Darkness never dies.
Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land, all while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. But she can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.
The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her—or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.
The boy and the girl had once dreamed of ships, long ago, before they’d ever seen the True Sea. They were the vessels of stories, magic ships with masts hewn from sweet cedar and sails spun by maidens from thread of pure gold. Their crews were white mice who sang songs and scrubbed the decks with their pink tails.
The Verrhader was not a magic ship. It was a Kerch trader, its hold bursting with millet and molasses. It stank of unwashed bodies and the raw onions the sailors claimed would prevent scurvy. Its crew spat and swore and gambled for rum rations. The bread the boy and the girl were given spilled weevils, and their cabin was a cramped closet they were forced to share with two other passengers and a barrel of salt cod.
They didn’t mind. They grew used to the clang of bells sounding the hour, the cry of the gulls, the unintelligible gabble of Kerch. The ship was their kingdom, and the sea a vast moat that kept their enemies at bay.
The boy took to life aboard ship as easily as he took to everything else. He learned to tie knots and mend sails, and as his wounds healed, he worked the lines beside the crew. He abandoned his shoes and climbed barefoot and fearless in the rigging. The sailors marveled at the way he spotted dolphins, schools of rays, bright striped tigerfish, the way he sensed the place a whale would breach the moment before its broad, pebbled back broke the waves. They claimed they’d be rich if they just had a bit of his luck.
The girl made them nervous.
Three days out to sea, the captain asked her to remain belowdecks as much as possible. He blamed it on the crew’s superstition, claimed that they thought women aboard ship would bring ill winds. This was true, but the sailors might have welcomed a laughing, happy girl, a girl who told jokes or tried her hand at the tin whistle.
This girl stood quiet and unmoving by the rail, clutching her scarf around her neck, frozen like a figurehead carved from white wood. This girl screamed in her sleep and woke the men dozing in the foretop.
So the girl spent her days haunting the dark belly of the ship. She counted barrels of molasses, studied the captain’s charts. At night, she slipped into the shelter of the boy’s arms as they stood together on deck, picking out constellations from the vast spill of stars: the Hunter, the Scholar, the Three Foolish Sons, the bright spokes of the Spinning Wheel, the Southern Palace with its six crooked spires.
She kept him there as long as she could, telling stories, asking questions. Because she knew when she slept, she would dream. Sometimes she dreamed of broken skiffs with black sails and decks slick with blood, of people crying out in the darkness. But worse were the dreams of a pale prince who pressed his lips to her neck, who placed his hands on the collar that circled her throat and called forth her power in a blaze of bright sunlight.
When she dreamed of him, she woke shaking, the echo of her power still vibrating through her, the feeling of the light still warm on her skin.
The boy held her tighter, murmured soft words to lull her to sleep.
“It’s only a nightmare,” he whispered. “The dreams will stop.”
He didn’t understand. The dreams were the only place it was safe to use her power now, and she longed for them.
On the day the Verrhader made land, the boy and girl stood at the rail together, watching as the coast of Novyi Zem drew closer.
They drifted into harbor through an orchard of weathered masts and bound sails. There were sleek sloops and little junks from the rocky coasts of the Shu Han, armed warships and pleasure schooners, fat merchantmen and Fjerdan whalers. A bloated prison galley bound for the southern colonies flew the red-tipped banner that warned there were murderers aboard. As they floated by, the girl could have sworn she heard the clink of chains.
The Verrhader found its berth. The gangway was lowered. The dockworkers and crew shouted their greetings, tied off ropes, prepared the cargo.
The boy and the girl scanned the docks, searching the crowd for a flash of Heartrender crimson or Summoner blue, for the glint of sunlight off Ravkan guns.
It was time. The boy slid his hand into hers. His palm was rough and calloused from the days he’d spent working the lines. When their feet hit the planks of the quay, the ground seemed to buck and roll beneath them.
The sailors laughed. “Vaarwel, fentomen!” they cried.
The boy and girl walked forward, and took their first rolling steps in the new world.
Please, the girl prayed silently to any Saints who might be listening, let us be safe here. Let us be home.
Two weeks we’d been in Cofton, and I was still getting lost. The town lay inland, west of the Novyi Zem coast, miles from the harbor where we’d landed. Soon we would go farther, deep into the wilds of the Zemeni frontier. Maybe then we’d begin to feel safe.
