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The most wanted rebel returns in Zoraida Córdova's gripping conclusion to the Hollow Crown duology.
For years, she was wielded as a weapon. Now it's her time to fight back.
Reeling from betrayal at the hands of the Whispers, Renata Convida is a girl on the run. With few options and fewer allies, she's reluctantly joined forces with none other than Prince Castian, her most infuriating and intriguing enemy. They're united by a lofty goal: find the fabled Knife of Memory, kill the ruthless King Fernando, and bring peace to the nation. Together, Ren and Castian have a chance to save everything, if only they can set aside their complex and intense feelings for each other.
With the king's forces on their heels at every turn, their quest across Puerto Leones and beyond leaves little room for mistakes. But the greatest danger is within Ren-the Gray, her fortress of stolen memories, has begun to crumble, threatening her grip on reality. She'll have to control her magics-and her mind-to unlock her power and protect the Moria people once and for all.
The most wanted rebel returns in Zoraida Córdova's gripping conclusion to the Hollow Crown duology.
(P) 2021 Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Release date: May 11, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 368
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AS FERNANDO, KING OF PUERTO LEONES, KEEPER OF THE PEACE, AND TRUE heir of the Fajardo dynasty, watched the young soldier drown, he realized that there was something very wrong in his kingdom. Not only had he been forced to repeat his questions, but when faced with His Majesty’s wrath, the boy would not give satisfactory answers.
While most people thought Fernando cruel for the sake of cruelty, he always learned the name of those he executed. At the time of death, he would speak the name of the deceased so that they would have no reason to utter his once they ventured into the afterlife.
The drowning boy’s name was Delios Urbano. Seventeen and a recent military draft, with no family left to bear his shame. His crimes were simple. His negligence had aided the Moria insurgents who disrupted the Sun Festival with an attempt on the king’s life. Between gasps for air, Delios begged for forgiveness but still could not explain why he had abandoned his post.
The morning after the Sun Festival, after Justice Méndez had been attacked, after the rebels had escaped, and after the dungeon had been emptied of prisoners, Delios Urbano had been found in one of the palace courtyards, reeking of his own filth and stale liquor. He would have remained in the dungeons, but after nearly a fortnight of dead ends and failure to crush the rebels, King Fernando had had enough. If he couldn’t have answers, he’d settle for blood.
“Please,” the boy sputtered.
King Fernando brushed a cold droplet of water from his cheek. He ushered the guard aside and plunged Delios’s head back into the barrel. The boy’s scream turned into a gurgle. And then, with a final tremble, he was still. He had failed his kingdom for the last time.
“Delios Urbano, may the Father of Worlds forgive your crimes,” Fernando said.
Then two of his youngest but most loyal personal guards unceremoniously dragged the body out of the room, where it was deposited on a cart with the others, ready to be delivered to the apothecura’s study for research.
“It is done, Your Majesty,” Analiya assured, then offered him a handkerchief.
Fernando dried his hands, his eyes drawn to the blood staining the stone floor and walls. This was the place where Justice Méndez had been found, alive, but barely. King Fernando understood the message quite well. In a single night, his enemies had nearly destroyed everything he had labored to build. In the days that followed, he’d refilled the dungeons, interviewed every single subject in the palace. It hadn’t changed a thing. His weapon was in the wind. Méndez was far gone. The prince taken. And no one could explain to the king how it had all happened. He was surrounded by traitors and fools. Fury burned through his veins, igniting the hate that always simmered in his heart.
When he turned around, he nearly stumbled on a set of iron manacles.
Analiya picked them up and presented them to the king. The metal was warped, as if it had been melted while being worn.
“What could do such a thing?” Nazar asked, then reached for the string of wooden prayer beads tucked under his black uniform.
Not what. Who? Renata Convida. The Robári who had saved his life, and then revealed the viper that she was.
Fernando threw the manacles against the wall. Cracked a chair in half. Kicked the barrel onto its side. The water that held the last breath of half a dozen men washed away the blood of others. He panted hard and fast, blinking until his sight was clear. “Seal this room. I want to see him.”
