In a world bound for an epic flood, only a chosen few are guaranteed safe passage into the new world once the waters recede. The Kostrovian royal court will be saved, of course, along with their guards. But the fate of the court's Royal Flyers, a lauded fleet of aerial silk performers, is less certain. Hell-bent on survival, Principal Flyer, Natasha Koskinen, will do anything to save the flyers, who are the only family she's ever known. Even if "anything" means molding herself into the type of girl who could be courted by Prince Nikolai. But unbeknownst to Natasha, her newest recruit, Ella Neves, is driven less by her desire to survive the floods than her thirst for revenge. And Ella's mission could put everything Natasha has worked for in peril.
As the oceans rise, so too does an undeniable spark between the two flyers. With the end of the world looming, and dark secrets about the Kostrovian court coming to light, Ella and Natasha can either give in to despair . . . or find a new reason to live.
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Twelve hundred years ago, a man who should’ve drowned didn’t. He was a fisherman, some say. Others claim he was a king. Others keep shaking their heads. He was a god.
As the story goes, there was a year of storms, called the Harbinger Year. Ten storms, each with a new horror to accompany it. The last storm brought the Flood. Water, the whole world over, killing every plant and animal and person that didn’t make it to a ship in time, and plenty that did. The Flood lasted a year, and when the waters receded, the world was made anew.
There are others who survived, but they didn’t write down their stories. And this was an important story. This was a story that could teach us how to survive a Flood. Survive anything.
So we forget the others’ names and stories, and we remember Antinous Kos.
Nine years ago, a woman who shouldn’t have drowned did.
She was clever and beautiful and in a constant, losing argument with the inside of her head. Before she went, she told me stories. Never Kos’s story. The rest of the world told that one plenty.
Instead, she told me fables. Of kind kings and brave princesses. Of ice palaces. Of girls she once called her friends, girls who knew how to fly.
When I was four or five, I realized the last kind of story wasn’t a fable. She’d been part of them: The Royal Flyers, the girls who performed high in the air on the silks. When she was a flyer, she met kings and queens, lived in a palace, spun herself up in fabric where the water couldn’t reach her.
The other flyers told her to leave when they realized she was pregnant. She never flew again. When I was nine, she drowned in a canal.
My mother’s story isn’t one anybody wants to remember, because it’s not a story of how you survive. It’s a story of how you don’t.
I grip my silks, suspended in an arabesque fifteen feet above the floor. The other five flyers are at dinner. Their silks sway gently in the drafty studio—far below me, the fabric is tied in fat knots to keep it from trailing against the padded mats and wooden floor. Across from the wall of mirrors, a rectangular window nearly as high as the ceiling beams, at eye level from the tops of the silks, shows a plum-dark sky and the diluted glow of a tired gas lamp on the street below.
The door flies open.
“Have you seen Pippa?”
I spin to see Sofie cross the floor in three frantic bounds.
“Not since rehearsal ended.” I pause to frown. “But she should be in here with me. Her elements were a mess.”
“She’s not in our room.” Sofie cranes her neck up at me. Her eyes, heavily lidded, are wide with worry. The flimsy lighting makes her skin look gray, near translucent. She never took off her practice full-suit, a uniform that covers her in tight black fabric from ankles to collar to wrists. “Her things are gone.”
“What?” I slide a few inches down the silk.
“Her books, her trunk, her shoes—”
My feet hit the floor. “I don’t understand.”
Sofie shakes her head. “She didn’t come to dinner, so I went looking for her. But then I saw all her things missing. If she’s gone someplace, why didn’t she tell me?”
I hurry to the bedroom shared by all the other flyers. It was my bedroom from the time I was nine until I became principal flyer. The five beds are in varying degrees of the usual disarray. Wardrobes with the drawers spilling open. Books and hair ribbons and at least one poorly hidden wine bottle.
Pippa’s bed is neatly made. Her side table is bare.
I turn to Sofie. “Is she with Gregor?”
Sofie plucks at Pippa’s quilt. “Why would she bring all her things to go see her”—Sofie’s face pinches—“sweetheart?”
When I leave the bedroom, Sofie keeps close at my heels. “I already tried to find Madam Adelaida,” she says.
