Incendiary – Zoraida Córdova

Celeste San Marina dug a grave that night. The season’s drought had hardened the earth in Esmeraldas, and every strike of her shovel sent pain up her arms, making her muscles twitch and her bones ache. But still she kept digging, dust sticking to rivulets of sweat coursing down her weathered tan skin. The half-moon hid behind thick clouds that refused to break, and the only light came from the dying oil lamp beside the body loosely wrapped in linens. Thrusting the shovel back into the ground, she didn’t stop until her palms were blistered red and there was a hole deep enough for the body. Then she sank to her knees beside him. “You deserved better, Rodrigue,” the spymaster said, a tremble in her voice. Had she more warning, more help, she could have given him the traditional burial, but in times like this, an unmarked grave was all they had. She reached around his neck and cut the leather cord that held his alman stone—the single remnant of Rodrigue’s legacy—and slipped the jagged white crystal into the pocket sewn inside her gray tunic. The stone rested beside a single glass vial carried by every other Moria spy in the kingdom, right over her heart. How many more secrets would she have to collect before she could rest? Rest was out of the question for that night. With all her strength, Celeste pushed the body into the waiting grave and proceeded to shovel the mountain of earth on top of him. Another dead Moria. Another dead rebel. The horse whinnied and kicked at shadows as Celeste packed up her lamp and shovel.

She needed to get back to the village before sunrise. She mounted the steed, sinking her heels into the horse’s sides. Wind beat against her face, hooves pounded a trail of dust, and stars sparkled above. With one hand firmly gripping the reins, Celeste kept checking to make sure Rodrigue’s alman stone was still in her pocket. All of her hopes and the future of her people were trapped within that bit of rock, mined from veins that ran deep beneath the mountain ranges of the kingdom. Along the Cliffs of Memoria, alman stone once dotted the landscape. Now it was as rare as miracles. Once it had been used to build temples and statues of the goddess herself and cut into dazzling gems and reliquaries by artisans of neighboring lands. But for the Moria, gifted with the powers of the Lady of Shadows, it was always so much more than a stone. Its prisms transformed the surrounding world into living memory.

Rodrigue’s information was worth dying for. Celeste had to believe that. She prayed to Our Lady of Whispers that this was the day help would arrive. It had been eight days exactly since she’d sent the messenger to the Whispers, and nine days since Rodrigue arrived at her doorstep half-dead, with news so terrifying that even her hardened heart had stirred. Rodrigue had survived nearly a month under the torture of the Arm of Justice and then the journey from the capital. That alone could make anyone mad—make anyone see things. But if it were true . There was no worse fate for the kingdom. The world would be forced to bow to Puerto Leones. She kicked her horse harder, held the reins as tightly as the breath in her chest.

Finally, the horse’s hooves hit the main dirt road of Esmeraldas. The village still slumbered, but she bypassed the square, avoiding the cobblestones that would wake her neighbors. Despite the dark, she couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. Celeste dismounted and locked the horse back in the small stable. She just needed to make it to the door, and then she’d be safe in her hosts’ house. She crept through the rows of thornbushes, hoping Emilia hadn’t lost sleep waiting up for her. In her many years as spymaster for the Whispers, Celeste had called several places home, but none had been as welcoming as Emilia Siriano and her family’s. They knew her as Celeste Porto, a widow, a midwife, a caretaker. Though they were used to her insomnia, she had never brought trouble to their doorstep. Come daylight she’d have to explain why Rodrigue could not be buried in the cemetery and why there was no family to claim him.

Celeste and the Whispers were all the family he had. Turning her key in the kitchen’s side door, Celeste paused, listening. The silence was disturbed by the drying crackle of fire and rustle of her shawl as she slipped inside. Soft light came from the red embers in the hearth. Her bones ached for sleep, but the Sirianos would rise soon. Nights in Esmeraldas weren’t usually so cool this time of year, but she loved any excuse to build a fire, busy her hands with simple tasks. That, and the perfect loaf of bread, were the gifts she brought to this household. A touch of smoke mingled with the sweet, grass-perfumed breeze that pushed through the window as Celeste warmed her wind-ravaged face by the hearth. Flames swallowed the kindling and caught the edges of the dried logs. In moments like this it was easy to let herself believe she was only a housemaid with a simple life.

But after decades of hiding in plain sight, her senses wouldn’t let her rest. She identified two scents that hadn’t been there when she’d left—anointing oils and unwashed bodies. She remembered she’d shut all the windows and doors before dragging Rodrigue out. Her spine stiffened. “Celeste San Marina,” a clear, cutting voice spoke as the growing fire illuminated the corners of the dark. A man rose from a chair with deadly grace. “I’d hoped our paths would cross again.” Celeste’s breath caught. Though he only wore a rumpled white tunic and brown riding trousers, she would have recognized his regal face anywhere. The last surviving son of King Fernando.

They called him so many things, but they never uttered his name, as if afraid it would somehow conjure his likeness, no matter the time or place. Príncipe Dorado. Bloodied Prince. The Lion’s Fury. Matahermano. As he took a step closer in the faint light, she could almost see the ghost of the child he’d been during her time at the palace—a curious golden-haired boy. A boy who would grow up to be worse than his father. She’d only ever called him Castian. Before Celeste could run, the prince motioned with his gloved hand, and two soldiers bounded in from the hall. One of them closed a meaty hand around her throat.

