Forgive me? What was wrong with me? He was the one who wanted to put a collar around my neck and make me a slave, and I was fretting over his forgiveness? I rolled onto my other side, furious with myself.
In my heart, I knew that Baghra was right. I remembered my own words to Mal: He owns us all. I’d said it angrily, without thinking, because I’d wanted to hurt Mal’s pride. But I’d spoken the truth just as surely as Baghra. I knew the Darkling was ruthless and dangerous, but I’d ignored all that, happy to believe in my supposedly great destiny, thrilled to think that I was the one he wanted.
Why don’t you just admit that you wanted to belong to him? said a voice in my head. Why don’t you admit that part of you still does?
I thrust the thought away. I tried to think of what the next day might bring, of what might be the safest route west. I tried to think of anything but the stormcloud color of his eyes.
I LET MYSELF SPEND the next day and night traveling on the Vy, blending in with the traffic that came and went on the way to Os Alta. But I knew that Baghra’s stalling would only buy me so much time, and the main roads were just too risky. From then on, I kept to the woods and fields, using hunters’ trails and farm tracks. It was slow going on foot. My legs ached, and I had blisters on the tops of my toes, but I made myself keep heading west, following the trajectory of the sun in the sky.
At night, I pulled my fur hat low over my ears and huddled shivering in my coat, listening to my belly grumble and making myself picture maps in my head, the maps I had worked on so long ago in the comfort of the Documents Tent. I pictured my own slow progress from Os Alta to Balakirev, skirting the little villages of Chernitsyn, Kerskii, and Polvost, and tried not to give up hope. I had a long way to go to the Fold, but all I could do was keep moving and hope that my luck held.
“You’re still alive,” I whispered to myself in the dark. “You’re still free.”
Occasionally, I encountered farmers or other travelers. I wore my gloves and kept my hand on my knife in case of trouble, but they took little notice of me. I was constantly hungry. I had always been a rotten hunter, so I subsisted on the meager supplies I’d bought back in Balakirev, on water from streams, and the occasional egg or apple stolen from a lonely farm.
I had no idea what the future held or what waited for me at the end of this grueling journey and yet, somehow, I wasn’t miserable. I’d been lonely my whole life, but I’d never been truly alone before, and it wasn’t nearly as scary as I’d imagined.
All the same, when I came upon a tiny whitewashed church one morning, I couldn’t resist slipping inside to hear the priest say Mass. When he finished, he offered prayers for the congregation: for a woman’s son who had been wounded in battle, for an infant who was ill with fever, and for the health of Alina Starkov. I flinched.
“Let the Saints protect the Sun Summoner,” intoned the priest, “she who was sent to deliver us from the evils of the Shadow Fold and make this nation whole again.”
I swallowed hard and ducked quickly out of the church. They pray for you now, I thought bleakly. But if the Darkling has his way, they’ ll come to hate you. And maybe they should. Wasn’t I abandoning Ravka and all the people who believed in me? Only my power could destroy the Fold, and I was running away.
I shook my head. I couldn’t afford to think about any of that right now. I was a traitor and a fugitive. Once I was free of the Darkling, I could worry about Ravka’s future.
I set a fast pace up the trail and into the woods, chased up the hillside by the ringing of church bells.
As I pictured the map in my head, I realized I would soon reach Ryevost, and that meant making a decision about the best way to reach the Shadow Fold. I could follow the river route or head into the Petrazoi, the stony mountains that loomed to the northwest. The river would be easier going, but it would mean passing through heavily populated areas. The mountains were a more direct route, but would be much tougher to traverse.
I debated with myself until I came to the crossroads at Shura, then chose the mountain route. I would have to stop in Ryevost before I headed into the foothills. It was the largest of the river cities, and I knew I was taking a risk, but I also knew I wouldn’t make it through the Petrazoi without more food and some kind of tent or bedroll.
After so many days on my own, the noise and bustle of Ryevost’s crowded streets and canals felt strange to me. I kept my head down and my hat pulled low, sure that I would find posters of my face on every lamppost and shop window. But the deeper I got into the city, the more I began to relax. Maybe word of my disappearance hadn’t spread as far or as fast as I’d expected.
My mouth watered at the smells of roasting lamb and fresh bread, and I treated myself to an apple as I refreshed my supplies of hard cheese and dried meat.
I was tying my new bedroll to my traveling pack and trying to figure out how I was going to lug all the extra weight up the mountainside when I rounded a corner and nearly ran right into a group of soldiers.
My heart slammed into a gallop at the sight of their long olive coats and the rifles on their backs. I wanted to turn on my heel and sprint in the opposite direction, but I kept my head low and forced myself to keep walking at a normal pace. Once I’d passed them, I risked a glance back. They weren’t looking after me suspiciously. In fact, they didn’t seem to be doing much of anything. They were talking and joking, one of them catcalling at a girl hanging out the wash.
I stepped into a side street and waited for my heartbeat to return to normal. What was going on? I’d escaped from the Little Palace well over a week ago. The alarm must have been raised by now. I’d been sure the Darkling would send riders to every regiment in every town. Every member of the First and Second Armies should be looking for me by now.
