From the New York Times bestselling author of So This Is Ever After, a young prince must rely on a mysterious stranger to save him when he is kidnapped during his coming-of-age tour in this swoony adventure that is The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue meets Pirates of the Caribbean.
Prince Tal has long awaited his coming-of-age tour. After spending most of his life cloistered behind palace walls as he learns to keep his forbidden magic secret, he can finally see his family’s kingdom for the first time. His first taste of adventure comes just two days into the journey, when their crew discovers a mysterious prisoner on a burning derelict vessel.
Tasked with watching over the prisoner, Tal is surprised to feel an intense connection with the roguish Athlen. So when Athlen leaps overboard and disappears, Tal feels responsible and heartbroken, knowing Athlen could not have survived in the open ocean.
That is, until Tal runs into Athlen days later on dry land, very much alive, and as charming—and secretive—as ever. But before they can pursue anything further, Tal is kidnapped by pirates and held ransom in a plot to reveal his rumored powers and instigate a war. Tal must escape if he hopes to save his family and the kingdom. And Athlen might just be his only hope...
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Chapter 1 1
Tal closed his eyes as he bent over the bow and willed himself not to vomit. Deck bobbing beneath his boots, his belly flipped as he gripped the glossy wood of the ship’s railing with white knuckles.
Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.
Tal hated the sea. He hated this trip. He hated that his older brother would tease him endlessly if he found him retching over the side.
He sucked in a breath through his nose, then gagged. The acrid stench of smoke from the burning derelict floating next to their warship singed his nostrils, and Tal’s grasp tightened as bile bubbled in his gullet.
This was a disaster already. He’d warned his family about the dangers of him leaving the castle and gallivanting around the kingdom. They hadn’t listened.
Opening his eyes, he wiped the ocean spray from his pale face with his sleeve, the fabric soft against his cheeks. He hooked a finger in his collar and tugged, hoping to relieve the pressure at his throat from the gathered fabric. It didn’t work.
He should go below to his bunk in the crew’s quarters and hide until they reached the port. Maybe he could write the queen a letter detailing everything that had gone wrong thus far. Maybe she’d let him come home. He had seen her vacillate when they left the docks the previous day, her usual steely resolve slipping a fraction when he waved from the stern.
Tal snapped his head up and swayed away from the railing. The high sun threw sparkles on the water, and Tal squinted and lifted his hand to block the piercing light as he searched for the source of the call. His dark hair tangled and fell into his eyes, and he brushed it away only for the wind to push it back.
“I’ve asked you not to call me that.”
His brother Garrett swaggered toward him, the laces of his own shirt unknotted, the collar flung wide open. He moved with the natural pulse of the ship, as at home on the deck as he was in their family castle. He slapped Tal heartily on the back. “Old habits.”
Tal straightened his posture, and though Garrett was seven years older, they almost matched in height.
“Fine,” Garrett said, draping his arm over Tal’s shoulders. “Don’t look so sour. I understand. You’re sixteen and don’t want to be babied by your older siblings.”
The fourth child of five, Tal was accustomed to being teased, but now at sixteen he had a sinking feeling he’d always be coddled by his three older siblings. The trio were all set in their royal roles, while Tal’s remained uncertain. His sister, Isa, was the eldest and next in line to be queen. Garrett was the head of their kingdom’s navy. His other brother, Kest, was a renowned scholar.
Having been sequestered in the castle since he was a boy, Tal lived in their shadows. His coming-of-age tour would be his best chance to grow into his own, but it would be especially difficult if he never managed to arrive at the starting port. He was both anxious and eager to start. Anxious because everything could go wrong, and eager to get it over with. Of course, Garrett had had to stop to investigate a burning boat.
Tal craned his neck to peer toward the smoldering vessel they’d come upon. Attached to their ship by a plank of wood and several ropes, it drifted along their port side. The fires were mostly out. Sails hung limply from the masts, torn and singed—a lonely ghost unmoored and unmanned, haunting the inlet until a storm dashed it on the rocky shores or until it took on water and slowly sank to the depths. He didn’t know why his brother had approached the ship when the crewman spotted it from the crow’s nest. Duty, he guessed. For all of Garrett’s gregariousness, he was staunchly loyal and followed their mother’s edicts to a fault.
