Siege and Storm (Page 20)
I scanned the names:
Stepan Ruschkin, 57
Anya Sirenka, 13
Mikah Lasky, 45
Rebeka Lasky, 44
Petyr Ozerov, 22
Marina Koska, 19
Valentin Yomki, 72
Sasha Penkin, 8 months
They went on and on. My fingers tightened on the reins as a cold fist closed over my heart. Memories came back to me unbidden: a mother running with a child in her arms, a man stumbling as the darkness caught him, his mouth open in a scream, an old woman, confused and frightened, swallowed by the panicked crowd. I’d seen it all. I’d made it possible.
These were the people of Novokribirsk, the city that had once stood directly across from Kribirsk on the other side of the Fold. A sister city full of relatives, friends, business partners. People who had worked the docks and manned the skiffs, some who must have survived multiple crossings. They’d lived on the edge of a horror, thinking they were safe in their own homes, walking the streets of their little port town. And now they were all gone because I’d failed to stop the Darkling.
Mal brought his horse up beside mine.
“Alina,” he said softly. “Come away.”
I shook my head. I wanted to remember. Tasha Stol, Andrei Bazin, Shura Rychenko. As many as I could. They’d been murdered by the Darkling. Did they haunt his sleep the way they haunted mine?
“We have to stop him, Mal,” I said hoarsely. “We have to find a way.”
I don’t know what I hoped he would say, but he remained silent. I wasn’t sure Mal wanted to make me any more promises.
Eventually, he rode on, but I forced myself to read every single name, and only then did I turn to go, guiding my horse back into the deserted street.
A bit of life seemed to return to Kribirsk as we moved farther away from the Fold. A few shops were open, and there were still merchants hawking their wares on the stretch of the Vy known as Peddlers’ Way. Rickety tables lined the road, their surfaces covered in brightly colored cloth and spread with a jumble of merchandise: boots and prayer shawls, wooden toys, shoddy knives in hand-tooled sheaths. Many of the tables were littered with what looked like bits of rock and chicken bones.
“Provin’ye osti!” the peddlers shouted. “Autchen’ye osti!” Real bone. Genuine bone.
As I leaned over my horse’s head to get a better look, an old man called out, “Alina!”
I looked up in surprise. Did he know me?
Nikolai was suddenly beside me. He nudged his horse close to mine and snatched my reins, giving them a hard yank to draw me away from the table.
“Alina!” the peddler cried. “Autchen’ye Alina!”
“Wait,” I said, twisting in my saddle, trying to get a better look at the old man’s face. He was tidying the display on his table. Without the possibility of a sale, he seemed to have lost all interest in us.
“Wait,” I insisted. “He knew me.”
“No he didn’t.”
“He knew my name,” I said, angrily grabbing the reins back from him.
“He was trying to sell you relics. Finger bones. Genuine Sankta Alina.”
I froze, a deep chill stealing over me. My oblivious horse kept steadily on.
“Genuine Alina,” I repeated numbly.
Nikolai shifted uneasily. “There are rumors that you died on the Fold. People have been selling off parts of you all over Ravka and West Ravka for months. You’re quite the good luck charm.”
“Those are supposed to be my fingers?”
“Knuckles, toes, fragments of rib.”
I felt sick. I looked around, hoping to spot Mal, needing to see something familiar.
“Of course,” Nikolai continued, “if half of those were really your toes, you’d have about a hundred feet. But superstition is a powerful thing.”
“So is faith,” said a voice behind me, and when I turned, I was surprised to see Tolya there, mounted on a huge black warhorse, his broad face solemn.
It was all too much. The optimism I’d felt only an hour ago had vanished. It suddenly seemed as if the sky were pressing down on me, closing in like a trap. I kicked my horse into a canter. I’d always been a clumsy rider, but I held on tight and did not stop until Kribirsk was far behind me and I no longer heard the rattling of bones.
* * *
THAT NIGHT WE stayed at an inn in the little village of Vernost, where we met up with a heavily armed group of soldiers from the First Army. I soon learned that many of them were from the Twenty-Second, the regiment Nikolai had served with and eventually helped lead in the northern campaign. Apparently, the prince wanted to be surrounded by friends when he entered Os Alta. I couldn’t blame him.
He seemed to relax in their presence and, once again, I noticed his demeanor change. He’d transitioned effortlessly from the role of glib adventurer to arrogant prince, and now he became a beloved commander, a soldier who laughed easily with his companions and knew each commoner’s name.
The soldiers had a lavish coach in tow. It was lacquered in pale Ravkan blue and emblazoned with the King’s double eagle on one side. Nikolai had ordered a golden sunburst added to the other, and it was drawn by a matched team of six white horses. As the glittering contraption rumbled into the inn’s courtyard, I had to roll my eyes, remembering the excesses of the Grand Palace. Maybe bad taste was inherited.
