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Read an Exclusive Excerpt of These Rebel Waves!

Read an Exclusive Excerpt of These Rebel Waves!
Get ready for a truly revolutionary new series!
THESE REBEL WAVES is fantasy with a touch of HAMILTON; adventure with a side of SIX OF CROWS. And, oh, did we mention that one very sexy, snarky pirate in the mix?
Sara Raasch, author of the incredibly iconic SNOW LIKE ASHES series, is back with THESE REBEL WAVES, the start of a new duology set in a world of deadly botanical magic. It stars a revolutionary, a raider, and a prince who must all fight for their countries, their families, and themselves—or face a war that could destroy the world as they know it. And if you want us to break it down for you even more, we’ve got an *Epic* Explains video that you can check out right here!
If you’re ready to jump in, then scroll on down! Start reading THESE REBEL WAVES now!
 

These Rebel Waves

PROLOGUE

Benat Gallego was thirteen when he watched his uncle and cousin burn to death.
He had told himself it would be no different from the other burnings. Anxious onlookers would pack the cathedral’s lawn, trampling the grass as they fought to see the spectacle at the end of the yard. Monxes, Church servants clad in heavy black robes, would scurry around the pyres, adding wood, supervising the soldiers who secured posts and readied chains. And Ben would watch in quiet horror from the shadow of Grace Neus Cathedral, the stained-glass windows in its towers feeling far too much like the Pious God’s judgmental eyes.
But as Ben stood in the yard, soldiers blocking him from the raucous crowd, he knew this was different. It had been different from the moment his father had passed the sentence—not just as Asentzio Elazar Vega Gallego, King of Argrid, Eminence of the eternal Church, but as a man condemning his brother for heresy.
Ben’s mind refused to reconcile the sentence with the happy memories he had of his uncle Rodrigu. The man who had chased him and his cousin Paxben around the palace when they were younger, long limbs like sticky spiderwebs catching Paxben in a delirium of giggles; the man who had pinned the silver Inquisitors seal to Ben’s tunic in front of the reverent royal court a month ago.
That Inquisitor ceremony had been the proudest day of Ben’s life. He had stood in the cathedral, ready to join the society that judged crimes by the Pious God’s doctrine. Paxben would have been inducted when he was thirteen, and one day would take his father’s place as the High Inquisitor, while Ben would be king and leader of the Church like his own father.
That was an impossible dream now, destroyed by Rodrigu’s sins.
Ben’s chest bucked, a sob threatening to send him to his knees.
“Your uncle and cousin are traitors,” Elazar had told him. “Traitors to Argrid, for giving money to the rebels on Grace Loray. Traitors to the Pious God, for dealing in the Devil’s magic that comes from that island. For that, we must expunge their souls.”
“But he was my teacher,” Ben whispered now, as if reliving the conversation could change the present. “He taught me about Grace Loray’s magic. He taught me which plants were good and which were evil. He knew evil. He can’t be a tool of the Devil. He can’t be.”
Around him, the crowd’s noise united in one chanted hymn:
“Purity, to live a life divine. Honesty, that our souls may shine. Chastity, a pureness sure. Penance, humble and demure. Charity, to share his heart. The five pillars of the Pious God, ours to embrace, ours to start.”
Ben’s lungs filled with lead. He’d sung this hymn beside his cousin during services. Paxben had always been pitchy, but once he realized how hard Ben had to fight to keep from laughing, he started making his voice squeak on purpose. They’d stand side by side, Ben trying to sing around his chuckling, and Paxben squawking so off-key that Ben imagined the statues of the sainted Graces covering their marble ears.
The hymn ended, shattering Ben’s concentration. He forced his eyes open.
His uncle was being led out to the first pyre. His cousin would soon follow.
They had been caught buying and selling harmful magic from Argrid’s colony of Grace Loray. Rodrigu had connections to the rebels there. He’d encouraged the spread of the Devil’s magic in Argrid. And he’d roped Paxben into it.
Ben looked over his shoulder, running his tongue across salty lips. On the steps of the cathedral, his father stood in vibrant orange robes that symbolized Grace Aracely, the saint who embodied the Pious God’s pillar of penance.
Elazar stared at the unlit pyres with utter conviction in his eyes. No remorse. No sorrow.
A gust of wind brought the heady stench of soot, ash, and embers that permanently lingered in this yard, a tribute from decades of purging evil. Ben faced the pyres, because he was Benat Elazar Asentzio Gallego, and he would take his father’s place one day. The Pious God had chosen him to lead.
But I loved Rodrigu. I loved Paxben.
I loved them both so much that it must make me evil, too.

At eleven years old, Adeluna Andreu had been a soldier for a year.
The dim New Deza tavern was filled to the rafters with patrons—which in this area of Grace Loray’s capital meant stream raiders. Their body odor mixed with the humidity, and as Lu ran an oily rag over an empty table close to the rear exit, she held her breath.
“We need to know if the raiders are willing to join the revolution,” her mother had instructed as she readied Lu to leave the safe house. “We’ve heard rumors they are gathering, but . . .”
“I don’t bring back rumors. I bring back information,” Lu had said, parroting the words her parents had taught her. The other children of the revolutionaries had watched her with wide eyes between the stairwell railings, and their fear straightened Lu’s spine even now.
She would bring back the right information. She would do whatever her parents needed her to do to send the Argridians back across the ocean, where they belonged.
Raiders bellowed drunkenly at a nearby table and Lu jumped, fingers clenching around the rag. She could feel the ghost of her father’s hand on her back, encouraging her to pick up any information she could grab like scraps dropped from the patrons’ plates.
One table seemed to be the focus of the room’s attention. The other raiders cut their eyes to it every so often, keeping their weapons handy and their postures alert.
Lu eased closer to that table, wiping her rag on the bar along the back wall.
“Which way you leanin’?” asked a pale man with sharp blue eyes, crocodile-skin bracers, and wooden toggles in his blond beard. “The rebels been pesterin’ you too, huh?”
“Can’t get rid of them,” said a round man with golden-brown skin and wide, dark eyes. Lu saw a tattoo on his cheek—two vertical dots over two horizontal ones.
