A spellbinding romantic fantasy about a powerful witch who will do anything to escape the remote island she’s being held captive on, including blackmail a notorious, charming pirate who washes up on shore, from debut author Angela Montoya.
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An Introduction from Author Angela Montoya
In chapters 5 and 6 of Sinner’s Isle, the equally tenacious main characters, Rosalinda and Mariano, lock eyes from afar. Though each is dealing with their own struggles and obstacles at that very moment, both have a physical, visceral reaction to each other after this single shared glance. It will begin a whirlwind romance and change their lives forever.
Before these chapters begin, Rosalinda and her dearest friend Juana had been caught trying to flee Sinner’s Isle before the Offering—a week-long fiesta where the wealthiest in the kingdom choose powerful witches like Rosalinda and Juana to serve them for the rest of their days. Because Rosalinda is the strongest choice this year, the headmistress of the isle has decided to keep Juana captive to ensure Rosalinda behaves. But Rosalinda has other ideas. She will do whatever it takes to escape the island and the king, who she believes is determined to use her shadow magic to continue his family’s malicious reign.
Meanwhile, Mariano and his companion Santiago have recently found themselves alone in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a tiny boat to sail in, Santiago’s insufferable (to Mariano) humor, and an enchanted stone meant to bring Mariano to his heart’s desire. Having fought through storms and sea creatures to survive, Mariano is a bit befuddled when they come upon the infamous Sinner’s Isle.
Why would the stone bring him there?
Perhaps the stone somehow knew that the royal fleet and the ships of nobles filled with riches were in the bay, ripe for the taking. Mariano is a pirate, after all. What lies within the heart of a pirate if not the need to plunder booty? But maybe it isn’t Mariano who will do the stealing; instead, it might be him who will have his heart stolen by a cunning young woman with a bold plan.
Magic has a way of bringing forth the unexpected, true desires in us all. I know that was certainly the case for me. When I finally sat down and followed my heart, I found Rosalinda and Mariano there, and the rest was history.
by Angela Montoya
Day One of the Offering: Praise Be to the Dioses of Rest and Rejuvenation
Rosa’s bones ached as she pushed herself off the floor she’d fallen asleep on. A sliver of sunlight broke through the curtains. She glared out her balcony. The first day of the Offering had officially begun.
Her insides felt empty, like someone had taken a metal spoon and scooped every bit of hope from within. She hadn’t had a nightmare. Juana was truly gone.
What had Doña Lucía done to her? Did she keep her word and not hurt her?
Rosa shot to her feet. She’d find her friend and make sure she was unharmed. Her fingers wrapped around the door handle and tugged. But it wouldn’t budge.
“What the hells?” she whispered.
Rosa shook the handle. She yanked at the door with her whole might. No matter how hard she tried, it wouldn’t open.
“That bitch!” She stomped her foot.
Her shadows stirred. We can break the door. We will destroy the entire palace if you so desire.
Her stomach dipped. “I let you out last night and look what happened.”
The phantoms hissed.
Ignoring them, she pressed her ear to the wood. She could hear muted voices.
“Hello!” she called. “I know you’re there.” No one replied.
She dropped to her knees and peeked underneath, catching the silhouettes of legs and feet moving past. “I see you!” she shouted. “Let me out!”
Again, nothing. She stood up and screamed. She grabbed a candlestick and threw it, but it merely bounced off the thick wood and thudded onto the rug. She’d been sealed in a cage like the tlanchana hidden in the lagoon near the shambles of Xiomara’s temple.
Rosa cupped her cheek.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, praying her words would somehow find Juana. “Forgive me.”
After what felt like years, her door creaked open. “Rosalinda?”
She shot up. “Don’t close the door!”
But Isobel—one of the other girls who’d come of age this year—stepped into the room and shut the door gently behind her.
“La doña had little Alicia seal you in with her magic. She’s been given strict orders to only let you out when you are accompanied by Lola.”
Isobel gave a sympathetic smile and sat beside Rosa. She offered a glass of agua de tamarindo. “For strength.”
