EXCERPT FROM BETWEEN BURNING WORLDS:
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SKY WITHOUT STARS**
Marcellus Bonnefaçon moved like a shadow among shadows, ducking under cables and darting around rusty cages that sat empty and gaping like sinister, hungry mouths. With every step he took through the abandoned exploit, his heart pounded harder, making him feel more and more like the traitor he had become.
The traitor his grandfather always knew he would become.
You were right, Grand-père. I am just like my father.
Rain splattered up from the puddles as Marcellus wound his way past a collapsed hoist tower that lay twisted and decaying on the uneven ground. The old copper exploit hadn’t been operational in seventeen years, but it felt as if it had been deserted for centuries. It was an eerie, ominous place, with rows of abandoned shaft entrances, dark and empty like black holes in a galaxy. Two weeks ago, Marcellus might have turned around, his fear sending him scurrying back to his plush, well-lit rooms in the Grand Palais. But not now. Not with the memory of the Premier Enfant’s tiny red coffin still vivid in his mind. Not with this bruise on his rib cage still tender and throbbing.
Everything was different now. His senses were sharper. Sights and sounds and smells were stronger. His eyes were wide open.
And the world had turned red.
A dark, crimson red.
The color of death. The color of rage. The color of fire.
But you were also wrong, Grand-père. I can fight back.
As Marcellus shimmied along the wall of one of the old processing plants, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the warped metal siding and nearly jumped at the sight. He barely recognized himself. The young man looking back at him was too unkempt. Too rebellious. Not the buttoned-up, obedient officer his grandfather had raised him to be over the past eighteen years.
Before leaving the Grand Palais earlier this evening, he’d washed the gel from his thick, dark hair, letting it dry tousled and wavy. He’d donned this stolen exploit coat and streaked mud across his cheeks and neck. It was an effective disguise. A good way to disappear. A Fret rat had once taught him that. Someone he used to know.
But he tried not to think about Chatine Renard now.
Marcellus peered up at the sky, hoping to catch a rare glimpse of the prison moon of Bastille. But of course, he saw nothing. Nothing but a dark, unfathomable abyss. The constant cloud coverage of Laterre’s atmosphere made it impossible to see anything else.
There were no Sols. No moon. No light. It was a sky entirely without stars.
But Marcellus didn’t need the stars or the moon to guide him tonight. He had the fire to do that. A red-hot blaze that been lit deep inside of him. A flame that he was certain would never die.
And of course, he had his instructions. Mysterious words written on a piece of paper by an unseen hand. Words that had lured him out to an abandoned exploit in the dark hours of morning.
I will meet you at the beginning of the end.
Marcellus followed a narrow path through a cluster of buildings, passing piles and piles of debris: discarded boots, cracked helmets, decomposing jackets, and a canvas gurney streaked with blood.
Some people believed that the old copper exploit was haunted. That the ghosts of the six hundred workers who had perished in the bombing seventeen years ago still lingered here. Trapped underground forever.
Marcellus didn’t want to believe that. But walking through this forsaken place, he could understand why no one ever came out here.
This was a picture stained with death and grief and time.
A picture no one should have to see.
But that Marcellus needed to see.
This was the reason his father, Julien Bonnefaçon, had spent the last seventeen years of his life in prison.
And this was where the mysterious instructions had been leading Marcellus. He was certain of it.
The beginning of the end. For his father. For the Vangarde. For the Rebellion of 488, which ended shortly after this exploit had been bombed.
The sinister silence was suddenly shattered by the sound of footsteps. Panicked, Marcellus flipped up the hood of his stolen coat and tucked himself into one of the rusty metal cages. The suspension cable above creaked and whined, and Marcellus felt his stomach drop as he glanced down into the two-hundred-mètre deep chasm below. He sucked in a breath and kept perfectly still, praying those footsteps didn’t belong to a droid.