That was a symbol of the four gods worshipped by the Mainland country of Tuncay. And Lu had seen people like the blond man all over New Deza, the center of the territory that the Mecht stream raider syndicate had claimed on Grace Loray.
When settlers first arrived, this empty jungle island, so far from the Mainland, had sat unclaimed by any king or emperor for more than a century. It was a place of possibility and freedom—until Argrid made the island its colony.
Four raider syndicates arose in response, made up
of the immigrants from the other countries who called Grace Loray home: the Mechtlands, Tuncay, Emerdon, and Grozda. The separate syndicates protected their own from Argrid with blood and pistols, Lu’s parents said—but the revolution was about all the groups on Grace Loray starting their own country together. And until now, the raiders hadn’t wanted to unify.
But Lu was looking at people from two of the four syndicates, talking with each other.
Her pulse galloped.
“The Church has burnin’s up at their missions. Burn the plants; burn the people,” the Tuncian was saying. He took a swig from a stein. “I knew Argrid’d go and turn on us, but what’s stopping the revolutionaries from overthrowing Argrid and ruling Grace Loray just as bad?”
“I don’t trust ’em.” The Mecht raider stood and slammed his fist on the table, sending his own stein of ale toppling in a waterfall of amber liquid. “I’d rule Grace Loray better than any revolutionaries. Us Mecht raiders should take control!”
The Tuncian flew to his feet. His raiders surged around him, but the Mecht had a crew to match—swords sang out of scabbards, pistols cocked and aimed.
Lu dropped her rag and shot out the back door as insults flew—“Like hell will we let Mecht barbarians take over!” “Tuncian whore, where are your four gods now?”
The noxious tavern birthed Lu into the midnight streets of New Deza. Every building around her glistened in the humidity, the dozens of rivers that crisscrossed the island polluting the warm air with the staleness of water. But that wasn’t what made it hard to breathe—it was terror that choked Lu as she scurried across the cobblestones.
Her father stepped out of the shadows between faint streetlamps. Tom’s tricorne hat shielded his eyes, but his smile was sad as his head pivoted from her to the shouting in the tavern.
Lu needed to recount what she’d heard. But all she could say, as a pistol fired within the tavern, was “Why won’t they help us stop Argrid, Papa? Don’t they want peace?”
With the raider syndicates’ numbers, the revolutionaries could finally push Argrid out of Grace Loray. The war would end, and Lu wouldn’t have to go on missions, and the children of the other rebels wouldn’t have to cower in fear of Argrid deciding they should be cleansed—
Her father chucked her under the chin. “Getting the raiders’ support was a weak hope, sweetheart. There are other things we must do to end the war.”
Lu’s heart sank. “You have another mission for me, don’t you?”
Tom’s face flashed with remorse. But when he smiled at her, it was proud.
Lu clung to that pride like she clung to hope. Even as her throat closed. Even as she could already smell the iron tang of blood.
The raiders weren’t willing to do what needed to be done to end the war. But she was.
Lu’s hands fisted, her fingers gone cold despite the island’s heat.
“There’s my Lulu-bean.” Tom kissed her forehead. “I can always count on you.”

Devereux Bell was thirteen, and that was the only thing about him they didn’t say was evil.
They’d had to tie him to a chair to stop him from trying to escape. He could see the scratched hinges on the door from his latest attempt—courtesy of a nail he’d pried from his cot.
Vex hadn’t expected it to work. It’d just felt good to let them know he was still trying.
The bell that hung over this mission—prison—announced the hour in six sharp tolls. A choir started singing on one of the floors above, voices carrying into the lonely cells. Hymns about honesty and chastity, purity and penance, and other things Vex willed himself to ignore.
The scratched hinges groaned as the door opened. The hall’s flickering torchlight filled Vex’s cell and he dropped his head, hands balling so the rope over his wrists squealed.
When a jailer stopped in front of him, Vex whipped his head up and spat in the man’s face.
The jailer wiped the spittle from his cheek with the sleeve of his black robe. “Another night has done nothing to sway your heart, herexe.”
Herexe. Heretic, in proper Argridian. It reminded Vex of where he was, in a hell created by Argrid on Grace Lorayan soil.
Vex bowed his head, greasy hair swinging as he gulped down sour air so humid it was more like drinking than breathing. He knew what would come next. More jailers would gather and pray over him or recite scripture. It’d been that way, every day, for . . .
He couldn’t remember. And that was downright funny. Vex chuckled.
“This is humorous to you, herexe?” the jailer pressed.
“I’m young,” Vex said, stretching back in the chair. “But you’re not. And I’ll make it my life’s goal to watch this job kill you.”
Other cells up and down the hall stirred with rebels and anyone else Argrid had caught with Grace Loray’s magic. “You are weak,” the jailers’ voices carried as they chanted in other cells. “You are evil. You have proven susceptible to the Devil’s temptations. May the Pious God cleanse you. May the Pious God save what is left of your soul. You are weak. You are evil. . . .”
Vex’s jailer let out a soft sigh of disappointment and started pacing. Vex shook the hair away from his uninjured eye. His wound hadn’t bothered him since his imprisonment—what need did he have for two working eyes when the prison’s routine was so predictable? But now he felt at a disadvantage, able to follow the jailer only from the left.
The jailer stopped, considering. “The Pious God has a plan for souls that do not yield.”
Panic swept from Vex’s head to his toes. The look on his face must’ve said enough.
“Not a pyre.” The jailer smiled. From the folds of his robe, he withdrew a leaf in a vial.
A Church jailer, responsible for punishing people caught with the Devil’s magic, had magic?
But the jailer didn’t explain. He opened the vial and tugged Vex’s head against the chair. Vex cried out, but his open mouth was a mistake—the jailer shoved the leaf in.
Vex swallowed. He couldn’t help it. The bitter leaf broke apart as it slid down his throat.
Every muscle in his body begged for release. Vex screamed, his blood gone to rapids in his veins, tendons in each limb threatening to come apart under his restraints.
“You are weak,” the jailer prayed. “You are evil. May the Pious God cleanse you.” Words, empty words, and pain. “May the Pious God save what is left of your soul.”
