If you read We Set the Dark on Fire, we know how badly you’ve been waiting for this moment, and trust us, we have to! At the end of this #ownvoices spy fantasy, where a girl is forced to be a spy for the rebellion, Dani finds herself emotionally (and nearly physically) destroyed. In We Unleash the Merciless Storm, the story continues, except this time it’s from Dani’s enemy-to-secret-lover Carmen’s perspective.
And let us just say that if we’re not falling in love whist dismantling the patriarchy, we don’t want to fall in love at all! Start reading We Unleash the Merciless Storm now!
From this moment, I pledge my life to the service of La Voz. I will hold no other person or organization in higher esteem. I will accept no responsibilities or roles that conflict with the mission of rebellion.
—La Voz Membership Pledge
Carmen Santos had imagined her homecoming a thousand times.
During sleepless nights, unnerved by the quiet of the government complex, she’d lain with her eyes closed, picturing it in detail so vivid her heart squeezed with longing for the salted earth. The ghostly beauty of the barren trees. The colors and sounds and smells of home.
In some of her fantasies, she returned victorious, someone’s blood (usually Mateo’s) on her hands. In some, she stole away in the dead of night and slipped in like a shadow, sliding back into her old role as easily as she slid into silk dresses and heavy silver rings.
But she’d never imagined it this way. In the dark hour before the sun painted the horizon pink and gold. Exhausted, dehydrated, delirious from fear and travel and hunger. Fleeing the scene of a botched fire in the capital’s biggest marketplace after a rescue attempt gone wrong.
She’d never imagined herself hunted, broken by the choices she’d made, clinging to Alex’s tattered shirt with the last of her strength as the dirt bike sputtered over the invisible boundary line.
When it stopped, Carmen slid off the bike face-first onto the hard ground, her muscles finally giving up the fight, tiny rocks pressing into her skin like knives. The earth beneath her cheek smelled like metal. Or was that sweat? Blood? Her thoughts swam; her chest felt tight.
“Get up,” said a voice. Alex’s. Images swam in front of Carmen, her ears ringing from the explosion, from the drone of the engine over countless miles.
She couldn’t get up.
“Santos, get up.”
Why? Carmen wondered as more bodies crowded around Alex’s. There was shock in their expressions. Suspicion in their tight lips and the whispered words Carmen couldn’t make out.
“There were three of them behind us a mile back.” Alex was on her feet again, turned away from Carmen, though her voice carried. “I thought we lost them, but . . .”
“What’s the matter with her?”
The words penetrated the haze around Carmen like nothing had since she’d fallen. Maybe since before then, when she’d left Dani on the side of the road. This voice was sharp but weighty. A voice that had lived beneath Carmen’s ribs for as long as she could remember. A voice that told her she was really back.
Every muscle screamed as she pushed herself up off the ground. The rocks falling away from her cheek now bit into her palms, drawing blood. But Carmen was no stranger to blood.
She could feel him moving toward her, even through the darkness, even through the sting of sweat and dirt that made her squint to make him out. She turned toward him like a flower to the sun.
“Cuervita,” he said, closer now. “Is it really you?”
In the harsh light of the torch he carried, the Vulture looked older. The fine lines beneath his eyes reached for the corners of his mouth. There was a little more white in his eyebrows, and in the bushy tangle of the hair he refused to trim.
As he stepped closer, Carmen realized he was as tall as she remembered from childhood—though she had grown taller, too. He still had that hunter’s grace that age could not rob him of; it was present in the way he held his shoulders, the way his clothes hung, the way the light played off scars and knotted muscle.
Even here, with her vision swimming and everything inside her splintering to pieces, Carmen remembered: this was a man worth believing in. A man worth following. A man worth the consequences of everything she had done and more.
“El Buitre,” she said, not bothering to hide her sudden tears. “I’m back.”
His gaze softened as he took her in, and Carmen imagined how she must look to him. Defeated, the remains of her silk Segunda costume hanging from her in filthy ribbons, barely able to face him.
Behind him, two men helped Alex lift Jasmín’s lifeless body from the motorcycle’s trailer, and Carmen braced herself against a wave of emotion as it all came flooding back. Jasmín, unconscious and vulnerable; Alex, masked, armed, ruthless as ever.
And Carmen, caught between two worlds, tackling Dani to the ground as the explosion rent the air around them, turning everything they’d known to shrapnel on the roadside.
Dani, the truth dawning like a new day on her face.
Dani, Alex’s gun pointed at her temple.
Dani, looking at Carmen like she’d never seen her before. Never laughed with her. Never kissed her dizzy.