As I headed out of Ryevost, I saw other soldiers. Some were on leave, others on duty, but none of them seemed to be looking for me. I didn’t know what to make of it. I wondered if I had Baghra to thank. Maybe she’d managed to convince the Darkling that I’d been kidnapped or even killed by Fjerdans. Or maybe he just thought that I’d already made it farther west. I decided not to press my luck and hurried to find my way out of town.
It took me longer than I’d expected, and I didn’t reach the western outskirts of the city until well past nightfall. The streets were dark and empty except for a few disreputable-looking taverns and an old drunk leaning up against a building, singing softly to himself. As I hurried past a noisy inn, the door flew open and a heavyset man toppled out into the street on a burst of light and music.
He grabbed hold of my coat and pulled me close. “Hello, pretty! Have you come to keep me warm?”
I tried to pull away.
“You’re strong for such a little thing.” I could smell the stink of stale beer on his hot breath.
“Let go of me,” I said in a low voice.
“Don’t be like that, lapushka,” he crooned. “We could have fun, you and me.”
“I said let go of me!” I pushed against his chest.
“Not for a bit yet,” he chuckled, pulling me into the shadows of the alley beside the tavern. “I want to show you something.”
I flicked my wrist and felt the comforting weight of the mirror slide between my fingers. My hand shot out and light flared into his eyes in a single quick flash.
He grunted as the light blinded him, throwing his hands up and letting go of me. I did as Botkin had instructed. I stomped down hard on the arch of his foot and then hooked my leg behind his ankle. His legs flew out from under him, and he hit the ground with a thud.
At that moment, the side door to the tavern flew open. A uniformed soldier emerged, a bottle of kvas in one hand and a scantily clad woman clutched in the other. With a wave of dread, I saw that he was dressed in the charcoal uniform of the Darkling’s guard. His bleary glance took in the scene: the man on the ground and me standing over him.
“What’s all this?” he slurred. The girl on his arm tittered.
“I’m blind!” wailed the man on the ground. “She blinded me!”
The oprichnik looked at him and then peered at me. His eyes met mine, and recognition spread across his face. My luck had run out. Even if no one else was looking for me, the Darkling’s guards were.
“You … ,” he whispered.
I bolted down an alleyway and into a maze of narrow streets, my heart pounding in my chest. As soon as I cleared the last few dingy buildings of Ryevost, I hurtled off the road and into the underbrush. Branches stung my cheeks and forehead as I stumbled deeper into the woods.
Behind me rose the sounds of pursuit: men shouting to one another, heavy footfalls through the wood. I wanted to run blindly, but I made myself stop and listen.
They were to the east of me, searching near the road. I couldn’t tell how many there were.
I quieted my breathing and realized I could hear rushing water. There must be a stream nearby, a tributary of the river. If I could make it to the water I could hide my tracks, and they would be hard-pressed to find me in the darkness.
I made for the sounds of the stream, stopping periodically to correct my course. I struggled up a hill so steep I was almost crawling, pulling myself up by branches and exposed tree roots.
“There!” The voice called out from below me, and looking over my shoulder, I saw lights moving through the woods toward the base of the hill. I clawed my way higher, the earth slipping beneath my hands, each breath burning in my lungs. When I got to the top, I dragged myself over the edge and looked down. I felt a surge of hope as I spotted moonlight glimmering off the surface of the stream.
I slid down the steep hill, leaning back to try to keep my balance, moving as fast as I dared. I heard shouts, and when I looked behind me, I saw the shapes of my pursuers silhouetted against the night sky. They had reached the top of the hill.
Panic got the best of me, and I started to run down the slope, sending showers of pebbles clattering down the hill to the stream below. The grade was too steep. I lost my footing and fell forward, scraping both hands as I hit the ground hard and, unable to stop my momentum, somersaulted down the hill and plunged into the freezing water.
For a moment, I thought my heart had stopped. The cold was like a hand, gripping my body in a relentless, icy grip as I tumbled through the water. Then my head broke the surface and I gasped, drawing in precious air before the current grabbed me and pulled me under again. I don’t know how far the water took me. All I thought about was my next breath and the growing numbness in my limbs.
Finally, when I thought I couldn’t fight my way to the surface again, the current drove me into a slow, silent pool. I grabbed hold of a rock and pulled myself into the shallows, dragging myself to my feet, my boots slipping on the smooth river stones as I stumbled under the weight of my sodden coat.
I don’t know how I did it, but I pushed my way into the woods and burrowed under a thick copse of bushes before I let myself collapse, shivering in the cold and still coughing river water.
It was easily the worst night of my life. My coat was soaked through. My feet were numb in my boots. I started at any sound, sure that I’d been found. My fur hat, my pack full of food, and my new bedroll had all been lost somewhere upstream, so my disastrous excursion into Ryevost had been for nothing. My money pouch was gone. At least my knife was still safely sheathed at my hip.