 

Chapter I

SIX YEARS LATER

As New Deza’s mission bell sliced ten consecutive chimes into the steamy morning air, Lu bounced on the toes of her worn buckle shoes. The treaty negotiations between the Democratic Council of Grace Loray and the Argridian delegation would be starting again at the castle, yet here she was, stuck in the market that hugged the western edge of the lake. But one more purchase, and she would have all she needed to stop at the infirmary before heading to the castle to resume listening to the draining debates that had filled the past month.
That thought quelled her anxiety. Perhaps she shouldn’t be in such a hurry.
“It is not worth more than six galles,” Lu told the vendor with a table of wares on the deck of his steamboat. The boat on his right offered coconuts, green bananas, and large, spiky jackfruits from farms throughout the island; the boat on his left sold handmade leather goods from tanneries in the north. But this vendor sold botanical magic.
The man dropped a crate on the deck, making the vials of plants clink as the boat listed. “There’s been a rush on Drooping Fern. Twenty galles.”
“A rush,” Lu echoed dully. The back of her throat tickled—oh, the irony of haggling over a plant that caused unconsciousness when she could easily fall asleep right here. She’d spent too many nights in a row sitting with Annalisa in the infirmary.
The vendor squinted at her. “You know what Drooping Fern is, don’tcha? One whiff of its smoke could lay a grown man out for hours. If yer looking for help wif sleeping, apothecaries in the nicer parts of town grind up tonics for fancy things like you.”
That was precisely why Lu had come to what she suspected was a raider stall. The law-abiding sellers of magic offered either individual plants with mild uses like skin protectants and appetite suppressants, or more dangerous plants diluted and blended into tonics like relaxing potions or strength-enhancing brews. Combining plants into elixirs was delicate, often time-consuming work that only a select few undertook, and it would have been too much hassle for Lu to convince a respectable seller that she knew what she was doing with a raw ingredient as potent as Drooping Fern.
Had Lu any other choice, she would not have been so eager to buy botanical magic from someone who had stolen it out of the island’s riverbeds. Riverbeds that belonged, now, to the Grace Lorayan Council.
The threat of a storm made the air harsh, tasting of rank river water with the added bitterness of electricity, of a spark about to light. A cluster of half-dressed girls and boys sauntered past the end of the dock, whistling at sailors and vendors.
Lu tucked stray pieces of black hair into the knot at the back of her head, fighting to regain her composure. “If I wanted to spend fifty galles on a single dose of what the apothecaries mislabel a sleeping tonic but is actually weak chamomile tea barely infused with Narcotium Creeper, then yes, I’d be in the more respectable parts of Grace Loray. But I can’t imagine you’d survive long in this profession if you made such inquiries of all your customers, raider.”
Lu might have regretted speaking so rashly, but the vendor clearly had made up his mind about her, too. With the wooden toggles in his long blond beard, his pale skin, and the decorative pieces of fur on his clothing, the vendor was clearly part of the Mecht syndicate that had claimed the area from New Deza down to the southern coast as their “territory” on Grace Loray.
“I wanna make sure you ain’t getting in over your head,” the vendor said. “I can’t go selling to anyone for so little, least of all to someone who might hurt herself wif magic.”
“Hurt myself?” Lu whipped out her copy of Botanical Wonders of the Grace Loray Colony, the reference book penned by the island’s first settlers. “Your bloodshot eyes say you are aware of Narcotium Creeper’s hallucinogenic properties—but did you know it can be combined with your overpriced Drooping Fern to create a tonic that—”
—will help my friend get some sleep. She’s dying up at the infirmary, and this is the only tonic that might help—
Lu stopped, desperation getting the best of her.
Clusters of Grace Lorayan soldiers moved across the muddied wharf, passing the end of Lu’s dock. The next dock over supported oceanworthy craft, and one, a three-masted ship, bellowed a horn of greeting before lowering its gangplank.
An immigrant ship from the Mechtlands, the northernmost country on the Mainland, carried those who fled their country’s clan wars for Grace Loray’s freedom.
The vendor waited until the soldiers had passed before he surged toward Lu over his table of wares.
“Quiet, girl! You Argridians are too good at gettin’ people in trouble.”
Offense surged hot into Lu’s chest. “I am not Argridian. I am Grace Lorayan.”
“What does that even mean, sweetheart? You look Argridian. Maybe Tuncian, too. Means somewhere along the way, you owe yourself to one of those countries, just like I owe myself to distant clans in a war-torn icy wasteland, no matter that we’re on this island. Ain’t no one from Grace Loray. Now, Argridian, you gonna buy something from me or not?”
Lu’s vision went red.
When Grace Loray had been discovered centuries ago, an uninhabited island with magic in its waterways, this land had stood for possibility.
When immigrants from the Mainland had flocked here, it had stood for freedom.
When, after two hundred years of tentative peace between the five Mainland countries, Argrid had claimed the island for itself and called it Grace Loray after one of its saints, this land had still managed to stand for hope.
And when, after fifty years of calling Grace Loray their colony, Argrid’s Church had decided magic made people impure and pushed them away from the Pious God, this island had stood for resistance.
That was what it meant to be Grace Lorayan. To believe in what this island used to be, and what it could be again. A country of unity, of acceptance of its wonders, of hope.
Lu was not Tuncian, and she was most certainly not Argridian, no matter that her mother’s heritage had given the Tuncian golden hue to her brown skin, or that her father’s heritage had given her the sharp Argridian angles of her features.
Her parents were Grace Lorayan now. And so was she.
“How can you stand here”—Lu leaned closer to the raider—“and sell magic freely (albeit illegally, as we both know you are a criminal) while dismissing the blood and sacrifices that went into giving you this freedom?”
The raider scoffed. “Oh, and you understand the sacrifices made, little girl? How old were you when the war ended, eh? Nine? Ten?”
“I was twelve when the revolutionaries overthrew Argrid,” Lu told him. Her grip tightened on Botanical Wonders, the cover worn and soft under her fingers. “But I was Grace Lorayan long before that. And I will be Grace Lorayan long after you realize that the Council provides the protection and security of your syndicate, only better.”
The raider syndicates began when Argrid first turned this land into the Grace Loray colony. They protected their own on an island where one oppressively religious country had broken the unspoken rule of peaceful cohabitation. The syndicates worried that Argrid’s colonization would mean oppression.