Analiya led the way out of the putrid mazelike tunnels. Unlike Nazar, she did not flinch at the human waste that was caked to the muddy dungeon steps. A pity he’d never had a daughter like her.
They reached the end of a corridor that emptied onto the courtyards between the palace and the cathedral. King Fernando inhaled deeply in the flickering torchlight. Incense and stale aguadulce clung to the air even as they made for Justice Méndez’s bedchamber.
“Your Excellency.” Analiya spoke firmly. “You should not have to see this.”
“Oh,” Fernando said, “but I do.”
Justice Méndez was as close to a friend as he had ever had. They were going to reshape the known world. Harness the unnatural magics of their enemies so that Puerto Leones could roar into a new age. He’d sacrificed everything for it. But the Father of Worlds demanded more and more. Now it was up to Fernando to finish what he’d started nearly four decades ago.
He entered the dimly lit chamber. Justice Méndez sat on the edge of his bed. His gray eyes gaped at nothing. His skin had the texture of crumpled parchment. He’d been bathed and brought to his rooms for comfort. The apothecuras had tried everything, despite knowing that there was no cure for this ailment. Someone had placed the Bible of Worlds in his hands, in fleeting hope that it would jog the devout man out of his sickness. But Méndez was experiencing far worse than a sickness. He was a Hollow, empty of memory and mind. Alive in body alone.
King Fernando had seen the work of Robári before. This particular strain of the Moria disease drained memories. Someone had tried to explain it once, how their cursed Lady of Shadows had given these Moria the ability to steal memories by imbuing the Robári with her own lifeblood. Both king and justice had believed they could look beyond subduing the monstrous magics and instead wield them for the good of the land. They had been so close.
“Is there nothing that can be done?” Analiya asked.
“The body in this state will not eat or sleep or speak,” he said. “It will simply fade. A fate worse than death, they call the Hollows. I’ve already let him suffer too long. I must give him mercy.”
King Fernando unsheathed a dagger hidden inside the breast of his black doublet. The hilt was encrusted with sapphires. An engagement gift from the first woman he’d made the mistake of loving. He did not know why he carried it so close when he had wanted nothing more than to forget her. Heavens knew he’d tried. The rest of the world already had. Perhaps it was the chaos of the day, but he thought of her, the queen that never was. As quickly as it had arrived, he swallowed the sentiment away.
Fernando pulled Méndez to his feet and into an embrace. The frail body was cold even through his tunic.
“I will avenge you, old friend. I swear it.”
Then the king of Puerto Leones stepped back and drove the blade across Justice Méndez’s tender throat. Arterial blood sprayed his face, his clothes, the linens. Méndez released a long, gargled breath. King Fernando did not clean his blade before sheathing it, and he did not wait for his guards before leaving the room.
“Make the arrangements for the funeral. Spread the word to every citadela, every village, every forsaken hamlet and hovel on the pilgrimage roads, that Justice Méndez has been murdered by the rebel Whispers.” He handed Nazar a slip of parchment with a list of names. “Assemble these people in my chambers.”
“Your chambers?” Nazar asked, confused. Then, as if realizing his mistake in questioning the king, he stammered, “Right away, Your Majesty.”
King Fernando stopped on the exposed walkway that bridged two of the palace towers. The blue mosaic pillars glinted in the moonlight. “I have a special request for you, Analiya.”
“I am your servant, my king.”
He handed her an envelope stamped with his seal. “Be sure this invitation is delivered. I want you to escort her back yourself.”
Analiya bowed, snapped her boots together. “Yes, my king.”
Fernando returned to his wing. He had to prepare for his guests and a mystery he’d been unraveling since the night of the attack. He’d been betrayed yet again. And this time, everyone would see what happened to traitors.
The fireplace roared. Ten crystal goblets brimmed with wine, but no one drank. The bottle chilled in a silver bin, and condensation rolled down the glass almost as quickly as the sweat that poured from each person assembled around King Fernando’s parlor. It was rumored he never had guests in his apartments, not unless it was a concubine or his wife. In attendance was everyone he’d summoned. All except one.
