Genya sat at the edge of my bed. So I hadn’t dreamed her. Or was I dreaming now? I tried to shake the cobwebs from my mind and was rewarded with another surge of nausea. The unpleasant smell in the air wasn’t helping to settle my stomach. I forced myself to take a long, shaky breath.
Genya wore a red kefta embroidered in blue, a combination I’d never seen on any other Grisha. The garment was dirty and a bit worn, but her hair was arranged in flawless curls, and she looked more lovely than any queen. She held a tin cup to my lips.
“Drink,” she said.
“What is it?” I asked warily.
I tried to take the cup from her and realized my wrists were in irons. I lifted my hands awkwardly. The water had a flat metallic tang, but I was parched. I sipped, coughed, then drank greedily.
“Slowly,” she said, her hand smoothing the hair back from my face, “or you’ll make yourself sick.”
“How long?” I asked, glancing at Ivan, who leaned against the door watching me. “How long have I been out?”
“A little over a week,” Genya said.
Panic seized me. A week of Ivan slowing my heart rate to keep me unconscious.
I shoved to my feet and blood rushed to my head. I would have fallen if Genya hadn’t reached out to steady me. I willed the dizziness away, shook her off, then stumbled to the sidescuttle and peered through the foggy circle of glass. Nothing. Nothing but blue sea. No harbor. No coast. Novyi Zem was long gone. I fought the tears that rose behind my eyes.
“Where’s Mal?” I asked. When no one answered, I turned around. “Where’s Mal?” I demanded of Ivan.
“The Darkling wants to see you,” he said. “Are you strong enough to walk, or do I have to carry you?”
“Give her a minute,” said Genya. “Let her eat, wash her face at least.”
“No. Take me to him.”
“I’m fine,” I insisted. Actually, I felt weak and woozy and terrified. But I wasn’t about to lie back down on that bunk, and I needed answers, not food.
As we left the cabin, we were engulfed in a wall of stench—not the usual ship smells of bilge and fish and bodies that I remembered from our voyage aboard the Verrhader, but something far worse. I gagged and clamped my mouth shut. I was suddenly glad I hadn’t eaten.
“What is that?”
“Blood, bone, rendered blubber,” said Ivan. We were aboard a whaler. “You get used to it,” he said.
“You get used to it,” retorted Genya, wrinkling her nose.
They brought me to a hatch that led to the deck above. Ivan clambered up the ladder, and I scrambled hastily after him, eager to be out of the dark bowels of the ship and free of that rotting stench. It was hard climbing with my hands in irons, and Ivan quickly lost patience. He hooked my wrists to haul me up the last few feet. I took in great gulps of cold air and blinked in the bright light.
The whaler was lumbering along at full sail, driven forward by three Grisha Squallers who stood by the masts with arms raised, their blue kefta flapping around their legs. Etherealki, the Order of Summoners. Just a few short months ago, I’d been one of them.
The ship’s crew wore roughspun, and many were barefoot, the better to grip the ship’s slippery deck. No uniforms, I noted. So they weren’t military, and the ship flew no colors that I could see.
The rest of the Darkling’s Grisha were easy to pick out among the crew, not just because of their brightly colored kefta, but because they stood idly at the railings, gazing out at the sea or talking while the regular sailors worked. I even saw a Fabrikator in her purple kefta, propped up against a coil of rope, reading.
As we passed by two massive cast-iron kettles set into the deck, I got a fierce whiff of the stink that had been so powerful below.
“The try-pots,” Genya said. “Where they render the oil. They haven’t been used on this voyage, but the smell never fades.”
Grisha and crewmen alike turned to stare as we walked the length of the ship. When we passed beneath the mizzenmast, I looked up and saw the dark-haired boy and girl from my dream perched high above us. They hung from the rigging like two birds of prey, watching us with matching golden eyes.
So it hadn’t been a dream at all. They’d been in my cabin.
Ivan led me to the prow of the ship, where the Darkling was waiting. He stood with his back to us, staring out over the bowsprit to the blue horizon beyond, his black kefta billowing around him like an inky banner of war.
Genya and Ivan made their bows and left us.
“Where’s Mal?” I rasped, my throat still rusty.
The Darkling didn’t turn, but shook his head and said, “You’re predictable, at least.”
“Sorry to bore you. Where is he?”
“How do you know he isn’t dead?”
My stomach lurched. “Because I know you,” I said with more confidence than I felt.
“And if he were? Would you throw yourself into the sea?”
“Not unless I could take you with me. Where is he?”
“Look behind you.”
I whirled. Far down the stretch of the main deck, through the tangle of rope and rigging, I saw Mal. He was flanked by Corporalki guards, but his focus was trained on me. He’d been watching, waiting for me to turn. I stepped forward. The Darkling seized my arm.
“No farther,” he said.
“Let me talk to him,” I begged. I hated the desperation in my voice.
