We all serve someone.
The King is a child.
You and I are going to change the world.
He had lied to me about Baghra. He had lied about the Black Heretic. Had he lied about the stag, too?
I’m asking you to trust me.
Baghra had begged him to give me another amplifier, but he’d insisted it had to be the stag’s antlers. A necklace—no, a collar—of bone. And when I’d pushed him, he’d kissed me and I’d forgotten all about the stag and amplifiers and everything else. I remembered his perfect face in the lamplight, his stunned expression, his rumpled hair.
Had it all been deliberate? The kiss by the lakeshore, the flash of hurt that had played across his face that night in the barn, every human gesture, every whispered confidence, even what had happened between us tonight?
I cringed at the thought. I could still feel his warm breath on my neck, hear his whisper in my ear. The problem with wanting is that it makes us weak.
How right he was. I’d wanted so badly to belong somewhere, anywhere. I’d been so eager to please him, so proud to keep his secrets. But I’d never bothered to question what he might really want, what his true motives might be. I’d been too busy imagining myself by his side, the savior of Ravka, most treasured, most desired, like some kind of queen. I’d made it so easy for him.
You and I are going to change the world. Just wait.
Put on your pretty clothes and wait for the next kiss, the next kind word. Wait for the stag. Wait for the collar. Wait to be made into a murderer and a slave.
He had warned me that the age of Grisha power was coming to an end. I should have known he would never let that happen.
I took a shaky breath and tried to still my trembling. I thought of poor Alexei and all the others who had been left to die in the black reaches of the Fold. I thought of the ashen sands that had once been soft brown earth. I thought of the volcra, the first victims of the Black Heretic’s greed.
Did you really think I was done with you?
The Darkling wanted to use me. He wanted to take away the one thing that had ever really belonged to me, the only power I’d ever had.
I got to my feet. I wasn’t going to make it easy for him anymore.
“All right,” I said, reaching for the pile of clothes Baghra had brought me. “What do I do?”
BAGHRA’S RELIEF was unmistakable, but she wasted no time. “You can slip out with the performers tonight. Head west. When you get to Os Kervo, find the Verloren. It’s a Kerch trader. Your passage has been paid.”
My fingers froze on the buttons of my kefta. “You want me to go to West Ravka? To cross the Fold alone?”
“I want you to disappear, girl. You’re strong enough to travel the Fold on your own now. It should be easy work. Why do you think I’ve spent so much time training you?”
Another thing I hadn’t bothered to question. The Darkling had told Baghra to leave me be. I’d thought he was defending me, but maybe he’d just wanted to keep me weak.
I shucked off the kefta and pulled a rough wool tunic over my head. “You knew what he intended all along. Why tell me now?” I asked her. “Why tonight?”
“We’ve run out of time. I never truly believed he’d find Morozova’s herd. They’re elusive creatures, part of the oldest science, the making at the heart of the world. But I underestimated his men.”
No, I thought as I yanked on leather breeches and boots. You underestimated Mal. Mal, who could hunt and track like no other. Mal who could make rabbits out of rocks. Mal who would find the stag and deliver me, deliver us all into the Darkling’s power without ever knowing it.
Baghra passed me a thick brown traveling coat lined in fur, a heavy fur hat, and a broad belt. As I looped it around my waist, I found a money bag attached to it, along with my knife and a pouch that held my leather gloves, the mirrors tucked safely inside.
She led me out a small door and handed me a leather traveling pack that I slung across my shoulders. She pointed across the grounds to where the lights from the Grand Palace flickered in the distance. I could hear music playing. With a start, I realized that the party was still in full swing. It seemed like years had passed since I’d left the ballroom, but it couldn’t have been much more than an hour.
“Go to the hedge maze and turn left. Stay off the lighted paths. Some of the entertainers are already leaving. Find one of the departing wagons. They’re only searched on their way into the palace, so you should be safe.”
Baghra ignored me. “When you get out of Os Alta, try to avoid the main roads.” She handed me a sealed envelope. “You’re a serf woodworker on your way to West Ravka to meet your new master. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” I nodded, my heart already starting to race in my chest. “Why are you helping me?” I asked suddenly. “Why would you betray your own son?”
For a moment, she stood straight-backed and silent in the shadow of the Little Palace. Then she turned to me, and I took a startled step back, because I saw it, as clearly as if I had been standing at its edge: the abyss. Ceaseless, black, and yawning, the unending emptiness of a life lived too long.
“All those years ago,” she said softly. “Before he’d ever dreamed of a Second Army, before he gave up his name and became the Darkling, he was just a brilliant, talented boy. I gave him his ambition. I gave him his pride. When the time came, I should have been the one to stop him.” She smiled then, a small smile of such aching sadness that it was hard to look at. “You think I don’t love my son,” she said. “But I do. It is because I love him that I will not let him put himself beyond redemption.”
She glanced back at the Little Palace. “I will post a servant at your door tomorrow morning to claim that you are ill. I’ll try to buy you as much time as I can.”
