Selly has salt water in her veins. So when her father leaves her high and dry in the port of Kirkpool, she has no intention of riding out the winter at home while he sails off to adventure. But any plans to follow him are dashed when a handsome stranger with tell-tale magician's marks on his arm commandeers her ship. He is Prince Leander of Alinor and he needs to cross the Crescent Sea without detection so he can complete a ritual on the sacred Isles of the Gods. Selly has no desire to escort a spoiled prince anywhere, and no time for his entitled demands or his good looks. But what starts as a leisure cruise will lead to acts of treason and sheer terror on the high seas, bringing two countries to the brink of war, two strangers closer than they ever thought possible and stirring two dangerous gods from centuries of slumber...
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Glitter and Grit
The woman selling magicians’ supplies is wandering around her little market stall like she’s lost her map. It’s as if every item she encounters, from the stacks of fat green candles to the bins of bright glass beads and stones, is somehow a new discovery.
“You said half a dozen candles?” She pauses to look over her shoulder and needlessly tighten her apron strings. She’s dragging things out in the hope something extra will catch my eye, but although the grim, anxious buzz of the city has sunk into my bones, I am not going to lose my temper. I don’t have time.
“Yes, please.” I try to make my gritted teeth look like a smile, though I can tell from the woman’s expression it doesn’t work. But honestly, at this rate I should ask her name and how she likes her tea, because the two of us are going to grow old together.
If anything, she seems to slow down even more, lifting a newspaper and studying the crate beneath it. “Best in the city, these ones. Poured at the high temple, you know. Are they for you, young lady?”
My hands tighten into fists in my fingerless leather gloves, but I glance down anyway, automatically checking that they hide the green magician’s marks on the backs of my hands. “They’re for our first mate. Ship’s magician.” The words barely provoke their old, familiar ache. I’ve got other things on my mind today.
“Oh, indeed!” That catches the woman’s attention, and spirits save me, now she stops altogether to study me with interest. “I should have seen you were a saltblood—look at those clothes. Where have you come from?”
Her gaze flickers back to the newspaper in her hand, and suddenly I see it: She’s not vague. She’s worried.
The questions have been the same at every stall I’ve been to so far today. There are strange shortages, and prices are shifting, and whispers are winding their way through the marketplace about new taxes and confiscations. About war.
When they see my sailor’s clothes—the shirt, trousers, and boots setting me apart from the city girls in their tailored dresses—everybody asks where we’ve come from and what it was like there.
“We’re just on a quick run down from Trallia,” I tell the woman, digging into my pocket for a few crowns. “I’m actually in kind of a hurry. I need to get to the harbormaster’s office before it closes, or my captain won’t be happy.”
Somewhere, Captain Rensa probably just lifted her head and sniffed the wind, smelling my lies from the deck of the Lizabetta, but the shopkeeper gives herself a shake, as if she’s waking up.
“And here I am chatting away at you. We’d better—what do you young people say? Something to do with autos.” She finds a smile as she remembers, though now I can see the strain in it: “We’d better put our foot on the gas.”
A minute later my candles are wrapped up and I’m on my way.
I leave behind the rough flapping of the spirit flags and the crowded market stalls at the top of Royal Hill, letting my momentum hurry me along as I jog past the magnificent façade of the temple to Barrica, my spirits lifting as I gather speed.
The priests and priestesses are out front in their soldiers’ uniforms, brass gleaming as they call the faithful to the afternoon service, to prayers for peace. The stone steps of the temple aren’t crowded with worshippers, though, and a sign pinned up by the entrance announces the meeting space next door will be hosting a dance-hall party tonight, with a live band. I didn’t realize attendance was down that badly.
I drop a copper for the goddess into the offering bowl as I hurry by—we sailors always keep up our courtesies—and push on without catching the nearest priest’s eye. No time today, my friend.
My captain gave me a long list of errands and not nearly enough time to complete them—her way of keeping me away from the harbormaster’s office.
“You’ve been loitering there every day since we docked,” she snapped this morning. “Today you can do some work for a change.”
For a change, Rensa? That’s rich.
