“He’s not natural,” said Eva, another assistant; she had pretty green eyes that did little to distract from her piglike nose. “None of them are.”
Alexei sniffed. “Please spare us your superstition, Eva.”
“It was a Darkling who made the Shadow Fold to begin with.”
“That was hundreds of years ago!” protested Alexei. “And that Darkling was completely mad.”
“This one is just as bad.”
“Peasant,” Alexei said, and dismissed her with a wave. Eva gave him an affronted look and deliberately turned away from him to talk to her friends.
I stayed quiet. I was more a peasant than Eva, despite her superstitions. It was only by the Duke’s charity that I could read and write, but by unspoken agreement, Mal and I avoided mentioning Keramzin.
As if on cue, a raucous burst of laughter pulled me from my thoughts. I looked over my shoulder. Mal was holding court at a rowdy table of trackers.
Alexei followed my glance. “How did you two become friends anyway?”
“We grew up together.”
“You don’t seem to have much in common.”
I shrugged. “I guess it’s easy to have a lot in common when you’re kids.” Like loneliness, and memories of parents we were meant to forget, and the pleasure of escaping chores to play tag in our meadow.
Alexei looked so skeptical that I had to laugh. “He wasn’t always the Amazing Mal, expert tracker and seducer of Grisha girls.”
Alexei’s jaw dropped. “He seduced a Grisha girl?”
“No, but I’m sure he will,” I muttered.
“So what was he like?”
“He was short and pudgy and afraid of baths,” I said with some satisfaction.
Alexei glanced at Mal. “I guess things change.”
I rubbed my thumb over the scar in my palm. “I guess they do.”
We cleared our plates and drifted out of the mess tent into the cool night. On the way back to the barracks, we took a detour so that we could walk by the Grisha camp. The Grisha pavilion really was the size of a cathedral, covered in black silk, its blue, red, and purple pennants flying high above. Hidden somewhere behind it were the Darkling’s tents, guarded by Corporalki Heartrenders and the Darkling’s personal guard.
When Alexei had looked his fill, we wended our way back to our quarters. Alexei got quiet and started cracking his knuckles, and I knew we were both thinking about tomorrow’s crossing. Judging by the gloomy mood in the barracks, we weren’t alone. Some people were already on their cots, sleeping—or trying to—while others huddled by lamplight, talking in low tones. A few sat clutching their icons, praying to their Saints.
I unfurled my bedroll on a narrow cot, removed my boots, and hung up my coat. Then I wriggled down into the fur-lined blankets and stared up at the roof, waiting for sleep. I stayed that way for a long time, until the lamplights had all been extinguished and the sounds of conversation gave way to soft snores and the rustle of bodies.
Tomorrow, if everything went as planned, we would pass safely through to West Ravka, and I would get my first glimpse of the True Sea. There, Mal and the other trackers would hunt for red wolves and sea foxes and other coveted creatures that could only be found in the west. I would stay with the cartographers in Os Kervo to finish my training and help draft whatever information we managed to glean in the Fold. And then, of course, I’d have to cross the Fold again in order to return home. But it was hard to think that far ahead.
I was still wide awake when I heard it. Tap tap. Pause. Tap. Then again: Tap tap. Pause. Tap.
“What’s going on?” mumbled Alexei drowsily from the cot nearest mine.
“Nothing,” I whispered, already slipping out of my bedroll and shoving my feet into my boots.
I grabbed my coat and crept out of the barracks as quietly as I could. As I opened the door I heard a giggle, and a female voice called from somewhere in the dark room, “If it’s that tracker, tell him to come inside and keep me warm.”
“If he wants to catch tsifil, I’m sure you’ll be his first stop,” I said sweetly, and slipped out into the night.
The cold air stung my cheeks and I buried my chin in my collar, wishing I’d taken the time to grab my scarf and gloves. Mal was sitting on the rickety steps, his back to me. Beyond him, I could see Mikhael and Dubrov passing a bottle back and forth beneath the glowing lights of the footpath.
I scowled. “Please tell me you didn’t just wake me up to inform me that you’re going to the Grisha tent. What do you want, advice?”
“You weren’t sleeping. You were lying awake worrying.”
“Wrong. I was planning how to sneak into the Grisha pavilion and snag myself a cute Corporalnik.”
Mal laughed. I hesitated by the door. This was the hardest part of being around him—other than the way he made my heart do clumsy acrobatics. I hated hiding how much the stupid things he did hurt me, but I hated the idea of him finding out even more. I thought about just turning around and going back inside. Instead, I swallowed my jealousy and sat down beside him.
“I hope you brought me something nice,” I said. “Alina’s Secrets of Seduction do not come cheap.”
He grinned. “Can you put it on my tab?”
“I suppose. But only because I know you’re good for it.”
I peered into the dark and watched Dubrov take a swig from the bottle and then lurch forward. Mikhael put his arm out to steady him, and the sounds of their laughter floated back to us on the night air.
