Like flowers denied water, people are wilting under the emperor's tyranny.
Rose will not rest until the Gardener is dead. But there are bigger battles to fight, and Rayce-leader of the rebellion and the only man Rose has ever loved-believes their best chance at winning the war is to join forces with her sworn enemy.
Saving innocent people is more important than her quest for revenge. But their new ally can't be trusted-and he knows her darkest secret. One betrayal could leave the war and Rayce's life hanging in the balance, and Rose will need to make the ultimate sacrifice to save them all.
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The stars burn cold and bright, strewn across the charcoal sky of the Zaina Desert ... the sands of my home. I breathe in deep, filling my lungs with the clean, untouched air, and try to forget that I've crossed the Blue Gate into Varsha and traversed these sacred lands with a small pack of rebel Delmarions who know nothing of its splendor or beauty. Forget that I've already given away many of the secrets that have helped my people survive in the harsh desert and protected Varsha from attack by Delmar for generations. If any of the ways we map the endless sands or conserve water fall back to the emperor's ears, then the long-stalled war between Delmar and Varsha is as good as won, cementing his place in the eyes of the people and snuffing out the rebellion's spark once and for all.
But I guess it's a fair trade, since they've come all this way to keep the secret of my survival from reaching the Varshan traitor king's ears. Trading secrets for secrets. It's all my life has ever amounted to.
If Zareen's intel is correct and the emperor is really trying for a temporary treaty with Varsha to crush the rebellion by offering up my head, then there isn't time to waste. If the traitor king finds out that I survived when he betrayed my father and overthrew him, my days would slip like sand through my fingers. Which means that the caravan rebels spotted a few days ago leaving with the emperor's letter cannot be allowed to reach Varsha, or it could mean the end of the rebellion as well as my life. Even if I was able to convince the king that I'm not interested in the throne, that I would never be interested in it, it wouldn't matter anyway. I still plan on killing him as payment for my father's life. I grit my teeth. The Delmarion emperor, too. My list has grown.
My heart pounds against my rib cage as the thought settles on my shoulders, its weight threatening to crush me.
"If you keep frowning like that, your face will get stuck that way," says a familiar male voice behind me. "And that would be a shame, because you're so beautiful when you smile."
Rayce's voice calms my nerves, and I turn toward him. Before I'm even able to swivel around fully, he wraps his arms around me, pulling me to him. In the several months we've known each other, I've barely ever seen him out of his long black vest and dark pants, but at my suggestion, all the Zareeni guards have traded their dark clothing for light tans and whites so they can better blend into the sands. Rayce is no exception, his ivory robe molded to his well-sculpted arms and chest. His dark hair falls over his forehead, begging my fingers to run through it, and his brown eyes sparkle with mischief, burning bright like the stars above our heads.
I wonder if things had gone according to plan and we had been married, before my father was murdered by the usurper that now sits on the throne, if he would have dressed in the colors of the desert more often. If the fabric of my home would look like it was woven into his blood. But if that dream were true, then we would both also be ruling by now, and that is not the life I see for myself. Perhaps a soldier or owning a small bookshop, but not a queen. The strain of leading people always lies heavily on Rayce's shoulders like a cloak, one I'm not strong enough to wear.
Despite my nerves, a smile slides onto my lips. "You know that's just something mothers tell their daughters to keep them from frowning too much, right?"
He shrugs, resting his chin on the top of my head. I let out a sigh, my breath a puff of steam, and snuggle closer to his warmth.
"It got you to smile and that's all I was aiming for." His stubble tickles my skin. "We don't have much time before we need to get into position, but I wanted to see you. Once the caravan arrives, things are going to get dangerous, quickly."
Though I could listen to him speak all day, his words sink into my chest like sand piling on top of my body, and fear clouds the edges of my mind. I peek around his shoulder and toward the small squadron handpicked by Rayce and Arlo, his second in command, for this delicate mission.
A man to our right checks the barrel of his stunner, making sure it's filled with the green powdered mineral called Zarenite that makes the weapons fire. It reacts to his body heat, making the tattoo on his arm glow bright green in the night air. Farther out, Arlo talks rapidly in hushed tones, with his hands moving like he's trying to conduct the air, and Marin, his sister and the first person to help me believe in the rebellion, politely nods, her dark-blond curls bouncing. When she notices me staring, she sticks out her tongue.
All around us, the other dozen guards talk quietly among themselves, but tension shows in their nervous fidgeting, the tightness in their eyes. They're out of their element, used to fighting in the forests, not the deserts.
But so are the Delmarion Sun soldiers we're waiting to ambush, I remind myself.
"And you're sure that the caravan came through the Blue Gate?" I ask Rayce again, for what must be the hundredth time.
