Home > Incendiary (Hollow Crown #1)

Incendiary (Hollow Crown #1)
Author: Zoraida Cordova

Prologue

317 A.C.

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.”

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