“Redemption,” he murmured. “Salvation. Penance. My mother’s quaint ideas. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention.” He reached into the desk and drew out a slender red volume. As he held it up, light glinted off the gold lettering on its cover: Istorii Sankt’ya. “Do you know what this is?”
I frowned. The Lives of Saints. A dim memory came back to me. The Apparat had given me a copy months ago at the Little Palace. I’d thrown it in the drawer of my dressing table and never spared it another thought.
“It’s a children’s book,” I said.
“Have you read it?”
“No,” I admitted, suddenly wishing I had. The Darkling was watching me too closely. What could be so important about an old collection of religious drawings?
“Superstition,” he said glancing down at the cover. “Peasant propaganda. Or so I thought. Morozova was a strange man. He was a bit like you, drawn to the ordinary and the weak.”
“Mal isn’t weak.”
“He’s gifted, I grant you, but no Grisha. He can never be your equal.”
“He’s my equal and more,” I spat.
The Darkling shook his head. If I hadn’t known better, I might have mistaken the look on his face for pity. “You think you’ve found a family with him. You think you’ve found a future. But you will grow powerful, and he will grow old. He will live his short otkazat’sya life, and you will watch him die.”
He smiled. “Go on, stamp your foot, fight your true nature. All the while, your country suffers.”
“Because of you!”
“Because I put my trust in a girl who cannot stand the thought of her own potential.” He rose and rounded the desk. Despite my anger, I took a step back, banging into the chair behind me.
“I know what you feel when you’re with the tracker,” he said.
“I doubt that.”
He gave a dismissive wave. “No, not the absurd pining you’ve yet to outgrow. I know the truth in your heart. The loneliness. The growing knowledge of your own difference.” He leaned in closer. “The ache of it.”
I tried to hide the shock of recognition that went through me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, but the words sounded false to my ears.
“It will never fade, Alina. It will only grow worse, no matter how many scarves you hide behind or what lies you tell, no matter how far or how fast you run.”
I tried to turn away, but he reached out and took hold of my chin, forcing me to look at him. He was so close I could feel his breath. “There are no others like us, Alina,” he whispered. “And there never will be.”
I lurched away from him, knocking the chair over, nearly losing my balance. I pounded on the door with my iron-bound fists, calling out to Ivan as the Darkling looked on. He didn’t come until the Darkling gave the order.
Dimly, I registered Ivan’s hand at my back, the stench of the corridor, a sailor letting us pass, then the quiet of my narrow cabin, the door locking behind me, the bunk, the scratch of rough fabric as I pressed my face into the covers, trembling, trying to drive the Darkling’s words from my head. Mal’s death. The long life before me. The pain of otherness that would never ease. Each fear sank into me, a barbed talon burrowing deep into my heart.
I knew he was a practiced liar. He could fake any emotion, play on any human failing. But I couldn’t deny what I’d felt in Novyi Zem or the truth of what the Darkling had shown me: my own sadness, my own longing, reflected back to me in his bleak gray eyes.
* * *
THE MOOD HAD changed aboard the whaler. The crew had grown restless and watchful, the slight to their captain still fresh in their minds. The Grisha muttered amongst themselves, their nerves worn thin by our slow progress through the waters of the Bone Road.
Each day, the Darkling had me brought above deck to stand beside him at the prow. Mal was kept well guarded at the other end of the ship. Sometimes, I heard him call out bearings to Sturmhond or saw him gesture to what looked like deep scratches just above the waterline on the large ice shelves we passed.
I peered at the rough grooves. They might be claw marks. They might be nothing at all. Still, I’d seen what Mal was capable of in Tsibeya. When we were tracking the stag, he had shown me broken branches, trampled grass, signs that seemed obvious once he pointed them out but that had been invisible moments before. The crewmen seemed skeptical. The Grisha were outright contemptuous.
At dusk, when another day had come and gone, the Darkling would parade me across the deck and down through the hatch directly in front of Mal. We weren’t permitted to speak. I tried to hold his gaze, to tell him silently that I was all right, but I could see his fury and desperation growing, and I was powerless to reassure him.
Once, when I stumbled by the hatch, the Darkling caught me up against himself. He might have let me go, but he lingered, and before I could pull away, he let his hand graze the small of my back.
Mal surged forward, and it was only the grip of his Grisha guards that kept him from charging the Darkling.
“Three more days, tracker.”
“Leave her alone,” Mal snarled.
“I’ve kept my end of the bargain. She’s still unharmed. But perhaps that isn’t what you fear?”
Mal looked frayed to the point of snapping. His face was pale, his mouth a taut line, the muscles of his forearms knotted as he strained against his bonds. I couldn’t bear it.
“I’m fine,” I said softly, risking the Darkling’s knife. “He can’t hurt me.” It was a lie, but it felt good on my lips.
The Darkling looked from me to Mal, and I glimpsed that bleak, yawning fissure within him. “Don’t worry, tracker. You’ll know when our deal is up.” He shoved me belowdecks, but not before I heard his parting words to Mal—“I’ll be certain you hear it when I make her scream.”