"Positive," he repeats, not a trace of impatience in his voice. "I saw it with my own eyes." He pulls away just slightly so we are staring at each other. The warmth of his body lingers against my skin, but the chill in the air fights to replace it. "I'm taking every precaution. If my uncle succeeds in a treaty with Varsha, it won't be long before he has the resources to find the rebellion, and that will mean the end for us."
I don't trust my voice not to shake when I speak, so I nod instead.
He cups my cheek, his callused fingers rubbing rough against my face. "I also know how hard you've worked to keep your own secrets, and I promise you, I'll do everything in my power not to let either of those men hurt you. I won't let anyone hurt you, if I can help it." He cracks a smile. "Judging by how proficient you've become with a sword these past few months, I'm pretty sure you won't need much help from me, though."
I let out a raspy breath. "We're about to put all of those new skills to the test."
"If the ambush works like it should, there won't be much of a reason to fight. You remember your part in this?"
"Yes. I need to recover and destroy the scroll before either side can read it."
"You have to," he corrects, his voice growing softer. He scoots closer until our faces are inches apart. "We're taking a huge risk by only telling the others a half truth. It keeps your secret safe, but it also means that no one can help you with your part. I've alerted Arlo, but —"
"I know." I touch the back of his hand. "Trust me, I can do this. I'll find the emperor's decree and destroy it."
"Please, just stay safe," he says, resting his forehead against mine. "Everything else is important, but I'll work out what I need to as long as you stay —"
A spray of sand cascades from the ground between a pair of towering sand dunes. After setting up here, we buried a long rope fifty feet back and placed scouts in ten-foot intervals along it. As soon as the first one caught sight of the caravan, he yanked it up from the thin layer of sand covering it to alert us that our target was in range, without having to speak a word. An old Varshan trick I told the Zareeni rebellion about before we left. Sand writing is the best way to send silent messages in the desert where the wind flings voices flying farther than they should reach. It's how our people have managed to defeat the Delmarions every single time they tried to march on our capital.
"The scouts have spotted the caravan a couple hundred yards off," Rayce says in a loud whisper. "Quickly, into your positions!" He turns back to me. "Remember what we talked about."
He gives me a quick kiss on the top of my head and darts off for a group on the opposite dune as me.
It's almost time.
Shaking out my hands, I take a deep breath, aiming to calm my racing heart. To keep my mind off what's about to happen, I grab the altered stunner at my side, my fingers so slick with sweat, they slip off the handle. I rub them against my pant leg before trying again. I readjust my grip on the instrument I've dubbed a grappler and hold the machine up to examine the thin silver wire strung around the back like an endless thread of spider silk. A thick, sharp hook sits in the barrel, waiting to be shot outward the moment I pull the trigger.
Calla and Lily, former Flowers that danced with me when we were all slaves in the Garden, walk up beside me, their feet moving in unison. Both girls wear their long, raven-colored hair in matching ponytails, and if it wasn't for the tiny beauty mark on the left side of Calla's hairline, I'd never be able to tell them apart.
"The rebels tried to put us on the opposite side of you," Calla says.
"But we told them they couldn't," Lily adds. "We don't answer to them."
"They're providing us food and shelter," I say. "We should at least try to respect their wishes."
Clover, another of my sisters from the Garden, walks up behind them. I can only catch the top of her head as the twins have a few inches on her.
"We take our orders from you," Clover says, her voice raspy. Her long dark hair flows in front of her face, barring me from seeing what she's actually thinking.
"No," I say, forcing my tone steady. "I'm not the one giving orders. I don't know the first thing about leading people."
I've told them this more times than there are grains of sand surrounding us, and my words still haven't sunk in. Though they've been looking to me for guidance, I'll never take charge of them. Accepting that responsibility means their lives are in my hands, lives I cannot possibly hope to spare from the ruthlessness of war. If Rayce can't save all of his own people being as skilled as he is, I have no hope.
I must admit, though, having my sisters near me makes it easier to breathe.
Arlo runs over, but his gaze remains locked on Marin, who has gathered around Rayce along with the rest of the troops on that side.
"Everyone, pack in tight," he says. "We only have one shot to get this right."
Arlo and I move to the nearest sand dune and lie flat on the ground. He unholsters a pair of stunners, setting one in front of him, and wields his grappler in his left hand.
I shift in the chilly sand and feel it moving to conform to my body as I lie on my stomach, grains slipping into my robe's long sleeves. The hilt of my grappler feels solid between my hands, and I keep it trained on the only space between two sand dunes that is big enough to fit the Delmarion caravan.
Puffs of gray clouds smear over the moonlight staining my world in a sickly blue color, making it nearly impossible to see much farther than the sand mountain's base glittering in the dim light beside me. If I can't see much lying still, our target won't be able to see anything while they're moving.
"When the fighting starts, stay near me," Arlo says. His gaze remains trained on the sand dunes. "Whatever happens. That's an order. I'm not losing you."