The derelict listed dangerously, and shouts erupted from Garrett’s crew. His second-in-command strode over to them, her boot heels clicking, brown hair swinging from a high ponytail.
“Commander,” she said, addressing Garrett, “we’ve found something interesting.” Shay held up a coin between her fingers. Her dark eyes drifted to Tal. “Your Highness.” She bowed her head.
Garrett raised an eyebrow as he plucked the coin from her hand. He flipped it into the air and caught it in his palm, before studying it intently. He grunted, then passed it to Tal. “What do you see?”
“It’s not ours,” Tal said, turning the coin in his fingers. “The stamp is from Ossetia. It’s not uncommon to find currency from bordering countries this close to home.” Tal squinted, running his fingers over the raised edges of the face. “It’s not worn, but the seal isn’t current, either. This shows the previous king’s stamp.”
“Good eye. You’ve been studying.”
Not by choice. Isa was to be married to Ossetia’s prince once Tal and Garrett returned. To prevent an incident, Tal’s tutor had been shoving Ossetia’s history and culture at him constantly. He didn’t appreciate it, since there were other things more pertinent and certainly more interesting to study.
Magic, for one.
“Not newly minted, but not circulated.” Garrett tossed it back to Shay.
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet.”
“There’s a chest of them.”
Garrett’s eyebrows shot up. “A whole chest of gold? Abandoned? Well, then, this is interesting.”
“There’s more,” Shay said, shifting slightly. Shay was the royal house’s most stalwart soldier. She’d followed Garrett into skirmishes and squalls, protected Tal as a child, and earned a seat at the royal table with her unerring bravery. To see her unsettled twisted Tal’s stomach even more. “There is something you should come see.” Her gaze cut to Tal and she stopped short, her eyes narrowing. “You should come as well, Your Highness.”
Garrett laughed. “Tally was just puking over the side. You think he should board a pitching ship? I don’t think so.”
Shay straightened and gripped the sword at her side. “Of course, Commander. In hindsight, he may be too sensitive for what we’ve found.”
That spiked Tal’s interest more than a piece of pristine gold. He shrugged off Garrett’s heavy arm and stepped forward. “I’m not sensitive. I’m a prince of Harth, same as Garrett, and I will decide what I see and what I don’t.”
“Of course, Your Highness,” Shay said, bowing shortly again, her pink lips twisting up into a smile. “You know your limits. I apologize for questioning them.”
Garrett laughed. “Shay, such formality. It’s just Tally. You’ve known him since he was a squalling baby.”
“I believe he’s asked you not to call him that. Several times. Since we left port... yesterday.” Shay’s smile broke forth, wide and playful.
Tal frowned and brushed past them toward the plank between the ships. Other crewmen bustled around the deck and gave Tal a wide berth. They respected Garrett, as he’d been their commander for years, after having trained with most of them when he was a teenager. They didn’t know Tal and didn’t know the boundaries of familiarity. They looked at him, gauging his worth both aboard their ship and as a potential ruler. More than likely they’d heard the rumors, and though Tal was used to others being cautious around him, it still rubbed him the wrong way.
Sickly and spoiled. Young, untested, seasick, naïve, arrogant, magic. He’d heard it all since he stepped on the deck a day ago with Garrett at his side and Isa waving from the dock as they pulled away. Well, they could think those things. Tal would prove them wrong on the negatives. He’d prove them all wrong, even his siblings. And the last word on that list, the forbidden one, was for him and his family to know, no one else.
He stepped onto the plank and grabbed the rope that stretched from their main mast to the derelict’s. As he was about to step across, Shay grabbed his arm and halted him.
“I’ll cross first,” she said, voice low. “I promised the queen I’d protect you, and I can’t do that if you hurry off without me.” She stepped around him on the small plank, all lithe grace and swinging hips. “Follow, young prince.”
Tal scowled at the moniker but bit back a retort. They started to cross, and he squeezed his eyes shut when he glanced down and saw pieces of the wreckage pitching beneath them in the rough seas. Garrett’s hand on his shoulder wasn’t unwelcome then.
“Keep walking,” Garrett said, voice low in his ear. “Don’t look down. That’s it.”