The second blocked the kitchen door. “We can make this simple,” Castian said, his voice deep and even as he strode over to them. He tugged off his fine leather gloves to reveal hands that did not belong to a prince. Callused and scarred knuckles from years of hard training and fighting. “Tell me where he is, and I will make your death a swift and painless one.” “Life under your family’s rule is neither swift nor painless.” Celeste spoke slowly, her voice hoarse. She’d waited for the day to come when she would face him once again. “I would not trust the Lion’s Fury to honor his word.” “After everything you’ve done, it is you who does not trust me?” The kitchen seemed to shrink with the prince’s presence.

She could taste his emotions in the air. His anger was a bitter tincture that would be her undoing. But she’d known that long ago. All she could do for the rebels was stall and take their secrets beyond the veil. The soldier’s fingers dug into her windpipe, and as she struggled to breathe, she kicked out. Every muscle and bone in her body ached from hours of digging and sleepless nights since Rodrigue’s arrival. Her eyes flicked toward the Siriano family’s closed bedroom door. What had the prince and his men done to them? Then a terrible thought surfaced. Had the Sirianos, who’d hired and housed her, who’d believed in peace among all the peoples of Puerto Leones, betrayed her the moment she’d left? A twisting sensation wrenched her already strained heart. She desperately wanted—needed—to breathe.

She pushed thoughts of betrayal aside and concentrated on the alman stone that was still tucked into her pocket. She could not let it be found. She slapped at the guard’s hands, scratched at the exposed skin between sleeve and glove, her eyes straining to see beyond bursts of black splotches. “Enough.” The prince held up his hand and the soldier relinquished his hold on her. “The dead can’t speak.” “That shows how much you know of the dead,” Celeste rasped as she dropped to her knees. Pressing her hands to the cool stone floor for balance, she coughed. She needed time to think, but the prince was not famous for his patience. She stared at the fire in the hearth for focus.

Before Rodrigue had succumbed to his injuries she’d promised to do whatever it took to get his alman stone to the Whispers. They should have been there. Unless the reason the prince was here was because they’d already been captured. For the first time, the spymaster realized that perhaps rest would never come. At least not in this life. Her aging body was no good in a fight. All she had was the glass vial and her magics. With eyes narrowed on the prince, she twisted the thick copper ring on her middle finger, immediately feeling the strength of her magics pulsing inside her veins as the metal charged her power of persuasion. A primordial buzz surged through every inch of her skin, bleeding into the air, thickening it enough to bring a sweat to the guard’s forehead. Her gift was as old as time—old as the trees, old as the minerals and metals that strengthened the power in her veins—and it wanted release.

She sifted through the weakest emotions in the room. The guards. Their heightened fear of her was easy to latch on to. Their muscles and tendons seized and left them petrified in place. But the prince was just out of reach. She needed him closer. Close enough to touch. “Thank the stars your dear mother isn’t alive to see what you’ve become,” Celeste said. Just as she intended, the prince advanced. She pushed her magics harder.

Sweat trickled down the prince’s fine cheekbone, where a crescent scar marred his sharp features. Only then did Celeste San Marina stare into Prince Castian’s eyes, blue like the sea he was named after, and confront her greatest nightmare. “Don’t you dare speak of her.” He clamped a hand around Celeste’s mouth. At his touch, Celeste acted quickly. Her magics traveled from her body to his, like a gust of wind cycling between them. Closing her eyes, she searched for an emotion to seize—pity, hate, anger. If only she could grab hold of the thing that made the young prince so cruel, she could draw it out and smother it. With her Persuári gifts she could take a fraction of any emotion that existed within someone and bring it to life, amplifying it into action. She knew all the colors that made up a person’s soul—starwhite hope, mud-green envy, pomegranate love.

But when she focused on the prince, she could only see a faint, muted gray. He jerked his hand off her jaw, and she gasped, trying to regain her breath. Her thoughts spun. Everyone’s emotions expressed themselves in colors. Gray was for those passing on from the worlds, fading into nothingness. Why was he different? She knew of nothing that could block the powers of the Moria. Her magics drew back, and she was forced to release her hold on the petrified guards. They crumpled to their knees, but with a single wave of their commander’s hand, the men pushed themselves back up at attention. The prince’s smile was malevolent in his triumph. “Did you really think I’d face you again without taking precautions against your magics?” “What have you done to yourself, Castian?” Celeste managed before rough hands grabbed her shoulders and dragged her to the small wooden table in front of the hearth.

The soldier slammed her into a chair and held her in place. “I am what you made me,” he said, low and just for her. She breathed in his rage. “I dreamed of finding you for so long.” “You will not find us all. The kingdom of Memoria will rise once more.” “Enough of your tricks and your lies!” He spoke each word like his own personal truth. “I know everything you did.” “Surely you can’t know everything I’ve ever done, princeling.” She wanted to toy with him.

