Still not sure about the perfect present to get your book BFF? We suggest going with a book collection as gorgeous as gemstone—but with an epic, world-spanning, high stakes story to boot.
Lauren DeStefano is back again with another intense installment in her Glass Spare duology, and seriously, these books are a must-read. You can even start The Glass Spare right here. And if you’ve already read that one, then you’re in luck! Because we have your first look at The Cursed Sea, the jaw-dropping conclusion that you’ll need to read in one sitting. The twists keep coming, the ships keep sailing (literally and figuratively), and war is looming. Oh, and the origin of Wil’s admittedly gorgeous but brutal powers? You’ll find that too.
In The Cursed Sea, Wilhelmina is continuing on her quest to discover the origin of her curse—a touch that turns people into gemstones. Along the way, the escalating war between her people and the Southern Isles will need to be brought to an end, and Pahn, the evil marveler, isn’t done with the allies just yet. Sound good? You know it does. Start reading below!
The dead princess of Arrod returned to her kingdom at sunset.
The kingdom itself was none the wiser. Wil arrived unceremoniously, amid weary travelers and crates of fabric bolts and sewing notions.
Moments after disembarking and regaining her bearings, she could already see that the kingdom was different. Darker somehow. The winter clouds were gray as smoke, and the people moved about the capital in collective silence. Even the small children did not cry or laugh as they were harried this way and that by adults taking hasty strides.
The snow had yet to arrive here, but the late October air carried its ominous chill; winter came early in the North, and stayed late. Wil dug her gloved hands into the pockets of her coat and made her way through the Port Capital, mindful to avoid brushing against the shoulders of passersby. She did not want to add another face to her list of kills.
Even the smell was different. Moldy and musty, like old coats in an attic where nothing had stirred for years.
Around her, there were carriages offering rides to neighboring towns, but Wil left the cobbles behind and made her way into the woods. If she wanted to reach the castle without arousing suspicion, there was no way but to walk.
After a week at sea, now that she was on land the anxiety began to seize her. The king might make good on his promise to kill her if he saw her again. After the attack he’d waged on the Southern Isles, it was clear his ruthlessness had exceeded her expectations. But her mother was the one whom Wil was most afraid to face. She would have to tell her the truth of what had happened that night by the rapids. Would have to reveal the monstrous thing she had become.
And Gerdie—the thought that she would see him in just a few minutes hardly seemed real. What state was he in? What had their father done to him? She’d had nothing but time to think about it on her journey, but when she tried to conjure up an image of her brother, all she got was a shadow.
The winter sky was dark and starless by the time she arrived at the castle. Here, her breath came in shallow bursts and she stopped, working to compose herself. The last time she’d seen her home had been in September. A cool night that smelled of leaves and dirt, all the trees beginning to shed their fiery leaves. She hadn’t looked back at the castle as she left it, because there had been no reason to think she wouldn’t return.
Now weeks had passed, and snow coated all the fallen leaves. It seemed a lifetime ago since she’d set foot in her home. Since her father, clutching Owen’s gleaming corpse, had promised to kill her if she ever returned.
She could see the guards standing outside the gate. There were thrice as many as before, all of them bearing electric lanterns that spread as far as the line of trees, where she at last paused to collect herself.
After the attack her father had commanded upon the South, of course there would be more security. But it wasn’t the guards Wil found menacing, or their blades gleaming brightly at their hips. It was the castle she could just see over the top of the towering stone wall.
She forced herself to take a step, and then another, until the light of the lanterns revealed her and the guards raised their weapons in anticipation. Ferocity fast turned to amusement when they saw what they were dealing with. At her size and with her weapons hidden, she hardly seemed like any sort of threat, and just her luck, all these guards were strangers who wouldn’t recognize their dead princess even if they could believe she’d come back.
“Wherever you’re headed, girl, you’ve taken a wrong turn.” One of the guards advanced on her, weapon still drawn. “This here is the Castle of the Royal House of Heidle.”
Wil stiffened her posture. “I need to speak with the queen.”
“The queen does not receive visitors,” another guard said.
“She’ll see me,” Wil said. “I’m her daughter.”
“The queen doesn’t have any daughters,” the guard said, and the words lanced through her. She was prepared to be a dead girl, but to not exist at all?
Wil’s eyes were drawn to the light shining through Owen’s bedroom window. It was such a familiar sight, and it flooded her with warmth and the notion that she was home. The feeling was darkened by the reminder that Owen could not be there, spending all hours of the night reading as he often had, his brow furrowed, his intelligent eyes burdened. He was gone.
“Listen,” Wil said. “I—”
“Who’s out there?” Baren’s voice came from the darkness behind the gate. “Guards! Who are you talking to?”