For a year I’ve run every goddess-blessed errand my captain could dream up, working every inch of my own ship, from the bilges to the bowsprit. And finally it’s over. It has to be—spirits save me if I have to spend one more moment under my tyrant of a captain. This has to be my last day.
Today at the harbormaster’s office I’m going to see the news I’ve been waiting for up in chalk. The alternative is unbearable.
I cut through a narrow alleyway where the buildings crowd close together, the upper levels leaning in over the street, flowers spilling from their window boxes. Someone’s playing a radio on the second floor, and I can hear the stern tones of a newscaster, but I can’t make out her words.
Turning onto Queen’s Boulevard, I pause as a brewer’s wagon rumbles downhill, then lean out to inspect the approaching traffic, which comes in a constant stream. The city of Kirkpool wraps around the seaward side of a series of hills, golden sandstone buildings folded into the valleys between them. From the water you can see Queen’s Boulevard running from the port at the base of Royal Hill all the way up to the palace at the top, straight as a mainmast rising from a deck.
Streets branch off it like spars, each home to clusters of shops and stalls—tailors, bakers, merchants hawking spices from far away. People from all over the world live and trade in Kirkpool, and the casual mix of cultures feels more like home than any other port.
A merchant’s carriage rolls by, and without hesitating I grab the back railings and swing myself up like a footman for the bumpy ride downhill. I catch a glimpse of the merchant’s eyes in the rearview mirror as she notices the change in weight and tries to shake me as we rattle across the cobblestones—but I’m used to a deck heaving beneath my feet, and I bend my knees and keep my place.
As we roll past the bakers’ street, I’m hit with a gust of hot air and a memory just as strong. I used to come here with my da when I was small, every time we made port in Kirkpool. I’d take in the crowd from a perch on his shoulders, pretending I was up in the crow’s nest, and he’d buy me a sticky bun.
They roll the dough up into a coil, a sugared glaze painted on top, mixed with spices that always stir up hazy memories of a voyage south when I was smaller still—small enough that my wobbly steps perfectly matched the rolling deck of the Lizabetta. I was steady on my feet at sea long before I ever was on land.
We round another corner, giving me a quick view of the water at the base of Royal Hill. My thoughts jump to the harbormaster’s office again, and the message that has to be waiting for me. And from there my gaze slides to where my gloved hands grip tight to the carriage. I can’t help imagining the leather gone, the unformed green marks on my skin uncovered. I grit my teeth and shove that thought aside.
It doesn’t matter. He’s coming. But we used to be simpler together, Da and I.
I bend my knees and brace as we wheel out to overtake a slower-moving cart, but up ahead the horses whinny a protest, and someone cries out, and that’s my instant’s warning before the carriage slews to a sudden halt, the wheels skidding sideways. My grip on the handles comes loose, and I feel myself start to tip—for one horrible second I’m suspended in midair, arms windmilling, then I hit the ground, pain shooting through my body. Hurriedly I push up to my hands and knees, scrambling for the gutter before another carriage sails through to flatten me.
“Never seen a sailor fly before,” calls a woman leaning out her window, drawing laughter from most folks nearby. With my fair skin I know I give her a decent blush, and I scowl as I brush the dirt off my clothes.
Now I can see for myself what’s causing the delay. A long line of sleek black autos snakes down the hill to the docks, crawling toward the water like a becalmed fleet—which is to say barely at all—because a horse and cart are plodding along in front of them, holding everything up.
“Who in seven hells is that?” I call up to the woman at the window, already half sure I know the answer.
“Prince Leander.” She props her chin on her hand and stares dreamily at the autos, as if she can see straight through their tinted windows and admire the prince himself. “You’d think someone would move the horse out of his way.”
“The horse?” I tilt a glance up toward her, raising an eyebrow. “The horse is the only one I can see doing an honest day’s work. What exactly is His Highness contributing to society?”
She ignores me after that.
They say the prince throws parties all night and sleeps until lunch. That his wardrobe is the size of an apartment all by itself. That his private secretary sends out notes written on a gold-plated typewriter, declining the offers of marriage that arrive every day.
Everyone else hears the stories, and they say, I want that. All I can think is, What’s the point?
