Main To Kill a Kingdom
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full of life.
i grew as the story progressed and when i finished the story, i felt like i have lived life but sadly the story stopped thus a part of me stopped with it.
i ended up facing my fear as Princess Lira did.
a great read.
i grew as the story progressed and when i finished the story, i felt like i have lived life but sadly the story stopped thus a part of me stopped with it.
i ended up facing my fear as Princess Lira did.
a great read.
19 June 2020 (15:35)
I think this book was an ok read. Isn't one of my favorites and could definitely be better. One of those books you kinda black out while reading and the romance was mediocre. Won't read it again.
14 August 2020 (00:45)
I just finished reading the book and it really has a great story.
13 December 2020 (08:27)
This book was able to fulfill what it was supposed to fulfill. It's a standalone fantasy, pacing is great, plot is simple and direct, yet dude did it serve all kinds of feels. Loved the characters, loved the writing, my imagination was sparked to life, I couldn't put the book down (even though we all know what's gonna happen), and with all these being said, this definitely goes to my favorites shelf.
09 April 2021 (08:03)
The book has a slow-burn romance and it did take like 290 pages for anything to happen but I loved it! It's one of those books that you can't put down and I finished it in 2 days. It is beautifully written and the storyline really does make you feel included. The change in POV for each chapter was a really creative idea and I 100% recommend the book to anyone who likes fantasy or the enemies to lovers trope. The characters are explored really in-depth and we really get to understand and develop a connection to the characters which I absolutely loved. There could've been more emphasis on the ending and more on the romance but it's still a beautiful book.
05 May 2021 (22:57)
This is an easy read , the main characters are interesting but their romance is a bit lacklustre. Very little development to the side characters and the plot is pretty straight forward. But i liked it, its enjoyable and the setting is unique.
22 May 2021 (03:14)
It was a pretty ok book, at no point was I really bored, but I had quite high hopes and it didn't meet all of them, but overall a decent book, recommend.
24 May 2021 (10:46)
Had high expectations for this book but unfortunately it wasn't anything special its the kind of read that if you were bored you’d probably read it and find it entertaining enough because your bored again wasn't a terrible read almost a waste of time if you wanted something interesting and special its a basic read
04 June 2021 (16:09)
it had everything I love in a good fantasy book with a beautiful writing style!! I loved it <3
20 June 2021 (12:34)
Contents Title Page Dedication 1. Lira 2. Lira 3. Elian 4. Elian 5. Lira 6. Elian 7. Elian 8. Lira 9. Elian 10. Lira 11. Elian 12. Elian 13. Lira 14. Elian 15. Lira 16. Lira 17. Elian 18. Lira 19. Lira 20. Elian 21. Elian 22. Lira 23. Elian 24. Lira 25. Lira 26. Elian 27. Lira 28. Lira 29. Elian 30. Lira 31. Elian 32. Lira 33. Elian 34. Lira 35. Lira 36. Elian 37. Lira 38. Elian 39. Elian 40. Lira 41. Lira 42. Lira 43. Elian Acknowledgments Copyright For those I love, who never got the chance to see this happen 1 Lira I HAVE A HEART for every year I’ve been alive. There are seventeen hidden in the sand of my bedroom. Every so often, I claw through the shingle, just to check they’re still there. Buried deep and bloody. I count each of them, so I can be sure none were stolen in the night. It’s not such an odd fear to have. Hearts are power, and if there’s one thing my kind craves more than the ocean, it’s power. I’ve heard things: tales of lost hearts and harpooned women stapled to the ocean bed as punishment for their treachery. Left to suffer until their blood becomes salt and they dissolve to sea foam. These are the women who take the human bounty of their kin. Mermaids more fish than flesh, with an upper body to match the decadent scales of their fins. Unlike sirens, mermaids have stretched blue husks and limbs in place of hair, with a jawlessness that lets their mouths stretch to the size of small boats and swallow sharks whole. Their deep-blue flesh is dotted with fins that spread up their arms and spines. Fish and human both, with the beauty of neither. They have the capacity to be deadly, like all monsters, but where sirens seduce and kill, mermaids remain fascinated by humans. They steal trinkets and follow ships in hopes that treasure will fall from the decks. Sometimes they save the lives of sailors and take nothing but charms in return. And when they steal the hearts we keep, it isn’t for power. It’s because they think that if they e; at enough of them, they might become human themselves. I hate mermaids. My hair snakes down my back, as red as my left eye – and only my left, of course, because the right eye of every siren is the color of the sea they were born into. For me, that’s the great sea of Diávolos, with waters of apple and sapphire. A selection of each so it manages to be neither. In that ocean lies the sea kingdom of Keto. It’s a well-known fact that sirens are beautiful, but the bloodline of Keto is royal and with that comes its own beauty. A magnificence forged in salt water and regality. We have eyelashes born from iceberg shavings and lips painted with the blood of sailors. It’s a wonder we even need our song to steal hearts. “Which will you take, cousin?” Kahlia asks in Psáriin. She sits beside me on the rock and stares at the ship in the distance. Her scales are deep auburn and her blond hair barely reaches her breasts, which are covered by a braid of orange seaweed. “You’re ridiculous,” I tell her. “You know which.” The ship ploughs idly along the calm waters of Adékaros, one of the many human kingdoms I’ve vowed to rid of a prince. It’s smaller than most and made from scarlet wood that represents the colors of their country. Humans enjoy flaunting their treasures for the world, but it only makes them targets for creatures like Kahlia and me, who can easily spot a royal ship. After all, it’s the only one in the fleet with the painted wood and tiger flag. The only vessel on which the Adékarosin prince ever sails. Easy prey for those in the mood to hunt. The sun weighs on my back. Its heat presses against my neck and causes my hair to stick to my wet skin. I ache for the ice of the sea, so sharp with cold that it feels like glorious knives in the slits between my bones. “It’s a shame,” says Kahlia. “When I was spying on him, it was like looking at an angel. He has such a pretty face.” “His heart will be prettier.” Kahlia breaks into a wild smile. “It’s been an age since your last kill, Lira,” she teases. “Are you sure you’re not out of practice?” “A year is hardly an age.” “It depends who’s counting.” I sigh. “Then tell me who that is so I can kill them and be done with this conversation.” Kahlia’s grin is ungodly. The kind reserved for moments when I am at my most dreadful, because that’s the trait sirens are supposed to value most. Our awfulness is treasured. Friendship and kinship taught to be as foreign as land. Loyalty reserved only for the Sea Queen. “You are a little heartless today, aren’t you?” “Never,” I say. “There are seventeen under my bed.” Kahlia shakes the water from her hair. “So many princes you’ve tasted.” She says it as though it’s something to be proud of, but that’s because Kahlia is young and has taken only two hearts of her own. None of them royalty. That’s my specialty, my territory. Some of Kahlia’s reverence is for that. The wonder of whether the lips of a prince taste different from those of any other human. I can’t say, for princes are all I’ve ever tasted. Ever since our goddess, Keto, was killed by the humans, it’s become custom to steal a heart each year, in the month of our birth. It’s a celebration of the life Keto gave to us and a tribute of revenge for the life the humans took from her. When I was too young to hunt, my mother did it for me, as is tradition. And she always gave me princes. Some as young as I was. Others old and furrowed, or middle children who never had a chance at ruling. The king of Armonía, for instance, once had six sons, and for my first few birthdays, my mother brought me one each year. When I was eventually old enough to venture out on my own, it hadn’t occurred to me to forgo royalty and target sailors like the rest of my kind did, or even hunt the princes who would one day assume their thrones. I’m nothing if not a loyal follower of my mother’s traditions. “Did you bring your shell?” I ask. Kahlia scoops her hair out of the way to show the orange seashell looped around her neck. A similar one just a few shades bloodier dangles from my own throat. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s the easiest way for us to communicate. If we hold them to our ears, we can hear the sound of the ocean and the song of the Keto underwater palace we call home. For Kahlia, it can act as a map to the sea of Diávolos if we’re separated. We’re a long way from our kingdom, and it took nearly a week to swim here. Since Kahlia is fourteen, she tends to stay close to the palace, but I was the one to decide that should change, and as the princess, my whims are as good as law. “We won’t get separated,” Kahlia says. Normally, I wouldn’t mind if one of my cousins were stranded in a foreign ocean. As a whole, they’re a tedious and predictable bunch, with little ambition or imagination. Ever since my aunt died, they’ve become nothing more than adoring lackeys for my mother. Which is ridiculous, because the Sea Queen is not there to be adored. She’s there to be feared. “Remember to pick just one,” I instruct. “Don’t lose your focus.” Kahlia nods. “Which one?” she asks. “Or will it sing to me when I’m there?” “We’ll be the only ones singing,” I say. “It’ll enchant them all, but if you lay your focus on one, they’ll fall in love with you so resolutely that even as they drown, they’ll scream of nothing but your beauty.” “Normally the enchantment is broken when they start to die,” Kahlia says. “Because you focus on them all, and so, deep down, they know that none of them are your heart’s desire. The trick is to want them as much as they want you.” “But they’re disgusting,” says Kahlia, though it doesn’t sound like she believes it so much as she wants me to think that she does. “How can we be expected to desire them?” “Because you’re not just dealing with sailors now. You’re dealing with royalty, and with royalty comes power. Power is always desirable.” “Royalty?” Kahlia gapes. “I thought . . .” She trails off. What she thought was that princes were mine and I didn’t share. That’s not untrue, but where there are princes, there are kings and queens, and I’ve never had much use for either of those. Rulers are easily deposed. It’s the princes who hold the allure. In their youth. In the allegiance of their people. In the promise of the leader they could one day become. They are the next generation of rulers, and by killing them, I kill the future. Just as my mother taught me. I take Kahlia’s hand. “You can have the queen. I’ve no interest in the past.” Kahlia’s eyes are alight. The right holds the same sapphire of the Diávolos Sea I know well, but the left, a creamy yellow that barely stands out from the white, sparkles with a rare glee. If she steals a royal heart for her fifteenth, it’ll be sure to earn her clemency from my mother’s perpetual rage. “And you’ll take the prince,” says Kahlia. “The one with the pretty face.” “His face makes no difference.” I drop her hand. “It’s his heart I’m after.” “So many hearts.” Her voice is angelic. “You’ll soon run out of room to bury them all.” I lick my lips. “Maybe,” I say. “But a princess must have her prince.” 