Ivan scowled. “I don’t think—”
“Clearly. Why start now?”
Ivan’s face flushed in anger. “You don’t—”
Sturmhond leaned in close, the laughter gone from his voice, his easy demeanor replaced by something with a sword’s edge. “I don’t care who you are on land. On this ship, you’re nothing but ballast. Unless I put you over the side, in which case you’re shark bait. I like shark. Cooks up tough, but it makes for a little variety. Remember that the next time you have a mind to threaten anyone aboard this vessel.” He stepped back, his jolly manner restored. “Go on now, shark bait. Scurry back to your master.”
“I won’t forget this, Sturmhond,” Ivan spat.
The captain rolled his eyes. “That’s the idea.”
Ivan turned on his heel and stomped off.
Sturmhond holstered his weapon and smiled pleasantly. “Amazing how quickly a ship feels crowded, no?” He reached out and gave the giant and the girl each a pat on the shoulder. “You did well,” he said quietly.
Their attention was still on Ivan. The girl’s fists were clenched.
“I don’t want trouble,” the captain warned. “Understood?”
They exchanged a glance, then nodded grudgingly.
“Good,” said Sturmhond. “Get back to work. I’ll take her belowdecks.” They nodded again. Then, to my surprise, they each sketched a quick bow to me before they departed.
“Are they related?” I asked, watching them go.
“Twins,” he said. “Tolya and Tamar.”
“And you’re Sturmhond.”
“On my good days,” he replied. He wore leather breeches, a brace of pistols at his hips, and a bright teal frock coat with gaudy gold buttons and enormous cuffs. It belonged in a ballroom or on an opera stage, not on the deck of a ship.
“What’s a pirate doing on a whaler?” I asked.
“Privateer,” he corrected. “I have several ships. The Darkling wanted a whaler, so I got him one.”
“You mean you stole it.”
“You were in my cabin.”
“Many women dream of me,” he said lightly as he steered me down the deck.
“I saw you when I woke up,” I insisted. “I need—”
He held up a hand. “Don’t waste your breath, lovely.”
“But you don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“You were about to plead your case, tell me you need my help, you can’t pay me but your heart is true, the usual thing.”
I blinked. That was exactly what I’d been about to do. “But—”
“Waste of breath, waste of time, waste of a fine afternoon,” he said. “I don’t like to see prisoners mistreated, but that’s as far as my interest goes.”
He shook his head. “And I’m notoriously immune to tales of woe. So unless your story involves a talking dog, I don’t want to hear it. Does it?”
“Does it what?”
“Involve a talking dog.”
“No,” I snapped. “It involves the future of a kingdom and everyone in it.”
“A pity,” he said, and took me by the arm, leading me to the aft hatch.
“I thought you worked for Ravka,” I said angrily.
“I work for the fattest purse.”
“So you’d sell your country to the Darkling for a little gold?”
“No, for a lot of gold,” he said. “I assure you, I don’t come cheap.” He gestured to the hatch. “After you.”
With Sturmhond’s help, I made it back down to my cabin, where two Grisha guards were waiting to lock me inside. The captain bowed and left me without another word.
I sat down on my bunk, resting my head in my hands. Sturmhond could play the fool all he wanted. I knew he’d been in my cabin, and there had to be a reason. Or maybe I was just grasping at any little bit of hope.
When Genya brought me my dinner tray, she found me curled up on my bunk, facing the wall.
“You should eat,” she said.
“Leave me alone.”
“Sulking gives you wrinkles.”
“Well, lying gives you warts,” I said sourly. She laughed, then entered and set down the tray. She crossed to the sidescuttle and glanced at her reflection in the glass. “Maybe I should go blond,” she said. “Corporalki red clashes horribly with my hair.”
I cast a glance over my shoulder. “You know you could wear baked mud and outshine every girl on two continents.”
“True,” she said with a grin.
I didn’t return her smile. She sighed and studied the toes of her boots. “I missed you,” she said.
I was surprised at how much those words hurt. I’d missed her, too. And I’d felt like a fool for it.
“Were you ever my friend?” I asked.
She sat down at the edge of the bunk. “Would it make a difference?”
“I like to know just how stupid I’ve been.”
“I loved being your friend, Alina. But I’m not sorry for what I did.”
“And what the Darkling did? Are you sorry for that?”
“I know you think he’s a monster, but he’s trying to do what’s right for Ravka, for all of us.”
I shoved up to my elbows. I’d lived with the knowledge of the Darkling’s lies so long that it was easy to forget how few people knew what he really was. “Genya, he created the Fold.”
“The Black Heretic—”
“There is no Black Heretic,” I said, revealing the truth that Baghra had laid out before me months ago at the Little Palace. “He blamed his ancestor for the Fold, but there’s only ever been one Darkling, and all he cares about is power.”