I checked the little map I’d drawn for myself and retraced my steps. Mal and I met every day after work to walk back to the boardinghouse together, but today I’d gotten completely turned around when I’d detoured to buy our dinner. The calf and collard pies were stuffed into my satchel and giving off a very peculiar smell. The shopkeeper had claimed they were a Zemeni delicacy, but I had my doubts. It didn’t much matter. Everything tasted like ashes to me lately.
Mal and I had come to Cofton to find work that would finance our trip west. It was the center of the jurda trade, surrounded by fields of the little orange flowers that people chewed by the bushel. The stimulant was considered a luxury in Ravka, but some of the sailors aboard the Verrhader had used it to stay awake on long watches. Zemeni men liked to tuck the dried blooms between lip and gum, and even the women carried them in embroidered pouches that dangled from their wrists. Each store window I passed advertised different brands: Brightleaf, Shade, Dhoka, the Burly. I saw a beautifully dressed girl in petticoats lean over and spit a stream of rust-colored juice right into one of the brass spittoons that sat outside every shop door. I stifled a gag. That was one Zemeni custom I didn’t think I could get used to.
With a sigh of relief, I turned onto the city’s main thoroughfare. At least now I knew where I was. Cofton still didn’t feel quite real to me. There was something raw and unfinished about it. Most of the streets were unpaved, and I always felt like the flat-roofed buildings with their flimsy wooden walls might tip over at any minute. And yet they all had glass windows. The women dressed in velvet and lace. The shop displays overflowed with sweets and baubles and all manner of finery instead of rifles, knives, and tin cookpots. Here, even the beggars wore shoes. This was what a country looked like when it wasn’t under siege.
As I passed a gin shop, I caught a flash of crimson out of the corner of my eye. Corporalki. Instantly, I drew back, pressing myself into the shadowy space between two buildings, heart hammering, my hand already reaching for the pistol at my hip.
Dagger first, I reminded myself, sliding the blade from my sleeve. Try not to draw attention. Pistol if you must. Power as a last resort. Not for the first time, I missed the Fabrikator-made gloves that I’d had to leave behind in Ravka. They’d been lined with mirrors that gave me an easy way to blind opponents in a hand-to-hand fight—and a nice alternative to slicing someone in half with the Cut. But if I’d been spotted by a Corporalnik Heartrender, I might not have a choice in the matter. They were the Darkling’s favored soldiers and could stop my heart or crush my lungs without ever landing a blow.
I waited, my grip slippery on the dagger’s handle, then finally dared to peek around the wall. I saw a cart piled high with barrels. The driver had stopped to talk to a woman whose daughter danced impatiently beside her, fluttering and twirling in her dark red skirt.
Just a little girl. Not a Corporalnik in sight. I sank back against the building and took a deep breath, trying to calm down.
It won’t always be this way, I told myself. The longer you’re free, the easier it will get.
One day I would wake from a sleep free of nightmares, walk down a street unafraid. Until then, I kept my flimsy dagger close and wished for the sure heft of Grisha steel in my palm.
I pushed my way back into the bustling street and clutched at the scarf around my neck, drawing it tighter. It had become a nervous habit. Beneath it lay Morozova’s collar, the most powerful amplifier ever known, as well as the only way of identifying me. Without it, I was just another dirty, underfed Ravkan refugee.
I wasn’t sure what I would do when the weather turned. I couldn’t very well walk around in scarves and high-necked coats when summer came. But by then, hopefully, Mal and I would be far from crowded towns and unwanted questions. We’d be on our own for the first time since we’d fled Ravka. The thought sent a nervous flutter through me.
I crossed the street, dodging wagons and horses, still scanning the crowd, sure that at any moment I would see a troop of Grisha or oprichniki descending on me. Or maybe it would be Shu Han mercenaries, or Fjerdan assassins, or the soldiers of the Ravkan King, or even the Darkling himself. So many people might be hunting us. Hunting me, I amended. If it weren’t for me, Mal would still be a tracker in the First Army, not a deserter running for his life.
A memory rose unbidden in my mind: black hair, slate eyes, the Darkling’s face exultant in victory as he unleashed the power of the Fold. Before I’d snatched that victory away.
