Eryk’s heart was pounding. He’d had to use his power before, to show that he wouldn’t be picked on. But if his mother really meant for them to stay, he’d just made three enemies, all of them older and much bigger than he was. And he’d managed to anger the Ulle’s son. Maybe they wouldn’t be welcome to stay at the camp at all. He sighed and turned back to the sisters warily, ready for them to turn and run too.
They were both still in the dirt, staring up at him with startled eyes.
Then Sylvi said, “I want to learn to do that.” She sprang up and waggled her fingers at the nearest tree. “I am Grisha! The shadows do my bidding!”
Annika watched her dart off, her expression a little wistful. “She still thinks she can learn to be Grisha. One day she’ll figure it out.” She pressed her palms against her eyes. “It’s been so hard since we came here,” she said. “Thank you.”
He blinked in surprise. “I … You’re welcome.”
She smiled up at him, and without thinking, he offered her his hand. It was only in the second that her fingers closed over his that he realized his mistake. As soon as his hand touched hers, her eyes widened. She drew in a sharp breath. They gazed at each other a long moment. He pulled her to her feet and dropped her hand. But the damage was done.
“You’re an amplifier,” she said.
He glanced at where Sylvi was pouncing on another helpless tree, oblivious, and gave a single, frightened nod. How could he have been so stupid? He would have to tell his mother now, and she would insist that they leave right away. If word got out, they’d both be in danger. Amplifiers were rare, hard to find, harder to hunt. Their lives would be forfeit. Even if they got away, word would spread. He could already hear his mother’s voice: Foolish, careless, callous. If you don’t value your own life, show some concern for mine.
Annika touched his sleeve. “It’s okay,” she said. “I won’t tell.”
Panic crowded in. He shook his head.
She slid her hand into his. It was hard not to pull away. He should. He was breaking his mother’s fundamental rule for keeping them both alive. Never let them touch you, she’d warned him.
“You protected Sylvi. I won’t tell. I promise.”
He looked down at their clasped hands. He liked the unfamiliar pressure of her palm against his. She didn’t seem so frightened by his power now. And she was brave. She’d defended her sister even though she knew Lev was stronger. He had so many secrets. It felt good to share one.
“Stay,” she said. “Please?”
He didn’t say anything, but he gave her hand the barest squeeze.
Annika smiled, and to Eryk’s surprise, he found himself smiling back.
* * *
They spent the afternoon practicing by the stream while Sylvi made up songs and hunted frogs. Annika even helped Eryk with his Fjerdan. The thought that there might be more days like this seemed almost too wonderful to believe, and as it grew later, he worried over what his mother would say about what he’d done to Lev, that she would change her mind about staying. But when he got back to the hut at dusk, she wasn’t there.
He washed his hands and face of the day’s grime, then made his way to the long hall, where most of the camp were already gathered for dinner. They sat at tables that spanned the length of the lodge, eating from platters heaped with deer meat and roasted onions.
He saw his mother seated beside the Ulle at the elders’ table. They both acknowledged him with a nod.
Eryk scanned the stretch of tables and spotted Lev’s red-gold hair. His eyes narrowed when he met Eryk’s gaze. If Lev hadn’t told, it was only because he wanted to take revenge against Eryk personally. All he’d have to do was wait and set an ambush, restrain Eryk’s arms so he couldn’t summon. He probably wouldn’t even need his friends. Eryk could fight, but he was half a foot shorter than Lev.
“Eryk,” Annika called, waving him over as Sylvi bounced on the bench beside her. Maybe Eryk wasn’t such a bad name. It sounded all right when she said it.
They ate in silence for a while. The food of the north had never held much appeal for him, and he found himself moving the onions around his plate.
“You don’t like them?” Annika asked.
“What’s your favorite food?”
He dragged his bread through the leavings of his meal. “I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?” said Sylvi.
Eryk shrugged. No one had ever asked him. “Um … anything sweet.”
He nodded again. There was a cake they served in Kerch, thick with cherries and served with sweet cream, and there were Shu candies coated in sesame that he could eat by the handful. But he wasn’t supposed to talk about the places he’d traveled. He was just a boy from the south. “I like everything,” he said.