I knock on Adelaida’s door anyway. After a moment, a petite housemaid cracks the door. Bulky gowns spill out of her arms.
“Miss Koskinen.” She gives an awkward curtsy and drops a chemise.
“I’m looking for Adelaida,” I say.
“She mentioned the Stone Garden, miss, to have a talk with Mariner Gospodin.”
My heart beats faster. Gospodin—the Righteous Mariner who oversees Kostrov’s branch of the Sacred Breath—is one of the busiest men in the country. In addition to leading Sacred Breath services every morning—which reminds me that I haven’t gone in nearly two months; never mind that the flyers are supposed to go every Saturday—he’s King Nikolai’s most trusted advisor. I don’t think Gospodin is the type to drop in just for tea. If he’s meeting with Adelaida, they’re discussing something important.
I turn on my heel. Sofie hangs back a moment, then jogs to catch me.
“Wait, wait.” She hooks her elbow through mine. “What are you doing?”
“I thought you wanted to find out where Pippa went.”
“I did. I do. I mean . . .”
Sofie and I turn a corner, leaving behind the part of the palace meant for flyers and flying. The rest of the palace is more imposing. Marble tiles the floor. Tapestries, lurid battle scenes stitched in turquoise thread, line the walls.
“I’m just afraid of interrupting them, is all,” Sofie says.
“I know,” I say, “but do you see an alternative?”
Sofie is quiet.
Six months ago, just before my seventeenth birthday, Storm Ten hit. People have a funny way of insisting everything’s going to be all right. No, Natasha, it’s not Storm Ten, they said. There won’t be another Flood for hundreds of years. Adelaida told me I sounded like my mother. Paranoid.
But it was Storm Ten. It rained from sunrise to sunset, leaving the canals bloated with jellyfish and the streets puddled with sewage. Then everything froze. We started hearing reports of snow all over the world, even in places that never dip below freezing. Some people kept saying the Harbinger Year wasn’t supposed to start for another eight hundred years. They didn’t believe it had already begun. Why would they? It takes a special kind of cynic to accept that the world is trying to kill you.
I’m that kind of cynic.
By Storm Seven, after locusts and mosquitoes descended over Kostrov like a plague, no one could deny it. The Sacred Breath suddenly reported that they’d discovered a new interpretation of Captain’s Log, one that proved this Flood would come eight hundred years early. But we didn’t have to worry. The Sacred Breath and the king and the ocean’s love would protect us.
Madam Adelaida told me otherwise. There was only one thing that would protect me. The same thing that had protected me all these years since my mother died. Being a Royal Flyer.
Kings came and went, but where there was Kostrov, there had always been the Kostrovian Royal Flyers. When Roen laid siege to New Sundstad three hundred years ago, the Royal Flyers kept practicing. When a cholera epidemic swept across the country, the Royal Flyers stayed put. And now, when Kostrov sinks and the country takes to the sea, we will stay right where we belong: among the royals, in the court, as we always have.
The girls who remain in our ranks when Storm One hits will join the royal fleet. The ones who don’t will fend for themselves against the Flood.
I can practice fourteen hours a day. I can practice until my blisters burst and my hands bleed.
I can’t practice enough to keep Adelaida from letting someone else go. From letting Pippa go.
“Pippa’s so good, though.” Sofie chews her bottom lip. “Maybe she looked a little sloppy in rehearsal today, but it was just one day.”
We reach the Stone Garden in the palace’s center courtyard and weave through the labyrinth of imposing sculptures and miniature canals. The wheezy light of the gas lamps cuts the fog and reflects along the wet path.
“I don’t see why it’s your business to have an opinion on my girls.”
I recognize Adelaida’s husky growl.
Then, in response, a confident, deep voice. “Everything’s my business,” it says. “No need to get ruffled.”
Adelaida and Gospodin materialize through the fog. When Adelaida sees me, she purses her lips. Gospodin blinks away his shock and dissolves into an easy smile. While Adelaida’s appearance is a meticulous construction—eyes tightly rimmed in black pencil, feet bound in narrow heels—Gospodin’s handsomeness is lazy, windswept, and warm.
“Go back to the studio,” Adelaida says.
