I’d brought us to this. If I’d taken the stag’s life, his power would have been mine. I’d known what mercy might cost us. My freedom. Mal’s life. The lives of countless others. And still I’d been too weak to do what needed to be done.
That night, I dreamed of the stag. I saw the Darkling cut his throat again and again. I saw the life fading from his dark eyes. But when I looked down, it was my blood that spilled red into the snow.
With a gasp, I woke to the sounds of the camp coming to life around me. The tent flap opened and a Heartrender appeared. She cut me loose from the tent pole and dragged me to my feet. My body creaked and popped in protest, stiff from a night spent sitting in a cramped position.
The Heartrender led me over to where the horses were already saddled and the Darkling stood talking quietly to Ivan and the other Grisha. I looked around for Mal and felt a sudden jab of panic when I couldn’t find him, but then I saw an oprichnik pull him from the other tent.
“What do we do with him?” the guard asked Ivan.
“Let the traitor walk,” Ivan replied. “And when he gets too tired, let the horses drag him.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but before I could say a word, the Darkling spoke.
“No,” he said, gracefully mounting his horse. “I want him alive when we reach the Shadow Fold.”
The guard shrugged and helped Mal mount his horse, then tied his shackled hands to the saddle horn. I felt a rush of relief followed by a sharp prickle of fear. Did the Darkling intend for Mal to stand trial? Or did he have something far worse in mind for him? He’s still alive, I told myself, and that means there’s still a chance to save him.
“Ride with her,” the Darkling said to Ivan. “Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.” He didn’t spare me another glance as he kicked his horse into a trot.
We rode for hours through the forest, past the plateau where Mal and I had waited for the herd. I could just see the boulders where we’d spent the night, and I wondered if the light that had kept us alive through the snowstorm had been the very thing that led the Darkling to us.
I knew he was taking us back to Kribirsk, but I hated to think what might be waiting for me there. Who would the Darkling choose to move against first? Would he launch a fleet of sandskiffs north to Fjerda? Or did he intend to march south to drive the Fold into the Shu Han? Whose deaths would be on my hands?
It took another night and day of travel before we reached the wide roads that would lead us south to the Vy. We were met at the crossroads by a huge contingent of armed men, most of them in oprichniki gray. They brought fresh horses and the Darkling’s coach. Ivan dumped me on the velvet cushions with little ceremony and climbed inside after me. Then, with a snap of the reins, we were moving again.
Ivan insisted we keep the curtains drawn, but I snuck a peek outside and saw that we were flanked by heavily armed riders. It was hard not to be reminded of the first trip I’d made with Ivan in this same vehicle.
The soldiers made camp at night, but I was kept in isolation, confined to the Darkling’s coach. Ivan brought me my meals, clearly disgusted at having to play nursemaid. He refused to speak to me as we rode and threatened to slow my pulse enough to send me into unconsciousness if I persisted in asking about Mal. But I asked every day anyway and kept my eyes trained on the little crack of window visible between curtain and coach, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
I slept poorly. Every night, I dreamed of the snowy glade, and the stag’s dark eyes, staring at me in the stillness. It was a nightly reminder of my failure and the sorrow my mercy had reaped. The stag had died anyway, and now Mal and I were doomed. Every morning, I woke with a fresh sense of guilt and shame, but also with the frustrating feeling that I was forgetting something, some message that had been clear and obvious in the dream but that hovered just outside of understanding when I woke.
I didn’t see the Darkling again until we reached the outskirts of Kribirsk, when the door to the coach suddenly opened and he slid into the seat opposite me. Ivan vanished without a word.
“Where’s Mal?” I asked as soon as the door had closed.
I saw the fingers of his gloved hand clench, but when he spoke, his voice was as cold and smooth as ever. “We’re entering Kribirsk,” he said. “When we are greeted by the other Grisha, you will not say a word about your little excursion.”
My jaw dropped. “They don’t know?”
“All they know is that you’ve been in seclusion, preparing for your crossing of the Shadow Fold with prayer and rest.”
A dry bark of laughter escaped me. “I certainly look well rested.”
“I’ll say you’ve been fasting.”
“That’s why none of the soldiers in Ryevost were looking for me,” I said with dawning understanding. “You never told the King.”
“If word of your disappearance had gotten out, you would have been hunted down and killed by Fjerdan assassins within days.”
“And you would have had to account for losing the kingdom’s only Sun Summoner.”
The Darkling studied me for a long moment. “Just what kind of life do you think you could have with him, Alina? He’s otkazat’sya. He can never hope to understand your power, and if he did, he’d only come to fear you. There is no ordinary life for people like you and me.”
“I’m nothing like you,” I said flatly.
His lips curled in a tight, bitter smile. “Of course not,” he said courteously. Then he knocked on the roof of the coach and it rolled to a stop. “When we arrive, you’ll say your hellos, then plead exhaustion and retire to your tent. And if you do anything reckless, I will torture the tracker until he begs me to take his life.”