The wigs that Isobel donned varied with her gowns and moods. Today, she was dressed like una sirena, with black curls cascading down her body in a mass of soft waves. The thin robe she wore did little to hide her soft flesh, and her dark-brown skin glistened from oils that smelled of honey milk.
“My babies told me what happened,” Isobel said, placing the glass down. She lifted her hand. A fat-bottomed spider rested on her knuckle, its beady eyes tracking Rosa’s every move. Isobel was gifted with power over spiders. She could control the tiny beasts as though they were a part of her. She was a prized Majestic, like Rosa. Most likely some general or one of the cazadores hoped to bind themselves to her and her little spies.
Isobel held the creature to her ear. “He says you put up a worthy fight.”
“But it wasn’t good enough, was it? Juana is gone. I don’t even know where the mistress took her.” A thought slipped into Rosa’s mind. “Does he know where she is?”
“I’m afraid not. He hid away when your . . .” Her eyes flicked to her skirts. “When you released the shadows.”
Rosa’s chin dropped. “I’m a fool.”
“You aren’t.” Isobel’s hand went to her arm. “Fighting for a chance at a life of your own is never foolish.”
“There is no winning, though, is there? I’m more trapped than ever. Doña Lucía will use Juana against me until my dying breath.”
“Do not give up. Not if being free from this place is what you really want.”
“Isobel, look what happened.” She shook her head. “Doña Lucía is too powerful.”
“You are the most formidable Majestic we’ve seen in ages. Even more so than that witch Doña Lucía. You have to trust your own damn self.”
Were these words actually coming from Isobel? She’d always been so demure. So perfectly mannered. Rosa hadn’t even heard her curse before.
For the first time, maybe ever, Rosa saw her. Isobel was beautiful—strikingly so—yet forgettable. She glided around a room with her shoulders slouched, her head bowed as if trying to take up the least amount of space possible. But perhaps there was more to it than that. Perhaps her quietness was her shield, her way of keeping eyes away from her so she could survive. Just like her spiders.
Rosa took the glass that Isobel brought and drank the liquid quickly. It was a small gesture, but she wanted to show that she appreciated Isobel.
When the last of the tangy juice was gone, Rosa asked, “Do you ever wish to leave this place?”
Isobel toyed with her robe. “I’ve known nothing beyond Sinner’s Isle. My mamá gave me to the church before I could walk. I don’t even know from which island I came. I don’t think I’d last long in the real world on my own. But you could. Juana too. And you deserve happiness.”
“We all deserve that. Don’t we? Or is being born a Majestic as wrong as the church says?”
No one knew why or how a female child was chosen to be a Majestic. But when the poor girl’s powers manifested, the church would come to collect and take her to Sinner’s Isle before any non-Majestic souls were tainted by her influence.
Unless the magic dealers found her first and sold off her magic in the dark markets, as was Lola’s case.
Those few who were stashed away—by their loved ones, like Rosa, or by groups who wished to abolish the Offering altogether—lived a life of constant fear. Hiding in the forests, living in cellars, sailing into the Unknown Reaches, to Dead Man’s Cove. With the hope they’d be forgotten and keep their independence. But almost always, the runaway Majestics were discovered by the cazadores.
A hairy tarantula dangled from Isobel’s hair and plopped onto her shoulder. She turned to the door. “Lola is coming. She’s been sent to bring you to King Sebastián.”
Rosa’s eyes widened. Her shadows bloomed to life. “Now?”
Isobel nodded. “I’ve already been to see him this morning. Every available Majestic will before the pageant tomorrow so he may make his pick before anyone else. Though, we already know it will be you.”
“But today is meant to be observed in quiet retrospection out of respect for the dioses of rest. What would Xolo think when he sees his worshipers aren’t offering their proper praise? Guests are supposed to lounge about in their rooms with their curtains drawn.”
