The Darkling stepped into the light, and I saw a faint tracery of scars over his face. They’d been healed by a Corporalnik, but they were still visible. So the volcra had left their mark. Good, I thought with petty satisfaction. It was small comfort, but at least he wasn’t quite as perfect as he had been.
He paused, studying me. “How are you finding life in hiding, Alina? You don’t look well.”
“Neither do you,” I said. It wasn’t just the scars. He wore his weariness like an elegant cloak, but it was still there. Faint smudges showed beneath his eyes, and the hollows of his sharp cheekbones cut a little deeper.
“A small price to pay,” he said, his lips quirking in a half smile.
A chill snaked up my spine. For what?
He reached out, and it took everything in me not to flinch backward. But all he did was take hold of one end of my scarf. He tugged gently, and the rough wool slipped free, gliding over my neck and fluttering to the ground.
“Back to pretending to be less than you are, I see. The sham doesn’t suit you.”
A twinge of unease passed through me. Hadn’t I had a similar thought just minutes ago? “Thanks for your concern,” I muttered.
He let his fingers trail over the collar. “It’s mine as much as yours, Alina.”
I batted his hand away, and an anxious rustle rose from the Grisha. “Then you shouldn’t have put it around my neck,” I snapped. “What do you want?”
Of course, I already knew. He wanted everything—Ravka, the world, the power of the Fold. His answer didn’t matter. I just needed to keep him talking. I’d known this moment might come, and I’d prepared for it. I wasn’t going to let him take me again. I glanced at Mal, hoping he understood what I intended.
“I want to thank you,” the Darkling said.
Now, that I hadn’t expected. “Thank me?”
“For the gift you gave me.”
My eyes flicked to the scars on his pale cheek.
“No,” he said with a small smile, “not these. But they do make a good reminder.”
“Of what?” I asked, curious despite myself.
His gaze was gray flint. “That all men can be made fools. No, Alina, the gift you’ve given me is so much greater.”
He turned away. I darted another glance at Mal.
“Unlike you,” the Darkling said, “I understand gratitude, and I wish to express it.”
He raised his hands. Darkness tumbled through the room.
“Now!” I shouted.
Mal drove his elbow into Ivan’s side. At the same moment, I threw up my hands and light blazed out, blinding the men around us. I focused my power, honing it to a scythe of pure light. I had only one goal. I wasn’t going to leave the Darkling standing. I peered into the seething blackness, trying to find my target. But something was wrong.
I’d seen the Darkling use his power countless times before. This was different. The shadows whirled and skittered around the circle of my light, spinning faster, a writhing cloud that clicked and whirred like a fog of hungry insects. I pushed against them with my power, but they twisted and wriggled, drawing ever nearer.
Mal was beside me. Somehow he’d gotten hold of Ivan’s knife.
“Stay close,” I said. Better to take my chances and open a hole in the floor than to just stand there doing nothing. I concentrated and felt the power of the Cut vibrate through me. I raised my arm … and something stepped out of the darkness.
It’s a trick, I thought as the thing came toward us. It has to be some kind of illusion.
It was a creature wrought from shadow, its face blank and devoid of features. Its body seemed to tremble and blur, then form again: arms, legs, long hands ending in the dim suggestion of claws, a broad back crested by wings that roiled and shifted as they unfurled like a black stain. It was almost like a volcra, but its shape was more human. And it did not fear the light. It did not fear me.
It’s a trick, my panicked mind insisted. It isn’t possible. It was a violation of everything I knew about Grisha power. We couldn’t make matter. We couldn’t create life. But the creature was coming toward us, and the Darkling’s Grisha were cringing up against the walls in very real terror. This was what had so frightened them.
I pushed down my horror and refocused my power. I swung my arm, bringing it down in a shining, unforgiving arc. The light sliced through the creature. For a moment, I thought it might just keep coming. Then it wavered, glowing like a cloud lit by lightning, and blew apart into nothing. I had time for the barest surge of relief before the Darkling lifted his hand and another monster took its place, followed by another, and another.
“This is the gift you gave me,” said the Darkling. “The gift I earned on the Fold.” His face was alive with power and a kind of terrible joy. But I could see strain there, too. Whatever he was doing, it was costing him.
Mal and I backed toward the door as the creatures stalked closer. Suddenly, one of them shot forward with astonishing speed. Mal slashed out with his knife. The thing paused, wavered slightly, then grabbed hold of him and tossed him aside like a child’s doll. This was no illusion.
“Mal!” I cried.
I lashed out with the Cut and the creature burned away to nothing, but the next monster was on me in seconds. It seized me, and revulsion shuddered through my body. Its grip was like a thousand crawling insects swarming over my arms.
It lifted me off my feet, and I saw how very wrong I’d been. It did have a mouth, a yawning, twisting hole that spread open to reveal row upon row of teeth. I felt them all as the thing bit deeply into my shoulder.
