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Her gaze swung back to the commander, even as Zander tried to yank her along. “That’s Baedyed territory, and I will die if I enter.”

A flick of the commander’s wrist told Zander to stop hauling the empress onward, and everyone paused at the boundary between nature and civilization.

“How do you know it’s the Baedyeds in there?” The commander’s voice was strained, drawing Safi’s eyes to his shoulder. Yet if he felt any pain, his posture betrayed nothing.

Vaness glowered at a banner hanging atop the ruin walls. Green with a golden crescent—almost identical to the Marstoki naval standard … yet not. “The serpent around the moon,” Vaness explained, “is the emblem of the Baedyed Pirates.”

“Well,” the commander mused aloud, “that’s the only way I know into the Pirate Republic of Saldonica, so that’s the way we will be taking.”

“They will kill me on sight.” Vaness’s words, her face—they exuded panic and terror. Yet the truth grated against Safi’s magic, prickling gooseflesh down her muddied arms.

The empress was lying.

Instantly, Safi was alert. The exhaustion, the burning muscles, the thirst all scurried away in a great upward rush of interest. The empress saw something, some chance for escape, and Safi tried to think back to all the lectures she’d endured on the warship. There had been something about the Baedyeds, hadn’t there?

Hell-gates claim her. Mathew had been right all these years—Safi should have learned to listen better.

With a long inhale, Safi warped her face more deeply into exhaustion. She might not know what game was up, but she could still play along.

“Why should Baedyeds want you dead?” Lev asked.

“Because a century ago my ancestors were at war with their ancestors. When the Baedyeds lost, they were forced to join the Marstoki Empire. Some of the rebels never stopped the fight, and they formed what are now the Baedyed Pirates. Ever since, those Pirates have had a kill order on my family.”

For several long breaths, Caden’s attention flicked from Vaness to the bridge to his Hell-Bards. Vaness, bridge, Hell-Bards. Then he sighed. “Gods thrice-damn me,” he muttered at last. “I hate politics.”

“Yet,” Vaness said, standing taller, “that will not change the fact that the Baedyeds want me dead.”

Lie, lie, lie.

“Nor,” the commander shot back, “will it change the fact that this is the only entrance. The Red Sails are to the north, and they will kill us all on sight. Or they’ll sell us to the arena, in which case we’ll still die, just in a more painful manner.”

“There is another entrance, sir.” Zander’s soft rumble was almost lost to the jungle’s endless song. “It’s a bigger bridge. More traffic. Easier to enter Baedyed territory unseen.”

“That won’t be enough,” Vaness insisted. She puffed out her chest, tossing a wide-eyed look to each Hell-Bard. Pleading, scared, and absolutely false. “I am worth more to you alive than dead.”

“You aren’t the first person to say that.” The commander breathed those words with such weariness that despite everything inside her, a flash of pity ignited in Safi’s belly.

Until she recalled the meaning behind his words. He referred to heretics. Heretics he’d killed.

“But for once,” Lev offered hesitantly, “it’s actually true. She is worth more to us alive than dead.”

“Fine. Fine. Good enough.” A sigh from the commander. “We’ll take your way into the Republic, Zander, and then we can finally get on our ship and leave this place far behind. Lev, give the empress your helmet.” Caden pivoted toward Safi, yanking off his own steel helm. “I will give mine to the heretic.”

Caden plunked it over Safi’s head before she could recoil. Heat, darkness, and the stink of metal and sweat crashed over her. Yet she didn’t argue or protest, even as her vision was cut in half, even as the world took on a ringing, echoing quality. And even as Caden shoved her into a hard pace through the jungle.

None of that mattered, for Vaness seemed to have a winning taro card up her imperial sleeve, and when she played it, Safi had to make sure she was ready.

SIXTEEN

Vivia did not appreciate being awoken before the sun began its ascent.

Especially not by Serrit Linday.

It didn’t help that her skull was pounding—or that her rib cage felt carved out and hollow. Three hours of broken sleep had done nothing to dull the darkness that had closed her day.

First, Vivia had gone to Pin’s Keep to find her office in tatters. No one knew why. No one knew how. Stix had been there, they all said, yet no one had seen the first mate in hours.

So Vivia had waited for Stix. Well past midnight she’d stayed in her office, first cleaning, then checking records. Then simply staring out the window. But the first mate had never shown, so Vivia had shuffled back to the palace alone.

Each step had been worse than the last, for Vivia could guess exactly where Stix was. No doubt, the first mate had found someone to warm her bed. Yet again. And no doubt, that person was beautiful and charming and buoyant in a way that Vivia never could be.

Now, here Vivia was, tired and aching and following Serrit Linday through his family’s greenhouse with twelve Royal Forces soldiers tromping behind. Magnolias shivered in the corner of her vision, so bright. So out of season.

The power of a Plantwitch, she thought, and fast on its heels came a second: Why does Serrit have to be so selfish? We could use this space to grow food—we could use his magic too.

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