* * *
THE WEEK WORE ON, and on the sixth day, Genya woke me early. As I gathered my wits, I realized it was barely dawn. Fear sliced through me. Maybe the Darkling had decided to cut short my reprieve and make good on this threats.
But Genya was beaming.
“He found something!” she crowed, bouncing on the soles of her feet, practically dancing as she helped me from the bunk. “The tracker says we’re close!”
“His name is Mal,” I muttered, pulling away from her. I ignored her stricken look.
Can it be true? I wondered as Genya led me above. Or did Mal simply hope to buy me more time?
We emerged into the dim gray light of early morning. The deck was crowded with Grisha gazing out at the water while the Squallers worked the winds, and Sturmhond’s crew managed the sails above.
The mist was heavier than the day before. It clung thick against the water and crawled in damp tendrils over the ship’s hull. The silence was broken only by Mal’s directions and the orders Sturmhond called.
When we entered a wide, open stretch of sea, Mal turned to the Darkling and said, “I think we’re close.”
Mal gave a single nod.
The Darkling considered. If Mal was stalling, his efforts were doomed to be short-lived, and the price would be high.
After what felt like an eternity, the Darkling nodded to Sturmhond.
“Trim the sails,” commanded the privateer, and the topmen moved to obey.
Ivan tapped the Darkling’s shoulder and gestured to the southern horizon. “A ship, moi soverenyi.”
I squinted at the tiny smudge.
“Are they flying colors?” the Darkling asked Sturmhond.
“Probably fishermen,” Sturmhond said. “But we’ll keep an eye on her just in case.” He signaled to one of his crewmen, who went scurrying up the main royal with a long glass in hand.
The longboats were prepared and, in minutes, they were being lowered over the starboard side, loaded with Sturmhond’s men and bristling with harpoons. The Darkling’s Grisha crowded by the rail to view the boats’ progress. The mist seemed to magnify the steady slap of the oars against the waves.
I took a step toward Mal. Everyone’s attention was focused on the men in the water. Only Genya was watching me. She hesitated, then deliberately turned and joined the others at the railing.
Mal and I faced forward, but we were close enough that our shoulders touched.
“Tell me you’re all right,” he murmured, his voice raw.
I nodded, swallowing the lump in my throat. “I’m fine,” I said softly. “Is it out there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. There were times when I was tracking the stag that I thought we were close and … Alina, if I’m wrong—”
I turned then, not caring who saw us or what punishment I might receive. The mist was rising off the water now, creeping along the deck. I looked up at him, taking in every detail of his face: the bright blue of his irises, the curve of his lip, the scar that ran the length of his jaw. Behind him, I glimpsed Tamar scampering up the rigging, a lantern in her hands.
“None of this is your fault, Mal. None of it.”
He lowered his head, setting his forehead against mine. “I won’t let him hurt you.”
We both knew he was powerless to stop it, but the truth of that was too painful, so I just said, “I know.”
“You’re humoring me,” he said with the hint of a grin.
“You require a lot of coddling.”
He pressed his lips to the top of my head. “We’ll find a way out of this, Alina. We always do.”
I rested my ironbound hands against his chest and closed my eyes. We were alone on an icy sea, prisoners of a man who could literally make monsters, and yet somehow I believed. I leaned into him, and for the first time in days, I let myself hope.
A cry rang out: “Two points off the starboard bow!”
As one, our heads turned, and I stilled. Something was moving in the mist, a shimmering, undulating white shape.
“Saints,” Mal breathed.
At that moment, the creature’s back breached the waves, its body cutting through the water in a sinuous arch, rainbows sparking off the iridescent scales on its back.
RUSALYE WAS A folk story, a fairy tale, a creature of dreams that lived on the edges of maps. But there could be no doubt. The ice dragon was real, and Mal had found it, just as he had found the stag. It felt wrong, like everything was happening too quickly, as if we were rushing toward something we didn’t understand.
A shout from the longboats drew my attention. A man on the boat nearest the sea whip stood up, a harpoon in his hand, taking aim. But the dragon’s white tail lashed through the sea, split the waves, and came down with a slap, sending a rolling wall of water up against the boat’s hull. The man with the harpoon sat down hard as the longboat tipped precariously, then righted itself at the last moment.
Good, I thought. Fight them.
Then the other boat let fly their harpoons. The first went wide and splashed harmlessly in the water. The second lodged in the sea whip’s hide.
It bucked, tail whipping back and forth, then reared up like a snake, hurling its body out of the water. For a moment, it hung suspended in the air: translucent winglike fins, gleaming scales, and wrathful red eyes. Beads of water flew from its mane and its massive jaws opened, revealing a pink tongue and rows of gleaming teeth. It came down on the nearest boat with a loud crash of splintering wood. The slender craft split in two, and men poured into the sea. The dragon’s maw snapped closed over a sailor’s legs and he vanished, screaming, beneath the waves. With furious strokes, the rest of the crewmen swam through the bloodstained water, making for the remaining longboat, where they were hauled over the side.