The first six days of the Offering were held in honor of the various dioses the church worshiped, and themed as such. Today celebrated the dioses of rest and rejuvenation, Xolo and Temilo. Tomorrow, they’d recognize the dioses of air and winged creatures. An extravagant event would take place on the wind-whipped side of the isle. The seventh and final day, which had once been a day where Xiomara was praised, was now when the binding ritual transpired. When the women the goddess sacrificed her life to protect would be given away like shiny trinkets.
Rosa shook her head. “I can’t see the king. Not now.” Not when the wounds of losing Juana were still aching.
“We’ve been trained for this since we were girls,” Isobel said. “To put on a smile, even when we’re dying inside. You’ll do that now, Rosa. You’ll be convincing. I know you will.”
Three quick knocks sounded on the door.
“Just be careful,” Isobel whispered. “There’s something strange about that man. My spiders wouldn’t go near him.”
Icy dread slithered through Rosa as Lola swept into the room. Her brown skin was swollen around her eyes, and she had no face paint on.
She hesitated before crossing the threshold. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but—”
“I’m to see the king.”
Lola nodded. “Doña Lucía asks that you come dressed in your finest. I’m here to help.”
Rosa crossed her arms. “I’d rather sit on glass than see that man.”
“Our mistress says you know what will happen if you disobey.” Lola met her gaze in warning, pleading with her to submit.
“So you’ve heard, then? What happened with Juana and me?” A single tear trailed down Lola’s cheek and pooled at the corner of her lips. Her chin quivered. “There are eyes and ears across the palace, Rosalinda. You should know that by now.”
Guilt slammed into Rosa’s belly. She’d snapped at Juana for trying to take Lola with them. They’d argued. She had been the worst sort of friend. And now Juana was lost to both of them. Rosa had asked Juana if Lola was her heartsong, but Juana didn’t know. Did Lola? Did she hear the song of Juana’s heart? Judging by the misery plastered on her face, Rosa had to wonder. But now wasn’t the time to ask.
She straightened her spine. “Help me dress.”
The hue of coral in the gown she wore was a thing of beauty, but the bodice was cut too low in front and swept even lower down the back. The bell-shaped skirts made her already curvy hips appear even rounder. If the king enjoyed a voluptuous figure, he’d have a hard time ignoring hers.
Rosa huffed. She didn’t want to just be seen and considered appealing. She wanted to be heard. To be understood. But men, especially powerful men, never listened.
Her heels clipped against the tile as she made for the king’s private sitting room. It was situated in the western wing of the palace and offered the clearest views of the bay, but the windowless corridor leading to his quarters was stuffy and dark and thick with treacherous secrets. Rosa’s armpits sweated, her palms moist. She took a few breaths before knocking on the lacquered door.
Maybe if he wasn’t as arrogant as she’d first assumed, she could appeal to his better nature. As king, he could order la doña to pardon Juana, couldn’t he?
The door swung open, startling her. King Sebastián stood in nothing but trousers and a loose-fitting blouse. His cuffs were undone, and he wore no shoes. His soft curls unfurled around his shoulders, framing a face almost too attractive to look at. A marble sculpture in his likeness could be mistaken for one of the dioses.
Heat clawed up Rosa’s neck, and she glanced down at her slippers. She’d never been alone with a man, let alone a king, who wore so little clothing.
She remembered her manners and bowed low. “Your Majesty, it is an honor.”
The two words slapped Rosa’s cheek.
He sauntered across the room, beckoning her in with a ringed finger.
“Doña Lucía said you’d be here long before teatime.” He gestured toward a discarded cart of tea things and pasteles dulces. “As you see, I’ve already had my fill.”
“Apologies, King Sebastián. There is no excuse for my tardiness.” There was, though—Rosa’s face was so splotchy from the tears she’d shed the night before that Lola had to call in Serena to use her magic to help with the discoloration only minutes ago.
The king collapsed onto a velvet settee and crossed his legs. “Speak quickly, Majestic. Impress me before you take your leave. Traveling across that wretched sea has left me drained, and I would like another nap.”
She gulped, willing her phantoms to relax so she might concentrate.
“I . . .” She stumbled over her thoughts. Nothing proper or witty would come out. The only thing she could think of was Juana’s face as she was being dragged away. Juana’s screams for her to run.
