargain, and she may be more powerful than she ever imagined. But the price the Sorceress demands for Kirin may very well cost Nothing her heart.
Nothing killed the Prince.
Kirin Dark-Smile was eight years old when Nothing met him playing in the wide Fire Garden in the third circle of the palace. Smaller, slighter, two years younger than the prince, Nothing stared at him from between willowy fronds of imported elephant grass and a dying orange tree that housed a skinny demon sticking its tongue out for her attention. She paid it no heed, perfectly intent upon the prince. Seven other children played in the garden, different ages and shapes but with mostly the same light-copper to shell-white skin, with black or brown hair and round faces. Nothing stared because Kirin was extremely deliberate in a way few children were: it came from being the heir to the Empire Between Five Mountains and knowing, even at a young age, how to pretend he knew who he was and what was his place. Nothing had no place, being Nothing, and her own deliberation was the result of taking great care never to offend or especially entreat. She recognized their similarity and was so pleased, she stared and stared until Kirin Dark-Smile walked around the star-shaped field of gilded impatiens and put his face in hers. He said, “A heart has many petals,” and stared right back until they were friends. They’d seen into each other’s spirits, after all.
That was why Nothing knew, eleven years later, she had to kill him.
She prepared very carefully, for any mistake might ruin her chance to destroy him and escape unscathed.
It would have to be done before the investiture ritual began, in the presence of many witnesses, in case Kirin vanished into the wind or crumbled into crossroads dirt. Nothing would greatly have preferred taking this risk privately, to kill him alone and never be noticed.
She entered the hall between two black pillars, dressed simply in black and mint green, her face unpowdered and set with determination. In one deep sleeve she carried a long, keen-edged dagger, its hilt beside her wrist. She would draw it when she reached Kirin, slicing free of her sleeve and into his neck before anyone suspected.
Nothing stepped lightly, slippers threadbare and silent. Her blood raced, giving too much color to her cheeks, and she struggled to walk at an even pace, to keep her eyes lowered as usual. She was terrified. Even though she knew she was right.
The Court of the Seven Circles was a perfectly symmetrical fan-shaped room, from the black-and-red lacquered floor to the vaulting red-and-white ceiling, the number of pillars and their black spiraling tiles. The Empress with the Moon in Her Mouth ruled from the heart of the court, near the tip, enthroned upon a dais with six points. Her headdress lifted in five spires for the five mountains, and a thousand threads of silk and silver fell from the spires, veiling her in shimmering rain.
Courtiers filled the room like chains of pearls and clusters of songbirds, in elaborate robes and gowns of contrasting color. Black and white was the mode of the empress’s family, and so most courtiers chose from the other bold colors: red and purple, pink and orange, or all six at once if necessary. Priests mingled in their dreadful pastels and palace witches moved in pairs, shaved heads painted with the sigils of their familiars and cloaks a blur of messy gray scale. Nothing saw Lord All-in-the-Water, commander of the navy, and his brother, the Lord of Narrow, and a scatter of Warriors of the Last Means in dour blood-brown lacquered armor. Only servants with their peacock face paint noticed Nothing, for they were trained to notice her. Notice, and ignore the prince’s creature. They might wonder why she’d come, but they would not ask. Nothing belonged in Kirin’s vicinity.
Everyone necessary was present but for the First Consort. Once Kirin’s father arrived, the investiture ritual could begin. Nothing had to act now.
She spied the prince a few paces from his mother, chatting with a lady of the empress’s personal retinue.
Kirin Dark-Smile was willowy and tall, with white skin still slightly tanned from his summer quest but powdered pale to better contrast with his straight black hair, which was long enough to wrap a rope of it twice around his neck. He wore a sleek black-and-white robe that accentuated the same bold contrast in his natural features. Black paint colored his lips and lashes, and cloudy-white crystals were beaded into his hair. One flash of bloodred clung to his ear as always—a fire ruby, warm and glowing, which made his golden-brown eyes light up from within. Exactly as they should.
Nothing slipped between two gentlemen and stood beside Kirin’s elbow. “Kirin,” she said, breathless with fear.
He glanced at her, pleased. “Hello, Nothing!”
It was his face, his friendly and teasing voice. His shape and tone, his long fingers and bony wrists, the lean of his body upon one hip so it seemed he lounged more than stood. That mole along the hairline at his temple belonged there, and the slight knot in his nose.
But how could anyone mistake the left tilt of his dark smile when her Kirin always tilted to the right?
He’d been gone for three months this summer, returned only yesterday, and everyone in the palace decided, it seemed, that such slight changes were but the result of maturation and adventure on the open roads.
In her heart—in her stomach—Nothing knew this was not her prince.
“Come with me,” he said. “Let me tuck your hand against my arm. I have missed you.”
For the first time since she was six years old, she did not want to do as he bade.
Nothing drew her long knife and stabbed it into his throat.
It cut too easily through his flesh, up to the hilt, and Nothing let go, stumbling back. Her slippers skidded across the floor.
Kirin Dark-Smile, Heir to the Moon, fell, his eyes already cold.
Sudden silence fell with him.
Nothing bit her lip, staring at the corpse of the prince, and nearly giggled her horror: the prince was killed by Nothing. How would they sing such a thing in the villages tomorrow? She caught her breath, eager to flee, but the court tightened around her. Silk robes whispered frantically, and she heard the clatter of lacquered armor closing in.
Then the Second Consort screamed, and like a burst dumpling, the entire court bellowed in panic.
Nothing backed away slowly. If she made no noise, attracted no more attention, they might ignore her another moment, and then another. Focus on the prince’s body. It couldn’t have been Nothing, could it, she begged them to say to one another. They’d missed the perpetrator—it was a knife that appeared out of nowhere. Search for demons!
But Lord All-in-the-Water said her name with the weight of an anchor:
Her name whispered again and again, then rang out in cries of shock and wonder. They all said it. Ladies and Lords, the musicians who circled the edges of the court, servents, dancers, priests, and even from behind her silken rain, the Empress with the Moon in Her Mouth said it: “Nothing!”
“But look,” said Kirin’s bodyguard, Sky, as he shoved past a pair of witches whose raven familiars shrieked through the aether—Nothing could hear them, but few others could.
Sky said again, “Look at him.”
The empress’s doctor and the pastel-robed priest who bent over the body fell back because they saw already what the bodyguard would show the court.
There was no blood at Kirin’s neck, and his skin flaked away like the ashes of a banked hearth. It was an imposter.
Nothing sank to her knees in a wash of complete relief.
Excerpted from Night Shine, copyright © 2020 by Tessa Gratton.