And they were proven right when Argrid’s Church started cleansing people.
But the revolutionaries won the war and formed the Council to enact laws, levy taxes, spread jobs and growth and assistance—to help everyone on this island. Grace Loray had no need for raider syndicates anymore. It was a country now.
The raider’s top lip curled. “You know what? Fine. Take the Drooping Fern for six galles, and get away from my boat.”
Lu buried her thoughts, her anger, her sadness. She plunked the money into the vendor’s outstretched palm.
“Thank you,” she said.
He rolled his eyes. “Just let me carry on my business in peace.”
Lu took her purchase and turned down the dock.
No one wanted to interrupt this man’s business. The Council merely wanted him, and all raiders, to contribute to Grace Loray as a whole, functioning country, not four separate raider syndicates all vying for resources and warring with each other.
As she slipped the Drooping Fern into her satchel, Lu looked up, cradling her book, her finger worrying at the bullet hole in its cover.
The new Mecht immigrants had gathered near the market stalls. One child knotted her fingers in her mother’s petticoat. Hope, her wide eyes said. Wonder.
Lu’s heart ached. What would that family do once their hope wore out? Not everyone who immigrated to this island from the Mainland joined the syndicate that operated for their country of origin. And many raiders had given up their lives of crime once the Council had presented the chance to be Grace Lorayan. The island was alive now in citizens and immigrants with jobs, proper housing, and respectable, productive Grace Lorayan futures.
But almost a century of loyalty to syndicates could not be countered entirely.
Regardless, the Council would bring order. They would complete this peace treaty with Argrid. And Lu looked forward to focusing on something innocent—like botanical magic concoctions.
Lu closed her fingers tighter around Botanical Wonders, the mud of the shore pulling at her shoes as the market crowd enveloped her. Her hand dipped back into her satchel, to the vial of Drooping Fern.
But she found another set of callused fingers there already.
“Oh,” said the owner of the fingers, his lips curling into a smile. “This isn’t my satchel.”
Instinct got to Lu before she could react in a more proper, ladylike way: she wound her fist and socked the pickpocket in the nose.
The boy snapped his head back with a howl. He cupped his face, one wide, alarmed eye gaping at her, the other covered by an eye patch and a tangle of black hair.
“You hit me!” he cried, sounding honestly shocked.
He wasn’t much older than her, his features windbeaten and dark, so he likely wasn’t part of the local Mecht syndicate. His clothes were tattered, and the hand he had against his face showed a glossy branded R behind the curved V and crossed swords of Argrid. The brand Argrid’s Church gave to those they captured and cleansed of magic use.
As those details swept over Lu, so did dread. She had assaulted someone.
Vendors and customers stared. Two of the soldiers who had been overseeing the immigrant ship suddenly focused on her.
Lu looked back at the pickpocket. With the sharp points to his features and the russet hue to his brown skin, he looked Argridian, which annoyed her beyond her dread. Her father was Argridian, as were many of the former revolutionaries. Though they had all fought to be accepted as law-abiding Grace Lorayans, others, like this boy, encouraged the hatred most felt toward Argrid.
The boy patted his nose, hands coming away covered in blood. His dress was familiar, the eye patch in particular—
“Devereux Bell?” Lu realized, and the boy’s eyebrows vaulted toward his hairline. “You’re trying to look like Devereux Bell?”
A notorious raider known the island over by his missing right eye—and the fact that he wasn’t part of any raider syndicate. The only moral beacon most raiders had was loyalty to their syndicates. But Devereux Bell’s renown came from being one of the few raiders who dared to sail and thieve with only his crew on his side, successfully operating as an unaligned raider longer than anyone, more than a year.
Successful meaning he had neither yielded and joined a syndicate nor been killed by one.
Children mimicked his missing eye when they pretended to be the infamous brigand. The raider syndicates hated him for stealing magic from their territories without paying dues; Grace Loray’s Council despised him for much the same reason, but they had never caught him, as he knew the island so well that he could escape even the heaviest pursuits.
The boy smiled, teeth red. “Who wouldn’t want to be the most dreaded raider on Grace Loray?”
The soldiers were nearly upon them. The boy hadn’t noticed. Lu cut her eyes to them, something the raider was sure to note.
But he continued to smile at her. “Who are you?” he asked.
The soldiers descended on him, each grabbing an arm.
“Causing the lady trouble?” one bellowed.
The boy’s smile waned when he looked up at the soldiers. “Oh, take me away,” he trilled. “I dare not strive to again see the light of day.”
Lu and the soldiers raised three pairs of eyebrows in confusion. But the raider was still smiling pleasantly. Was he mad?
One of the soldiers cleared his throat. “I beg your pardon, miss—he won’t bother you again.”
Lu nodded absently. The soldiers hauled the boy away, and as well as he could with one eye, the raider winked at her, blood rushing down his face.
A sharp chime carved through the air, bells echoing the time. Ten thirty now.
Lu flexed her sore fingers and cut to the left, where the soldiers headed to the right, toward the castle that sat on a cliff over Lake Regolith. She was even more grateful now for her planned visit to Annalisa in the infirmary before she had to return to the treaty negotiations—it would give her heart time to come out of her throat.
But Lu looked back at the soldiers and the raider one last time, their group shuffling through a crowd of people in sweat-dampened neckerchiefs, salt-rimmed tricorne hats, crocodile-skin ornaments over tattered breeches and mud-soiled hemlines. Most were citizens of this island, good Grace Lorayans staffing Council-approved stalls or receiving shipments of plants from soldiers, working just as hard as the people who had spilled their blood to give them freedom.
This island had come far since Argrid’s rule. All the protection and support that the syndicates offered, the Council could provide; all the freedoms that raiders thought they had in disobedience would be so much more sustainable in unity. And boys like that raider, who wasted their days pickpocketing, could become something that would benefit themselves and society.
Grace Loray was a country of second chances. So Lu believed, with all her heart.