And he was gone.
I rode the rest of the way into Kribirsk alone, trying to stop trembling. Mal is alive, I told myself. That’s all that matters. But another thought crept in. Maybe the Darkling is letting you believe he’s still alive just to keep you in line. I wrapped my arms around myself, praying that it wasn’t true.
I pulled back the curtains as we rode through Kribirsk and felt a pang of sadness as I remembered walking this same road so many months ago. I’d nearly been crushed by the very coach I was riding in. Mal had saved me, and Zoya had looked at him from the window of the Summoners’ coach. I’d wished to be like her, a beautiful girl in a blue kefta.
When we finally pulled up to the immense black silk tent, a crowd of Grisha swarmed around the coach. Marie and Ivo and Sergei rushed forward to greet me. I was surprised at how good it felt to see them again.
As they caught sight of me, their excitement vanished, replaced by worry and concern. They’d expected a triumphant Sun Summoner, wearing the greatest amplifier ever known, radiant with power and the favor of the Darkling. Instead, they saw a pale, tired girl, broken by misery.
“Are you all right?” Marie whispered when she hugged me.
“Yes,” I promised. “Just worn out from the journey.”
I did my best to smile convincingly and reassure them. I tried to feign enthusiasm as they marveled at Morozova’s collar and reached out to touch it.
The Darkling was never far from view, a warning in his eyes, and I kept moving through the crowd, grinning until my cheeks hurt.
As we passed through the Grisha pavilion, I caught sight of Zoya sulking on a pile of cushions. She stared greedily at the collar as I passed. You’re welcome to it, I thought bitterly, and hurried my steps.
Ivan led me to a private tent close to the Darkling’s quarters. Fresh clothes were waiting on my camp cot along with a tub of hot water and my blue kefta. It had only been a few weeks, but it felt strange to wear Summoners’ colors again.
The Darkling’s guards were stationed all around the perimeter of my tent. Only I knew they were there to monitor as well as protect me. The tent was luxuriously appointed with piles of furs, a painted table and chairs, and a Fabrikator mirror, clear as water and inlaid with gold. I would have traded it all in an instant to shiver beside Mal on a threadbare blanket.
I had no visitors, and I spent my days pacing back and forth with nothing to do but worry and imagine the worst. I didn’t know why the Darkling was waiting to enter the Shadow Fold or what he might be planning, and my guards certainly weren’t interested in discussing it.
On the fourth night, when the flap of my tent opened, I nearly fell off my cot. There was Genya, holding my dinner tray and looking impossibly gorgeous. I sat up, unsure of what to say.
She entered and set down the tray, hovering near the table. “I shouldn’t be here,” she said.
“Probably not,” I admitted. “I’m not sure that I’m supposed to have visitors.”
“No, I mean I shouldn’t be here. It’s incredibly dirty.”
I laughed, suddenly very glad to see her. She smiled slightly and settled herself gracefully on the edge of the painted chair.
“They’re saying you’ve been in seclusion, preparing for your ordeal,” she said.
I examined Genya’s face, trying to glean how much she knew. “I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye before I … went away,” I said carefully.
“If you had, I would have stopped you.”
So she knew I’d run. “How’s Baghra?”
“No one’s seen her since you left. She seems to have gone into seclusion, too.”
I shuddered. I hoped that Baghra had escaped, but I knew it was unlikely. What price had the Darkling exacted for her betrayal?
I bit my lip, hesitating, and then decided to take what might be my only chance. “Genya, if I could get word to the King. I’m sure he doesn’t know what the Darkling is planning. He—”
“Alina,” Genya interrupted, “the King has taken ill. The Apparat is ruling in his stead.”
My heart sank. I remembered what the Darkling had said the day that I’d met the Apparat: He has his uses.
And yet, the priest hadn’t just spoken of toppling Kings, but Darklings as well. Had he been trying to warn me? If only I’d been less fearful. If only I’d been more willing to listen. More regrets to add to my long list. I didn’t know if the Apparat was truly loyal to the Darkling or if he might be playing a deeper game. And now there was no way to find out.
The hope that the King might have the desire or will to oppose the Darkling had been a slim one, but it had given me something to hold on to over the last few days. Now that hope was undone, too. “What about the Queen?” I asked with faint optimism.
A fierce little smile passed over Genya’s lips. “The Queen is confined to her quarters. For her own safety, of course. Contagion, you know.”
That was when I realized what Genya was wearing. I’d been so surprised to see her, so caught up in my own thoughts, that I hadn’t really taken it in. Genya was wearing red. Corporalki red. Her cuffs were embroidered with blue, a combination I had never seen before.
A chill slid up my spine. What role had Genya played in the King’s sudden illness? What had she traded to wear full Grisha colors?
“I see,” I said quietly.