Sofie clamps her hand around my wrist. I’ve never seen her challenge Adelaida before, but if anything might give her the courage, it’s losing Pippa.
“Where’s Pippa?” I say.
Adelaida’s jaw twitches.
“Her things are gone,” Sofie says.
Adelaida scowls, and Sofie bites her lip.
“Did you make her leave?” I say. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Should I let you handle this?” Gospodin asks, his chin tilted toward Adelaida.
“No.” Adelaida points. “Studio. Now.”
Sofie flinches. I stand stubborn for another moment.
“Come on.” Sofie tugs my arm. “She’ll tell us later.”
Reluctantly, I follow her out. “Did you hear what they were talking about?”
“I don’t know.” Sofie pauses. “Homilies?”
“They were talking about us,” I say. “Why would Gospodin have an opinion on us?” I scan the hallway, nervous someone might overhear. It’s empty. “I want to figure out what they’re talking about.”
“How do you reckon you’ll manage that?”
“I reckon I’ll manage fine.”
“Oh,” Sofie says. “Are we going back into the garden a super-secret Natasha way?”
I shush her.
A tapestry of a bear hangs adjacent to the library. When I was eleven and keen on the idea of spying on the royal children while they played board games, I discovered that the tapestry hides a crawl space.
I pull the fabric aside and drop to my knees.
“No way,” Sofie says. “Wait, do you honestly expect me to fit through there?”
I press my stomach to the ground and begin the long scoot across the dusty floor. “You’re not required to follow me.”
Sofie, of course, drops to her knees and follows me. “I thought we were friends, but all this time, you let me believe there were only three hidden passages in the palace.”
Actually, I know of eight, but I’d just as soon keep some for myself.
After a couple of feet, we pass an air vent that looks out onto the library. It’s empty and dim. I keep crawling.
A couple stuffy moments later, the passage ends at the top of a tall stone wall in a dark chamber. I hear water splashing below.
“There’s a four-foot drop ahead, so be careful.”
“What? How am I supposed to manage a four-foot drop?”
“Um.” I wriggle my torso into open air. “Inelegantly.”
Once Sofie and I are both firmly on the ground, our feet submerged in about six inches of water, I squint around the room.
“Where are we?” Sofie asks.
“Underneath the garden. Now, shh.”
Water trickles through a metal grate overhead, leaking from one of the fountains into this tunnel, to be recycled again and again through the dozens of miniature canals and bubbling sculptures across the gardens.
I hear a scrap of conversation and lift my hand. Sofie’s sloshing walk slows.
I rise on my toes and peer through a grate along the upper wall of the passage. Water dribbles over the lip, but above that, I can see Adelaida’s and Gospodin’s legs. They’re facing each other. Gospodin’s posture is relaxed.
Sofie rises on her toes beside me.
“Have you talked to King Nikolai?” Adelaida asks.
“Of course. He’ll be sad to see them go, but he’s rational. He understands we’re in a time of difficult choices.”
“And his councilors—”
“Understand as well,” Gospodin says. “I’m sorry, Adelaida, I am, but the decision is already made.”
Sofie glances over at me. She mouths something, but I can’t make out what she’s asking. I shake my head.
Adelaida lets out a long, thin breath. “So you want me to replace Pippa?”
“That’s the pregnant one?”
Sofie’s hand catches mine. She squeezes so hard I think she might break my finger bones. I try not to let this information sink in. Eighteen years ago, my mother had to leave the flyers because she was pregnant; her life unraveled and threatened to take mine with it. And now, Pippa. Pregnant.
I shake Sofie’s hand away.
“Yes,” Adelaida says. “I tried to get her to stay as long the festival, but she wouldn’t.”
“Inconvenient,” Gospodin says.
“Replace her as soon as you can. These days, we need all the public support we can get.”
“You’re not scared of a few Brightwallers scraping together an uprising, are you?” Adelaida asks.
“I’ll worry about them. You worry about the flyers.”
They start to walk away. Sofie and I have to hurry down the passage, ducking our heads next to different grates to stay in earshot.
“And, Gabriel,” Adelaida says. Her voice is taut.