2 Lira THE SHIP FEELS ROUGH under the spines of my fingers. The wood is splintered, paint cracking and peeling over the body. It cuts the water in a way that is too jagged. Like a blunt knife, pressing and tearing until it slices through. There is rot in places and the stench makes my nose wrinkle. It is a poor prince’s ship. Not all royals are alike. Some are furnished in fine clothes, unbearably heavy jewels so large that they drown twice as fast. Others are sparsely dressed, with only one or two rings and bronze crowns painted gold. Not that it matters to me. A prince is a prince, after all. Kahlia keeps to my side, and we swim with the ship while it tears through the sea. It’s a steady speed and one we easily match. This is the agonizing wait, as humans become prey. Some time passes before the prince finally steps onto the deck and casts his eye at the ocean. He can’t see us. We’re far too close and swim far too fast. Through the ship’s wake, Kahlia looks to me and her eyes beg the question. With a smile as good as any nod, I return my cousin’s stare. We emerge from the froth and part our lips. We sing in perfect unison in the language of Midas, the most common human tongue and one each siren knows well. Not that the words matter. It’s the music that seduces them. Our voices echo into the sky and roll back through the wind. We sing as though there is an entire chorus of us, and as the haunting melody ricochets and climbs, it swirls into the hearts of the crew until finally the ship slows to a stop. “Do you hear it, Mother?” asks the prince. His voice is high and dreamlike. The queen stands next to him on the deck. “I don’t think . . .” Her voice falters as the melody strokes her into submission. It’s a command, and every human has come to a stop, bodies frozen as their eyes search the seas. I set my focus on the prince and sing more softly. Within moments his eyes fall to mine. “Gods,” he says. “It’s you.” He smiles and from his left eye slips a single tear. I stop singing and my voice turns to a gentle hum. “My love,” the prince says, “I’ve found you at last.” He grips the ratlines and peers far over the edge, his chest flat against the wood, one hand reaching out to touch me. He’s dressed in a beige shirt, the strings loose at his chest, sleeves torn and slightly moth-bitten. His crown is thin gold leaf that looks as though it could break if he moves too quickly. He looks desolate and poor. But then there is his face. Soft and round, with skin like varnished wood and eyes a penetrating shade darker. His hair swings and coils tightly on his head, a beautiful mess of loops and spirals. Kahlia was right; he’s angelic. Magnificent, even. His heart will make a fine trophy. “You are so beautiful,” says the queen, staring down at Kahlia with reverence. “I’m unsure how I’ve ever considered another.” Kahlia’s smile is primordial as she reaches out to the queen, beckoning her to the ocean. I turn back to the prince, who is frantically stretching out his hand to me. “My love,” he pleads. “Come aboard.” I shake my head and continue to hum. The wind groans with the lullaby of my voice. “I’ll come to you then!” he shouts, as though it was ever a choice. With a gleeful smile, he flings himself into the ocean, and with the splash of his body comes a second, which I know to be the queen, throwing herself to my cousin’s mercy. The sounds of their falls awaken something in the crew, and in an instant they are screaming. They lean over the ship’s edge, fifty of them clinging to ropes and wood, watching the spectacle below with horror. But none dare throw themselves overboard to save their sovereigns. I can smell their fear, mixed with the confusion that comes from the sudden absence of our song. I meet the eyes of my prince and stroke his soft, angelic skin. Gently, with one hand on his cheek and another resting on the thin bones of his shoulder, I kiss him. And as my lips taste his, I pull him under. The kiss breaks once we are far enough down. My song has long since ended, but the prince stays enamored. Even as the water fills his lungs and his mouth opens in a gasp, he keeps his eyes on me with a glorious look of infatuation. As he drowns, he touches his fingers to his lips. Beside me, Kahlia’s queen thrashes. She clutches at her throat and bats my cousin away. Angrily, Kahlia clings to her ankle and keeps her deep below the surface, the queen’s face a sneer as she tries to escape. It’s futile. A siren’s hold is a vice. I stroke my dying prince. My birthday is not for two weeks. This trip was a gift for Kahlia: to hold the heart of royalty in her hands and name it her fifteenth. It’s not supposed to be for me to steal a heart a fortnight early, breaking our most sacred rule. Yet there’s a prince dying slowly in front of me. Brown skin and lips blue with ocean. Hair flowing behind him like black seaweed. Something about his purity reminds me of my very first kill. The young boy who helped my mother turn me into the beast I am now. Such a pretty face, I think. I run a thumb over the poor prince’s lip, savoring his peaceful expression. And then I let out a shriek like no other. The kind of noise that butchers bones and claws through skin. A noise to make my mother proud. In one move, I plunge my fist into the prince’s chest and pull out his heart. 3 Elian TECHNICALLY, I’M A MURDERER, but I like to think that’s one of my better qualities. I hold up my knife to the moon, admiring the polish of blood before it seeps into the steel and disappears. It was made for me when I turned seventeen and it became clear killing was no longer just a hobby. It was unseemly, the king said, for the Midasan prince to carry around rusted blades. And so now I carry around a magic blade that drinks the blood of its kill so quickly that I barely have time to admire it. Which is far more seemly, apparently. If not a little theatrical. I regard the dead thing on my deck. The Saad is a mighty vessel that stretches to the size of two full ships, with a crew that could’ve been over four hundred, but is exactly half that because I value loyalty above all else. Old black lanterns adorn the stern, and the bowsprit stretches forward in a piercing dagger. The Saad is so much more than a ship: It’s a weapon. Painted in midnight navy, with sails the same cream as the queen’s skin and a deck the same polish as the king’s. A deck that is currently home to the bloody corpse of a siren. “Ain’t it supposed to melt now?” This is from Kolton Torik, my first mate. Torik is in his early forties, with a pure white mustache and a good four inches of height on me. Each of his arms is the size of each of my legs, and he’s nothing short of burly. In summer months like these, he wears cutoff shorts, the fabric fraying by his kneecaps, and a white shirt with a black waistcoat tied by red ribbon. Which tells me that of all the things he takes seriously – which, really, is most things – his role as an almost pirate is probably not one of them. It is a contradiction to crewmen like Kye, who takes absolutely nothing seriously and yet dresses like he’s an honorary member of the infamous Xaprár thieves. “I feel weird just lookin’ at it,” Torik says. “All human up top.” “Enjoy looking up top, do you?” Torik reddens a shade and turns his attention away from the siren’s exposed breasts. Of course I understand what he meant, but somewhere along the seas I’ve forgotten how to be horrified. There’s no looking past the fins and blood-red lips, or the eyes that shine with two different colors. Men like Torik – good men – see what these creatures could be: women and girls, mothers and daughters. But I can only see them as they are: monsters and beasts, creatures and devils. I’m not a good man. I don’t think I’ve been one for a long time. In front of us, the siren’s skin begins to dissolve. Her hair melts to sea green and her scales froth. Even her blood, just a moment before threatening to stain the deck of the Saad, begins to lather until all that is left is sea foam. And a minute later that, too, is gone. I’m grateful for that part. When a siren dies, she turns back into the ocean, which means that there’s no unseemly burning of bodies. No dumping their rotting corpses into the sea. I may not be a good man, but I’m good enough to find that preferable. “What now, Cap?” Kye slides his sword back into place and positions himself alongside Madrid, my second mate. As usual, Kye is dressed all in black, with patchwork leather and gloves that end at the fingertips. His light brown hair is shaved on both sides, like most men who are from Omorfiá, where aesthetics are valued above all else. Which, in Kye’s case, also includes morals. Luckily for him – and, perhaps, for us all – Madrid is an expert at compelling decency in people. For a trained killer, she’s oddly ethical, and their relationship has managed to keep Kye from sliding down even the slipperiest of slopes. I shoot Kye a smile. I like being called Cap. Captain. Anything other than My Liege, My Prince, Your Royal Highness Sir Elian Midas. Whatever it is the devouts like to spit out in between the constant bowing. Cap suits me in a way my title never has. I’m far more pirate than prince, anyway. It started when I was fifteen, and for the last four years I’ve known nothing like I know the ocean. When I’m in Midas, my body aches for sleep. There’s a constant fatigue that comes with acting like a prince, where even conversations with those at court who fancy me one of them become too exhausting to stay awake for. When I’m on board the Saad, I barely sleep. I never seem to be tired enough. There’s a constant thrumming and pulsing. Zaps like lightning that shoot through my veins. I’m alert, always, and so filled with anxious excitement that while the rest of my crew sleeps, I lie on the deck and count stars. I make shapes of them, and from those shapes I make stories. Of all the places I have been and will be. Of all the seas and oceans I’ve yet to visit and the men I’ve yet to recruit and the devils I’ve yet to slay. The thrill of it never stops, even when the seas become deadly. Even as I hear the familiar song that strikes my soul and makes me believe in love like it’s the first time. The danger only makes me thirstier. As Elian Midas, crown prince and heir to the Midasan throne, I’m more than a little dull. My conversations are about state and riches and which ball to attend and which lady has the finer dress and if there are any I think are worth a tumble. Each time I dock at Midas and am forced to play the part feels like time lost. A month, a week, a day I can’t get back. An opportunity missed, or a life not saved. One more royal I may as well have fed to the Princes’ Bane. But when I’m just Elian, captain of the Saad, I transform. When the boat docks on whatever isle I’ve chosen for the day, as long as I have my crew, I can be myself. Drink until I’m dizzy and joke with women whose skin feels warm with exploits. Women who smell of rose and barley and, on hearing I’m a prince, cackle and tell me it won’t earn me a free drink. “Cap?” asks Kye. “State the play.” I jog up the steps to the forecastle deck, pull the golden telescope from my belt loop and press it to my kohl-rimmed eyes. At the edge of the bowsprit, I see ocean. For miles and miles. Eons, even. Nothing but clear water. I lick my lips, hungry for the thrill of more. There’s royalty in me, but stronger than that there is adventure. Unseemly, my father had said, for the Midasan heir to have a rusted knife, or set sail into open waters and disappear for months at a time, or be nineteen and still not have a suitable wife, or wear hats shaped like triangles and rags with loose string in place of gold thread. Unseemly, to be a pirate and a siren hunter in place of a prince. I sigh and turn to face the bow. So much ocean, but in the distance, too far to make out, there is land. There is the isle of Midas. There is home. I look down to my crew. Two hundred sailors and warriors who see my quest as honorable and brave. They don’t think of me like those at court, who hear my name and imagine a young prince who needs to get exploration out of his system. These men and women heard my name and pledged their undying allegiance. “Okay, you ragtag group of siren gizzards,” I call down to them, “turn the lady left.” My crew roars their approval. In Midas, I make sure they’re pampered with as much drink and food as they like. Full bellies and beds with silken sheets. Far more luxury than they’re used to sleeping on in the Saad, or on the hay-filled beds of inns we find on passing lands. “My family will want to see how we’ve fared,” I tell them. “We’re going home.” A thunder of stamping feet. They applaud in triumph at the announcement. I grin and decide to keep the cheer on my face. I will not falter. It’s a key part of my image: never upset or angry or deterred. Always in charge of my own life and destiny. The ship turns hard starboard, swinging in a broad circle as my crew scurries around the deck, anxious for the return to Midas. They’re not all natives; some are from neighboring kingdoms like Armonía or Adékaros. Countries they grew bored of, or those that were thrown into mayhem after the death of their princes. They’re from everywhere and their homes are nowhere, but they call Midas so because I do. Even if it is a lie for them and for me. My crew is my family and though I could never say it – perhaps, don’t need to say it – the Saad is my true home. Where we’re going now is just another pit stop. 4 Elian IN MIDAS, THE OCEAN glitters gold. At least, that’s the illusion. Really it’s as blue as any sea, but the light does things. Unexplainable things. The light can lie. The castle towers above the land, built into the largest pyramid. It’s crafted from pure gold, so that each stone and brick is a gleaming expanse of sunlight. The statues scatter on the horizon, and the houses in the lower towns are all painted the same. Streets and cobbles glow yellow, so that when the sun hits the ocean, it glitters in an unmistakable reflection. It’s only ever during the darkest parts of night that the true blue of the Midasan Sea can be seen. As the Midasan prince, my blood is supposed to be made of that same gold. Every land in the hundred kingdoms has its own myths and fables for their royals: The gods carved the Págos family from snow and ice. Each generation gifted with hair like milk and lips as blue as skies. The Eidýllion royals are the descendants of the Love God, and so any they touch will find their soul mate. And the Midasan monarchs are crafted from gold itself. Legend says my entire family bleeds nothing but treasure. Of course, I’ve bled a lot in my time. Sirens lose all serenity when they turn from hunter to prey and pieces of their nails become embedded in my arms. My blood has been spilled more often than any prince’s, and I can attest to the fact that it has never been gold. This, my crew knows. They’ve been the ones to clean my wounds and stitch my skin back together. Yet they entertain the legend, laughing and nodding dubiously whenever people speak of golden blood. They would never betray the secret of my ordinariness. “Of course,” Madrid will say to any who ask. “The cap’s made from the purest parts of the sun. Seeing him bleed is like looking into the eyes of the gods.” Kye will always lean in then and lower his voice in the way only someone who knows all of my secrets could. “After a woman is with him, she cries tears of nothing but liquid metal for a week. Half for missing his touch so terrible, and the other half to buy back her pride.” “Yeah,” Torik always adds. “And he shits rainbows too.” I linger on the forecastle of the Saad, anchored in the Midasan docks. I’m unsettled at the idea of having my feet on solid ground after so many weeks. It’s always the way. Stranger still is the thought that I’ll need to leave the truest parts of myself on the Saad before I head to the pyramid and my family. