Tamar picked up the swords and handed them over to Tolya, who served as the ship’s Master of Arms. “Not particularly. He lets us sail, and he lets us fight.”
“And he doesn’t make us dress up in red silk and play lapdog,” said Tolya, unlocking the rack with the key he wore around his thick neck.
“A sorry lapdog you’d make.” Tamar laughed.
“Anything’s better than following orders from some puffed-up cully in black,” Tolya grumbled.
“You follow Sturmhond’s orders,” I pointed out.
“Only when he feels like it.”
I jumped. Sturmhond was standing right behind me.
“You try telling that ox what to do and see what happens,” the privateer said.
Tamar snorted, and she and Tolya began stowing the rest of the weapons.
Sturmhond leaned in and murmured, “If you want to know something about me, lovely, all you need to do is ask.”
“I was just wondering where you’re from,” I said defensively. “That’s all.”
“Where are you from?”
“Keramzin. You know that.”
“But where are you from?”
A few dim memories flashed through my mind. A shallow dish of cooked beets, the slippery feel of them between my fingers as they stained my hands red. The smell of egg porridge. Riding on someone’s shoulders—maybe my father’s—down a dusty road. At Keramzin, even mentioning our parents had been considered a betrayal of the Duke’s kindness and a sign of ingratitude. We’d been taught never to speak of our lives before we arrived at the estate, and eventually most of the memories just disappeared.
“Nowhere,” I said. “The village I was born in was too small to be worth a name. Now, what about you, Sturmhond? Where did you come from?”
The privateer grinned. Again I was struck by the thought that there was something off about his features.
“My mother was an oyster,” he said with a wink. “And I’m the pearl.”
He strolled away, whistling an off-key tune.
* * *
TWO NIGHTS LATER, I woke to find Tamar looming over me, shaking my good shoulder.
“Time to go,” she said.
“Now?” I asked blearily. “What time is it?”
“Coming on three bells.”
“In the morning?” I yawned and threw my legs over the side of my hammock. “Where are we?”
“Fifteen miles off the coast of West Ravka. Come on, Sturmhond is waiting.” She was dressed and had her canvas ditty bag slung over her shoulder.
I had no belongings to gather, so I pulled on my boots, patted the inner pocket of my coat to make sure I had the red book, and followed her out the door.
On deck, Mal stood by the ship’s starboard rail with a small group of crewmen. I had a moment of confusion when I realized Privyet was wearing Sturmhond’s garish teal frock coat. I wouldn’t have recognized Sturmhond himself if he hadn’t been giving orders. He was swaddled in a voluminous greatcoat, the collar turned up, a wool hat pulled low over his ears.
A cold wind was blowing. The stars were bright in the sky, and a sickle moon sat low on the horizon. I peered across the moonlit waves, listening to the steady sigh of the sea. If land was nearby, I couldn’t see it.
Mal tried to rub some warmth into my arms.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“We’re going ashore.” I could hear the wariness in his voice.
“In the middle of the night?”
“The Volkvolny will raise my colors near the Fjerdan coast,” said Sturmhond. “The Darkling doesn’t need to know that you’re back on Ravkan soil just yet.”
As Sturmhond bent his head in conversation with Privyet, Mal drew me over to the portside rail. “Are you sure about this?”
“Not at all,” I admitted.
He rested his hands on my shoulders and said, “There’s a good chance I’ll be arrested if we’re found, Alina. You may be the Sun Summoner, but I’m just a soldier who defied orders.”
“The Darkling’s orders.”
“That may not matter.”
“I’ll make it matter. Besides, we’re not going to be found. We’re going to get into West Ravka, meet Sturmhond’s client, and decide what we want to do.”
Mal pulled me closer. “Were you always this much trouble?”
“I like to think of myself as delightfully complex.”
As he bent to kiss me, Sturmhond’s voice cut through the dark. “Can we get to the cuddling later? I want us ashore before dawn.”
Mal sighed. “Eventually, I’m going to punch him.”
“I will support you in that endeavor.”
He took my hand, and we returned to the group.
Sturmhond gave Privyet an envelope sealed with a blob of pale blue wax, then clapped him on the back. Maybe it was the moonlight, but the first mate looked like he might cry. Tolya and Tamar slipped over the railing, holding tight to the weighted ladder secured to the schooner.
I peered over the side. I’d expected to see an ordinary longboat, so I was surprised at the little craft I saw bobbing alongside the Volkvolny. It was like no boat I’d ever seen. Its two hulls looked like a pair of hollowed-out shoes, and they were held together by a deck with a giant hole in its center.
Mal and I followed, stepping gingerly onto one of the craft’s curved hulls. We picked our way across it and descended to the central deck, where a sunken cockpit was nestled between two masts. Sturmhond leapt down after us, then swung up onto a raised platform behind the cockpit and took his place at the ship’s wheel.