All it would take was one scan. One encounter, and his disguise would be rendered useless. His biometrics would be detected. His identity known. And then it would all be over. This perilous task that loomed before him would no longer matter. Nothing would matter. Because he’d be rotting away on the moon with the rest of the traitors.
The footsteps grew closer. Marcellus listened in the darkness, his heart hammering in his chest. Peering out from under his hood, he tried to pinpoint where they were coming from, but the exploit had fallen silent again.
Had he imagined them? He wouldn’t be surprised. After the events of the past few weeks, he’d been imagining all manner of ghastly things. His visions kept him awake at night. He’d hardly slept since the funeral.
A damp breeze kicked up and started to batter at his coat. Hearing a soft creaking noise up ahead, he stepped out from the rickety cage and squinted into the darkness where he was just able to make out a small, rundown hut with a lopsided door swinging on the hinges. Marcellus plunged his cold, shaky fingers into his pocket and pulled out a small container of matches. The first one struggled to catch light in the wet air, but the second sparked and bloomed into a brilliant orange flame. Protecting the glow with his cupped hand, he held the light up to the hut until he could see the distinct marking slashed across the door in mud.
Two diagonal lines descending toward each other.
The letter V, he remembered with a jolt of anticipation. He was in the right place.
The roof of the structure sagged at a strange angle, and the hut’s rusting walls seemed to billow as the angry wind picked up speed. Marcellus pushed open the corroded door and stepped inside.
Shadows swallowed him. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low light. And then he saw her.
She was sitting on a wooden bench, her hands tucked into her lap, her head turned so that Marcellus could see her profile. A face pulled straight from both his darkest and brightest memories. When she turned toward him, her lips curled into a warm, familiar smile. “Marcellou. I hoped you’d come.”
Marcellus’s legs gave out from under him. He sank to his knees in front of his former governess, feeling every emotion that he’d blocked out for the past seven years suddenly wash over him at once. Anger, frustration, betrayal, regret, guilt, longing.
It was the longing more than anything. Mabelle had been marked as a traitor to the Regime. An enemy spy. He was forbidden from missing her. From thinking of her in any way but resentment. But, Sols, how he’d missed her.
There was so much to say. And yet all he could utter as he knelt by her feet was, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
What was he apologizing for? For treating her like a criminal when he’d come face-to-face with her three weeks ago in Montfer? For believing his grandfather’s lies about her? Even when they scratched against his heart in the most uncomfortable of ways? For not saving her that day seven years ago when the droids dragged her away?
But he knew the answer.
All of it.
He was sorry for all of it.
Suddenly, he felt Mabelle’s gentle yet reassuring hand on his head. “It’s okay, Marcellou. It’s okay.” And for the briefest of moments, every last drop of his anger melted right off him. He felt safe. He felt protected. The decrepit and wind-beaten hut he’d entered had turned into a warm place, a familiar place, a place of love and light. Suddenly, he was a little boy again, playing with his little plastique transporteurs at Mabelle’s feet while she read aloud from one of the books she’d smuggled into the Palais.
“Does anyone know you’re here?” Mabelle asked, her voice suddenly taking on a grave tone. “Were you followed?”
Marcellus momentarily thought of the footsteps he’d heard earlier. The ones he was now certain he’d imagined. “No.”
“Are you sure?” Mabelle asked. “The general has spies working for him all over the planet.”
And just like that, the bubble burst. Marcellus was thrust back into the present moment. Everything flooded into focus: the leaking, rundown hut; the cold, uneven floor under his knees; Mabelle’s drawn, weather-beaten skin; and the splintered bench where she sat. The anger came flooding back too, seeping into his bones, returning his vision to red.
“I know all about his spies,” he muttered, thinking once again of Chatine. “I took precautions.” He pushed himself back to his feet. “I left my TéléCom back at the Palais. I exited the grounds through the gaps in the perimeter you showed me when I was little. I parked my moto far away from the exploit.”
Mabelle exhaled audibly. “Good. Good boy.”
Marcellus lips quirked involuntarily at the praise. She might have aged a lifetime on Bastille, but she was still the same woman who had raised him for eleven years.