Mal shook his head and sighed. “He always tries to keep up with Mikhael. He’ll probably end up puking on my boots.”
“Serves you right,” I said. “So what are you doing here?” When we’d first started our military service a year ago, Mal had visited me almost every night. But he hadn’t come by in months.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. You looked so miserable at dinner.”
I was surprised he’d noticed. “Just thinking about the crossing,” I said carefully. It wasn’t exactly a lie. I was terrified of entering the Fold, and Mal definitely didn’t need to know that Alexei and I had been talking about him. “But I’m touched by your concern.”
“Hey,” he said with a grin, “I worry.”
“If you’re lucky, a volcra will have me for breakfast tomorrow and then you won’t have to fret anymore.”
“You know I’d be lost without you.”
“You’ve never been lost in your life,” I scoffed. I was the mapmaker, but Mal could find true north blindfolded and standing on his head.
He bumped his shoulder against mine. “You know what I mean.”
“Sure,” I said. But I didn’t. Not really.
We sat in silence, watching our breath make plumes in the cold air.
Mal studied the toes of his boots and said, “I guess I’m nervous, too.”
I nudged him with my elbow and said with confidence I didn’t feel, “If we can take on Ana Kuya, we can handle a few volcra.”
“If I remember right, the last time we crossed Ana Kuya, you got your ears boxed and we both ended up mucking out the stables.”
I winced. “I’m trying to be reassuring. You could at least pretend I’m succeeding.”
“You know the funny thing?” he asked. “I actually miss her sometimes.”
I did my best to hide my astonishment. We’d spent more than ten years of our lives in Keramzin, but usually I got the impression that Mal wanted to forget everything about the place, maybe even me. There he’d been another lost refugee, another orphan made to feel grateful for every mouthful of food, every used pair of boots. In the army, he’d carved out a real place for himself where no one needed to know that he’d once been an unwanted little boy.
“Me too,” I admitted. “We could write to her.”
“Maybe,” Mal said.
Suddenly, he reached out and took hold of my hand. I tried to ignore the little jolt that went through me. “This time tomorrow, we’ll be sitting in the harbor at Os Kervo, looking out at the ocean and drinking kvas.”
I glanced at Dubrov weaving back and forth and smiled. “Is Dubrov buying?”
“Just you and me,” Mal said.
“It’s always just you and me, Alina.”
For a moment, it seemed like it was true. The world was this step, this circle of lamplight, the two of us suspended in the dark.
“Come on!” bellowed Mikhael from the path.
Mal started like a man waking from a dream. He gave my hand a last squeeze before he dropped it. “Gotta go,” he said, his brash grin sliding back into place. “Try to get some sleep.”
He hopped lightly from the stairs and jogged off to join his friends. “Wish me luck!” he called over his shoulder.
“Good luck,” I said automatically and then wanted to kick myself. Good luck? Have a lovely time, Mal. Hope you find a pretty Grisha, fall deeply in love, and make lots of gorgeous, disgustingly talented babies together.
I sat frozen on the steps, watching them disappear down the path, still feeling the warm pressure of Mal’s hand in mine. Oh well, I thought as I got to my feet. Maybe he’ ll fall into a ditch on his way there.
I edged back into the barracks, closed the door tightly behind me, and gratefully snuggled into my bedroll.
Would that black-haired Grisha girl sneak out of the pavilion to meet Mal? I pushed the thought away. It was none of my business, and really, I didn’t want to know. Mal had never looked at me the way he’d looked at that girl or even the way he looked at Ruby, and he never would. But the fact that we were still friends was more important than any of that.
For how long? said a nagging voice in my head. Alexei was right: things change. Mal had changed for the better. He’d gotten handsomer, braver, cockier. And I’d gotten … taller. I sighed and rolled onto my side. I wanted to believe that Mal and I would always be friends, but I had to face the fact that we were on different paths. Lying in the dark, waiting for sleep, I wondered if those paths would just keep taking us further and further apart, and if a day might come when we would be strangers to each other once again.
THE MORNING PASSED in a blur: breakfast, a brief trip to the Documents Tent to pack additional inks and paper, then the chaos of the drydock. I stood with the rest of the surveyors, waiting our turn to board one of a small fleet of sandskiffs. Behind us, Kribirsk was waking up and going about its business. Ahead lay the strange, shifting darkness of the Fold.
Animals were too noisy and scared too easily for travel on the Unsea, so crossings were made on sandskiffs, shallow sleds rigged with enormous sails that let them skate almost soundlessly over the dead gray sands. The skiffs were loaded with grain, timber, and raw cotton, but on the trip back they would be stocked with sugar, rifles, and all manner of finished goods that passed through the seaports of West Ravka. Looking out at the skiff’s deck, equipped with little more than a sail and a rickety railing, all I could think was that it offered no place to hide.