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been back, and though I’ve missed them, it doesn’t seem like long enough. Kye stands beside me. The rest of the crew has begun the walk, like an army marching for the palace, but he rarely leaves my side unless asked. Boatswain, best friend, and bodyguard. He would never admit that last part, though my father offered him enough money for the position. Of course, at the time, Kye had already been on my crew for long enough to know better than to try to save me, and my friend long enough to be willing to try anyway. Still, he took the gold. He took most things just because he could. It came with the territory of being a diplomat’s son. If Kye was going to disappoint his father by joining me on a siren scavenger hunt rather than spending a life in politics and cross-kingdom negotiations, then he wasn’t going to do it by halves. He was going to throw everything he had into it. After all, the threat of disinheritance had already been carried out. Around me, everything shimmers. Buildings and pavements and even the docks. In the sky, hundreds of tiny gold lanterns float to the heavens, celebrating my homecoming. My father’s adviser is from the land of fortune-tellers and prophets, and so he always knows when I’m due to return. Each time the skies dance with flaming lanterns, bejeweled beside stars. I inhale the familiar smell of my homeland. Midas always seems to smell of fruit. So many different kinds all at once. Butter pears and clingstone peaches, their honey-stuck flesh mingling with the sweet brandy of apricots. And under it all is the fading smell of licorice, which is coming from the Saad and, most likely, me. “Elian.” Kye slings an arm over my shoulder. “We should get going if we want anything to eat tonight. You know that lot won’t leave any chow for us if we give them half a chance.” I laugh, but it sounds more like a sigh. I take off my hat. I’ve already changed out of my sea attire and into the one respectable outfit I keep aboard my ship. A cream shirt, with buttons rather than string, and midnight-blue trousers held up by a golden belt. Not quite fit for a prince, but nothing of the pirate in it either. I’ve even removed my family crest from the thin chain around my neck and placed it on my thumb. “Right.” I hook my hat over the ship wheel. “Best get it over with.” “It won’t be so bad.” Kye hitches his collar. “You might find yourself enjoying the bowing. Might even abandon ship and leave us all stranded in the land of gold.” He reaches over and messes up my hair. “Wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” he says. “I quite like gold.” “A true pirate.” I shove him halfheartedly. “But you can get that idea out of your head. We’ll go to the palace, attend the ball they’ll no doubt throw in my honor, and be gone before the week is out.” “A ball?” Kye’s eyebrows rise. “What an honor, My Liege.” He bends over in a swooping bow, one hand to his stomach. I shove him again. Harder. “Gods.” I wince. “Please don’t.” Again he bows, though this time he can hardly keep from laughing. “As you desire, Your Highness.” MY FAMILY IS IN the throne room. The chamber is decorated in floating balls of gold, flags printed with the Midasan crest, and a large table filled with jewels and gifts. Presents from the people to celebrate their prince’s return. Having abandoned Kye to the dining hall, I watch my family from the doorway, not quite ready to announce my presence. “It’s not that I don’t think he deserves it,” my sister says. Amara is sixteen, with eyes like molokhia and hair as black as mine, and almost always sprinkled with gold and gemstones. “It’s just that I hardly think he’ll want it.” Amara holds up a gold bracelet in the shape of a leaf and presents it to the king and queen. “Really,” she argues. “Can you see Elian wearing this? I’m doing him a favor.” “Stealing is a favor now?” asks the queen. The braids on either side of her fringe swing as she turns to her husband. “Shall we send her to Kléftes to live with the rest of the thieves?” “I wouldn’t dream of it,” says the king. “Send my little demon there and they’ll see it as an act of war when she steals the crest ring.” “Nonsense.” I finally stride into the room. “She’d be smart enough to go for the crown first.” “Elian!” Amara runs to me and flings her arms around my neck. I return the hug and lift her off the floor, as excited to see her as she is to see me. “You’re home!” she says, once I set her back on the ground. I look at her with mock injury. “For five minutes and you’re already planning to rob me.” Amara pokes me in the stomach. “Only a little.” My father rises from his throne and his teeth gleam against his dark skin. “My son.” He envelops me in a hug and claps me on each shoulder. My mother descends the steps to join us. She’s petite, barely reaching my father’s shoulder, and has delicate, graceful features. Her hair is cut bluntly at her chin, and her eyes are green and catlike, lined in wisps of black that lick her temples. The king is her opposite in every way. Large and muscular, with a goatee tied with beads. His eyes are a brown that match his skin, and his jaw is sharp and square. With Midas hieratic decorating his face, he looks every bit the warrior. My mother smiles. “We were beginning to worry you had forgotten us.” “Only for a little while.” I kiss her cheek. “I remembered as soon as we docked. I saw the pyramid and thought, Oh, my family lives there. I remember their faces. I hope they bought a bracelet to celebrate my return.” I shoot Amara a grin and she pokes me again. “Have you eaten?” my mother asks. “There’s quite the feast in the banquet hall. I think your friends are in there now.” My father grunts. “No doubt eating everything but our utensils.” “If you want them to eat the cutlery, you should have it carved from cheese.” “Really, Elian.” My mother smacks my shoulder and then brings her hand up to brush my hair from my forehead. “You look so tired,” she says. I take her hand and kiss it. “I’m fine. That’s just what sleeping on a ship does to a man.” Really, I don’t think I looked tired until the moment I walked off the Saad and onto the gold-painted cement of Midas. Just one step and the life drained out of me. “You should try sleeping in your own bed longer than a few days a year,” says my father. “Radames,” my mother scolds. “Don’t start.” “I’m just speaking to the boy! There’s nothing out there but ocean.” “And sirens,” I remind him. “Ha!” His laugh is a bellow. “And it’s your job to seek them out, is it? If you’re not careful, you’ll leave us like Adékaros.” I frown. “What does that mean?” “It means that your sister may have to take the throne.” “We won’t have to worry, then.” I sling my arm around Amara. “She’d definitely make a better queen than me.” Amara stifles a laugh. “She’s sixteen,” my father chides. “A child should be allowed to live her life and not worry about an entire kingdom.” “Oh.” I fold my arms. “She should, but not me.” “You’re the eldest.” “Really?” I pretend to ponder this. “But I have such a youthful glow.” My father opens his mouth to respond, but my mother places a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Radames,” she says, “I think it’s best Elian gets some sleep. Tomorrow’s ball will make for a long day, and he really does look tired.” I press my lips to a tight smile and bow. “Of course,” I say, and excuse myself. My father has never understood the importance of what I’m doing, but each time I return home, I lull myself into thinking that maybe, just once, he’ll be able to put his love for me above the love for his kingdom. But he fears for my safety because it would affect the crown. He has already spent too many years grooming the people into accepting me as their future sovereign to change things now. “Elian!” Amara calls after me. I ignore her, walking in long and quick strides, feeling the anger bubble under my skin. Knowing that the only way to make my father proud is to give up everything that I am. “Elian,” she says, more firmly. “It’s not princess-like to run. Or if it is, then I’ll make a decree for it not to be if I’m ever queen.” Reluctantly, I stop and face her. She sighs in relief and leans against the glyph-carved wall. She has taken her shoes off, and without them she’s even shorter than I remember. I smile, and when she sees this, she scowls and smacks my arm. I wince and hold out my hand for hers. “You antagonize him,” she says, taking my arm. “He antagonizes me first.” “You’ll make a fine diplomat with those debate skills.” I shake my head. “Not if you take the throne.” “At least then I’d get the bracelet.” She nudges me with her elbow. “How was your trip? How many sirens did you slaughter like the great pirate that you are?” She says this with a smirk, knowing full well that I’ll never tell her about my time on the Saad. I share many things with my sister, but never how it feels to be a killer. I like the idea of Amara seeing me as a hero, and killers are so very often villains. “Barely any,” I say. “I was too full of rum to think about it.” “You’re quite the liar,” says Amara. “And by quite, I mean quite awful.” We come to a stop outside her room. “And you’re quite nosy,” I tell her. “That’s new.” Amara ignores this. “Are you going to the banquet hall to see your friends?” she asks. I shake my head. The guards will make sure my crew finds good beds for the night, and I’m far too tired to plaster on another round of smiles. “I’m going to bed,” I tell her. “Like the queen ordered.” Amara nods, perches on her tiptoes, and kisses my cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow then,” she says. “And I can ask Kye about your exploits. I don’t imagine a diplomat would lie to a princess.” With a playful grin, she turns to her room and shuts the door behind her. I pause for a moment. I don’t much like the thought of my sister swapping stories with my crew, but at least I can trust Kye to tell his tales with less death and gore. He’s fanciful, but not stupid. He knows that I don’t behave the way a prince should any more than he behaves as a diplomat’s son should. It’s my biggest secret. People know me as the siren hunter, and those at court utter those words with amusement and fondness: Oh, Prince Elian, trying to save us all. If they understood what it took, the awful and sickening screams sirens made. If they saw the corpses of the women on my deck before they dissolved to sea foam, then my people wouldn’t look upon me so fondly. I would no longer be a prince to them, and as much as I might desire such things, I know better. 