“The girl?” Ivan asked.
“Rides with me,” said the Darkling.
He left me by his horse as he went to confer with Ivan and his captains. I was relieved to see Fedyor with them, clutching his arm but looking otherwise uninjured. I patted the horse’s sweaty flank and breathed in the clean leather smell of the saddle, trying to slow the beating of my heart and to ignore what I knew lay behind me on the hillside.
A few minutes later, I saw soldiers and Grisha mounting their horses. Several men had finished clearing the tree from the road, and others were riding out with the much-battered coach.
“A decoy,” said the Darkling, coming up beside me. “We’ll take the southern trails. It’s what we should have done in the first place.”
“So you do make mistakes,” I said without thinking.
He paused in the act of pulling on his gloves, and I pressed my lips together nervously. “I didn’t mean—”
“Of course I make mistakes,” he said. His mouth curved into a half smile. “Just not often.”
He raised his hood and offered me his hand to help me onto the horse. For a moment, I hesitated. He stood before me, a dark rider, cloaked in black, his features in shadow. The image of the severed man loomed up in my mind, and my stomach turned.
As if he’d read my thoughts, he repeated, “I did what I had to, Alina.”
I knew that. He had saved my life. And what other choice did I have? I put my hand in his and let the Darkling help me into the saddle. He slid up behind me and kicked the horse into a trot.
As we left the glen, I felt the reality of what had just happened sink into me.
“You’re shaking,” he said.
“I’m not used to people trying to kill me.”
“Really? I hardly notice anymore.”
I turned to look at him. That trace of a smile was still there, but I wasn’t entirely sure he was kidding. I turned back around and said, “And I did just see a man get sliced in half.” I kept my voice light, but I couldn’t hide the fact that I was still trembling.
The Darkling switched his reins to one hand and pulled off one of his gloves. I stiffened as I felt him slide his bare palm under my hair and rest it on the nape of my neck. My surprise gave way to calm as that same sense of power and surety flooded through me. With one hand cupping my head, he kicked the horse into a canter. I closed my eyes and tried not to think, and soon, despite the movement of the horse, despite the terrors of the day, I fell into a troubled sleep.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS passed in a blur of discomfort and exhaustion. We stayed off of the Vy and kept to side roads and narrow hunting trails, moving as quickly as the hilly and sometimes treacherous terrain would allow. I lost all sense of where we were or how far we had gone.
After the first day, the Darkling and I had ridden separately, but I found that I was always aware of where he was in the column of riders. He didn’t say a word to me, and as the hours and days wore on, I started to worry that I’d somehow offended him. (Though, given how little we’d spoken, I wasn’t sure how I could have managed it.) Occasionally, I caught him looking at me, his eyes cool and unreadable.
I’d never been a particularly good rider, and the pace the Darkling set was taking its toll. No matter which way I shifted in my saddle, some part of my body ached. I stared listlessly at my horse’s twitching ears and tried not to think of my burning legs or the throbbing in my lower back. On the fifth night, when we stopped to make camp at an abandoned farm, I wanted to leap from my horse in joy. But I was so stiff that I settled for sliding awkwardly to the ground. I thanked the soldier who saw to my mount and waddled slowly down a small hill to where I could hear the soft gurgle of a stream.
I knelt by the bank on shaky legs and washed my face and hands in the cold water. The air had changed over the last couple of days, and the bright blue skies of autumn were giving way to sullen gray. The soldiers seemed to think that we would reach Os Alta before any real weather came on. And then what? What would happen to me when we reached the Little Palace? What would happen when I couldn’t do what they wanted me to do? It wasn’t wise to disappoint kings. Or Darklings. I doubted they’d just send me back to the regiment with a pat on the back. I wondered if Mal was still in Kribirsk. If his wounds had healed, he might already have been sent back across the Fold or on to some other assignment. I thought of his face disappearing into the crowd in the Grisha tent. I hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye.
In the gathering dusk, I stretched my arms and back and tried to shake the feeling of gloom that had settled over me. It’s probably for the best, I told myself. How would I have said goodbye to Mal anyway? Thanks for being my best friend and making my life bearable. Oh, and sorry I fell in love with you for a while there. Make sure to write!
“What are you smiling at?”
I whirled, peering into the gloom. The Darkling’s voice seemed to float out of the shadows. He walked down to the stream, crouching on the bank to splash water on his face and through his dark hair.
“Well?” he asked, looking up at me.
“Myself,” I admitted.
“Are you that funny?”
