“I didn’t ask you for flattery.”
I fingered a loose thread on the cuff of my kefta. He watched me, waiting.
“Well,” I said, “there was an old serf who worked on the estate …”
“Go on,” he said. “Tell me.”
“He … he said that Darklings are born without souls. That only something truly evil could have created the Shadow Fold.” I glanced at his cold face and added hastily, “But Ana Kuya sent him packing and told us it was all peasant superstition.”
The Darkling sighed. “I doubt that serf is the only one who believes that.”
I said nothing. Not everyone thought like Eva or the old serf, but I’d been in the First Army long enough to know that most ordinary soldiers didn’t trust Grisha and felt no allegiance to the Darkling.
After a moment, the Darkling said, “My great-great-great-grandfather was the Black Heretic, the Darkling who created the Shadow Fold. It was a mistake, an experiment born of his greed, maybe his evil. I don’t know. But every Darkling since then has tried to undo the damage he did to our country, and I’m no different.” He turned to me then, his expression serious, the firelight playing over the perfect planes of his features. “I’ve spent my life searching for a way to make things right. You’re the first glimmer of hope I’ve had in a long time.”
“The world is changing, Alina. Muskets and rifles are just the beginning. I’ve seen the weapons they’re developing in Kerch and Fjerda. The age of Grisha power is coming to an end.”
It was a terrifying thought. “But … but what about the First Army? They have rifles. They have weapons.”
“Where do you think their rifles come from? Their ammunition? Every time we cross the Fold, we lose lives. A divided Ravka won’t survive the new age. We need our ports. We need our harbors. And only you can give them back to us.”
“How?” I pleaded. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“By helping me destroy the Shadow Fold.”
I shook my head. “You’re crazy. This is all crazy.”
I looked up through the broken beams of the barn’s roof to the night sky. It was full of stars, but I could only see the endless reaches of darkness between them. I imagined myself standing in the dead silence of the Shadow Fold, blind, frightened, with nothing to protect me but my supposed power. I thought of the Black Heretic. He had created the Fold, a Darkling, just like the one who sat watching me so closely in the firelight.
“What about that thing you did?” I asked before I could lose my nerve. “To the Fjerdan?”
He looked back into the fire. “It’s called the Cut. It requires great power and great focus; it’s something few Grisha can do.”
I rubbed my arms, trying to stave off the chill that had taken hold of me.
He glanced at me and then back to the fire. “If I had cut him down with a sword, would that make it any better?”
Would it? I had seen countless horrors in the last few days. But even after the nightmares of the Fold, the image that stayed with me, that reared up in my dreams and chased me into waking, was of the bearded man’s severed body, swaying in the dappled sunlight before it toppled onto me.
“I don’t know,” I said quietly.
Something flashed across his face, something that looked like anger or maybe even pain. Without another word, he rose and walked away from me.
I watched him disappear into the darkness and felt suddenly guilty. Don’t be a fool, I chastised myself. He’s the Darkling. He’s the second most powerful man in Ravka. He’s one hundred and twenty years old! You didn’t hurt his feelings. But I thought of the look that had flickered over his features, the shame in his voice when he’d talked about the Black Heretic, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had failed some kind of test.
TWO DAYS LATER, just after dawn, we passed through a massive gate and the famous double walls of Os Alta.
Mal and I had taken our training not far from here, in the military stronghold at Poliznaya, but we had never been inside the city itself. Os Alta was reserved for the very wealthy, for the homes of military and government officials, their families, their mistresses, and all the businesses that catered to them.
I felt a twinge of disappointment as we passed shuttered shops, a wide marketplace where a few vendors were already setting up their stalls, and crowded rows of narrow houses. Os Alta was called the dream city. It was the capital of Ravka, home to the Grisha and the King’s Grand Palace. But if anything, it just looked like a bigger, dirtier version of the market town at Keramzin.
All that changed when we reached the bridge. It spanned a wide canal where little boats bobbed in the water beneath it. And on the other side, rising from the mist, white and gleaming, lay the other Os Alta. As we crossed the bridge, I saw that it could be raised to turn the canal into a giant moat that would separate the dream city before us from the common mess of the market town that lay behind.
When we reached the other side of the canal, it was as if we had passed into another world. Everywhere I looked, I saw fountains and plazas, verdant parks, and broad boulevards lined with perfect rows of trees. Here and there, I saw lights on in the lower stories of the grand houses, where kitchen fires were being lit and the day’s work was starting.
The streets began to slope upward, and as we climbed higher, the houses became larger and more imposing, until finally we arrived at another wall and another set of gates, these wrought in gleaming gold and emblazoned with the King’s double eagle. Along the wall, I could see heavily armed men at their posts, a grim reminder that for all its beauty, Os Alta was still the capital of a country that had long been at war.
