New Release! Check out this excerpt for THE CURSED SEA by Lauren DeStefano!

The second in an exciting fantasy duology about a princess cursed to turn any living thing she touches into gemstone from Lauren DeStefano, the bestselling author of the Chemical Garden series. Perfect for fans of Shannon Hale and Renée Ahdieh.

Wil, the exiled princess of northern Arrod, must do what she never thought possible: return home to discover the origins of her own curse.

But home is very different from how she left it—Wil’s unpredictable elder brother Baren is now king, leading a war against the Southern Isles. And with time running out, Wil must navigate the dangerous secrets within her family to find the truth.

Nothing goes as planned, and suddenly Wil and her allies are fighting for their lives as the Southern king is out to ensure neither of his children will survive to take the throne. Traveling across cursed seas and treacherous kingdoms, Wil and Loom must make peace with their pasts if they hope to secure the future of their world.

But when their plans lead them right back to evil marveler Pahn, and to Baren—who is more dangerous than ever—can Wil and her friends outsmart their enemies, this time for good?

 

 

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Excerpt

Chapter One

THE DEAD PRINCESS OF ARROD returned to her kingdom at sunset.

The kingdom itself was none the wiser. Wil arrived unceremoniously, amid weary travelers and crates of fabric bolts and sewing notions.

Moments after disembarking and regaining her bearings, she could already see that the kingdom was different. Darker somehow. The winter clouds were gray as smoke, and the people moved about the capital in collective silence. Even the small children did not cry or laugh as they were harried this way and that by adults taking hasty strides.

The snow had yet to arrive here, but the late October air carried its ominous chill; winter came early in the North, and stayed late. Wil dug her gloved hands into the pockets of her coat and made her way through the Port Capital, mindful to avoid brushing against the shoulders of passersby. She did not want to add another face to her list of kills.

Even the smell was different. Moldy and musty, like old coats in an attic where nothing had stirred for years.

Around her, there were carriages offering rides to neighboring towns, but Wil left the cobbles behind and made her way into the woods. If she wanted to reach the castle without arousing suspicion, there was no way but to walk.

After a week at sea, now that she was on land the anxiety began to seize her. The king might make good on his promise to kill her if he saw her again. After the attack he’d waged on the Southern Isles, it was clear his ruthlessness had exceeded her expectations. But her mother was the one whom Wil was most afraid to face. She would have to tell her the truth of what had happened that night by the rapids. Would have to reveal the monstrous thing she had become.

And Gerdie—the thought that she would see him in just a few minutes hardly seemed real. What state was he in? What had their father done to him? She’d had nothing but time to think about it on her journey, but when she tried to conjure up an image of her brother, all she got was a shadow.

The winter sky was dark and starless by the time she arrived at the castle. Here, her breath came in shallow bursts and she stopped, working to compose herself. The last time she’d seen her home had been in September. A cool night that smelled of leaves and dirt, all the trees beginning to shed their fiery leaves. She hadn’t looked back at the castle as she left it, because there had been no reason to think she wouldn’t return.

Now weeks had passed, and snow coated all the fallen leaves. It seemed a lifetime ago since she’d set foot in her home. Since her father, clutching Owen’s gleaming corpse, had promised to kill her if she ever returned.

She could see the guards standing outside the gate. There were thrice as many as before, all of them bearing electric lanterns that spread as far as the line of trees, where she at last paused to collect herself.

After the attack her father had commanded upon the South, of course there would be more security. But it wasn’t the guards Wil found menacing, or their blades gleaming brightly at their hips. It was the castle she could just see over the top of the towering stone wall.

She forced herself to take a step, and then another, until the light of the lanterns revealed her and the guards raised their weapons in anticipation. Ferocity fast turned to amusement when they saw what they were dealing with. At her size and with her weapons hidden, she hardly seemed like any sort of threat, and just her luck, all these guards were strangers who wouldn’t recognize their dead princess even if they could believe she’d come back.

“Wherever you’re headed, girl, you’ve taken a wrong turn.” One of the guards advanced on her, weapon still drawn. “This here is the Castle of the Royal House of Heidle.”

Wil stiffened her posture. “I need to speak with the queen.”

“The queen does not receive visitors,” another guard said.

“She’ll see me,” Wil said. “I’m her daughter.”

“The queen doesn’t have any daughters,” the guard said, and the words lanced through her. She was prepared to be a dead girl, but to not exist at all?

Wil’s eyes were drawn to the light shining through Owen’s bedroom window. It was such a familiar sight, and it flooded her with warmth and the notion that she was home. The feeling was darkened by the reminder that Owen could not be there, spending all hours of the night reading as he often had, his brow furrowed, his intelligent eyes burdened. He was gone.

“Listen,” Wil said. “I—”

“Who’s out there?” Baren’s voice came from the darkness behind the gate. “Guards! Who are you talking to?”

