“Stay back,” I warned.
“You aren’t a murderer, Alina,” said the Darkling.
“I think the Ravkans I just helped you slaughter would disagree.”
Panic was spreading through the skiff. The oprichniki looked wary, but they were fanning out to surround me just the same.
“You saw what he did to those people!” I cried to the guards and Grisha around me. “Is that the future you want? A world of darkness? A world remade in his image?” I saw their confusion, their anger and fear. “It’s not too late to stop him! Help me,” I begged. “Please, help me.”
But no one moved. Soldier and Grisha alike stood frozen on the deck. They were all too afraid, afraid of him and afraid of a world without his protection.
The oprichniki inched closer. I had to make a choice. Mal and I wouldn’t have another chance.
So be it, I thought.
I glanced over my shoulder, hoping Mal understood, and then I dove for the side of the skiff.
“Don’t let her reach the railing!” the Darkling shouted.
The guards surged toward me. And I let the light go out.
We were plunged into darkness. People wailed and, above us, I heard the volcra screeching. My outstretched hands struck the railing. I ducked under it and hurled myself onto the sand, rolling to my feet and running blindly toward Mal as I threw the light ahead of me in an arc.
Behind me, I heard the sounds of slaughter on the skiff as the volcra attacked and clouds of Grisha flame exploded in the darkness. But I couldn’t stop to think of the people I’d left behind.
My arc of light flashed over Mal, crouched in the sand. The volcra looming over him screeched and whirled away into the dark. I sprinted toward him and pulled him to his feet.
A bullet pinged against the sand beside us and I plunged us into darkness again.
“Hold your fire!” I heard the Darkling shouting over the chaos on the skiff. “We need her alive!”
I threw out another arc of light, scattering the volcra that were hovering around us.
“You can’t run from me, Alina!” the Darkling shouted.
I couldn’t let him come after us. I couldn’t take the chance that he might survive. But I hated what I had to do. The others on the skiff had failed to come to my aid, but did they deserve to be abandoned to the volcra?
“You can’t leave us all here to die, Alina!” the Darkling shouted. “If you take this step, you know where it will lead.”
I felt a hysterical laugh burble up inside me. I knew. I knew it would make me more like him.
“You begged me for clemency once,” he called over the dead reaches of the Fold, over the hungry shrieks of the horrors he had made. “Is this your idea of mercy?”
Another bullet hit the sand, only inches from us. Yes, I thought as the power rose up inside me, the mercy you taught me.
I raised my hand and brought it down in a blazing arc, slashing through the air. An earth-shaking crack echoed through the Fold as the sandskiff split in half. Raw screams filled the air and the volcra shrieked in their frenzy.
I grabbed Mal’s arm and threw a dome of light around us. We ran, stumbling into the darkness, and soon the sounds of battle faded as we left the monsters behind.
WE EMERGED FROM THE FOLD somewhere south of Novokribirsk and took our first steps in West Ravka. The afternoon sun was bright, the meadow grass green and sweet, but we didn’t stop to savor any of it. We were tired, hungry, and wounded, but our enemies wouldn’t rest, and neither could we.
We walked until we found cover in an orchard and hid there until dark, afraid of being spotted and remembered. The air was thick with the smell of apple blossoms, but the fruit was far too small and green to eat.
There was a bucket full of fetid rainwater sitting beneath our tree, and we used it to wash the worst stains from Mal’s bloodied shirt. He tried not to wince as he pulled the torn fabric over his head, but there was no disguising the deep wounds the volcra’s claws had left across the smooth skin of his shoulder and back.
When night came, we began our trek to the coast. Briefly, I’d worried that we might be lost. But even in a strange country, Mal found the way.
Shortly before dawn, we crested a hill and saw the broad sweep of Alkhem Bay and the glittering lights of Os Kervo below us. We knew we should get off the road. It would soon be bustling with tradesmen and travelers who were sure to notice a cut-up tracker and a girl in a black kefta. But we couldn’t resist our first glimpse of the True Sea.
The sun rose at our backs, pink light gleaming off the city’s slender towers then splintering gold on the waters of the bay. I saw the sprawl of the port, the great ships bobbing in the harbor, and beyond that blue, and blue, and blue again. The sea seemed to go on forever, stretching into an impossibly distant horizon. I had seen plenty of maps. I knew there was land out there somewhere, beyond long weeks of travel and miles of ocean. But I still had the dizzying sense that we were standing at the edge of the world. A breeze came in off the water, carrying the smell of salt and damp, the faint cries of gulls.
“There’s just so much of it,” I said at last.
Mal nodded. Then he turned to me and smiled. “A good place to hide.”
He reached out and slid his hand into my hair. He pulled one of the gold pins from the tangled waves. I felt a curl slide free and slither down my neck.
“For clothes,” he said as he dropped the pin into his pocket.