She patted the bench next to her, and Marcellus sat down.
“I must say,” Mabelle said as the cruel wind beat at the walls and the rain oozed through the cracks in the roof, “I wasn’t entirely sure you’d come.”
“I almost didn’t,” he said, and when Mabelle cocked an eyebrow, he smiled bashfully and explained. “It took me a while to read the message.”
When he’d first discovered the piece of paper that had been slipped into his pocket during one of his patrols in the Frets, the letters felt impossible to decipher. It had been over seven years since he’d practiced reading and writing them. He spent hours tracing the curves and loops with his fingertips, until slowly, the memories of learning those letters came back to him, like lost lyrics. Once you start humming the first verse, the entire song suddenly reappears in your mind.
Perhaps the Forgotten Word was not so easily forgotten to him.
“Well, you’re here. That’s what matters,” Mabelle said, taking his hand in hers. Her hand, which once swallowed his own, now felt impossibly small. But it was warm. The only warm thing in this whole abandoned, miserable place.
Marcellus nodded, trying to pull comfort from Mabelle’s words. The truth was, he wished he’d gotten that message sooner, decoded it faster. They’d already lost so much time. General Bonnefaçon had already caused so much unrest and upheaval and . . . death. The Premier Enfant—little Marie Paresse—on a one-way trip to Sol 2. Nadette Epernay, who was framed—and executed—for Marie’s murder. Who was next? How many more lives would the general sacrifice in his quest for power?
“I watched the footage,” Marcellus said, feeling the now-familiar rage well up inside of him. “The proof that my father was innocent in the bombing of this exploit seventeen years ago. I found the microcam in the painting in your old room at the Grand Palais, just where you said it would be. I know Julien Bonnefaçon was framed and that my grandfather and the former Patriarche were the ones behind the attack.”
Mabelle nodded. “I’m glad you’ve finally seen the truth.”
“We have to stop him,” Marcellus said urgently. “Not just stop him. Destroy him. He betrayed me. He betrayed my father. He betrayed everyone on this planet. He must be brought down.”
He took a deep breath and then finally said the words that had been running through his mind for the past two weeks. Maybe even for his entire life. Maybe they’d always been there. Buried deep inside his DNA. Calling out to him from his very veins. Just waiting for him to wake up and hear them. “I want to join the Vangarde.”
A flicker of pride passed over Mabelle’s face, but it was quickly replaced by a grave, warning look. “Marcellus, this is a very important decision that you should not take lightly. Joining us is a dangerous choice. It will put everything you know and love in danger. Your home. Your job. Your family.”
“I don’t have a family,” Marcellus snapped. “My father died trying to fight for the right side. And my mother died mourning him. You are my only family. And as for my home and my job? I don’t care about any of it anymore. The Regime, the Ministère, my promotion to commandeur, that cursed officer uniform. I’m done with all of it. I’m done being the general’s dutiful, doting protégé. I’m done following in his footsteps. It’s time I follow in the right footsteps. The ones I should have followed all along.”
Mabelle looked at him with deep, pitying eyes. “Marcellus, joining the Vangarde won’t bring your father back.”
Marcellus stood up, his hands clenched by his sides. The wind outside battered at the rusting walls, mirroring the tempest growing inside him. “I’m not doing this to bring my father back. I’m doing this to honor his memory.” He nodded toward the rickety door that led to what was left of the copper exploit. “To honor all of their memories. I’m doing this to defeat the general. I want to pick up where my father left off. I’m ready now. I’ll fight. I’ll run messages. I’ll recruit. I’ll travel across the System Divine. Usonia, Kaishi, Reichenstat, wherever the Vangarde wants to send me. I’ll leave the Palais tomorrow. I’ll—”
“Marcellou.” Mabelle held up a hand to stop him, looking slightly pained. “You don’t understand. We don’t want you to do any of that.”