“What’s your favorite color?” asked Sylvi.
“I don’t have one.”
“How can you not have one?”
Deep blue like the True Sea. Red like the roofs of the Shu temples. The pure, buttery color of sunlight—not really yellow or gold, what would you call it? All the colors you couldn’t see in the dark.
“I never really thought about it.”
“Mine’s rainbow,” said Sylvi.
“That’s not a color.”
When Sylvi turned her attention to bothering the family beside them, Annika said, “You haven’t asked where our mother is.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
“The drüskelle got her, the witchhunters. When we were still living near Overut.”
“Did your father die in battle?”
My father is dust. You all are. “Yes.”
Her eyes darted to a man with fair hair and bright blue eyes seated at the farthest end of the elders’ table. It was not a position of much esteem.
“Is that your father?” he asked.
Annika looked down at her plate. “You and Lev will probably be best friends by tomorrow.”
He frowned. “No we won’t.”
“Your mother is sitting next to the Ulle. You won’t be eating with me in a few days’ time.”
“Yes I will,” he said, then added, “if we stay.”
“You said you would.”
Eryk fiddled with his spoon. He should talk to his mother about what Annika had learned. He knew that.
Annika said, “Do you want to come swimming with me and Sylvi tonight?”
“It’s too cold to swim.”
“There’s a pond fed by hot springs just up from the creek.”
He glanced over to where his mother was speaking to the Ulle, her black eyes flashing. “I don’t think I should.”
Annika gave a stiff shrug. “All right,” she said.
But he could see that it wasn’t. He remembered the feeling of her hand in his. For the next few months, he could be Eryk. He could belong to this place. He could have a home, maybe even friends. And friends went on adventures. They broke rules together.
He gave Annika a nudge under the table. “What time?”
* * *
Even after the lamps were long extinguished and Eryk was certain his mother was asleep, he hesitated. His mother distrusted the vulnerability of sleep; she never really seemed to dream deeply and was always ready to leap from her bed at any sound.
But they’d spent three weeks learning to track with the hunters of the southern range. He’d studied how to walk in silence, rolling his heels, bare feet moving soundles
sly over the pelt-covered floor.
It was brighter outside than inside the hut, the camp washed pale blue by the silvery light of a full moon. He waited until he was nearly to the woods to put on his boots, then headed into the trees to find his way back to the stream. He followed it for a half mile, hoping he wasn’t too late, and had even started to wonder if he’d somehow gone the wrong direction when he climbed a low knoll and the pond came into view, bigger than he’d expected, moonlight rippling over its surface.
Annika was there, floating on her back in the water, her white-blond hair spread around her head like a halo. As he watched, she turned and began gliding across the pond, silent as a ghost.
He walked down to the shore, and when her head broke the water again, he whispered, “Hello!”
She whirled, sending out little waves that lapped at the sand. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I had to wait for my mother to fall asleep,” he said as he kicked off his boots and stripped down to his linen. He didn’t know how he was going to explain soaked underthings to his mother, but he felt too shy to remove everything. As he plunged into the water, a giddy kind of elation rose in his chest. He dunked his head, letting the water fill his ears so that the world went quiet, then he popped back up, feeling the night air cool his damp skin. He could hear the soft rush of the stream and Annika splashing in the water just a few feet away. Until the thaw. He could do this every night if he wanted. Maybe when the pond froze, they could skate.
“Where’s Sylvi?” he asked.
“She fell asleep before my father did. I didn’t want to wake her.”
Annika squirted water from her mouth. “Quieter without her. She’s decided your mother is a princess, by the way.”
Eryk dunked his head again. “Princess of what?”
“Just a princess. She’s really beautiful.”
Eryk shrugged. He was aware of the way men looked at his mother. It was one more weapon in her arsenal.
“What was your mother like?” he asked. The question felt strange on his lips, and he wasn’t sure it was the right one to ask.
She stirred the surface of the water with her fingertips and said, “Gentle. She used to sing us to sleep. I told her I was too old for lullabies. I regret that every night now.”