Her brother approached the metal bars, and it was an effort for Wil not to gasp at what she saw. Baren, second in line for the throne after Owen, had never possessed softness in his features. He had their mother’s blue eyes, but none of their kindness. Still, when Wil had seen him last, he had at least looked like the young man he was. Now, despite his royal dress, he looked no better off than the starving denizens in the slums of the Port Capital.
His eyes were sunken and dark. His straight blond hair had grown scraggly and taken over the frame of his face. His cheeks were gaunt. His back was hunched as though he were carrying something heavy around his shoulders.
He stared straight at Wil, and then through her.
“This girl is claiming to be the princess, Your Majesty,” the guard said. “Impersonating the royal family is a high crime. What would you have us do with her?”
Wil’s breath hitched. Your Majesty?
Baren raised the latch and staggered through the gate. He stared at Wil, and she narrowed her eyes as she returned his scrutiny.
“This girl right here?” Baren said, sweeping his arm in gesture. “You mean to tell me that you see her? My little sister’s ghost—you see her too?”
“She appears to be living, Your Majesty.”
She hadn’t misheard, then. Confusion and worry struggled for dominance, but she pushed all of it away. She had to get past Baren and speak to the queen before she would believe anything.
Baren laughed. “She comes here most nights. Sits atop the spires, or hides under my bed and whispers while I’m sleeping so I’ll have nightmares. She’s a ghost.”
“Baren,” Wil said, and at the sound of her voice he went still and silent. “I need to speak to Mother. Where is she?”
“You—” He unsheathed his sword and brought its point to her chin. “I told you not to come back here, and you tell Owen and Papa to stay away, too. I’m king now. Return to your grave.”
“I am not a ghost,” Wil said firmly, not allowing herself to hear the rest of his words. “And if I were, what good do you think your sword would be?”
He sank the blade into her flesh and drew it back slowly, coaxing a thin, bleeding line under her chin. She shuddered with pain but didn’t move.
The young king held the blade before his face for inspection, and his eyes grew wide with hysteria as blood dripped from its edge. His breaths came loud and fast. “No,” he said. “You’re not my sister. My sister is dead. She drowned.”
“That isn’t true. Baren, listen to me—”
“You’re a trick!” He brandished his sword anew, angling it at her chest. “You’re a lookalike sent by my enemies to destroy me.”
In a fluid motion she unsheathed the dagger at her thigh. The sleep serum would be more merciful than the guns at either hip; she didn’t trust herself to shoot at him and not hit anything vital. She had already killed one brother.
He lunged at her, and she dodged the blow for her heart, holding out her dagger and letting his own momentum work to her advantage as the arched blade tore through his skin.
He staggered back, startled. The guards came forward with a clatter of guns, but Baren held up his hand to stay them. He regarded Wil, eyes wide. “You’re the price I have to pay,” he said, coming to a realization of some sort. “You were brought back to punish me.”
His voice had grown faint, and he fell to his knees.
“Poison!” one of the guards cried out, and again they closed in on her. She would not be able to take on all of them, Wil knew, but if one of them so much as touched her, he would be dead, and she did not want to think what new horror that would evoke.
“Mother!” she screamed. The barrel of a gun was pressed into her chin, shoving her face upward. “Mother!”
Wil found Baren’s eyes. Eyes that had never shown her a drop of kindness even when they had been children. He was on his knees, struggling to stay awake, glaring at her.
Then, from the dark mouth of the castle doors, she saw a white gown billowing on the cold breeze. Wil could just make out the long blond hair. “Mother!”
At the sound of Wil’s voice, the figure began running for them.
“Stand down,” the queen cried, came out gasping. “Stand down—she’s—that’s—”
“You are not in charge of my men,” Baren said. He looked like a scared little boy. The queen saw this and held his shoulder to keep him from stumbling to his feet. Somewhere beyond the frenzy, Wil marveled that he was still conscious. Perhaps Zay had diluted the serum to compensate for what she’d used to put Loom to sleep.
“I’m the king,” he said.
“Yes,” the queen said. She was clutching the button of her capelet, twisting it one way and the next in compulsive sets. Three twists left, three twists right, five taps to its face with her index finger. “But you have not slept for days. You don’t want to do something you’ll regret.” She smoothed back his hair, and his resolve crumbled.
The queen turned to Wil, who was forced now to understand the truth. Her father was no longer the king. He was gone.
There was no time yet for Wil to process her shock and all the things this would mean.
“Stand down,” Baren mumbled, as though he were talking to himself, and the guards skeptically lowered the weapons pointed at Wil.
Now it was the queen’s turn to look as though she had seen a ghost. But she did not ask Wil if she was dead. She did not ask who had sent her, or who she really was. For after all those years of wanting, she could never fail to recognize the child she’d nearly died to bring into the world. She would know her daughter anywhere.