I cut through a side street, pushing past rows of tailors and their rolls of fabrics from distant ports, until I can find a parallel way down Royal Hill toward the port. Rensa will be expecting me back by now, and there’ll be seven hells to pay if she figures out I disobeyed her orders.
The harbormaster’s office is a tall, wide building in the middle of the docks. On the upper floor is the office itself, with lookouts perched at telescopes, watching the mouth of the harbor. When they spot a ship arriving, they run downstairs to the giant chalkboards and record her arrival. But it’s the lower level I want today.
It smells like sailors inside—cotton and canvas, salt and a faint hint of musty mildew—and usually I’d relax as I leave the city behind and return to my world. But I’ve been in here the last three days, ever since we made port, and every time, I’ve left wound still more tight.
“Looking for the Fortune, Selly?” It’s Tarrant from the Goddess Blessed, another of my father’s ships. His smile flashes against his dark brown skin as he holds up a finger. “No, wait! Seeking your Fortune! I knew there was a joke in there somewhere. She’s cutting it fine, don’t you think?”
“She’ll be here,” I say, clapping him on the shoulder as I push past to get closer to the boards. Then I remember and swing around. “Tarrant!”
He glances back, already heading for the door.
“You didn’t see me here.” I try to keep the plea out of my voice.
He winces. “Captain on your tail again?”
“When is she not?”
“Too crowded to see anyone, especially one scrawny little deckhand, all freckles anyway,” he promises, and winks as he ducks away.
I return to pushing my way through the crowd toward the chalkboards.
My father has been away on the Fortune for a year now, and Tarrant’s right—he is cutting it fine. He’s been up north scouting new trading routes for the fleet, and these are the very last days of his return window. Soon the North Passage will be closed by winter storms and the deadly chunks of ice that come with them.
He left me with Rensa for the year when he went north. At first I thought it was disappointment that drove him to leave me behind, but the night before he left, he said otherwise.
“By the time I’m back, you’ll be ready for a first mate’s knot, my girl. It’ll be a fresh start.”
And that’s what we need. After years of waiting for me to make something of my magic, we both need to accept I’ll prove my worth as an ordinary sailor instead. We need to finally put the long years of my humiliating failures behind us and turn our minds to what I can do.
Except Rensa has taught me nothing—she’s done nothing to prepare me for a mate’s duties. Instead, I’ve spent my days in every dead-end job the ship has to offer, scrubbing and sewing and standing watch.
Sometime in the next few days, Da will ask me what I learned, and what can I possibly say? On the Fortune I’d have been with him at the wheel. On the Lizabetta—which was my home growing up and is the ship I mean to command myself one day—I’ve been treated like a new recruit.
Right now, though, I don’t care. All I want is to see him. I’ve checked the boards religiously since we’ve arrived, every time certain I’m going to see the Fortune’s name up in chalk, and every day I’ve been disappointed.
I’m positive Rensa’s going to keep me trapped aboard tomorrow, and the day after that we’ll cast off, and I’ll have missed Da altogether.
There are three boards fixed up on the wall, each covered in neat handwriting. Bare electric bulbs hang above them, one flickering on and off, like every moment might be its last—honestly, the windows are of more use when it comes to light to read by.
One board lists the ships that have departed today, another the arrivals, and the third ships that have been sighted—reports from other vessels newly docked, able to pass on word of who’s on their way and how far out they might be.
The departures board is crammed full of ships ready to set sail for Trallia, for Fontesque, Beinhof, or the principalities—or even to make the now-risky run to Mellacea, despite the brewing war—with notes beside them to indicate whether they’re taking passengers or looking for crew. There’s a single ship heading to Holbard: the Freya, chancing the trip back north before the ice claims the passage.
I scan the arrivals board, my gut knotting tight as I reach the bottom with no sign of the Fortune. I push on to the sightings, running my gaze impatiently down the neatly chalked-up names. Please, Da. Please.
He’s cutting it so fine, but he can handle it. No captain can run the North Passage better than Stanton Walker.
And he promised. It’s been a year.