I bit my lip. “Tonight. You’ll have to post the servant tonight. The Darkling might … might come to my room.”
I expected Baghra to laugh at me again, but instead she just shook her head and said softly, “Foolish girl.” Her contempt would have been easier to bear.
Looking out at the grounds, I thought of what lay ahead of me. Was I really going to do this? I had to choke back my panic. “Thank you, Baghra,” I gulped. “For everything.”
“Hmph,” she said. “Go now, girl. Be quick and take care.”
I turned my back on her and ran.
Endless days of training with Botkin meant I knew the grounds well. I was grateful for every sweaty hour as I jogged over lawns and between trees. Baghra sent thin coils of blackness to either side of me, cloaking me in darkness as I drew closer to the back of the Grand Palace. Were Marie and Nadia still dancing inside? Was Genya wondering where I’d gone? I shoved those thoughts from my mind. I was afraid to think too hard about what I was doing, about everything I was leaving behind.
A theatrical troupe was loading up a wagon with props and racks of costumes, their driver already gripping the reins and shouting at them to hurry things along. One of them climbed up beside him, and the others crowded into a little pony cart that departed with a jingle of bells. I darted into the back of the wagon and wiggled my way between pieces of scenery, covering myself with a burlap drop cloth.
As we rumbled down the long gravel drive and through the palace gates, I held my breath. I was sure that, at any moment, someone would raise the alarm and we would be stopped. I would be pulled from the back of the wagon in disgrace. But then the wheels jounced forward and we were rattling over the cobblestone streets of Os Alta.
I tried to remember the route that I had taken with the Darkling when he had brought me through the city those many months ago, but I’d been so tired and overwhelmed that my memory was a useless blur of mansions and misty streets. I couldn’t see much from my hiding place, and I didn’t dare peek out. With my luck, someone would be passing at just that instant and catch sight of me.
My only hope was to put as much distance as possible between myself and the palace before my absence was noticed. I didn’t know how long Baghra would be able to stall, and I willed the wagon’s driver to move faster. When we crossed over the bridge and into the market town, I allowed myself a tiny sigh of relief.
Cold air crept through the cart’s wooden slats, and I was grateful for the thick coat Baghra had provided. I was weary and uncomfortable, but mostly I was just frightened. I was running from the most powerful man in Ravka. The Grisha, the First Army, maybe even Mal and his trackers would be unleashed to find me. What chance did I have of making it to the Fold on my own? And if I did make it to West Ravka and onto the Verloren, then what? I would be alone in a strange land where I didn’t speak the language and I knew no one. Tears stung my eyes and I brushed them furiously away. If I started crying, I didn’t think I’d be able to stop.
We traveled through the early hours of the morning, past the stone streets of Os Alta and onto the wide dirt swath of the Vy. Dawn came and went. Occasionally, I dozed, but my fear and discomfort kept me awake for most of the ride. When the sun was high in the sky and I’d begun to sweat in my thick coat, the wagon rolled to a stop.
I risked taking a peek over the side of the cart. We were behind what looked like a tavern or an inn.
I stretched out my legs. Both of my feet had fallen asleep, and I winced as the blood rushed painfully back to my toes. I waited until the driver and the other members of the troupe had gone inside before I slid out from my hiding place.
I figured I would attract more attention if I looked like I was sneaking around, so I stood up straight and walked briskly around the building, joining the bustle of carts and people on the village’s main street.
It took a little eavesdropping, but I soon realized I was in Balakirev. It was a little town almost directly west of Os Alta. I’d gotten lucky; I was headed in the right direction.
During the ride, I’d counted the money Baghra had given me and tried to make a plan. I knew the fastest way to travel would be on horseback, but I also knew that a girl on her own with enough coin to buy a mount would attract attention. What I really needed to do was steal a horse—but I had no idea how to go about that, so I decided to just keep moving.
On the way out of town, I stopped at a market stall to buy a supply of hard cheese, bread, and dried meat.
“Hungry, are you?” asked the toothless old vendor, looking at me a little too closely as I shoved the food into my pack.
“My brother is. He eats like a pig,” I said, and pretended to wave at someone in the crowd. “Coming!” I shouted, and hurried off. All I could hope was that he would remember a girl traveling with her family or, better yet, that he wouldn’t remember me at all.
I spent that night sleeping in the tidy hayloft of a dairy farm just off the Vy. It was a long way from my beautiful bed at the Little Palace, but I was grateful for the shelter and for the sounds of animals around me. The soft lowing and rustle of the cows made me feel less alone as I curled on my side, using my pack and fur hat as a makeshift pillow.
What if Baghra was wrong? I worried as I lay there. What if she’d lied? Or what if she was just mistaken? I could go back to the Little Palace. I could sleep in my own bed and take my lessons with Botkin and chat with Genya. It was such a tempting thought. If I went back, would the Darkling forgive me?