As I stepped onto the drydock, I was surprised to see that we were back in Kribirsk. We hadn’t even made it across the Fold. I shuddered. Better to be marching through camp with a rifle at my back than to be on the Unsea.
But not much better, I thought anxiously.
As the soldiers marched me up the main road, people turned from their work to gawk. My mind was whirring, searching for answers and finding nothing. Had I done something wrong in the Fold? Broken some kind of military protocol? And how had we gotten out of the Fold, anyway? The wounds near my shoulder throbbed. The last thing I remembered was the terrible pain of the volcra’s claws piercing my back, that searing burst of light. How had we survived?
These thoughts were driven from my mind as we approached the Officers’ Tent. The captain called the guards to a halt and stepped toward the entrance.
The Corporalnik reached out a hand to stop him. “This is a waste of time. We should proceed immediately to—”
“Take your hand off me, bloodletter,” the captain snapped and shook his arm free.
For a moment, the Corporalnik stared at him, her eyes dangerous, then she smiled coldly and bowed. “Da, kapitan.”
I felt the hair on my arms rise.
The captain disappeared inside the tent. We waited. I glanced nervously at the Corporalnik, who had apparently forgotten her feud with the captain and was scrutinizing me once again. She was young, maybe even younger than I was, but that hadn’t stopped her from confronting a superior officer. Why would it? She could kill the captain where he stood without ever raising a weapon. I rubbed my arms, trying to shake the chill that had settled over me.
The tent flap opened, and I was horrified to see the captain emerge followed by a stern Colonel Raevsky. What could I possibly have done that would require the involvement of a senior officer?
The colonel peered at me, his weathered face grim. “What are you?”
“Assistant Cartographer Alina Starkov. Royal Corps of Surveyors—”
He cut me off. “What are you?”
I blinked. “I … I’m a mapmaker, sir.”
Raevsky scowled. He pulled one of the soldiers aside and muttered something to him that sent the soldier sprinting back toward the drydocks. “Let’s go,” he said tersely.
I felt the jab of a rifle barrel in my back and marched forward. I had a very bad feeling about where I was being taken. It can’t be, I thought desperately. It makes no sense. But as the huge black tent loomed larger and larger before us, there could be no doubt about where we were headed.
The entrance to the Grisha tent was guarded by more Corporalki Heartrenders and charcoal-clad oprichniki, the elite soldiers who made up the Darkling’s personal guard. The oprichniki weren’t Grisha, but they were just as frightening.
The Corporalnik from the skiff conferred with the guards at the front of the tent, then she and Colonel Raevsky disappeared inside. I waited, my heart racing, aware of the whispers and stares behind me, my anxiety rising.
High above, four flags fluttered in the breeze: blue, red, purple, and above them all, black. Just last night, Mal and his friends had been laughing about trying to get into this tent, wondering what they might find inside. And now it seemed I would be the one to find out. Where is Mal? The thought kept returning to me, the only clear thought I seemed to be able to form.
After what seemed an eternity, the Corporalnik returned and nodded at the captain, who led me into the Grisha tent.
For a moment, all my fear disappeared, eclipsed by the beauty that surrounded me. The tent’s inner walls were draped with cascades of bronze silk that caught the glimmering candlelight from chandeliers sparkling high above. The floors were covered in rich rugs and furs. Along the walls, shimmering silken partitions separated compartments where Grisha clustered in their vibrant kefta. Some stood talking, others lounged on cushions drinking tea. Two were bent over a game of chess. From somewhere, I heard the strings of a balalaika being plucked. The Duke’s estate had been beautiful, but it was a melancholy beauty of dusty rooms and peeling paint, the echo of something that had once been grand. The Grisha tent was like nothing I had ever seen before, a place alive with power and wealth.
The soldiers marched me down a long carpeted aisle at the end of which I could see a black pavilion on a raised dais. A ripple of curiosity spread through the tent as we passed. Grisha men and women stopped their conversations to gape at me; a few even rose to get a better look.
By the time we reached the dais, the room was all but silent, and I felt sure that everyone must hear my heart hammering in my chest. In front of the black pavilion, a few richly attired ministers wearing the King’s double eagle and a group of Corporalki clustered around a long table spread with maps. At the head of the table was an ornately carved, high-backed chair of blackest ebony, and upon it lounged a figure in a black kefta, his chin resting on one pale hand. Only one Grisha wore black, was permitted to wear black. Colonel Raevsky stood beside him, speaking in tones far too low for me to hear.
I stared, torn between fear and fascination. He’s too young, I thought. This Darkling had been commanding the Grisha since before I was born, but the man seated above me on the dais didn’t look much older than I did. He had a sharp, beautiful face, a shock of thick black hair, and clear gray eyes that glimmered like quartz. I knew that the more powerful Grisha were said to live long lives, and Darklings were the most powerful of them all. But I felt the wrongness of it and I remembered Eva’s words: He’s not natural. None of them are.