News was easy to come by in Novyi Zem, but none of it was good. Rumors had surfaced that the Darkling had somehow survived the battle on the Fold, that he had gone to ground to gather his forces before making another attempt on the Ravkan throne. I didn’t want to believe it was possible, but I knew better than to underestimate him. The other stories were just as disturbing: that the Fold had begun to overflow its shores, driving refugees east and west; that a cult had risen up around a Saint who could summon the sun. I didn’t want to think about it. Mal and I had a new life now. We’d left Ravka behind.
I hurried my steps, and soon I was in the square where Mal and I met every evening. I spotted him leaning against the lip of a fountain, talking with a Zemeni friend he’d met working at the warehouse. I couldn’t remember his name . . . Jep, maybe? Jef?
Fed by four huge spigots, the fountain was less decorative than useful, a large basin where girls and house servants came to wash clothes. None of the washerwomen were paying much attention to the laundry, though. They were all gawking at Mal. It was hard not to. His hair had grown out of its short military cut and was starting to curl at the nape of his neck. The spray from the fountain had left his shirt damp, and it clung to skin bronzed by long days at sea. He threw his head back, laughing at something his friend had said, seemingly oblivious to the sly smiles thrown his way.
He’s probably so used to it, he doesn’t even notice anymore, I thought irritably.
When he caught sight of me, his face broke into a grin and he waved. The washerwomen turned to look and then exchanged glances of disbelief. I knew what they saw: a scrawny girl with stringy, dull brown hair and sallow cheeks, fingers stained orange from packing jurda. I’d never been much to look at, and weeks of not using my power had taken their toll. I wasn’t eating or sleeping well, and the nightmares didn’t help. The women’s faces all said the same thing: What was a boy like Mal doing with a girl like me?
I straightened my spine and tried to ignore them as Mal threw his arm around me and drew me close. “Where were you?” he asked. “I was getting worried.”
“I was waylaid by a gang of angry bears,” I murmured into his shoulder.
“You got lost again?”
“I don’t know where you get these ideas.”
“You remember Jes, right?” he said, nodding to his friend.
“How do you go?” Jes asked in broken Ravkan, offering me his hand. His expression seemed unduly grave.
“Very well, thank you,” I replied in Zemeni. He didn’t return my smile, but gently patted my hand. Jes was definitely an odd one.
We chatted a short while longer, but I knew Mal could see I was getting anxious. I didn’t like to be out in the open for too long. We said our goodbyes, and before Jes left, he shot me another grim look and leaned in to whisper something to Mal.
“What did he say?” I asked as we watched him stroll away across the square.
“Hmm? Oh, nothing. Did you know you have pollen in your brows?” He reached out to gently brush it away.
“Maybe I wanted it there.”
As we pushed off from the fountain, one of the washer-women leaned forward, practically spilling out of her dress.
“If you ever get tired of skin and bones,” she called to Mal, “I’ve got something to tempt you.”
I stiffened. Mal glanced over his shoulder. Slowly, he looked her up and down. “No,” he said flatly. “You don’t.”
The girl’s face flushed an ugly red as the others jeered and cackled, splashing her with water. I tried for a haughtily arched brow, but it was hard to restrain the goofy grin pulling at the corners of my mouth.
“Thanks,” I mumbled as we crossed the square, heading toward our boardinghouse.
I rolled my eyes. “For defending my honor, you dullard.”
He yanked me beneath a shadowed awning. I had a moment’s panic when I thought he’d spotted trouble, but then his arms were around me and his lips were pressed to mine.
When he finally drew back, my cheeks were warm and my legs had gone wobbly.
“Just to be clear,” he said, “I’m not really interested in defending your honor.”
“Understood,” I managed, hoping I didn’t sound too ridiculously breathless.
“Besides,” he said, “I need to steal every minute I can before we’re back at the Pit.”
The Pit was what Mal called our boardinghouse. It was crowded and filthy and afforded us no privacy at all, but it was cheap. He grinned, cocky as ever, and pulled me back into the flow of people on the street. Despite my exhaustion, my steps felt decidedly lighter. I still wasn’t used to the idea of us together. Another flutter passed through me. On the frontier there would be no curious boarders or unwanted interruptions. My pulse gave a little jump—whether from nerves or excitement, I wasn’t sure.