“I’d like to remind you that I’ve been a member of this court longer than even you have. I have a legacy. As long as Kostrovians walk this world, flyers will remain, I assure you.”
“Art is an asset,” Gospodin says. “I’m not arguing with you.”
“Without me,” Adelaida says, “no one can train the next generation of flyers when the Flood passes. I’m the only one who can rebuild the Royal Flyers. I will take my place on the royal fleet.”
“I want you to guarantee it,” she says.
“Adelaida,” he says. “You’re a vital part of the court. You’ll be on the fleet.”
“Good,” she says. “Good, I know that.”
“Of course.” The space between their feet shrinks slightly; I imagine Gospodin putting a large hand on Adelaida’s shoulder. “Many breaths.”
I feel Sofie’s gaze on me the moment the feet disappear, but I can’t drag my eyes away from the space where they stood.
I swallow. I can hear my heart beating in my skull.
Again, quieter: “Natasha?”
Slowly, I face her. A rectangle of light runs slanted across her eyes, bisecting her nose. Her damp hair clings to the sides of her cheeks.
“I must’ve misunderstood something,” Sofie says.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“Why is Adelaida worrying about training the next generation of flyers?”
My throat feels dry enough to crack. “They’re not taking us on the royal fleet when Storm One hits. They’re going to let us drown.”
I'm going to kill the king of Kostrov.
I didn’t grow up dreaming of murder. Murder found me. We’re getting along nicely.
Though I have not technically killed anyone yet, my enthusiasm makes up for my lack of experience. When I go to sleep, I think about killing Nikolai. When I wake up, I think about killing Nikolai. When Maret and I drank our tea on the nauseating sail to Kostrov, we discussed, in whispers, all the ways we’d like to end his life.
As Nikolai’s aunt, Maret brings to the table all the knowledge an aspiring assassin could want. Court structures and palace rhythms. As a nameless little nobody, I bring the sneaking and killing part of things.
I’m going to kill the king, and I’m not going to feel bad about it.
Here’s what I grew up dreaming of: A farmhouse next to my brothers’. The smell of my mother’s bread baking. The girl who sold flowers in town and always wore a bloom in her hair.
But my brothers and my mother and the flower girl are all dead. Washed away.
There was a time when I didn’t spend every waking moment thinking of Nikolai. I spent every moment thinking of his sister, who loved me and devastated me and left me alone in this forsaken, flooding world.
But Nikolai killed Cassia.
So I’m going to kill Nikolai.
He’s the most heavily guarded person in Kostrov, so I’m going to die doing it. But what does that matter as long as he’s dead?
Maret didn’t smile for weeks after Cassia died. Not until we stepped off the ship and into Kostrov. The moment that smile crossed her lips, I felt something between us fracture. The pain of losing Cassia had bound Maret and me together. Smiling in a post-Cassia world was expressly forbidden.
When Maret’s feet settled on the uneven stone bordering the harbor, she took a big breath of air and held it in her cheeks. She let it out in a puff and spun to look at me. “Kostrov, Ella dear.”
I gazed around the city. New Sundstad—The only place in Kostrov worth going, Maret said on our voyage—was a paean to gray. The ocean was the color of pigeon feathers. Sooty buildings tilted out of the ground and creaked into each other.
“To be in a city again.” Maret hefted her large handbag industriously. “I don’t think we’ll miss rustic old Terrazza one bit, will we?” Smile.
I didn’t answer, caught up in the voices echoing across the harbor. I hadn’t anticipated that hearing so much Kostrovian all at once would feel like a goat kicking me in the stomach.
A man named Edvin with hair blonder than I’d ever seen on an adult met us at the door to our new apartment.
“Sorry,” he said, unlocking the door. “It’s not exactly a royal accommodation. A high ceiling, though, like you asked.”
“You’re a doll, Eddy.” Maret swept inside and tossed her handbag on an exhausted pink sofa.
Through the window, I spotted an equally dismal apartment across the narrow street. I took a careful step onto the pale floorboards.
Edvin’s eyes roamed my body. They snagged on the tattoo curling around my wrist. I pulled my sleeve lower.
“Oh, Edvin, this is Ella. I mentioned her in my letter?”