There was the justice, Alessandro. Perhaps it was because Méndez’s blood was still dried on his skin like a dusting of freckles, but the sight of Alessandro made the king’s upper lip sneer. The justice’s new robes were cut too wide at his weak shoulders. To his left was his wife, Lady Nuria, Duquesa of Tresoros. She was, perhaps, the only person in the room not sweating, though her dark eyes roamed the tapestries and the elite members sharing the table, then Nazar and General Hector guarding the door.
King Fernando had uttered only “Please remain seated” before taking his place at the head of the table. He wanted them to sweat. Wanted their own anxieties to crack them apart wondering why they had been called here, of all places, during a time of unrest.
The young Duque Arias cleared his throat and tugged his cravat loose. Lady Roca fanned herself. The royal priest’s ninety-year-old eyelids fluttered closed. Duque Sól Abene tugged at his black beard. Fernando’s beautiful queen picked at the lace of her bodice, pouting full lips. These affairs were not for her, but she needed to see. He needed her to tell every one of her maidens, her confidants, her secret keepers, both in Puerto Leones and in her home country of Dauphinique across the sea, about this meeting. He wanted everyone to know what happened in this room.
“Are we waiting for someone, Your Majesty?” Alessandro motioned to the empty seat. When the king said nothing, the justice pressed. “And why is Leonardo here? He is but a servant.”
Nuria rested her delicate hand on her chest. The sienna-brown skin there was unblemished. King Fernando noticed the way her eye twitched at the sound of her husband’s voice. The attendant in question, Leonardo, gave his mistress a shake of his head.
The heavy tread of boots echoed in the halls, and everyone turned to the door.
Analiya entered, bowing to her king before making way for a young woman. The foreigner swept into the room with her head held high. She was dressed in fine green silk trousers embroidered in shimmering beads and threads. Her doublet had a high collar and tails, with tapered sleeves. Thin gold bands decorated her fingers and slender neck. She had the bronze skin, high cheekbones, and thick black hair common to the people in Empirio Luzou. Although the green of her eyes was more akin to the eastern regions of Puerto Leones. Like her father.
“Lady Las Rosas,” King Fernando said, half-amused. “Thank you for answering my invitation.”
She gripped her hands at her back, like someone who would never stop being a soldier. But though she stood there, she did not bow. The king watched the way the elite families of Puerto Leones reacted to her title. The distraction was exactly what he’d hoped for.
“You are too kind, Your Majesty,” the girl said, her full mouth tugging into a false smile. “But I am no lady, as I cannot inherit my father’s title.”
Fernando ignored the girl’s barb and gestured to the empty seat to his left. “Sit.”
Lady Las Rosas did as she was told.
“Have you been enjoying your return to your father’s nation, Lady Las Rosas?”
A muscle tensed at her square jaw. “At the court of Empirio Luzou we allow for less formality. It’s Leyre. Your Highness.”
“But we aren’t in Luzou, are we? And because of the circumstance, you are by every right half-Leonesse. Before his recent trial for treason, your father amended his will, naming you the sole heir to his lands and trading company.”
The lords and ladies in attendance perked up at this news. Duque Arias eyed the girl’s pretty mouth, her eyes made sultry by dark green powder dusted on her lids.
Leyre Las Rosas must have had excellent training because her shock, if she’d felt any, didn’t register on her face. She picked up her goblet but, realizing no one else was drinking, set it back down.
“This was news to me, as my father has been in your dungeons for weeks,” she said.
Fernando ignored the resentment in her words. When she first arrived at the palace, the memory thief was to turn the traitor Las Rosas into a Hollow in front of the entire court. But Renata’s power failed. Another likely deception, no doubt. The king gripped the arm of his chair and let the memory pass.
