Sturmhond ordered the sails trimmed, and our pace slowed as we drifted through the mist. An uneasy silence blanketed the ship. I studied the whaler’s longboats, the racks of harpoons tipped in Grisha steel. It wasn’t hard to guess what they were for. The Darkling was after some kind of amplifier. I surveyed the ranks of Grisha and wondered who might be singled out for another of the Darkling’s “gifts.” But a terrible suspicion had taken root inside me.
It’s madness, I told myself. He wouldn’t dare attempt it. The thought brought me little comfort. He always dared.
* * *
THE NEXT DAY, the Darkling ordered me brought to him.
“Who is it for?” I asked as Ivan deposited me by the starboard rail.
The Darkling just stared out into the waves. I considered shoving him over the railing. Sure, he was hundreds of years old, but could he swim?
“Tell me you’re not contemplating what I think you are,” I said. “Tell me the amplifier is for some other stupid, gullible girl.”
“Someone less stubborn? Less selfish? Less hungry for the life of a mouse? Believe me,” he said, “I wish I could.”
I felt sick. “A Grisha can have only one amplifier. You told me that yourself.”
“Morozova’s amplifiers are different.”
I gaped at him. “There’s another like the stag?”
“They were meant to be used together, Alina. They are unique, just as we are.”
I thought of the books I’d read on Grisha theory. Every one of them had said the same thing: Grisha power was not meant to be limitless; it had to be held in check.
“No,” I said. “I don’t want this. I want—”
“You want,” the Darkling mocked. “I want to watch your tracker die slowly with my knife in his heart. I want to let the sea swallow you both. But our fates are entwined now, Alina, and there’s nothing either of us can do about that.”
“I know it pleases you to think so,” he said. “But the amplifiers must be brought together. If we have any hope of controlling the Fold—”
“You can’t control the Fold. It has to be destroyed.”
“Careful, Alina,” he said with a slight smile. “I’ve had the same thought about you.” He gestured to Ivan, who was waiting a respectful distance away. “Bring me the boy.”
My heart leapt into my throat. “Wait,” I said. “You told me you wouldn’t hurt him.”
He ignored me. Like a fool, I looked around. As if anyone on this saintsforsaken ship would hear my appeal. Sturmhond stood by the wheel, watching us, his face impassive.
I snatched at the Darkling’s sleeve. “We had a deal. I haven’t done anything. You said—”
The Darkling looked at me with cool quartz eyes, and the words died on my lips.
A moment later, Ivan appeared with Mal in tow and steered him over to the rail. He stood before us, squinting in the sunlight, hands bound. It was the closest we’d been in weeks. Though he looked tired and pale, he appeared unharmed. I saw the question in his wary expression, but I had no answer.
“All right, tracker,” the Darkling said. “Track.”
Mal glanced from the Darkling to me and back again. “Track what? We’re in the middle of the ocean.”
“Alina once told me that you could make rabbits out of rocks. I questioned the crew of the Verrhader myself, and they claim that you’re just as capable at sea. They seemed to think you could make some lucky captain very rich with your expertise.”
Mal frowned. “You want me to hunt whales?”
“No,” said the Darkling. “I want you to hunt the sea whip.”
We stared at him in shock. I almost laughed.
“You’re looking for a dragon?” Mal said incredulously.
“The ice dragon,” said the Darkling. “Rusalye.”
Rusalye. In the stories, the sea whip was a cursed prince, forced to take the form of a sea serpent and guard the frigid waters of the Bone Road. That was Morozova’s second amplifier?
“It’s a fairy tale,” Mal said, voicing my own thoughts. “A children’s story. It doesn’t actually exist.”
“There have been sightings of the sea whip in these waters for years,” said the Darkling.
“Along with mermaids and white selkies. It’s a myth.”
The Darkling arched a brow. “Like the stag?”
Mal glanced at me. I gave an infinitesimal shake of my head. Whatever the Darkling was doing, we weren’t going to help.
Mal peered out at the waves. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“For her sake, I hope that’s not true.” The Darkling pulled a slender knife from the folds of his kefta. “Because every day we don’t find the sea whip, I’ll peel away a piece of her skin. Slowly. Then Ivan will heal her, and the next day, we’ll do it all over again.”
I felt the blood drain from my face.
“You won’t hurt her,” Mal said, but I could hear the fear in his voice.
“I don’t want to hurt her,” said the Darkling. “I want you to do as I ask.”
“It took me months to find the stag,” Mal said desperately. “I still don’t know how we did it.”
Sturmhond stepped forward. I’d been so focused on Mal and the Darkling, I’d nearly forgotten him. “I won’t have a girl tortured on my ship,” he said.
The Darkling turned his cold gaze on the privateer. “You work for me, Sturmhond. You’ll do your job or getting paid will be the least of your worries.”