Wil felt herself trembling. She would not cry. She would not.
“It’s me,” she said.
The castle was home, and at the same time it wasn’t.
Winter’s chill had snaked its way in through the stone walls. A fire was succumbing to a slow death in the hearth of the foyer. Ordinarily there would be servants in the winter to stoke it through the night.
But the feeble glow of the lone fire left the castle dim and bleak.
And it was quiet. The queen said nothing as she pulled the doors closed behind them, leaving Baren and his guards at the gates.
Wil barely felt the sting of the alcohol used to clean her wound. Her mind was numb.
It was late and the castle was sleeping, quiet but for the scuff of Baren’s slippers against the stone as he paced outside the washroom. Wil could hear every step through the closed door.
Wil sat on the edge of the tub, her tunic unbuttoned and bloody, while her mother knelt before her, saying nothing.
“Mother, where is Gerdie?” If he were whole, if he were here, he would have come to her by now. He would have heard her screaming.
“In the basement, I imagine.” The queen’s tone was placid. “You know what an insomniac he is.” She said this so simply, as though things were the same as they’d always been.
Wil searched her mother’s eyes for any indication that this was a lie meant to calm her. But all she saw was a woman eclipsed by the same dark pall that had been cast over this entire kingdom.
But Wil knew that her mother must be right. If Gerdie had been anywhere but his basement laboratory, he would have heard her scream. That place harbored a solitude of his own design. His work entranced him so much that he often didn’t know she had descended the stairs until she was standing beside him.
Maybe this small thing hadn’t changed. One piece of her world was still intact.
The queen dabbed a cloth under Wil’s chin, and Wil flinched. “You can’t touch me,” she said, remembering herself.
“Wilhelmina.” The queen’s voice was gentle. “Look at me, my love.” Wil did as she was told. All the Heidle children did as their mother commanded. It was their father they defied.
“Are you ready now to tell me what happened?”
“Yes,” Wil answered, hoping she would come to believe it if she kept speaking. “And if you never want to see me again once you know, I’ll understand. But all I ask is that you help me—someone will die if I don’t have your help.”
The queen rose to her feet. Her skin had lost its tan, and it was clear that the sunlight had not touched her in a long time. But she held a strong posture, and Wil could see that time had not weakened her. That losing two children and a husband she loved had steeled her in a way that made her nomadic soul burn bright.
“We can’t talk here,” she said very quietly. Wil understood. Baren was lurking in the halls outside. “Go to your chamber,” The queen said. “I’ll meet you there.”
The queen opened the door, and Baren flinched. “Mother, we can’t trust this imposter,” he said. “This ghost.”
“Shh.” She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and led him down the hall. “We’ll find Nanny and have her mix something for you so you’ll sleep.”
Nanny. Another thing that had changed in Wil’s absence. When she and her brothers were small, they’d had a nanny, with big, kind eyes and a head filled with stories. Volumes and volumes of them, from every kingdom, in every language. But she’d retired years ago, when Wil and Gerdie, the last in the line, stopped needing someone to look after them. Last Wil heard, the king had put her up in a cottage in Southern Arrod.
As their voices moved farther away, Wil crept into the hallway, hoping not to encounter any servants. She could not bear to have any more pairs of eyes looking at her the way Baren’s had. But the servants seemed to have been replaced by guards. The outside of the castle was under constant vigil, but the inside was empty, eerily quiet.
She entered her chamber and stood just inside the doorway, afraid to turn on the light.
Had the room always smelled this way? Of crisp, clean linen and cool air seeping through cracks in the ancient window. Of never-used perfumes whose scents faintly escaped their bottles along the shelves; her father had often returned from his travels with those bottles—the harsh, flowery scents didn’t suit her, but they were proof that he had thought of her, however briefly, and so she had displayed them where the sunlight would find them and fill her room with colors.
It was night now, and the bottles were dark and lifeless. The castle was dark. The kingdom was dark.
Wil sat on the edge of her bed.
Then the room was flooded with light, and the queen came in and closed the door behind her.
The queen leaned against the door, her hands pinning the knob behind her. She was looking at the ceiling when she spoke. “Owen?”
Wil had learned to shutter out the pain before even the notion of it could reach her. It was as though her brother had granted her permission not to wallow on his account. “He’s dead.”
“I knew it wasn’t the rapids,” the queen said. “All along—the way your father carried about. So many times, he stared at closed doors and I thought he was waiting for someone to return.”
Wil grasped the lace of her comforter, her palms sweating despite the castle’s relentless chill. “Don’t blame Papa,” she said. “It was me. All me.”