Of all the cities on Grace Loray, New Deza most represented the island’s history. The place had started as a Mecht settlement called Port Visjorn, for a type of white bear sacred to the Mechtlands, until Argrid picked it as their capital and renamed it in their own image. One-story cottages from the original Mecht settlement cowered beside six-story Argridian apartments, wood structures sulked against stone ones. It was chaotic to look at, and more than a little sad to see an obvious reminder of Argrid’s fondness for inserting itself where it wasn’t wanted.
But there was something comforting about New Deza. As if it said, Hey, I survived the revolution—you can too, and you’re probably far less mangy than I am.
Which was why Vex had picked it as the port he’d get arrested in. He liked this city.
But he hadn’t expected his mark to hit him. He’d thought she’d scream or struggle over her bag, enough to rile soldiers into arresting him—but he had not expected the girl to be so goddamn accurate with her fist.
By the time the guards tossed Vex into a communal cell under New Deza’s castle, his nose was still bleeding. He chose a spot where his uninjured eye could watch the rest of the cell, but since he had to keep his head tipped back, he couldn’t get a good look at who was in there with him. He heard voices—gruff, male—and had a moment of panic when he had to choose between not bleeding to death and getting a look at his cellmates.
He should’ve expected the girl to be aggressive. What had drawn him to her was the bullet hole in the cover of the book she was holding—it was clearly a memento of the revolution. Most people wanted to heal from the war’s scars and move on, but here this girl stood, in the middle of the marketplace after having outright yelled at a vendor who was clearly a raider, holding a relic of the war in her arms.
Vex had walked up to her and stuck his hand into her satchel. And only realized afterward what an asinine thing that had been to do. The girl had to have endured the worst of the war, if she had mementos with bullet holes in them, and he’d assaulted her without a single thought of what other scars she might have.
Vex closed his eye. Both his crewmates had told him his plan was idiotic. Nayeli had smacked him. Edda had told him that if he got arrested, the soldiers would toss him into a communal cell and someone was bound to recognize him.
“What good’ll that do, huh? What if the Council realizes they’ve got Devereux Bell in custody? You won’t have to fear Argrid, because Grace Loray will hang your ass.”
Though Argrid may have lost the war with Grace Loray, some Argridian lowlifes still lived on the island. And they thought a stream raider of Argridian ancestry with no syndicate to support him should have some allegiance to his country of origin. Or so Vex’s blackmailers continued to say every time they threatened to hurt him or his crew unless he stole magic for them. Over, and over, and over.
What the hell did Argrid need with magic anyway? Let them find some other raider to harass. Vex was done.
But getting imprisoned was the only way Vex could get the Argridian bullies off his back. He needed time to think of how to lose them for good, so he and his crew could return to their far more noble goal of buying the biggest, nicest, most well-fortified mansion on Grace Loray and staying the hell out of everyone else’s way.
Vex sighed and choked on the blood running down the back of his throat.
An hour passed before he could lower his head. Nine other prisoners were in here with him, all raiders, one so old he looked like a pile of dead rags and white hair in the corner. Magic may have been legal now, but stealing and reselling it, passing nonmagic plants as magic ones, or threatening people who refused to pay dues in syndicate territory? Still illegal, though most had to choose between that and starvation. Being an honest sailor cost a lot—your own boat, supplies, taxes. It was far easier to join up with a syndicate and let them take care of you in exchange for things you could actually give, like time and loyalty.
In New Deza, most of the raiders were part of the Mecht-land syndicate headed by Ingvar Pilkvist. Not one of Vex’s favorite people. But then, none of the four raider Heads were.
Vex looked his cellmates over again, but this time, he caught one’s eye.
Damn it.
The man had greasy brown hair and tattered clothing over more tattered clothing, held up by a thick crocodile-skin belt. “What’re you looking at, Argridian trash?” he snarled.
Of all Vex’s shortcomings—not that there were many—the one he hated most was how damn Argridian he looked. He couldn’t get rid of the reddish hue to his skin or the sharp angles of his face that made people instantly classify him as one of the enemy, even if he’d been as victimized by Argrid as everyone else.
Vex smirked. “Hey, didn’t you arrest me a month ago? Aren’t you a soldier?”
The inmate’s wrist had no brand, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a raider. Just meant he hadn’t had the pleasure of going through the Church’s rehabilitation.
Vex kicked out his legs and leaned against the wall as leisurely as he could manage. He had the attention of the cell, everyone looking at him like he’d be a fun way to pass the time.
The greasy cellmate huffed. “What’re they doing now, roundin’ up Argridians? Hell, the Council lets those ones from Argrid in for peace talks, so they make up for it by arresting the dregs?” He paused. Squinted. “Wait. Aren’t you—”
“You’re almost too mangy.” Vex cut him off. “Like you’re trying to fit in. Isn’t he?”
A few of the other prisoners moved closer.
“You a soldier?”
“He’s here to spy on us! Get our confessions when we think we’re alone!”
“I AIN’T NO SOLDIER!” the man bellowed and snatched Vex upright. “Yer Devereux Bell! Saw him make off with a crate of Healica from the docks last month! It’s him!”
Shit shit shit.
Nayeli was insufferable enough when she was right. But Edda was worse.
“How long did it take ’em to notice ya? Uh-huh. I thought so. Brilliant plan, Captain.”
The rest of the prisoners twisted to Vex. The old man in the corner hadn’t moved. Yeah, he was probably dead.
You’re Devereux Bell?” one repeated, disbelieving. “Yer so . . . young.”
Another grabbed Vex’s arm. “Head Cansu’ll have a thing or two to say to you!”
Vex hung his head. Great. Not only were raiders from Pilkvist’s syndicate in here, there were ones from the Tuncian syndicate too.
The first prisoner tugged on Vex’s collar. “No way—Head Pilkvist’ll deal with him!”
Vex could use this to his advantage, get the raiders fighting each other. But as he lifted his head to say something nasty about Pilkvist, the door to this wing of cells ground open. Half the prisoners retreated to the back of the cell. Four stayed to surround Vex.
“What’s the trouble?” a guard shouted.
Vex held his breath. The prisoners wouldn’t be stupid enough to respond, would they?
“It’s Devereux Bell!” said the one who’d claimed him for Cansu.
Vex groaned. Apparently, they were that stupid.
“It is him!” the greasy man confirmed, shaking Vex.