5 Lira THE KETO PALACE LIES within the center of the Diávolos Sea and has always been home to royalty. Though humans have kings and queens in every crevice of the earth, the ocean has only one ruler. One queen. This is my mother, and one day it will be me. One day being soon. It’s not that my mother is too old to rule. Though sirens live for a hundred years, we never age past a few decades, and soon daughters look like mothers and mothers look like sisters, and it becomes hard to tell how old anybody truly is. It’s another reason why we have the tradition of hearts: so a siren’s age is never determined by her face, but always by how many lives she has stolen. This is the first time I’ve broken that tradition, and my mother is furious. Looking down at me, the Sea Queen is every bit the tyrannical sovereign. To an outsider, she may even seem infinite, as though her reign could never end. It doesn’t look like she’ll lose her throne in just a few years. As is customary, the Sea Queen retires her crown once she has sixty hearts. I know the exact number my mother has hidden in the safe beneath the palace gardens. Once, she had announced them each year, proud of her growing collection. But she stopped making such proclamations when she reached fifty. She stopped counting, or at least, stopped telling people that she did. But I never stopped. Each year I counted my mother’s hearts just as rigorously as I counted my own. So I know that she has three years before the crown is mine. “How many is that now, Lira?” asks the Sea Queen, looming down at me. Reluctantly, I bow my head. Kahlia lingers behind me, and though I can’t see her, I know she’s shadowing the gesture. “Eighteen,” I reply. “Eighteen,” the Sea Queen muses. “How funny you should have eighteen hearts, when your birthday is not for two weeks.” “I know, but—” “Let me tell you what I know.” The queen settles on her carcass throne. “I know that you were supposed to take your cousin to get her fifteenth, and somehow that proved too difficult.” “Not especially,” I say. “I did take her.” “And you took a little something for yourself, too.” Her tentacles stretch around my waist and pull me forward. In an instant, I feel the crack of my ribs beneath her grip. Every queen begins as a siren, and when the crown passes to her, its magic steals her fins and leaves in their place mighty tentacles that hold the strength of armies. She becomes more squid than fish, and with that transformation comes the magic, unyielding and grand. Enough to shape the seas to her whim. Sea Queen and Sea Witch both. I’ve never known my mother as a siren, but I can’t imagine her ever looking so mundane. She has ancient symbols and runes tattooed over her stomach in red, stretching even to her gloriously carved cheekbones. Her tentacles are black and scarlet, fading into one another like blood spilled into ink, and her eyes have long since turned to rubies. Even her crown is a magnificent headdress that peaks in horns atop her head and flows out like limbs down her back. “I won’t hunt on my birthday as recompense,” I concede breathlessly. “Oh, but you will.” The queen strokes her black trident. A single ruby, like her eyes, shines on the middle spear. “Because today never happened. Because you would never disobey me or undermine me in any way. Would you, Lira?” She squeezes my ribs tighter. “Of course not, Mother.” “And you?” The queen turns her fixation to Kahlia, and I try to hide any signs of unease. If my mother were to see concern in my eyes, it would only be another weakness for her to exploit. Kahlia swims forward. Her hair is pulled back from her face by a tie of seaweed, and her fingernails are still crusted with pieces of the Adékarosin queen. She bows her head in what some might interpret as a show of respect. But I know better. Kahlia can never look the Sea Queen in the eye, because if she did, then my mother might know exactly what my cousin thinks of her. “I only thought she would kill him,” says Kahlia. “I didn’t know she’d take his heart, too.” It’s a lie and I’m glad of it. “Well, how perfectly stupid you are not to know your own cousin.” My mother eyes her greedily. “I’m not sure I can think of a punishment unpleasant enough for complete idiocy.” I clench a hand against the tentacle that grips my waist. “Whatever the punishment is,” I say, “I’ll take it.” My mother’s smile twitches, and I know that she’s thinking of all the ways this makes me unworthy to be her daughter. Still, I can’t help it. In an ocean of sirens who watch out only for themselves, protecting Kahlia has become somewhat of a reflex. Ever since that day when we were both forced to watch her mother die. And throughout the years, as the Sea Queen tried to mold both Kahlia and I into the perfect descendants of Keto. Carving our edges into the right shape for her to admire. It’s a mirror to a childhood I’d sooner forget. Kahlia is like me. Too much like me, perhaps. And though it’s what makes the Sea Queen hate her, it’s also the reason I choose to care. I’ve stuck by her side, shielding her from the parts of my mother that are the most brutal. Now protecting my cousin isn’t a decision I make. It’s instinct. “How caring of you,” the Sea Queen says with a scornful smile. “Is it all those hearts you’ve stolen? Did you take some of their humanity, too?” “Mother—” “Such fealty to a creature other than your queen.” She sighs. “I wonder if this is the way you behave with the humans, too. Tell me, Lira, do you cry for their broken hearts?” She drops her grip on me, disgusted. I hate what I become in her presence: trite and undeserving of the crown I’m to inherit. Through her eyes, I see my failure. It doesn’t matter how many princes I hunt, because I’ll never be the kind of killer that she is. I’m still not quite cold enough for the ocean that birthed me. “Give it to me so we can get on with it,” the Sea Queen says impatiently. I frown. “Give it to you,” I repeat. The queen holds out her hand. “I don’t have all day.” It takes me a moment to realize that she means the heart of the prince I killed. “But . . .” I shake my head. “But it’s mine.” What an incredible child I’ve become. The Sea Queen’s lips curl. “You will give it to me,” she says. “Right now.” Seeing the look on her face, I turn and swim for my bedroom without another word. There the prince’s heart lies buried alongside seventeen others. Carefully, I dig through the freshly placed shingle and pull the heart out of the floor. It’s crusted in sand and blood and still feels warm in my hands. I don’t stop to think about the pain the loss will bring before I swim back to my mother and present it to her. The Sea Queen strikes out a tentacle and snatches the heart from my open palm. For a while she stares into my eyes, gauging my every reaction. Savoring the moment. And then she squeezes. The heart explodes into a gruesome mass of blood and flesh. Tiny particles float like ocean lint. Some dissolve. Others fall like feathers to the ocean bed. Shots plunge through my chest, slamming into me like whirlpools as the heart’s magic is taken from me. The jolts are so strong that my fins catch on a nearby seashell and rip. My blood gushes alongside the prince’s. Siren blood is nothing like human blood. Firstly, because it is cold. Secondly, because it burns. Human blood flows and drips and pools, but siren blood blisters and bubbles and melts through skin. I fall to the floor and claw the sand so deeply that my finger stabs a rock and it cleaves my nail clean off. I am breathless, heaving in great gasps of water and then choking it back up moments later. I think I might be drowning, and I almost laugh at the thought. Once a siren steals a human heart, we become bonded to it. It’s an ancient kind of magic that cannot be easily broken. By taking the heart, we absorb its power, stealing whatever youth and life the human had left and binding it to us. The Adékarosin prince’s heart is being ripped from me, and any power it held leaks into the ocean before my eyes. Into nothingness. Shaking, I rise. My limbs feel as heavy as iron and my fins throb. The glorious red seaweed that covers my breasts is still coiled around me, but the strands have loosened and hang limply over my stomach. Kahlia turns away, to keep my mother from seeing the anguish on her face. “Wonderful,” says the queen. “Time for the punishment.” Now I do laugh. My throat feels scratchy, and even that action, the sound of my voice so wrought with magic, takes energy from me. I feel weaker than I ever have. “That wasn’t punishment?” I spit. “Ripping the power from me like that?” “It was the perfect punishment,” says the Sea Queen. “I don’t think I could have thought of a better lesson to teach you.” “Then what else is there?” She smiles with ivory fangs. “Kahlia’s punishment,” she says. “Per your request.” I feel the heaviness in my chest again. I recognize the dreadful gleam in my mother’s eyes, as it’s a look I’ve inherited. One I hate seeing on anyone else, because I know exactly what it means. “I’m sure I can think of something fitting.” The queen runs a tongue across her fangs. “Something to teach you a valuable lesson about the power of patience.” I fight the urge to sneer, knowing no good will come of it. “Don’t keep me in suspense.” The Sea Queen leers down at me. “You always did enjoy pain,” she says. This is as much of a compliment as I’m going to get, so I smile in a way that is sickeningly pleasant and say,“Pain doesn’t always hurt.” The Sea Queen shoots me a contemptuous look. “Is that so?” Her eyebrows twitch upward and my arrogance falters somewhat. “If that’s how you feel, then I have no choice but to decree that for your birthday, you will have the chance to inflict all of the pain you like when you steal your next heart.” I eye her warily. “I don’t understand.” “Only,” the queen continues, “instead of the princes you are so adept at trapping, you will add a new kind of trophy to your collection.” Her voice is as wicked as mine has ever been. “Your eighteenth heart will belong to a sailor. And at the ceremony of your birth, with our entire kingdom present, you will present this to them, as you have done with all of your trophies.” I stare at my mother, biting my tongue so hard that my teeth almost meet. She doesn’t want to punish me. She wants to humiliate me. Show a kingdom whose fear and loyalty I’ve earned that I’m no different from them. That I don’t stand out. That I’m not worthy to take her crown. I’ve spent my life trying to be just what my mother wanted – the worst of us all – in an effort to show that I’m worthy of the trident. I became the Princes’ Bane, a title that defines me throughout the world. For the kingdom – for my mother – I am ruthless. And that ruthlessness makes each and every sea creature certain I can reign. Now my mother wants to take that from me. Not just my name, but the faith of the ocean. If I’m not the Princes’ Bane, then I’m nothing. Just a princess inheriting a crown instead of earning it. 6 Elian “I DON’T REMEMBER THE last time I saw you like that.” “Like what?” “Put together.” “Put together,” I repeat, adjusting my collar. “Handsome,” says Madrid. I arch an eyebrow. “Am I not normally handsome?” “You’re not normally clean,” she says. “And your hair isn’t normally so—” “Put together?” Madrid rolls up her shirtsleeves. “Princely.” I smirk and look in the mirror. My hair is neatly slicked back from my face, every speck of dirt scrubbed away so that there isn’t an ounce of the ocean left on me. I’m wearing a white dress shirt with a high-button collar and a dark gold jacket that feels like silk against my skin. Probably because it is silk. My family crest sits uncomfortably on my thumb, and of every piece of gold on me, that seems to shine the brightest. “You look the same,” I tell Madrid. “Only without the mud smears.” She punches me in the shoulder and ties her midnight hair away from her face with a bandana, revealing the Kléftesis tattoo on her cheek. It’s a brand for children taken by the slave ships and forced to be murderers for hire. When I found her, Madrid had just bought her freedom with the barrel of a gun. By the doorway, Kye and Torik wait. Just as Madrid, they look no different. Torik with his shorts unraveling at the shin, and Kye with sharp cheeks and a smile made for trickery. Their faces are cleaner, but nothing else has changed. They’re incapable of being anything other than what they are. I envy that. “Come with us,” says Kye, threading his fingers through Madrid’s. She glares at the uncharacteristic display of affection – the two of them are far better fighters than they are lovers – and breaks away to run a hand through her hair. “You like the tavern so much more than this place,” Madrid says. It’s true. A horde of my crew has already made their way to the Golden Goose, with enough gold to drink until the sun comes up. All that remains are my three most trusted. “It’s a ball thrown in my honor,” I tell them. “It wouldn’t be very honorable for me not to show up.” “Maybe they won’t notice.” Madrid’s hair swings wildly behind her as she speaks. “That’s not comforting.” Kye nudges her and she pushes him back twice as hard. “Quit it,” she says. “Quit making him nervous, then,” he tells her. “Let’s leave the prince to be a prince for once. Besides, I need a drink, and I feel like I’m messing up this pristine room just by standing here.” I nod. “I do feel poorer just looking at you.” Kye reaches over to the nearby sofa and throws one of the gold-threaded cushions at me with such poor aim that it lands by my feet. I kick it away and try to look chastising. “I hope you throw your knife better than that.” “Never had a