The pain in her chest was searing, worse than any amateur explosive attached to the engine of a sedan. Worse than anything else she’d ever felt, and Carmen was no stranger to pain, either.
“I’m back,” she said again, more to herself than El Buitre.
But something of her memories—and the things they had begun to unravel in her chest—must have shown, because El Buitre’s eyes narrowed, his gaze calculating now where it had been welcoming a split second ago.
Reaching forward, he took Carmen’s chin between his finger and thumb, looking at her as if he could read her thoughts. Her motivations. Despite everything, Carmen forced her mind to quiet, her heart to calm. For a moment, she had felt like his daughter. But she was a soldier first and foremost. It was what he had raised her to be. And soldiers were obedient. Soldiers didn’t let their commitment slip. Not even for a second.
“Back?” he asked, his voice quiet, inaudible to the growing crowd pretending not to listen. “I suppose that remains to be seen.”
Carmen’s heart dropped into her stomach, the haze of pain and exhaustion clearing as cold terror took its place. El Buitre’s gaze, still searching, said she’d been away too long, living among the enemy. It said he’d heard tales of her exploits.
It said he didn’t trust her more than any other outsider, and he didn’t intend to start until she proved herself to him. To all of them.
A gunshot split the night, and Carmen (who had once been so steady under pressure) dropped to her knees at the sound, the memory of the explosion too recent, her heart beating a jackrabbit’s rhythm in her chest.
Return shots, and El Buitre shouting as the border patrol agents who’d followed them from the wall entered the camp, guns blazing, torchlight flickering on their shining helmets and boots as the camp prepared to fight back against the intruders.
From the ground, Carmen tried to quiet her heartbeat. How many times had she been woken in the night to gunfire and shouting? She was a soldier, not some weak-kneed girl in need of rescuing. If she was going to prove she was really home, she’d have to start here. Now.
Your home is under attack, she told herself, rising on shaking legs.
But as she called out for a weapon, steeling herself, she knew: this was no longer her home. Her home was a million miles away, beating in the body of a girl she might never see again.
And if anyone found out her loyalty was divided, she’d be killed. Or worse.
The officers were outnumbered, unprepared for what they would encounter in the eerie light of La Voz’s nomadic hideout. Taking it in for the first time, Carmen saw they’d chosen this location well. A grove of long-dead trees, their trunks bleached white with the salt in the ground, hid the rebels as the border officers stumbled between them, firing wildly at plant and person alike, hitting neither.
With a weighty, bladed staff in her hand, Carmen felt her pulse begin to slow. She had never been the most aggressive fighter, but she’d trained with weapons since childhood, and every member of La Voz was expected to fight. Despite her Segunda training, and her years of using more subtle weapons to achieve her goals, she still remembered the feeling of a heartbeat at the end of her blade.
Following the sound of shuffling footsteps, Carmen caught the light of a nearby torch off one of the officers’ polished buttons and moved silently in his direction, the bladed end of the staff in front of her.
He never saw her coming.
She was behind him, her staff between his shoulder blades, ready to strike when the wind shifted, and something squeezed tight in her chest. The smell of the burning torch. The fire. Dani across the flames confessing everything, telling her she wanted more than just almost-kisses and lies.
What would she think of this Carmen? The one ruthless enough to leave her behind. The one ready to kill a man just because she had been trained to. Could Dani ever love someone like that? And did it matter? Could Carmen change? Or was it already too late . . .
Her moment of hesitation cost her. Sensing her presence, the officer turned, and Carmen froze. It was kill or be killed now. The girl she had been, the one Dani had wanted, wasn’t strong enough to survive here.
And still, Carmen hesitated—even when his eyes met hers, even when he drew his gun level with her chest. Her heartbeat was too loud in her ears, the grove going blurry in her peripheral vision.
Had she come all this way just to die because she didn’t know who she was?
When the officer crumpled to the ground before her, Carmen felt a moment’s relief. Maybe this wasn’t her moment after all. But when her rescuer stepped forward, gray mane glinting in the torchlight, she knew the bullet would have been safer.
El Buitre hauled the dazed officer to his feet, never breaking eye contact with Carmen. He had looked at her tenderly first, like a daughter. And then with confusion, like a stranger. But the story his expression now told was one Carmen had learned by heart.
One that was much more dangerous than any bumbling officer with a shiny new pistol.
He had seen her waver. Seen her doubt. And that made her a traitor.
Carmen had only been eight the first time she saw a La Voz agent accused of treason, but she’d never forget his hearing around the table, or his punishment.
Exile. Total excommunication from La Voz and all their resources.