The gate swung open.
We rode up a broad path paved in glittering gravel and bordered by rows of elegant trees. To the left and right, stretching into the distance, I saw manicured gardens, rich with green and hazy in the mist of early morning. Above it all, atop a series of marble terraces and golden fountains, loomed the Grand Palace, the Ravkan King’s winter home.
When we finally reached the huge double-eagle fountain at its base, the Darkling brought his horse up beside mine.
“So what do you think of it?” he asked.
I glanced at him, then back at the elaborate facade. It was larger than any building I had ever seen, its terraces crowded with statues, its three stories gleaming with row after row of shining windows, each ornamented extensively in what I suspected was real gold.
“It’s very … grand?” I said carefully.
He looked at me, a little smile playing on his lips. “I think it’s the ugliest building I’ve ever seen,” he said, and nudged his horse forward.
We followed a path that curved behind the palace and deeper into the grounds, passing a hedge maze, a rolling lawn with a columned temple at its center, and a vast greenhouse, its windows clouded with condensation. Then we entered a thick stand of trees, large enough that it felt like a small wood, and passed through a long, dark corridor where the branches made a dense, braided roof above us.
The hair rose on my arms. I had the same feeling that I’d had as we were crossing the canal, that sense of crossing the boundary between two worlds.
When we emerged from the tunnel into weak sunshine, I looked down a gentle slope and saw a building like nothing I’d ever seen.
“Welcome to the Little Palace,” said the Darkling.
It was a strange name, because though it was smaller than the Grand Palace, the “Little” Palace was still huge. It rose from the trees surrounding it like something carved from an enchanted forest, a cluster of dark wood walls and golden domes. As we drew closer, I saw that every inch of it was covered in intricate carvings of birds and flowers, twisting vines, and magical beasts.
A charcoal-clad group of servants waited on the steps. I dismounted, and one of them rushed forward to take my horse, while others pushed open a large set of double doors. As we passed through them, I couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and touch the exquisite carvings. They had been inlaid with mother-of-pearl so that they sparkled in the early-morning light. How many hands, how many years had it taken to create such a place?
We passed through an entry chamber and then into a vast hexagonal room with four long tables arranged in a square at its center. Our footsteps echoed off the stone floor, and a massive gold dome seemed to float above us at an impossible height.
The Darkling took aside one of the servants, an older woman in a charcoal dress, and spoke to her in hushed tones. Then he gave me a small bow and strode off across the hall, followed by his men.
I felt a surge of annoyance. The Darkling had said little to me since that night in the barn, and he’d given me no idea what I might expect once we arrived. But I didn’t have the nerve or the energy to run after him, so I meekly followed the woman in gray through another pair of double doors and into one of the smaller towers.
When I saw all the stairs, I almost broke down and wept. Maybe I’ll just ask if I can stay down here in the middle of the hall, I thought miserably. Instead, I put my hand on the carved banister and dragged myself upward, my stiff body protesting every step. When we reached the top, I felt like celebrating by lying down and taking a nap, but the servant was already moving down the hallway. We passed door after door, until finally we reached a chamber where another uniformed maid stood waiting by an open doorway.
Dimly, I registered a large room, heavy golden curtains, a fire burning in a beautifully tiled grate, but all I really cared about was the huge canopied bed.
“Can I get you anything? Something to eat?” asked the woman. I shook my head. I just wanted sleep.
“Very good,” she said, and nodded to the maid, who curtsied and disappeared down the hall. “Then I’ll let you rest. Make sure to lock your door.”
“As a precaution,” said the woman and left, closing the door gently behind her.
A precaution against what? I wondered. But I was too tired to think about it. I locked the door, peeled off the kefta and my boots, and fell into bed.
I DREAMED THAT I was back in Keramzin, slipping through the darkened hallways on stockinged feet, trying to find Mal. I could hear him calling to me, but his voice never seemed to get any closer. Finally, I reached the top floor and the door to the old blue bedroom where we liked to sit in the window seat and look out at our meadow. I heard Mal laughing. I threw open the door … and screamed. There was blood everywhere. The volcra was perched on the window seat and, as it turned on me and opened its horrible jaws, I saw that it had gray quartz eyes.
I bolted awake, my heart thudding in my chest, and looked around in terror. For a moment I couldn’t remember where I was. Then I groaned and flopped back onto the pillows.
I had just started to doze off again when someone began pounding on the door.
“Go away,” I mumbled from beneath the covers. But the pounding only grew louder. I sat up, feeling my whole body shriek in rebellion. My head ached, and when I tried to stand, my legs did not want to cooperate.
“All right!” I shouted. “I’m coming!” The knocking stopped. I stumbled over to the door and reached for the lock, but then I hesitated. “Who is it?”