Siege and Storm (Page 17)

Sturmhond winced.

“I am not a Tailor,” Tolya said angrily.

“No, Tolya, your gifts lie elsewhere,” Sturmhond said soothingly. “Mostly in the celebrated fields of killing and maiming.”

“Why would you do this?” I asked, still trying to adapt to the jarring experience of Sturmhond’s voice coming from a different person’s mouth.

“It was essential that the Darkling not recognize me. He hasn’t seen me since I was fourteen, but it wasn’t something I wanted to chance.”

“Who are you?” Mal asked furiously.

“That’s a complicated question.”

“Actually, it’s pretty straightforward,” I said, springing to my feet. “But it does require telling the truth. Something you seem thoroughly incapable of.”

“Oh, I can do it,” Sturmhond said, shaking water from one of his boots. “I’m just not very good at it.”

“Sturmhond,” Mal snarled, advancing on him. “You have exactly ten seconds to explain yourself, or Tolya’s going to have to make you a whole new face.”

Then Tamar leapt to her feet. “Someone’s coming.”

We all quieted, listening. The sounds came from beyond the wood surrounding the lake: hoofbeats—lots of them, the snap and rustle of broken branches as men moved toward us through the trees.

Sturmhond groaned. “I knew we’d been sighted. We spent too long on the Fold.” He heaved a ragged sigh. “A wrecked ship and a crew that looks like a bunch of drowned possums. This is not what I had in mind.”

I wanted to know exactly what he did have in mind, but there was no time to ask.

The trees parted, and a group of mounted men charged onto the beach. Ten … twenty … thirty soldiers of the First Army. King’s men, heavily armed. Where had they all come from?

After the slaughter of the volcra and the crash, I didn’t think I had any fear left, but I was wrong. Panic shot through me as I remembered what Mal had said about deserting his post. Were we about to be arrested as traitors? My fingers twitched. I wasn’t going to be taken prisoner again.

“Easy, Summoner,” the privateer whispered. “Let me handle this.”

“Since you’ve handled everything else so well, Sturmhond?”

“It might be wise if you didn’t call me that for a while.”

“And why is that?” I bit out.

“Because it’s not my name.”

The soldiers cantered to a halt in front of us, the morning light glittering off their rifles and sabers. A young captain drew his blade. “In the name of the King of Ravka, throw down your arms.”

Sturmhond stepped forward, placing himself between the enemy and his wounded crew. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Our weapons are at the bottom of the lake. We are unarmed.”

Knowing what I did of both Sturmhond and the twins, I seriously doubted that.

“State your name and business here,” commanded the young captain.

Slowly, Sturmhond peeled his sodden greatcoat from his shoulders and handed it to Tolya.

An uneasy stir went through the line of soldiers. Sturmhond wore Ravkan military dress. He was soaked through to the skin, but there was no mistaking the olive drab and brass buttons of the Ravkan First Army—or the golden double eagle that indicated an officer’s rank. What game was the privateer playing?

An older man broke through the lines, wheeling his horse around to confront Sturmhond. With a start, I recognized Colonel Raevsky, the commander of the military encampment at Kribirsk. Had we crashed so close to town? Was that how the soldiers had gotten here so quickly?

“Explain yourself, boy!” the colonel commanded. “State your name and business before I have you stripped of that uniform and strung up from a high tree.”

Sturmhond seemed unconcerned. When he spoke, his voice had a quality I’d never heard in it before. “I am Nikolai Lantsov, Major of the Twenty-Second Regiment, Soldier of the King’s Army, Grand Duke of Udova, and second son to His Most Royal Majesty, King Alexander the Third, Ruler of the Double Eagle Throne, may his life and reign be long.”

My jaw dropped. Shock passed like a wave through the row of soldiers. A nervous titter rose from somewhere in the ranks. I didn’t know what joke this madman thought he was making, but Raevsky did not look amused. He leapt from his horse, tossing the reins to a soldier.

“You listen to me, you disrespectful whelp,” he said, his hand already on the hilt of his sword, his weathered features set in lines of fury as he strode directly up to Sturmhond. “Nikolai Lantsov served under me on the northern border and…”

His voice faded away. He was nose to nose with the privateer now, but Sturmhond did not blink. The colonel opened his mouth, then closed it. He took a step back and scanned Sturmhond’s face. I watched his expression change from scorn to disbelief to what could only be recognition.

Abruptly, he dropped to one knee and bent his head.

“Forgive me, moi tsarevich,” he said, gaze trained on the ground before him. “Welcome home.”

The soldiers exchanged confused glances.

Sturmhond turned a cold and expectant eye on them. He radiated command. A pulse seemed to pass through the ranks. Then, one by one, they slipped from their horses and dropped to their knees, heads bent.

Oh, Saints.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mal muttered.

I’d hunted a magical stag. I wore the scales of a slain ice dragon around my wrist. I’d seen an entire city swallowed by darkness. But this was the strangest thing I’d ever witnessed. It had to be another one of Sturmhond’s deceptions, one that was sure to get us all killed.