The Darkling regarded me in what remained of the twilight. I had the disquieting sensation that I was being studied. Other than a bit of dust on his kefta, our trek seemed to have taken little toll on him. My skin prickled with embarrassment as I became keenly aware of my torn, too-large kefta, my dirty hair, and the bruise the Fjerdan assassin had left on my cheek. Was he looking at me and regretting his decision to drag me all this way? Was he thinking that he’d made another of his infrequent mistakes?
“I’m not Grisha,” I blurted.
“The evidence suggests otherwise,” he said with little concern. “What makes you so certain?”
“Look at me!”
“Do I look like a Grisha to you?” Grisha were beautiful. They didn’t have spotty skin and dull brown hair and scrawny arms.
He shook his head and rose. “You don’t understand at all,” he said, and began walking back up the hill.
“Are you going to explain it to me?”
“Not right now, no.”
I was so furious I wanted to smack him on the back of his head. And if I hadn’t seen him cut a man in half, I might have done just that. I settled for glaring at the space between his shoulder blades as I followed him up the hill.
Inside the farm’s broken-down barn, the Darkling’s men had cleared a space on the earthen floor and built a fire. One of them had caught and killed a grouse and was roasting it over the flames. It made a poor meal shared among all of us, but the Darkling did not want to send his men ranging into the woods for game.
I took a place by the fire and ate my small portion in silence. When I’d finished, I hesitated for only a moment before wiping my fingers on my already filthy kefta. It was probably the nicest thing I’d ever worn or would wear, and something about seeing the fabric stained and torn made me feel particularly low.
In the light from the fire, I watched the oprichniki sitting side by side with the Grisha. Some of them had already drifted away from the fire to bed down for the night. Others had been posted to the first watch. The rest sat talking as the flames ebbed, passing a flask back and forth. The Darkling sat with them. I’d noticed that he had taken no more than his share of the grouse. And now he sat beside his soldiers on the cold ground, a man second in power only to the King.
He must have felt my gaze, because he turned to look at me, his granite eyes glimmering in the firelight. I flushed. To my dismay, he rose and came to sit beside me, offering me the flask. I hesitated and then took a sip, grimacing at the taste. I’d never liked kvas, but the teachers at Keramzin had drunk it like water. Mal and I had stolen a bottle once. The beating we’d taken when we were caught had been nothing compared to how miserably sick we’d been.
Still, it burned going down, and the warmth was welcome. I took another sip and handed the flask back to him. “Thank you,” I said with a little cough.
He drank, staring into the fire, and then said, “All right. Ask me.”
I blinked at him, taken aback. I wasn’t sure where to begin. My tired mind had been brimming with questions, whirring in a state between panic and exhaustion and disbelief since we’d left Kribirsk. I wasn’t sure that I had the energy to form a thought, and when I opened my mouth, the question that came out surprised me.
“How old are you?”
He glanced at me, bemused.
“I don’t know exactly.”
“How can you not know?”
The Darkling shrugged. “How old are you exactly?”
I flashed him a sour look. I didn’t know the date of my birth. All the orphans at Keramzin were given the Duke’s birthday in honor of our benefactor. “Well, then, roughly how old are you?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because I’ve heard stories about you since I was a child, but you don’t look much older than I am,” I said honestly.
“What kind of stories?”
“The usual kind,” I said with some annoyance. “If you don’t want to answer me, just say so.”
“I don’t want to answer you.”
Then he sighed and said, “One hundred and twenty. Give or take.”
“What?” I squeaked. The soldiers sitting across from me glanced over. “That’s impossible,” I said more quietly.
He looked into the flames. “When a fire burns, it uses up the wood. It devours it, leaving only ash. Grisha power doesn’t work that way.”
“How does it work?”
“Using our power makes us stronger. It feeds us instead of consuming us. Most Grisha live long lives.”
“But not one hundred and twenty years.”
“No,” he admitted. “The length of a Grisha’s life is proportional to his or her power. The greater the power, the longer the life. And when that power is amplified …” He trailed off with a shrug.
“And you’re a living amplifier. Like Ivan’s bear.”
The hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Like Ivan’s bear.”
An unpleasant thought occurred to me. “But that means—”
“That my bones or a few of my teeth would make another Grisha very powerful.”
“Well, that’s completely creepy. Doesn’t that worry you a little bit?”
“No,” he said simply. “Now you answer my question. What kind of stories were you told about me?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Well … our teachers told us that you strengthened the Second Army by gathering Grisha from outside of Ravka.”
“I didn’t have to gather them. They came to me. Other countries don’t treat their Grisha so well as Ravka,” he said grimly. “The Fjerdans burn us as witches, and the Kerch sell us as slaves. The Shu Han carve us up seeking the source of our power. What else?”
“They said you were the strongest Darkling in generations.”