These Divided Shores – Sara Raasch

“TO ENSURE THE good of every Grace Lorayan, we, your Council, have unanimously voted to relinquish control of the island to His Majesty Asentzio Elazar Vega Gallego, King of the Pious God– Blessed Nation of Argrid, Eminence of the Eternal Church.” Even though Vex and Edda weren’t on the side of the castle that faced the courtyard, the councilman’s voice reverberated with perfect clarity. Last time Vex had been in New Deza’s fortress, he’d come as a prisoner—and he’d rather have been locked in the dungeon again than been subjected to the pristine acoustics of the servants’ halls. He darted behind Edda, flying past windows servants had opened to usher in the lake breeze. All that the windows really let in was the stench of sweat from the crowd in the front courtyard and the bleating words of a representative from Grace Loray’s Council. “Cansu and Nayeli are sure they found her?” Vex hissed. “They see her? I don’t want to hear this speech again. If we’re dallying here on a hunch or a rumor—” Edda adjusted the Budwig Bean in her ear. One of the benefits of running missions with the Tuncian raider syndicate was access to the magic plant, which let two people communicate across great distances. “You planned this whole mission. Having doubts now?” “I’ve had doubts about every decision I’ve made since Elazar set foot on this island again.” Edda’s blue eyes softened, but then a maid appeared in front of them. Vex and Edda slowed to a walk. Vex drew the hood of his gray cloak lower, concealing his missing eye, while Edda twisted into the shadows until the maid vanished down the hall. “The last time we had true peace on this island was centuries ago,” the councilman was saying, “when Argrid brought unity to the conflicting immigrant groups that settled here—” “Nay heard guards outside her room mention her by name,” Edda assured him.

Spots of pink touched her pale cheeks. “Just because Ben wasn’t here doesn’t mean this mission won’t—” Vex shoved by her. “Won’t be a complete waste?” he snapped. “Yeah, we didn’t find my cousin. We weren’t able to save the people scheduled to burn today. But here’s hoping we free Kari Andreu —that’ll fix our problems.” A sack of galles had bought Vex and Edda access to the list of prisoners due to be burned today after the councilman finished his speech. Ben’s name hadn’t been on it, but eleven other people’s names were—and defensors had them lined up at the base of the councilman’s platform, watched by a crowd, with no way for Edda and Vex to save them. Part of Vex hadn’t expected to find his cousin, just as he hadn’t at the last three burnings he, Edda, and Nayeli had scouted. Ben had made himself a traitor after helping Vex and Lu try to escape his father’s ship two weeks ago, but he was still the Crown Prince of Argrid.

Elazar wouldn’t let priests kill his son like a common criminal. He’d make an example of him instead. Even so, Vex didn’t stop scouting the burnings. Ben had to be somewhere. But god, it’d only been two weeks, and Vex was exhausted to the bone. Edda caught up to him. Vex expected her to punch him in the shoulder for being irritable, but she walked next to him in silence as if he was a brittle creature. Which pissed him off. “Threats darkened Grace Loray’s shore only when the stream raider syndicates rose against Argrid,” said the councilman. “What we perceived as aggression from Argrid was in fact defensors countering the attacks from stream raiders.

All this time, we blamed the Argridians when they were as much victim as Grace Loray. The true enemy, the cause of our combined ills, is the manipulative, evil stream raider syndicates.” ARGRID IS EVIL, Vex screamed in his head. ARGRID IS THE ENEMY, YOU LYING SACK OF CROCODILE SHIT. When Grace Loray was discovered centuries ago, it became a free-for-all settlers’ paradise. People from the five Mainland countries had come, filled it up, and lived in moderate tolerance until Argrid decided to seize control and attempted to regulate its magic. To counter Argrid’s forceful claim, immigrants from the other four countries had each formed syndicates to protect their own. They had been right to. Argrid had tightened its grip on Grace Loray, outlawing the magic plants that grew in the island’s waterways and burning anyone who disagreed with the Church’s doctrine. Rebels had fought off Argrid and instituted a democracy—but even that failed when Argrid infiltrated the Grace Lorayan government.

Now Argrid was back. Instead of forcing its standards of purity and magic-abstinence on the whole island, it had singled out one group: stream raiders. Lawless thieves hated by any who weren’t raiders themselves. Which made them perfect unifying scapegoats. “Raiders hoard deadly magic,” the councilmember continued to the all-too-silent crowd. Why weren’t they screaming in fury? Why weren’t they outraged? “Raiders pillage and destroy in the name of defiance for defiance’s sake. Soon, you will not have to live in fear. The Council has allied with Argrid to purge Grace Loray in pursuit of our joint goal: a war on raiders.” Vex’s lungs swelled. Variations of this weak-ass speech had introduced every execution he and his crew had infiltrated these past two weeks, as though any words could diminish the horror of people burning to death.