The accused man had wept when El Buitre handed down the verdict, the sound wild and terrible, and Carmen had understood. It seemed like a mercy, letting him live, but excommunication was just another kind of death sentence. The only thing more dangerous than being a La Voz agent on this island was being a former La Voz agent.
And that man had been captured by border patrol. Cracked under interrogation. Passed along information that was functionally useless by the time they got ahold of it.
If El Buitre thought Carmen had actively conspired with a highly placed operative within the government complex? Given her classified information that would go straight to Mateo and his father? Jeopardized active plans?
She’d be lucky if excommunication was the worst they had in store for her.
But there was more than just distrust in the Vulture’s eyes tonight. As Carmen held his gaze, she saw something new, too. Something like mania. Something with an edge of uncertainty to it. A hint of fear.
The marketplace fire had been sloppy work, lazy. Carmen had thought so even before it led to the end of her residence at the Garcias’. But was there more to it than just poor planning? What had been going on in La Voz since she’d left?
She wasn’t the same girl she’d been, but maybe this place had changed, too.
“Drop that, and come with me,” he said to Carmen, and she obeyed. In order to discover what he was hiding, she’d have to survive the night.
El Buitre pushed the officer roughly toward the crowd beginning to form, Carmen following behind him. The other officer had been killed by someone with a steadier hand than Carmen’s, his body laid out at the center of the circle, seeping blood into the thirsty ground. Beside him, two men were building a fire, already glowing faintly against the predawn darkness.
“Tie this one up,” the Vulture said, pushing the second officer into the center of the circle, where he looked at his partner and went ghostly pale.
Alex made quick work of the ropes. Jasmín was nowhere to be seen. The ghost of their long ride to the outer island was with Carmen as she stayed close to El Buitre, not restrained, but aware she was far from trustworthy in his eyes.
She awaited her sentence. Had he seen enough to excommunicate her? To lock her up? To kill her? Growing up in the nomadic resistance camp, she’d seen worse punishments for lesser crimes. To survive here, you had to hold loyalty sacred.
Had Carmen betrayed them?
Her heart, still aching for Dani, still wondering where she was and whether she was safe, made a pretty compelling case. But how much of that had El Buitre seen?
He turned to her, the crowd still growing as the commotion woke the camp.
“Carmencita,” he said. “Come here.”
The flames were flickering, the officer was struggling against his bonds, and the eyes of La Voz were on her as she faced him, her warring loyalties snapping behind her like a flag in the wind. How could she hide her feelings from them when she didn’t understand them herself?
“When you were six years old, La Voz took you in,” the Vulture said, his voice deep and solemn, carrying across the fire and into the crowd. “On that night, you made a vow to us. To the resistance. To the people. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” Carmen said, the word stinging her throat on the way out. Of course she remembered. It had been the proudest moment of her life. The moment she’d found her family.
“We have asked much of you these past eleven years,” he said, looking her in the eye now. “You’ve lied, committed betrayals and crimes too numerous to count, risked your life, and taken the lives of others.”
Carmen nodded, but she knew he was far from finished.
“Most recently, you’ve gone into enemy territory. Become someone else. You’ve changed the very fabric of who you are for this organization, and we value your skills. Your devotion.”
“Thank you,” Carmen said, waiting for the tide to turn.
“But you’ve been away from home a long time,” El Buitre said. “Living among strangers, wearing their clothes, learning their values and their ways, joining their families . . .” He let this last word ring out, and Carmen could see its impact on the shifting figures beyond the fire.
“I’ve never had any family but La Voz,” she said decisively, though Dani was still a living, breathing contradiction in her blood. “Everything I’ve done has been for the good of the cause.”
Murmurs spread through the crowd, and Carmen didn’t try to decipher them. There was only one opinion that mattered here tonight.
El Buitre appraised her as the man at their feet struggled in his bonds. She wasn’t the only one conflicted. Carmen fought the urge to plead, to explain her behavior with the officer, to swear by everything she believed in that she had never wavered.
But it wouldn’t help. It would only make her look like she had something to hide.
“They dressed you in these gowns,” El Buitre said after his long silence. “Made a plaything out of you. They dulled the blade we’ve been honing since the moment we found you. You’re home now. Are you ready to sharpen it again?”
Carmen nodded once, solemn and sure, but inside the war waged on.
“You know what you have to do,” El Buitre said, and she did.
Hands betraying nothing of the unsteadiness in her knees, none of the stuttering in her heartbeat, Carmen reached out for the dagger he offered her. The ornate one he wore on his belt. She’d never been allowed to touch it before, though it had often preoccupied her attention as a child. Set into the hilt was a shining stone, said to be the very one from the ring the Salt God had presented to the Vulture on the day of his transformation.