Her mother did not move to sit beside her, as she had so many nights before Wil went to sleep. It occurred to Wil now that her mother had cleaned her wounds but not moved to embrace her. Called her “my love” but hadn’t kissed her cheeks.
“Before that night,” Wil went on, “something began happening to me. Something I hid because I thought I could make it go away. Owen and Gerdie knew, and they tried to help me. But I shouldn’t have hidden it. Maybe then he would be alive, but I—”
Wil could not summon the words. She unbuttoned her tunic, until she had uncovered the stark white mark between her breasts.
For a moment Wil saw what Zay had described. The queen’s face was fierce and commanding, and Wil saw herself in it.
The queen looked at her daughter’s mark, which she had seen countless times before.
“This is the mark of a curse,” Wil said.
The queen drew a loud breath. “I know.”
“You know?” Wil rasped. “Why did you tell me it was a birthmark?”
“You seemed fit to outlive us all.” The queen sat beside Wil on the bed, still maintaining her distance, making Wil feel like a damaged bird that had been pushed from its nest. This distance seemed to have nothing to do with her curse, Wil felt. “I began to think that whatever the curse was, you had defied it, as you had defied death.”
“Why?” Wil said. “Why was I cursed?”
The queen shook her head. “I don’t know. But in the weeks before we lost you and Owen, I knew something had changed.”
Wil looked straight ahead, at her painted white desk. There was an ornithology book, still open, at its center beside an askew chair, waiting for her sit in the amber glow of the blown-glass lamp and return to reading about spawnlings.
This tiny piece of the world that had once belonged to her now felt more like a memorial to a dead girl.
Without a word she stood and walked to the window. It stuck, as it always did, and she forced it open with the heel of her hand. The queen turned to watch as Wil reached along the castle’s outer wall. It didn’t take her long to find a tendril of ivy. Heart beating fast from the anticipation, she plucked a leaf and presented it to her mother.
The change was slower this time; there was a dull throb of pain, like her curse had to wrestle its way out of her. But in one final bloom, the ivy hardened to emerald.
Sweat beaded Wil’s brow from the strain, and this concerned her. Her curse had never been a conscious effort before.
The queen stared at it. She could see the lines of her daughter’s palm through the stone. She was watching still as Wil’s hand shook and the shiver shot up her arm and spread throughout. She saw the fierce change in her daughter’s eyes, the way they brightened and glazed at the same time.
“It was an accident.” It was as though someone else were speaking the words. “I didn’t want Owen to come after me. He was always trying to protect me when he should have just let me go.”
The queen understood now what the king must have done to hide this truth from her. She did not ask, now, for the details of her son’s final moments. Later, she would have to. She would have to know what had happened to her son, so that his death could be a part of her the way that his life was a part of her.
But for now, she fixed her attention on her living child. Her daughter. She put her arms around her.
Wil shook with a sob. Her face was hot with tears. She was alive—despite everything, alive. Death had never been a match for this one. The emerald fell to the floor and Wil tried to back away. “You can’t touch me. I’ll kill you, too.”
The queen tightened her grasp. “No one tells me I can’t hold my daughter,” she said.
“You can’t.” Wil’s voice was pleading.
But the queen didn’t let go, and it frightened Wil that her mother loved her so much that she would risk death just to hold her. It reminded her of Owen that night by the rapids. He’d stared at her with defiance, so sure of his decision.
Wil twisted from her mother’s grasp. Her mother loved her too much to let go, and Wil loved her mother too much to stay in her arms.
“Please,” she whispered. “I couldn’t stand it if I hurt you.”
The queen’s sad expression said that Wil had already hurt her by disappearing for dead.
“I’m sorry.” Wil wanted to say more, but tears threatened and she knew that she wouldn’t be able to hold them in if she tried to list all the things she was sorry for.
There was a strange heaviness in her blood, as though her curse was trying to surge forward. And then it receded. Later, she would experiment with the ivy. Perhaps it was just exhaustion from the travel and the confrontation with Baren.
The queen was twirling the ribbon of her nightgown. Three twists. Untwist. Three twists.
Wil told her mother about Loom, though she left out the part about his being a prince, but included his passion for helping the South nonetheless. She told of everything that had happened until it all came back to Loom, whose every heartbeat was now fated to her hands.
By the end of her tale, Wil had changed into a nightgown the queen drew from her closet. Though she hadn’t been gone for very long, it no longer fit her as it once had. The sleeves were too short. The hem no longer covered her knees. She had spent so much time in billowing satin trousers, loose in the Lavean fashion, it hadn’t occurred to her that she’d gotten any taller.
Her bed still felt the same, though, as she sank into it.
The queen sat beside her, smoothing back Wil’s hair as she had done when Wil was a child. “You’ve grown,” the queen said at last. “I thought the chance to see you grow had been stolen from me.”