But people weren’t burning, not this time. Raiders were burning. A spasm swept over Vex and he stumbled. His Shaking Sickness spells were getting harder to hide, as though his body knew his one chance at a cure had been stabbed to death on the deck of the Astuto. The thought of Lu hit him like scalding water, and he caught himself on a window frame. Beyond his trembling fingers, a cloudless blue sky capped the island’s tangle of deep green jungle. Breaks in the trees spoke of the rivers that wound across the island, with long plumes of steam rising over boats. Below was the castle’s garden. Edda put her hand on his shoulder. “You all right?” This was the place he and Lu had escaped from weeks ago.

He had to be standing right above the window he’d yanked open and jumped out with Teo on his back. Lu had been downright furious at him for bringing the six-year-old along, but what else could he have done? She had to admit that the journey had been good for the kid— Vex scratched at the rough indigo sleeve of his stolen servant’s uniform. Good. Sure. If good meant Teo sitting in a shack in Port Mesi-Teab. Since Vex had come back without Lu two weeks ago, the only person Teo had spoken to had been Edda. But when Vex asked her what he said, she’d told him, “He’s a kid. He doesn’t know how to deal with what’s going on.” Vex’s heart throbbed and he shook off Edda’s hand. “I’m fine.

Let’s go.” Edda gave him a look of disbelief. She fiddled with the Budwig Bean and her face got distant, as though she was listening to a voice echo down a tunnel. “We’re on the third floor now. Servant’s hall on the south side.” A pause. “Second door? Which—oh.” Nayeli poked her head through a door, stray black curls bouncing in rebellion from the beige knit cap of her own servant’s uniform. She looked at Vex, the sympathy in her eyes saying Edda had told her, at some point, that they hadn’t found Ben. But she didn’t press for details—wouldn’t, around Cansu.

The fact that Vex was Argridian royalty wouldn’t go over well among stream raiders, so as far as anyone else knew, Vex was just looking for his cousin. Not his cousin, the Crown Prince of Argrid. Cansu pushed her way into the hall. “Two guards outside her room. Easy to eliminate.” “Eliminate?” Vex gawked. “Stand down, Cansu. No bloodshed if we can help it.” “We need to take out as many enemies as we can when we have the chance. You know Argrid wouldn’t hesitate to stick knives in our backs.

” “We aren’t Argrid,” Vex snapped. “And we aren’t your raiders, either. No killing.” Cansu’s golden skin reddened. “You gave us the castle’s layout. You gave us the basics of the plan. But don’t you dare go getting it into your head that you’re in charge of this mission.” “Oh, and you are?” “You bet your unaligned ass I am.” White-hot loathing descended over Vex. This was why he’d never joined a syndicate—he wasn’t about to follow orders with no questions asked.

On a good day, he’d have laid into Cansu until someone—probably he—ended up bleeding. But with the added fury and grief and terror of Elazar’s takeover, Vex couldn’t have stopped himself. Nayeli could stop him, though. She shot forward as he opened his mouth, and one hard look from her sent his insults sinking back down his throat. “So help me,” she started, “I’ve had enough of you two and your verbal pissing contests. Cansu’s in charge because we’re using her syndicate’s resources, but gods damn it, we aren’t killing anyone. Now let’s get Kari before I change my mind on that last bit and kill both of you.” Cansu flicked her short flop of dark hair out of her eyes and plodded back through the door. Vex stayed long enough to sulk at Nayeli. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

She should’ve rolled her eyes and called him an idiot for challenging Cansu. But she gave him the same look that Edda wore, one filled with apology and sorrow. Vex stomped after Cansu. Enough of this. Enough pain. He couldn’t handle it. Tall windows lit an ornate hall of marble and gold. Cansu stood over the collapsed bodies of two soldiers outside a closed door. “Cansu! Goddamn it—” “They’re only unconscious.” Cansu waved her fist.

“Stop. Questioning. Me.” Vex snarled at her, but Nayeli slid between them. “Gods, stop.” Her dark eyes went to Vex and she motioned at the door. “You want to be the one to—” “Yeah.” No. But he walked up to it and tried the handle. Locked.