Tal inched across and gladly dropped to the deck of the other ship, even though it lurched beneath his feet far more violently than Garrett’s warship. His earlier queasiness returned. Clenching his jaw, he resisted the urge to clap a hand over his mouth and instead swallowed several times to keep the nausea at bay. He didn’t want to give Garrett any more opportunities for teasing or any reason to send him back across.
With Garrett at his side, he followed Shay to the captain’s quarters, set at the stern beneath the quarterdeck. The glass of the windows had blown out, and bits crunched beneath Tal’s boots.
“Finally! Someone with authority.” Stepping into the captain’s quarters, Tal came face-to-face with a young man. “Well, not you,” he said, addressing Tal. “You.” He nodded to Garrett, standing over Tal’s shoulder. “You’re the commander? I demand you release me.”
Garrett stroked his ginger beard. “You were not wrong, Shay,” he said. “Definitely interesting.”
The boy tapped his foot and crossed his arms over his bare chest. He stood tall and broad shouldered, with reddish-brown hair that flopped over his forehead. Light coming in the broken window cast a kaleidoscope of colors on his pale face, illuminating the honey brown of his eyes and the strange patterned markings that ran the length of his torso. His trousers were too short on his long legs, stopping at his shins. He had thinly boned ankles and pale bare feet with knobby toes. An iron fetter, wrapped snugly around one ankle, was attached to a chain, which was secured to the floor.
“Are you done?” the young man asked, holding his arms out to the sides. Brazen in the face of Tal’s inspection. “As you can see, I’m not a threat.”
“We’ll be the judge of that,” Shay said, moving to block Tal from the young man’s sight. “What happened here?”
He flinched from her and hunched his shoulders near his ears. “What will you believe?”
“That’s not a promising start,” Garrett said. He nodded toward his sailors, who were gathered in the room. “Everyone out. Find him a shirt and boots.” Then he asked the boy, “Do you know where the key is?”
The prisoner shook his head. “The last I saw, it was with the captain.”
“And he’s where?” Garrett asked. The boy pressed his lips shut into a thin line, and Garrett nodded. “That’s what I thought. Well, you heard me,” he addressed the sailors milling about. “A shirt, boots, and an ax. We can at least cut him from the floor before this wreck goes under. Shay, you too. Tally, stay.”
Tal shuffled out of the way as the sailors left to follow Garrett’s commands. He leaned against a large desk in the corner, swallowing a comment about being addressed like a pet. He gripped the furniture as the ship continued to move unsteadily beneath them, taking on water and beginning a slow descent to the depths.
The young man’s gaze darted between Tal and Garrett, his brow furrowed.
Garrett sighed and scrubbed a hand over his short hair. “What’s your name, boy?” He said it in the way he talked to their younger sister when she was upset, the way he used to talk to Tal when he was frightened.
The boy tilted his head to the side. “Athlen.”
“Athlen,” Garrett said, testing out the unusual name on his tongue. “Do you need anything?”
Athlen looked to Tal again and back to Garrett, face scrunched in confusion. “Excuse me?”
“Water? Food? Bandages? Obviously, a shirt—”
“Are you being nice to me?”
That was an odd question. “Were they,” Garrett said, gesturing to the cabin, “nice to you?”
Athlen tugged on the chain. “Not particularly, no.”
“We won’t hurt you,” Tal blurted. He prickled at the unfairness of it all. The fetter looked painful; bruises dotted the top of Athlen’s foot, and the chain wasn’t long, trapping him inside the cabin. Eyeing him like he was a danger, Garrett remained silent, pensive, studying the situation with a military eye, but Tal persisted. “We won’t! I promise.”
“And can you make that promise?” Athlen asked. “Or”—he pointed to Garrett—“are those his decisions to make?”
Tal blushed, embarrassed and indignant, and the tightly bound control he held over himself snapped. “I promise.” A gust of hot wind swept across the small cabin, swirling debris and thickening the air like the pressure change before the rumble of an incoming storm, giving weight to Tal’s words. Sparks flitted between Tal’s fingertips, and he hurriedly balled his hands into fists. But the damage had been done.
Athlen whipped his head to stare at Tal, mouth stretching into a small, pleased grin. His cheeks dimpled. “Magic,” he said softly.
Horrified at his slip, Tal froze.