Marcellus squinted, confused. And just a little bit panicked. It had never even occurred to him that the Vangarde might turn him down. “But you said in Montfer . . . You said when I’ve seen the truth that I should come to you. That I could join you.”
“Yes, that’s true. We do need you, Marcellus. But not on the outside.”
His confusion quickly gave way to dread. He suddenly felt nauseous. Sick. Cold. He shook his head. “No. I can’t. I—”
“You’re the only one who can get close to him.”
Marcellus clawed his fingers through his hair, letting Mabelle’s words sink in. “You want me to go back there? You want me to be in the same room as him and pretend that nothing happened? That he’s innocent? I can’t just go back to being blind.”
“Not blind,” Mabelle corrected. “The opposite of blind. Your eyes are wide open now. And we need those eyes inside the Palais. We haven’t been able to get anyone inside since my arrest seven years ago. And now it’s more important than ever that we do.”
Marcellus swallowed, feeling like he might throw up.
“Why do you think I sent you that message in your father’s prison shirt?” Mabelle went on. She was suddenly on her feet too, crouching in front of him, forcing him to look at her. “You have to understand; we didn’t expect any of this. We thought we were fighting against the Regime, the Patriarche, a five-hundred-year-old corrupt institution. The Vangarde didn’t know until a few months ago that the general was also fighting against the Regime. We are up against not one enemy, but two. And that uniform you wear is not a curse. It’s a gift. It’s a key. To go where no one else can go. To see and hear things that no one else can. If we’re going to defeat General Bonnefaçon and stop him from taking over the Regime, we need your eyes and your ears. We need you to continue to be the general’s dutiful, doting protégé.”
Mabelle’s gaze was so intense and piercing, Marcellus had to look away. He tried to rein in his wild, tempestuous breath, but it was like trying to rein in the storm outside.
“Did you know?” he whispered sharply. “That he was planning to murder the Premier Enfant?”
“No,” Mabelle said emphatically. “Not until it was too late.”
“But you have proof, right? That he killed her? We can use that. We can show the Patriarche and get my grandfather arrested and—”
“We don’t have proof. Like you, we only have our suspicions. Our instincts.”
“So that’s what you want me to do? Get proof that he’s guilty?”
Mabelle shook her head. “You won’t find it. The general is a clever, careful man. He would have covered his tracks too well. Distanced himself from the crime to ensure it could never be traced back to him.”
Marcellus shut his eyes as the memories bombarded him once more.
The head of Nadette Epernay thumping into a metal can.
The tiny coffin of Marie Paresse shooting into space.
“May she rest with the Sols.”
“How did you know?” Marcellus blurted out.
The weathered skin on Mabelle’s forehead crinkled in confusion.
“You said, ‘the Vangarde didn’t know until a few months ago that the general was also fighting against the Regime.’ How did you know that?”
Mabelle sighed, looking forlorn. “We have intel that the general is working on something. Something horrible and destructive that will threaten the lives of everyone on this planet.”
An icy chill trickled down Marcellus’s spine. “What?”
For a moment, Mabelle’s gaze drifted out the window, as though she were trying to summon strength from something—anything—out there. “He’s building a weapon.”
Marcellus felt the planet tilt beneath his feet. Was this what it felt like when that explosif went off seventeen years ago? Like the ground was giving away beneath them? Like the sky was crashing down around them? Like they might never breath again? It was several seconds before he could speak. Yet the words came out minced and mutilated. “What kind of weapon?”
“We don’t know,” Mabelle admitted. “But we believe it to be the general’s endgame. The way he plans to take control of the Regime. Our intel comes from a source who is working directly with the general. Unfortunately, the operative who has been in communication with that source was captured by the Ministère two weeks ago.”
“The two women,” Marcellus said with sudden realization, remembering the Vangarde operatives that he’d questioned at the Policier Precinct. The tall, rangy one who called herself Jacqui, and the shorter, dark-haired one who barely spoke. “They were caught trying to break into the Bastille warden’s office.”