I read the board, then read it again, blinking, and then again, my heart slowly curling up inside my chest. There has to be at least a sighting. There has to be.
For the first time a new fear is prickling at the back of my mind. Could the winter storms have set in early? My father can sail a ship through anything, but there’s a reason nobody braves the straits when the cold comes. They say there are waves halfway up the mast.
“Selly! Selly Walker! Over here, girl!” Someone’s calling my name above the chatter of sailors, and I twist around to get my bearings. The voice is familiar, and I catch sight of a clerk working at the bank of counters down one side of the room. She’s pointing at the mail wall, and I turn to set a course through the crowd, shoving now with a new urgency, shouldering past sailors who’ve stopped to greet old friends and exchange news. Everyone has something to say, with foreign ports changing their mood every day right now, but my eyes are fixed on my destination.
The mail wall is where sailors pin up letters we carry back for other ships. Ducking under a chatty bosun’s arm, I find myself face to face with the board. I see the letter straightaway, and it’s like my body knows before my brain does.
The air goes out of my lungs, and there’s a sudden ache behind my eyes as I reach up to pull it from the pin jammed through it. There’s another beside it, addressed to Captain Rensa of the Lizabetta, and like mine, it’s far too thick to be a quick note telling us when to expect him in Kirkpool.
This isn’t an arrival date. It’s an excuse.
The crowd jostles me, squashing me in against a wall as I pull the letter open with shaking hands, nearly dropping the sheaf of paper inside. I unfold it, still hoping that somehow it’s going to say—
I know this isn’t the letter you were hoping for, but—
But. My breath comes short and sharp as I scan the letter’s contents.
But there’s a fortune to be made up here.
But this will buy us another ship, perhaps one you’ll like even better than the Lizabetta.
But there are some talented magicians here, and I can’t pass up the chance to recruit them.
But I have to winter here, keep trading, keep working.
But it’ll be another half a year before I’m home.
But I rest easy, knowing Rensa will teach you more than anyone, and Kyri is a talented ship’s magician, so perhaps . . .
I crumple the letter in one fist and shove it into the bag with the candles, then grab Rensa’s and cram it in as well.
This can’t be happening.
Clenching my jaw so hard it hurts, I press a forearm over my mouth to muffle my scream of frustration. Suddenly the crowd around me is too loud, too close, and I’m searching frantically for a gap I can push through, a way to get out into the fresh air and sea breeze once more.
But then my gaze lands on the departures board, and I see it with new eyes.
The Freya is leaving on the dawn tide, the very last ship to slip up north until spring. And that means I have one more chance to fix this.
If Da won’t come to me, I’ll go to him.
One way or another, I’ll be on board when the Freya departs.
I stumble out into the afternoon light, my pulse still drumming at my temples. The board says the Freya is across on the northern docks, and I duck and weave in that direction.
Kirkpool is one of the great harbor cities of the world and Alinor’s capital city—home port to my father’s trading fleet. Her docks form a semicircle around her natural harbor, its mouth opening to the Crescent Sea to the west.
My Lizabetta is moored on the southern docks, so nobody will spot me making this visit, not all the way across the water.
The Freya’s captain won’t say no to Stanton Walker’s daughter, and getting their agreement instead of stowing away will make for an easier passage. Hells, if they let me aboard, I’ll stay with them until they cast off. There’s nothing on the Lizabetta I can’t bear to leave behind.
Urgency drives me faster as I make my way past ships from every port, from Kethos to Escium to Port Naranda itself, all tied up side by side, the sea breeze whipping blond strands out of my braid and around my face.
That must be the Freya at the end, sandwiched in by two dirty steamships, her sturdy hull built to ply the North Passage. My pace quickens as I round the curve of the port toward her.
And I run straight into a barricade across the mouth of the dock.
Beyond it is the very fleet Prince Leander was heading for—a cluster of elegant schooners, their rigging hung with flags and wreathed with flowers. I’ve been watching them across the harbor for the last few days, but this is the first time I’ve been up close.