“So what did Jes say?” I asked again, when my brain felt a bit less scrambled.
“He said I should take good care of you.”
Mal cleared his throat. “And . . . he said he would pray to the God of Work to heal your affliction.”
“I may have told him that you have a goiter.”
I stumbled. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, I had to explain why you were always clinging to that scarf.”
I dropped my hand. I’d been doing it again without even realizing.
“So you told him I had a goiter?” I whispered incredulously.
“I had to say something. And it makes you quite a tragic figure. Pretty girl, giant growth, you know.”
I punched him hard in the arm.
“Ow! Hey, in some countries, goiters are considered very fashionable.”
“Do they like eunuchs, too? Because I can arrange that.”
“My goiter makes me cranky.”
Mal laughed, but I noticed that he kept his hand on his pistol. The Pit was located in one of the less savory parts of Cofton, and we were carrying a lot of coin, the wages we’d saved for the start of our new life. Just a few more days, and we’d have enough to leave Cofton behind—the noise, the pollen-filled air, the constant fear. We’d be safe in a place where nobody cared what happened to Ravka, where Grisha were scarce and no one had ever heard of a Sun Summoner.
And no one has any use for one. The thought soured my mood, but it had come to me more and more lately. What was I good for in this strange country? Mal could hunt, track, handle a gun. The only thing I’d ever been good at was being a Grisha. I missed summoning light, and each day I didn’t use my power, I grew more weak and sickly. Just walking beside Mal left me winded, and I struggled beneath the weight of my satchel. I was so frail and clumsy that I’d barely managed to keep my job packing jurda at one of the fieldhouses. It brought in mere pennies, but I’d insisted on working, on trying to help. I felt like I had when we were kids: capable Mal and useless Alina.
I pushed the thought away. I might not be the Sun Summoner anymore, but I wasn’t that sad little girl either. I’d find a way to be useful.
The sight of our boardinghouse didn’t exactly lift my spirits. It was two stories high and in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. The sign in the window advertised hot baths and tick-free beds in five different languages. Having sampled the bathtub and the bed, I knew the sign lied no matter how you translated it. Still, with Mal beside me, it didn’t seem so bad.
We climbed the steps of the sagging porch and entered the tavern that took up most of the lower floor of the house. It was cool and quiet after the dusty clamor of the street. At this hour, there were usually a few workers at the pockmarked tables drinking off their day’s wages, but today it was empty save for the surly-looking landlord standing behind the bar.
He was a Kerch immigrant, and I’d gotten the distinct feeling he didn’t like Ravkans. Or maybe he just thought we were thieves. We’d shown up two weeks ago, ragged and grubby, with no baggage and no way to pay for lodging except a single golden hairpin that he probably thought we’d stolen. But that hadn’t stopped him from snapping it up in exchange for a narrow bed in a room that we shared with six other boarders.
As we approached the bar, he slapped the room key on the counter and shoved it across to us without being asked. It was tied to a carved piece of chicken bone. Another charming touch.
In the stilted Kerch he’d picked up aboard the Verrhader, Mal requested a pitcher of hot water for washing.
“Extra,” the landlord grunted. He was a heavyset man with thinning hair and the orange-stained teeth that came from chewing jurda. He was sweating, I noticed. Though the day wasn’t particularly warm, beads of perspiration had broken out over his upper lip.
I glanced back at him as we headed for the staircase on the other side of the deserted tavern. He was still watching us, his arms crossed over his chest, his beady eyes narrowed. There was something about his expression that set my nerves jangling.
I hesitated at the base of the steps. “That guy really doesn’t like us,” I said.
Mal was already headed up the stairs. “No, but he likes our money just fine. And we’ll be out of here in a few days.”
I shook off my nervousness. I’d been jumpy all afternoon.
“Fine,” I grumbled as I followed after Mal. “But just so I’m prepared, how do you say ‘you’re an ass’ in Kerch?”
“Jer ven azel.”
Mal laughed. “The first thing sailors teach you is how to swear.”
The second story of the boardinghouse was in considerably worse shape than the public rooms below. The carpet was faded and threadbare, and the dim hallway stank of cabbage and tobacco. The doors to the private rooms were all closed, and not a sound came from behind them as we passed. The quiet was eerie. Maybe everyone was out for the day.