A day ago, Genya had placed those golden pins in my hair. I would never see her again, never see any of them. My heart twisted. I didn’t know if Genya had ever really been my friend, but I would miss her just the same.
Mal left me waiting a little way off the road, hidden in a stand of trees. We’d agreed it would be safer for him to enter Os Kervo by himself, but it was hard to watch him go. He’d told me to rest, but once he was gone, I couldn’t seem to find sleep. I could still feel power thrumming through my body, the echo of what I’d done on the Fold. My hand strayed to the collar at my neck. I’d never felt anything like it, and some part of me wanted to feel it again.
And what about the people you left there? said a voice in my head that I desperately wanted to ignore. Ambassadors, soldiers, Grisha. I had as good as doomed them all, and I couldn’t even be sure that the Darkling was dead. Had he been torn apart by volcra? Had the lost men and women of the Tula Valley finally had their revenge on the Black Heretic? Or was he, at this very moment, hurtling toward me over the dead reaches of the Unsea, ready to bring down his own kind of reckoning?
I shuddered and paced, flinching at every sound.
By late afternoon, I was convinced that Mal had been identified and captured. When I heard footsteps and saw his familiar form emerge through the trees, I nearly sobbed with relief.
“Any trouble?” I asked shakily, trying to hide my nerves.
“None,” he said. “I’ve never seen a city so crowded with people. No one even gave me a second glance.”
He wore a new shirt and an ill-fitting coat, and his arms were laden with clothes for me: a sacklike dress in a red so faded it looked almost orange and a nubbly mustard-colored coat. He handed them to me and then tactfully turned his back so that I could change.
I fumbled with the tiny black buttons of the kefta. There seemed to be a thousand of them. When the silk finally slid over my shoulders and pooled at my feet, I felt a great burden lift from me. The cool spring air pricked my bare skin and, for the first time, I dared to hope that we might really be free. I quashed that thought. Until I knew the Darkling was dead, I would never draw an easy breath.
I pulled on the rough wool dress and the yellow coat.
“Did you deliberately buy the ugliest clothes you could find?”
Mal turned to look at me and couldn’t restrain a smile. “I bought the first clothes I could find,” he said. Then his grin faded. He touched my cheek lightly, and when he spoke again, his voice was low and raw. “I never want to see you in black again.”
I held his gaze. “Never,” I whispered.
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a long red scarf. Gently, he wrapped it around my neck, hiding Morozova’s collar. “There,” he said, smiling again. “Perfect.”
“What am I going to do when summer comes?” I laughed.
“By then we’ll have found a way to get rid of it.”
“No!” I said sharply, surprised by how much the idea upset me. Mal recoiled, taken aback. “We can’t get rid of it,” I explained. “It’s Ravka’s only chance to be free of the Shadow Fold.”
It was the truth—just not all of it. We did need the collar. It was insurance against the Darkling’s strength and a promise that someday we’d return to Ravka and find a way to set things right. But what I couldn’t tell Mal was that the collar belonged to me, that the stag’s power felt like a part of me now, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to let it go.
Mal studied me, his brow furrowed. I thought of the Darkling’s warnings, of the bleak look I’d seen in his face and in Baghra’s.
I tried for a reassuring smile. “We’ll get rid of it,” I promised. “As soon as we can.”
Seconds passed. “All right,” he said at last, but his expression was still wary. Then, he pushed the crumpled kefta with the toe of his boot. “What should we do with this?”
I looked down at the heap of tattered silk and felt anger and shame roll over me.
“Burn it,” I said. And we did.
As the flames consumed the silk, Mal slowly pulled the rest of the golden pins from my curls, one by one, until my hair tumbled around my shoulders. Gently, he pushed my hair aside and kissed my neck, right above the collar. When the tears came, he pulled me close and held me, until there was nothing left but ashes.
THE BOY AND THE GIRL stand at the railing of the ship, a true ship that rolls and rocks on the heaving back of the True Sea.
“Goed morgen, fentomen!” a deckhand shouts to them as he passes by, his arms full of rope.
All the ship’s crew call them fentomen. It is the Kerch word for ghosts.
When the girl asks the quartermaster why, he laughs and says it’s because they are so pale and because of the way they stand silent at the ship’s railing, staring at the sea for hours, as if they’ve never seen water before. She smiles and does not tell him the truth: that they must keep their eyes on the horizon. They are watching for a ship with black sails.
Baghra’s Verloren was long gone, so they had hidden in the slums of Os Kervo until the boy could use the gold pins from her hair to book passage on another ship. The city buzzed with the horror of what had happened in Novokribirsk. Some blamed the Darkling. Others blamed the Shu Han or Fjerdans. A few even claimed it was the righteous work of angry Saints.
Rumors began to reach them of strange happenings in Ravka. They heard that the Apparat had disappeared, that foreign troops were massing on the borders, that the First and Second Armies were threatening to go to war with each other, that the Sun Summoner was dead. They waited to hear word of the Darkling’s death on the Fold, but it never came.