“That’s impossible. The Darkling has spent his life trying to free Ravka from the Fold.”
“How can you say that after what he did to Novokribirsk?” The Darkling had used the power of the Unsea to destroy an entire town, a show of strength meant to cow his enemies and mark the start of his rule. And I’d made it possible.
“I know there was … an incident.”
“An incident? He killed hundreds of people, maybe thousands.”
“And what about the people on the skiff?” she said quietly.
I drew in a sharp breath and lay back. For a long moment, I studied the planks above me. I didn’t want to ask, but I knew I was going to. The question had haunted me over long weeks and miles of ocean. “Were there … were there other survivors?”
“Besides Ivan and the Darkling?”
I nodded, waiting.
“Two Inferni who helped them escape,” she said. “A few soldiers from the First Army made it back, and a Squaller named Nathalia got out, but she died of her injuries a few days later.”
I closed my eyes. How many people had been aboard that sandskiff? Thirty? Forty? I felt sick. I could hear the screams, the howls of the volcra. I could smell the gunpowder and blood. I’d sacrificed those people for Mal’s life, for my freedom, and in the end, they’d died for nothing. We were back in the Darkling’s grasp, and he was more powerful than ever.
Genya laid her hand over mine. “You did what you had to, Alina.”
I let out a harsh bark of laughter and yanked my hand away. “Is that what the Darkling tells you, Genya? Does that make it easier?”
“Not really, no.” She looked down at her lap, pleating and unpleating the folds of her kefta. “He freed me, Alina,” she said. “What am I supposed to do? Run back to the palace? Back to the King?” She gave a fierce shake of her head. “No. I made my choice.”
“What about the other Grisha?” I asked. “They can’t all have sided with the Darkling. How many of them stayed in Ravka?”
Genya stiffened. “I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about that with you.”
“Eat, Alina. Try to get some rest. We’ll be in the ice soon.”
The ice. Then we weren’t headed back to Ravka. We must be traveling north.
She stood up and brushed the dust off her kefta. She might joke about the color, but I knew how much it meant to her. It proved she was really a Grisha—protected, favored, a servant no more. I remembered the mysterious illness that had weakened the King just before the Darkling’s coup. Genya had been one of the few Grisha with access to the royal family. She’d used that access to earn the right to wear red.
“Genya,” I said as she reached the door. “One more question.”
She paused, her hand on the latch.
It seemed so unimportant, so silly to mention it after all this time. But it was something that had bothered me for a long while. “The letters I wrote to Mal back at the Little Palace. He said he never got them.”
She didn’t turn back to me, but I saw her shoulders sag.
“They were never sent,” she whispered. “The Darkling said you needed to leave your old life behind.”
She closed the door, and I heard the bolt click home.
All those hours spent talking and laughing with Genya, drinking tea and trying on dresses. She’d been lying to me the whole time. The worst part about it was that the Darkling had been right. If I’d kept clinging to Mal and the memory of the love I had for him, I might never have mastered my power. But Genya didn’t know that. She had just followed orders and let my heart break. I didn’t know what that was, but it wasn’t friendship.
I turned onto my side, feeling the gentle roll of the ship beneath me. Was this what it was like to be rocked to sleep in a mother’s arms? I couldn’t remember. Ana Kuya used to hum sometimes, under her breath, as she went about turning down the lamps and closing up the dormitories at Keramzin for the night. That was the closest Mal and I had ever come to a lullaby.
Somewhere above, I heard a sailor shout something over the wind. The bell rang to signal the change of the watch. We’re alive, I reminded myself. We escaped from him before. We can do it again. But it was no good, and finally, I gave in and let the tears come. Sturmhond was bought and paid for. Genya had chosen the Darkling. Mal and I were alone as we’d always been, without friends or allies, surrounded by nothing but pitiless sea. This time, even if we escaped, there was nowhere to run.
LESS THAN A WEEK LATER, I spotted the first ice floes. We were far north, where the sea darkened and ice bloomed from its depths in perilous spikes. Though it was early summer, the wind bit into our skin. In the morning, the ropes were hard with frost.
I spent hours pacing my cabin and staring out at the endless sea. Each morning, I was brought above deck, where I was given a chance to stretch my legs and see Mal from afar. Always, the Darkling stood by the railing, scanning the horizon, searching for something. Sturmhond and his crew kept their distance.
On the seventh day, we passed between two slate stone islands that I recognized from my time as a mapmaker: Jelka and Vilki, the Fork and Knife. We had entered the Bone Road, the long stretch of black water where countless ships had wrecked on the nameless islands that appeared and disappeared in its mists. On maps, it was marked by sailors’ skulls, wide-mouthed monsters, mermaids with ice-white hair and the deep black eyes of seals. Only the most experienced Fjerdan hunters came here, seeking skins and furs, chancing death to claim rich prizes. But what prize did we seek?