It’s a hive of activity around them—sailors are hauling crates in teams, and above them rickety cranes hoist nets of cargo aboard, swinging them around to lower them to the deck. There’s a truck backing up slowly to the edge of the dock, industriously waved in by three deckhands. Someone’s playing a record on a gramophone, down on the foredeck of the nearest ship. Girls in bright colors are dancing, throwing their arms up and shimmying to make the fringes on their dresses fan out, then dissolving into laughter as they try the steps again. They’re ignoring the work going on around them, hordes of workers readying the fleet for departure.
So much fuss for one spoiled boy.
The queen is sending her brother off to charm the rulers of Alinor’s neighbors, and he’s gallivanting away like he’s off to a fancy afternoon tea with dozens of his closest friends, oblivious to the tension in the air.
I’m sure they won’t be foolish enough to go as far as Mellacea, so they won’t be searched and taxed as we sailors have been these past months. My father doesn’t know about that change—one of many reasons he should have come back to us when he could. Still, I’ll tell him when I arrive.
The barricade is overseen by a couple of Queensguard, shiny and pompous in their royal blue uniforms. The trouble begins straightaway.
“I have business with the captain of the Freya,” I say, mustering as much courtesy as I know how.
The woman lofts one brow and makes a show of pulling a list out of her pocket. “Name?”
“Selly Walker, but it won’t be on there.”
“No.” I can’t keep the irritation out of my tone, but I can already see how this is going to go. It’s a familiar feeling—watching something unspool ahead of me, yet unable to bite my tongue and find a way to fix it before it happens.
“I’m sorry to say that if your name’s not on the list, and you don’t have a crew armband, then this is as far as you come,” she informs me, not sounding even faintly sorry.
“Look, if one of you can tell the captain of the Freya that Selly Walker—Stanton Walker’s daughter—is here, I’m sure—”
“Not here to run your errands, girl.” She cuts me off, looking me up and down, and I lift one hand to smooth my wind-mussed hair back, then wish I hadn’t. Her gaze lingers on the filthy knees of my trousers, a souvenir of my tumble off the carriage. Another thing I can thank His Highness for.
“Are you leaving,” she asks, as her companion finally turns his gaze away from the girls dancing on deck and studies me thoughtfully, “or are we escorting you?”
I bite my tongue so hard I’m surprised I don’t draw blood, sketch an elaborate bow worthy of the useless pieces of nobility up on deck, and turn away. If they won’t let me through, I’ll find another way.
As I walk down the dock, I check over my shoulder and find the Queensguard keeping a beady eye on me, but when I look back again, she’s lost interest.
I duck out of sight behind a long stack of crates waiting to be loaded. If I can pause near the barricades when the Queensguard aren’t looking, then with any luck I can slip past them and still reach the Freya. I need to get back closer to the barricade, though, so I’m ready to move.
I squash myself between two crates and pop out of the tiny space like a cork from a bottle, straight into something—someone—who stumbles back in turn and throws their arms around me to keep the pair of us upright. Our eyes lock as we steady ourselves, and I realize I’ve ended up in his embrace.
He’s a boy about my age, with warm brown skin that matches the golden sandstone of Kirkpool, like he’s a part of the city itself. Brown eyes dance beneath fashionably tousled black hair, and he has the sort of easy smile that says he knows just how handsome he is.
I hate that kind of smile.
“At last,” he says cheerfully, apparently unconcerned about having a sailor crash into him without warning. “I thought you’d never get here.”
I stare at him as I recover my breath, a little bit distracted by his face. He has unfairly long eyelashes.
His mouth twitches as if something’s amusing him—me, presumably—and that’s enough to snap me back to myself. I plant one hand on his chest and push him backward as I step out of his hold.
“I don’t know who you are, but I don’t have time for you,” I mutter. “What the hells are you doing hiding behind a bunch of crates?”
“Well, I heard you were going to be here,” the mystery boy replies without missing a beat, politely not pointing out that I am also hiding behind a bunch of crates.
I can’t figure out what he is. He’s dressed like he’s from the docks—shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, black suspenders, and dark brown trousers—but his white shirt is far too clean, the fabric on those trousers too good, and he sounds too fancy. A palace servant, perhaps, trying to blend in down here?