A high, tinkling laugh sounded from the crowd that had formed near me at the base of the dais. I recognized the beautiful girl in blue, the one from the Etherealki coach who had been so taken with Mal. She whispered something to her chestnut-haired friend, and they both laughed again. My cheeks burned as I imagined what I must look like in a torn, shabby coat, after a journey into the Shadow Fold and a battle with a flock of hungry volcra. But I lifted my chin and looked the beautiful girl right in the eye. Laugh all you want, I thought grimly. Whatever you’re whispering, I’ve heard worse. She held my gaze for a moment and then looked away. I enjoyed a brief flash of satisfaction before Colonel Raevsky’s voice brought me back to the reality of my situation.
“Bring them,” he said. I turned to see more soldiers leading a battered and bewildered group of people into the tent and up the aisle. Among them, I spotted the soldier who had been beside me when the volcra attacked and the Senior Cartographer, his usually tidy coat torn and dirty, his face frightened. My distress grew as I realized that they were the survivors from my sandskiff and that they had been brought before the Darkling as witnesses. What had happened out there on the Fold? What did they think I had done?
My breath caught as I recognized the trackers in the group. I saw Mikhael first, his shaggy red hair bobbing above the crowd on his thick neck, and leaning on him, bandages peeking out from his bloodied shirt, was a very pale, very tired-looking Mal. My legs went weak and I pressed a hand to my mouth to stifle a sob.
Mal was alive. I wanted to push through the crowd and throw my arms around him, but it was all I could do to stay standing as relief flooded through me. Whatever happened here, we would be all right. We had survived the Fold, and we would survive this madness, too.
I looked back at the dais and my elation withered. The Darkling was looking directly at me. He was still listening to Colonel Raevsky, his posture just as relaxed as it had been before, but his gaze was focused, intent. He turned his attention back to the colonel and I realized that I had been holding my breath.
When the bedraggled group of survivors reached the base of the dais, Colonel Raevsky ordered, “Kapitan, report.”
The captain stood at attention and answered in an expressionless voice: “Approximately thirty minutes into the crossing, we were set upon by a large flock of volcra. We were pinned down and sustaining heavy casualties. I was fighting on the starboard side of the skiff. At that point, I saw …” The soldier hesitated, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded less sure. “I don’t know exactly what I saw. A blaze of light. Bright as noon, brighter. Like staring into the sun.”
The crowd erupted into murmurs. The survivors from the skiff were nodding, and I found myself nodding along with them. I had seen the blaze of light, too.
The soldier snapped back to attention and continued, “The volcra scattered and the light disappeared. I ordered us back to drydock immediately.”
“And the girl?” asked the Darkling.
With a cold stab of fear, I realized he was talking about me.
“I didn’t see the girl, moi soverenyi.”
The Darkling raised an eyebrow, turning to the other survivors. “Who actually saw what happened?” His voice was cool, distant, almost disinterested.
The survivors broke into muttered discussion with one another. Then slowly, timidly, the Senior Cartographer stepped forward. I felt a keen twinge of pity for him. I’d never seen him so disheveled. His sparse brown hair was standing at all angles on his head; his fingers plucked nervously at his ruined coat.
“Tell us what you saw,” said Raevsky.
The Cartographer licked his lips. “We … we were under attack,” he said tremulously. “There was fighting all around. Such noise. So much blood … . One of the boys, Alexei, was taken. It was terrible, terrible.” His hands fluttered like two startled birds.
I frowned. If the Cartographer had seen Alexei attacked, then why hadn’t he tried to help?
The old man cleared his throat. “They were everywhere. I saw one go after her—”
“Who?” asked Raevsky.
“Alina … Alina Starkov, one of my assistants.”
The beautiful girl in blue smirked and leaned over to whisper to her friend. I clenched my jaw. How nice to know that the Grisha could still maintain their snobbery in the midst of hearing about a volcra attack.
“Go on,” Raevsky pressed.
“I saw one go after her and the tracker,” the Cartographer said, gesturing to Mal.
“And where were you?” I asked angrily. The question was out of my mouth before I could think better of it. Every face turned to look at me, but I didn’t care. “You saw the volcra attack us. You saw that thing take Alexei. Why didn’t you help?”
“There was nothing I could do,” he pleaded, his hands spread wide. “They were everywhere. It was chaos!”
“Alexei might still be alive if you’d gotten off your bony ass to help us!”
There was a gasp and a burble of laughter from the crowd. The Cartographer flushed angrily and I felt instantly sorry. If I got out of this mess, I was going to be in very big trouble.
“Enough!” boomed Raevsky. “Tell us what you saw, Cartographer.”
The crowd hushed and the Cartographer licked his lips again. “The tracker went down. She was beside him. That thing, the volcra, was coming at them. I saw it on top of her and then … she lit up.”
The Grisha erupted into exclamations of disbelief and derision. A few of them laughed. If I hadn’t been so scared and baffled, I might have been tempted to join them. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so hard on him, I thought, looking at the rumpled Cartographer. The poor man clearly took a bump to the head during the attack.