siren complain yet,” he says. “Are you sure you’re okay for us to go?” I stare back into the mirror at the prince before me. Immaculate and cold, barely a glint in my eyes. As though I’m untouchable and I know it. Madrid was right; I do look princely. Which is to say, that I look like a complete bastard. I adjust my collar again. “I’m sure.” THE BALLROOM SHINES LIKE its own sun. Everywhere glitters and sparkles, so much so that if I concentrate too much on any specific thing, my head begins to pound. “How much longer do you plan to have your feet on land?” Nadir Pasha, one of our highest dignitaries, swirls a gold glass of brandy. Unlike the other Pashas I’ve spent the evening in idle conversation with – either political or military ranking – he’s not nearly as trite. It’s why I always save him for last when I consult with court. Matters of state are the furthest thing from his mind, especially on occasions when the brandy glasses are so large. “Only a few more days,” I say. “Such an adventurer!” Nadir takes a swig of his drink. “What a joy to be young, isn’t it?” His wife, Halina, smooths down the front of her emerald dress. “Quite.” “Not that you or I would remember,” remarks the Pasha. “Not that you would notice.” I lift Halina’s hand to my lips. “You shine brighter than any tapestry we have.” The transparency of my compliment is easy to recognize, but Halina curtsies all the same. “Thank you, My Lord.” “It’s an astonishment how far you go to do your duties,” Nadir says. “I’ve even heard rumors of all the languages you’re said to speak. No doubt that’ll be of help with future negotiations among neighboring kingdoms. How many is it now?” “Fifteen,” I recite. “When I was younger, I had it in my mind that I could learn each language of the hundred kingdoms. I think I’ve failed quite splendidly.” “What’s the point of such things anyway?” asks Halina. “There’s barely a person alive who doesn’t speak Midasan. We’re at the center of the world, Your Highness. Anyone who can’t be bothered to learn the language simply isn’t worth knowing.” “Quite right.” Nadir nods gruffly. “But what I actually meant, Your Highness, was the language of them. The forbidden language.” He lowers his voice a little and leans in close, so that his mustache tickles my ear. “Psáriin.” The language of the sea. “Nadir!” Halina smacks her husband’s shoulder, horrified. “You shouldn’t speak of such things!” She turns to me. “We’re sorry to offend you, My Liege,” she says. “My husband didn’t mean to imply that you’d sully your tongue with such a language. He’s had far too much brandy. The glasses are deeper than they look.” I nod, unoffended. It’s just a language after all, and though no human can speak it, no human has ever devoted their lives to hunting sirens, either. It isn’t a leap to imagine I’ve decided to add the dialect of my prey to my collection. Even if it’s forbidden in Midas. But in order to do so, I’d need to keep a siren alive long enough to teach me, and that isn’t something I ever plan on doing. Of course, I’ve picked up a few words here and there. Arith, I quickly learned to mean no, but there are so many others. Dolofónos. Choíron. I can only ever guess at what they mean. Insults, curses, pleas. In some ways, it’s best I don’t know. “Don’t worry,” I tell Halina. “It’s not the worst thing someone has accused me of.” She looks a little flustered. “Well,” she whispers delicately, “people do talk.” “Not just about you,” Nadir clarifies with a loud exhale. “More about your work. It’s most definitely appreciated, considering recent events. I would think our king would be proud to have you defending our land and those of our allies.” My brow creases at the idea of my father being anywhere close to proud at having a siren hunter for a son. “Recent events?” I ask. Halina gasps, though she doesn’t seem at all shocked. “Have you not heard the stories about Adékaros?” There’s something dreadful in the air. Just yesterday my father spoke of Adékaros and how, if I wasn’t careful, Midas would end up the same. I swallow and try to feign indifference. “It’s hard to keep track of all the stories I hear.” “It’s Prince Cristian,” Halina says conspiratorially. “He’s dead. The queen, too.” “Murdered,” clarifies Nadir. “Sirens set upon their ship and there was nothing the crew could do. It was the song, you understand. The kingdom is in turmoil.” The room dulls. From the gold, to the music, to the faces of Nadir Pasha and Halina. It all becomes out of focus and stifled. For a moment I hesitate to breathe, let alone speak. I never had much dealing with the queen, but whenever the Saad was close to Adékaros, we docked without hesitation and Prince Cristian welcomed us with open arms. He made sure the crew was fed, and joined us in the tavern so that he could listen to our stories. When we left, he would gift us something. A lot of countries did it – small tokens that we never had much use for – but it was different for Cristian. He relied solely on scarce crops and loans from other kingdoms just to survive. Every gift he gave was a sacrifice. “I heard it was the Princes’ Bane.” Halina shakes her head in pity. I clench my fists. “Says who?” “The crew said her hair was as red as hellfire,” Nadir explains. “Could it have been any other?” I want to argue the possibility, but I’d be fooling myself. The Princes’ Bane is the greatest monster I’ve ever known, and the only one who’s escaped death once I’ve set my sights on her. I’ve hunted the seas tirelessly, searching for the flaming hair I’ve heard of in so many stories. I’ve never even seen her. I had begun to think that she was just a myth. Nothing more than a legend to scare royals from leaving their lands. But every time I entertain the thought, another prince turns up dead. It’s yet another reason why I can’t return to Midas and be the king my father wants me to be. I can never stop. Not until I’ve killed her. “Of course, how could they know?” asks Halina. “It isn’t the right month for it.” I realize that she’s speaking the truth. The Princes’ Bane only attacks in the same month each year. And if she murdered Cristian, then she was over a fortnight early. Does that mean she’s changed her habits? That no prince is safe on any day? My lips twitch. “Evil doesn’t follow a calendar,” I say, even though this particular evil has always seemed to do just that. Beside me, someone clears their throat. I turn and see my sister. I’m not sure how long she’s been standing there, but the amicable smile on her face leads me to assume that she’s heard most of the conversation. “Brother.” She takes my arm. “Dance with me, won’t you?” I nod, welcoming the break from the sort of polite conversation the Pasha and his wife seem to enjoy. Which makes me want to be anything other than polite. “No suitors vying for your attention?” I ask Amara. “None worth my time,” she says. “And none our charming father would approve of.” “Those are the best kind.” “You try explaining that when the boy’s head is on a chopping block.” I snort. “Then it would be my pleasure,” I tell her. “If only to save some poor boy’s life.” I turn to Nadir and Halina and give a swift bow, then let my sister lead me onto the floor. 7 Elian DESPITE ITS NAME, THE Golden Goose is one of the only things in Midas that is not painted to match the pyramid. The walls are crusted brown and the drinks follow in the same hue. The clientele is nothing short of brutish, and most nights, glass crunches underfoot, with blood patching the beer-soaked tables. It’s one of my favorite places. The owner is Sakura and she has always just been Sakura. No last name that anyone knows of. She’s pretty and plump, with white-blond hair cut above her ears and thin, angled eyes that are the same brown as the walls. She wears red lipstick dark enough to cover her secrets, and her skin is paler than anything I’ve ever seen. Most people have guessed that she’s from Págos, which sees constant snow and little sun. A land so cold that only natives are able to survive it. It’s rumored, even, that the Págese rarely migrate to other kingdoms because they find the heat to be suffocating. Yet I can’t remember a time when Sakura didn’t own the Golden Goose. She seemed to always be there, or at least, she has been there since I started visiting. And though she’s beautiful, she’s also cruel enough that not even the thieves and felons try to get past her. Luckily, Sakura likes me. Whenever I’m in Midas, it’s common knowledge that I’ll visit the Golden Goose, and even criminals can’t resist a chance to meet the famous pirate prince, whether it’s to shake my hand or try to con me at cards. And so when I visit, Sakura gives me a smile that shows her straight, milky teeth and lets me drink for free. A thanks for bringing in more customers. It also means that my crew is allowed to stay long after closing to discuss sensitive matters in the dead of night with people I don’t dare bring to the palace. I suspect half of this is because Sakura enjoys being privy to my secrets. But that doesn’t bother me. As many secrets as Sakura knows about me, I know far more about her. Far worse. And while she may choose to sell the best of mine to the highest bidder, I’ve kept her most valuable mysteries close. Waiting for just the right price. Tonight my inner circle sits around the crooked table in the center of the Golden Goose and watches as the strange man in front of us fiddles with his cufflinks. “The stories don’t lie,” he says. “That’s what a story is,” Madrid says. “A bunch of lies by no-good gossips with too much time on their hands. Right, Captain?” I shrug and pull the pocket watch from my jacket to check the time. It’s the one present from my father that isn’t gold or new or even princely. It’s plain and black, with no ornate swirls or sparkling stones, and on the inside of the lid, opposite the clock face, is a compass. I knew it wasn’t an heirloom when my father gifted it to me – all Midasan heirlooms are gold that never lose their shine – but when I asked my father where the watch came from, he simply said that it would help me find my way. And it does just that. Because the compass doesn’t have four points, but two, and neither represents the cardinal points. North is for truth and South is for lies, with a resting place between that indicates either may be possible. It’s a compass to split the liars from the loyal. “My information is solid,” the man says. He’s one of the many who approached me near closing, guaranteeing information to hunt down the mighty Princes’ Bane. I put the word out after the ball that I won’t stop until I’ve found her, and any clues leading to that will be met with a heavy reward. Most of the information was useless. Descriptions of the siren’s burning hair, talk of her eyes or seas she apparently frequents. Some even claim to know the location of the underwater kingdom of Keto, which my compass was quick to see through. Besides, I already know where the kingdom is: the Diávolos Sea. The only problem is that I don’t know where the Diávolos Sea is. And neither does anyone else, apparently. But this man piqued my interest. Enough so that come midnight, when Sakura announced she was closing and motioned for everyone to leave, I gave her a nod and she proceeded to lock the doors with me and my crew – and this strange man – inside, before heading to the back room, for whatever it was she did when princes commandeered her bar. The man turns to me. “I’m telling you, Lord Prince,” he says. “The crystal is as real as I am.” I stare at him. He’s different from the usual caliber I see in the Golden Goose, refined in a way that is forcibly precise. His coat is made of black velvet and his hair is combed into a tidy ponytail, with his shoes polished to gleam against the crusty floorboards. But he’s also uncommonly thin – the lavish coat swallows his pinched shoulders – and his dark skin is quilted red by the sun, like my crew when they’ve spent too long on the deck after a hard day’s sail. When the man taps his fingers on the table impatiently, the ends of his bitten-down nails catch in the cracks of the wood. “Tell me more.” Torik throws his hands up. “You want more rubbish to line your ears with?” Kye produces a small knife from his belt. “If it’s really rubbish,” he says, thumbing the blade, “then he’ll get what’s coming to him.” I turn to Kye. “Put it away.” “We want to be safe.” “Which is why I’m telling you to put it away and not throw it away.” Kye smirks and places the knife back into his belt. I tip my glass toward the man. “Tell me more.” “The Crystal of Keto will bring peace and justice to our world.” A smile tugs at my lips. “Will it now?” “It’ll save us all from the fire.” I lick the liquor from my lips. “How does that work?” I ask. “Do we clutch it tight and wish upon a star? Or perhaps tuck it under our pillows and exchange it to the fairies for good luck.” Kye pours some liquor into a shot glass. “Dip it in wax and light it up to burn away the flames of war,” he says, sliding the glass over to Madrid. She