“Da, kapitan,” Privyet responded crisply. He hesitated. “Kapitan … could be people will pay good money for dragon scales, no matter the color.”
Sturmhond frowned, but then gave a terse nod. “Take what you want, then clear the deck and get us moving. You have our coordinates.”
Several of the crew fell on the sea whip’s body to cut away its scales. This I couldn’t watch. I turned my back on them, my gut in knots.
Sturmhond came up beside me.
“Don’t judge them too harshly,” he said, glancing over his shoulder.
“It’s not them I’m judging,” I said. “You’re the captain.”
“And they have purses to fill, parents and siblings to feed. We just lost nearly half our crew and took no rich prize to ease the sting. Not that you aren’t fetching.”
“What am I doing here?” I asked. “Why did you help us?”
“Are you so sure I have?”
“Answer the question, Sturmhond,” said Mal, joining us. “Why hunt the sea whip if you only meant to turn it over to Alina?”
“I wasn’t hunting the sea whip. I was hunting you.”
“That’s why you raised a mutiny against the Darkling?” I asked. “To get at me?”
“You can’t very well mutiny on your own ship.”
“Call it what you like,” I said, exasperated. “Just explain yourself.”
Sturmhond leaned back and rested his elbows on the rail, surveying the deck. “As I would have explained to the Darkling had he bothered to ask—which, thankfully, he didn’t—the problem with hiring a man who sells his honor is that you can always be outbid.”
I gaped at him. “You betrayed the Darkling for money?”
“‘Betrayed’ seems a strong word. I hardly know the fellow.”
“You’re mad,” I said. “You know what he can do. No prize is worth that.”
Sturmhond grinned. “That remains to be seen.”
“The Darkling will hunt you for the rest of your days.”
“Then you and I will have something in common, won’t we? Besides, I like to have powerful enemies. Makes me feel important.”
Mal crossed his arms and considered the privateer. “I can’t decide if you’re crazy or stupid.”
“I have so many good qualities,” Sturmhond said. “It can be hard to choose.”
I shook my head. The privateer was out of his mind. “If the Darkling was outbid, then who hired you? Where are you taking us?”
“First answer a question for me,” Sturmhond said, reaching into his frock coat. He drew a little red volume from his pocket and tossed it to me. “Why was the Darkling carrying this around with him? He doesn’t strike me as the religious type.”
I caught it and turned it over, but I already knew what it was. Its gold lettering sparkled in the sun.
“You stole it?” I asked.
“And a number of other documents from his cabin. Although, again, since it was technically my cabin, I’m not sure you can call it theft.”
“Technically,” I observed in irritation, “the cabin belongs to the whaling captain you stole the ship from.”
“Fair enough,” admitted Sturmhond. “If this whole Sun Summoner thing doesn’t work out, you might consider a career as a barrister. You seem to have the carping disposition. But I should point out that this actually belongs to you.”
He reached out and flipped the book open. My name was inscribed inside the cover: Alina Starkov.
I tried to keep my face blank, but my mind was suddenly racing. This was my Istorii Sankt’ya, the very copy the Apparat had given to me months ago in the library of the Little Palace. The Darkling would have had my room searched after I fled Os Alta, but why take this book? And why had he been so concerned that I might have read it?
I thumbed through the pages. The volume was beautifully illustrated, though given that it was meant for children, it was awfully gruesome. Some of the Saints were depicted performing miracles or acts of charity: Sankt Feliks among the apple boughs. Sankta Anastasia ridding Arkesk of the wasting plague. But most of the pages showed the Saints in their martyrdoms: Sankta Lizabeta being drawn and quartered, the beheading of Sankt Lubov, Sankt Ilya in Chains. I froze. This time I could not disguise my reaction.
“Interesting, no?” said Sturmhond. He tapped the page with one long finger. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s the creature we just captured.”
There was no hiding it: Behind Sankt Ilya, splashing around in the waves of a lake or an ocean, was the distinctive shape of the sea whip. But that wasn’t all. Somehow, I kept my hand from straying to the collar at my neck.
I shut the book and shrugged. “Just another story.”
Mal shot me a baffled look. I didn’t know if he’d seen what was on that page.
I didn’t want to return the Istorii Sankt’ya to Sturmhond, but he was already suspicious enough. I made myself hold it out to him, hoping he couldn’t see the tremor in my hand.
Sturmhond studied me, then levered himself up and shook out his cuffs. “Keep it. It is yours, after all. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I have a deep respect for personal property. Besides, you’ll need something to keep you occupied until we get to Os Kervo.”
Mal and I both gave a start.
“You’re taking us to West Ravka?” I asked.
“I’m taking you to meet my client, and that’s really all I can tell you.”
“Who is he? What does he want from me?”
