A kidnapped young prince must rely on a mysterious stranger to save him…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from In Deeper Waters, a YA fantasy romance from author F.T. Lukens—publishing April 20th with Margaret K. McElderry Books.
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…
“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.
Excerpted from In Deeper Waters, copyright © 2021 by F.T. Lukens