Since Merik’s temper had snapped in the Doge’s dining room, there had been a charge in his veins that made his breath gust. Made him want to summon vast, angry winds. It was the same wild anger that he’d released too easily as a child. He couldn’t give into it now, if for no other reason than it was too much like Vivia. Unbridled and violent.
Merik didn’t like unbridled. He didn’t like rough seas. He liked order and control and perfectly tucked-in shirttails. He liked calm waves, clear skies, and knowing his fury was leagues away.
Therefore, Merik would have to avoid Safiya as much as possible—no matter how easily she startled laughs and smiles from him. And no matter how distracting her bare legs might be.
The closest of Merik’s sailors—men from his previous ship—paused their mopping to salute. Crisp, earnest movements from sailors Merik could trust to their watery graves.
Merik nodded curtly before his gaze drifted to the Tidewitch helmsman. That man was a holdover from King Serafin’s crew, and like most of the King’s old men, the Tidewitch was thoroughly unimpressed by Merik. Still, at least he steered the Jana true.
Merik ran a thorough eye up each mast, across the rigging, over the sails. Everything appeared to be orderly, so he set off for the ladder belowdecks.
Once he was under and firmly ensconced within the passenger cabin, he found his aunt fidgeting with her opal earring. “I just spoke with Voicewitch Hermin,” she said quietly. “He has managed to contact the Voicewitch at the Carawen Monastery. It turns out that the monks at the lighthouse were ordered to capture the domna alive, yet once the monks saw her, most of them backed off.”
“Why?” Merik asked, glancing at the sleeping Iseult. How anyone could fear her was beyond him. Then again, he’d seen many Nomatsi caravans as a boy, so he was used to their deathly pallor and pitch-black hair.
When his aunt didn’t answer his question, Merik turned back to her. She was shaking her head. “All I know for certain is that there is one Carawen monk still hunting the domna. His name is Aeduan, and he works for the highest bidder.” With a loud exhale, Evrane moved to the window and squinted into the sun. “So long as he lives, these girls are in danger—for Aeduan is a Bloodwitch, Merik.”
Merik’s head reared back. “Such a thing exists?” At his aunt’s grim nod, he thought back to the fight at the lighthouse. In the insanity of the moment, he’d thought he had imagined the red in the young monk’s eyes. The way the monk had locked Safiya in place.
But no. It had all been real. A Bloodwitch had been real.
“Surely, though,” Merik said slowly, “this Bloodwitch cannot reach us before Lejna. And once we drop off the domna, the monk is no longer our problem.”
Evrane’s eyebrows shot up. “You would abandon these girls to a wolf so easily?”
“To protect my crew I would. To protect Nubrevna.”
“Yet an entire crew could face a single man. Even a Bloodwitch.”
“Not without casualties, and I can’t risk my sailors for two girls—no matter how badly we need that contract. Once we drop off the domna, then she and her friend are no longer my problem.”
“Has so much time passed since I saw you last?” Color rose on Evrane’s cheeks. “If you think that your father will respect you more because you act like Vivia—because you abandon helpless girls—then perhaps you do not want your father’s respect.”
For a long moment, the only sounds were the groan of the ship planks and the slosh of the waves. “You have no right,” Merik clipped out at last, “to compare me to Vivia. She regards her crew as fish fodder; I see them as family. She resorts to piracy in order to feed Nubrevna; I look for permanent solutions.” Merik’s voice lifted as he spoke, his anger burning brighter. Hotter. “Domna fon Hasstrel offers one of those solutions, and she is anything but helpless. So I will protect my men—tooth and talon—and leave the domna to fend for herself.”
On the mattress, Iseult stirred in her sleep, and Merik’s breath loosed out. He willed his temper below the surface. His aunt meant well, and she had every reason to prevent Merik from acting like his sister.
“Please,” Merik finished gruffly, “remember that the Nubrevnan navy doesn’t normally ferry monks—or outcast nobility—across the ocean, and should Father learn I’ve taken you onboard … well, you can guess his reaction. Don’t make me regret my decision to carry you. I’ll protect Domna Safiya for as long as the Hasstrel contract remains unfulfilled, and I’ll get her to Lejna by any means I have. But at first sign of the Bloodwitch, my men must come first.”
For several long moments, Evrane stood still and silent, her eyes locked on Merik’s. But then she released a sharp breath and turned away. “Yes, Admiral Nihar. As you wish.”
Merik watched the back of her silver head as she shuffled to the pallet and once more knelt by Iseult. An urge to apologize tickled the back of his throat—a need to ensure Evrane understood why he made these choices.
But Evrane had made up her mind about the Nihar family long ago. Her relationship to King Serafin was no better than Merik’s was to Vivia. Worse, even.
As Merik left the cabin and made his way above, he considered the best way to handle the Bloodwitch if indeed the man was alive. It would seem the only strategy would be to reach Lejna in the shortest time possible. So, though Merik was loath to do it, he would have to call on his Tidewitches once more. Of course, that would leave his sailors with little to do.