An ugly ripple of disquiet passed over the ship. Sturmhond’s crew were sizing up the Grisha, and their expressions were not friendly. Genya had a hand pressed over her mouth, but she did not say a word.
“Give the tracker some time,” Sturmhond said quietly. “A week. At least a few days.”
The Darkling slid his fingers up my arm, pushing back my sleeve to reveal bare white flesh. “Shall I start with her arm?” he asked. He dropped the sleeve, then brushed his knuckles over my cheek. “Or with her face?” He nodded to Ivan. “Hold her.”
Ivan clasped the back of my head. The Darkling lifted the knife. I saw it glittering from the corner of my eye. I tried to cringe back, but Ivan held me in place. The blade met my cheek. I sucked in a frightened breath.
“Stop!” Mal shouted.
The Darkling waited.
“I … I can do it.”
“Mal, no,” I said with more courage than I felt.
Mal swallowed and said, “Tack southwest. Back the way we came.”
I stayed very still. Had he seen something? Or was he just trying to keep me from getting hurt?
The Darkling cocked his head to one side and studied him. “I think you know better than to play games with me, tracker.”
Mal gave a sharp nod. “I can do it. I can find it. Just … just give me time.”
The Darkling sheathed his knife. I exhaled slowly and tried to suppress a shiver.
“You have a week,” he said, turning away and disappearing into the hatch. “Bring her,” he called to Ivan.
“Mal—” I began as Ivan grasped my arm.
Mal lifted his bound hands, reaching for me. His fingers grazed mine briefly, then Ivan was hauling me back toward the hatch.
My mind was racing as we descended into the dank belly of the ship. I stumbled along behind Ivan, trying to make sense of everything that had just happened. The Darkling had said that he wouldn’t harm Mal as long as he needed him. I’d assumed he just meant to use him to keep me in line, but now it was clear there was more to it than that. Did Mal really think he could find the sea whip, or was he stalling for time? I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be true. I didn’t savor the idea of being tortured, but what if we did find the ice dragon? What would a second amplifier mean?
Ivan pulled me into a spacious cabin that looked like the captain’s quarters. Sturmhond must have been squeezed in with the rest of his crew. A bed was pushed into one corner, and the deeply curved aft wall was studded with a row of thick-paned windows. They shed watery light on a desk behind which the Darkling seated himself.
Ivan bowed and darted from the room, closing the door behind him.
“He can’t wait to get away from you,” I said, hovering by the door. “He’s afraid of what you’ve become. They all are.”
“Do you fear me, Alina?”
“That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
The Darkling shrugged. “Fear is a powerful ally,” he said. “And loyal.”
He was watching me in that cold, assessing way that always made me feel as if he were reading me like words on a page, his fingers moving over the text, gleaning some secret knowledge that I could only guess at. I tried not to fidget, but the irons at my wrists chafed.
“I’d like to free you,” he said quietly.
“Free me, flay me. So many options.” I could still feel the press of his knife at my cheek.
He sighed. “It was a threat, Alina. It accomplished what it needed to.”
“So you wouldn’t have cut me?”
“I didn’t say that.” His voice was pleasant and matter-of-fact, as always. He might have been threatening to carve me up or ordering his dinner.
In the dim light, I could just make out the fine traces of his scars. I knew I should stay quiet, force him to speak first, but my curiosity was too great.
“How did you survive?”
He ran his hand over the sharp line of his jaw. “It seems the volcra did not care for the taste of my flesh,” he said, almost idly. “Have you ever noticed that they do not feed on each other?”
I shuddered. They were his creations, just like the thing that had buried its teeth in my shoulder. The skin there still pulsed. “Like calls to like.”
“It’s not an experience I’d care to repeat. I’ve had my fill of the volcra’s mercy. And yours.”
I crossed the room, coming to stand before the desk. “Then why give me a second amplifier?” I asked desperately, grasping for an argument that would somehow make him see sense. “In case you’ve forgotten, I tried to kill you.”
“Here’s to second chances. Why make me stronger?”
Again, he shrugged. “Without Morozova’s amplifiers, Ravka is lost. You were meant to have them, just as I was meant to rule. It can be no other way.”
“How convenient for you.”
He leaned back and folded his arms. “You have been anything but convenient, Alina.”
“You can’t combine amplifiers. All the books say the same thing—”
“Not all the books.”
I wanted to scream in frustration. “Baghra warned me. She said you were arrogant, blinded by ambition.”
“Did she now?” His voice was ice. “And what other treason did she whisper in your ear?”
“That she loved you,” I said angrily. “That she believed you could be redeemed.”
He looked away then, but not before I saw the flash of pain on his face. What had he done to her? And what had it cost him?