“Are you so sure it’s a he? Maybe I’m delivering you to the Fjerdan Queen.”
“No. But it’s always wise to keep an open mind.”
I blew out a frustrated breath. “Do you ever answer a question directly?”
“Hard to say. Ah, there, I’ve done it again.”
I turned to Mal, fists clenched. “I’m going to kill him.”
“Answer the question, Sturmhond,” Mal growled.
Sturmhond lifted a brow. “Two things you should know,” he said, and this time I heard that hint of steel in his voice. “One, captains don’t like taking orders on their own ships. Two, I’d like to offer you a deal.”
Mal snorted. “Why would we ever trust you?”
“You don’t have much choice,” Sturmhond said pleasantly. “I’m well aware that you could sink this ship and consign us all to the watery deep, but I hope you’ll take your chances with my client. Listen to what he has to say. If you don’t like what he proposes, I swear to help you make your escape. Take you anywhere in the world.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “So you crossed the Darkling, and now you’re going to turn right around and betray your new client, too?”
“Not at all,” said Sturmhond, genuinely affronted. “My client paid me to get you to Ravka, not to keep you there. That would be extra.”
I looked at Mal. He lifted a shoulder and said, “He’s a liar and probably insane, but he’s also right. We don’t have much choice.”
I rubbed my temples. I felt a headache coming on. I was tired and confused, and Sturmhond had a way of talking that made me want to shoot someone. Preferably him. But he’d freed us from the Darkling, and once Mal and I were off his ship, we might find our own way to escape. For now, I couldn’t think much beyond that.
“All right,” I said.
He smiled. “So good to know you won’t be drowning us all.” He beckoned a deckhand who had been hovering nearby. “Fetch Tamar and tell her she’ll be sharing her quarters with the Summoner,” he instructed. Then he pointed to Mal. “He can stay with Tolya.”
Before Mal could open his mouth to protest, Sturmhond forestalled him. “That’s the way of things on this ship. I’m giving you both free run of the Volkvolny until we reach Ravka, but I beg you not to trifle with my generous nature. The ship has rules, and I have limits.”
“You and me both,” Mal said through gritted teeth.
I laid my hand on Mal’s arm. I would have felt safer staying together, but this wasn’t the time to quibble with the privateer. “Let it go,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
Mal scowled, then turned on his heel and strode across the deck, disappearing into the ordered chaos of rope and sail. I took a step after him.
“Might want to leave him alone,” Sturmhond said. “That type needs plenty of time for brooding and self-recrimination. Otherwise they get cranky.”
“Do you take anything seriously?”
“Not if I can help it. Makes life so tedious.”
I shook my head. “This client—”
“Don’t bother asking. Needless to say, I’ve had plenty of bidders. You’re in very high demand since you disappeared from the Fold. Of course, most people think you’re dead. Tends to drive the price down. Try not to take it personally.”
I looked across the deck to where the crew were hefting the sea whip’s body over the ship’s rail. With a straining heave, they rolled it over the side of the schooner. It struck the water with a loud splash. That quickly, Rusalye was gone, swallowed by the sea.
A long whistle blew. The crewmen scattered to their stations, and the Squallers took their places. Seconds later, the sails bloomed like great white flowers—the schooner was once more on its way, tacking southeast to Ravka, to home.
“What are you going to do with those scales?” Sturmhond asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you? Despite my dazzling good looks, I’m not quite the pretty fool I appear to be. The Darkling intended for you to wear the sea whip’s scales.”
So why didn’t he kill it? When the Darkling had murdered the stag and placed Morozova’s collar around my neck, he’d bound us forever. I shivered, remembering the way he had reached across that connection, seizing hold of my power as I stood by, helpless. Would the dragon’s scales have given him the same control? And if so, why not take it?
“I already have an amplifier,” I said.
“A powerful one, if the stories are true.”
The most powerful amplifier the world had ever known. So the Darkling had told me, and so I’d believed. But what if there was more to it? What if I’d only touched the beginnings of the stag’s power? I shook my head. That was madness.
“Amplifiers can’t be combined.”
“I saw the book,” he replied. “It certainly looks like they can.”
I felt the weight of the Istorii Sankt’ya in my pocket. Had the Darkling feared I might learn Morozova’s secrets from the pages of a children’s book?
“You don’t understand what you’re saying,” I told Sturmhond. “No Grisha has ever taken a second amplifier. The risks—”
“Now, that’s a word best not used around me. I tend to be overfond of risk.”
“Not this kind,” I said grimly.
“Pity,” he murmured. “If the Darkling catches up to us, I doubt this ship or this crew will survive another battle. A second amplifier might even the odds. Better yet, give us an edge. I do so hate a fair fight.”