A hush fell over the grove. As a Segunda, Carmen had been taught to always be aware of her aesthetic, and right now she knew she was frightening. Feral. Wild. Her silk dress in tatters, her hair matted and tangled, her duty eclipsing her desire in the shadows across her face.
It was time to make a choice. The one she hadn’t made with the officer’s back bared to her. The one that might mean leaving Dani behind forever.
Carmen stepped up to the kneeling officer, using the strange electricity she knew crackled around her to her benefit. An animal fear that transformed him. Something that made them both seem less human.
“I know no master, no lover, no family but the cause,” Carmen said, her voice ringing clear as she reached forward without hesitation and opened the officer’s throat.
He slumped to the ground, his blood spreading slowly at their feet.
The now silent crowd could see nothing but Carmen as she wiped the dagger on her ruined dress, smearing blood across her stomach, her hips, until the blade was clean once more.
There is nothing more important than the impression you leave behind in a room, came the voice of her maestras as she took the dagger between her teeth and pulled the Segunda’s dress over her head.
Naked, filthy, worn and exhausted and scarred, Carmen closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the heat of the flames on her skin, feeling the metal of the blade in her mouth.
Goodbye, she said, to every piece of her that had loved being Carmen Garcia, bride of silk and silver, chosen daughter of the Moon Goddess. To the part of her heart that had once hoped to win the love of a girl like Dani.
To every kiss, every caress, every shared smile.
She was a soldier. A survivor. There was no room to be anything else. Not if she wanted to live.
With the attention of La Voz on her alone, Carmen threw her Segunda’s dress, the last piece of her old life, into the flames, and together they all watched it burn until there was nothing left but ashes.
When it was gone, she took the knife from between her teeth and turned back to El Buitre, presenting it to him hilt first.
If he was uncomfortable with her display, with her exposure, he didn’t show it. He took the knife back and nodded once. A short, sharp thing that said she’d earned another night of life.
Tomorrow, his silence seemed to say, was still uncertain.
Women approached with blankets, clothes, bundling Carmen up and leading her on shaking legs to the nearest tent, laying her down. She drifted in and out of consciousness as they bathed her and treated her wounds, dressed her in the all-black uniform of the resistance.
But when they’d gone, when Carmen was alone, the dawn painting faint purple streaks down the walls of the med tent, something broke open inside her, tears sliding down her cheeks until her hair and the pillow beneath it were soaked.
She had tried to leave it all behind at the fire, and she would claim she had until her dying breath. But here, alone, she was forced to reckon with the weight of it. With the whisper of Dani still here in the air she breathed.
Carmen was home, but loving Dani had altered her past the point of no return.
She got to her feet, wincing at the ache in her bones and the sting of the cuts on her skin. Alone, barefoot and furtive, she snuck back to the firepit, now just a bowl of embers on the ground, and with a stick dug through what remained until she had found what she was looking for.
Blackened, unrecognizable, but still precious. A braided piece of silk from the strap of her dress. The last dress Dani had ever seen her in. Ever touched her in. Carmen knew it was foolish, that it could mean death if she kept it and anyone guessed what it meant, but she tucked it into the pocket over her heart nonetheless.
Dani was part of her now, and try as she might, there was no fire hot enough to burn the memory of her—or the desire to get back to her—away.
I pledge my life to my brothers, my sisters. On our linked arms will the resistance rise.
—La Voz Membership Pledge
“I’m not going in there,” whispered a child’s voice outside Carmen’s tent. “She’s scary.”
“I heard she glared at Emilio yesterday and his arm broke. Like, just spontaneously broke. Just from her looking at him.”
Carmen groaned, rolling over in her bed. She would have laughed if she wasn’t so annoyed.
“That’s ridiculous. I heard she grabbed his arm. Broke it with a flick of her wrist.”
“Kind of makes you wonder,” one of them said, and Carmen knew her voice. One of the older girls. Almost ready for a sword and a seat in the Vulture’s meeting hall.
“Wonder what?” the first one asked. A little boy, barely nine, but still older than Carmen had been when she’d been brought to La Voz for the first time.
“How anyone in the capital ever believed La Cuerva was a Segunda.”
Carmen sighed, getting to her feet, stalking across the tent and flipping open its door before they could scatter. “Emilio tripped on his own clumsy feet,” she said, trying not to smile at the expressions of terror on their faces. “And it’s a sprain, not a break. If you’re gonna be out here talking chisme, at least get it right.”