I gave Edvin a hard stare. Maret mentioned Edvin to me too, on the voyage here. She told me she had a few friends from her palace days who could help us. They’ll get us clothes and a place to stay, but nothing too fancy, she told me. We’ll have to be terribly inconspicuous.
Edvin’s cheeks were splotchy pink. “Cassia’s . . . friend?”
Maret set a light palm on my shoulder. “The very same.” Then she enveloped my hand in hers and pulled me to the edge of the room. “Look how big. We’ll push the sofa to the side and there will be plenty of space for the silks’ rig, yes?”
When Maret smiled, she looked more like Cassia. They have the same coloration—the blond hair, the bright eyes—but their faces are nothing alike. Cassia had round cheeks, an upturned nose, a pouty smile. Maret’s face is adult and angular and sophisticated. Cassia was more beautiful, but I couldn’t say why. Sometimes, I think I must be remembering wrong because she can’t possibly have been as beautiful as she is in my head. But the thought that I would misremember any details about Cassia is too unpleasant to bear.
When I didn’t respond, Maret tapped my cheek with two fingers. “Look lively. We don’t have much longer to wait.”
But three months have passed. It feels like all we do is wait.
Every morning, I go to the silks. Edvin set up the rig in our living room on our second day here. Four wooden beams form a pyramid just short of the ceiling. A pair of long red fabrics hangs from the vertex of the beams. Edvin even managed to track down a book that explains all the different elements I could ever want to learn. I’m short and light and have climbed a lifetime’s worth of trees, so I thought I would find some natural-born talent in myself.
But the silks hurt when I began to practice. Then again, all of me hurt, and at least this was a hurt I could control. And while my insides stayed numb and my head stayed foggy, the pain of overstretched forearms and tightly wound feet ebbed. I acclimated.
I got better.
Maret is a royal through and through; she wants to be out in the city, being admired and discussing politics with people who matter. But her supply of Kostrovian allies is thinner than she led me to believe. Sometimes she dons an inconspicuous olive cloak and ventures out with Edvin—who I think is a scholar at the university, and maybe an old lover—but most days, she paces the apartment, flipping through copies of political treatises and news clippings about the Flood. If anything she reads is too insulting to the crown, she’ll mutter that Nikolai is a disgrace to the family and hole herself up in her bedroom for the rest of the day.
By the time Maret manages to pull herself out of her own head around dinnertime, I’ve usually worked myself so far past my physical limit that I’m lying on the floor with the silks dangling above me. If I haven’t, she makes me show her what I practiced. She checks the book, corrects my form if my body doesn’t match the illustrations. When I speak to her in Terrazzan instead of Kostrovian, she clicks her tongue.
“You won’t get away with that in the palace,” she said the last time I did it.
“At this rate, I won’t ever get to the palace,” I said. “You’re sure there’s no news on the next auditions?”
“None of the flyers have left,” she said. And then, “But if no one leaves by the next storm, I might have to arrange for one of them to take a nasty fall into one of the canals.”
“That’s a joke, right?”
She let out a loud breath through her nose.
Three months of practice. Three months of Kostrov. How many more months do I have? How many more months does anyone have?
The thought strikes me while I’m hanging upside down in the silks on a day when Maret’s gone to see Edvin. I prefer these days. Maret is, if not motherly, then like my aunt, making sure I find something to eat every day and letting me ask questions about Cassia that I didn’t get to ask when she was alive. But auntly or not, I don’t like it when Maret paces around me. It’s like being trapped in an apartment with an increasingly bored lynx.
When Maret throws the door open, though, she’s as giddy as she was on our first day in Kostrov. I’m so startled by the change in her that I almost lose my grip on the silks.
“It’s time.” Maret kicks the door shut with her heel and flings her cap across the room. “The flyers have an opening.”
I unwind myself. “Now?”
“Edvin just brought me the rumor. One of the flyer girls dropped out.”
I run my hands down the silks. “Did you push her into a canal?”
“For seas’ sake, Ella. No, I didn’t push her into a canal.”
“Oh,” I say. “Great news.”
“Are you ready for the palace?” Maret says.
“I’m ready,” I say.
Maret gives me a smile that shows each of her shining teeth. “Nikolai,” she says, “will never expect you.”