“They’ll take credit for finding me, and it’ll become a Council matter,” Vex whispered to the greasy man. “You won’t have a chance in hell of handing me over to Pilkvist.”
The man’s mouth dropped open. “I—uh—no, no, it ain’t him!”
“You said it was!” Cansu’s raider chirped.
Vex gave the first man a look of horror. “What did you say about his mother?”
Cansu’s raider shoved Vex aside to glare at Pilkvist’s raider. “You better shut yer mouth! The Mecht syndicate don’t know when to quit!”
The greasy prisoner gaped. “I didn’t say nothing!”
But Cansu’s raider threw a fist. Chaos caught—legs kicked, knuckles broke open lips.
Vex dropped back onto his bench. Would this be enough of a distraction to make the guards forget the prisoners’ claims? He doubted it.
The cell door flew open and a half dozen guards rushed after the rowdiest prisoners. One made for Vex, looming over him with crossed arms.
“Devereux Bell?” he asked.
Vex looked up, smiled, and batted his eyelashes. “Who?”
The soldier clamped his hand around Vex’s throat. Vex choked, and before he could remember any of the defenses Edda had taught him—something about bending the attacker’s wrist, or his own wrist, or maybe a thumb?—the soldier ripped off Vex’s eye patch.
A sheet of cold swept over Vex’s body, pinning him to the bench like a shackle. He knew what the soldier was looking at: two scars in the shape of an X through the socket where his right eye had once been. His own memento of the war.
The soldier grinned. He released Vex but kept the eye patch in one beefy fist.
You are weak came voices that Vex could never get out of his memory. You are evil.
He saw the men who had thrown him into the custody of the Church during the war. He saw the smirks on the Argridian soldiers’ faces as they delighted in purging Grace Loray’s shores of scum and impurities. He saw the monxes in the holding cells where he’d spent four months, and his throat thickened with the memory of plants, poison, forced into his body. When he finally did pray, it wasn’t for redemption—he prayed that if there was a Pious God, it would show mercy and let him die.
The eye patch dropped onto the stones at his feet. Vex snatched it up and yanked it on, and the world settled enough that he heard the soldier’s order.
“Put him in solitary till we can figure this out. Don’t need no more fights.”
Vex kept his hand over the patch as if he could weld it to his skin.
This was not an ideal situation.
 

Chapter II

Ben leaned against a pavilion in Argrid’s capital, Deza, willing himself not to vomit.
He was on land, but the slosh and sway of the water lapping at ships in the wharf in front of him made his stomach spasm. Though the actual cause of his current state was the drink last night, the spicy one the barkeep  had called o Golpe de Veludo do Inferno—the Velvet Punch of Hell. It was living up to its name now, in both its aftereffects and the fact that stumbling back to the palace last night, drunk off too many of those damn things, had landed Ben a shift on the Inquisitor patrols this morning.
Overseeing defensors, Church soldiers, as they patrolled inbound ships had once been one of the esteemed responsibilities of the Inquisitors. Now it was a cushy “punishment” for sinful youth.
Ben pinched the bridge of his nose and took a long draw of the salty bay air.
“My patrol stopped a diseased ship from coming into port last week,” a voice carried. A duque’s son, one of the half dozen royals in the tent behind Ben—though, for the life of him, Ben couldn’t remember the boy’s name. “Not quite as exciting as finding illegal magic, but it is useful work.”
A goblet clinked. The scent of floral wine perfumed the unventilated tent.
Another boy groaned. Ben recognized that particular grumble—it came from a conde, a count, named Claudio, a year younger than Ben, who’d been in a few of Ben’s classes on Church etiquette and history growing up.
“I swear,” Claudio groaned, “most of these searches are so boring.”
“They aren’t meant to be entertaining,” said the duque’s son. “They are reparation for our sins.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong, Sal,” Claudio countered. Salvador—that was the other boy’s name. “So your parents caught us kissing. We’re betrothed, for the Pious God’s sake. It shouldn’t matter.”
The rest of the group gasped.
“Calm down,” Claudio moaned. “We didn’t do anything that bad. We aren’t real sinners, like the rest of you heathens.”
Someone cleared their throat, reminding Claudio that the Crown Prince was one of the aristocrats serving on the Inquisitor patrol. One of the heathens.
Silence fell.
Ben massaged his temples and looked back. Velvet chaises and overstuffed settees created a circle for the handful of nobles, all fancied up in silken breeches, polished gold buttons and beads, lace neckerchiefs and jeweled hair nets—styles befitting a Church service, not a dockside search for magic.
Ben shook his head. He swore he saw at least two of each of these people. Damn that drink.
He tugged on his collar, wanting to rip down the pavilion walls and let in a breeze. But it would show the world around and remind the aristocrats here of true problems. With the walls up, the elite could sit in ignorance as too many guards had to stand watch to keep the desperate at bay—the sick who lined up outside of hospitals, the poor who begged along the streets.
“This duty used to mean something,” Ben mumbled to no one in particular.
Salvador squinted. “Are you all right, my prince?”
The rest of the Inquisitors leaned forward, some concerned, others intrigued.
Ben met their eyes, fighting a hiccup. But his reputation was no secret.
Even our prince falls for the Devil’s temptations, Argridians said. Poor Prince Benat—he overindulges, he is promiscuous! He serves Inquisitor patrols to cleanse himself. If our divine prince can be so seduced by evil, yet be redeemed, then there is hope for our own brittle souls!
Ben imagined it all as a clumsy waltz. How many missteps could he take in one direction, back, forward, before people stopped crying poor Prince Benat and started crying heretic?
Caught drinking—he served a week of Inquisitor patrols, and the Church forgave him, like any other aristocrat. Sex—if rumors spread, another week of patrols, and all was atoned for.
But being caught with Grace Loray’s magic? Speaking favorably of certain plants? Unforgivable.
Ben brushed off their concern. “I’m fine,” he snapped.
Claudio sat up straighter, his dark eyes flashing. “My parents pray for you at each Church service. They pray that our country is strong enough to undertake the Pious God’s most difficult tasks.”
Ben lifted an eyebrow. “Are you saying I’m not already strong, Conde?”
