T HE SPICED COFFEE IS SWEET on my tongue, made with a generous dollop of honey. The way Crescentia always orders it. We sit on the pavilion like we have a thousand times before, steaming porcelain mugs cradled in our hands to ward off the chill in the evening air. For a moment, it feels just like every time before, a comfortable silence hanging in the dark air around us. I’ve missed talking to her, but I’ve missed this, too—how we could sit together and not feel the need to fill the silence with meaningless small talk. But that’s silly. How can I miss Cress when she’s sitting right in front of me? She laughs like she can read my mind and sets her cup down on its saucer with a clatter that rattles my bones. She leans across the gilded table to take hold of my free hand in both of hers. “Oh, Thora,” she says, her voice lilting over my false name like a melody. “I missed you, too. But next time, I won’t.” Before her words can make sense to me, the lighting overhead shifts, the sun growing brighter and brighter until she’s fully illuminated, every awful inch of her. Her charred, flaking neck, burned black by the Encatrio I had her served, her hair white and brittle, her lips gray as the ersatz crown I used to wear. Fear and guilt overwhelm me as the pieces fall into place in my mind. I remember what I did to her; I remember why I did it.
I remember her face on the other side of the bars of my cell, full of rage as she told me she would cheer for my death. I remember the bars being scalding hot where she’d touched them. I try to pull my hand away but she holds it fast, her storybook-princess smile sharpening into fangs tipped with ash and blood. Her skin burns hot against mine, hotter even than Blaise’s. It is fire itself against my skin, and I try to scream, but no sound comes out. I stop feeling my hand altogether and I’m relieved for a second before I look down and see that it has turned to ash, crumbled to dust in Cress’s grip. The fire works its way up my arm and down the other, spreading across my chest, my torso, my legs, and my feet. My head catches last, and the final thing I see is Cress with her monster’s smile. “There. Isn’t that better? Now no one will mistake you for a queen.
” — My skin is drenched when I wake up, cotton sheets tangled around my legs and damp with sweat. My stomach churns, threatening to spill, though I’m not sure I’ve eaten anything to spill, apart from a few crusts of bread last night. I sit up in bed, placing a hand on my stomach to steady it and blinking to help my eyes adjust to the dark. It takes a moment to realize that I am not in my own bed, not in my own room, not in the palace at all. The space is smaller, the bed little more than a narrow cot with a thin mattress and threadbare sheets and a quilt. My stomach pitches to the side, rolling in a way that makes me nauseous before I realize it isn’t my stomach at all—the room itself is rocking from side to side. My stomach is only echoing the motion. The events of the last two days filter back to me. The dungeon, the Kaiser’s trial, Elpis dying at my feet. I remember Søren rescuing me only to be imprisoned himself.
As quickly as that thought comes to me, I push it away. There are a good many things I have to feel guilty about—taking Søren hostage cannot be one of them. I’m on the Smoke, I remember, heading toward the Anglamar ruins to begin to reclaim Astrea. I am in my cabin, safe and alone, while Søren is being kept in chains in the brig. I close my eyes and drop my head into my hands, but as soon as I do, Cress’s face swims through my mind, all rosy cheeks and dimples and wide gray eyes, just as she looked the first time I met her. My heart lurches in my chest at the thought of the girl she was, the girl I was, who latched on to her because she was my only salvation in the nightmare of my life. Too quickly, that image of Cress is replaced with her as I last saw her, with hate in her cold gray eyes and the skin of her throat charred and flaking. She shouldn’t have survived the poison. If I hadn’t seen her with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. Part of me is relieved that she did, though the other part will never forget how she looked at me when she promised to raze Astrea to the ground, how she said she would ask the Kaiser if she could keep my head after he executed me.
I flop down on my back, hitting the thin pillow with a thud. My whole body aches with exhaustion, but my mind is a whirl of activity that shows no sign of quieting. Still, I close my eyes tight and try to banish all thoughts of Cress, though she lingers on the edges, a ghost of a presence. The room is too quiet—so quiet it takes on a sound all its own. I hear it in the absence of my Shadows’ breaths, their infinitesimal movements as they fidget, their whispers to one another. It is a deafening sort of silence. I turn onto one side, then the other. I shiver and pull the quilt tighter around me; I feel the fire of Cress’s touch again and kick the quilt off entirely, so that it falls in a heap onto the floor. Sleep isn’t coming anytime soon. I roll out of bed and find the thick wool cloak Dragonsbane left in my cabin.