The only light came from a single grimy window at the end of the hall. As Mal fumbled with the key, I looked down through the smudged glass to the carts and carriages rumbling by below. Across the street, a man stood beneath a balcony, peering up at the boardinghouse. He pulled at his collar and his sleeves, as if his clothes were new and didn’t quite fit right. His eyes met mine through the window, then darted quickly away.
I felt a sudden pang of fear.
“Mal,” I whispered, reaching out to him.
But it was too late. The door flew open.
“No!” I shouted. I threw up my hands and light burst through the hallway in a blinding cascade. Then rough hands seized me, yanking my arms behind my back. I was dragged inside the room, kicking and thrashing.
“Easy now,” said a cool voice from somewhere in the corner. “I’d hate to have to gut your friend so soon.”
Time seemed to slow. I saw the shabby, low-ceilinged room, the cracked washbasin sitting on the battered table, dust motes swirling in a slender beam of sunlight, the bright edge of the blade pressed to Mal’s throat. The man holding him wore a familiar sneer. Ivan. There were others, men and women. All wore the fitted coats and breeches of Zemeni merchants and laborers, but I recognized some of their faces from my time with the Second Army. They were Grisha.
Behind them, shrouded in shadow, lounging in a rickety chair as if it were a throne, was the Darkling.
For a moment, everything in the room was silent and still. I could hear Mal’s breathing, the shuffle of feet. I heard a man calling a hello down on the street. I couldn’t seem to stop staring at the Darkling’s hands—his long white fingers resting casually on the arms of the chair. I had the foolish thought that I’d never seen him in ordinary clothes.
Then reality crashed in on me. This was how it ended? Without a fight? Without so much as a shot fired or a voice raised? A sob of pure rage and frustration tore free from my chest.
“Take her pistol, and search her for other weapons,” the Darkling said softly. I felt the comforting weight of my firearm lifted from my hip, the dagger pulled from its sheath at my wrist. “I’m going to tell them to let you go,” he said when they were done, “with the knowledge that if you so much as raise your hands, Ivan will end the tracker. Show me that you understand.”
I gave a single stiff nod.
He raised a finger, and the men holding me let go. I stumbled forward and then stood frozen in the center of the room, my hands balled into fists.
I could cut the Darkling in two with my power. I could crack this whole saintsforsaken building right down the middle. But not before Ivan opened Mal’s throat.
“How did you find us?” I rasped.
“You leave a very expensive trail,” he said, and lazily tossed something onto the table. It landed with a plink beside the washbasin. I recognized one of the golden pins Genya had woven into my hair so many weeks ago. We’d used them to pay for passage across the True Sea, the wagon to Cofton, our miserable, not-quite-tick-free bed.
The Darkling rose, and a strange trepidation crackled through the room. It was as if every Grisha had taken a breath and was holding it, waiting. I could feel the fear coming off them, and that sent a spike of alarm through me. The Darkling’s underlings had always treated him with awe and respect, but this was something new. Even Ivan looked a little ill.
The Darkling stepped into the light, and I saw a faint tracery of scars over his face. They’d been healed by a Corporalnik, but they were still visible. So the volcra had left their mark. Good, I thought with petty satisfaction. It was small comfort, but at least he wasn’t quite as perfect as he had been.
He paused, studying me. “How are you finding life in hiding, Alina? You don’t look well.”
“Neither do you,” I said. It wasn’t just the scars. He wore his weariness like an elegant cloak, but it was still there. Faint smudges showed beneath his eyes, and the hollows of his sharp cheekbones cut a little deeper.
“A small price to pay,” he said, his lips quirking in a half smile.
A chill snaked up my spine. For what?
He reached out, and it took everything in me not to flinch backward. But all he did was take hold of one end of my scarf. He tugged gently, and the rough wool slipped free, gliding over my neck and fluttering to the ground.
“Back to pretending to be less than you are, I see. The sham doesn’t suit you.”
A twinge of unease passed through me. Hadn’t I had a similar thought just minutes ago? “Thanks for your concern,” I muttered.
He let his fingers trail over the collar. “It’s mine as much as yours, Alina.”
I batted his hand away, and an anxious rustle rose from the Grisha. “Then you shouldn’t have put it around my neck,” I snapped. “What do you want?”
