Does the bird feel the weight of its wings?
I inhaled, felt sense return. I didn’t have to take hold of the power. It clung to me, as if it were grateful to be home. In a single glorious burst, I released the light. The bright sky fractured, letting the night back in, and all around us, sparks fell like fading fireworks, a dream of shining petals blown loose from a thousand flowers.
The heat relented. The sea calmed. I drew the last scraps of light together and wove them into a soft sheen that pulsed over the deck of the ship.
Sturmhond and the others were crouched by the railing, their mouths open in what might have been awe or fear. Mal had me crushed to his chest, his faced pressed to my hair, his breath coming in harsh gasps.
“Mal,” I said quietly. He clutched me tighter. I squeaked. “Mal, I can’t breathe.”
Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked down at me. I dropped my hands, and the light disappeared entirely. Only then did he ease his grip.
Tolya lit a lamp, and the others got to their feet. Sturmhond dusted off the gaudy folds of his teal coat. The Fabrikator looked like she was going to be sick, but it was harder to read the twins’ faces. Their golden eyes were alight with something I couldn’t name.
“Well, Summoner,” said Sturmhond, a slight wobble to his voice, “you certainly know how to put on a show.”
Mal bracketed my face with his hands. He kissed my brow, my nose, my lips, my hair, then drew me tight against him once again.
“You’re all right?” he asked. His voice was rough.
“Yes,” I replied.
But that wasn’t quite true. I felt the collar at my throat, the pressure of the fetter at my wrist. My other arm felt naked. I was incomplete.
* * *
STURMHOND ROUSED HIS CREW, and we were well on our way as dawn broke. We couldn’t be sure how far the light I’d created might have stretched, but there was a good chance I’d given away our location. We needed to move fast.
Every crewman wanted a look at the second amplifier. Some were wary, others just curious, but Mal was the one I was worried about. He watched me constantly, as if he was afraid that at any moment, I might lose control. When dusk fell and we went belowdecks, I cornered him in one of the narrow passageways.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Really.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. I can feel it.”
“You didn’t see what I saw. It was—”
“It got away from me. I didn’t know what to expect.”
He shook his head. “You were like a stranger, Alina. Beautiful,” he said. “Terrible.”
“It won’t happen again. The fetter is a part of me now, like my lungs or my heart.”
“Your heart,” he said flatly.
I took his hand in mine and pressed it against my chest. “It’s still the same heart, Mal. It’s still yours.”
I lifted my other hand and cast a soft tide of sunlight over his face. He flinched. He can never understand your power, and if he does, he will only come to fear you. I pushed the Darkling’s voice from my mind. Mal had every right to be afraid.
“I can do this,” I said gently.
He shut his eyes and turned his face toward the sunlight that radiated from my hand. Then he tilted his head, resting his cheek against my palm. The light glowed warm against his skin.
We stood that way, in silence, until the watch bell rang.
THE WINDS WARMED, and the waters turned from gray to blue as the Volkvolny carried us southeast to Ravka. Sturmhond’s crew was made up of sailors and rogue Grisha who worked together to keep the ship running smoothly. Despite the stories that had spread about the power of the second amplifier, they didn’t pay Mal or me much attention, though they occasionally came to watch me practice at the schooner’s stern. I was careful, never pushing too hard, always summoning at noon, when the sun was high in the sky and there was no chance of my efforts being spotted. Mal was still wary, but I’d spoken the truth: The sea whip’s power was a part of me now. It thrilled me. It buoyed me. I didn’t fear it.
I was fascinated by the rogues. They all had different stories. One had an aunt who had spirited him away rather than let him be turned over to the Darkling. Another had deserted the Second Army. Another had been hidden in a root cellar when the Grisha Examiners arrived to test her.
“My mother told them I’d been killed by the fever that had swept through our village the previous spring,” the Tidemaker said. “The neighbors cut my hair and passed me off as their dead otkazat’sya son until I was old enough to leave.”
Tolya and Tamar’s mother had been a Grisha stationed on Ravka’s southern border when she met their father, a Shu Han mercenary.
“When she died,” Tamar explained, “she made my father promise not to let us be drafted into the Second Army. We left for Novyi Zem the next day.”
Most rogue Grisha ended up in Novyi Zem. Aside from Ravka, it was the only place where they didn’t have to fear being experimented on by Shu doctors or burned by Fjerdan witchhunters. Even so, they had to be cautious about displaying their power. Grisha were valued slaves, and less scrupulous Kerch traders were known to round them up and sell them in secret auctions.
These were the very threats that had led so many Grisha to take refuge in Ravka and join the Second Army in the first place. But the rogues thought differently. For them, a life spent looking over their shoulders and moving from one place to the next to avoid discovery was preferable to a life in service to the Darkling and the Ravkan King. It was a choice I understood.
After a few monotonous days on the schooner, Mal and I asked Tamar if she would show us some Zemeni combat techniques. It helped ease the tedium of shipboard life and the awful anxiety of returning to West Ravka.