The pain was like nothing I’d ever known. It echoed inside me, multiplying on itself, cracking me open and scraping at the bone. From a distance, I heard Mal call my name. I heard myself scream.
The creature released me. I dropped to the floor in a limp heap. I was on my back, the pain still reverberating through me in endless waves. I could see the water-stained ceiling, the shadow creature looming high above, Mal’s pale face as he knelt beside me. I saw his lips form the shape of my name, but I couldn’t hear him. I was already slipping away.
The last thing I heard was the Darkling’s voice—so clear, like he was lying right next to me, his lips pressed against my ear, whispering so that only I could hear: Thank you.
DARKNESS AGAIN. Something seething inside me. I look for the light, but it’s out of my reach.
I open my eyes. Ivan’s scowling face comes into focus. “You do it,” he grumbles to someone.
Then Genya leans over me, more beautiful than ever, even in a bedraggled red kefta. Am I dreaming?
She presses something against my lips. “Drink, Alina.”
I try to knock the cup away, but I can’t move my hands.
My nose is pinched shut, my mouth forced open. Some kind of broth slides down my throat. I cough and sputter.
“Where am I?” I try to say.
Another voice, cold and pure: “Put her back under.”
* * *
I AM IN THE PONY CART, riding back from the village with Ana Kuya. Her bony elbow jabs into my rib as we jounce up the road that will take us home to Keramzin. Mal is on her other side, laughing and pointing at everything we see.
The fat little pony plods along, twitching its shaggy mane as we climb the last hill. Halfway up, we pass a man and a woman on the side of the road. He is whistling as they go, waving his walking stick in time with the music. The woman trudges along, head bent, a block of salt strapped to her back.
“Are they very poor?” I ask Ana Kuya.
“Not so poor as others.”
“Then why doesn’t he buy a donkey?”
“He doesn’t need a donkey,” says Ana Kuya. “He has a wife.”
“I’m going to marry Alina,” Mal says.
The cart rolls past. The man doffs his cap and calls a jolly greeting.
Mal shouts back gleefully, waving and smiling, nearly bouncing from his seat.
I look back over my shoulder, craning my neck to watch the woman slogging along behind her husband. She’s just a girl, really, but her eyes are old and worn.
Ana Kuya misses nothing. “That’s what happens to peasant girls who do not have the benefit of the Duke’s kindness. That is why you must be grateful and keep him every night in your prayers.”
* * *
THE CLINK OF CHAINS.
Genya’s worried face. “It isn’t safe to keep doing this to her.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” Ivan snaps.
The Darkling, in black, standing in the shadows. The rhythm of the sea beneath me. The realization hits me like a blow: We’re on a ship.
Please let me be dreaming.
* * *
I’M ON THE ROAD to Keramzin again, watching the pony’s bent neck as he labors up the hill. When I look back, the girl struggling beneath the weight of the salt block has my face. Baghra sits beside me in the cart, “The ox feels the yoke,” she says, “but does the bird feel the weight of its wings?”
Her eyes are black jet. Be grateful, they say. Be grateful. She snaps the reins.
* * *
“DRINK.” MORE BROTH. I don’t fight it now. I don’t want to choke again. I fall back, let my lids drop, drifting away, too weak to struggle.
A hand on my cheek.
“Mal,” I manage to croak.
The hand is withdrawn.
* * *
“WAKE UP.” THIS TIME, I don’t recognize the voice. “Bring her out of it.”
My lids flutter open. Am I still dreaming? A boy leans over me: ruddy hair, a broken nose. He reminds me of the too-clever fox, another of Ana Kuya’s stories, smart enough to get out of one trap, but too foolish to realize he won’t escape a second. There’s another boy standing behind him, but this one is a giant, one of the largest people I’ve ever seen. His golden eyes have the Shu tilt.
“Alina,” says the fox. How does he know my name?
The door opens, and I see another stranger’s face, a girl with short dark hair and the same golden gaze as the giant.
“They’re coming,” she says.
The fox curses. “Put her back down.” The giant comes closer. Darkness bleeds back in.
It’s too late. The dark has me.
* * *
I AM A GIRL, trudging up a hill. My boots squelch in the mud and my back aches from the weight of the salt upon it. When I think I cannot take another step, I feel myself lifted off the ground. The salt slips from my shoulders, and I watch it shatter on the road. I float higher, higher. Below me, I can see a pony cart, the three passengers looking up at me, their mouths open in surprise. I can see my shadow pass over them, pass over the road and the barren winter fields, the black shape of a girl, borne high by her own unfurling wings.
* * *
THE FIRST THING I knew was real was the rocking of the ship—the creak of the rigging, the slap of water on the hull.
When I tried to turn over, a shard of pain sliced through my shoulder. I gasped and jolted upright, my eyes flying open, heart racing, fully awake. A wave of nausea rolled through me, and I had to blink back the stars that floated across my vision. I was in a tidy ship’s cabin, lying on a narrow bunk. Daylight spilled through the sidescuttle.