Of course, I already knew. He wanted everything— Ravka, the world, the power of the Fold. His answer didn’t matter. I just needed to keep him talking. I’d known this moment might come, and I’d prepared for it. I wasn’t going to let him take me again. I glanced at Mal, hoping he understood what I intended.
“I want to thank you,” the Darkling said.
Now, that I hadn’t expected. “Thank me?”
“For the gift you gave me.”
My eyes flicked to the scars on his pale cheek.
“No,” he said with a small smile, “not these. But they do make a good reminder.”
“Of what?” I asked, curious despite myself.
His gaze was gray flint. “That all men can be made fools. No, Alina, the gift you’ve given me is so much greater.”
He turned away. I darted another glance at Mal.
“Unlike you,” the Darkling said, “I understand gratitude, and I wish to express it.”
He raised his hands. Darkness tumbled through the room.
“Now!” I shouted.
Mal drove his elbow into Ivan’s side. At the same moment, I threw up my hands and light blazed out, blinding the men around us. I focused my power, honing it to a scythe of pure light. I had only one goal. I wasn’t going to leave the Darkling standing. I peered into the seething blackness, trying to find my target. But something was wrong.
I’d seen the Darkling use his power countless times before. This was different. The shadows whirled and skittered around the circle of my light, spinning faster, a writhing cloud that clicked and whirred like a fog of hungry insects. I pushed against them with my power, but they twisted and wriggled, drawing ever nearer.
Mal was beside me. Somehow he’d gotten hold of Ivan’s knife.
“Stay close,” I said. Better to take my chances and open a hole in the floor than to just stand there doing nothing. I concentrated and felt the power of the Cut vibrate through me. I raised my arm . . . and something stepped out of the darkness.
It’s a trick, I thought as the thing came toward us. It has to be some kind of illusion.
It was a creature wrought from shadow, its face blank and devoid of features. Its body seemed to tremble and blur, then form again: arms, legs, long hands ending in the dim suggestion of claws, a broad back crested by wings that roiled and shifted as they unfurled like a black stain. It was almost like a volcra, but its shape was more human. And it did not fear the light. It did not fear me.
It’s a trick, my panicked mind insisted. It isn’t possible. It was a violation of everything I knew about Grisha power. We couldn’t make matter. We couldn’t create life. But the creature was coming toward us, and the Darkling’s Grisha were cringing up against the walls in very real terror. This was what had so frightened them.
I pushed down my horror and refocused my power. I swung my arm, bringing it down in a shining, unforgiving arc. The light sliced through the creature. For a moment, I thought it might just keep coming. Then it wavered, glowing like a cloud lit by lightning, and blew apart into nothing. I had time for the barest surge of relief before the Darkling lifted his hand and another monster took its place, followed by another, and another.
“This is the gift you gave me,” said the Darkling. “The gift I earned on the Fold.” His face was alive with power and a kind of terrible joy. But I could see strain there, too. Whatever he was doing, it was costing him.
Mal and I backed toward the door as the creatures stalked closer. Suddenly, one of them shot forward with astonishing speed. Mal slashed out with his knife. The thing paused, wavered slightly, then grabbed hold of him and tossed him aside like a child’s doll. This was no illusion.
“Mal!” I cried.
I lashed out with the Cut and the creature burned away to nothing, but the next monster was on me in seconds. It seized me, and revulsion shuddered through my body. Its grip was like a thousand crawling insects swarming over my arms.
It lifted me off my feet, and I saw how very wrong I’d been. It did have a mouth, a yawning, twisting hole that spread open to reveal row upon row of teeth. I felt them all as the thing bit deeply into my shoulder.
The pain was like nothing I’d ever known. It echoed inside me, multiplying on itself, cracking me open and scraping at the bone. From a distance, I heard Mal call my name. I heard myself scream.
The creature released me. I dropped to the floor in a limp heap. I was on my back, the pain still reverberating through me in endless waves. I could see the water-stained ceiling, the shadow creature looming high above, Mal’s pale face as he knelt beside me. I saw his lips form the shape of my name, but I couldn’t hear him. I was already slipping away.
The last thing I heard was the Darkling’s voice—so clear, like he was lying right next to me, his lips pressed against my ear, whispering so that only I could hear: Thank you.