Wil looked up at her. “I was a coward not to come back and tell you the truth.”
The back of the queen’s hand trailed down Wil’s cheek. “I’ve seen my share of truths.” She looked toward the door and back. “We’ll keep this from Baren. If he were to know about this curse, I fear what he would have you do.”
Wil’s head rolled against the pillow. “Owen doesn’t deserve for his death to be covered up.”
“Owen would want it this way,” the queen said. “I know well what he wanted for you. He and I argued many times on your behalf.”
“I didn’t know that,” Wil said. Her throat went dry. “Why should you argue about me?”
“He wanted to bring you along sometimes when he traveled. He said your mind was like an animal held in captivity, rattling the cage. I didn’t want to see how right he was.”
The sentiment embedded itself into her heart.
“I don’t know who anyone is in death,” the queen said, “but I knew my son in life. And he would not want you to suffer more than you have. He always fought for you.”
“Thank you,” Wil whispered. She realized just in that moment how much she had needed for someone to tell her that.
“I don’t know who would curse you,” the queen said. “But I suspect the punishment wasn’t for you to suffer, but me.”
Wil studied her mother’s face. The queen knew so much about the world; surely she’d met marvelers and seen the effects of their curses firsthand. The king had wanted his bride to have an easy life, a happy one. He’d outfitted her with pretty things and given her gardens to tend and children to love. But Wil had always seen who her mother was underneath all of that. She saw that they were the same.
“Who would want you to suffer?” Wil asked.
The queen swept a hand across Wil’s brow. “I don’t know, heart. Truly I don’t. But birth curses are never about the child who was born with the curse.”
Wil did not sleep, as her mother had insisted.
Instead, she sat at the edge of her bed with the dagger at her thigh, the guns in their holsters at either hip. She was waiting until she was sure her mother and Baren had gone to bed before she made her move.
She had not wanted to remain in this chamber at all, had wanted to begin her search for answers immediately. But the queen had insisted that nights in this castle had become unsafe, and that this pursuit was one for the morning. Wil had not understood. She no longer understood anything about this place that had once been her home. Something was very wrong with it. Even her power seemed to suffer. The ivy leaf she’d crystallized before bed had only turned halfway, leaving a dull ache in her chest.
It wasn’t just the absence of Owen and her father, or all the covered mirrors in the halls. It was something dark that had blotted out the sky over the entire kingdom.
Despite her mother’s warning, Wil had to find Gerdie. Her worry for him surpassed her fear over what he might do when he learned she was alive. He was one who needed complete answers, and she would have to tell him everything. The whole awful, bloody truth of it.
Mustering her courage, she rose from her bed. It was outfitted with fresh linens, she noted. Even when she had been presumed dead, her mother had sent for a servant to outfit Wil’s bed in winter sheets.
She looked at the carved clock hanging on the wall across from her bed, its patient ticking growing louder the more she became aware of it. She imagined her mother coming in weekly to wind it, even as she’d believed her daughter to be dead.
Her mother had no superstition about clocks, barely regarded them at all. And upon considering this, Wil realized her mother had kept the clock in this room ticking simply because she had missed her. Because having that small, steady sound in this room was the next best thing to a heartbeat. Despite its weeks of being empty, her chamber still felt like a place that belonged to the living. Made vulnerable by her half-sleeping state, Wil felt heartsick with guilt for what she had put her mother through.
She slipped out of bed. The thoughts followed her. What had happened to her father? Where was her brother? What above all burning hells was happening to Baren?
Nagging as these questions were, their answers would not be the thing to save Loom’s life. To pay Pahn’s ransom she needed answers, and there was one person to whom she could always turn for those: Gerdie.
Still in her nightgown, she moved to her chamber door and opened it. Her mother sat in a carved chair in the hallway, her cheek rested on her fist, asleep. There was a tangle of yarn in her lap, and something partially knitted. Wil had always known her mother to have busy hands, but she could not recall ever once seeing her with yarn.
Had her mother camped out to protect her from Baren? Or had she meant to protect the rest of the castle from Wil?
Wil didn’t wake her, but trod lightly across the flagstones of the hallway, toward Gerdie’s chamber.
She was just about to turn the knob when she heard the motion behind her. She crouched, dodging a sword that meant to remove the head from her shoulders. In one fast motion she threw off her coat and drew a gun. Baren swung for her again and she curled her knees and somersaulted past his legs. She was up on her feet again before he turned to face her.
He had never been much with weapons, but even so, he had improved. She wouldn’t have heard him coming if not for his hard breathing echoing throughout the halls.
She held her gun in two hands, steady as her gaze. She would not shoot to kill, no matter what he might try next, she told herself. She couldn’t do that to their mother. Not again.