In wonder, Athlen lifted his arm and studied the fine hairs that stood on end, a product of the crackle of Tal’s magic. He took a step toward Tal, awed and unafraid, the chain slithering along the floor behind him. “You’re magic.” He said it with such certainty there was little use in denying it, though Tal tried.
“No.” Tal licked his lips. “I’m not—”
“You’re not?” Athlen squinted. “Are you sure?” Head cocked to the side, he took another step, undeterred.
At a loss, Tal looked to Garrett for assistance.
“That’s close enough.” Garrett’s commanding voice stopped Athlen’s advance but didn’t release Tal from his scrutiny. In fact, Athlen stared, eyebrows drawn, more curious than scared.
Garrett pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.
“My brother is correct. We will not hurt you, but we’re not releasing you until we know what happened to this ship and where,” Garrett said, holding up the coin and refocusing the conversation, “this came from.”
Athlen turned away from Tal and strode toward Garrett, stopping when the chain jerked tight. “Hey! That’s mine. I found it.”
Garrett raised his eyebrows, his blue eyes glittering. “You found it?”
“I did, and you have no right to take it. It’s shiny and it’s mine.”
“Shiny?” Garrett mouthed, brow furrowed. “Where? A shipwreck? Or was it the captain’s, and you tossed him overboard and claimed it for your own?”
Athlen scoffed. “I didn’t hurt anyone. And I found that chest in the bay, and that makes it mine.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that when it comes to chests of royally marked gold. Why are you bound?”
“Of course,” he muttered. He crossed his arms and turned away, refusing to respond.
Despite Garrett’s continued questions, they didn’t learn anything else from Athlen. Minutes dragged by until Shay returned with a shirt and an ax. She tossed the shirt to Athlen, and he stared at it before pulling it over his head.
“Get him free, Shay. Then bring him aboard the War Bird. Tally, come along.”
Tal didn’t have the heart to argue. He’d sealed a promise with magic in front of a prisoner. He’d given himself away. He’d made the mistake his mother had warned him about within the first day of his journey.
Shay hefted the ax, and Tal scurried after Garrett, his head down, and tripped out the door. Garrett put his hand on Tal’s shoulder again as they navigated back to the plank. The ship deck rolled ominously.
Garrett pointed at a skinny sailor with long hair. “Make sure that chest gets over to our ship before this one goes under. Once everyone is back on board, we’ll cut her loose.”
“He’ll be your charge,” Garrett said, once back on the War Bird. Tal opened his mouth to protest, but Garrett cut him off. “He’s scared. He needs to be around someone he will see as a peer and not a threat. There’s something off about him. Maybe you can figure that out as well.”
“Wouldn’t Shay be a better choice?”
“No, I trust you can do it.”
Tal swallowed. He dropped his voice. “Sorry, about the magic.”
“It’s all right, Tally. Mother warned me it might be unpredictable, but”—he lifted his gaze and looked around the deck—“keep it a secret. You know what could happen if you don’t.”
Tal nodded. “I know.” He ran a hand through his hair and tugged on the ends. “There are already rumors among the crew. They look at me.”
“There are rumors all over the kingdoms. That doesn’t mean truth, especially if you don’t give them any proof. Understand?”
Cowed, Tal nodded and looked down at his feet. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry your coming-of-age tour has started out unexpectedly. We’ll make up for it once we reach port. And when we get back to the castle for Isa’s wedding, we’ll have a plethora of bawdy stories to share with Kest.”
Tal mustered a smile, which earned him a hearty clap to the back. His stomach churned as he walked to the railing and watched Shay lead the young man across the plank and into the hold, carrying the length of chain still attached to his ankle fetter in her hands. They cut the derelict free and pushed it away from their side, guiding it out of the channel. Garrett’s crew unfurled their ship’s sails, and the War Bird lurched forward, leaving the smoldering ship behind to roam the shoals until it sank.
The breeze ruffled Tal’s hair as they headed toward the southernmost port of their kingdom. The first day of his tour had been unexpectedly eventful. Suddenly he was to oversee the well-being of a strange boy and procure information from him about a chest of gold and a ghost ship. And his magic had flared despite all the training he’d endured over the last several years to keep it a secret. He flexed his fingers and sighed.
How could he prove himself to his family if he couldn’t keep his magic under control in situations where he shouldn’t even be anxious? How could Garrett trust him?