“Lo siento, señorita,” said the girl. “You asked to be awakened at . . .”
“I know what I asked. And one more thing:”
The children looked at her like a tree that had just been struck by lightning.
“Don’t call me La Cuerva.”
When Carmen closed the tent flap in their faces, they scampered away immediately, fear quickening their steps. Like she was an adult herself. Someone to be respected, even feared. It was the kind of moment she had dreamed of before she left home. But she’d been a child herself, then.
Children didn’t understand what it took to earn those looks. How much they would wish for the innocence of their fear when they were the ones wearing battle-weary expressions and thousand-yard unseeing stares.
At least they feared her, Carmen thought. That meant her display at the fire had done its job. But it had been two days, and she knew she couldn’t coast on it for much longer. Not with this secret still buried in her chest.
At the long, low table beside her bed, Carmen lifted the lid of a woven basket. Inside, beneath torn scraps of linen for cleaning and binding wounds, was the braided piece of violet silk. Such a tiny thing, but still enough to damn her if anyone recognized its significance.
Every time she looked at it, she told herself she’d throw it away.
And every time, she put it back in the basket and closed the lid. It was the only thing that even began to soothe the feeling of an open wound. It never faded. She carried it with her everywhere.
This was her proof that it had all been real. Dani. Carmen and Dani. The fledgling thing between them that had never had time to take flight.
Where was Dani now? Carmen wondered, splashing salt water from a bowl on her face, rubbing mint paste across her teeth. Was she safe? Did the only girl she’d ever loved hate her for what she’d done? Carmen left these thoughts in the basket with the last fragment of her old life. She couldn’t take them where she was going.
Out in the already sweltering morning, Carmen headed for the mess tent, looming ahead in silhouette. A few people were up, loading metal bowls with corn porridge and settling down, talking among themselves. The chattering stopped as Carmen passed. More nods. More glances that said she’d be the topic of all conversations that rekindled after she’d passed through.
It had been like this since her return.
Ignoring the stares, Carmen ladled a bowl of corn porridge for herself, settling alone in a darkened corner of the tent. But she was never truly alone. Placed in a tent near the Vulture’s own, Carmen was, ostensibly, in a place of honor within the camp.
She knew better than to trust appearances.
El Buitre wasn’t rewarding her; he was observing her. Even when he wanted her to believe he wasn’t.
There, Carmen thought grimly. Beside the clay jugs of water and cerveza was a sly-featured boy. Eleven, she judged, green-eyed, his hair pulled back. He watched her intently, not speculatively. Like he was taking notes.
Carmen knew she was a curiosity even among cutthroats and rebels, but there was something different about the gaze of a Vulture spy. She ought to know; she’d been his most promising one herself not so long ago.
The boy’s steady eyes stayed on her as she ate. He was good, Carmen thought, trying to shrug off the feeling of being observed now that she knew where it was coming from. But it wouldn’t fade. And what the boy was looking for couldn’t be found on the surface.
Looking across the flames at El Buitre that night, Carmen had felt at home. She had felt like herself again. But she hadn’t felt cold and ruthless, or like she was capable of anything. Because despite the content of the whispers swirling around her at every turn, she hadn’t just manipulated a promising new recruit for the sake of the cause.
She hadn’t cast Dani aside when she’d run out of uses for her.
Carmen Santos had developed feelings for the last person she should have, utterly without premeditation, and spent weeks trying to make it look like it was all part of the plan.
Carmen Santos had betrayed everything she’d ever believed about putting the cause first, one night in the firelit living room of her husband’s mansion, and every night after.
Carmen Santos had barely forced herself to walk away from the wreckage of a ruined car, even though staying would have meant losing her life and delivering a crushing blow to the only family she had ever known.
Carmen Santos, the little crow of La Voz, the most promising operative in three generations, was in love. But she was good enough to make sure the little boy with sharp eyes couldn’t read it in her expression, at the very least.
As she finished her porridge, she lifted the bowl in salute to the boy, who’d let his gaze linger just a second too long. He flushed to the roots of his hair and left the tent.
Carmen’s smugness didn’t even last to the door.
“Cuervita,” said an icy voice just on the other side of the tent flap. Carmen stiffened at the name. The little crow from La Voz’s legends. She had loved it as a child, something tying her to the family, to the mythology of the resistance’s origins. But things had changed. It sat different now, like someone else’s name.
“My name is Carmen,” she said, emerging from the tent, a young man falling in step beside her. She tried to keep as much distance between them as possible. “Just Carmen.”
“If you say so.”