But Baren lowered his sword. He laughed. A distracted, anxious laugh. His eyes gleamed dark with the madness of that sound.
Wil narrowed her eyes. They stood in silence for a long moment. Neither of them moved. And then Wil whispered, “What’s happened to you?”
She did not lower her gun.
“You’ve been a plague since the day you were born,” he said.
If only he had been the one to catch her the night she fell from the wall instead of Owen. It was an ugly thought, and it startled her to know she meant it. To know that she and her brother were matched in their hatred for each other. To know they had this much in common.
He let the sword fall from his hand. It clattered against the stone. He looked at it lying beside him. When he raised his eyes to her again, there was a snarl on his mouth, and his voice was a rasp. “I will have to kill you myself.”
She fired a shot even before he had moved. It was no matter. It didn’t stop him. Blood trailed from the wound in his bicep as he reached for her. She moved to take a step back, but he anticipated it, hooking her ankle with his foot, so that she toppled to the ground with him over her.
The gun flew out of her hands, skidding across the floor. Her wrists were pinned under his, his knee crushing into her stomach, making her breaths come in rasped, strained howls.
The shortage of air made her struggle even as she told herself not to give Baren the satisfaction. He pressed his weight into her as he leaned closer. In a few seconds, he would be dead from her touch. He would be dead, and her mother would find his ruby corpse and see for herself what a monster her daughter was.
Baren’s face was over hers, so near that his features blurred. “You,” he panted, furious and quiet, “were never meant to come into this world.”
Wil waited for the crackle of gemstone. She waited for his grasp on her wrists to slacken. But he didn’t let up, and her lungs protested how little air they were able to draw under his weight.
He drew one hand away from her wrist and punched her in the mouth. She felt the full weight of it, and then she tasted blood.
Gathering her strength, she twisted her hips and shoulders in tandem and used her freed arm to throw him off of her. But he had grown stronger, and for once, she felt how small she was under his broad frame. There was the sense that he could snap her spine in two if he had the mind for it.
She betrayed her bewilderment, and he grinned.
Then from somewhere far away there was the sound of footsteps, heavy and running. A blur of motion and blond hair, and Baren was thrown off her.
Gasping in the air she’d lost, Wil staggered to her feet, grabbing Baren’s dropped sword as she did.
Gerdie had Baren pinned to the wall, a dagger at his throat. As her vision sharpened, Wil saw the familiar pattern of the blade. The dagger—its blade simple and sharp and gleaming—had belonged to Owen.
Baren held his hands up, but there was no fear in his eyes. He was wheezing, until the sound turned into laughter. “Can you not simply be gone?” he said to Wil. He slapped his hand to his forehead, grasping his own skull so tightly his fingers turned white. “I can no longer remember a time before you were born. Before you condemned us all.”
Wil might have wanted to know what he meant by that, if she hadn’t been so confused by the rise and fall of his chest, the way he continued to live even after he had been so close to her. It couldn’t be their shared blood; that hadn’t spared Owen.
The sound of footsteps made all three siblings turn their heads. Their mother was running toward them, her gold nightgown bunched in her fists. She came to a stop and knelt to retrieve the gun that had slid across the floor, its barrel still facing her children.
Gerdie eased up on Baren only once his mother had retrieved the gun. Slowly, he returned the dagger to its hilt. He must have been sleeping, for that was the only time he removed his leg braces and monocle, all of which were absent now. As his adrenaline began to die down and his ragged breathing slowed, she saw the tremble in his left leg.
He hadn’t looked at her once. Both her brothers were turned on their mother. Baren’s arms were shaking. Blood oozed from his wound, stained his frilled white tunic. Wil could taste her own blood in her mouth, feel the sting of her split lip.
But if the scene was half as frightful as Wil suspected, the queen’s eyes didn’t show it. She touched Baren’s arm. He hissed in pain and flinched away. The bullet had merely grazed him; Wil knew this because that had been her intention, and she could also see a crack in a wall stone where the bullet struck it.
“You will need to let me clean that so it doesn’t get infected,” the queen told him. “You can’t afford to fall ill, not now with so much at stake.”
Baren turned his stare on Wil. “I need to rid this castle of its ghosts.”
“Come with me.” The queen wrapped her arm around him and began to lead him off. When Baren’s attention was on the hallway ahead, the queen reached behind her back, pressing the gun firmly into Wil’s hands.
Wil was afraid to turn to Gerdie. She could sense his eyes on her now. Tallim powder and smoke all about him like an apparition. It was a sour, smoky, familiar smell. The smell of weapons, of war. Of home.
She made herself look at him.
His expression was wild, bewildered, as though she were a cauldron explosion. Those, at least, he could come to understand.