Tal took a breath, glad for the clean sea air, free from smoke. He could start with doing what Garrett had asked. Garrett wouldn’t give him a task that he couldn’t do. He trusted his brother in that. And following his orders would be a good first step. Steeling his resolve, Tal left the railing and strode across the deck, intent on checking on his charge.
“I need water,” Athlen said, jerking his head up as Tal descended the ladder.
Tal frowned at the demand and the lack of formal greeting. His first instinct was to assert his status as a royal, but he paused. There was a strange kind of relief in not being recognized, especially aboard his brother’s ship. They’d been traveling only a day, but the weight of the crew’s stares and the sound of their whispers settled heavily between his shoulder blades. Maybe Athlen would treat him normally if he didn’t know the significance of Tal’s heritage.
“I’m Tal,” he said. Not Prince Taliesin of Harth. Not Tally, youngest son of the queen. Not Tal, last mage of the royal line. “I’m going to be looking after you.”
Athlen huffed. “As a prisoner?”
“As a guest.”
Athlen made a face and gestured to their surroundings. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Tal glanced around. Athlen wasn’t wrong. Shay had brought him down into the hold, below the crew’s quarters, into the belly of the ship. The wood creaked, the sun barely penetrated the three decks above them, and damp spots dotted the floor and walls, making the enclosed space humid. Though Athlen wasn’t bound, it was implied that this was where he was meant to stay.
“I’ll find you a blanket,” Tal said. “And a hammock. And food.”
Athlen didn’t respond. He sat on the floor against a small trunk, knees pulled to his chest. His knobby fingers dug into the calf muscle of the leg that was still fettered, and he flinched, features twisting in pain. He peered up at Tal, expression guarded.
“Are you going to keep me like they did? Make me do things?”
Tal reeled, dismayed. “No!” he said immediately. He held up his hands, palms spread. “No, we just want information. We’re not... we aren’t pirates.”
Athlen raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to let me go?”
“When we get to the port, and after you tell us about the gold and the ship.” Athlen narrowed his eyes. “Here,” Tal said, offering a skin of water. Maybe a show of kindness would allow Athlen to relax. “Are you injured?”
Athlen took the water cautiously. He pulled the cork and took a long swallow, his throat bobbing, his pale neck arched. He grimaced and wiped the drops from his mouth. “This is stale.”
Tal quirked his mouth. “We just left yesterday.”
“I’m not injured.” Athlen changed the subject, his large eyes catching the scant light and reflecting the color of honey. “I’m sore. I’m not used to being on my legs this long.” He wiggled his toes. The chain clanked against the floor. “You’re magic.”
“Hush!” Tal said, voice shrill. He looked around, despite knowing the hold was empty save for them. He leaned close. “Don’t.”
Athlen stood, the action oddly graceful. As he stretched, his spine bent in a way Tal had seen only acrobats accomplish when they performed for the palace. He moved into Tal’s space, his movements strange, like his limbs didn’t quite fit with his body, in some moments awkward and unsure, and in others nimble and quick. Standing this close, Athlen smelled of seaweed and salt and crisp ocean wind. The scent reminded Tal of the depths of the blue, the cool rush of water, and the beaches near the castle, smooth stones and swirling eddies, coarse sand on the soles of his bare feet.
“Why?” Athlen tilted his head, looking toward the ceiling, indicating the crew. “Do they not know?”
He moved closer and poked Tal in the shoulder. “Are they afraid?” His lips curled into a smirk, teasing, as his gaze drifted over Tal’s frame. “Of you?”
Tal blushed, the heat rising in his cheeks, his pulse fluttering under his skin. “No. I’m not—”
“Of the magic, then?”
A lump lodged in Tal’s throat. Yes, he wanted to say. Yes, they’re terrified of magic, of me.
Surprisingly, though, Athlen was not. While the crew gave Tal a wide berth, Athlen crowded close, with no sense of danger or regard for personal space. On the derelict, after Tal’s mistake, Athlen had moved toward him, not away. He appeared more intrigued than anything, and that was... different. It made Tal’s belly swoop, and not with seasickness.
“Should I be?” Athlen asked, genuinely curious.
