“Hey, Ruby,” he called. “See you later?”
Ruby giggled and scampered off into the crowd. Mal grinned broadly until he caught my eye roll.
“What? I thought you liked Ruby.”
“As it happens, we don’t have much to talk about,” I said drily. I actually had liked Ruby—at first. When Mal and I left the orphanage at Keramzin to train for our military service in Poliznaya, I’d been nervous about meeting new people. But lots of girls had been excited to befriend me, and Ruby had been among the most eager. Those friendships lasted as long as it took me to figure out that their only interest in me lay in my proximity to Mal.
Now I watched him stretch his arms expansively and turn his face up to the autumn sky, looking perfectly content. There was even, I noted with some disgust, a little bounce in his step.
“What is wrong with you?” I whispered furiously.
“Nothing,” he said, surprised. “I feel great.”
“But how can you be so … so jaunty?”
“Jaunty? I’ve never been jaunty. I hope never to be jaunty.”
“Well, then what’s all this?” I asked, waving a hand at him. “You look like you’re on your way to a really good dinner instead of possible death and dismemberment.”
Mal laughed. “You worry too much. The King’s sent a whole group of Grisha pyros to cover the skiffs, and even a few of those creepy Heartrenders. We have our rifles,” he said, patting the one on his back. “We’ll be fine.”
“A rifle won’t make much difference if there’s a bad attack.”
Mal gave me a bemused glance. “What’s with you lately? You’re even grumpier than usual. And you look terrible.”
“Thanks,” I groused. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“What else is new?”
He was right, of course. I’d never slept well. But it had been even worse over the last few days. Saints knew I had plenty of good reasons to dread going into the Fold, reasons shared by every member of our regiment who had been unlucky enough to be chosen for the crossing. But there was something else, a deeper feeling of unease that I couldn’t quite name.
I glanced at Mal. There had been a time when I could have told him anything. “I just … have this feeling.”
“Stop worrying so much. Maybe they’ll put Mikhael on the skiff. The volcra will take one look at that big juicy belly of his and leave us alone.”
Unbidden, a memory came to me: Mal and I, sitting side by side in a chair in the Duke’s library, flipping through the pages of a large leather-bound book. We’d happened on an illustration of a volcra: long, filthy claws; leathery wings; and rows of razor-sharp teeth for feasting on human flesh. They were blind from generations spent living and hunting in the Fold, but legend had it they could smell human blood from miles away. I’d pointed to the page and asked, “What is it holding?”
I could still hear Mal’s whisper in my ear. “I think—I think it’s a foot.” We’d slammed the book shut and run squealing out into the safety of the sunlight … .
Without realizing it, I’d stopped walking, frozen in place, unable to shake the memory from my mind. When Mal realized I wasn’t with him, he gave a great beleaguered sigh and marched back to me. He rested his hands on my shoulders and gave me a little shake.
“I was kidding. No one’s going to eat Mikhael.”
“I know,” I said, staring down at my boots. “You’re hilarious.”
“Alina, come on. We’ll be fine.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Look at me.” I willed myself to raise my eyes to his. “I know you’re scared. I am, too. But we’re going to do this, and we’re going to be fine. We always are. Okay?” He smiled, and my heart gave a very loud thud in my chest.
I rubbed my thumb over the scar that ran across the palm of my right hand and took a shaky breath. “Okay,” I said grudgingly, and I actually felt myself smiling back.
“Madam’s spirits have been restored!” Mal shouted. “The sun can once more shine!”
“Oh will you shut up?”
I turned to give him a punch, but before I could, he’d grabbed hold of me and lifted me off my feet. A clatter of hooves and shouts split the air. Mal yanked me to the side of the road just as a huge black coach roared past, scattering people before it as they ran to avoid the pounding hooves of four black horses. Beside the whip-wielding driver perched two soldiers in charcoal coats.
The Darkling. There was no mistaking his black coach or the uniform of his personal guard.
Another coach, this one lacquered red, rumbled past us at a more leisurely pace.
I looked up at Mal, my heart racing from the close call. “Thanks,” I whispered. Mal suddenly seemed to realize that he had his arms around me. He let go and hastily stepped back. I brushed the dust from my coat, hoping he wouldn’t notice the flush on my cheeks.
A third coach rolled by, lacquered in blue, and a girl leaned out the window. She had curling black hair and wore a hat of silver fox. She scanned the watching crowd and, predictably, her eyes lingered on Mal.
You were just mooning over him, I chided myself. Why shouldn’t some gorgeous Grisha do the same?
Her lips curled into a small smile as she held Mal’s gaze, watching him over her shoulder until the coach was out of sight. Mal goggled dumbly after her, his mouth slightly open.
“Close your mouth before something flies in,” I snapped.
Mal blinked, still looking dazed.
