The Darkling was going to kill Mal anyway. What difference did it make who saw my misery now? The reality of Mal’s death and the Darkling’s cruelty were staring me in the face, and I saw the stark and horrible shape of things to come.
Ivan yanked me into my tent and gave me a rough shake. “Do you want to see the tracker or not? I’m not going to march a weeping girl through camp.”
I pressed my hands against my eyes and stifled my sobs.
“Better,” he said. “Put this on.” He tossed me a long brown cloak. I slipped it over my kefta, and he yanked the large hood up. “Keep your head down and stay quiet, or I swear I’ll drag you right back here and you can say your goodbyes on the Fold. Understand?”
We followed an unlit path that skirted the perimeter of the camp. My guards kept their distance, walking far ahead and far behind us, and I quickly realized that Ivan did not want anyone to recognize me or to know I was visiting the jail.
As we walked between the barracks and tents, I could sense a strange tension crackling through the camp. The soldiers we passed seemed jumpy, and a few glared at Ivan with blatant hostility. I wondered how the First Army felt about the Apparat’s sudden rise to power.
The jail was located on the far side of camp. It was an older building, clearly from a time predating the barracks that surrounded it. Bored guards flanked the entrance.
“New prisoner?” one of them asked Ivan.
“Since when do you escort visitors to the cells?”
“Since tonight,” Ivan said, a dangerous edge to his voice.
The guards exchanged a nervous glance and stepped aside. “No need to get antsy, bloodletter.”
Ivan led me down a hallway lined with mostly empty cells. I saw a few ragged men, a drunk snoring soundly on the floor of his cell. At the end of the hall, Ivan unlocked a gate, and we descended a set of rickety stairs to a dark, windowless room lit by a single guttering lamp. In the gloom, I could make out the heavy iron bars of the room’s only cell and, sitting slumped by its far wall, its only prisoner.
“Mal?” I whispered.
In seconds, he was on his feet and we were clinging to each other through the iron bars, our hands clasped tightly together. I couldn’t stop the sobs that shook me.
“Shhhh. It’s okay. Alina, it’s okay.”
“You have the night,” said Ivan, and disappeared back up the stairs. When we heard the outer gate clang shut, Mal turned to me.
His eyes roved over my face. “I can’t believe he let you come.”
Fresh tears spilled over my cheeks. “Mal, he let me come because …”
“When?” he asked hoarsely.
“Tomorrow. On the Shadow Fold.”
He swallowed, and I could see him struggle with the knowledge, but all he said was, “All right.”
I let out a sound that was half laugh, half sob. “Only you could contemplate imminent death and just say ‘all right.’”
He smiled at me and pushed the hair back from my tear-stained face. “How about ‘oh no’?”
“Mal, if I’d been stronger …”
“If I’d been stronger, I would have driven a knife through your heart.”
“I wish you had,” I muttered.
“Well, I don’t.”
I looked down at our clasped hands. “Mal, what the Darkling said in the glade about … about him and me. I didn’t … I never …”
“It doesn’t matter.”
I looked up at him. “It doesn’t?”
“No,” he said a little too fiercely.
“I don’t think I believe you.”
“So maybe I don’t believe it yet either, not completely, but it’s the truth.” He clutched my hands more tightly, holding them close to his heart. “I don’t care if you danced naked on the roof of the Little Palace with him. I love you, Alina, even the part of you that loved him.”
I wanted to deny it, to erase it, but I couldn’t. Another sob shook me. “I hate that I ever thought … that I ever—”
“Do you blame me for every mistake I made? For every girl I tumbled? For every dumb thing I’ve said? Because if we start running tallies on stupid, you know who’s going to come out ahead.”
“No, I don’t blame you.” I managed a small smile. “Much.”
He grinned and my heart flip-flopped the way it always had. “We found our way back to each other, Alina. That’s all that matters.”
He kissed me through the bars, the cold iron pressing against my cheek as his lips met mine.
We stayed together that last night. We talked about the orphanage, the angry rasp of Ana Kuya’s voice, the taste of stolen cherry cordial, the smell of the new-mown grass in our meadow, how we’d suffered in the heat of summer and sought out the cool comfort of the music room’s marble floors, the journey we’d made together on the way to do our military service, the Suli violins we’d heard our first night away from the only home either of us could remember.
I told him the story of the day I’d been mending pottery with one of the maids in the kitchen at Keramzin, waiting for him to return from one of the hunting trips that had taken him from home more and more frequently. I’d been fifteen, standing at the counter, vainly trying to glue together the jagged pieces of a blue cup. When I saw him crossing the fields, I ran to the doorway and waved. He caught sight of me and broke into a jog.
I had crossed the yard to him slowly, watching him draw closer, baffled by the way my heart was skittering around in my chest. Then he’d picked me up and spun me in a circle, and I’d clung to him, breathing in his sweet, familiar smell, shocked by how much I’d missed him. Dimly, I’d been aware that I still had a shard of the blue cup in my hand, that it was digging into my palm, but I didn’t want to let go.