Run where? She wanted to ask Juana. Where in the seas did she think Rosa would go without her?
Rosa’s focus flicked toward the windows. From here, one could see nothing but water and sky. A tiny boat dangerously close to the rocks below caught her attention. She squinted. What in the world was it doing there? Those waters were teeming with tlanchanas. Anyone with half a brain would know better than to coast in such a treacherous place.
Two young men sat within the rowboat. One had his back to her. His hands were flailing about as if he were telling a wild tale. The other one—her insides fluttered, something warm and buzzing thrumming through her. She couldn’t make out his features from this distance, but it was as if she could sense he was dark and brooding. Scowling as he rowed.
He stopped and tipped his head toward the palace. Toward her. Had he somehow sensed her too? Her heart gave a quick and pain- ful squeeze. She gasped.
“Are you unwell, Majestic?” the king asked. “If you are going to swoon, kindly do it elsewhere.”
She dragged her eyes away from the boy in the boat. “I . . . Um . . . I am fine, Your Majesty. Apologies.”
“Stop saying you’re sorry and tell me about yourself.” His eyes searched over her face. “You are here to make a good first impression, are you not? You are failing. Miserably, I must say.”
What a bully of a man. A right snob.
“Is this what your mistress has taught you? To be rude, late, and stagger over your words?”
“No, of course not.” Ay diosa, would he tell Doña Lucía of this wretched meeting? She’d be furious. Rosa needed to fix this fast, before Juana was irrevocably harmed. “My dear mistress has been a wonderful governess; it is I who have failed.”
The king pursed his lips, a single long nail tapping over them like a drum. “Doña Lucía is ever the lion tamer to have someone as powerful as yourself be so devoted to her. Pray tell, who will you be loyal to if I take you to my castillo in the great ciudad of Coronado? Would you serve me alone, or your mistress as well? Perhaps the church who has claimed to dampen the sinfulness within Majestics?”
He bent over, grabbed a slab of raw fish from a tray of ice, and sniffed. He sneered before throwing it back.
“I hate seafood. Ironic, no? The ruler of an island kingdom, surrounded by nothing but, and I cannot stand the smell. My penance for being born royal, I suppose.”
His eyes snapped up and held her in place. There was something there, something hidden behind the deep brown of his irises. A question. Or want.
He leaned back. “Tell me where your loyalties lie.”
Did it matter? Once the binding ritual was complete, she could not raise a hand or shadow against the person she was bound to. Loyalty or not, he would not have anything to fear from her.
“If you’re asking who I will serve, the answer is whoever pays the church the highest price for my tithe.” The coin spent toward the tithe was meant to be a promise of sorts. A commitment made by the nobles that they would take the very best care of their bound Majestic for the rest of their days. The church, in turn, was supposed to use the aristocracy’s wealth for the other girls’ housing on the isle, their education, and the temples that littered the kingdom, but it was well known that the cardenals skimmed off the top and bottom for themselves.
“If you’re asking who I hold in my heart, I can confidently say it is not the church, or la doña, or you.”
The king snorted. A genuine sort of enjoyment flickered over his features. But it was gone just as fast, replaced with indifference. “Well then, Majestic, is there anyone who does hold your allegiance?”
Should she say it? This might be her only chance. “There is a Majestic. My dearest friend. She . . .”
The king roared. “Majestics have no bonds. They are soulless brujas.”
Rosa’s eyes widened. How dare he! Her shadows raged.
“Is that ire I’m sensing?” King Sebastián steepled his fingers together. “Tell me, is it my crown that peeves you? The church who rules over my every command? Is it the fact that the nobility parades the Majestics they’ve bound themselves to as a show of wealth and status? They dress them like dolls. Treat them like living trophies. They put them on display during their little fiestas like trick ponies. Which of these truths turns the whites of your eyes black as coal?”
Rosa blinked. Her eyes must have gone onyx. She crooked her head toward the sea and forced her shadows back. How horrid he must think her. He’d never favor her now. He’d do nothing to help Juana. She wanted to scream.