Ari Vasquez was barely nineteen, but he carried himself like someone with the keys to the kingdom. He was tall, his black hair swept off his forehead in long strands that occasionally broke loose and fell into his face. His features were sharp and angular, and his eyes—which Carmen had overheard at least five women in the compound discussing at length—were the palest green.
The other women seemed to think these green eyes made Ari handsome. Carmen thought they looked a little fishlike. But, she was forced to admit, this wouldn’t be the first time the charms of a supposedly handsome man were lost on her.
They’d been introduced her first morning back, and Carmen had understood at once that he was at the heart of the changes to La Voz. The authority in his stance, in his stride, was the very thing she’d found missing from El Buitre when they’d locked gazes across the flames.
By all appearances, the Vulture ran La Voz, as the legends said he had for centuries. Of course, he wasn’t truly immortal—only the mask was, handed down to a new La Voz operative when a Vulture reached the end of his ability to lead. But it was good for the people to believe he knew their history, had seen everything.
El Buitre led every meeting, observed every training skirmish, and presided over every grievance session. But Ari was never far from his side, making pointed asides for no one’s ears but El Buitre’s, taking the right-hand chair at meetings and sitting up in the commander’s tent by candlelight long after the camp had gone to sleep.
The Vulture Carmen knew would never have allowed someone so much influence, especially someone so new. So young. So what did Ari have to offer? Carmen wondered. Or what secrets did he know?
“As much as I appreciate the escort,” Carmen said as they walked, “I’m assuming you’re not just here for the pleasure of my company. What can I do for you?”
“So suspicious,” he said, moving closer to her. “I only wanted to see how you were settling in. Camaraderie is the heart of the resistance, after all.”
“I’ve been La Voz since you were still a snake under a rock somewhere,” Carmen said, keeping her tone as pleasant as she could. “I’m well aware of what’s at its heart.”
Ari’s false friendliness faltered, his pale eyes narrowing. “You may be fooling everyone else, but I see right through you, Carmen Santos.” He said her name like it was whispered around campfires. “We both know you won’t be getting any closer to your old position as long as your prized recruit doesn’t prove she’s not a traitor. Or did you have a better pet name for her? ‘Recruit’ isn’t very romantic, is it . . . ?”
The mention of Dani hit her like a punch to the stomach. Carmen fought to keep her face clear, counting to ten in her head.
Ari took advantage of the silence. “Things have changed around here, little crow,” he said. “This place isn’t just a story your abuela tells at bedtime anymore, it’s a rebellion. An army. You better get used to it.”
He walked away, but this time he left Carmen with a distraction. The proprietary way he’d mentioned the changes to La Voz was right in line with her theories that he was somehow manipulating the Vulture. But how? And why would El Buitre ever allow it?
Regardless, as Carmen walked toward the center of camp, she was forced to confront the truth in his words.
Dani hadn’t responded to multiple attempts to make contact. She’d missed a scheduled meeting with Sota. No one, not even Carmen, knew where she was or what she was doing.
Despite the grave stakes for both of them, Carmen’s initial reaction was fear that Dani no longer had the same feelings for her. That her silence toward La Voz was a symptom of a more personal silence toward Carmen herself.
But there were other options, too. Much more dangerous ones. Dani was a double agent in very precarious circumstances. If anyone on either side considered her a traitor, it would mean the end of her life.
The thought made Carmen’s stomach twist and knot. It was all she could do not to race out of the compound right now to see for herself that Dani was alive. That she was safe.
Of course, an action that rash would have consequences of its own.
And Carmen was responsible for more than just herself.
As she neared the medical tent, she did her best to push her fears aside. La Voz had made no judgments on Dani’s loyalty. Daily attempts were being made to establish contact. There may come a time to panic, but if Carmen put her emotions aside, if she thought like an operative and not a girl in love, she knew that time wasn’t now.
Inside, the tent for long-term medical care was bright, flaps open to let in the light.
Jasmín lay in a cot near the center, alone until someone else was gravely injured. This tent was rarely so quiet. It made Carmen uneasy.
She’d been here every day, casting withering glares at the kids assigned to help out in the med tent—orphans picked up during raids, or the children of long-time La Voz members. Most notable among them was Emilio, who had taken it upon himself to trip and sprain his wrist, igniting the chisme machine.
Since she’d returned, Carmen sat beside Jasmín as much as she could bear, counting the hours.
“Good morning,” said Alicia, the healer looking after Jasmín.
“No change?” Carmen asked.
“Sleeping poison is tricky,” said Alicia. “Her vitals are the same, but there’s no way of telling when she’ll wake.”