Claudio’s face went red. He hadn’t thought Ben would call him on it. He’d thought he’d sulk off, simpering and shamed that he was as prone to sinning as the rest of them.
“Of course not, my prince,” Salvador jumped in, putting his hand on Claudio’s knee. “What he means is you’re an example to us. Your resilience against evil gives us hope that we, too, can overcome any sin.”
“Even being dumb enough to kiss your betrothed in your father’s study,” a girl next to Salvador whispered.
Claudio whipped a frilly pillow at her.
Ben faced outside again, enough of a dismissal to get another conversation going. Claudio and Salvador threw themselves into it, doing their best not to look at Ben, still at the door.
In another time, Ben might have joined their conversation, something frivolous about the next Church holiday. He might have joked about what had landed him on this patrol, or given Claudio and Salvador tips on how not to get caught.
But Ben couldn’t get Salvador’s words out of his head.
Argrid wanted him to be strong, to inspire them; but they wanted him to fall as well, because the Pious God rewarded those who sacrificed—and what bigger sacrifice than to give up an ordained leader?
The Argridian people had cheered for Rodrigu’s and Paxben’s deaths. They had begged for them.
Pious God above, his head hurt.
“Prince Inquisitor? Your presence is needed.”
Ben turned. Jakes Rayen stood at attention on the dock, his defensor uniform billowing in the wind, showing the ivory crest of Argrid: the curved V, cupped hands for a willingness to lead a life of purity; the X, representing crossed swords, to protect that life. Jakes yanked the uniform straight, tugging the collar down, showing the flushed bronze skin along the top of his chest, a few bristly hairs that Ben knew ran all the way down to the soft skin below his stomach.
Ben’s body sang with heat that had nothing to do with the warmth of the day. Part of the reason he was glad to have Jakes in his guard was because he looked so good in that uniform.
“Is it a diseased ship, Defensor?” Ben asked, but he knew Jakes wouldn’t have come if it were that simple.
Jakes frowned. “No,” he said. “Raiders.”
A few of the Inquisitors groaned, jealous that Ben’s patrol had found what would release him from duty for the rest of the day. He ignored them and followed Jakes out into the sun.
The raider ship was a steam-driven frigate moored at a dock that embodied Argrid’s despondency now. The planks were brittle and ill patched, with barnacles and grime sticking to the posts and along the edges. Ben walked behind Jakes up the dock, stepping where he did so as not to fall through the weak wood.
Ben paused at the base of the gangplank. More of his defensors swarmed the deck, some hauling a chest overboard, taking such care that he immediately knew its contents. He almost asked them to lift the lid so he could see the vials of magic inside. Could he still name the plants, as Rodrigu had taught him?
A different memory came, though—vicious monxes, and his own father, smacking him across the mouth when he dared say something positive about magic after Rodrigu’s burning. The only thing important to know about magic now was that it was a sin, all of it—and his sins would be wiped away as soon as he gave the necessary speech to the raiders.
“Are you all right?” Jakes asked, falling in step as Ben started up the gangplank. Then, realizing they were within earshot of others, added, “My prince?” Then repeated, louder, “Are you all right, my prince?”
Ben cut him a smile. “Nice recovery, Defensor Rayen. But I’m fine.”
Fine here meaning both drunk and hungover?” Jakes whispered.
“Oh, Defensor, your flirtation doth take my breath away.”
Jakes’s eyes flashed wide. “Shh—” But he cut off his shushing and ducked his head. “I don’t want to give those vultures”—he motioned back toward the Inquisitors tent—“a reason to cause trouble for you. Even if the nobles of court look down on a royal and a guard, I have to believe the Pious God, at least, can forgive us.”
A year as one of Ben’s defensors, yet Jakes was still the earnest orphan who had come to Deza desperate to serve the Pious God.
Ben exhaled, almost a growl. “I have enough experience dealing with the gossip and macabre interest of the court. Let them try to spot another heretic in the Gallego family—they will find nothing irredeemable in me. Sex before marriage is a sin, but not a condemnable one.”
Jakes bowed his head, and Ben hated the formality of it, though it was necessary. There were some things in Ben’s life that crossed political lines more than religious—and the fact that the heir to Argrid had maintained a relationship with a commoner for ten months now was borderline reprehensible.
Argrid allowed a measure of freedom among nobles to choose their own partners—so long as those partners were also of nobility, to not be unequally yoked. Elazar hadn’t forced Ben to find a partner yet, but if he knew that Ben had given his heart, his soul, and most of his waking thoughts to one of his guards, who until his post as a defensor had been the orphaned son of a merchant, well . . .
Ben did his best not to think about what his father would do. His relationship with Jakes was just one more thing he had to keep staunch control over.
Ben made his voice lighter, but it sounded pained to his ears. “You know I don’t think of you as a sin. . . . I mean, I’m not ashamed of us.”
Jakes cocked his eyebrows. “You should be. I’m not even a captain, for the Pious God’s sake.” He smiled.
Ben winked at him and pressed forward to keep from taking Jakes’s hand.
The morning heat was slightly more bearable on the ship’s deck. Ben tugged at the thick velvet of his sleeves as he neared the line of raiders kneeling amid a circle of defensors. He didn’t know how anyone managed to survive the conditions of Grace Loray to leave in the first place. The island was a week’s sail away, and supposed to be hotter and more humid than Argrid’s sweltering capital.
The salt-seasoned wind did its best to steal Ben’s hat, thrashing the feather against his face. Four of the raiders looked Argridian: varying shades of russet and brown skin, black hair, angular features, and dark eyes—not uncommon, since any raider who dared sell magic here tended to blend in. But the last raider, a Mecht, drew Ben in. Blond, pale, and brutish, he embodied everything Ben had heard about that country’s clans and their endless, bloody wars.
The Mecht looked up, his glare biting with an intensity that Ben recognized.
The Eye of the Sun flower gave the temporary ability to control fire. Only the Mechts had figured out how to harness its power—and, more, how to make Eye of the Sun permanent. Eye of the Sun warriors became infernos in human skin, living proof that botanical magic was the Devil’s work.
Before Ben could ask if this Mecht had undergone the ritual to absorb the flower’s abilities, the raider exhaled, smoke streaming from his nostrils.
