I straightened my spine and tried to ignore them as Mal threw his arm around me and drew me close. “Where were you?” he asked. “I was getting worried.”
“I was waylaid by a gang of angry bears,” I murmured into his shoulder.
“You got lost again?”
“I don’t know where you get these ideas.”
“You remember Jes, right?” he said, nodding to his friend.
“How do you go?” Jes asked in broken Ravkan, offering me his hand. His expression seemed unduly grave.
“Very well, thank you,” I replied in Zemeni. He didn’t return my smile, but gently patted my hand. Jes was definitely an odd one.
We chatted a short while longer, but I knew Mal could see I was getting anxious. I didn’t like to be out in the open for too long. We said our goodbyes, and before Jes left, he shot me another grim look and leaned in to whisper something to Mal.
“What did he say?” I asked as we watched him stroll away across the square.
“Hmm? Oh, nothing. Did you know you have pollen in your brows?” He reached out to gently brush it away.
“Maybe I wanted it there.”
As we pushed off from the fountain, one of the washerwomen leaned forward, practically spilling out of her dress.
“If you ever get tired of skin and bones,” she called to Mal, “I’ve got something to tempt you.”
I stiffened. Mal glanced over his shoulder. Slowly, he looked her up and down. “No,” he said flatly. “You don’t.”
The girl’s face flushed an ugly red as the others jeered and cackled, splashing her with water. I tried for a haughtily arched brow, but it was hard to restrain the goofy grin pulling at the corners of my mouth.
“Thanks,” I mumbled as we crossed the square, heading toward our boardinghouse.
I rolled my eyes. “For defending my honor, you dullard.”
He yanked me beneath a shadowed awning. I had a moment’s panic when I thought he’d spotted trouble, but then his arms were around me and his lips were pressed to mine.
When he finally drew back, my cheeks were warm and my legs had gone wobbly.
“Just to be clear,” he said, “I’m not really interested in defending your honor.”
“Understood,” I managed, hoping I didn’t sound too ridiculously breathless.
“Besides,” he said, “I need to steal every minute I can before we’re back at the Pit.”
The Pit was what Mal called our boardinghouse. It was crowded and filthy and afforded us no privacy at all, but it was cheap. He grinned, cocky as ever, and pulled me back into the flow of people on the street. Despite my exhaustion, my steps felt decidedly lighter. I still wasn’t used to the idea of us together. Another flutter passed through me. On the frontier there would be no curious boarders or unwanted interruptions. My pulse gave a little jump—whether from nerves or excitement, I wasn’t sure.
“So what did Jes say?” I asked again, when my brain felt a bit less scrambled.
“He said I should take good care of you.”
Mal cleared his throat. “And … he said he would pray to the God of Work to heal your affliction.”
“I may have told him that you have a goiter.”
I stumbled. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, I had to explain why you were always clinging to that scarf.”
I dropped my hand. I’d been doing it again without even realizing.
“So you told him I had a goiter?” I whispered incredulously.
“I had to say something. And it makes you quite a tragic figure. Pretty girl, giant growth, you know.”
I punched him hard in the arm.
“Ow! Hey, in some countries, goiters are considered very fashionable.”
“Do they like eunuchs, too? Because I can arrange that.”
“My goiter makes me cranky.”
Mal laughed, but I noticed that he kept his hand on his pistol. The Pit was located in one of the less savory parts of Cofton, and we were carrying a lot of coin, the wages we’d saved for the start of our new life. Just a few more days, and we’d have enough to leave Cofton behind—the noise, the pollen-filled air, the constant fear. We’d be safe in a place where nobody cared what happened to Ravka, where Grisha were scarce and no one had ever heard of a Sun Summoner.
And no one has any use for one. The thought soured my mood, but it had come to me more and more lately. What was I good for in this strange country? Mal could hunt, track, handle a gun. The only thing I’d ever been good at was being a Grisha. I missed summoning light, and each day I didn’t use my power, I grew more weak and sickly. Just walking beside Mal left me winded, and I struggled beneath the weight of my satchel. I was so frail and clumsy that I’d barely managed to keep my job packing jurda at one of the fieldhouses. It brought in mere pennies, but I’d insisted on working, on trying to help. I felt like I had when we were kids: capable Mal and useless Alina.
I pushed the thought away. I might not be the Sun Summoner anymore, but I wasn’t that sad little girl either. I’d find a way to be useful.
The sight of our boardinghouse didn’t exactly lift my spirits. It was two stories high and in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. The sign in the window advertised hot baths and tick-free beds in five different languages. Having sampled the bathtub and the bed, I knew the sign lied no matter how you translated it. Still, with Mal beside me, it didn’t seem so bad.
We climbed the steps of the sagging porch and entered the tavern that took up most of the lower floor of the house. It was cool and quiet after the dusty clamor of the street. At this hour, there were usually a few workers at the pockmarked tables drinking off their day’s wages, but today it was empty save for the surly-looking landlord standing behind the bar.