She had said the same thing the day before, but Carmen knew the longer Jasmín went without waking up, the slimmer the chances grew that she would be the same when she did.
Just as she had since she’d been brought here, Jasmín lay motionless on her cot, chest rising and falling with her shallow breath. Her forehead was beaded slightly with sweat, and her face was peaceful, serene.
But it was day three, and she hadn’t woken up.
She didn’t need a doctor to tell her that wasn’t a good sign.
Carmen wanted to scream, tear at her hair, kill everyone who was responsible for doing this to her. Most of all, she wanted to cry. But Carmen Santos, ruthless soldier, could not be seen crying.
Especially not over the first girl she had ever kissed.
So instead, she took the seat next to Jasmín’s bed, tried to look concerned but composed, and continued her vigil. She wouldn’t give up hope until there was none left to cling to.
There was still time.
As if she had heard Carmen’s thoughts, Alicia bustled out of the tent, leaving Carmen alone with Jasmín, tying on a white armband with a red cross around her black canvas uniform before departing.
At La Voz headquarters, everyone wore the same uniform. Only their armbands differentiated them. White with a red cross signified a healer, gray with an orange falcon was a scout or messenger, and red with a black vulture’s skull was a soldier. The rest wore no armbands at all; they worked in the mess tent or did camp setup and maintenance; they made weapons or clothes or minded the children.
Carmen had left too early to get her assignment, and of course there was no insignia for a spy. She’d worn silk dresses and gold bangle bracelets the way the others wore their ranks and symbols. Once she’d thought she was bound for a warrior’s band, or that maybe they’d invent a whole new category for her when she became the best spy in the organization’s history.
Now, five years later, she sat at a girl’s sickbed and wondered if she’d make it through the next week without being branded a traitor.
Life was full of surprises.
“Sleeping poison is tricky,” Carmen muttered with disdain. That was the best she could do? Maybe La Voz needed a better healer.
Like a reflex, Carmen patted the pouch around the leg of her blacks, feeling for the vials that were always there.
They were no strangers to poison in La Voz; they carried it with them wherever they went. The first one, a pale, innocuous green, induced a temporary state of madness, which would cause confusion and grogginess at first, but would gradually progress to full hallucinations and hysteria, and finally death, if not neutralized quickly.
The second was a colorless, odorless sleeping poison. It guaranteed two hours of unconsciousness if taken orally, but it varied based on height and weight. Obviously whatever Jasmín had been given was much stronger.
The third poison was blood red, so you couldn’t mistake it for the others. It was only one dose, but it wasn’t intended for use on an enemy. This poison was for a quick and painless death, and was kept as a last resort. As she watched Jasmín lying unconscious on the bed, Carmen felt the vindication of knowing that the people who had attempted to kill this girl had died in ways that were far from painless.
For all the time she’d spent at Jasmín’s bedside, Carmen hadn’t spent much of it looking at her. It was too difficult to see her like this, wan and wasted, kept alive with droppers of sugar water and rags soaked in milk and honey. Her swallow reflex was good—a development that had seemed exciting on the first day—but solid foods were dangerous, and her cheeks were hollowing out by the hour.
If she didn’t wake soon, there would barely be anything left of her when she did.
In the beginning, there had been long scratches across her face and down her arms. They looked intentional, like the work of a madman with a blade and a desperate gleam in his eye. The scratches and bruises were healed or healing now, but Carmen had memorized them all.
When she got her hands on Mateo, she would start by re-creating them. But that’s not where it would end.
Jasmín’s breathing grew shallower, and she panted like a terrified animal for a few seconds before it evened out again. Carmen gripped the edges of her chair until her knuckles turned white, waiting for it to pass. It always did. For a moment, she missed her long Segunda’s painted nails. At least they felt like something when you dug them into your palms.
But she’d cut those, too, the morning after she threw the dress into the fire. To hide the ash that had gotten trapped beneath them when she dug for a last memento of Dani.
The red stain had taken days to fade, but it was gone now. The last vestige of her Segunda beauty regimen. Why did that make her sad?
Dani would barely recognize her now. Bare-faced, dressed in black canvas. Would she even want her without her lip stain? Her tinted brows? The berry paste she’d used to redden her cheeks?
Her hair was coarse; it frizzed from the sea air and the salt water she washed it in. They couldn’t waste the filtered stuff on something as useless as haircare. The women here wore it short for the most part, just for ease of upkeep. Carmen had as well, before she’d been sent to the capital. But now she couldn’t bring herself to cut what had grown there.
