Home > Written in Starlight (Woven in Moonlight #2)

Written in Starlight (Woven in Moonlight #2)
Author: Isabel Ibanez


Dedication


THIS ONE IS FOR YOU, PAPA.

I never tire of hearing your stories of growing up in the jungle.

 

 

CAPÍTULO


Uno


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.

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