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And with none of it making any sense. Iseult had mentioned getting shot, but the how, the where, the why—Safi had absolutely no idea.

The iron latch on the door spun up. Safi stilled—the whole world stilled. Then the white-robed monk slipped in. Slowly, as if facing a wild animal, she flipped her hand in Safi’s direction. The sun-browned skin was marked with an upside-down triangle for Water witchery and a circle for her specialization with the fluids of the body. Safi fixed her gaze and her magic on the woman, and the longer she stared, the more she saw the healer’s heart was true.

Nonetheless, Safi couldn’t bring herself to fully trust … what had the prince called her? Evrane. Safi had been tricked too often lately. For now, she would watch the monk work and use the moment to gain any information she could.

Safi rolled to her feet and backed away from Iseult, hands up submissively. “I won’t interfere. Just make sure you heal her.”

“She’ll do the best she can,” said a new voice. Merik appeared in the doorway as the monk crossed lightly to Iseult.

Safi smiled at the prince, a bored, unthreatening flash of teeth. “I was wondering when you’d come along, Prince. Care to tell me where we are?”

“The western Jadansi. You’ve been onboard for four hours.” He stepped warily to the center of the room, as if he wasn’t stupid enough to trust Safi’s demeanor. He wore a simple navy frock coat over a fresh shirt and breeches, and Safi was suddenly struck by her own filth. Her gown was shredded and stained, and far too much of her dirt-streaked calves and thighs were exposed.

Then, faster—and more quietly—than Safi could have ever expected, Merik shot in close, hooked Safi’s arms behind her back, and pressed something cool against her throat. The smell of sandalwood and lemons pierced her nose.

Safi didn’t cower back, though. She simply cocked her head sideways and drawled, “You do realize your blade is still sheathed?”

“And you do realize that I can still kill you with it?” Merik’s breath tickled against her ear. “Now tell me, Domna: Are you wanted by the authorities? Any authorities of any nation?”

Her eyes narrowed. Merik had been at the ball. He had heard the betrothal announcement … Or had he? Safi hadn’t seen him in the crowd, so perhaps he’d abandoned the ball before Henrick’s declaration.

Safi prodded her magic for some indication of Merik’s true nature. Power instantly charged through her, both clawing and warm. A contradiction of falsehoods and truth, as if Merik might return Safi to Emperor Henrick if he were given the chance … Or he might not.

Safi couldn’t risk it. Yet before she could speak, Merik pressed the dagger harder to her flesh. “I have a crew to protect, as well as an entire nation. Your life is nothing compared to that. So do not lie to me. Are you wanted?”

Safi hesitated, considering if she was endangering Merik’s fleet. Uncle Eron had staged her flight to look like a kidnapping—that much Mathew had told her. Yet as far as she could tell, there was no way that Emperor Henrick could find out where Safi had been taken.

So she tipped up her chin—exposing her throat all the more.

“Your strategy is a poor one, Prince, for if there are people following me, I have no incentive to tell you.”

“Then I guess I’ll kill you.”

“Do it,” she taunted. “Slit my throat with your still-sheathed dagger. I’d love to see how you manage that.”

Merik’s expression didn’t waver. Nor did the dagger. “First tell me why the Carawens were after you.”

The monk’s shoulders stiffened, drawing Safi’s eyes to her white-cloaked back. “I have no idea, but you could ask that Carawen over there. She seems to know.”

“She doesn’t.” Merik’s voice was sharp with impatience. “And you would do well to address her properly. She is Monk Evrane, sister to King Serafin of Nubrevna.”

Now, there was some useful information. “So if Monk Evrane is the king’s sister,” Safi mused, “and the king is your father … Why, Monk Evrane must be your aunt! How nice.”

“I’m surprised,” Merik said, “it took you so long to figure this out. Even a Domna of Cartorra should be well-educated.”

“I never cared much for my studies,” she volleyed back—and Merik snorted.

It was a laughing snort that seemed to catch him by surprise—and seemed to annoy him too, for he abruptly schooled his face and withdrew the sheathed blade.

Safi cracked her jaw. Stretched her shoulders. “Now that was a fun standoff. Shall we do it again tomorrow?”

Merik ignored her, and with a free hand, he yanked a cloth from his coat and wiped down his engraved scabbard. “On this ship, my word is law, Domna. Do you understand? Your title means nothing here.”

Safi nodded and fought the overwhelming urge to roll her eyes.

“But I am willing to offer you a deal. I won’t lock you in chains if you promise to stop behaving like a feral dog and instead behave like the domna you’re supposed to be.”

“But Prince”—she lowered her eyelids in an indolent blink—“my title means nothing here.”

“I will take that as a ‘no’ then.” Merik turned as if to leave.

“Deal,” Safi spat, seeing it was time to fold. “We have a deal, Prince. But just so you know, it’s a cat.”

The prince frowned. “What’s a cat?”

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