“Yes,” Mabelle confirmed. “One of them goes by the name of Denise.”
“The one with the scars on her face?”
Mabelle nodded. “She used to be a cyborg. Before she joined the Vangarde.”
Used to be?
Suddenly, everything about that woman’s face started to make more sense. The pattern and placement of her scars, the lines running down her left cheek. He had no idea that a cyborg could have their circuitries removed. He’d always assumed that cyborgs were cyborgs for life.
“She was the only person who knew how to contact the source,” Mabelle went on. “She was our only lead for finding out what the general was working on and how to stop it.”
Marcellus felt his throat go dry. Those two operatives had vanished from the Policier Precinct only hours after Marcellus had questioned them.
“I don’t know where they are,” Marcellus said desperately. “The general has a secret facility somewhere. He’s never told me much about it. I just know that every so often prisoners—high-profile ones—will disappear from the Precinct and come back days or weeks later, completely broken. Or they don’t come back at all.” He swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Mabelle. “This is helpful information. We will try to root out their location, but in the meantime, we need someone to track down this weapon.” Mabelle caught Marcellus’s gaze with a meaningful look.
The realization sank into the pit of his stomach. “That’s what you want me to do. You want me to find out what he’s working on.”
“What he’s working on. Where he’s working on it. Who he’s working with. When it will be ready. Whatever you can find. We have exhausted countless resources on this, and we have still uncovered nothing.”
Marcellus felt the weight of impossibility bearing down on him. He pressed his fingertips into his temples. “If the Vangarde can’t find anything, what makes you think I can?”
A knowing smile tweaked at Mabelle’s lips. “Because I raised you, ma chéri. I know you. I believe in you.”
Marcellus began to pace the length of the tiny hut. Spy on his grandfather? “But the general already suspects me of working with you. He even hired a girl from the Frets to spy on me. He’s already distrustful.”
“Then you’ll have to work extra hard to convince him of your loyalty.”
Marcellus let out a growl of frustration. “But he’s the greatest military strategist this planet has ever seen! If he finds out I’m spying on him, he . . . he . . .” A shudder worked its way down his spine. “All of you would be in danger.” For the first time since he’d left the Palais that night, Marcellus felt hopelessness settle over him. An entire ocean of it.
“This is the only way to stop him,” Mabelle said, and Marcellus caught the air of finality in her voice. It reminded him of when he was little, and he would try to negotiate for five more minutes before bed.
But this was so different. They weren’t negotiating for extra hours of playtime. They were negotiating for his life.
“What about the captured operative?” he asked desperately, grasping for an alternative plan. “The one who knows how to contact the source working with the general. If I can dig around and find out where my grandfather is holding her—”
“Then, yes, of course, we will organize an extraction team,” Mabelle said, “but that will take time, and we’re running out of it. We need to find that weapon now.”
Marcellus’s eyes narrowed. “An extraction team? You mean to break them out?”
“Like you’re planning to break out Citizen Rousseau?”
Mabelle fell quiet, her expression as placid as a lake.
It was no secret around the Ministère what those two operatives had been trying to do when they were captured in the warden’s office. They had been attempting to infiltrate Bastille’s security system so they could rescue their infamous incarcerated leader, Citizen Rousseau, the woman who had rallied thousands of people to her cause in the Rebellion of 488. The operatives had failed, but the general was certain that the Vangarde would try again.
But if Mabelle knew anything about another attempt to break into Bastille, she was not letting on.
“Isn’t that what you’re ultimately planning?” Marcellus pressed. “To bring back Rousseau so you can launch a full-scale revolution?”
“I’m afraid I cannot divulge that.”
Marcellus felt a small flicker of indignation. “Why not?”
“You have to understand, Marcellus,” Mabelle said gently. “You are still new to our cause. You are not yet trained to keep our secrets.”
That silenced him. He knew exactly what she was saying. If he was caught, if he was tortured, he couldn’t be trusted not to talk. He dug his fingernails into his palms. “Will you just tell me one thing?”
