As a memory thief, the rarest and most feared of the magical Moria, Renata was used by the crown to carry out the King's Wrath, a siege that resulted in the deaths of thousands of her own people.
Now Renata is one of the Whispers, rebel spies working against the crown. The Whispers may have rescued Renata years ago, but she cannot escape their mistrust and hatred or the overpowering memories of the hundreds of souls she drained during her time in the palace.
When Dez, the commander of her unit and the boy she's grown to love is taken captive by the notorious Principe Dorado, Renata must return to Andalucia and complete Dez's top secret mission herself. But as Renata grows more deeply embedded in the politics of the royal court, she uncovers a secret in her past that could change the fate of the entire kingdom and end the war that has cost her everything.
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After a while, all burning villages smell the same.
From a hilltop, I watch as fire consumes the farming village of Esmeraldas. Wooden homes and sienna clay roofs. Bales of rolled hay amid a sea of golden grass. Vegetable gardens of ripening tomatoes, bushels of thyme and laurel. All common to Puerto Leones, but here, in the eastern province of the kingdom, the fire burns through something else: manzanilla.
The deceptively bitter flower with a yellow heart and white mane of pointed petals is prized for its healing properties not only in our kingdom, but in the lands across the Castinian Sea, ensuring a steady flow of gold and food into this tiny corner of the country. In Esmeraldas, where the manzanilla grows so wild it takes over entire fields, its sweetness momentarily masks the acrid scent of homespun wool and rag dolls, abandoned in haste as the villagers ran along the dirt paths to escape the flames.
But nothing covers the scent of burning flesh.
"Mother of All —" I start to say a blessing. Words the Moria use when someone is moving from this life and onto the next. But I remember flashes of a different fire, of cries and screams and helplessness. A heavy weight settles around my throat. Taking deep breaths, I try to compose myself, but the blessing still won't leave my lips. So, I think it instead. Mother of All, bless this soul into the vast unknown.
I turn away from the flames just in time to see Dez march up behind me. His honey-brown eyes take in the scene below. There's dirt on his tawny brown skin from that last scramble through the woods that borders the north of Esmeraldas. His fingers rake through thick tangled black hair, and his broad chest expands with quick shallow breaths as he tries to retain composure. He touches the sword at his hip the way a child might check for a favorite toy, for comfort.
"I don't understand," Dez says. Even after everything we've been through he searches for a reason for why bad things happen.
"What's there to understand?" I say, though my anger isn't directed toward him. "We turned a six-day journey into four by sheer will, and it still wasn't fast enough."
I wish I had something to hit. I settle for kicking a cluster of rocks and regret it when the dust billows around us. The wind shifts, pushing the smoke away from us. I sink into my boots as if grounding myself to this place will stop my heart from racing, my mind from thinking, "too late. you're always too late."
"This has been burning for half a day by the looks of it. We never would have gotten here in time to stop it. But Esmeraldas's exports are worth their weight in gold. Why would the king's justice set it ablaze?"
I retie my forest green scarf around my neck. "The message from Celeste said Rodrigue's discovery would turn the tide of our war. They didn't want it found."
"Perhaps there is hope yet," Dez says. When he turns to the village at the base of the hill, there's a new fervor in his eyes.
Or perhaps all hope is lost, I think. I am not like Dez. The other Whispers do not come to me for hope or rousing speeches. Perhaps it is best that he is our unit leader and not me. I know two truths: the king's justice will stop at nothing to destroy its enemies and we're waging a war we cannot win. But I keep fighting, maybe because it is all I've ever known, or maybe because the alternative is dying and I can't do that until I've paid for my sins.
"Do you think Celeste is —"
"Dead," Dez answers. His eyes are fixed on the village, what's left of it. A ripple passes along the fine line of his jaw, his skin darker after our journey the sun.
"Or captured," I suggest.
He shakes his head once. "Celeste wouldn't allow herself to be taken. Not alive."
"We have to know for certain." I pull a thin spyglass from the inside of my leather vest pocket and turn back to the forest line, twisting the lens until I find what I'm looking for.
A bright light glints between the trees and flashes twice. Though I can't make out her face, I know it's Sayida waiting with the rest of the unit for our signal. I take out a square mirror to signal back. I don't need to communicate that the city is burning, or that we've traveled all this way for nothing. They should see the smoke by now. I signal only that we've made it.
"Go back to the others. The Second Sweep will be here soon," Dez says. Then his voice softens. Suddenly, he's no longer my unit leader but something else. The boy who rescued me nearly a decade ago. My only true friend. "You shouldn't have to see this."
His thumb brushes softly over the top of my hand, and I stop myself from seeking comfort in his arms the way I am always tempted to do. A week ago there was a raid near our safe house, and I was sure we were going to be taken captive. Somehow we squeezed into a crate reserved for sandstone brick shipments, our limbs entwined. The kiss we shared then would have been romantic if it hadn't felt like we'd been stuffed into a coffin and sure our luck had run out.