The settee groaned as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “If I were you, I’d be angry too.”
Rosa hadn’t a moment to take in his words before he stood. He moved in close.
“So, are you?” he asked.
“Am I what, Your Majesty?”
“Angry.” His eyes bore into hers, pleading. But she didn’t know what answer he was searching for, so she kept her lips sealed. It was safer that way. Who knew what he was really after? Besides, she’d said too much already.
He sighed. “I was hoping for more from you, but Doña Lucía must have stuck her claws into all her girls.”
The king shuddered, as though shaking off the skin of his true self to make room for his façade of indifference. But he wasn’t indifferent. There was something inside him that reeked of rage too. But what exactly was the source? Majestics? The kingdom at large? Rosa had no clue.
“Tell no one of what transpired between us. Is that understood?”
“Of course.” What had transpired between them?
“You may go. My head aches, and I must rest if I’m to interview the remainder of the Majestics before the tedious pageant tomorrow.”
“But—” She needed to make him like her still.
“I said, you may go.”
Shakily, she bowed.
As soon as the door shut behind her, Rosa hoisted her skirts and ran, desperate to put as much space between the king and herself as possible. He was strange. And temperamental. And unnerving.
She needed to come up with another plan. She wouldn’t spend another second with that man if she didn’t have to.
Rosa would have to find a way to save Juana herself so they could be rid of the isle forever. But how? How was she going to do this while playing Doña Lucía’s game? She’d have to find Juana and get off the isle without anyone taking notice. And she would have to do it before Binding Day.
Rosa stopped. She could do it now. She was alone, after all. She could sneak about and search for Juana. See where that wretch of a mistress was keeping her. She dashed ahead, hope filling her senses like smoke.
Just before she rounded the bend in the corridor, her shadows wrapped around her mouth and yanked her back. Her shoulders bumped into the wall. Her head spun with confusion. She’d let her guard down for one moment, had let her thoughts slip away for a second, and they took advantage.
What are you doing? she snapped, reining in the phantoms.
Listen, they hissed.
Two sets of footsteps approached. La doña’s voice slithered through the air. “We’re honored that you have decided to come to this year’s Offering, Cardenal Rivera.”
Rosa’s eyes widened. Priests had been forbidden to enter the palace after one was found in a Majestic’s bed decades ago. He had blamed the Majestic, had said she bewitched him, but everyone knew better. But this man with la doña was no ordinary padre. In total, there were six cardenals, the most powerful holy men in the kingdom. Each cardenal was assigned to one of the six islands that surrounded Sinner’s Isle. In her recollections, Rosa had never known of any man with such a high ranking within the clergy to step foot upon this place.
“There are stirrings within the church.” He spoke slowly, as if every word was so important, it must be heard and digested before he continued. “We worry over our new king.”
“I have heard such stirrings myself,” Doña Lucía said.
Rosa’s shadows tucked her into a small cutout in the wall as the two passed by. That foul witch in soft vicuña fleece. The cardenal in the standard gold-and-red robes.
“The Majestics’ numbers are dwindling, Doña. We’ve had word there are sympathizers hiding the brujas away in caverns. Helping some to Dead Man’s Cove.”
Rosa’s ears perked.
Unleash us, the shadows whispered.
¡Cállate! She couldn’t listen with the phantoms’ constant badgering.
“We must have a strong ruler. One that will squash every thought of rebellion. Those witches tried to liberate themselves from their moral duties generations ago. We cannot let them think they can try again,” the cardenal said. “Every powerful Majestic must be bound to those loyal to our cause.”
“And what cause is that, exactly? Is it the souls of my Majestics you worry for, Cardenal Rivera? Or the tithes that pay for your decadent garments and lavish temples?”
The cardenal froze. His robes brushed against the floor as he faced Doña Lucía. He was much shorter than her, but his presence filled the entire space. They were so close to Rosa. If she moved, if she made a sound, they would notice.