I stared at the privateer. Was it even possible? I couldn’t seem to get my mind to work. I was too exhausted, too drained from fear and panic. I scoured my memory for the little bit I knew about the Ravkan king’s two sons. I’d met the eldest briefly at the Little Palace, but the younger son hadn’t been seen at court in years. He was supposed to be off somewhere apprenticing with a gunsmith or studying shipbuilding.

Or maybe he had done both.

I felt dizzy. Sobachka, Genya had called the prince. Puppy. He insisted on doing his military service in the infantry.

Sturmhond. Storm hound. Wolf of the Waves.

Sobachka. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

“Rise,” commanded Sturmhond—or whoever he was. His whole bearing seemed to have changed.

The soldiers got to their feet and stood at attention.

“It’s been too long since I was home,” boomed the privateer. “But I did not return empty-handed.”

He stepped to the side, then threw his arm out, gesturing to me. Every face turned, waiting, expectant.

“Brothers,” he said, “I have brought the Sun Summoner back to Ravka.”

I couldn’t help myself. I hauled off and punched him in the face.

Chapter 9

“YOU’RE LUCKY YOU didn’t get shot,” Mal said angrily.

He was pacing back and forth in a simply furnished tent, one of the few that remained in the Grisha camp next to Kribirsk. The Darkling’s glorious black silk pavilion had been pulled down. All that survived was a broad swath of dead grass littered with bent nails and the broken remnants of what had once been a polished wood floor.

I took a seat at the rough-hewn table and glanced outside to where Tolya and Tamar flanked the entrance to the tent. Whether they were guarding us or keeping us from escaping, I couldn’t be sure.

“It was worth it,” I replied. “Besides, no one’s going to shoot the Sun Summoner.”

“You just punched a prince, Alina. I guess we can add one more act of treason to our list.”

I shook out my sore hand. My knuckles smarted. “First of all, are we so sure he really is a prince? And second, you’re just jealous.”

“Of course I’m jealous. I thought I was going to get to punch him. That isn’t the point.”

Chaos had erupted after my outburst, and only some fast talking by Sturmhond and some very aggressive crowd control by Tolya had kept me from being taken away in chains or worse.

Sturmhond had escorted us through Kribirsk to the military encampment. When he left us at the tent, he’d said quietly, “All I ask is that you stay long enough to let me explain. If you don’t like what you hear, you’re free to go.”

“Just like that?” I scoffed.

“Trust me.”

“Every time you say ‘trust me,’ I trust you a little less,” I hissed.

But Mal and I did stay, unsure of what our next move might be. Sturmhond hadn’t bound us or put us under heavy guard. He’d provided us with clean, dry clothes. If we wanted to, we could try to slip past Tolya and Tamar and escape back across the Fold. It wasn’t as if anyone could follow us. We could emerge anywhere we liked along its western shore. But where would we go after that? Sturmhond had changed; our situation hadn’t. We had no money, no allies, and we were still being hunted by the Darkling. And I wasn’t eager to return to the Fold, not after what had happened aboard the Hummingbird.

I pushed down a bleak bubble of laughter. If I was actually thinking of taking refuge on the Unsea, things were very bad indeed.

A servant entered with a large tray. He set down a pitcher of water, a bottle of kvas and glasses, and several small plates of zakuski. Each of the dishes was bordered in gold and emblazoned with a double eagle.

I considered the food: smoked sprats on black bread, marinated beets, stuffed eggs. We hadn’t had a meal since the previous night, aboard the Volkvolny, and using my power had left me famished, but I was too nervous to eat.

“What happened back there?” Mal asked as soon as the servant departed.

I shook out my knuckles again. “I lost my temper.”

“That’s not what I meant. What happened on the Fold?”

I studied a little pot of herbed butter, turning the dish in my hands. I saw him.

“I was just tired,” I said lightly.

“You used a lot more of your power when we escaped from the nichevo’ya, and you never faltered. Is it the fetter?”

“The fetter makes me stronger,” I said, tugging the edge of my sleeve over the sea whip’s scales. Besides, I’d been wearing it for weeks. There was nothing wrong with my power, but there might be something wrong with me. I traced an invisible pattern on the tabletop. “When we were fighting the volcra, did they sound different to you?” I asked.

“Different how?”

“More … human?”

Mal frowned. “No, they sounded pretty much like they always do. Like monsters who want to eat us.” He laid his hand over mine. “What happened, Alina?”

I saw him. “I told you: I was tired. I lost focus.”

He drew back. “If you want to lie to me, go ahead. But I’m not going to pretend to believe you.”

“Why not?” asked Sturmhond, stepping into the tent. “It’s only common courtesy.”

Instantly, we were on our feet, ready to fight.

Sturmhond stopped short and lifted his hands in a gesture of peace. He’d changed into a dry uniform. A bruise was beginning to form on his cheek. Cautiously, he removed his sword and hung it on a post by the tent flap.