Mabelle’s lips quirked into a ghost of a smile. “Depends on what it is.”
Marcellus clenched his eyes shut, taking himself back to that night, two weeks ago, in the hallway of Fret 7. The last time he’d ever seen the girl named Alouette Taureau. He could still picture her vanishing form as she darted away from him. He could still picture her dark eyes, wide with shock and disbelief, as he’d told her the truth.
That she’d been unknowingly living with the Vangarde.
“There was a girl,” he whispered before remembering the code name that was written on a metal tag that hung around her neck on a string of beads. Little Lark. Marcellus opened his eyes. “What is her role in all of this? Please tell me she’s not going to be involved in . . . in anything dangerous.”
Mabelle’s reaction made Marcellus’s stomach clench. “Little Lark is . . .” She paused, lowering her eyes. “Little Lark is no longer with the Vangarde.”
Marcellus felt all the blood drain from his head. “What? What do you mean? I thought she—”
“Left?” Marcellus repeated. “Left where?”
“This is not something you need to concern yourself with,” Mabelle said calmly, assuredly. “She will be fine. We will make sure of it.”
Marcellus was breathing heavily now, the gravity of everything seeming to crash down on him at once. “But—” he began to say.
“We all have our role to play in the story of this planet, Marcellus. And right now, if you join us, your role is to find that weapon.” Mabelle slowly extended her foot and dragged it across the floor of the hut, cutting an angled line through the dirt. “By accepting this assignment, you are swearing to pledge your life to our purpose. You are swearing your commitment to a better Laterre and your loyalty to that future planet.”
Marcellus stared numbly down at the line that Mabelle had drawn on the floor, eventually recognizing what it represented.
It was one half of the same symbol that had been marked on the door of this hut.
One half of a letter.
She was just waiting for him to make it complete.
Marcellus began to sweat inside his exploit coat. When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet, resigned. “The general is always three moves ahead of everyone.”
“Which is why you must do this. So we can stay ahead of him. So he can’t hurt anyone else.”
Marcellus placed a hand to the side of his rib cage, feeling the fading bruise where his grandfather’s boot had driven into him over and over and over. His hand clenched at the memory of lying on that cold marble floor of his grandfather’s study. Beaten. Humiliated. Defeated.
“Look at you! You are pathetic. You can’t even fight back.”
Suddenly, the embers inside of him caught light again. The flames roared. The thought of returning to the Palais, donning that scratchy white uniform, and seeing his grandfather’s face was enough to make Marcellus’s heart race, but he knew he couldn’t just stand idly by and watch his grandfather tear this planet apart.
After all, he was no longer that scared, helpless boy lying on the floor. That Marcellus Bonnefaçon was gone. Incinerated instantly in the smoldering remains of his grandfather’s lies.
Marcellus had been reborn that day. When he rose up from that cold hard floor to discover the truth about his father, his past, and his grandfather’s deceptive games, he became someone else. Someone stronger. Someone angrier.
Someone who fought back.
Outside the cracked windows of the hut, light began to push its way through the dark, dark night. The three Sols were rising, turning Laterre’s vast blank of clouds into a glowing patchwork of gold, orange, and gray.
Mabelle stepped closer to Marcellus, her brown eyes sparkling in the dawn light. “Do you swear?”
Marcellus stood up straighter and—with one swift, decisive motion—swiped his foot across the dirty floor at a sharp angle. “I swear.”
They both looked down at the now-complete letter V that blazed between them. Like it was on fire. Like it had been branded right into the ground. It was a letter that had lost its meaning on Laterre hundreds of years ago. But now, it suddenly had the power to tilt the planet on its axis. Realign the stars around the entire System Divine.
Mabelle smiled a mysterious little smile. “Welcome to the Vangarde.”
Marcellus exhaled a breath that he swore he’d been holding for eighteen years. Joining the Vangarde might not bring his father back, but, in that moment, Marcellus had never felt closer to Julien Bonnefaçon.
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