Her brother approached the metal bars, and it was an effort for Wil not to gasp at what she saw. Baren, second in line for the throne after Owen, had never possessed softness in his features. He had their mother’s blue eyes, but none of their kindness. Still, when Wil had seen him last, he had at least looked like the young man he was. Now, despite his royal dress, he looked no better off than the starving denizens in the slums of the Port Capital.

His eyes were sunken and dark. His straight blond hair had grown scraggly and taken over the frame of his face. His cheeks were gaunt. His back was hunched as though he were carrying something heavy around his shoulders.

He stared straight at Wil, and then through her.

“This girl is claiming to be the princess, Your Majesty,” the guard said. “Impersonating the royal family is a high crime. What would you have us do with her?”

Wil’s breath hitched. Your Majesty?

Baren raised the latch and staggered through the gate. He stared at Wil, and she narrowed her eyes as she returned his scrutiny.

“This girl right here?” Baren said, sweeping his arm in gesture. “You mean to tell me that you see her? My little sister’s ghost—you see her too?”

“She appears to be living, Your Majesty.”

Your Majesty.

She hadn’t misheard, then. Confusion and worry struggled for dominance, but she pushed all of it away. She had to get past Baren and speak to the queen before she would believe anything.

Baren laughed. “She comes here most nights. Sits atop the spires, or hides under my bed and whispers while I’m sleeping so I’ll have nightmares. She’s a ghost.”

“Baren,” Wil said, and at the sound of her voice he went still and silent. “I need to speak to Mother. Where is she?”

“You—” He unsheathed his sword and brought its point to her chin. “I told you not to come back here, and you tell Owen and Papa to stay away, too. I’m king now. Return to your grave.”

“I am not a ghost,” Wil said firmly, not allowing herself to hear the rest of his words. “And if I were, what good do you think your sword would be?”

He sank the blade into her flesh and drew it back slowly, coaxing a thin, bleeding line under her chin. She shuddered with pain but didn’t move.

The young king held the blade before his face for inspection, and his eyes grew wide with hysteria as blood dripped from its edge. His breaths came loud and fast. “No,” he said. “You’re not my sister. My sister is dead. She drowned.”

“That isn’t true. Baren, listen to me—”

“You’re a trick!” He brandished his sword anew, angling it at her chest. “You’re a lookalike sent by my enemies to destroy me.”

In a fluid motion she unsheathed the dagger at her thigh. The sleep serum would be more merciful than the guns at either hip; she didn’t trust herself to shoot at him and not hit anything vital. She had already killed one brother.

He lunged at her, and she dodged the blow for her heart, holding out her dagger and letting his own momentum work to her advantage as the arched blade tore through his skin.

He staggered back, startled. The guards came forward with a clatter of guns, but Baren held up his hand to stay them. He regarded Wil, eyes wide. “You’re the price I have to pay,” he said, coming to a realization of some sort. “You were brought back to punish me.”

His voice had grown faint, and he fell to his knees.

“Poison!” one of the guards cried out, and again they closed in on her. She would not be able to take on all of them, Wil knew, but if one of them so much as touched her, he would be dead, and she did not want to think what new horror that would evoke.

“Mother!” she screamed. The barrel of a gun was pressed into her chin, shoving her face upward. “Mother!”

Wil found Baren’s eyes. Eyes that had never shown her a drop of kindness even when they had been children. He was on his knees, struggling to stay awake, glaring at her.

Then, from the dark mouth of the castle doors, she saw a white gown billowing on the cold breeze. Wil could just make out the long blond hair. “Mother!”

At the sound of Wil’s voice, the figure began running for them.

“Stand down,” the queen cried, gasping. “Stand down—she’s—that’s—”

“You are not in charge of my men,” Baren said. He looked like a scared little boy. The queen saw this and held his shoulder to keep him from stumbling to his feet. Somewhere beyond the frenzy, Wil marveled that he was still conscious. Perhaps Zay had diluted the serum to compensate for what she’d used to put Loom to sleep.

“I’m the king,” he said.

“Yes,” the queen said. She was clutching the button of her capelet, twisting it one way and the next in compulsive sets. Three twists left, three twists right, five taps to its face with her index finger. “But you have not slept for days. You don’t want to do something you’ll regret.” She smoothed back his hair, and his resolve crumbled.

The queen turned to Wil, who was forced now to understand the truth. Her father was no longer the king. He was gone.

There was no time yet for Wil to process her shock and all the things this would mean.

“Stand down,” Baren mumbled, as though he were talking to himself, and the guards skeptically lowered the weapons pointed at Wil.

Now it was the queen’s turn to look as though she had seen a ghost. But she did not ask Wil if she was dead. She did not ask who had sent her, or who she really was. For after all those years of wanting, she could never fail to recognize the child she’d nearly died to bring into the world. She would know her daughter anywhere.

“Wilhelmina.”

Wil felt herself trembling. She would not cry. She would not.

“It’s me,” she said.

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