“How very fortunate for your father that his executioner escaped this very palace the night of the Sun Festival,” he said. “I have transferred Lord Las Rosas to Soledad prison. In the meantime you will take up his seat in this gathering. Now, I need every person here to help me solve a mystery.”
The room was quiet enough to hear a fly buzz before landing on the lip of Alessandro’s wine.
“How did the great palace of Andalucía, the jeweled capital of this kingdom, allow itself to be attacked by a handful of half-starved rebels?”
There was a collective held breath, followed by the faint plop of the fly falling to the wooden surface, dead.
“No one?” King Fernando tented his fingers. The lion’s head of his family ring was the only adornment he allowed himself during the somber occasion. He glanced around the room. “You were all there. One of you must have witnessed something out of the ordinary. Something to help me piece together how I have been betrayed.”
King Fernando traced his finger along his alabaster cheekbone, rubbing away the dried blood. He wanted them to see him this way. He wanted to make them feel as if their blood would fill his tub and he would bathe in it.
“I have told you everything—” Alessandro began.
“And you will tell me again,” Fernando shouted. “Spare no details. Mistakes were made by all, even by my most trusted friend, Justice Méndez. May he rest in peace.”
“May he rest in peace,” they echoed.
One by one they recounted the Sun Festival. Even his wife, the young queen, wasn’t excused from this inquiry. She accounted for every moment it took her to get dressed, and the tour of the grounds she gave her parents, the king and queen of Dauphinique.
“And where did you disappear to during the dance?” her husband asked.
Queen Josephine’s mouth was a perfect circle of surprise. Her lovely black skin caught the gleam of the fireplace, and a part of him loved to see her squirm. “One of the courtiers from Dauphinique. I showed him the statues you built for me in the garden.”
King Fernando glanced at Analiya, who corroborated the queen’s evening with a single nod.
Then came Alessandro, who spoke the longest, reminding them all how he had never trusted Renata Convida, the Robári who had made a Hollow of Justice Méndez.
Lady Roca confessed to a marital indiscretion but claimed she’d rather die than aid the rebels. She vouched for all her ladies, who had spent most of their night watching Prince Castian dance with the memory thief.
“How he held her—” Lady Roca said dramatically.
“Like he’d claimed her,” Duque Arias chimed in. He finished unknotting his cravat and shoved it into his pocket. “I saw them. If Méndez hadn’t interrupted them, I was sure Castian meant to—” The duque looked at Lady Nuria, who kept her face impassive. “I thought he meant to bed her.”
“Instead she tried to kill him,” Leonardo said softly.
“You were in the library when the prince was attacked!” Alessandro pointed a finger at the attendant. “How do we know you weren’t aiding her?”
Leonardo cleared his throat and sat forward in his chair. “I was, uh, engaged with a paramour of mine. That room has always been empty.”
Lady Nuria reached out and squeezed the boy’s shoulder, ignoring the round of titters from the others. “I’d hate to think what would have happened if you hadn’t been up there to save the prince from certain death.”
Lady Roca clucked her tongue. “I could have sworn I saw Prince Castian in the ballroom at the same time we heard the screams of his attack.”
“Perhaps the other Moria created a distraction,” Alessandro offered. “While the wretch Renata attempted to murder him.”
“What about you, Lady Nuria?” King Fernando asked. “You spent quite a bit of time with her, if I recall.”
Nuria stiffened. Her onyx eyes locked with the king’s. There was shame there. “I beg your forgiveness, Your Majesty. I had been attempting to convince the girl to remove one of my memories.”
“What memory would that be?”
Her chest rose and fell quickly. She touched her temples and squinted as if trying to see into a far distance. “I no longer have it. But I know it was between myself and… Castian.”
Alessandro did his best not to grimace at the prince’s name. Even if Nuria no longer possessed the specifics, they could all guess at the intimacy of the memory. As the table began to descend into chatter and unkind whispers, General Hector stepped forward from his post near the door.
“Pardon me, Your Majesty, but we should be asking how a band of rebels was able to get into the palace in the first place. The Robári never left her room. I saw to it.”