laughs and brings the glass to her lips. “Kiss it and maybe it’ll turn into a prince who doesn’t speak such drivel,” she says. “Or throw it into the pile of shit that it was made from.” This is from Torik, whose perfectly neutral face only makes me laugh harder, until the only sounds that can be heard are our snickers and the sharp bangs as my crew slaps their hands against the tables. Then, amid it all, a deathly quiet voice: “By killing the Sea Queen.” I stop laughing. My gaze snaps back to the man, and I pull my knife from my belt loop, feeling its thirst for a kill. Slowly, I bring it to the man’s throat. “Say that again.” He swallows as the tip of my blade presses against his jugular. He should be scared. He looks scared; his eyes squint the right way and his hands even quake as he picks up his glass. But it seems rehearsed, because when he speaks, his voice is smooth. No sign of fear. It’s as though he’s used to having a knife at his throat. “The crystal was crafted to bring justice to our world by destroying the Sea Queen,” he explains. “Crafted by who?” I ask. “By the original families,” he says. “They were the greatest magicians of the age, and together they agreed the territories of the world, each taking a corner for themselves so that they could have peace and never be victims of the old border wars.” “Yes,” I say, impatient. “We’re all aware of the original families. It’s a fairy tale every child in the hundred kingdoms knows.” I pocket my knife with a sigh. “Even these racketeers.” “It is not a fairy tale!” The man slams his fists on the table. “What those stories never told you is that the original families created peace on land, but below a battle waged on. A goddess ruled the ocean, spreading her evil throughout the waters. Soon she bore children who became devils. Monstrous creatures whose voices brought the death of men.” “Sirens.” The man nods. “They could transform, existing on land and under it. Under the goddess Keto’s rule they terrorized humanity, and so the one hundred magicians combined their power and declared war on the ocean. After a decade of death they were finally able to destroy Keto and weaken the monsters she’d created. From her remains, they conjured a keepsake that could destroy the sirens forever.” “If that’s true,” I say, “then why didn’t they use it?” “Because the sirens fashioned a stone from her remains too. It gave their new queen the power to control her kind, and she promised to keep them at bay. She even took away the sirens’ ability to walk on land as a show of good faith. Without that, they weren’t a large enough threat to warrant the original families committing genocide. So they took mercy and formed a treaty. The land belonged to the humans, and the seas belonged to the devils. If either of them crossed into each other’s territories, then they were fair game. The crystal was hidden for a day when the hundred kingdoms could no longer honor the bargain.” Around me, my crew breaks into mocking laughter, but I can barely hear them over the sound of my own pulse as I look down at the compass face. North. Resolutely, the arrow neither moving nor swaying. I shake it in disbelief and when it doesn’t tremble, I tap it against the table. The arrow stays where it is. North. Truth. By now my crew has resumed their jeering, poking holes at the myth and chastising the stranger for daring to bring fairy tales to their captain. Something in me, right there on the surface, thinks they’re right. That it’s nothing but children’s tales and a waste of my time. It tells me to listen to my crew and ignore the madness. But the compass has never been wrong, and beneath the surface, right down in my gut, I know it can’t be. This is my chance to finally slay the beast. “Where is it?” I ask. My voice cuts through the laughter of my crew, and they stare at me as though I’ve finally lost my mind. The man gulps down a drink and meets my eyes with a smile. “You mentioned a reward.” I arch an eyebrow at Kye. Without the need for any convincing, he plunges his knife into the table. The man flinches, staring in horror at the blade nestled neatly in the space between his thumb and forefinger. The look of fear on his face isn’t so practiced now. “You’ll get your reward,” Kye tells him. “One way or the other.” “It’s in the only place they were sure the Sea Queen could never reach it,” the man says quickly. “As far from the ocean as possible. The highest point in the world.” My heart sinks. The highest point in the world. Too cold for any to venture and live to tell the tale. “The Cloud Mountain of Págos,” the man says. And with that, hope slips away. 8 Lira ONE WEEK IS ALL I have. In seven days I’ll turn eighteen and my mother will force me to steal the heart of a sailor. A better creature would take the punishment and be glad that it’s all the Sea Queen has decreed. I’m not a better creature. It’s foolish to think about disobeying the queen again, but the thought of being told who I should and shouldn’t kill rattles me. It makes me feel every bit the rabid dog for my mother to release on whoever she decrees. Of course, since killing humans itself is an order given by her, I suppose it’s always been that way. I’ve become so used to being brutal, that I almost forget it didn’t begin as a choice, but a requirement. Kill the humans. Help finish the war they started when they killed Keto. Be a true siren. I think for a moment about whether I would still be such a monster if my mother and those before her decreed peace in place of war. Let Keto’s death be the death of our battle and turn hatred to bygones. We’re taught never to question or to think of ourselves as anything other than what we are, and it’s smart, perhaps, to ignore the idea. After all, the punishment for refusing to kill would be beyond imagination. I braid my hair to one side. I’ve swum to the borders of my sea, as far from my mother as I can get without leaving the kingdom. I don’t know what my anger will turn into if I see her now. I can’t think of what reckless thing I might do. I lie down on the ocean bed and nudge the jellyfish beside me. Its tentacles graze my stomach and I feel a wonderful burst of pain. The kind that numbs and calms and clears my mind. It’s a release like no other, and when the pain subsides, I do it again. This time, I hold the creature there and let its tentacles dance across my skin. Lightning courses up my stomach and into my still heart. It burns and itches, and I let my mind go foggy with agony. There’s nothing in the world but pain and the rare moments that exist in between. “Pretty princess, so alone,” comes a whisper of Psáriin. “Wanting pain, wanting bone.” “Not bone, but heart,” says another. “See inside, see the spark.” I push the jellyfish away and sit up to look at the two creatures hovering nearby. They are both dark navy with slick fins and the bodies of eels. Their arms are covered in black gills like razors up to their elbows, and their stomachs form large, rigid muscles that press against skeletal breasts. As they speak, their loose jaws go as slack as fishes’. Mermaids. “Pretty princess,” says the first of the two. Her body is covered in rusted metal, no doubt scavenged from pirate ships or given as tribute when she saved a wounded human. She has stabbed them through her flesh. Brooches and daggers and coins with threaded wire, all piercing through her like jewelry. “Wants to be free,” her companion says. “Free from the queen.” “Free her heart.” “Take a heart.” “Take the queen’s.” I wrinkle my nose at them. “Go and follow a human ship to the end of the earth until you all fall off it.” The one with the rusted metal swishes her tentacle hair, and a glob of slime trails down to her eel tail. “Fall from the earth,” she tells me. “Fall from grace.” “Can’t fall from it if you never had it.” They laugh in hisses. “Go now then,” they chorus. “Go find the heart.” “What are you talking about?” I ask impatiently. “What heart?” “Win the queen’s heart.” “A heart to win the queen’s.” “For your birthday.” “A heart worthy for eighteen.” Their tediousness grates. Mermaids are ghastly things with minds that work in mysteries and lips made from riddles. Wearily, I say, “The Sea Queen has decreed I steal a sailor’s heart for my eighteenth. Which I’m sure you know.” They tilt their heads in what I imagine is their way of nodding. Mermaids are spies, through and through, their ears pressed to every corner of the ocean. It’s what makes them dangerous. They devour secrets as easily as they could loosen their jaws and devour ships. “Go,” I tell them. “You don’t belong here.” “This is the edge.” “The edge is where we belong.” “You should think less of the edge and more of your heart.” “A heart of gold is worth its weight to the queen.” The one with the metal rips a brooch from the base of her fin and throws it to me. It’s the one thing from the mermaid that hasn’t rusted. “The queen,” I say slowly, twisting the brooch in my hands, “does not care for gold.” “She would care for the heart of its land.” “The heart of a prince.” “A prince of gold.” “Bright as the sun.” “Though not as fun.” “Not for our kind.” “Not for anyone.” I’m about to lose all patience when I grasp the weight of their words. My lips part in realization and I sink back to the sand. The brooch is from Midas, the land of gold ruled by a king whose blood flows with it. A king to be succeeded by a pirate prince. A wanderer. A siren killer. I stare at the mermaids, with their lidless black eyes like endless orbs. I know they can’t be trusted, but I can’t ignore the brutal brilliance of their words. Whatever ulterior motives they have won’t matter if I succeed. “The Midasan prince is our murderer,” I say. “If I bring the queen his heart as my eighteenth, then I could win back her favor.” “A heart worthy for the princess.” “A heart worthy for the queen’s forgiveness.” I look back at the brooch. It gleams with a light like I’ve never seen. My mother wants to deny me the heart of a prince, but the heart of this prince would be enough to erase any bad feelings between us. I could continue with my legacy, and the queen would no longer have to worry about our kind being hunted. If I do this, we would both get what we want. We would be at peace. I toss the brooch back to the mermaid. “I won’t forget this,” I tell her, “when I’m queen.” I give them one last glance, watching as their lips coil to smiles, and then swim for gold. 9 Elian FOUR DAYS SPENT SCOURING the castle library and I’ve found exactly nothing. Numerous texts detail the deathly ice of the Cloud Mountain and illustrate – rather graphically – those who have died during their climb. Which isn’t a great start. The only saving grace seems to be that the royal family is made of colder ice than the rest of their natives. There’s even a tradition in Págos where the royals are required to climb the mountain once they come of age, to prove their lineage. There isn’t a record of a single member of the royal family having ever failed. But since I’m not a Págese prince, this isn’t particularly encouraging. There must be something I’m missing. Legends be damned. I find it hard to believe that something in the Págese lineage allows them to withstand cold. I know better than anyone not to believe in the fairy tales of our families. If they were true, I’d be able to sell my blood to buy some real information. The Págese must be made more of flesh and bone than frost and ice and, if that’s the case, then there must be an explanation for how they survive the climb. If I have any hope of getting revenge for Cristian’s death, then I need to know the answers. With that knowledge, I could find a way to kill the Princes’ Bane and the Sea Queen. If I do that, the sirens left behind won’t have magic to guard them. Perhaps they’ll even lose some of their abilities. After all, if the Sea Queen has a crystal like the one hidden in the Cloud Mountain, then taking that should take away some of the gifts it bestowed on their kind. They’d be weakened at the very least and exposed to an attack. And after a time – however long – we could push the devils that remain to the far ends of the world, where they can’t do harm. I close the book and shiver a little at the breeze. The library is always cold, open windows or not. There seems to be something in the very structure of it that’s designed to make me shiver. The library stretches to fifty feet, with white shelves that spread from the floor to the high arches of the ceiling. The ground is white marble and the ceiling is pure crystal that blankets the room. It’s one of the only places in Midas untouched by gold. Nothing but vast white, from the painted chairs to the thick cushions, to the ladders that climb to the volumes at the very top. The only color is in the books – the leather and the fabric and the parchment – and in the knowledge they hold. It’s what I like to call the Metaphor Room, because that’s the only explanation for the expanse of white. Everyone is a blank canvas, waiting to be filled with the