Swoony fantasy romance character art from The Starlit Prince
The Starlit Prince

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Chapter One

Snaking through the crowded ballroom, dodging masked faces as they turned toward me, I couldn’t help but regret my choice to dress up like a bright red macaw. Wearing the costume had seemed like a good idea six months ago when I’d ordered the dress, when the only thing at stake for the evening was who I would dance with.

A man in a wolf mask stepped in front of me, halting my escape. “Señorita,” he began, voice deep and falsely melodic, like he was trying to sing to me. He even moved his feet back and forth and lifted his arms at his sides.

I nearly choked on my sip of sangria but recovered enough to offer a smile, wishing my bird mask covered more than half my face, so I wouldn’t have to worry about schooling my expressions. The man, unfortunately, took my smile as
encouragement and angled his body even closer.

“Excuse me, señorita…what-was-it?”

“Talia Balcázar Ferrera,” I supplied through a clenched smile.

“Ah, yes, señorita Balcasan.”

I rolled my eyes but didn’t correct him.

“Do me the great honor of dancing with me. I have been watching you all evening, and I must say, yours is the most magnificent costume in the room.”

My shoulders lifted and fell in a quick sigh. There was no escaping these hungry vultures. “I’m sorry, but you mistake me for my friend. You see? Over there.”

His eyes traveled. I watched them widen beneath his mask as he discovered Zara, wearing the exact same costume.

“Do you not mean her?” I asked again.

Silence hung between us in the noisy ballroom. Just as Zara and I had planned, this vulture had no idea which of the women wearing the
ridiculous macaw mask was the one set to win a fortune in the morning.

He coughed politely. “Indeed. I was mistaken. I would greatly appreciate it if you could put in a good word with your friend over there? I was hoping to dance with her before the evening expired.” He tapped his chest with his free hand. “And I must say, she caught my eye the very moment I arrived.”

To make him wait, I took a long sip of sangria, emptying my glass. “I’m sure she did.” Zara was always turning heads, even in a room full of masks. Her curves, highlighted as they were in this year’s tight-fitting style, put mine to shame. “I’ll do my best.”

I gave him a dismissive curtsy before stepping around him and hurrying away.

Practically stomping through the ballroom, I looked over to where Zara was fanning herself flirtatiously as she giggled at something a broad-shouldered man had said. She’d had her seamstress make me a dress to match hers, a stroke of brilliance that had kept the fortune hunters positively puzzled all evening. But wearing the same dress as the prettiest girl in the room also made me feel like one of the cheap pieces of glass cut to look like rubies dotting my mask. Zara leaned around the man and waved her fan at me, but when I only shrugged in return, she excused herself and hurried toward me.

Halfway across the crowded space, my friend was waylaid by a nobleman in a garish orange suit and fox mask. Her shoulders sank, and her own bird mask seemed to linger on me as I skirted the crowd for the open terrace doors at the back of the ballroom.

The night was warm but refreshing compared to the caged air inside. Fewer conversations to avoid out here. I took a deep breath.

The moon was already descending toward the horizon, but the dancing wouldn’t end until dawn peeked over the endless rows of olive trees stretching across Zara’s family’s estate. The night before the official start of the Festival de los Cuentos meant no sleep for anyone, save the youngest and oldest.

Frustrated, I tossed my red macaw mask aside, but it snagged on my long hair, yanking out several dark strands and nearly dislodging the lily wedged against my tight bun. The mask hit the gravel a little too hard and shattered the false jewels, which looked eerily like drops of blood on the path. A shudder swept down my frame. After a last glance at the loud ballroom, I turned toward the massive stable in the distance, my heart jumping into my throat. In mere hours, the first of the summer’s most important races would begin, including the race that would determine my family’s fate.

Palacio del Sol, named for his golden dun coat, was my father’s best stallion to date, favored to win five to one. My costume tonight, my lack of sleep this past week, and my thundering pulse were all tied to this horse.

I gripped the hem of my ballgown, which had been designed to mimic the myth of the scarlet macaw, wife of the sun, and followed the branching path toward the stable. Six months ago, deciding to dress like the fabled wife of the sun god had seemed like a fun way to celebrate our promising young racehorse, whom we called Sol for short. Little had I known he would improve so much in half a year.

My steps grew quieter as I left the gravel for hard-packed earth. A light flickering over the stable entrance illuminated the guard on duty who was currently slack-necked and snoring loudly. I shook my head as I walked straight past him into the wide aisle of the immaculate barn.

The smell of hay and horses washed over me as I moved into the shadowy aisle between stalls. Every one of these horses signified someone’s hopes and dreams. So many bets were placed at the midsummer races that fortunes were lost and made, and the fixed planes of society’s strata became fluid for a single day.

Only the champion of this race would be entered into the Carrera de los Reales, the royal race, held by the king himself at the end of summer. The champions from each of the three largest races in Avencia competed in the royal race. Winning lifted one into the highest ranks of society, and this year, we had a real chance.

“Talia, there you are! I thought you’d be here,” Zara teased.

I whipped around, startled but not surprised to see my friend standing in the barn’s entrance. Her dark, unruly curls were smoothed back in a slick knot at the nape of her neck, but after hours of dancing, the thick tresses were starting to rebel.

“Thank you, by the way,” I said, waving a hand at our matching red dresses with stacks of ruffles at the hems. “I had no idea they would be so aggressive.”

After a quick snort, Zara cringed in disgust. “One of the men who danced with me tonight was sixty-five. Had two wives die already.”