I can’t afford a delay, annoyingly handsome or otherwise, so with one last look at him, I shove past and reach for the top edge of the nearest crate. I grip, heave, and haul myself up on top of it, no doubt forcing him to dodge my kicks as I scrabble for purchase. I’ll find out soon enough if he’s going to raise the alarm.
This is a better place to watch the Queensguard. There are huge bunches of flowers set atop the crates, destined to decorate the rigging of the prince’s fleet, and they make excellent camouflage. I nestle among them and set to waiting.
“What are we looking for?” asks a voice beside me, and I nearly fall off the crate.
The boy’s climbed up too, and now he ducks my hand as it swings around to flail at thin air. He grabs me around the waist, steadying me and pulling me back into the nest of flowers, laughing at my scowl.
“What are you doing up here?” I demand.
“Couldn’t stay away,” he replies with a grin. “Also, I thought you heard me climbing up—sorry about that.”
I’m only seeing now, as he withdraws his hand, that he’s got emerald-green magician’s marks down his forearms and across the backs of his hands, the jewel tone bright against the light brown of his skin. Something in my gut twists at the sight of them.
His marks are as intricate as I’ve ever seen, and so complex I can’t even tell which element they signal—no wonder he’s cocky. Though if I’m honest, the looks alone were enough.
I reach out with my own gloved hand to steady myself, resisting the urge to ask him what he’s doing here, because he’ll only ask me the same, and that doesn’t end the way I want.
“That’s Lady Violet Beresford,” my companion says conversationally, and when I glance across to follow his gaze, he’s looking at a girl in a dress the silvery blue color of the sea at dusk. She’s leading the dancing, her head thrown back in laughter.
“Well, I’m glad someone’s having a nice time.”
“Have you spent a minute in the city today?” I ask testily, easing forward to peek through the foliage at the two Queensguard, who seem a lot more dedicated to their duty than I’d like. As I watch, a third comes trotting along the dock from the direction of the city to talk to them.
“What about it?”
“Who out there is having fun, apart from nobles on boats? I’m only a few days ashore, but everyone I’ve spoken to is asking about foreign ports, about what they’re saying around the Crescent Sea. About whether Mellacea’s going to start a war with us. Now that I’m looking at this, I’m beginning to understand why they’re so worried.”
He leans forward alongside me to take a closer look at the ships, the warmth of his shoulder close against mine. Lady Violet is still dancing, urging her companions to join her as the music trips merrily over itself. “Why, what do you see?”
I snort. “You don’t see it? His ships are covered in flowers.”
“You have to admit they look— What’s wrong with flowers?”
Below, the Queensguard are now in heated conversation with the newcomer, and he’s waving his arms. Dare I hope he’s going to lure them away?
“I don’t have any strong opinions on flowers,” I say, aware I sound like a lot like I do.
“Just naturally cranky?”
“Listen.” I remind myself it would be wrong to push him off the crate. “Every trading ship at the docks knows how much trouble we’re in, knows how tense things are at every new port we pull into. Alinor’s in trouble. She’s been taking a lazy nap in the afternoon sun, and over in Mellacea, let me tell you, they’re up before dawn. And what’s the queen doing about it?”
“She’s put the boy prince on the job. It’s like she wants to fail.”
“That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
I snort. “We’re talking about a boy who went through three different outfit changes at the solstice festival. In one evening!”
“I heard it was four, and he wore a gold-sequined coat for the ages.”
“What part of that sentence do you think makes any of this better?” I splutter.
“I must say, you know a lot about him,” he muses.
“I can’t help it, he’s all anyone talks about.”
“Including you, and you don’t even seem to like him.”
“Liking has nothing to do with it,” I snap back, making myself keep my voice down. “He could keep every tailor on the Crescent Sea in business and I wouldn’t care, if he was doing his job.”
“Maybe he is doing his job,” the boy suggests, though his tone concedes the evidence is on my side.
“Are you delusional? He’s decided to decorate his flotilla with half the palace gardens—and we’re on the doorstep of winter, so I can’t think how many hothouses that sort of stupidity must have taken—then pack a Fontesquan chef and a bunch of his closest friends and waltz off along the coast to see if he can make friends with the neighbors.”