When he finally set me down and ambled off to the kitchen to find his lunch, I had stood there, my palm dripping blood, my head still spinning, knowing that everything had changed.
Ana Kuya had scolded me for getting blood on the clean kitchen floor. She’d bandaged my hand and told me it would heal. But I knew it would just go on hurting.
In the creaking silence of the cell, Mal kissed the scar on my palm, the wound made so long ago by the edge of that broken cup, a fragile thing I’d thought beyond repair.
We fell asleep on the floor, cheeks pressed together through the bars, hands clasped tight. I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted to savor every last moment with him. But I must have dozed off because I dreamed again of the stag. This time, Mal was beside me in the glade, and it was his blood in the snow.
The next thing I knew, I was waking to the sound of the gate being opened above us and Ivan’s footsteps on the stairs.
Mal had made me promise not to cry. He’d said it would only make it harder on him. So I swallowed my tears. I kissed him one last time and let Ivan lead me away.
DAWN WAS CREEPING over Kribirsk as Ivan brought me back to my tent. I sat down on my cot and stared unseeingly at the room. My limbs felt strangely heavy, my mind a blank. I was still sitting there when Genya arrived.
She helped me wash my face and change into the black kefta I’d worn to the winter fete. I looked down at the silk and thought of tearing it to shreds, but somehow I couldn’t manage to move. My hands stayed limp at my sides.
Genya steered me into the painted chair. I sat still as she arranged my hair, piling it onto my head in loops and coils that she secured with golden pins, the better to show off Morozova’s collar.
When she had finished, she pressed her cheek against mine and led me to Ivan, placing my hand on his arm like a bride. Not a word had passed between us.
Ivan led me to the Grisha tent, where I took my place by the Darkling’s side. I knew that my friends were watching me, whispering, wondering what was wrong. They probably thought I was nervous about entering the Fold. They were wrong. I wasn’t nervous or frightened. I wasn’t anything anymore.
The Grisha followed us in an ordered processional all the way to the drydocks. There, only a select few were permitted to board the sandskiff. It was larger than any I’d seen and equipped with three enormous sails emblazoned with the Darkling’s symbol. I scanned the crowd of soldiers and Grisha on the skiff. I knew Mal must be on board somewhere, but I couldn’t see him.
The Darkling and I were escorted to the front of the skiff, where I was introduced to a group of elaborately dressed men with blond beards and piercing blue eyes. With a start, I realized they were Fjerdan ambassadors. Beside them, in crimson silks, stood a delegation from the Shu Han, and next to them, a group of Kerch tradesmen in shortcoats with curiously belled sleeves. An envoy of the King stood with them in full military dress, his pale blue sash bearing a golden double eagle, a stern expression on his weathered countenance.
I studied them curiously. This must be why the Darkling had delayed our trip into the Fold. He’d needed time to assemble the proper audience, witnesses who would attest to his newfound power. But just how far did he intend to go? A feeling of foreboding stirred inside me, disturbing the lovely numbness that had held me in its grip all morning.
The skiff shuddered and began to slide over the grass and into the eerie black mist of the Fold. Three Summoners raised their arms and the great sails snapped forward, swelling with wind.
The first time I’d entered the Fold, I’d feared the darkness and my own death. Now, darkness was nothing to me, and I knew that soon death would seem like a gift. I’d always known I would have to return to the Unsea, but as I looked back, I realized that some part of me had anticipated it. I had welcomed the chance to prove myself and—I cringed when I thought of it—to please the Darkling. I had dreamed of this moment, standing by his side. I had wanted to believe in the destiny he’d laid out for me, that the orphan no one wanted would change the world and be adored for it.
The Darkling stared ahead, radiating confidence and ease. The sun flickered and began to disappear from view. A moment later, we were in darkness.
For a long while, we drifted in the black, the Grisha Squallers driving the skiffs forward over the sand.
Then, the Darkling’s voice rang out. “Burn.”
Huge clouds of flame burst from the Inferni on either side of the skiff, briefly illuminating the night sky. The ambassadors and even the guards around me stirred nervously. The Darkling was announcing our location, calling the volcra directly to us.
It didn’t take long for them to answer, and a tremor ran up my spine as I heard the distant beat of leathery wings. I felt fear spread through the passengers on the skiff and heard the Fjerdans begin to pray in their lilting tongue. In the flare of Grisha fire, I saw the dim shapes of dark bodies flying toward us. The volcras’ shrieks split the air.
The guards reached for their rifles. Someone began to weep. But still the Darkling waited as the volcra drew closer.
Baghra had claimed that the volcra had once been men and women, victims of the unnatural power unleashed by the Darkling’s greed. It might have been my mind playing tricks, but I thought I heard something not just horrible, but human in their cries.