Darkness again. Something seething inside me. I look for the light, but it’s out of my reach.
I open my eyes. Ivan’s scowling face comes into focus. “You do it,” he grumbles to someone.
Then Genya leans over me, more beautiful than ever, even in a bedraggled red kefta. Am I dreaming?
She presses something against my lips. “Drink, Alina.”
I try to knock the cup away, but I can’t move my hands.
My nose is pinched shut, my mouth forced open. Some kind of broth slides down my throat. I cough and sputter.
“Where am I?” I try to say.
Another voice, cold and pure: “Put her back under.”
I am in the pony cart, riding back from the village with Ana Kuya. Her bony elbow jabs into my rib as we jounce up the road that will take us home to Keramzin. Mal is on her other side, laughing and pointing at everything we see.
The fat little pony plods along, twitching its shaggy mane as we climb the last hill. Halfway up, we pass a man and a woman on the side of the road. He is whistling as they go, waving his walking stick in time with the music. The woman trudges along, head bent, a block of salt strapped to her back.
“Are they very poor?” I ask Ana Kuya.
“Not so poor as others.”
“Then why doesn’t he buy a donkey?”
“He doesn’t need a donkey,” says Ana Kuya. “He has a wife.”
“I’m going to marry Alina,” Mal says.
The cart rolls past. The man doffs his cap and calls a jolly greeting.
Mal shouts back gleefully, waving and smiling, nearly bouncing from his seat.
I look back over my shoulder, craning my neck to watch the woman slogging along behind her husband. She’s just a girl, really, but her eyes are old and worn.
Ana Kuya misses nothing. “That’s what happens to peasant girls who do not have the benefit of the Duke’s kindness. That is why you must be grateful and keep him every night in your prayers.”
The chink of chains.
Genya’s worried face. “It isn’t safe to keep doing this to her.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” Ivan snaps.
The Darkling, in black, standing in the shadows. The rhythm of the sea beneath me. The realization hits me like a blow: We’re on a ship.
Please let me be dreaming.
I’m on the road to Keramzin again, watching the pony’s bent neck as he labors up the hill. When I look back, the girl struggling beneath the weight of the salt block has my face. Baghra sits beside me in the cart, “The ox feels the yoke,” she says, “but does the bird feel the weight of its wings?”
Her eyes are black jet. Be grateful, they say. Be grateful. She snaps the reins.
“Drink.” More broth. I don’t fight it now. I don’t want to choke again. I fall back, let my lids drop, drifting away, too weak to struggle.
A hand on my cheek.
“Mal,” I manage to croak.
The hand is withdrawn.
“Wake up.” This time, I don’t recognize the voice. “Bring her out of it.”
My lids flutter open. Am I still dreaming? A boy leans over me: ruddy hair, a broken nose. He reminds me of the too-clever fox, another of Ana Kuya’s stories, smart enough to get out of one trap, but too foolish to realize he won’t escape a second. There’s another boy standing behind him, but this one is a giant, one of the largest people I’ve ever seen. His golden eyes have the Shu tilt.
“Alina,” says the fox. How does he know my name?
The door opens, and I see another stranger’s face, a girl with short dark hair and the same golden gaze as the giant.
“They’re coming,” she says.
The fox curses. “Put her back down.” The giant comes closer. Darkness bleeds back in.
It’s too late. The dark has me.
I am a girl, trudging up a hill. My boots squelch in the mud and my back aches from the weight of the salt upon it. When I think I cannot take another step, I feel myself lifted off the ground. The salt slips from my shoulders, and I watch it shatter on the road. I float higher, higher. Below me, I can see a pony cart, the three passengers looking up at me, their mouths open in surprise. I can see my shadow pass over them, pass over the road and the barren winter fields, the black shape of a girl, borne high by her own unfurling wings.
The first thing I knew was real was the rocking of the ship—the creak of the rigging, the slap of water on the hull.
When I tried to turn over, a shard of pain sliced through my shoulder. I gasped and jolted upright, my eyes flying open, heart racing, fully awake. A wave of nausea rolled through me, and I had to blink back the stars that floated across my vision. I was in a tidy ship’s cabin, lying on a narrow bunk. Daylight spilled through the sidescuttle.
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.
“A week?” 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.”
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.
Siege and Storm © Leigh Bardugo 2013