color of discovery. My father really is theatrical. I hoped there would be something in the volumes to help me. The man in the Golden Goose was so sure of his story, and my compass was so sure of its truth. There’s no doubt in me that the Crystal of Keto is out there, but the world doesn’t seem to know a thing about it. Books and books of ancient texts and not one of them tells me a thing. How can something exist if there isn’t a record of it? Fairy tales. I’m chasing damn fairy tales. “I thought I’d find you here.” I look up at the king. “It’s no wonder I don’t come home more often,” I say. “If you have your adviser keeping track of me whenever I’m inside the castle.” My father places a gentle hand on the back of my head. “You forget that you’re my son,” he says, as though I ever could. “I don’t need a seer to tell me what you’re up to.” He pulls up the chair beside me and examines the various texts on the table. If I look out of place in the castle, then my father definitely looks out of place in the stark white of the library, dressed in shimmering gold, his eyes dark and heavy. With a sigh, the king leans back into his chair as I did. “You’re always looking for something,” he says. “There’s always something to find.” “If you’re not careful, the only thing you’ll find is danger.” “Maybe that’s exactly what I’m looking for.” My father reaches over and grabs one of the books from the table. It’s carefully bound in blue leather with the title etched in light gray script. There are fingerprints in the dust from where I pulled it from the shelf. “The Legends of P‡gos and Other Tales from the Ice City,” he reads. He taps the cover. “So you’ve set your sights on freezing to death?” “I was researching something.” He places the book back down on the table a little too harshly. “Researching what?” I shrug, unwilling to give my father any more reason to keep me in Midas. If I told him that I wanted to hunt for a mythical crystal in mountains that could steal my breath in seconds, there’s no way he’d let me leave. He’d find any way to keep his heir in Midas. “It’s nothing,” I lie. “Don’t worry.” My father considers this, his maroon lips forming a tight line. “It’s a king’s job to worry when his heir is so reckless.” I roll my eyes. “Good thing you have two, then.” “It’s also a father’s job to worry when his son never wants to come home.” I hesitate. I may not always see eye to eye with my father, but I hate the idea of him blaming my absence on himself. If the kingdom wasn’t an issue, I would take him with me. I’d take all of them. My father, mother, sister, and even the royal adviser if he promised to keep his divinations to himself. I’d pack them onto the deck like luggage and show them the world until adventure caught in their eyes. But I can’t, so I deal with the ache of missing them, which is far better than the ache of missing the ocean. “Is this about Cristian?” my father asks. “No.” “Lies aren’t answers.” “But they sound so much better than the truth.” My father places a large hand on my shoulder. “I want you to stay this time,” he says. “You’ve spent so long at sea that you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be yourself.” I know I should tell him that it’s the land that steals away who I am and the sea that brings me back. But to say that to my father would do nothing but hurt us both. “I have a job to do,” I say. “When it’s done, I’ll come home.” The lie tastes awful in my mouth. My father, King of Midas and so King of Lies, seems to know this and smiles with such sadness that I’d buckle over if I weren’t already sitting. “A prince may be the subject of myth and legend,” he explains, “but he can’t live in them. He should live in the real world, where he can create them.” He looks solemn. “You should pay less mind to fairy tales, Elian, or that’s all you’ll become.” When he leaves, I think about whether that would be awful, or beautiful. Could it really be such a bad thing, to become a story whispered to children in the dead of night? A song they sing to one another while they play. Another part of the Midasan legends: golden blood and a prince who once upon a time sailed the world in search of the beast who threatened to destroy it. And then it comes to me. I sit up a little straighter. My father told me to stop living inside fairy tales, but maybe that’s exactly what I need to do. Because what that man told me in the Golden Goose isn’t a fact that can be pressed between the pages of textbooks and biographies. It’s a story. Quickly, I pull myself from the chair and head for the children’s section. 10 Lira THERE’S GLITTER AND TREASURE on every speck of every street. Houses with roofs thatched by gold thread and fanciful lanterns with casings brighter than their light. Even the surface of the water has turned milky yellow, and the air is balmy with the afternoon sun. It is all too much. Too bright. Too hot. Too opulent. I clutch the seashell around my neck to steady myself. It reminds me of home. My kind aren’t afraid of their murderous prince; they just can’t bear the light. The heat that cuts through the ocean’s chill and makes everything warmer. This is not a place for sirens. It’s a place for mermaids. I wait beside the prince’s ship. I wasn’t certain it would be here – killing took the prince to as many kingdoms as it did me – and if it was, I wasn’t certain I would know it. I only have the frightful echoes of stories to go from. Things I’ve heard in passing from the rare few who have seen the prince’s ship and managed to escape. But as soon as I saw it in the Midasan docks, I knew. It’s not quite like the stories, but it has the same dark ambiance that each of the tales had. The other ships on the dock are like spheres instead of boats, but this one is headed by a long stabbing point and is larger by far than any other, with a body like the night sky and a deck as dark as my soul. It’s a vessel worthy of murder. I’m still admiring it from the depths of the water when a shadow appears. The man steps onto the ledge of the ship and looks out at the sea. I should have been able to hear his footsteps, even from deep beneath the water. Yet he’s suddenly here, one hand clutching the ropes for support, breathing slow and deep. I squint, but under the sheen of gold it’s hard to see much. I know it’s dangerous to come out from the water when the sun is still so high, but I have to get a closer look. Slowly, I rise to the surface and rest my back against the damp body of the ship. I spot the shine of the Midasan royal insignia on his thumb and lick my lips. The Prince of Midas wears the clothes of royalty in a way that seems neglectful. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to the elbows and the buttons of his collar are undone so the wind can reach his heart. He doesn’t look much older than I do, yet his eyes are hard and weathered. They’re eyes of lost innocence, greener than seaweed and constantly searching. Even the empty ocean is prey to him, and he regards it with a mix of suspicion and wonder. “I’ve missed you,” he says to his ship. “I bet you missed me too. We’ll find it together, won’t we? And when we do, we’ll kill every damn monster in this ocean.” I scrape my fangs across my lips. What does he think could possibly have the power to destroy me? It’s a fanciful notion of slaughter, and I find myself smiling. How wicked this one is, stripped of the innocence I’ve seen in all the others. This is not a prince of inexperience and anxious potential, but one of war and savagery. His heart will be a wonder to behold. I lick my lips and part them to give way to my song, but I barely have the chance to suck in a breath before I’m wrenched beneath the water. A mermaid hovers in front of me. She is a splash of color, pinks and greens and yellows, like paint splatters on her skin. Her fin snakes and curls, the bony armor of seahorse scales protruding from her stomach and arms. “Mine!” she says in Psáriin. Her jaw stretches out like a snout, and when she snarls, it bends at a painful angle. She points to the prince above the water and thumps her chest. “You have no claim here,” I tell her. The mermaid shakes her head. She has no hair, but the skin on her scalp is a kaleidoscope, and when she moves, the colors ripple from her like light. “Treasure,” she says. If I ever had patience, it just dissipated. “What are you talking about?” “Midas is ours,” the mermaid screeches. “We watch and collect and take treasure when it falls, and he is treasure and gold and not yours.” “What’s mine,” I say, “is for me to decide.” The mermaid shakes her head. “Not yours!” she screams, and dives toward me. She snatches my hair and pulls, bearing her nails into my shoulders and shaking me. She screams and bites. Sinks her teeth into my arm and tries to tear away chunks of flesh. Unimpressed by the attack, I clasp the mermaid’s head and smash it against my own. She falls back, her lidless eyes wide. She floats for a moment, dazed, and then lets out a high shriek and comes for me again. As we collide, I use the force to pull the mermaid to the surface. She gasps for breath, air a toxic poison for her gills. I laugh when the mermaid clutches at her throat with one hand and tries to claw at me with the other. It’s a pitiful attempt. “It’s you.” My eyes shoot upward. The Prince of Midas stares down at us, horrified and awestricken. His lips tilt a little to the left. “Look at you,” he whispers. “My monster, come to find me.” I regard him with as much curiosity as he regards me. The way his black hair sweeps messily by his shadowed jaw, falling across his forehead as he leans to get a better look. The deep dimple in his left cheek and the look of wonder in his eyes. But in the moments I choose to tear my gaze from the mermaid, the creature seizes the opportunity and propels us both forward. We smash against the ship with such force that the entire vessel groans with our shared power. I have little time to register the attack before the prince stumbles and crashes into the water beside us. The mermaid pulls me under again, but once she sees the prince in the water, she backs away in awe. He sinks like a stone to the bottom of the shallow sea and then makes to propel his body back toward the surface. “My treasure,” says the mermaid. She reaches out and clutches the prince’s hand, holding him beneath the surface. “Is your heart gold? Treasure and treasure and gold.” I hiss a monstrous laugh. “He can’t speak Psáriin, you fool.” The mermaid spins her head to me, a full 180 degrees. She lets out an ungodly squeal and then finishes the circle to turn back to the prince. “I collect treasure,” she continues. “Treasure and hearts and I only eat one. Now I eat both and become what you are.” The prince struggles as the mermaid keeps him trapped beneath the water. He kicks and thrashes, but she’s transfixed. She strokes his shirt, and her nails rip through the fabric, drawing his blood. Then her jaw loosens to an unimaginable size. The prince’s movements go slack and his eyes begin to drift closed. He’s drowning, and the mermaid plans to take his heart for herself. Take it and eat it in hopes that it might turn her into what he is. Fins to legs. Fish to something more. She’ll steal the thing I need to win back my mother’s favor. I’m so furious that I don’t even think before I reach out and sink my nails into the mermaid’s skull. In shock, the creature releases the prince and he floats back to the surface. I tighten my grip. The mermaid thrashes and scratches at my hands, but her strength is nothing compared to that of a siren’s. Especially mine. Especially when I have my sights on a kill. My fingers press deeper into the mermaid’s skull and disappear inside her rainbow flesh. I can feel the sharp bone of her skeleton. The mermaid stills, but I don’t stop. I dig my fingers deeper and pull. Her head falls to the ocean floor. I think about bringing it to my mother as a trophy. Sticking it on a pike outside of the Keto palace as a warning to all mermaids who would dare challenge a siren. But the Sea Queen wouldn’t approve. Mermaids are her subjects, lesser beings or not. I take one last disdainful look at the creature and then swim to the surface in search of my prince. I spot him quickly, on the edge of a small patch of sand by the docks. He’s coughing so violently that the act shakes his entire body. He spits out great gasps of water and then collapses onto his stomach. I swim as close to shore as I can and then pull myself the rest of the way, until only the tip of my fin is left in the shallows of the water. I reach out and grab the prince’s ankle, dragging him down so his body is level with mine. I nudge his shoulder and when he doesn’t move, I roll him onto his back. Sand sticks to the gold of his cheeks and his lips part ever so slightly, wet with ocean. He looks half-dead already. His shirt clings to his skin, blood seeping through the slashes the mermaid tore. His chest barely moves with his breath and if I couldn’t hear the faint sound of his heart, then