I pull it over my nightgown. It swamps me, hanging down to my ankles, cozy and shapeless. The material is fraying, and it’s been patched so many times that I doubt there is anything of the original cloak left, but I still prefer it to the fine silk gowns the Kaiser used to force me to wear. As always, thinking of the Kaiser makes the flame of fury in my belly burn brighter until it scorches through me, turning my blood to lava. It’s a feeling that frightens me, even as I relish it. Blaise promised me once that I would light the fire that would turn the Kaiser’s body to ash, and I don’t think this feeling will abate until I do. T HE PASSAGEWAYS OF THE SMOKE are deserted and quiet, without a soul in sight. The only sound is the light patter of footsteps overhead and the muted din of waves crashing against the hull. I turn down one hallway, then another, looking for a way up to the deck before realizing how hopelessly lost I am. Though I thought I had a decent idea of the ship’s layout during Dragonsbane’s tour earlier in the evening, it looks like an entirely different place at this hour.
I glance over my shoulder, expecting to see a flash of one of my Shadows before I realize they aren’t there. No one is. For ten years, the presence of others was a constant weight on my shoulders that suffocated me. I hungered for the day I could finally shrug it off and just be alone. Now, though, there is a part of me that misses the constant company. They would, at the very least, keep me from getting lost. Finally, after another few turns, I find a steep set of stairs going up to the deck. The steps are rickety and loud and I climb slowly, terrified that someone will hear and come after me. I have to remind myself that I’m not sneaking anywhere—I’m free to wander as I please. I push open the door and sea air whips at my face, blowing my hair in all directions.
I smooth it back with one hand to keep it out of my eyes and pull my cloak tighter around me with the other. I didn’t realize how stale the air belowdecks was until fresh air is in my lungs. Up here, there are some crew members working, a skeleton crew to ensure that the Smoke doesn’t go off course or sink in the middle of the night, but they’re all too blearyeyed and focused on their tasks to spare me more than a glance as I walk by. The night is cold, especially with the wind as vicious as it is on the water. I cross my arms over my chest as I make my way up to the bow of the ship. I might still be growing used to being alone, but I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of this: The sky open all around me. No walls, no restrictions. Just air and sea and stars. The sky above is overflowing with stars, so many that it’s difficult to pick out any one in particular. Artemisia told me the navigators use the stars to steer the ship, but I can’t imagine how such a thing is possible.
There are too many to make any sense of. The bow of the ship isn’t as empty as I hoped it would be. There’s a lone figure standing at the railing near the front, shoulders hunched as he stares at the ocean below. Even before I’m close enough to make out any of his features, I know it’s Blaise. He’s the only person I’ve met who can slouch with such a frantic energy about him. Relief surges through me and I quicken my pace toward him. “Blaise,” I say, touching his arm. The heat of his skin and the fact that he’s awake at this hour tug at my mind, pulling it in still more directions, but I refuse to let them. Not now. Now, I just need my oldest friend.
He turns toward me, surprised, before smiling, though a little more tentatively than I’m used to. We haven’t spoken since we came aboard earlier in the afternoon, and truthfully, a part of me has been dreading it. He must know that I switched our cups on the trip here, giving him the tea that he’d laced with a sleeping draught for me. He must know why I did it. That isn’t a conversation I want to have right now. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asks me, glancing around before looking back at me. He opens his mouth but closes it again. He clears his throat. “It can be difficult, getting used to sleeping on a ship. With the rocking and the sound of the waves—” “It isn’t that,” I say.
I want to tell him about my nightmare, but I can already imagine his response. It was just a dream, he will say. It wasn’t real. Cress isn’t here, she can’t hurt you. True as that might be, I can’t make myself believe it. What’s more, I don’t want Blaise to know how Cress lingers in my thoughts, how guilty I feel about what I did to her. In Blaise’s mind, it is clear: Cress is the enemy. He wouldn’t understand my guilt, and he certainly wouldn’t understand the longing that has taken root in the pit of my stomach. He wouldn’t understand how much I miss her, even now. “I didn’t tell you about Dragonsbane,” he says after a moment, unable to look at me.
“I should have warned you. It couldn’t have been a pleasant shock, meeting a stranger with your mother’s face.” I lean on the railing next to him, both of us staring down to where the waves lap at the hull of the ship. “You likely would have told me if I hadn’t switched our cups of tea,” I point out. For a moment, he doesn’t say anything, and the only sound comes from the sea. “Why did you?” he asks quietly, like he’s not sure he wants to know the answer. I’m not sure I want to give it to him, for that matter, but there is a part of me holding on to the hope that he will laugh it off and tell me I’m wrong. I take a deep, steadying breath. “Before we left Astrea, when Erik was telling me what berserkers were, he mentioned the symptoms,” I say slowly. Next to me, Blaise stiffens, but he doesn’t look at me and he doesn’t interrupt, so I push on.