“What is this thing?” I asked.
“I call her the Hummingbird,” he said, consulting some kind of chart that I couldn’t see, “though I’m thinking of renaming her the Firebird.” I drew in a sharp breath, but Sturmhond just grinned and ordered, “Cut anchor and release!”
Tamar and Tolya unhitched the knots of the grapples that held us to the Volkvolny. I saw the anchor line slither like a live snake over the Hummingbird’s stern, the end slipping silently into the sea. I would have thought we’d need an anchor when we made port, but I supposed Sturmhond knew what he was doing.
“Make sail,” called Sturmhond.
The sails unfurled. Though the Hummingbird’s masts were considerably shorter than those aboard the schooner, its double sails were huge, rectangular things, and required two crewmen each to maneuver them into position.
A light breeze caught the canvas, and we pulled farther from the Volkvolny. I looked up and saw Sturmhond watching the schooner slip away. I couldn’t see his face, but I had the distinct sense that he was saying goodbye. He shook himself, then called out, “Squallers!”
A Grisha was positioned in each hull. They raised their arms, and wind billowed around us, filling the sails. Sturmhond adjusted our course and called for more speed. The Squallers obliged, and the strange little boat leapt forward.
“Take these,” said Sturmhond. He dropped a pair of goggles into my lap and tossed another pair to Mal. They looked similar to those worn by Fabrikators in the workshops of the Little Palace. I glanced around. All of the crew seemed to be wearing them, along with Sturmhond. We pulled them over our heads.
I was grateful for them seconds later, when Sturmhond called for yet more speed. The sails rattled in the rigging above us, and I felt a twinge of nervousness. Why was he in such a hurry?
The Hummingbird sped over the water, its shallow double hulls skating from wave to wave, barely seeming to touch the surface of the sea. I held tight to my seat, my stomach floating upward with every jounce.
“All right, Squallers,” commanded Sturmhond, “take us up. Sailors to wings, on my count.”
I turned to Mal. “What does that mean, ‘take us up’?”
“Five!” shouted Sturmhond.
The crewmen started to move counterclockwise, pulling on the lines.
The Squallers spread their hands wider.
A boom lifted between the two masts, the sails gliding along its length.
“Heave!” cried the sailors. The Squallers lifted their arms in a massive swoop.
“One!” yelled Sturmhond.
The sails billowed up and out, snapping into place high above the deck like two gigantic wings. My stomach lurched, and the unthinkable happened: The Hummingbird took flight.
I gripped my seat, mumbling old prayers under my breath, squeezing my eyes shut as the wind buffeted my face and we rose into the night sky.
Sturmhond was laughing like a loon. The Squallers were calling out to each other in a volley, making sure they kept the updraft steady. I thought my heart would pound right through my chest.
Oh, Saints, I thought queasily. This can’t be happening.
“Alina,” Mal yelled over the rush of the wind.
“What?” I forced the word through tightly clenched lips.
“Alina, open your eyes. You’ve got to see this.”
I gave a terse shake of my head. That was exactly what I did not need to do.
Mal’s hand slid into mine, taking hold of my frozen fingers. “Just try it.”
I took a trembling breath and forced my lids open. We were surrounded by stars. Above us, white canvas stretched in two broad arcs, like the taut curves of an archer’s bow.
I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t stop myself from craning my neck over the cockpit’s edge. The roar of the wind was deafening. Below—far below—the moonlit waves rippled like the bright scales of a slow-moving serpent. If we fell, I knew we would shatter on its back.
A little laugh, somewhere between elation and hysteria, burbled out of me. We were flying. Flying.
Mal squeezed my hand and gave an exultant shout.
“This is impossible!” I yelled.
Sturmhond whooped. “When people say impossible, they usually mean improbable.” With the moonlight gleaming off the lenses of his goggles and his greatcoat billowing around him, he looked like a complete madman.
I tried to breathe. The wind was holding steady. The Squallers and the crew seemed focused, but calm. Slowly, very slowly, the knot in my chest loosened, and I began to relax.
“Where did this thing come from?” I shouted up to Sturmhond.
“I designed her. I built her. And I crashed a few prototypes.”
I swallowed hard. Crash was the last word I wanted to hear.
Mal leaned over the lip of the cockpit, trying to get a better view of the gigantic guns positioned at the foremost points of the hulls.
“Those guns,” he said. “They have multiple barrels.”
“And they’re gravity fed. No need to stop to reload. They fire two hundred rounds per minute.”
“Impossible? The only problem is overheating, but it isn’t so bad on this model. I have a Zemeni gunsmith trying to work out the flaws. Barbaric little bastards, but they know their way around a gun. The aft seats rotate so you can shoot from any angle.”
“And fire down on the enemy,” Mal shouted almost giddily. “If Ravka had a fleet of these—”