“I saw it!” he shouted over the din. “Light came out of her!”
Some of the Grisha were jeering openly now, but others were yelling, “Let him speak!” The Cartographer looked desperately to his fellow survivors for support, and to my amazement, I saw some of them nod. Had everyone gone mad? Did they actually think I had chased off the volcra?
“This is absurd!” said a voice from the crowd. It was the beautiful girl in blue. “What are you suggesting, old man? That you’ve found us a Sun Summoner?”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” he protested. “I’m only telling what I saw!”
“It’s not impossible,” said a heavyset Grisha. He wore the purple kefta of a Materialnik, a member of the Order of Fabrikators. “There are stories—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the girl laughed, her voice thick with scorn. “The man’s had his wits rattled by the volcra!”
The crowd erupted into loud argument.
I suddenly felt very tired. My shoulder throbbed where the volcra had dug its talons into me. I didn’t know what the Cartographer or any of the others on the skiff thought they had seen. I just knew this was all some kind of terrible mistake, and at the end of this farce, I would be the one looking foolish. I cringed when I thought of the teasing I would take when this was over. And hopefully, it would be over soon.
“Quiet.” The Darkling barely seemed to raise his voice, but the command sliced through the crowd and silence fell.
I suppressed a shiver. He might not find this joke so funny. I just hoped he wouldn’t blame me for it. The Darkling wasn’t known for mercy. Maybe I should be worrying less about being teased and more about being exiled to Tsibeya. Or worse. Eva said that the Darkling had once ordered a Corporalki Healer to seal a traitor’s mouth shut permanently. The man’s lips had been grafted together and he had starved to death. At the time, Alexei and I had laughed and dismissed it as another of Eva’s crazy stories. Now I wasn’t so sure.
“Tracker,” the Darkling said softly, “what did you see?”
As one, the crowd turned toward Mal, who looked uneasily at me and then back at the Darkling. “Nothing. I didn’t see anything.”
“The girl was right beside you.”
“You must have seen something.”
Mal glanced at me again, his look weighted with worry and fatigue. I’d never seen him so pale, and I wondered how much blood he had lost. I felt a surge of helpless anger. He was badly hurt. He should be resting instead of standing here answering ridiculous questions.
“Just tell us what you remember, tracker,” commanded Raevsky.
Mal shrugged slightly and winced at the pain from his wounds. “I was on my back on the deck. Alina was next to me. I saw the volcra diving, and I knew it was coming for us. I said something and—”
“What did you say?” The Darkling’s cool voice cut through the room.
“I don’t remember,” Mal said. I recognized the stubborn set of his jaw and knew he was lying. He did remember. “I smelled the volcra, saw it swooping down on us. Alina screamed and then I couldn’t see anything. The world was just … shining.”
“So you didn’t see where the light was coming from?” Raevsky asked.
“Alina isn’t … She couldn’t …” Mal shook his head. “We’re from the same … village.” I noticed that tiny pause, the orphan’s pause. “If she could do anything like that, I would know.”
The Darkling looked at Mal for a long moment and then glanced back at me.
“We all have our secrets,” he said.
Mal opened his mouth as if to say more, but the Darkling put up a hand to silence him. Anger flashed across Mal’s features but he shut his mouth, his lips pressed into a grim line.
The Darkling rose from his chair. He gestured and the soldiers stepped back, leaving me alone to face him. The tent seemed eerily silent. Slowly, he descended the steps.
I had to fight the urge to back away from him as he came to a halt in front of me.
“Now, what do you say, Alina Starkov?” he asked pleasantly.
I swallowed. My throat was dry and my heart was careening from beat to beat, but I knew I had to speak. I had to make him understand that I’d had no part in any of this. “There’s been some kind of mistake,” I said hoarsely. “I didn’t do anything. I don’t know how we survived.”
The Darkling appeared to consider this. Then he crossed his arms, cocked his head to one side. “Well,” he said, his voice bemused. “I like to think that I know everything that happens in Ravka, and that if I had a Sun Summoner living in my own country, I’d be aware of it.” Soft murmurs of assent rose from the crowd, but he ignored them, watching me closely. “But something powerful stopped the volcra and saved the King’s skiffs.”
He paused and waited as if he expected me to solve this conundrum for him.
My chin rose stubbornly. “I didn’t do anything,” I said. “Not one thing.”
The side of the Darkling’s mouth twitched, as if he were repressing a smile. His eyes slid over me from head to toe and back again. I felt like something strange and shiny, a curiosity that had washed up on a lake shore, that he might kick aside with his boot.
“Is your memory as faulty as your friend’s?” he asked and bobbed his head toward Mal.
“I don’t …” I faltered. What did I remember? Terror. Darkness. Pain. Mal’s blood. His life flowing out of him beneath my hands. The rage that filled me at the thought of my own helplessness.
“Hold out your arm,” said the Darkling.
“We’ve wasted enough time. Hold out your arm.”