Tal opened his mouth, then shut it, unsure of how to respond. He rubbed his hand over his face. “It’s not...” Tal crossed his arms, wrong-footed. “I’m not... there hasn’t been...”
“Oh.” Athlen smiled sadly. “Are you the only one, then?”
Sucking in a breath, Tal stared at the deck. His heart beat like a hummingbird and his palms were slicked with sweat. Brow furrowed, he pushed the words out of his tight throat. “Surely you’re aware that there hasn’t been true magic in a long time. And the last one, the last mage, did... unspeakable things.” Tal’s stomach twisted. His family and tutor had warned him about telling anyone what he was, and here was a strange boy with a labile mouth and large eyes, and he had drawn it from Tal in half a conversation. “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s time you talk.” Athlen slunk away, shoulders hunched, affecting a picture of vulnerability. “What happened to that ship?”
Athlen fidgeted, worrying the buttons of his shirt with quick fingers. “Squall,” he said after a long pause. “I tried to warn them. They didn’t listen. They were not sailors like”—he waved his hands—“your people. Lightning struck the mast, and they fled in the small boats.”
“They left you to die?”
Athlen shrugged. “I had served my purpose.”
“How long have you been adrift?”
“Three sunrises.” He picked up his foot. “I can’t get it off. I’m not good with metal.”
Bruises ringed Athlen’s ankle and smattered across the top of his foot, and his skin was raw where the iron had rubbed. Tal clenched his fists. Three days. Trapped on a burning wreck for three days while it took on water and drifted, at risk of dehydration and drowning, not to mention burning to death. Tal couldn’t imagine. He didn’t want to imagine. It was a wonder Athlen had survived.
“Why were you on the ship? What was your purpose?”
Athlen’s expression darkened and he turned away from Tal. “Tell the commander I wish to be released. I have done nothing wrong.”
The change in his mood, from cautious but amiable to angry, caught Tal off guard. He tugged on his sleeves, pretending to straighten them to hide his surprise. “I’ll tell him.” Tal turned to go, but Athlen caught his arm. His strong fingers wrapped around Tal’s elbow.
“Wait.” Tal stilled. Athlen licked his lips. “Can you get it off? With your magic?”
Tal’s eyebrows shot up. “I’m not supposed—”
“Please.” His gaze darted from Tal to the stairs. A breeze ruffled his copper hair. “If you set me free, I’ll tell you everything. You know I wasn’t one of them, and they had me for weeks. I know what they were planning. I know where they got the gold.” He looked up to Tal, his eyes wet with unshed tears, his expression pleading. “Please.”
Tal covered Athlen’s hand with his own and removed it from his arm. He shouldn’t. His magic wasn’t meant for frivolous things. Garrett was right, though. Athlen was terrified. He was angry. He was a victim, and the iron around his ankle was a reminder. Tal could do this for him. He should do this for him. This journey was about learning to make decisions, and this would be his first one. He would use his magic for a good deed.
“You vowed to not hurt me. This”—he pointed to the iron—“is hurting me.”
Magic simmered under Tal’s skin as Athlen invoked the promise. “Sit down,” Tal said gruffly.
Athlen scrambled back to the trunk and propped his foot up on the lid, completely trusting. A pang of protectiveness lanced through Tal’s gut at Athlen’s bent posture. He swallowed nervously as he held out his hand and spread his fingers. He took a steadying breath and called his magic to his hand, a talent he’d mastered long ago. He focused on the band of metal, concentrated on breaking it as his magic swirled up through his body. Heat pooled in his middle, and warmth rushed up the length of his spine into the tips of his fingers. With a focused push he targeted the fetter, and a tangle of sparks leaped from his hand.
The anklet turned cherry red, glowing brighter and brighter, then burst. Shards flew outward with such force they buried in the deck.
Athlen stared with wide, grateful eyes, then a smile broke out over his features like the sun breaking through the clouds. His cheeks dimpled, and Tal’s gut flipped with something other than seasickness at the sight.
“That was amazing!”
“Did I hurt you?”
“No.” Athlen flexed his foot, pointing his toe, then rubbed his hand over the bare skin. “Thank you. Thank you, Tal.”
For the first time since Tal had left his home yesterday, he grinned. “You’re welcome.”