“He said that as their mine madness gets worse, their skin runs hot and they begin to lose control of their gifts. He said they don’t sleep.” Blaise shudders out a breath. “It’s not that simple,” he says quietly. I shake my head to clear it, then push off the railing, folding my arms over my chest. “You’re blessed,” I tell him. “It’s how you survived the mine, how you’ve survived in the years since you left. You can’t be…” I can’t force myself to say the words. Mine-mad. It’s only one word, two syllables, each one innocuous enough on its own.
Together, though, they are so much bigger. I want so badly for him to tell me I’m right, that of course it isn’t mine madness, of course it isn’t fatal. Instead, he says nothing. He stays frozen, hunched over the railing on his elbows, hands clutched tightly in front of him. “I don’t know, Theo,” he says finally. “I don’t think I am…sick,” he says, unable to utter mine-mad either. “But I’ve never really felt like I was blessed either.” The confession comes out in a whisper lost in the night air, never to be spoken of again. I wonder if this is the first time he’s said the words out loud. I touch his shoulder, forcing him to face me before placing my hand on his chest, where I know he bears a mark, right over his heart.
“I’ve seen what you can do, Blaise,” I tell him. “Glaidi blessed you, I know it. Maybe your power is different from other Guardians’, but it’s not…it’s not that. It’s something more. It has to be.” For a second, he looks like he wants to argue, but then he places his hand over mine and holds it there. I try to ignore how hot his skin is. “Why couldn’t you sleep?” he asks me finally. I can’t tell him about my nightmare, but I can’t lie to him either. I settle for something in the middle—a partial truth.
“I can’t sleep alone,” I tell him, as if it’s as simple as that. We both know it isn’t. I wait for the judgment to come, for him to tell me how ridiculous that is, that I shouldn’t miss having Shadows to watch my every move. But of course, he doesn’t. He knows that’s not what I’m saying at all. “I’ll sleep with you,” he says before realizing what he said. It’s too dark out to say for sure, but I think his ears turn red. “I mean…well, you know what I mean. I can be there, if that will help.” I smile slightly.
“I think it will,” I say, and because I can’t resist, I don’t stop there. “I would sleep even better if you tried to sleep, too.” “Theo,” he says with a sigh. “I know,” I say. “It isn’t that simple. I just wish it were.” — As Blaise and I make our way to my cabin, I feel the eyes of the crew on us. I can imagine how this looks to them, the two of us walking together at this hour. By sunrise, they’ll all be whispering that Blaise and I are lovers. I would rather people didn’t whisper about me at all, but if that rumor eclipses the ones about Søren and me, I wouldn’t mind.
A romance with Blaise is a much better rumor because it’s one the crew will support wholeheartedly, if for no other reason than that he’s Astrean. And the more support I have from the crew, the better. I can’t help but remember how dismissive Dragonsbane was when I came on board, how she spoke to me like I was a lost child instead of a queen. Her queen. I worry it’s going to get worse. I force myself to stop that line of thought. How did I become so conniving? I do have feelings for Blaise and I know he has them for me as well, but I didn’t even consider that. I went straight to plotting, straight to seeing how he could be used to my political advantage. How did I become that sort of person? I’m thinking like the Kaiser. The realization sends a shudder through me.
Blaise feels it. “Are you all right?” he asks as I open the door to my cabin and lead him inside. I turn to look at him, and push the Kaiser’s voice out of my mind. I don’t think about who saw us come in or what they’ll say or how I can work that to my advantage. I don’t think about what we talked about a few moments ago. I just think about us, alone in a room together. “Thank you for staying with me,” I say instead of answering. He smiles briefly before glancing away. “It’s you who’s doing me a favor. I’m bunking with Heron, and he snores loud enough to shake the whole ship.
” I laugh. “I’ll lie on the floor while you sleep,” he says. “Don’t,” I say, surprising myself. His eyes widen slightly as he looks at me. It feels like we’re going to stand here in frozen, awkward silence for eons, so I break the spell. I step toward him and take him by the hand. “Theo,” he says, but I press a finger to his lips before he can ruin this with warnings I don’t want to hear. “Just…hold me?” I say. He sighs and I know he’s going to say no, that he should keep his distance because I am not his childhood friend anymore. I am his queen, and that makes everything so much more complicated.
So I play a cheap card, one I know he won’t say no to. “I’ll feel safer, Blaise. Please.” His eyes soften and I know I have him. Without a word, I let my hand fall away from his lips and I pull him with me to the bed. We fit together perfectly, his body curling around mine, his arms around me. Even here at sea, he smells like hearth fire and spice— like home. His skin is scorching hot, but I try not to think about that. Instead, I feel his heartbeat thrumming through me, falling into a rhythm with my own, and I let it lull me to sleep.