“Perhaps she snuck away when the drink made you pass out,” Alessandro accused.
Stunned silent, General Hector retreated, nursing his wooden hand against his chest.
King Fernando’s chair grated against the floor. He sauntered to the fireplace, letting the flames kiss his fingertips. The pieces of that night were coming together, but there were still things he could not explain.
“Why save my life and then try to kill my son?” he asked.
“To destroy the king’s last heir, of course,” said Duque Sól Abene.
At the implication of his dead son, King Fernando felt something ancient and withered within him stir. After Castian drowned his baby brother, the king had feared Penelope’s madness had weakened his last heir. But Fernando had set the boy right. Castian proved strong. Ruthless. Clever in a way that troubled even Fernando. There was a duplicity to his son that the king could not figure out. But soon, he’d have the answers he needed.
“This is what I know,” the king said, returning to his seat. “We were attacked in our own home by our enemies. Our justice was murdered. Hundreds of prisoners were freed. A small infantry was slaughtered. They were able to attack Soledad prison and take years’ worth of progress and kidnapped my son.”
“There were dozens of them,” Alessandro intoned quickly. “We were outnumbered. I swear, on my life, we will get them back.”
King Fernando cut his black eyes to Alessandro. “My new justice, you don’t have the marrow to do half the things Méndez did. Do you know what I see in this room? Lies. Excuses. They have my son. What do we have? I am left with no choice but to…”
Alessandro dabbed a cloth at his face. Lady Roca was positively green. The priest roused from his sleep to mutter a prayer for their souls.
“… raise a toast,” King Fernando said.
Despite their confusion, every person picked up their crystal goblet.
“One of these glasses contains alacrán venom. There is a liar among you. If you have been true and faithful, drink.”
Eyes darted from one person to the other. The queen drank first, followed by Lady Nuria and Leonardo. Then Alessandro. Lady Las Rosas and Duque Sól Abene. Lady Roca. The priest.
“Your Majesty,” Duque Arias said, looking up at King Fernando. He was the only one who hadn’t tipped back his drink. He reached for the inside of his doublet. Analiya and Nazar were on the lordling, drawing their swords. “Please, I beg you, let me explain!”
Duque Arias was a scoundrel and a poor loser. He’d lost several of his family’s lands repaying gambling debts. Fernando had once sailed with his late grandfather, the decorated admiral Joaquín Arias, and he’d been forgiving of the young duque’s behavior, as his father was killed in the Battle of Riomar. This louse of a boy was not the voice he’d expected to step forward. King Fernando arched a brow but nodded once. “Go on.”
“Castian was at my estate a few months back for a night of revelry. I lost a wager. He bet me any item in my manor. I believed he’d go for my father’s hundred-year-old cask of aguadulce, but instead he took something else.”
“What did he claim?”
The duque’s voice rasped. “My grandfather’s chest from his admiral days. It isn’t worth anything. Seashells and compasses and an old senile sailor’s logbooks full of gibberish. Maps to places that don’t exist. I offered him gold, land, anything, but nothing would do. Castian wanted it. My mother’s furious with me, more so after losing that ship to pirates. I thought—you see—the night of the Sun Festival, while the prince was preoccupied, I went to his room to take it back.”
“You stole from the prince?” Alessandro asked incredulously.
“I didn’t! I never found it. I’ve been racked with guilt since the news that Castian was taken.” Arias shook so hard that wine sloshed from his cup, but he did not lower it. “I should have come forward. I don’t know what use Castian would have had for my dead grandfather’s ramblings. I swear—”
King Fernando gazed upon the lordling and smiled. Clever boy, his son. All these years and Fernando had never considered…
“You are forgiven, Lord Arias. I am a benevolent king. Remember that, when you leave this room. As for the rest of you, return to your provincias. Increase patrols along the major routes. Freeze outgoing ships in the ports. Gather those of fighting age and send them to the training yards. Speak to your people. Tell them that now, more than ever, we must be vigilant against the threat of the Moria. War will not be easy, but it will all be over when my son is returned, and our enemies have surrendered. Now go.”