Athlen jumped to his feet and seized Tal’s hand in both of his own. Tal resisted the urge to jerk away, instead stilling, muscles tense as Athlen turned Tal’s palm over in inspecting it with a somber intensity. With a furrowed brow, he ran the calloused pads of his fingertips over the smooth skin between Tal’s fingers and along the underside of his wrist, his touch unusually cool. No one had touched Tal like this before, with impropriety and wonder, not even his family, and his heart pounded in his ears. Athlen lifted Tal’s hand closer, his breath warm and rhythmic on Tal’s skin, before he pressed a kiss to the palm. His eyelashes fluttered against Tal’s fingers, and Tal exhaled in staccato.
“Your magic is wonderful,” Athlen whispered. “I’ll remember you.”
Tal couldn’t speak, but he was sure Athlen could see the thundering of his pulse beneath the thin skin of his wrist.
The sound of footsteps descending on the ladder broke the moment, and the boys sprang apart. Tal’s cheeks flushed as red as the setting sun and felt equally as hot.
“You’ve been down here a while, Tally,” Garrett said as he dropped to the deck. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes.” The word came out shaky and breathless, and Tal wanted to crawl into the bilge.
“Tal freed me,” Athlen said, showing off his foot.
Garrett’s eyebrows twitched at the informal name, and Tal hastened to explain.
“I broke the fetter. He said he’d tell us about the gold and the ship if we freed him. He told me how the ship was destroyed beforehand.” Garrett’s expression remained unchanged. “He’s been adrift for three days,” Tal continued, feeling the inexorable need to justify himself, to reassure Garrett of his decisions and his use of magic. “He needs food and water and—”
“Light,” Athlen added. He pointed up. “Light and air, please.”
Garrett looked between them, hands on his hips, eyes sparkling with amusement. He pointed a finger at Athlen. “A few minutes of fresh air, then water and food in my quarters, where you will talk.”
Athlen nodded quickly, and after Garrett gestured with his hand, he darted toward the ladder. “Tal, huh?” Garrett said.
Tal covered his face with both hands. “Could you not?”
Garrett’s laugh boomed in the enclosed space, and he chuckled the entire way up the ladder to the top deck. Tal followed, face aflame, stomach tripping over itself in equal parts embarrassment and excitement.
When Tal emerged, he found Athlen standing next to the main mast. He threw his head back and breathed in deep, inhaling the brisk ocean breeze. The sun illuminated his exposed skin, and he appeared preternatural, like a gleaming marble statue marking the entrance to an inlet, with the sky as its backdrop and the ocean at its feet. And for a moment Tal swore he saw a flash of red shimmer over Athlen’s body, as if it were reflecting the sunset.
Athlen turned to them and smiled wide and happy, his cheeks dimpling, his eyes dancing.
“Thank you, Tal,” he said. Then he ran.
Tal lunged after him but missed the tail of Athlen’s shirt.
Garrett bellowed at the crew to catch him, but Athlen was swift and nimble. He dodged outstretched arms and ripped away from the grasps of the sailors. He made it to the stern and hopped over the railing to balance on the edge.
“Athlen! No!” Tal pushed through the crowd, hand outstretched.
Athlen pulled off his shirt and tossed it to the deck. He gave Tal a last look and winked. Then he dove over the side.
“Man overboard,” one of the sailors cried out.
Tal ran to the railing, prepared to jump after, but Garrett grabbed him around the middle. “No. Tal, no,” he said as Tal struggled in his arms.
“But he jumped. He...” Tal peered down into the churning blue. Scanning the froth, he saw no sign of Athlen. No flash of cloth or peek of skin. He didn’t resurface.
“Stay the boats,” Garrett shouted. “He’s gone.” Garrett released Tal but kept a hand on his arm.
“He... why did he...? What...?” Tal craned his neck to meet Garrett’s gaze and flinched at the sorrow and empathy he found there. “I don’t understand.”
Garrett shook his head sadly. “I hope you never do.”
Tal swallowed and looked back to the sea. Since their sails were full, the place where Athlen had jumped was far behind them, already smoothing out from the War Bird’s wake. Squinting, Tal thought he saw a flash of red just beneath the water, but it was only the refraction of the sun casting on the water as it began its descent to taste the curved horizon.
His heart sank, but he stayed at the rail long after his brother returned to his work, and the day gave way to dusk.