Which he made quick work of with picks from Cansu, and when the gold-lined door opened, he took a step inside— Something iron-hard swung him around and trapped his neck in a vise grip. Vex yelped, but the sound weakened into a choked gargle. “Wait!” Nayeli shot into the room after him. “Kari, right? We’re friends of your daughter! Let him go—gods, now I see where Lu gets her temper.” “Adeluna?” The grip released. “How do you know her? Why are you here?” Vex stumbled away, clutching his neck, half certain it was indented now. “Rescuing you,” Cansu said as though it should’ve been obvious. She shut the door and marched across the room to yank open one of the balcony doors. A gust of hot lake air swirled in, along with sensations that reminded Vex of memories from another life. Smoke.

Fire. Screams. “Today we commit the following raiders unto the Pious God’s mercy” came a different voice. A priest, likely, to oversee the proper disposal of heretics. “Vina Uzun; Branden Axel—” He kept reading off names. Kari must’ve recognized one, because she pressed a hand to her chest, rocking forward. “Can we get out that way?” Nayeli asked Cansu, as if people weren’t dying. “The escape boat’s in the lake,” Cansu said. “You have that Aerated Blossom?” No one saw Vex falter. He’d planned their way into the castle—steal servant uniforms and sneak in with the crowd that had come to see the burning—but all he’d known of their way out was that an escape boat would be waiting.

But this was how Cansu planned to get to it—she’d loved his story of how Lu had used Blossoms to jump off the Schilly-Leto waterfall. Vex had been terrified. But Lu— she’d been fearless. The crowd in the courtyard let loose a pained wail. Vex felt a blossom of relief that the burning repulsed them, despite their silent, dangerous agreement earlier. Their complacency about Argrid’s seizure of power was surface level. “Who are you?” Kari demanded. Her face showed her calculations just as Lu’s did. “Stream raiders? From the syndicate associated with Tuncay? Are you here on Cansu Darzi’s orders? Has my daughter become entangled with the Tuncian syndicate?” “We’re not here on Cansu’s orders,” Cansu said. She turned from the balcony.

“I am Cansu. The absurdity of a raider Head rescuing a Senior Councilmember is not lost on me, but that’s why we’re here. Because your daughter, along with these idiots”—she gestured at Nayeli, Vex, and Edda —“convinced me that the best way to stop Argrid from overtaking the island is to unite the Council and raiders and everyone who calls Grace Loray home. Figured Kari the Wave would be the most capable person to do that.” The Argridians had put Kari under house arrest—but she meant a lot to Grace Loray, so they hadn’t killed her. She was Kari the Wave, a nickname she’d earned during the revolution because of her guerrilla-style ambushes that had whittled away Argrid’s forces. The only reason the rebels had beaten Argrid the first time was because Kari had gotten the volatile, bickering stream raiders to ally with each other, becoming a force too powerful for Argrid to defeat. Between border skirmishes, burning each other’s steamboats, and other messier crimes, relations among the raiders had always been tense. Vex knew, for instance, that Cansu hated the “thieving” Grozdan syndicate with “the intensity of nigrika”—a Tuncian spice so hot Vex hadn’t been able to taste anything for a solid two days after he’d eaten a pinch. If the raider syndicates had any hope of unifying to stop Elazar again, they’d need an intermediary, like Kari.

But the deeper reason Vex had suggested freeing Kari was because he knew Lu would’ve wanted it. It was that simple. That selfish. Vex’s vision faded. He lost sight of the room in favor of a sword, shining with Lu’s blood, dripping scarlet circles on the deck of a ship— “Other councilmembers can help.” Kari composed herself, spine straight, again like Lu. “They are locked in rooms along this hall. They can be trusted to—” “Trust? What do you know about trust?” Kari snapped a look at Vex. Edda and Nayeli did, too, but Edda’s focus went back to Kari, and Vex could see her thoughts spin. Should she intervene? Vex didn’t care.

He hadn’t meant to speak. But here he was, staring at a person who was as responsible for Lu’s death as the man who’d stabbed her. “Devereux Bell.” Kari’s fingers curled into fists. Last she knew, her daughter had freed him from prison and run off with him. “What do you—” “Who do you think you can trust? Your husband?” “Vex,” Edda tried. Kari’s face went gray. “I only recently learned of my husband’s deceit—” “Stop acting so goddamn proud.” Vex’s arms shook so hard he had to cross them. “If you’d realized earlier that your own husband was a fucking spy, Lu might not be dead.