One by one, they left the room.
“Not you, Lady Las Rosas.” King Fernando beckoned.
“You honor me with so much attention, Your Majesty,” she said, lowering her eyes.
“Honor is perhaps not the word you wish to use, but it is good to know the Luzouan court hasn’t robbed you of your manners.”
The girl frowned and clenched her fists but remained silent. She glanced at the door, the windows, but they were the only ones in the room.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he assured her.
“Then what do you require of me, Your Majesty?”
“You left a promising naval career to help your mother run a small trading empire. You find rare and beautiful objects for her to sell from all the corners of the known world. Recently you haven’t been able to do that due to her illness. Combined with your father’s imprisonment, you must be adrift.”
“I have managed.”
“It has been a trying time and so I will be direct, Leyre Las Rosas.” He spoke her name softly. Lay-reh. “Your father’s life is in my hands. And I need your skill as a tracker of rare things.”
“You presume I care about what happens to my father,” she said, her alto voice hard.
“When we arrested your father, I visited his house. I like to see for myself the homes of those who betray me, and do you know what I found?”
She shook her head.
“A man who loves wine. A man who loves his daughter. A man who loves this kingdom. I know your father was framed. But by whom? I can only guess the Whispers, though that would be difficult to prove in a trial. I could be persuaded to pardon him, to show my benevolence. You see, I have read every letter you’ve ever written to your father. He’s kept every parchment you’ve scrawled on since you could write. Despite being the bastard product of an affair, you are his, and he loves you. I give you his fate, Leyre. All you have to do is find the object I desire. Two, but they come in a set.”
He picked up Duque Arias’s wineglass and drank. “This was a very good year. The bottle is a tempranillo from your family’s region, I believe.”
Realization dawned in Leyre’s jade-green eyes. “Were any of the glasses poisoned?”
“How do you know someone wouldn’t rather drink the poison than face your wrath?”
Fernando cocked an eyebrow. “At the very least that would show conviction. I’m more interested in ferreting out the cowards who don’t want to die. The Fajardos have always taken chances. Do we have a deal?”
“What will happen to me if I fail?” she asked.
“Your father would remain in Soledad prison. You would return to Luzou, and the Las Rosas estates would be remanded to the crown.” He flashed a smile at the way she simmered with rage. That was the key.
She offered her hand, and when they shook, she did not let go first. “What is the object I am to track?”
King Fernando got up to pull open a hidden compartment on the fireplace mantel. He retrieved a wooden box and laid it in front of her. “Inside is everything you need to find that which was taken from me.”
Leyre reached into the box and pulled out a golden sextant, small enough to fit around her fist. Diamond constellations were etched in the gold.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
She kept digging and pulled out a slip of parchment with an illustration of a magnificent weapon. She scoffed. “You want me to find you a knife?”
“It’s not just any knife,” he said with a fervor he didn’t mean to display. “It was taken from me long ago. I thought it lost to time and space. But I’ve discovered a plot that threatens everything I have ever worked toward. Now I know someone else is searching for it. He will lead you to the location, but what he doesn’t know is that you need this sextant to get there.”
“And after I have the weapon?”
She frowned. “Whose life am I taking?”
His own blood and bane. “My son, of course. Prince Castian.”
I REMEMBER STANDING IN THIS MARKET SQUARE NOT LONG AGO, AND I DON’T know what has changed more: the village or myself. The old dirt road is now paved with worn cobblestones. New wooden stalls form crooked rows offering dates and imported nuts by the barrel. A vendor, whose teeth have as many holes as the hard cheese he’s peddling, offers me a sample that I decline. Faces I know so well are etched with wrinkles and gray. When did the inn at the top of the hill add two more stories?
In the back of my mind, a girl whispers her name to me over and over again. I am Renata Convida, she says, and she repeats it until I feel myself slowly fade away.
I remember standing in this market square, but this memory is not mine.
I am Renata Convida. . .
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