A Segunda’s hair had been part of her armor, and Carmen Santos was never unarmed.
Jasmín stirred, a groan escaping her lips. This, just yesterday, had brought Carmen so much hope. But it hadn’t led to more. She adjusted Jasmín’s pillow and sat back down, her muscles already itching with restlessness.
For anyone else, a cursory check-in would have sufficed. Not this lingering bedside visitation. But Carmen liked the quiet, the lack of prying eyes. Plus, they said you never forgot your first. Anything done to Jasmín felt personal to Carmen. Like the debt was hers to settle.
God willing, it would be settled soon.
But had it all been Mateo’s doing? Carmen wondered, reaching for Jasmín’s hand. Whose idea had it been to have her arrested? To send her into the belly of the beast with no clear plan for extracting her once the information had been gathered?
Ari’s boastfulness came back to her then, and she dropped Jasmín’s hand as quick as she’d taken it, standing up, pacing the tent as her thoughts raced. The arson at the marketplace had been Carmen’s proof that La Voz was changing, but hadn’t Jasmín’s assignment borne the same brand of recklessness? Lack of forethought?
El Buitre had been the methodical type, an information gatherer, a calm, steady hand holding a deadly blade. His plans had taken time, yes, but they’d been airtight. They’d gotten people rescued, not killed. They’d struck blows; they hadn’t opened La Voz up to take them.
Carmen was still pacing when the tent flap opened again.
“Nurse Santos,” said a voice she would have known anywhere. “Not sure it fits.”
Carmen turned to face Alex, hoping the manic energy of her thoughts didn’t show on her face. “Just plotting vengeance, you know,” Carmen said casually.
“Better to do it with a weapon in your hand.” Alex’s keen gray eyes gauged the distance between Carmen and the bedside, sizing up the expression on her face.
“Depends who’s responsible,” she replied.
“Does it?” Alex asked, raising a brow.
“Why send Jasmín in to be arrested?” Carmen countered, unable to keep her suspicions from bubbling over.
“It was a reconnaissance mission. We needed intel on the interrogation facilities.” Alex’s tone held a warning. One that Carmen ignored.
“But why do it rashly, with no extraction plan? Especially when we already had so many other balls in the air? It doesn’t play like an El Buitre strategy, does it?”
“Careful, Cuervita,” Alex said. “You’ve been gone a long time.”
“Exactly my point,” Carmen said. “I’m asking you when ill-conceived, rushed plans became part of La Voz’s legend. You were here. I wasn’t. So what happened?”
Alex looked at Carmen in that cool way they’d both learned in childhood. It was an appraising stare. A leader’s hallmark.
“El Buitre wants us in the ring. Now. Maybe you should focus on your own shortcomings instead of digging for things that aren’t there. There’s no mystery to unravel here, Carmen. If you want to be one of us again, you have to earn it like everyone else does.”
They had once been as close as two people could be, but while Carmen was away learning silk and silver and subterfuge, Alex had been here. At El Buitre’s side. In the dust and salt, becoming a warrior.
As much as Carmen wanted to pretend things hadn’t changed between them, she couldn’t. Alex didn’t look at Carmen with the same reverence and fear the others did. She knew her, in the way only girls raised like sisters and soldiers could know each other. She had been there in the final moments. Carmen’s confession. Dani’s look of utter betrayal. The way she’d pleaded for Dani’s life and stayed until it was almost too late for all of them.
“You’re right,” she said, breaking the long silence, getting to her feet. Alex could have this one if it kept the peace, but Carmen didn’t believe there was nothing to dig for. Not for a second. “The healers said I should take it easy for a few days, but I feel fine.”
“When has Carmen Santos ever let a medic tell her what to do?” Alex asked, with a half smirk. “Remember that time you tore your arm open trying to climb that tree when we were on the west coast?”
Carmen smiled. She still had the scar, right where her upper arm met her shoulder. “Hurt like hell.”
“How long did they try to keep you out of the ring that time?” Alex pressed.
“How long did you stay out for?”
“Four days. I made Sota steal a mask for me, like my height wouldn’t give it away.”
They both laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re less brave now than you were at eight.”
Carmen held Alex’s eyes, sensing a question beneath the statement. “Wiser, maybe,” she said. “But no less brave.”
Alex let her response hang in the air for a moment, something swirling unsaid between them, kicking up a storm in Carmen’s nerves that she hid with steady hands.
“Care to prove it?” Alex said finally, gesturing out the tent door, smiling again.
“Who do you think I am?” Carmen asked.
Alex didn’t answer.
Jasmín stirred again.
Carmen didn’t look back.
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