” The last word hung on his tongue. He wanted to say it again, let it stick to someone else. Kari’s lips parted. “What did you say?” He saw Lu’s body slip to the deck of the ship. Her eyes searched for him, her face shocked and scared and alone, with just Ben to hold her, because Edda threw Vex overboard. He’d left Lu. He’d left Ben, too. “I said she’s dead,” Vex growled. “Lu’s dead. Thanks to you and your husband.

” Kari dropped onto a chair. Her silence was worse than if she’d started weeping, grief so tangible on her face that a fierce stab of guilt punctured Vex’s heart. “Or maybe you knew about your husband all along,” he spat at Kari. “Maybe you’re a spy too. Maybe you’re glad Lu’s gone. You’re as guilty as—” “Paxben!” Edda cried. Vex’s body went stiff. That name from her—that name at all—struck him dumb. Edda grabbed his arm. “You have to stop.

You can’t drop this on someone!” “But it was dropped on me!” Vex’s scream rebounded, the tremble in his voice from both Shaking Sickness and grief. Edda’s face was broken. Nayeli wiped at her eyes, her gold skin blotchy. If the two of them looked that bad, he must look like hell in human form. Cansu seemed caught between remorse and confusion about why Edda had called Vex Paxben. Booted feet pounded in the hall—soldiers, coming to check on the noise in Kari’s room. Vex rolled his eye shut. Dumbass. They were supposed to be on a stealth mission. Cansu barked a strand of curses in Thuti and shot to the door, dragging behind her furniture to make a barricade.

“Nayeli—Blossoms, now!” Edda helped Cansu stack chairs, a table, a curved divan. Nayeli pulled the Aerated Blossoms out of a bag on her belt. “Vex—” Nayeli started, but he snatched a Blossom from her and stomped to the balcony. The lake was a straight shot down. The wall of the castle gave way to jagged cliff and blue water, with one of Cansu’s steamboats bobbing in the waves. To the left, all Vex could see of the courtyard was the back of the platform, plumes of smoke rising from pyres that were out of sight. The screaming had stopped. Cansu braced her body against the furniture barricade. “Andreu—you’re first!” Kari hadn’t moved from her straight-backed seat on the chair, her hands poised on the armrests. But as soldiers pushed against the barricade so the furniture peeled across the floor, Kari sprang to her feet, her eyes on Vex as if no one else was there.

Maybe she wanted him to feel her own blame. Maybe she hated him like he hated her. “No,” she stated. “I won’t—” Cansu shouted in frustration and launched herself away from the barricade. She grabbed an Aerated Blossom, thrust it at Kari, and drove her body into the Senior Councilmember to send her tumbling over the balcony railing. Edda and Nayeli objected, but Cansu ignored them. She took Blossoms from Nayeli, left her one, handed another to Edda, and shoved Nayeli backward so hard she sank into the air with only a parting gasp. The soldiers bellowed a warning. They cracked the door open enough for Vex to see them in the hall—defensors in the Church’s navy-and-white uniforms. Alongside them, Vex caught a flash of blond hair.

The glint of crocodile skin. Mecht raiders from the syndicate that Elazar had convinced to work with him. “Go,” Cansu ordered Edda. Vex nodded at her, and she leaped over the railing. The barricade tumbled, chairs falling across the marble, the divan tipping on its side. Defensors clambered into the room on a sharp cry of victory. Two furiously focused Mecht raiders charged in, crocodiles seeking prey in bloody waters. Vex dropped to the floor as a bullet pinged off a silver bowl and another lodged in the ceiling. Cansu rolled behind a couch and Vex dove after her, plaster scattering around them. She already had a pistol out and she cocked it, her eyes on the balcony.

“I’ll cover you,” she said. “Like hell you will. Nay’ll kill me if you—” “STOP ARGUING.” Cansu swung onto her knees and fired back at the soldiers. “For once in your life, you idiot, listen! Go—I’ll be right behind you!” Vex looked at the soldiers, clustered behind an overturned table. He cursed and pointed at Cansu. “I’m not making a habit of listening to you,” he told her and scrambled away. He swore he heard her laugh as bullets whistled past. Vex didn’t process how close he was to getting shot until he heaved himself over the balcony and wished he had gotten shot. It would’ve been less awful than free-falling to his death.