“Gerdie?” It was a cracked whisper.
He flinched as though the sound of her voice could kill him. She could hear the sudden haste of his breaths. His eyes—his bright, curious, brilliant eyes—were now guarded in a way never before directed at her.
For a moment they stood facing each other, the echo of their breaths in the stone hallway confirming that they were both alive and whole.
Maybe she was unwelcome now, Wil thought. Maybe after hearing of her and Owen’s deaths, Gerdie had thrown himself into his work, reinventing himself as he invented things forged of steel and potion and powder, and now he no longer considered himself her brother.
Gerdie’s jaw tightened, and in that small gesture he became familiar to her again. She recognized the change in his eyes, the way they always grew fiercer when he was fighting back tears. A wave of sorrow and something else—relief?—crested in his features.
“Where have you been?” he rasped. “Burning hells, Wil. Where have you been?”
Gerdie sat on the edge of his bed, working a salve into his aching calves.
Wil was perched at the hearth, prodding life into the dying fire. In this way, things were the way they had always been. The room was warm and quiet, all her brother’s things neatly tucked into their shelves and drawers.
Outside, it had begun to rain. The wind skewed it sideways, and drops fell against the windows like desperate hands trying to beat their way inside.
With her eyes still on the fire, Wil began to speak. She told her brother what really happened that night. She told him about the blood squeezing from Owen’s skin before it turned crystal. She told him about the shards in his hair, and the weight of him collapsing against her, and the moment she felt him stop breathing.
Gerdie didn’t say a word to stop her, and so she went on, until she had told him about Loom, the boy to whom she had become inextricably fated. As ever, she confided in her brother more than she had with her mother, sparing no detail.
She took some comfort in Gerdie’s predictable inclination to listen. He’d moved to sit beside her, the light from the fire causing his monocle to gleam when he turned his head just so.
Moments earlier, he had seemed like a stranger, but then, even that had not been so. He had recognized her the moment he saw her, even before her return could have possibly made sense. Gerdie wanted an explanation for her return from the dead, yes, but an explanation was not required before he’d moved to save her from Baren’s attack. Not as much had changed between them as Wil had feared.
“I know I don’t have any right to ask for your forgiveness,” Wil said, finishing her story. The apology stuck in her throat, and she couldn’t bring herself to say that she was sorry. The words were small and empty and unworthy of him.
Gerdie stared at the fire and his mouth twitched as though he couldn’t settle on an expression. At last it was his turn to speak, and he weighed his words carefully.
“I read about drowning,” he said, his voice soft. “About what it does to the brain, to the heart. How long it takes to die. But it never made any sense. I couldn’t accept it, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
Wil hugged her knees, sickened by her guilt.
Gerdie looked at her, and his expression was eerily blank. Whatever he was thinking, whatever else he wanted to say, he was hiding it from her. This was a side of himself reserved for their father, or for Baren. Sometimes even their mother, when he was trying to stop her from worrying. But not Wil. Never Wil.
She had no right to ask, though it chipped a hairline crack through her heart. She did not deserve her brother’s trust until she had earned it again.
“You were there when the darklead attacked Cannolay,” he said. This surprised Wil, until his face betrayed a moment of regret and sorrow, and she realized that of course this had been haunting him. The bomb that hit Cannolay was one of his own design, but he had hoped it would never be used.
“Yes,” Wil said, her voice gentle. “I was there.”
“Was it—” Now he was the one struggling for words.
“It did what it was designed to do,” Wil said, giving him the courtesy of truth. “And Loom is the king his kingdom needs. As soon as he’s on the throne, we could start to repair the relations between our kingdoms.”
“You really believe that?” Gerdie asked.
“Yes,” Wil said. She had spent weeks at Loom’s side, but it hadn’t taken that long for her to see how he loved his kingdom, how much of himself he was willing to sacrifice for it.
“I didn’t want for that to happen, Wil,” he said. “I thought I had hidden my weapons where Baren would never find them. I thought he wouldn’t know what they were even if he did. But one morning I woke in a fog. My body was heavy and I could barely think straight. I stayed in bed and I slept until it was dark outside, and when I went to the basement, everything was . . . ransacked.”
“Baren drugged you?” Wil lowered her knees from her chest and sat up straighter. Anger surged, but she couldn’t give in to it now. There was too much else to untangle first.
Gerdie shook his head, as though to free himself from the memory. “Something has changed in him” was all he said.
“Why didn’t my power affect him?” Wil wondered aloud.
Gerdie reached for the aloe plant that sat atop his mantel. He always had them nearby. Ground with serlot oil and then boiled, the leaves created a salve that eased the persistent aching in his legs on cold days. He presented the potted plant to her now as though offering up an answer.