“I’d watch my tongue, if I were you, doña. Especially if you wish to hold a seat beside those with real influence. Do not forget, the king isn’t the only one that is replaceable on this isle.” He raised his chin. “The Binding was created to save the sinners’ souls. And the tithes you are so interested in are a means for our good noblemen to offer praise to the dioses.”
Doña Lucía’s eyes hardened, but she plastered on a smile. Even she was a master at cloaking her own revulsion. “I understand, Cardenal Rivera. Forgive my insolence.” She took his hand and kissed it. “There is someone, a man of great import, I’d like you to meet. Though I’m sure you are well acquainted with his name already.”
“Tell me,” he ordered.
“Lord Morales de las Islas del Sur.”
“I have heard of him. He is very generous.”
“Yes, indeed.” Doña Lucía took the cardenal’s elbow. “I should like to make an introduction. I think you might find what he has to say about our young king quite intriguing.”
In whispered conversation, the two finally swished down the corridor. Rosa inhaled deeply. She crept out of her hiding spot and made to follow them. The more she knew, the better. Doña Lucía might let it slip where Juana was. And there was that information about Dead Man’s Cove. The landmass sat below las Islas del Sur. It was said to be uninhabitable because of the harsh conditions, but Majestics risked it anyway. Perhaps the tales of the ivy that slithered about the forests of Dead Man’s Cove and wrapped around peoples necks, of sand that dissolved into fiery pits, of poisoned waters and insects who craved human flesh had been a lie.
As she slinked into the hall, a hand caught her by the skirt.
Rosa whipped around, only to see Lola scowling at her.
“What in the seven hells do you think you’re doing?” Lola whispered through clenched jaw.
“I . . .” Rosa clamped her lips shut. She liked Lola, she always had, but she couldn’t trust her. Not after what happened to Juana. Not when only she and the merchant knew of their escape. Rosa straightened her shoulders. “Nothing.”
“I was told to escort you from the king’s suite. Instead, I find you spying on the cardenal and the mistress. Are you trying to get Juana killed?”
“Come.” Lola grabbed her by the arm. “You need to get to your room before we land ourselves in trouble.”
The first star popped into view by the time Mariano and Santi tumbled ashore. After the tlanchana attack, the currents had nearly sent them crashing into the jagged rocks that lined the outer edge of the isle. It took most of Mariano’s willpower to keep the single oar they had in his hands until they found a safe place to disembark.
Sopping wet and limp with exhaustion, the two collapsed onto the beach and sank into the sand. Mariano’s body was weak and his stomach growled angerly, and the loss of his father felt like a gaping wound within his chest, festering and raw and stinging from the salty sea, but he forced himself to get up. He needed to understand his surroundings.
“Please don’t say we’re moving,” Santi whimpered. “Even my bones ache.”
They’d made it to the first tiny cove Mariano spotted. It was quiet. Unoccupied by guards. The chances of someone spotting them were slim. But not impossible. Every curtain within the palace was shut, except for one. He had used a golden spyglass Santi nicked from Mariano’s uncle before they fled the Venganza and peered upward. There was a woman in the window. She had seen them. Perhaps she’d been an apparition. Or perhaps hunger was toying with his mind. Whatever the case, her curvaceous silhouette was the only thing he saw every time he closed his eyes. If she was real, she could have alerted someone of their presence.
“We stay here, and trouble will find us,” he said. “Best we go and find it first.”
Santi snorted. “All this time I thought I was in charge of clever quips.” He sighed, then heaved himself up to a seated position, brushing the sand from his soaked shirt. “What is your plan, Señor Prince?”
“We’ll do what we always do when arriving somewhere new.”
Santi flicked a bit of seaweed from his knee. “Drink until one of us passes out?”
“That’s what you do. And not what I meant. We’ll take a look about and see what we can pillage.” Mariano brushed a calloused finger over his lip and eyed the thick forest that sprouted just beyond the shore. Three paths lay ahead. One clearly went toward the palace. It was wider than the rest and inundated with fresh footprints. The palace wasn’t an option; it would be swarming with guards. Besides, he wanted whatever was in the belly of those ships. The gold and jewels that paid for the nobles’ luxe lives. But they would also need weapons. The single cutlass Mariano still had wouldn’t do. Food and shelter would be nice as well. That left them with two options.