I had hoped to eat dinner alone with Mal in my room, but Nikolai had insisted that we all dine together in the inn’s common room. So instead of relaxing by the fire in peace, we were jammed elbow to elbow at a noisy table packed with officers. Mal hadn’t said a word throughout the entire meal, but Nikolai talked enough for all three of us.
As he dug into a dish of braised oxtail, he ran through a seemingly endless list of places he intended to stop on the way to Os Alta. Just listening to him wore me out.
“Ravka needs to know its Sun Summoner has returned.”
“And its wayward prince?”
“Him too. Gossip will do more than royal pronouncements. And that reminds me,” he said, lowering his voice. “From here on out, you need to behave as if someone is watching every minute.” He gestured between me and Mal with his fork. “What you do in private is your own affair. Just be discreet.”
I nearly choked on my wine. “What?” I sputtered.
“It’s one thing for you to be linked with a royal prince, quite another for people to think you’re tumbling a peasant.”
“I’m not—it’s nobody’s business!” I whispered furiously. I darted a glance at Mal. His teeth were clenched, and he was gripping his knife a little too tightly.
“Power is alliance,” said Nikolai. “It’s everyone’s business.” He took another sip of wine as I glared at him in disbelief. “And you should be wearing your own colors.”
I shook my head, thrown by the change of subject. “Now you’re choosing my clothes?” I was wearing the blue kefta, but clearly Nikolai wasn’t satisfied.
“If you intend to lead the Second Army and take the Darkling’s place, then you need to look the part.”
“Summoners wear blue,” I said irritably.
“Don’t underestimate the power of the grand gesture, Alina. The people like spectacle. The Darkling understood that.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Might I suggest gold?” Nikolai went on. “Very regal, very appropriate—”
“Gold and black would be best. Perfect symbolism and—”
“No black,” Mal said. He pushed back from the table and, without another word, disappeared into the crowded room.
I set down my fork. “I can’t tell if you’re deliberately making trouble or if you’re just an ass.”
The prince took another bite of his dinner. “He doesn’t like black?”
“It’s the color of the man who tried to kill him and regularly takes me hostage. My sworn enemy?”
“All the more reason to claim that color as your own.”
I craned my neck to see where Mal had gone. Through the doorway, I watched him take a seat by himself at the bar.
“As you like,” Nikolai replied. “But choose something for yourself and your guards.”
I sighed. “Do I really need guards?”
Nikolai leaned back in his chair and studied me, his face suddenly serious. “Do you know how I got the name Sturmhond?” he asked.
“I thought it was some kind of joke, a play on Sobachka.”
“No,” he said. “It’s a name I earned. The first enemy ship I ever boarded was a Fjerdan trader out of Djerholm. When I told the captain to lay down his sword, he laughed in my face and told me to run home to my mother. He said Fjerdan men make bread from the bones of skinny Ravkan boys.”
“So you killed him?”
“No. I told him foolish old captains weren’t fit meat for Ravkan men. Then I cut off his fingers and fed them to my dog while he watched.”
“You … what?”
The room was packed with rowdy soldiers singing, shouting, telling stories, but it all fell away as I stared at Nikolai in stunned silence. It was as if I was watching him transform again, as if the charming mask had shifted to reveal a very dangerous man.
“You heard me. My enemies understood brutality. And so did my crew. After it was over, I drank with my men and divvied up the spoils. Then I went back to my cabin, vomited up the very fine dinner my steward had prepared, and cried myself to sleep. But that was the day I became a real privateer, and that was the day Sturmhond was born.”
“So much for ‘puppy,’” I said, feeling a bit nauseated myself.
“I was a boy trying to lead an undisciplined crew of thieves and rogues against enemies who were older, wiser, and tougher. I needed them to fear me. All of them. And if they hadn’t, more people would have died.”
I pushed my plate away. “Just whose fingers are you telling me to cut off?”
“I’m telling you that if you want to be a leader, it’s time you started thinking and acting like one.”
“I’ve heard this before, you know, from the Darkling and his supporters. Be brutal. Be cruel. More lives will be saved in the long run.”
“Do you think I’m like the Darkling?”
I studied him—the golden hair, the sharp uniform, those too-clever hazel eyes.
“No,” I said slowly. “I don’t think you are.” I rose to go join Mal. “But I’ve been wrong before.”
* * *
THE JOURNEY TO OS ALTA was less a march than a slow, excruciating parade. We stopped at every town along the Vy, at farms, schools, churches, and dairies. We greeted local dignitaries and walked the wards of hospitals. We dined with war veterans and applauded girls’ choirs.
It was hard not to notice that the villages were mostly populated by the very young and the very old. Every able body had been drafted to serve in the King’s Army and fight in Ravka’s endless wars. The cemeteries were as big as the towns.