“He shouldn’t make friends with the neighbors?” the boy asks, frowning at the Queensguard, who are now watching a couple more of their number run along the docks.
“He should make allies of the neighbors,” I shoot back. “But nobody’s going to take him seriously. Who ever has?”
“Ouch,” he mutters, and I turn my head to take a better look at him, crouching, framed by flowers.
Still handsome, but now I’m paying more attention to his voice. It sounds like money. Does he know the prince?
Suddenly I’m reminded of all the times Rensa told me to watch my tongue, especially around people I don’t know. At least he doesn’t know my name.
I know I’m taking all the frustration of my day, of my captain’s endless orders, of my father’s abandonment, of the blocked path to the Freya, and aiming it at him. And I know I shouldn’t.
Then again, he’s insisting on putting himself in my path.
Below us the Queensguard are still accumulating—there are a dozen of them now, and one’s pointing in all directions, sending them running all over the place. Forget slipping past just a pair of them—they’re swarming the dock.
I’ll have to get past after dark and stow away, because I’m sure as hells not getting to the Freya’s captain now.
“I think it’s about to get busy around here,” the boy says, watching the growing swarm of guards thoughtfully. “Looks like they’ve lost something.”
“Looks like,” I mutter. It’s fine. I’ll get through to the Freya tonight. It’ll be easier under cover of darkness, and she doesn’t sail until dawn. I can hide aboard until they’re well out at sea and it’s too late for them to do anything about it.
For now, I should hustle back to the Lizabetta before Rensa realizes how long I’ve been gone and loses her temper.
“Hey, look,” says the boy beside me suddenly, his voice rising, and I twist around urgently to follow his gaze.
“What? What do you see?”
He’s pointing at the deck of the nearest ship, where the brightly colored young nobles are crowding in around a woman wheeling a fancy little handcart toward the bow. “They’re bringing out refreshments. Bet you half a crown those are Fontesquan pastries.”
I make a noise like a strangled growl, and he falls silent.
Yeah, he’s definitely noble, not a palace servant. The rest of the city is humming with worry, we’re in a port full of ships with everything to lose if war breaks out, and instead of thinking up ways to solve any of our problems, down on the progress fleet—which is what everyone’s calling the ships embarking on this goodwill voyage—they’re flocking to their afternoon tea like gulls in the wake of a fishing boat.
“First flowers, now you don’t like pastries?” he asks, studying my frown. “What’s next, kittens?”
“I . . . Will you just go away?”
He smirks. “I think you’ll find I was here first. Come to that, when you arrived, you literally threw yourself into my arms.”
I could push him out of our little nest and off the top of the packing crate, but that might be too subtle for him. Shooting him a too-sweet smile, I reach into the nest of flowers around us, plucking a delicate blossom in Alinor’s royal sapphire blue. He watches me cautiously.
“There,” I murmur, leaning across to tuck it behind his ear. “Everything useless around here is beautifully decorated. I wouldn’t want you to feel left out.”
His wariness eases, and his lips twitch again to one of those small smiles. This boy looks like he knows all the mischief in the world, and invented half of it himself.
His brown eyes stay steady on mine, and as my fingertips brush his hair, my stomach gives the strangest flip-flop. Must be the sun.
We both hold still for a moment, gazing at each other.
“So you’re not coming for a quick snack?” he murmurs, breaking the tension. I can’t shake the feeling I just lost that exchange, and I don’t know why.
“I’ve seen enough nobility for one day.” I’m already shifting my weight, preparing to climb down with a speed that feels a little like running away, if I’m completely honest with myself.
“Let’s hope there’s more to our prince than you think,” he counters.
“I doubt it,” I reply—and before he has a chance to respond, I jump down into the gap between the crates, shoving my way back through it again.
I have the strongest urge to look over my shoulder, but I make myself keep my gaze dead ahead. I don’t have time to think about him. There’s only one thing on my mind that matters, and she’s moored at the end of the northern dock.
Even if I have to swim across the harbor and climb up her side like a boarding pirate, by dawn I’ll be sailing for the north aboard the Freya.