Mariano bent down, snagged a broken sand dollar. “Heads or tails?”
“You already know I prefer both.”
Mariano ignored Santi’s jest. “Heads, we go left. Tails, right.”
He flicked the shell into the sky, watched it spin in circles until it thumped onto the ground. “Looks like we go right.”
The moon slid behind the island, shrouding them in blessed darkness. The soft whoosh of waves gliding over sand made it all seem so perfectly normal. As though they had docked on the small island of Arroyo Grande—a place not many ventured to because of its proximity to Pirate’s Keep.
Sorrow pulsed through Mariano. Aside from the ship, Pirate’s Keep had been where he spent most of his days. It was a cluster of tiny islands southeast of Arroyo Grande. Given its name because the place was a metaphorical fortress for pirates, outside of the Coronadian government’s jurisdiction. Cannons littered the shores, ready to decimate the king’s armada if it dared to draw near. Pillars of iron jutted from the churning waters like sea serpent fangs, keeping the power of Majestics away. His family had their own plot of land there and a casita made from red clay. Before she was taken from them, his mother and father would hold each other under the stars while Mariano pretended to sleep. He liked listening to them talk about all the things they wanted to do. He liked hearing his mother speak about her adventures from before they met and the way his father always asked her questions even though he’d heard the story a hundred times.
Mariano blinked away the memories. He needed to stay focused on the task at hand. Even Santi, who walked into every situation with a sly grin and scandalous intent, was tense.
They wove their way through a path flanked by dense vegetation. Fireflies flitted past them, but their bottoms were blue instead of golden white. Perhaps the island itself was under a spell.
A haunting sound floated into his ears. He straightened his shoulders. He recognized the soft laments of priests in an old language no one understood.
He turned to Santi. “Is there a temple on the isle?”
“There are temples everywhere, Señor Prince. Especially where coin flows like wine.”
Together, they crept forward, then quickly dove into the brush as two padres swinging censers moved past. The burning incense caused Santi to sneeze. The priests paused. Mariano glared at his companion. After a moment, the padres carried on with their prayers.
Slowly, carefully, the men tiptoed out of the woods, coming to a towering temple, as ornate as the Coronadian Cathedral but smaller in size. Statues of various dioses flanked the building. Each had their arms stretching toward the heavens.
“Don’t the Majestics pray to Xiomara?” Mariano asked. “Why would they have the temple of the twelve gods here?”
“To pray the evil out of them. To ensure Majestics behave.” Santi’s tone was neutral, but Mariano could hear the bite in it.
He narrowed his eyes. “What is it with you and this place?”
“The whole idea of Sinner’s Isle and the Offering is wretched. A Majestic—who is a person, mind you—having to offer herself as a servant to a rich man to save her soul? Absurd. It’s a money grab by the church.” He pointed his finger toward the temple. “See the trim on that atrocity? It’s made of actual gold. I can only guess how many prized jewels it took to pay for such a thing. Let alone what’s inside.”
An idea popped into Mariano’s mind. He clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You’re a genius, Santi.”
“I know. But why are you saying so?”
Mariano smirked. “There must be something within that temple we can pilfer.”
He swept forward, taking Santi by the collar, dragging him toward the entrance.
“Won’t we burst into flame if we step foot inside?” Santi asked.
“Only one way to find out.” Mariano tugged the heavy door open and stuck his head inside.
The place was quiet. Empty.
The walls and soaring ceiling were covered in marble and intricate paintings of the dioses. Wreaths laden with blooming flowers swung from the wooden benches and pillars that filled the space. The altar at the far end was massive, with lit candles illuminating more statues of the gods.
“Hideous,” Santi whispered from behind him.
“Oh, I don’t know. I imagine this would be how you kept your home if you had one. It’s as ridiculous as that mustache of yours.”
Santi gasped. “Of all the rude things to say.” Mariano grinned and slipped inside.