“Did you see that?” a voice bellowed. I turned to see Mikhael loping toward us, wearing an almost comical expression of awe. Mikhael was a huge redhead with a wide face and an even wider neck. Behind him, Dubrov, reedy and dark, hurried to catch up. They were both trackers in Mal’s unit and never far from his side.
“Of course I saw it,” Mal said, his dopey expression evaporating into a cocky grin. I rolled my eyes.
“She looked right at you!” shouted Mikhael, clapping Mal on the back.
Mal gave a casual shrug, but his smile widened. “So she did,” he said smugly.
Dubrov shifted nervously. “They say Grisha girls can put spells on you.”
Mikhael looked at me as if he hadn’t even known I was there. “Hey, Sticks,” he said, and gave me a little jab on the arm. I scowled at the nickname, but he had already turned back to Mal. “You know she’ll be staying at camp,” he said with a leer.
“I hear the Grisha tent’s as big as a cathedral,” added Dubrov.
“Lots of nice shadowy nooks,” said Mikhael, and actually waggled his brows.
Mal whooped. Without sparing me another glance, the three of them strode off, shouting and shoving one another.
“Great seeing you guys,” I muttered under my breath. I readjusted the strap of the satchel slung across my shoulders and started back down the road, joining the last few stragglers down the hill and into Kribirsk. I didn’t bother to hurry. I’d probably get yelled at when I finally made it to the Documents Tent, but there was nothing I could do about it now.
I rubbed my arm where Mikhael had punched me. Sticks. I hated that name. You didn’t call me Sticks when you were drunk on kvas and trying to paw me at the spring bonfire, you miserable oaf, I thought spitefully.
Kribirsk wasn’t much to look at. According to the Senior Cartographer, it had been a sleepy market town in the days before the Shadow Fold, little more than a dusty main square and an inn for weary travelers on the Vy. But now it had become a kind of ramshackle port city, growing up around a permanent military encampment and the drydocks where the sandskiffs waited to take passengers through the darkness to West Ravka. I passed taverns and pubs and what I was pretty sure were brothels meant to cater to the troops of the King’s Army. There were shops selling rifles and crossbows, lamps and torches, all necessary equipment for a trek across the Fold. The little church with its whitewashed walls and gleaming onion domes was in surprisingly good repair. Or maybe not so surprising, I considered. Anyone contemplating a trip across the Shadow Fold would be smart to stop and pray.
I found my way to where the surveyors were billeted, deposited my pack on a cot, and hurried over to the Documents Tent. To my relief, the Senior Cartographer was nowhere in sight, and I was able to slip inside unseen.
Entering the white canvas tent, I felt myself relax for the first time since I’d caught sight of the Fold. The Documents Tent was essentially the same in every camp I’d seen, full of bright light and rows of drafting tables where artists and surveyors bent to their work. After the noise and jostle of the journey, there was something soothing about the crackle of paper, the smell of ink, and the soft scratching of nibs and brushes.
I pulled my sketchbook from my coat pocket and slid onto a workbench beside Alexei, who turned to me and whispered irritably, “Where have you been?”
“Nearly getting trampled by the Darkling’s coach,” I replied, grabbing a clean piece of paper and flipping through my sketches to try to find a suitable one to copy. Alexei and I were both junior cartographers’ assistants and, as part of our training, we had to submit two finished sketches or renderings at the end of every day.
Alexei drew in a sharp breath. “Really? Did you actually see him?”
“Actually, I was too busy trying not to die.”
“There are worse ways to go.” He caught sight of the sketch of a rocky valley I was about to start copying. “Ugh. Not that one.” He flipped through my sketchbook to an elevation of a mountain ridge and tapped it with his finger. “There.”
I barely had time to put pen to paper before the Senior Cartographer entered the tent and came swooping down the aisle, observing our work as he passed.
“I hope that’s the second sketch you’re starting, Alina Starkov.”
“Yes,” I lied. “Yes, it is.”
As soon as the Cartographer had passed on, Alexei whispered, “Tell me about the coach.”
“I have to finish my sketches.”
“Here,” he said in exasperation, sliding one of his sketches over to me.
“He’ll know it’s your work.”
“It’s not that good. You should be able to pass it off as yours.”
“Now there’s the Alexei I know and tolerate,” I grumbled, but I didn’t give back the sketch. Alexei was one of the most talented assistants and he knew it.
Alexei extracted every last detail from me about the three Grisha coaches. I was grateful for the sketch, so I did my best to satisfy his curiosity as I finished up my elevation of the mountain ridge and worked in my thumb measurements of some of the highest peaks.
By the time we were finished, dusk was falling. We handed in our work and walked to the mess tent, where we stood in line for muddy stew ladled out by a sweaty cook and found seats with some of the other surveyors.
I passed the meal in silence, listening to Alexei and the others exchange camp gossip and jittery talk about tomorrow’s crossing. Alexei insisted that I retell the story of the Grisha coaches, and it was met by the usual mix of fascination and fear that greeted any mention of the Darkling.