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She had been coming and going since he was boy, and why should that change now?

So, with Hermin limping at his side, Merik hiked past trunks and branches—all of them spindly with new bursts of life. Lichen, insects, green, green, green—Merik couldn’t explain it … and he couldn’t help wishing that Kullen were here to see it.

In fact, Merik couldn’t seem to move past Kullen. Memories burned behind his eyeballs, and loss throbbed at the base of his skull. Even as he watched living birds swoop over the cove, even as Hermin rowed him to the warship and fish inexplicably splashed in the waves—all of it tasted of ash.

Merik’s crew was lined up on the main deck when he finally dragged himself onto the Jana. Each man wore strips of iris-blue linen around his biceps to mourn their fallen comrade, and they all gave a crisp salute as Merik walked past.

He barely noticed, though. There was only one person he wanted to see—the one person who would understand how Merik felt.

He glanced at Hermin. “Bring Ryber to me, please.”

Hermin cringed. “She’s … gone, sir.”

“Gone?” Merik frowned, that word incomprehensible. “Gone where?”

“We don’t know, sir. She was on the ship when we came to you in Lejna, and we thought she was on it when we reached the Nihar cove again. But … we aren’t sure. All we know is she ain’t on the ship now.”

Still, Merik frowned—for where would Ryber go? Why would Ryber go?

“She did leave a note, although it doesn’t say a thing about where she went. It’s on your bed, sir.”

So Merik heaved into his captain’s cabin, ribs shrieking their protest at that burst of movement. He took long, almost jogging steps to cross the room, where he found his wrinkled coat draped across the mattress. Resting atop it was a slip of paper.

Merik snatched it up, eyes flying over Ryber’s almost illegible scrawl.

My Admiral, my Prince,

I’m sorry to go, but I’ll find you again one day. While I’m gone, you have to become the king that Kullen always believed you to be.

Please. Nubrevna needs you.

Ryber

(Also, check your jacket pocket.)

Merik’s forehead tightened at those final words. His jacket pocket? The trade agreement.

Merik grabbed for his coat, hands shaking, and gently towed out the contract. On the last page, ashy fingerprints were everywhere—along with a fat scribbling.

Uncle:

Don’t be such a horse’s ass about this trade agreement. Prince Merik Nihar has done everything he could to get me to Lejna unharmed, so

Merik flipped over the page.

if I get hurt on the way or I don’t even reach this pier that you’ve arbitrarily chosen, you can’t blame him. Prince Merik and Nubrevna deserve a trade agreement with the Hasstrels. I promise you this, Uncle: if you don’t fulfill this contract and open up trade with Nubrevna, then I will simply write an agreement of my own. It will be a terrible one that gives Nubrevna all the advantage and all the money.

Remember: my name carries power, and contrary to your beliefs about me, I don’t lack initiative entirely.

Then, in hideously uncoordinated script, was a signature:

Safiya fon Hasstrel

Domna of Cartorra

Something hot scratched up Merik’s throat. He whipped the contract back over and saw that his signature and Dom Eron’s were still there—while any reference to “spilled blood” had been removed entirely.

Merik didn’t believe it. His mind was numb; his heart had stopped pounding. That night when he’d awoken to Safi’s hand on his chest—it was because of this. She’d stolen the document and written on it with ash from the fire.

And now Merik had trade with the Hasstrels. With Marstok too.

A silent, hysterical laugh rose in his throat. He had lost more than he’d ever thought he could lose, yet there was an aching certainty welling in his lungs.

Slowly, almost dizzily, Merik sat on the edge of the bed. He smoothed out the trade agreement, his fingers smudged black, and set it aside.

Then Merik Nihar, Prince of Nubrevna, rolled back his head and prayed.

For all that he had loved, for all that he had lost, and for all that he—and his country—might still regain.

* * *

Safiya fon Hasstrel leaned against the bulwark on the Empress of Marstok’s personal galleon, crutch in hand. The verdant coastline of Dalmotti-claimed lands drifted by, and Safi tried to pretend she wasn’t boiling in this midday sun.

This was a land of palm trees and jungle, frequent fishing villages and humidity thick enough to swim in. She wanted to enjoy the beauty of it all, not melt into the miserable heat.

Hundreds of years ago, this land had belonged to some nation called Biljana. Or that was what Safi remembered from her tutoring sessions. She knew better than to believe history books now.

At least, despite the heat, her gown of white cotton was relatively cool—though the uncomfortable iron belt that cinched her waist wasn’t. Iron was all the fashion in Azmir—no doubt because Vaness had made it the fashion. She could, after all, control anyone wearing it.

Yet, even with the belt, Vaness had still insisted Safi don a steel necklace as well. It was a chain, delicate and thin, but with no end and no beginning. The empress had fused it around Safi’s neck, and despite grunting and straining as hard as she could, Safi hadn’t been able to snap it off.

Thank the gods, though, that Vaness had deemed Safi’s Threadstone harmless.

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