I would think for certain he was nothing more than a beautiful corpse. I press a hand to his face and draw a fingernail from the corner of his eye to his cheek. A thin red line bubbles above his skin, but he doesn’t stir. His jaw is so sharp, it could cut through me. Slowly, I reach under his shirt and press a hand against his chest. His heart thumps desperately beneath my palm. I lean my head against it and listen to the drumming with a smile. I can smell the ocean on him, an unmistakable salt, but mingled beneath it all is the faint aroma of aniseed. He smells like the black sweets of the anglers. The saccharine oil they use to lure their catch. I find myself wishing him awake so I can catch a glimpse of those seaweed eyes before I take his heart and give it to my mother. I lift my head from his chest and hover my hand over his heart. My nails clutch his skin, and I prepare to plunge my fist deeper. “Your Highness!” I snap my head up. A legion of royal guards runs across the docks and toward us. I look back to the prince and his eyes begin to open. His head lolls in the sand and then his gaze focuses. On me. His eyes narrow as he takes in the color of my hair and the single eye that matches. He doesn’t look worried that my nails are dug into his chest, or scared by his impending death. Instead he looks resolute. And oddly satisfied. I don’t have time to think about what that means. The guards are fast approaching, screaming for their prince, guns and swords at the ready. All of them pointed at me. I glance down at the prince’s chest once more, and the heart I came so close to winning. Then quicker than light, I dart back to the ocean and away from him. 11 Elian MY DREAMS ARE THICK with blood that is not mine. It’s never mine, because I’m as immortal in my dreams as I seem to be in real life. I’m made of scars and memories, neither of which have any real bearing. It’s been two days since the attack, and the siren’s face haunts my nights. Or what little I remember of her. Whenever I try to recall a single moment, all I see are her eyes. One like sunset and the other like the ocean I love so much. The Princes’ Bane. I was half-groggy when I woke on the shore, but I could have done something. Reached for the knife tucked in my belt and let it drink her blood. Smashed my fist across her cheek and held her down while a guard fetched my father. I could have killed her, but I didn’t, because she’s a wonder. A creature that has eluded me for so long and then, finally, appeared. Let me be privy to a face few men live to speak about. My monster found me and I’m going to find her right back. “It’s an outrage!” The king bursts into my room, red-faced. My mother floats in after him, wearing a green kalasiris and an exasperated expression. When she sees me, her brow knits. “None of them can tell me a thing,” my father says. “What use are sea wardens if they don’t warden the damn sea?” “Darling.” My mother places a gentle hand on his shoulder. “They look for ships on the surface. I don’t recall us telling them to swim underwater and search for sirens.” “It should go without saying!” My father is incensed. “Initiative is what those men need. Especially with their future king here. They should have known the sea bitch would come for him.” “Radames,” my mother scolds. “Your son would prefer your concern to your rage.” My father turns to me, as if only just noticing I’m there, despite it being my room. I can see the moment he notices the line of sweat that coats my forehead and seeps from my body to the sheets. His face softens. “Are you feeling better?” he asks. “I could fetch the physician.” “I’m fine.” The hoarseness of my voice betrays the lie. “You don’t look it.” I wave him off, hating that I suddenly feel like a child again, needing my father to protect me from the monsters. “I don’t imagine anyone looks their best before breakfast,” I say. “I bet I could still woo any of the women at court, though.” My mother shoots me an admonishing look. “I’m going to dismiss them all,” my father says, continuing on as though my sickliness hadn’t given him pause. “Every sorry excuse for a sea warden we have.” I lean against the headboard. “I think you’re overreacting.” “Overreacting! You could have been killed on our own land in broad daylight.” I lift myself from bed. I sway a little, unsteady on my feet, but recover quickly enough for it to go unnoticed. “I hardly blame the wardens for failing to spot her,” I say, lifting my shirt from the floor. “It takes a trained eye.” Which is true, incidentally, though I doubt my father cares. He doesn’t even seem to remember that the sea wardens watch the surface for enemy ships and are not, in any way, required to search underneath for devils and demons. The Saad is home to the few men and women in the world mad enough to try. “Eyes like yours?” My father scoffs. “Let’s just hire some of those rapscallions you ramble around with, then.” My mother gleams. “What a wonderful idea.” “It was not!” argues my father. “I was being flippant, Isa.” “Yet it was the least foolish thing I’ve heard you say in days.” I grin at them and walk over to my father, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. The anger disappears from his eyes and he wears a look similar to resignation. He knows as well as I do that there is only one thing to be done, and that’s for me to leave. I suspect half of my father’s anger comes from knowing that. After all, Midas is a sanctuary my father spouts as a safe haven from the devils I hunt. An escape for me to return to if I ever need it. Now the attack has made a liar of him. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll make sure the siren suffers for it.” It isn’t until I speak the words that I realize how much I mean them. My home is tainted with the same danger as the rest of my life, and it doesn’t sit right with me. Sirens belong in the sea, and those two parts of me – the prince and the hunter – have remained separate. I hate that their merging wasn’t because I was brave enough to stop pretending and tell my parents I never plan on becoming king and that whenever I am home, I feel like a fraud. How I think carefully about every word and action before saying or doing anything, just to be sure it is the right thing. The done thing. My two selves were thrust together because the Princes’ Bane forced my hand. She spurred into action something I should have been brave enough to do myself all along. I hate her for it. On the deck of the Saad later that day, my crew gathers around me. Two hundred men and women with fury on their faces as they regard the scratch below my eye. It’s the only wound they can see, though there are plenty more hidden beneath my shirt. A circle of fingernails right where my heart is. Pieces of the siren still embedded in my chest. “I’ve given you dangerous orders in the past,” I say to my crew. “And you’ve done them without a single complaint. Well” – I shoot them a grin – “most of you.” A few of them smirk in Kye’s direction and he salutes proudly. “But this is different.” I take in a breath, readying myself. “I need a crew of around a hundred volunteers. Really, I’ll take any of you I can get, but I think you know that without some of you, the journey won’t be possible at all.” I look over to my chief engineer and he nods in silent understanding. The rest of the crew stares up at me with equally strong looks of fidelity. People say you can’t choose your family, but I’ve done just that with each and every member of the Saad. I’ve handpicked them all, and those who I didn’t sought me out. We chose one another, every ragtag one of us. “Whatever vows of loyalty you’ve sworn, I won’t hold you to them. Your honor isn’t in question, and anyone who doesn’t volunteer won’t be thought any less of. If we succeed, every single member of this crew will be welcomed back with open arms when we sail again. I want to make that clear.” “Enough speeches!” yells Kye. “Get to the point so I know whether to pack my long johns.” Beside him, Madrid rolls her eyes. “Don’t forget your purse, too.” I feel laughter on my lips, but I swallow it and continue on. “A few days ago a man came to me with a story about a rare stone that has the power to kill the Sea Queen.” “How’s it possible?” someone asks from the crowd. “It’s not possible!” another voice shouts. “Someone once told me that taking a crew of felons and misfits across the seas to hunt for the world’s most deadly monsters wasn’t possible,” I say. “That we’d all die within a week.” “I don’t know about you lot,” Kye says, “but my heart’s still beating.” I shoot him a smile. “The world has been led to believe the Sea Queen can’t be killed by any man-made weapons,” I say. “But this stone wasn’t made by man; it was crafted by the original families from their purest magic. If we use it, then the Sea Queen could die before she’s able to pass her trident on to the Princes’ Bane. It’ll rid their entire race of any true power once and for all.” Madrid steps to the front, elbowing men out of her way. Kye follows behind her, but she keeps her eyes on me with a hard stare. “That’s all well and good, Cap,” she says. “But isn’t it the Princes’ Bane who we should be worrying about?” “The only reason we haven’t turned her to foam is because we can’t find her. If we kill her mother, then she should show her face. Not to mention that it’s the queen’s magic that gives the sirens their gifts. If we destroy the queen, they’ll all be weak, including the Princes’ Bane. The seas will be ours.” “And how do we find the Sea Queen?” Kye asks. “I’d follow you to the ends of the earth, but their kingdom is in the middle of a lost sea. Nobody knows where it is.” “We don’t need to know where their kingdom is. We don’t even need to know where the Diávolos Sea is. The only thing we need to know is how to sail to Págos.” “Págos.” Madrid says the word with a frown. “You’re not seriously considering that.” “It’s where the crystal is,” I tell her. “And once we have it, the Sea Queen will come to us.” “So we just head on down to the ice kingdom and ask the snow folk to hand it over?” someone asks. I hesitate. “Not exactly. The crystal isn’t in Págos. It’s on top of it.” “The Cloud Mountain,” Kye clarifies for the rest of the crew. “Our captain wants us to climb to the top of the coldest mountain in the world. One that’s killed everybody who’s tried.” Madrid scoffs as they start to murmur. “And,” she adds, “all for a mythical crystal that may or may not lead the most fearsome creature in the world to our door.” I glare at them both, unamused by the double act, or the sudden doubt in their voices. This is the first time they’ve questioned me, and the feeling isn’t something I plan to get used to. “That’s the gist of it,” I say. There’s a pause, and I try my best not to move or do anything but look unyielding. Like I can be trusted. Like I have any kind of a damn clue what I’m doing. Like I probably won’t get them all killed. “Well.” Madrid turns to Kye. “I think it sounds like fun.” “I guess you’re right,” he says, as though following me is an inconvenience he never considered before. He turns to me. “Count us in then.” “I suppose I can spare some time too, since you asked so nicely!” another voice shouts. “Can hardly say no to such a temptin’ offer, Cap!” “Go on then, if everyone else is so keen.” So many of them yell and nod, pledging their lives to me with a smile. Like it’s all just a game to them. With every new hand that shoots up comes a whooping holler from those who have already agreed. They howl at the possibility of death and how much company they’re going to have in it. They’re insane and wonderful. I’m no stranger to devotion. When people at court look at me, I see the mindless loyalty that comes with not knowing any better. Something that is natural to those who have never questioned the bizarre order of things. But when my crew looks at me now, I see the kind of loyalty that I’ve earned. Like I deserve the right to lead them to whatever fate I see fit. Now there’s just one thing left for me to do before we set sail for the land of ice. 12 Elian THE GOLDEN GOOSE IS the only constant in Midas. Every inch of land seems to grow and change when I’m gone, with small evolutions that never seem gradual to me, but the Golden Goose is as it has always been. It didn’t plant the golden flowers outside its doors that all of the houses once did, as was fashion, with remnants of them still seen in the depths of the wildflowers that now swallow them. Nor did it erect sandy pillars or hang wind chimes or remodel its roof to point like the pyramids. It is in untouched timelessness, so whenever I return and something about my home is different, I can be sure it’s never the Golden Goose. Never Sakura. It’s early and the sun is still a milky orange. I thought it best to visit the dregs of the Golden Goose when the rest of Midas was still sleeping. It didn’t seem wise to ask a favor from its ice-born landlord, with swells of patrons drunkenly eavesdropping. I knock on the r