“Not a chance. You two have a bad habit of acting like fools and calling it heroic.”
The Darkling lifted his hand, and Mal’s guards started to lead him away. “Alina!” he yelled, and then grunted as a guard cuffed him hard across the face.
“Mal!” I shouted as they dragged him, struggling, belowdecks. “Mal!”
I flinched out of the Darkling’s grip, my throat choked with rage. “If you hurt him—”
“I’m not going to hurt him,” he said. “At least not while he can be of use to me.”
“I don’t want him harmed.”
“He’s safe for now, Alina. But don’t test me. If one of you steps out of line, the other will suffer. I’ve told him the same.”
I shut my eyes, trying to push back the fury and hopelessness I felt. We were right back where we’d started. I nodded once.
Again, the Darkling shook his head. “You two make it so easy. I prick him, you bleed.”
“And you can’t begin to understand that, can you?”
He reached out and tapped Morozova’s collar, letting his fingers graze the skin of my throat. Even that faint touch opened the connection between us, and a rush of power vibrated through me like a bell being struck.
“I understand enough,” he said softly.
“I want to see him,” I managed. “Every day. I want to know he’s safe.”
“Of course. I’m not cruel, Alina. Just cautious.”
I almost laughed. “Is that why you had one of your monsters bite me?”
“That’s not why,” he said, his gaze steady. He glanced at my shoulder. “Does it hurt?”
“No,” I lied.
The barest hint of a smile touched his lips. “It will get better,” he said. “But the wound can never be fully healed. Not even by Grisha.”
Nothings. I shuddered, remembering the skittering, clicking sounds they’d made, the gaping holes of their mouths. My shoulder throbbed. “What are they?”
His lips tilted. The faint tracery of scars on his face was barely visible, like the ghost of a map. One ran perilously close to his right eye. He’d almost lost it. He cupped my cheek with his hand, and when he spoke, his voice was almost tender.
“They’re just the beginning,” he whispered.
He left me standing on the foredeck, my skin still alive with the touch of his fingers, my head swimming with questions.
Before I could begin to sort through them, Ivan appeared and began yanking me back across the main deck. “Slow down,” I protested, but he just gave another jerk on my sleeve. I lost my footing and pitched forward. My knees banged painfully on the deck, and I barely had time to put up my shackled palms to break my fall. I winced as a splinter dug into my flesh.
“Move,” Ivan ordered. I struggled to my knees. He nudged me with the toe of his boot, and my knee slipped out from beneath me, sending me back down to the deck with a loud thud. “I said move.”
Then a large hand scooped me up and gently set me on my feet. When I turned, I was surprised to see the giant and the dark-haired girl.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“This is none of your concern,” Ivan said angrily.
“She’s Sturmhond’s prisoner,” replied the girl. “She should be treated accordingly.”
Sturmhond. The name was familiar. Was this his ship, then? And his crew? There’d been talk of him aboard the Verrhader. He was a Ravkan privateer and a smuggler, infamous for breaking the Fjerdan blockade and for the fortune he’d made capturing enemy ships. But he wasn’t flying the double eagle flag.
“She’s the Darkling’s prisoner,” said Ivan, “and a traitor.”
“Maybe on land,” the girl shot back.
Ivan gabbled something in Shu that I didn’t understand. The giant just laughed.
“You speak Shu like a tourist,” he said.
“And we don’t take orders from you in any language,” the girl added.
Ivan smirked. “Don’t you?” His hand twitched, and the girl grabbed at her chest, buckling to one knee.
Before I could blink, the giant had a wickedly curved blade in his hand and was lunging at Ivan. Lazily, Ivan flicked his other hand out, and the giant grimaced. Still, he kept coming.
“Leave them alone,” I protested, tugging helplessly at my irons. I could summon light with my wrists bound, but I had no way to focus it.
Ivan ignored me. His hand tightened into a fist. The giant stopped in his tracks, and the sword fell from his fingers. Sweat broke out on his brow as Ivan squeezed the life from his heart.
“Let’s not get out of line, ye zho,” Ivan chided.
“You’re killing him!” I said, panicked now. I rammed my shoulder into Ivan’s side, trying to knock him down.
At that moment, a loud double click sounded.
Ivan froze, his smirk evaporating. Behind him stood a tall boy around my age, maybe a few years older—ruddy hair, a broken nose. The too-clever fox.
He had a cocked pistol in his hand, the barrel pressed against Ivan’s neck.
“I’m a gracious host, bloodletter. But every house has rules.”
Host. So this must be Sturmhond. He looked too young to be a captain of anything.
Ivan dropped his hands.
The giant sucked in air. The girl rose to her feet, still clutching her chest. They were both breathing hard, and their eyes burned with hate.
“That’s a good fellow,” Sturmhond said to Ivan. “Now, I’ll take the prisoner back to her quarters, and you can run off and do … whatever it is you do when everyone else is working.”