Wil took it and traced her finger along a fleshy leaf. It was soft and pliable. A dull ache stirred in her chest as something tried to fight its way out of her. Her heart sped in anticipation, but her skin turned clammy. Her temple throbbed with strain, and the more she tried to coax her curse into action, the more persistent the throbbing grew.
She thought back to her return to the castle, and how much effort it had taken to turn the ivy into stone. She’d felt a final push, as though her curse was letting out its last gasp of power.
“It isn’t only Baren,” she said. “This entire kingdom is immune to my curse.” She hoisted the potted plant to her eye level and studied it, Gerdie’s face blurring in the background.
“You said that cursed things cancel each other out,” Gerdie said, and his tone was as blunt and dreary as the rain outside. It worried Wil; without his hyper, eager curiosity, he could almost be a stranger to her. When she last saw her brother, the theory of her power being a curse had irritated him. It was too illogical to consider. But now he seemed to accept it, in some battered-down, resigned sort of way that said he’d witnessed many things once deemed impossible. “Maybe your powers don’t affect things because this whole kingdom is cursed.”
“That can’t be true,” Wil said, looking to the night sky beyond his bedroom window. “Can it?”
He laughed humorlessly. “Did you get a look at Arrod?”
He was right. Wil had noted the bleakness of her kingdom, but she had attributed it to being a projection of her own worries.
Gerdie touched her wrist, and she jerked back reflexively. Owen flashed through her mind. His veins hardening, his eyes glazing over with crystal. “What are you doing?” she cried.
Gerdie studied the hand with which he’d touched her, and then he held it out for her inspection.
Her curse had not affected him.
“Baren,” Wil said, the speculation coming even before she’d thought it. Perhaps she had already known.
The conversation dissolved after that, each sibling lost in their own thoughts and unwilling to share them. It was not from a lack of trust, but from the notion that speaking their fears might will them to be true.
Finally Wil asked, “Why did Baren attack the South?”
“I don’t know,” Gerdie said. “He’s never needed provocation to do something needlessly cruel, but this feels different. Everything he does is so calculated and planned. I can’t figure out what he’s driving at.”
It was a painful confession for Gerdie to make. He prided himself on finding solutions. Homing in on whatever thin thread of logic eluded everyone else.
Wil thought of the deftness of Baren’s attack in the hallway. He had indeed changed. It was as though their father’s death had transformed him into the sort of son their father had always wanted him to be—strong and cunning and fearless. But there was something wrong. Something sinister.
“I’ve tried to eavesdrop on his council, but he doesn’t make it easy,” Gerdie went on. “I was able to gather that he hasn’t put out a draft notice for the war. He’s recruiting soldiers.”
“Could he be preparing for an evacuation?” Wil guessed.
“That’s my thought,” Gerdie said. “He’s confident enough that he can evacuate the kingdom if there’s retaliation from the South. Or he’s so confident the South won’t be able to retaliate that he isn’t bothering to prepare.”
It was unwise not to prepare, Wil thought, but Baren might have been right. The Southern Isles were ruled by a reclusive king who collected neutral allies at best, none of whom would follow him into war. He had no resources, no ability to strike back.
“Gerdie.” Her voice was trembling and she tried to still it, and found that her hands and knees were trembling too. “What happened to Papa?”
“It was Baren,” Gerdie said. “He’ll never admit it, but I know it was him. Papa fell ill and he was gone within a day’s time. His symptoms didn’t match anything—anything.” He was beginning to ramble, the way that he did when he was using facts to avoid emotions too big to contend with.
Wil stood. If her brother used scientific reasoning to ward off his feelings, she used perpetual motion to ward off hers.
“Where are you going?” Gerdie asked. He gripped the ledge of the hearth and struggled to his feet, his left leg shaking from the strain.
“To see if there are any wanderer camps moving through the woods,” she said. “They’ll know the gossip if anyone does. It may not be much, but it’s a place to start.”
“You won’t be able to get out,” Gerdie said. “Didn’t you see the guards? No one gets in without Baren’s approval, and no one leaves.”
“I got in without his approval,” Wil said, regretting her note of humor when she saw the exasperation on her brother’s face. She had always been the exception to his logic, had always defied the order he applied to the universe. He could never predict what she was going to do, or the state she’d be in when she came back.
But for once, Gerdie did not argue. Huffing in theatrical resignation, he sat on the edge of his bed and fitted his braces around his legs. He worked hastily but deftly to tug the leather straps and their buckles into place.
The last time his sister had gone off into the night alone, she hadn’t come back. If he couldn’t make her see reason this time, at least he would accompany her on whatever disastrous endeavor she charged into headfirst. He even opened the door for her.
Wil knew all this as she strode ahead, turning her back on her brother so that he wouldn’t see her smile.