To let him know that she did not fear him or death. “What does a prince want with a lowly runaway? Or are the king’s armies so depleted he’d send out his only living child in the dead of the night? I thought you loved an audience for your executions.” “I love nothing,” the prince shouted, his temper burning like a lit fuse. “Where is he?” “Dead,” Celeste spat. “Rodrigue is dead.” Castian growled his frustration and lowered his face to hers. “Not the spy. Dez. I want Dez.” Celeste ground her teeth.

Her magics could not help her anymore. She’d survived the rebellion eight years ago, prison, and decades of hiding and gathering information across Puerto Leones. But she knew she would not survive Prince Castian. So long as the alman stone was safe she could make peace with herself. “If you know everything I’ve ever done, my prince, you should know that I would never tell you.” There was no room for regret in her heart. There was only the cause—and every terrible thing she’d ever done for the good of her people, she would do again and again. Prince Castian crossed his arms, a bemused smile playing on his lips as the side door opened. “Perhaps you’ll tell her.” Celeste’s blood ran cold as another soldier entered through the kitchen door, escorting a young woman.

The spymaster’s mind struggled to place the green pallor of the girl’s olive skin. Gaunt in a way that made her look like she’d been drained by leeches. When recognition sparked, tears she thought had long since run dry pooled in her eyes. Celeste knew this girl. Lucia Zambrano, a mind reader for the Whispers, known for her bright brown eyes and sweet laughter that made it easy to fall in love with her, just as Rodrigue had. Rodrigue, whose grave dirt was still under Celeste’s fingernails. Lucia’s quick wit was only matched by the speed of her footwork, both of which were useful when she spied for Celeste in Citadela Crescenti. Celeste had heard of Lucia’s capture during a raid, and after Rodrigue’s tales of what was happening in the dungeons, she’d feared the worst. That was when she’d believed the worst that could happen to the Moria was a slow, torturous death. The king has discovered a fate worse than death, Celeste thought now, unable to look away from Lucia.

Her eyes were vacant, a house where the lights have been snuffed out. Her lips were cracked and had a white film at the corners. Lucia’s bones and veins were hugged by too-tight skin. “Come closer, Lucia,” Castian said. The girl’s movements appeared to be commanded by the prince’s voice. She took slow steps, her dead eyes focused on the fire in the hearth behind Celeste. “What have you done to her?” Celeste asked, her voice small. “What will be done to all Moria unless you tell me what I want to know.” The realization thundered through every part of her body: Rodrigue was right. Rodrigue was right.

Rodrigue was right. How would she protect the alman stone now? Castian was somehow immune to her magics, but she could try her best with the guards. And then what? She wouldn’t make it past the bridge checkpoints without travel documents. She had to be there for the Whispers to find—even if she wasn’t alive. “This will be your future unless you tell me where Dez is,” Castian said, louder, impatient. For a moment, Celeste’s eyes flicked to the closed door where the Sirianos slept. No, no one could sleep through this disturbance. They were dead. Or they had abandoned her. Celeste’s stomach churned because it didn’t matter now.

She was out of options, and the knowledge of what she had to do overcame her. She barely had time to turn away before she vomited. The soldier cursed and shook the sickness from his hand, but one look at the Príncipe Dorado and he kept his other hand firmly on Celeste’s shoulder. “I won’t ask again,” the prince said, his face a vicious mask inches from hers. “I will burn this village to the ground with you in it.” Celeste knew that she had a single moment to get things right. All she needed was to hide the alman stone for another Moria to find. Illan’s spies were clever, and if they weren’t, then she’d pray to Our Lady of Shadows for a guiding hand. After that, she’d fight until she couldn’t fight anymore— but she wouldn’t be taken alive. Despite the pain—despite the bile that pooled across her tongue and threatened to choke her windpipe—Celeste, finally, began to laugh.

One moment, one life. She wished she had more to give the Whispers. The prince closed a fist around her hair, pulling her away from the soldier. “You laugh at the fate of your own?” Blinking her eyes to focus, Celeste stared back at the prince. “I laugh because you will not win. We are a flame that will never burn out.” Then she slammed her forehead into the prince’s face. He released her, reaching for his bloody nose. In that moment, she was free, rolling away onto the ground; her quick fingers retrieved the hidden contents over her heart. The guard dove for her.

She grabbed the oil lamp on the table and threw it. The glass shattered against the guard’s chest, and he screamed as fire caught on his clothes, anointed with oils meant for protection. It was an ugly way to die, and it would not be her fate. She dug into her tunic pocket and held up the glass vial for the prince to see. “You’re mad,” the prince shouted, his heavy steps charging to stop her. Celeste whispered a prayer to the Lady. Forgive me. Forgive me for my past. Welcome me at last. She swallowed the contents of the vial, slipping the stone that she would protect with her life into her mouth.

She gave in to the numbness of the poison rushing through her body, a cold she’d only ever felt when she swam in the mountain lakes near her family home as a girl. When she closed her eyes, she could see that deep blue water, feel the calm of floating for hours, but she could still hear the prince calling her name, the shouting from the guards, the crackle of flames. Celeste San Marina made a second grave at dawn. Hers was one of fire.

.

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