There were no weapons to be found. Unless a candlestick counted. But there was stale bread laid out on the altar, along with some wine.
“This isn’t enough,” Mariano said, gnawing on the bread.
“No. But it helps.” Santi saluted him before taking a deep gulp.
Mariano moved around the ornamental panel behind the altar, snagging the first items he saw. He yanked the goblet from Santi’s grasp and shoved a pile of priestly robes against his chest.
Santi’s eyes widened. “What would you have me do with these?”
“Put them on. We look like marooned pirates.”
“We are marooned pirates.”
“I’m aware. But we don’t need to advertise that fact.”
“So, what of your face, Señor Prince? Won’t people recognize you?”
Mariano’s fingers touched the scruff on his cheek. “I’ll shave.”
Santi’s brows rose. “With your sword?”
“I’ve done it before.” In every recent wanted poster he’d seen of himself, he’d donned a short growth of beard. He liked resembling his father in that way. No one would take notice of him without it. And if they did?
“I’ll keep my head low,” he said. “You should shave too.”
Santi stroked his mustache. “I’d sooner skip naked through a cove of crabs.”
Mariano tugged the black robes over his head and stuffed his hair into a strange cap. Santi did the same. “Does wearing this count toward my life debt to you?”
“Which one? When I saved you from death at the hands of my uncles or the tlanchanas? Oh, and what about that time I had to defend you from the butcher who caught you in bed with his wife?”
Santi crossed his arms. “Only a petty man keeps tally.”
Mariano peered through one of the windows. The moon was drifting toward the horizon. They had hours yet until dawn, but they shouldn’t dawdle. Thievery of a ship was best done at night. “Let’s split up. Take the western side of the isle. I’ll go east. We need to find where the guards and seamen are camped. A place where food and weapons are stored would be ideal. Meet me back here in an hour’s time.”
Santi bowed his head, making the sign of the holy men. “Yes, Father.”
Mariano slinked up a path leading away from the temple. Faint music echoed from ahead. There was laughter and glasses clinking. He crept into the vegetation, concealing himself. He wasn’t careless enough to continue on open ground.
Silently, he moved through the dense forest. He climbed over a fallen tree and ducked behind a grouping of rocks. Mariano pulled aside a palm leaf just enough to see.
His eyes narrowed at the scene laid before him. Torches flickered around a massive semicircle of columns, connected by beams draped in glistening pearls, and billowing linens that shimmered in the breeze. The structure sat against a cliff; the waves crashing far below could be heard even over the music and merriment. There had to be at least two hundred in attendance, each dressed as extravagantly as the next.
There was a stage at the very center where a woman with light-brown skin and a sapphire gown stood. She lifted her arms and moved her lips. Something hummed through the forest, blue light filled the air, and then an explosion of fireflies burst into the night sky. Two other women stood before her, amid the throng. They tilted their heads back and opened their mouths. Not a sound came out, but their lips formed words like the woman’s on the stage. A flurry of bats swooped into the crowd, causing the audience to shriek and laugh with delight. They cheered and raised their glasses, thoroughly entertained.
Disgust slammed into Mariano. His fingers dug into the rough palm leaf. This was why the warship had attacked out of seemingly nowhere? This was why his father had died before his time?
Not because they’d come for the bounty placed on El Draque’s head. At least that would offer a story worth telling. But for a fucking fiesta?
He glared at the guests. Drinking, feasting, mingling with witches while his father’s corpse grew cold. Mariano’s fury grew.
A pulse of heat seared against his skin. He pressed a hand over the clerical collar that kept the gemstone hidden.
Had it led him here? Right to the nobles of the kingdom.
“You’re a wicked trinket,” he whispered, smiling to himself.
The stone did know his heart’s desire after all. It was revenge.
An idea formed in Mariano’s brain. Not just any idea, a genius one. One that would be spoken of for ages to come. He’d make them pay and get his riches. And he knew exactly how.
His eyes caught on a young woman walking through a small path nearby. Something stirred within him. His stomach did a strange sort of flip. And the gemstone blazed hotter than ever.