Even now, the memory of him screaming my name as guards pulled him away a few months ago when we'd infiltrated the underground prison in Imperial City echoes through my head. Despite my nerves, his concern makes me smile.
"You won't," I say, suddenly very fascinated by the grappler in front of me. "I trust you."
He touches my forearm in thanks, gently clasping it before letting me go. There was a time when I would freeze under that type of touch, especially from a man, but months with the rebellion has begun to reshape the way I think about friendship.
It has reshaped the way I think about almost everything, and that has so much to do with the man who would normally be right beside the rest of us, who gave his life so that my sisters and I could have our freedom.
My fingers wander to the thin golden chain around my neck, and I feel the comforting crunch of parchment against my fingertip. Even though I'm pretty sure he wouldn't approve of me desecrating the book he wrote, I ripped out the page he'd bookmarked for me, the one that finally let me accept my own destiny, folded it up and tucked it into a tiny leather pouch around a spare bit of chain Rayce lent me. It doesn't come close to the comfort Oren's presence always gave me, but it's one of the last pieces left of him. A surge of strength rushes through me.
Right on time, too.
As I let out my held breath, a horse whinny pierces the air and the sounds of men shouting at each other fill the clearing.
On the other side, the remaining Zareeni rebels mirror us as they clutch grapplers in their hands. My heart beats wildly, trying to break free as I run through the plan one last time.
This has to go right, we only have one shot. Otherwise, Rayce risked his troops, we crossed the Blue Gate, and I gave away the survival secrets of my people ... all for nothing.
Panic pumps chilly through my veins, threatening to freeze me in place, until my eyes find a pair of dark ones that seem to know me better than I know myself twenty yards away, piercing through my confident mask into the turmoil that rages inside.
"I've got you," Rayce mouths, a smile slipping on to his face. It's the same one I saw the first time we met, the one that I knew would get me in trouble, and here I am, facing danger once again with him.
Despite my sweaty palms and the worry that all of this could come crashing down, a calm washes over me. This is the man who keeps his promises. The man who loves me. I nod and turn my attention back to the space between the towering sand dunes, just as two black horses come into view.CHAPTER 2
The entire world halts except for the twin horses pulling the caravan through the gap between those two sand dunes in slow motion. Worry for what could go wrong, fear for my fellow Flowers, fades to the back of my mind as our target comes into view. Even my lungs forget how to take in air, all of my energy focused on Arlo as I wait for him to give the silent signal for us to begin. I throw myself into this state of hyperawareness, anything to quiet the all-consuming fear that if anything goes wrong, my secret could be revealed, the two kingdoms could unite to stamp out the rebellion, or one of my friends could die in this struggle.
Come on, Arlo, let's start this already, before my heart explodes.
As if he can hear my pleading, he moves his finger in a tight circle and my own presses down on the trigger before my brain can catch up. The contraption in my hand kicks back in reaction, the hilt burying itself in a few inches of sand. All around me other silver threads shoot out, glistening like a spiderweb, grappling hooks embedding into the wooden side of the Delmarion cart with loud thwacks.
The two horses rear up, spooked by our sudden appearance. But they aren't nearly as scared sounding as the chorus of shouts coming from inside the cart. With his free hand, Arlo takes aim, a green bolt shooting out from the tip of his stunner. His shot finds its target, and the soldier holding the horse's reins drops them as he goes limp.
Somewhere near a dozen Sun soldiers pour out of the white-and-blue covered cart, clutching long swords as their helmeted heads look about wildly between our two groups of rebels. I push up and scurry to tie my grappler around a boulder to keep the cart from moving alongside the other rebels. Though I can't see through the cart to the other side, I know Marin and the others are doing the exact same thing, rooting the cart in place.
Pulling the rope taut, I swing back around just in time to catch a Sun soldier's blade coming straight for my neck. My hand automatically reaches for my own sword strapped to my side as I duck, but I'm not skilled enough to slow these moments down like I can when I aerial dance.
The wind from the blade swinging brushes against my skin, but the man falls forward without ever making contact. I search for what incapacitated him and follow the barrel of a smoking stunner up to Rayce's smirking mouth. He tips his head in my direction, his hair falling over his eyes, and swivels around to parry an oncoming Sun soldier with his sword.
All around me, the sounds of fighting fill the night — men grunting, shouts of pain as a blow lands, the sharp zip of stunner bolts — but I do my best to block it out, letting the soldiers and guards alike fade into the background. My gaze falls back on the caravan just as a Sun soldier slips out of the covered portion of the cart, shielding a scroll with his arm.
Moonlight illuminates the Delmarion emperor's blue seal holding the envelope closed. That's the letter we're here for.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "War of the Wilted"
Copyright © 2018 Amber Mitchell.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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