He was a Kerch immigrant, and I’d gotten the distinct feeling he didn’t like Ravkans. Or maybe he just thought we were thieves. We’d shown up two weeks ago, ragged and grubby, with no baggage and no way to pay for lodging except a single golden hairpin that he probably thought we’d stolen. But that hadn’t stopped him from snapping it up in exchange for a narrow bed in a room that we shared with six other boarders.
As we approached the bar, he slapped the room key on the counter and shoved it across to us without being asked. It was tied to a carved piece of chicken bone. Another charming touch.
In the stilted Kerch he’d picked up aboard the Verrhader, Mal requested a pitcher of hot water for washing.
“Extra,” the landlord grunted. He was a heavyset man with thinning hair and the orange-stained teeth that came from chewing jurda. He was sweating, I noticed. Though the day wasn’t particularly warm, beads of perspiration had broken out over his upper lip.
I glanced back at him as we headed for the staircase on the other side of the deserted tavern. He was still watching us, his arms crossed over his chest, his beady eyes narrowed. There was something about his expression that set my nerves jangling.
I hesitated at the base of the steps. “That guy really doesn’t like us,” I said.
Mal was already headed up the stairs. “No, but he likes our money just fine. And we’ll be out of here in a few days.”
I shook off my nervousness. I’d been jumpy all afternoon.
“Fine,” I grumbled as I followed after Mal. “But just so I’m prepared, how do you say ‘you’re an ass’ in Kerch?”
“Jer ven azel.”
Mal laughed. “The first thing sailors teach you is how to swear.”
The second story of the boardinghouse was in considerably worse shape than the public rooms below. The carpet was faded and threadbare, and the dim hallway stank of cabbage and tobacco. The doors to the private rooms were all closed, and not a sound came from behind them as we passed. The quiet was eerie. Maybe everyone was out for the day.
The only light came from a single grimy window at the end of the hall. As Mal fumbled with the key, I looked down through the smudged glass to the carts and carriages rumbling by below. Across the street, a man stood beneath a balcony, peering up at the boardinghouse. He pulled at his collar and his sleeves, as if his clothes were new and didn’t quite fit right. His eyes met mine through the window, then darted quickly away.
I felt a sudden pang of fear.
“Mal,” I whispered, reaching out to him.
But it was too late. The door flew open.
“No!” I shouted. I threw up my hands and light burst through the hallway in a blinding cascade. Then rough hands seized me, yanking my arms behind my back. I was dragged inside the room, kicking and thrashing.
“Easy now,” said a cool voice from somewhere in the corner. “I’d hate to have to gut your friend so soon.”
Time seemed to slow. I saw the shabby, low-ceilinged room, the cracked washbasin sitting on the battered table, dust motes swirling in a slender beam of sunlight, the bright edge of the blade pressed to Mal’s throat. The man holding him wore a familiar sneer. Ivan. There were others, men and women. All wore the fitted coats and breeches of Zemeni merchants and laborers, but I recognized some of their faces from my time with the Second Army. They were Grisha.
Behind them, shrouded in shadow, lounging in a rickety chair as if it were a throne, was the Darkling.
For a moment, everything in the room was silent and still. I could hear Mal’s breathing, the shuffle of feet. I heard a man calling a hello down on the street. I couldn’t seem to stop staring at the Darkling’s hands—his long white fingers resting casually on the arms of the chair. I had the foolish thought that I’d never seen him in ordinary clothes.
Then reality crashed in on me. This was how it ended? Without a fight? Without so much as a shot fired or a voice raised? A sob of pure rage and frustration tore free from my chest.
“Take her pistol, and search her for other weapons,” the Darkling said softly. I felt the comforting weight of my firearm lifted from my hip, the dagger pulled from its sheath at my wrist. “I’m going to tell them to let you go,” he said when they were done, “with the knowledge that if you so much as raise your hands, Ivan will end the tracker. Show me that you understand.”
I gave a single stiff nod.
He raised a finger, and the men holding me let go. I stumbled forward and then stood frozen in the center of the room, my hands balled into fists.
I could cut the Darkling in two with my power. I could crack this whole saintsforsaken building right down the middle. But not before Ivan opened Mal’s throat.
“How did you find us?” I rasped.
“You leave a very expensive trail,” he said, and lazily tossed something onto the table. It landed with a plink beside the washbasin. I recognized one of the golden pins Genya had woven into my hair so many weeks ago. We’d used them to pay for passage across the True Sea, the wagon to Cofton, our miserable, not-quite-tick-free bed.
The Darkling rose, and a strange trepidation crackled through the room. It was as if every Grisha had taken a breath and was holding it, waiting. I could feel the fear coming off them, and that sent a spike of alarm through me. The Darkling’s underlings had always treated him with awe and respect, but this was something new. Even Ivan looked a little ill.