“That sounds dreadful. Who knew having a fast racehorse would make it harder to find a decent man?”

Shrugging, Zara peeked in at a horse. “Who’s the contender?”

“Cielo, over there. But his fastest time never beat Sol’s.”

“Everything will be different by sundown, will it not?” She grabbed my hands. “The dons will be lining up for your hand!”

A short laugh escaped my lips. “Yes, money will finally garner their attention.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I don’t disagree with you. I merely dislike that it’s true.” I pulled my hands from my friend’s grip and continued to Sol’s stall. Until riches lifted me out of my current station, I was still beneath the dons’ notice. “At least Papá will be able to buy the land outright from Ortiz. No more dreadful landlord hovering over our every move.”

Zara cringed at the mention of Ortiz, sharing my feelings about the potbellied man who’d been asking for my hand in marriage for the last four summers, ever since I turned fifteen.

“Surely, you’ll move,” she said with a pout. “But do tell your father to buy a grand estate somewhere inside of Leor. You can’t leave me.”

“Just because we stand to win doesn’t mean we’ll leave Leor,” I assured her. “My father loves it here. He says southern Avencia is the world’s best place to train horses. Not that he’s trained them anywhere else.” I traced my hand lightly along the wood between stalls as I moved farther down. “And the race isn’t won yet.”

Zara huffed. “It’s as good as.”

As I passed my father’s other horse, Corona, I nodded politely. He was fast in his own right, but no champion.

“Push him,” I told the white horse, leaning over the half door of his stall. “Push him to his best time yet.” The horse flicked an ear sideways. “I’m serious. No lounging at the back of the pack this time. You’ve got a job to do.”

I moved on to the next stall, where Sol would be sleeping before his big day. The stable was dim, the light from the moon casting only the faintest shadows through the windows, but even before I reached the stall, my skin prickled.

My breath caught when my eyes adjusted.

Sol was gone.

“What is it?” Zara asked, placing a hand on my arm.

Unable to speak, I unlatched the stall door and yanked it open, scanning the floor more times than was necessary. He wasn’t there.

Panic seized my chest, and I scrambled back out into the aisle, knocking into Zara.

“Where is he?” Zara whispered. “Wait. Look.” She pointed to where Sol’s saddle and bridle were missing.

“Someone stole him!” I shouted.

As I ran back toward the sleeping guard, he roused from sleep with a start and hopped up.

“He’s gone! Someone stole my father’s horse.”

The large man blinked, then my words registered and he gripped his rapier with one hand and raced into the barn.

“He’s gone, you idiot. Running into the barn won’t do any good.” I lifted both arms and rolled my eyes.

The sound of crunching gravel pricked at my ears. Tensing, I scanned the dark road leading away from the barn. The tiny sliver of moon wasn’t enough to illuminate the night, but I spotted a pale shape at the foot of the small hill.

“Zara! That’s him—that’s Sol. It must be!”

When the guard reappeared, I was already racing back into the barn. “There’s been a theft,” I called back. “Send word to my father.”

The guard’s quick footsteps diminished as he sped away.

“What are you doing?” asked Zara from behind me.

“Going after him!”

Ignoring her burst of laughter, I ripped open Corona’s stall door, reaching for the bridle on the wall. “Sorry, boy, but we’re going to have to take a little midnight ride.”

“I’m coming with you,” Zara announced from the stall’s doorway.

I heaved a saddle blanket on Corona’s tall back and narrowed my eyes at her. “You can’t ride as fast as I can. And if I don’t go…” My throat caught, and the rest of the words died on my tongue.

She yanked a bridle off the peg nearest to her. “I’m not telling you not to go. I’m just saying that you’re not going alone. Besides, it’s dangerous to ride at night this time of year.”

“Those are only stories,” I snapped.

Less than a minute later, as I led Corona out of the stables, another thought hit me, causing me to choke on my next breath. If Sol disappeared for good, my family would have to pay out all the bets placed on him. Even if we sold every item in our home—and the house itself—it wouldn’t be enough.

“I have to find him before my father wakes,” I whispered, trying to lift my foot into the stirrup. My tight dress wasn’t helping.

Zara scurried to mount the horse she’d saddled—another valuable racehorse I didn’t recognize. At least her family could afford to pay the owner for borrowing it. “You know where he’s going, don’t you?”

“Puerta,” I muttered.

The border town of Puerta de los Reyes, almost an hour’s ride from Leor, teemed with merchants and vendors of every illegal good imaginable. The weeks before and during the Festival de los Cuentos were the busiest of the year. Tradesmen from across the seas, tribal shamans from the east, and wealthy gangsters congregated in the market of Puerta to sell or trade their wares. Women of Leor were strictly forbidden from ever venturing near its gates.

I whirled around at a tearing sound to find Zara ripping the side of her dress to allow her legs space to move. “You would,” I said with a smirk.

“My hunting knives came in handy for once.”

Zara flashed her bare leg at me, waggling her brows—these festival dresses didn’t allow for the normal undergarments that we wore the rest of the year—then she flipped the blade and held it out to me. I took the knife, bent, and sliced the hem of my dress in a similar fashion. When I finished, I accepted a strappy leather holster from Zara.

“What’s this?” I glanced anxiously at the dark road where Sol had disappeared.

“It straps around your calf. Like this.” She fastened a dagger to her leg as well. “Usually goes over a riding boot, but we’ll make do.”

Seconds later, I climbed into the saddle. “All right. Let’s go,” I announced, kicking my heels into Corona.