I slam the spyglass between my palms and return it to its hiding place. "No."
"No?" He cocks an eyebrow and tries to twist his features into a fearsome mask. "There are no memories to steal here. I can finish the task."
I cross my arms over my chest and close the distance between us. He's a head taller than me and as my unit leader he could order me to listen. I hold his stare and dare him to look away first.
His gaze goes to the side of my neck, to the finger-long scar courtesy of a royal guard during our last mission. Dez's hands reach for my shoulders, and a sliver of temptation winds itself around my heart. I would prefer that he give me a command than tell me he's worried for my safety.
I step back, though I catch the moment of hurt on his face. "I can't go back to the Whispers a failure. Not again."
"You're not a failure," he says.
On our last mission, Lynx Unit was tasked with finding safe passage on a ship sailing out of the kingdom for a merchant family whose father had been executed by the king. We were nearly to the shipyard when I was caught. I know I did everything right. I had the correct documents and I wore a dress covered in stitched flowers like a chaste farmer's daughter. My job was to rip memories from the guard, enough to confuse him and give us insight into the ships coming in and out of the Salinas harbor. There was something about me that the guard didn't like, and the next moment I knew, I was drawing my sword to defend myself. We won and the family has spent two months somewhere in the empire of Luzou. It took ten stitches and a week burning off a fever in the infirmary. But we can't show our faces in that town to help other families. In those two months the king's justice has doubled its guards there. Our presence is supposed to be silent. Our units meant to be shadows. We saved one family, but what about the others trapped in the citadela living in fear of their magics being discovered? Even if Dez is right, and I'm not a failure, I'm still a risk.
"I have to be the one to find the alman stone, and I have to be the one to return it to your father."
A smirk plays on his lips. "And here I thought I was the glory seeker among us."
"I don't want glory," I say, a bitter laugh on my tongue. "I don't even want praise."
The wind changes, smoke encircling us. When I look at him, he could be one of my stolen memories, coated in a layer of gray, somehow distant and close all at once as he asks, "Then what do you want?"
My heart tugs painfully because the answer is complicated. He of all people should know this. But how could he, when even in the moments I'm the surest of this answer, a new kind of want overpowers the next? I settle on the simplest and truest words I can.
"Forgiveness. I want the Whispers to know I'm not a traitor. The only way I can do that is by getting as many Moria on the next ship to Luzou as I can."
"No one thinks you're a traitor," Dez says, brushing aside my worry with a careless toss of his hand. That dismissal stings even though I know he believes it. "My father trusts you. I trust you, and since Lynx Unit is mine to command, that's what matters."
"How do you walk around with a head that big, Dez?"
I'd still be a scavenger if Dez hadn't petitioned his father and the other elders that I be trained to be a spy. My skill has been useful at saving Moria trapped in the Puerto Leones borders, but no one among our kind wants a memory thief like me in their midst. Robári are the reason we lost the war, even if our side has been on the losing end for decades. Robári can't be trusted. I can't be trusted.
Dez believes in me despite everything I've done. I would put my life in his hands — have done it before and will do it again. But for Dez, everything comes so easy. He doesn't see that. Among the Whispers Dez is the cleverest and bravest. The most reckless, too, but it's accepted as part of what makes him Dez. And yet, I know, even if I were just as clever, just as brave, I'd still be the girl that sparked a thousand deaths.
I will never stop trying to prove to them that I am more. Seeing destruction like this in Esmeraldas makes it so hard to hold onto what little hope I have.
"We're going in together," I say. "I can handle myself."
He makes a low grumble at the back of his throat and turns from me. I fight the impulse to reach out for him. We both know he won't send me away. He can't. Dez runs his fingers through his hair and reties the knot at the base of his neck. His dark eyebrows knit together and that's the moment he relents.
"Sometimes, Ren, I wonder who the Persuári is — you or me. We'll rendezvous in the Forest of Lynxes or —"
"Or you'll leave me at the hands of the Second Sweep for being too slow." I try to put humor into my voice, but nothing will stop the flutter of my heart, the memories pulsing to be freed. "I know the plan, Dez."
I begin to turn, new purpose coursing through my veins. But he grips my wrist and tugs me back to him.
"No. Or I'll come looking for you and kill anyone who tries to stop me." Dez presses a hard, quick kiss on my lips. He doesn't care if the others are watching us through their spyglasses, but I do. Wrenching myself from him leaves me with a dull ache between my ribs. When he smiles I feel a heady want that has no place here. "Find the alman stone," he says. He's Dez again. My unit leader.
Soldier. Rebel. "Celeste was to meet us in the village square. I'll search for survivors."
I squeeze his hand, then let go and say, "By the Light of Our Lady, we carry on."