A scream tore from his lungs. The tang of salt and sweat from the crowded port consumed Vex as he fell, down, down, down, the blue of the lake opening wide to swallow him. The Aerated Blossom made it to his lips. His body absorbed the flight-giving gases in the few seconds it took to inhale them, yanking him to a brief pause. The gases released, and he dropped into the lake with a soft splash. Hands hauled him onto a steamboat. Vex hacked water from his lungs and straightened his eye patch as he looked up at the balcony. Rocks held the castle in the air, and the balcony—terrifyingly high up, how had he jumped that?—stayed empty for one second, two, three— Cansu appeared, bent halfway over the railing. One hand braced on the stone, the other reached down, fingers spread toward the boat. Toward Nayeli.

Defensors swarmed the balcony. Vex couldn’t breathe. Cansu teetered forward, airborne. She was going to make it— Defensors caught her around the waist and hauled her, kicking and snarling, out of sight. Even if Vex hadn’t been on a boat, the world would’ve shifted. “Cansu!” Nayeli tore to her feet, dripping water across the deck. “CANSU!” “Nay—stop!” Edda grabbed her. “Don’t draw their attention! We knew this could happen—she’s alive, she’s a prisoner, but she’s—” “A prisoner of Elazar,” Nayeli clarified, trembling. Vex wasn’t sure how he had room for worry alongside his grief. He stayed crouched on the deck, staring up at Nayeli, realization sinking in a slow shudder down his arms.

He’d left Cansu. Like Ben. Like Lu. “He’ll kill her,” Nayeli said to Edda, dark eyes red with tears. The raiders who’d been driving the steamboat stayed in the pilothouse, their faces mirroring Nayeli’s concern. “Not immediately.” Behind them, Kari’s dark hair stuck to her cheeks, her eyes glassy. She was definitely where Lu got her Tuncian traits—golden brown skin, curly black hair, round dark eyes. “I heard that Elazar holds most of his captives in Port Camden until he can decide what to do with them,” Kari continued, looking to the northeastern jungle. “He only left the Senior Councilmembers here so he could make it look as though the Council had allied with him.

” “Are you sure he’d use—” Vex stopped on a hard wince. He’d almost asked, Are you sure he’d use the Port Camden prison? But of course Elazar would. The Port Camden prison was one of the few places on the island that Argrid had held until the war’s end. It was a fortress. Nayeli flew to her feet and pointed at the raiders in the pilothouse. “To Port Camden.” “Nay!” Vex shot up. “It’s a day’s ride to Port Camden. We can’t—” “I’m not leaving her!” Nayeli whirled on Vex, voice raw. “I know you’re hurting, and I can’t make you not miss Lu.

I can’t make Ben safe. But I can damn well make sure Cansu doesn’t suffer the same fate. I won’t lose her.” Did Vex imagine the emphasis she’d put on that last sentence? I won’t lose her. He gasped, her words a punch to the stomach. “I lost them?” I did, damn it, I did. “You know that wasn’t what I meant.” “No. You’re right. I let Lu die.

I lost Ben. I left Cansu. It’s my fault. Go—go to Port Camden. You’re better off without me.” Why was he arguing? He owed Nayeli, but he couldn’t feel anything. No. That wasn’t true. He felt anger. He felt rage.

He felt hatred. And he loved Nayeli enough that she was one of the only people he could show his emotions. Nayeli screamed. No words, just noise, and it scraped Vex clean out. “He could be there” came Edda’s soft voice. “Ben. He could be in that prison.” Vex closed his eye. If he hadn’t been so set on being furious, he might’ve seen that too. “Damn it,” he muttered, tapping his fist to his forehead.

“Why?” Nayeli shot at him. “That’s good, right? It’s worth it to you to go now.” Vex’s brain yelled at him to stop being an ass, but he ignored himself. “No, it’s not good, because our best chance of getting into that prison is to talk to Nate.” Edda groaned. Nayeli did too. “Shit.” “Nathaniel Blaise.” Vex looked at Kari. “The Head of the Emerdian raider syndicate.

The prison’s in his territory, built by his people. He’s our best chance of making it in.” Kari nodded, her blank expression not giving away her thoughts. Like Lu, Vex thought. His chest burned. Nayeli fished in her pocket and drew out the second Budwig Bean—one that communicated with Port Mesi-Teab. She started to put it in her ear, but paused. “Are we going, Captain?” she snapped. Their mission was to bring Kari to Port Mesi-Teab so she could unite the syndicates and they could stop Argrid from destroying Grace Loray. But Ben could be in that prison.

And Cansu was one of the raider Heads they needed to lead her people against Argrid. Vex exhaled, drained from the day. From the week. From the whole damn year. He looked at the raiders in the pilothouse. “To Port Camden.”

.

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