“Bárbaro diaño,” a defensor spat. Barbarian devil.
A few others muttered prayers. But Ben smiled.
An Eye of the Sun warrior. Fascinating. The only ones he’d seen before had found themselves dragged back to Argrid as examples by Church missionaries for refusing to accept the Pious God. Their executions had been through pistols, not flames.
“How is it that an Eye of the Sun warrior has come to be in Argrid?” Ben asked.
“He ain’t our regular crew,” said one raider, most likely the captain, his voice thick with the Grace Loray accent that trilled his r’s. “Picked him up as a hired hand in the Mechtlands, not a month ago. If he’s the reason for all this, take ’im.”
The Mecht snarled to the deck.
It wasn’t that simple. The captain knew it. The Mecht knew it. And Ben did, too, his stomach squeezing as the boat rocked.
Jakes walked past him, discreetly brushing his hand along Ben’s hip as he joined the other defensors to circle the raiders.
Ben pressed his hands to his chest, wrists together, fingers cupped upward in the stance of prayer. The defensors on deck did the same.
“Our Pious God, show us the ways of purity, honesty, chastity, penance, and charity,” Ben prayed. “We thank you for opening heaven to those created of the Devil’s hellfire and evil. May you purge our lives of temptations so we may reflect your pillars. Praise the Pious God.”
“Praise the Pious God,” echoed everyone on deck, save for the raiders.
“You have been detained by the Inquisitors of His Majesty’s Church of Argrid,” Ben continued, addressing the raiders now. “Unholy items have been found in your possession. If you do not repent, the Church will purify Argrid of your irredeemable soul.”
The Church had written this speech so detainees would have fair opportunities to repent. Everyone caught with plants was guilty, and admitting it was the only thing that could save their souls. They would still be rehabilitated for a time, but they wouldn’t burn.
Fair had had a different meaning under Ben’s uncle—back then, the accused were assumed innocent until the Inquisitors passed a sentence based on careful analysis of Church doctrine. Were their sins rooted in magic? If so, did they have evil plants that had been proven dangerous, or did they have pure magic used for healing or growth?
But Rodrigu’s betrayal had destroyed the luxury of assuming people were innocent. After his death, the Church had disbanded the remaining Inquisitors, and those who resisted had been burned as well. The only duty of the Inquisitors that the Church hadn’t eliminated was searching inbound ships, but they had bastardized even that duty by giving it to careless aristocrats.
“I won’t repent for made-up sins.” The captain spoke again. “My crew ’n’ I are as innocent as you are, especially with that group from Argrid in Grace Loray right now. You wanna condemn us for stuff yer own men are negotiatin’—”
“Quiet!” a defensor snapped. “You’re speaking to the Crown Prince!”
Ben bit his tongue. You’re right, he wanted to tell the captain. The Church still ordered the arrest of anyone carrying Grace Loray’s botanical magic, even when a contingent of Argridian diplomats was negotiating a peace treaty with the island’s ruling Council.
When Ben’s uncle and cousin had tried to change the Church’s stance on magic, Ben had watched them die. Anyone who supported the war had been exterminated as well.
Ben didn’t have much hope that a new treaty would change Argrid.
Another of the raiders dared to chuckle. “The Prince. You ain’t as good-looking as they say, but maybe if you were the one kneeling . . .”
Jakes punched the man so hard he flipped into the raider beside him. The movement caused a distraction, and just as Ben registered that, the Mecht raider did, too.
The Mecht flew up and slammed his body into Ben. Though his wrists were lashed to his back, that didn’t affect the strength of the man’s muscles—or his Eye of the Sun.
Ben careened toward the ship’s railing, the Mecht shoving with every bit of anger he had repressed as he knelt. The Mecht’s face was so close that when he breathed, heat brushed Ben’s forehead, his senses flaring with ash and flame.
Memories ruptured in Ben’s mind. His uncle and cousin writhing on pyres. Screams.
Panic overtook him. His spine connected with the railing, and the Mecht exhaled a stream of fire that Ben dodged instinctively. He jerked to the left, the flames biting over his shoulder, and the Mecht stepped back in surprise. Ben regained enough control to plant his feet and jam his elbow into the Mecht’s stomach. The fire cut off as the man let out a strangled cough.
“Bring the barbarian down!” a defensor shouted.
“Hold!” Ben countered. He flung himself up to sit on the railing while hooking his leg behind the Mecht’s knees. The Mecht buckled, thrown off balance, and as he dropped, Ben rammed his other leg into the man’s stomach. This laid him out across the deck, with the defensors training a dozen different weapons on him.
Ben eased off the railing. “This is the evil forcing him to lash out,” he barked. “This man will still have the opportunity to repent, along with the rest of you. I beseech you all: see through the Devil’s corruption in your hearts, repent, and choose freedom. Otherwise, you will burn.”
Had Ben saved the raider now only to have him die in front of a jeering crowd later?
Though he didn’t care. If raiders wanted to burn, let them burn—Argrid offered a way to survive, if those convicted weren’t so proud.
Three defensors dragged the Mecht away as others moved toward the rest of the crew.
Ben tugged his hat lower, the deck spinning.
Jakes bumped his shoulder. “This will please your father.”
“Why?” Ben honestly wanted an answer. “I did nothing. Ever since the Church did away with any real due process of justice, I have no use.”
Jakes’s eyes widened. “You’re going to be king someday—”
“Of a country built on ashes and fear. I—” I don’t believe magic is evil. And I miss it.
He’d never be drunk enough to say that. Especially not to Jakes.
A low hum came from Jakes, the lilt of a Church hymn. A tic of his—when he was nervous, or anxious, or thinking too hard about responsibilities that should have been Ben’s alone.
“If the treaty with Grace Loray happens,” Jakes said, “we won’t arrest every sailor from there. Evil won’t be as easy to identify. They’ll need Inquisitors to judge cases again.”
Ben sighed. “Wishful thinking, Defensor.”
The Church had ultimate power now. Any treaty with Grace Loray would mean more of this, only on their shores. Patrols. Purity. Cleansing.
Did Grace Loray know what was coming for them?

 


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