Sturmhond’s crew had confirmed the disturbing rumors we’d picked up in Novyi Zem. Crossings of the Fold had all but ceased, and refugees were fleeing its expanding shores. The First Army was close to revolt, and the Second Army was in tatters. I was most frightened by the news that the Apparat’s cult of the Sun Saint was growing. No one knew how he’d managed to escape the Grand Palace after the Darkling’s failed coup, but he had resurfaced somewhere in the network of monasteries spread across Ravka.
He was circulating the story that I’d died on the Fold and been resurrected as a Saint. Part of me wanted to laugh, but turning through the bloody pages of the Istorii Sankt’ya late at night, I couldn’t summon so much as a chuckle. I remembered the Apparat’s smell, that unpleasant combination of incense and mildew, and pulled my coat tighter around me. He had given me the red book. I had to wonder why.
Despite the bruises and bumps, my practices with Tamar helped to dull the edge of my constant worry. Girls were drafted right along with boys into the King’s Army when they came of age, so I’d seen plenty of girls fight and had trained alongside them. But I’d never seen anyone, male or female, fight the way Tamar did. She had a dancer’s grace and a seemingly unerring instinct for what her opponent would do next. Her weapons of choice were two double-bit axes that she wielded in tandem, the blades flashing like light off water, but she was nearly as dangerous with a saber, a pistol, or her bare hands. Only Tolya could match her, and when they sparred, all the crew stopped to watch.
The giant spoke little and spent most of his time working the lines or standing around looking intimidating. But occasionally, he stepped in to help with our lessons. He wasn’t much of a teacher. “Move faster” was about all we could get out of him. Tamar was a far better instructor, but my lessons got less challenging after Sturmhond caught us practicing on the foredeck.
“Tamar,” Sturmhond chided, “please don’t damage the cargo.”
Immediately, Tamar snapped to attention and gave a crisp, “Da, kapitan.”
I shot him a sour look. “I’m not a package you’re delivering, Sturmhond.”
“More’s the pity,” he said, sauntering past. “Packages don’t talk, and they stay where you put them.”
But when Tamar started us on rapiers and sabers, even Sturmhond joined in. Mal improved daily, though Sturmhond still beat him easily every time. And yet, Mal didn’t seem to mind. He took his thumpings with a kind of good humor I never seemed able to muster. Losing made me irritable; Mal just laughed it all off.
“How did you and Tolya learn to use your powers?” I asked Tamar one afternoon as we watched Mal and Sturmhond sparring with dulled swords on deck. She’d found me a marlinspike, and when she wasn’t pummeling me, she was trying to teach me knots and splices.
“Keep your elbows in!” Sturmhond berated Mal. “Stop flapping them like some kind of chicken.”
Mal let out a disturbingly convincing cluck.
Tamar raised a brow. “Your friend seems to be enjoying himself.”
I shrugged. “Mal’s always been like that. You could drop him in a camp full of Fjerdan assassins, and he’d come out carried on their shoulders. He just blooms wherever he’s planted.”
“I’m more of a weed,” I said drily.
Tamar grinned. In combat, she was cold and silent fire, but when she wasn’t fighting, her smiles came easily. “I like weeds,” she said, pushing herself off from the railing and gathering her scattered lengths of rope. “They’re survivors.”
I caught myself returning her smile and quickly went back to working on the knot that I was trying to tie. The problem was that I liked being aboard Sturmhond’s ship. I liked Tolya and Tamar and the rest of the crew. I liked sitting at meals with them, and the sound of Privyet’s lilting tenor. I liked the afternoons when we took target practice, lining up empty wine bottles to shoot off the fantail, and making harmless wagers.
It was a bit like being at the Little Palace, but with none of the messy politics and constant jockeying for status. The crew had an easy, open way with each other. They were all young, and poor, and had spent most of their lives in hiding. On this ship, they’d found a home, and they welcomed Mal and me into it with little fuss.
I didn’t know what was waiting for us in West Ravka, and I felt fairly sure it was madness to be going back at all. But aboard the Volkvolny, with the wind blowing and the white canvas cutting crisp lines across a broad blue sky, I could forget the future and my fear.
And I had to admit, I liked Sturmhond, too. He was cocky and brash, and always used ten words when two would do, but I was impressed with the way he led his crew. He didn’t bother with any of the tricks I’d seen the Darkling employ, yet they followed him without hesitation. He had their respect, not their fear.
“What’s Sturmhond’s real name?” I asked Tamar. “His Ravkan name?”
“You’ve never asked?”
“Why would I?”
“But where in Ravka is he from?”
She squinted up at the sky. “Do you want to go another round with sabers?” she asked. “We should have time before my watch starts.”
She always changed the subject when I brought up Sturmhond. “He didn’t just drop out of the sky onto a ship, Tamar. Don’t you care where he came from?”