"We carry on," he echoes.
I drum all the nervous energy in my body down into my legs. Pulling my scarf over the bottom half of my face, I take one last breath of fresh air, then run alongside him, down the hill from our lookout point, and into the blazing streets below. For someone built so tall and broad, Dez is fast on his feet. But I'm faster, and I make it to the square first. I tell myself not to look back at him, to keep going. I do it anyway and find he's watching me, too.
We split up.
I plunge deeper into the ruins of Esmeraldas. Flames as large as houses don't crackle — they roar. The heat on the smoldering cobble-stones is oppressive, and the snap of roof beams caving in sets my teeth on edge as houses crumble along the road. I say a silent prayer that their inhabitants have already made it out alive. Smoke tings tears from my eyes.
In the square, fire has eaten through every building it has touched, leaving nothing but black ruins behind. Hundreds of footsteps mark the ground, all of them leading east toward the town of Agata. By now there should be no one left in Esmeraldas. I can tell by the sickening silence.
The only thing untouched is the cathedral and whipping post in front of it. God and torture: the two things the king of Puerto Leones holds dearest to his heart.
There's something familiar about the bone-white stone of the cathedral, surrounding flames glinting off the stained-glass windows. Though I've never been to Esmeraldas, I can't shake the impression of having walked this very street before.
I brush away the feeling and make my way toward the whipping post. Occasionally, if there is time, doomed Moria hide messages or small parcels in the last place the king's men would think to look — and what better place than where the accused are taken to die?
Alman stone isn't conspicuous on its own, though when it captures memories, it glows like it's been filled with starlight. Before King Fernando's reign, it was common, but now, with temples desecrated and mines run dry, Moria are lucky to find it at all. If spymaster Celeste had enough warning, she would've hidden Rodrigue's alman stone for the Whispers to retrieve.
"What happened to you, Celeste?" I ask aloud, but only the crackle of fire answers, and I continue my search.
The executioner's block has dozens of long grooves from where a killing blade struck. The wood is dark, stained with dried blood. As I run my hands along the base, I am thankful I always wear gloves. The thought of heads rolling — of bodies hanging, of people locked into the paddocks and beat senseless — makes my stomach turn and my legs tremble. My body reacts the same way to blood as it does fire. And that is precisely why I force myself to be here.
I move to the hangman's noose. Esmeraldas is such a small village. I wonder when they find the time to practice so many forms of execution. Kneeling, I run my hands along the wooden boards beneath the noose for a break or a loose slat. Nothing. I walk around the whipping post, but all I find is a thin leather cord with a long strip of skin dried to it. Bile rises to my throat. I drop the whip, and when I do, the strangest sense of remembrance moves through me, and a vivid memory — one that does not belong to me, but is mine anyway — bursts into my mind.
I squeeze my eyes shut and palm my temples. It's been months since I've lost control of the memories living in my head. Silent smoke gathers in my mind's eye, then clears to reveal a scene drained of all color, and I'm forced to relive a stolen past, as the Gray cracks open. I see the same street, the same square, but as it was once before the fire —
A man adjusts his grip around a freshly cut tree and drags it down this street. His shoulders ache, but his thin gloves protect against splinters. His mud-covered boots stomp blue-and-gray cobblestones into the heart of the village. A crowd gathers in front of the cathedral. It is the sixth day of Almanar, and his neighbors carry branches, broken furniture, cut trees. They stack and stack the pyre until no one can reach the top. Music spills from open cantina doors. The drummers have come around, slapping leather skins to the festive songs. Couples dance as torches are lit. He sees the faces he's been waiting for — his wife and child run to him. They help him drag the tree onto the pyre — their offering for the festival of Almanar. Together, they sing and dance and watch the pyre burn.
Now I know why Esmeraldas felt familiar. Every memory I've ever stolen is a part of me. It's taken years and training to push them back, keep them in compartments I can't pry open. But sometimes, they find a way out. I should thank the stars that the memory that has spilled from the vault of my mind is a joyous one. A rural harvest where everyone comes together to burn the old year away. And yet, my hands tremble and sweat drips down my back. I don't want to look at it anymore. I force myself out of the Gray, shoving the memory back into the dark where it belongs. I've heard it called the curse of the Robári. Curse or not, I can't let it get in the way of finding the alman stone.
My eyes sting from smoke and the piercing pain that stabs my temples. I push my weary bones to stand. There is no alman stone here. If I were Celeste, where would I have run?
Then I hear it. A single sound pierces the crackle of fire.
At first, I think it's from another unwanted memory slipping out of the Gray, but it grows clear as cathedral bells on Holy Day. A voice crying out for help.
Someone in Esmeraldas is trapped.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Incendiary"
Copyright © 2020 Zoraida Córdova and Glasstown Entertainment.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
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