A cold spike of fear went through me. I looked around in panic, but there was no help to be had. The soldiers stared forward, stone-faced. The survivors from the skiff looked frightened and tired. The Grisha regarded me curiously. The girl in blue was smirking. Mal’s pale face seemed to have gone even whiter, but there was no answer in his worried eyes.
Shaking, I held out my left arm.
“Push up your sleeve.”
“I didn’t do anything.” I’d meant to say it loudly, to proclaim it, but my voice sounded frightened and small.
The Darkling looked at me, waiting. I pushed up my sleeve.
He spread his arms and terror washed through me as I saw his palms filling with something black that pooled and curled through the air like ink in water.
“Now,” he said in that same soft, conversational voice, as if we were sitting together drinking tea, as if I did not stand before him shaking, “let’s see what you can do.”
He brought his hands together and there was a sound like a thunderclap. I gasped as undulating darkness spread from his clasped hands, spilling in a black wave over me and the crowd.
I was blind. The room was gone. Everything was gone. I cried out in terror as I felt the Darkling’s fingers close around my bare wrist. Suddenly, my fear receded. It was still there, cringing like an animal inside me, but it had been pushed aside by something calm and sure and powerful, something vaguely familiar.
I felt a call ring through me and, to my surprise, I felt something in me rise up to answer. I pushed it away, pushed it down. Somehow I knew that if that thing got free, it would destroy me.
“Nothing there?” the Darkling murmured. I realized how very close he was to me in the dark. My panicked mind seized on his words. Nothing there. That’s right, nothing. Nothing at all. Now leave me be!
And to my relief, that struggling thing inside me seemed to lie back down, leaving the Darkling’s call unanswered.
“Not so fast,” he whispered. I felt something cold press against the inside of my forearm. In the same moment that I realized it was a knife, the blade cut into my skin.
Pain and fear rushed through me. I cried out. The thing inside me roared to the surface, speeding toward the Darkling’s call. I couldn’t stop myself. I answered. The world exploded into blazing white light.
The darkness shattered around us like glass. For a moment, I saw the faces of the crowd, their mouths wide with shock as the tent filled with shining sunlight, the air shimmering with heat. Then the Darkling released his grip, and with his touch went that peculiar sense of certainty that had possessed me. The radiant light disappeared, leaving ordinary candlelight in its place, but I could still feel the warm and inexplicable glow of sunshine on my skin.
My legs gave way and the Darkling caught me up against his body with one surprisingly strong arm.
“I guess you only look like a mouse,” he whispered in my ear, and then beckoned to one of his personal guard. “Take her,” he said, handing me over to the oprichnik who reached out his arm to support me. I felt myself flush at the indignity of being handed over like a sack of potatoes, but I was too shaky and confused to protest. Blood was running down my arm from the cut the Darkling had given me.
“Ivan!” shouted the Darkling. A tall Heartrender rushed from the dais to the Darkling’s side. “Get her to my coach. I want her surrounded by an armed guard at all times. Take her to the Little Palace and stop for nothing.” Ivan nodded. “And bring a Healer to see to her wounds.”
“Wait!” I protested, but the Darkling was already turning away. I grabbed hold of his arm, ignoring the gasp that rose from the Grisha onlookers. “There’s been some kind of mistake. I don’t … I’m not …” My voice trailed off as the Darkling turned slowly to me, his slate eyes drifting to where my hand gripped his sleeve. I let go, but I wasn’t giving up that easily. “I’m not what you think I am,” I whispered desperately.
The Darkling stepped closer to me and said, his voice so low that only I could hear, “I doubt you have any idea what you are.” Then he nodded to Ivan. “Go!”
The Darkling turned his back on me and walked swiftly toward the raised dais, where he was swarmed by advisers and ministers, all talking loudly and rapidly.
Ivan grabbed me roughly by the arm. “Come on.”
“Ivan,” called the Darkling, “mind your tone. She is Grisha now.”
Ivan reddened slightly and gave a small bow, but his grip on my arm didn’t slacken as he pulled me down the aisle.
“You have to listen to me,” I gasped as I struggled to keep up with his long strides. “I’m not Grisha. I’m a mapmaker. I’m not even a very good mapmaker.”
Ivan ignored me.
I looked back over my shoulder, searching the crowd. Mal was arguing with the captain from the sandskiff. As if he felt my eyes on him, he looked up and met my gaze. I could see my own panic and confusion mirrored in his white face. I wanted to cry out to him, to run to him, but the next moment he was gone, swallowed up by the crowd.
TEARS OF FRUSTRATION welled in my eyes as Ivan dragged me out of the tent and into the late-afternoon sun. He pulled me down a low hill to the road where the Darkling’s black coach was already waiting, surrounded by a ring of mounted Grisha Etherealki and flanked by lines of armed cavalry. Two of the Darkling’s gray-clad guards waited by the door to the coach with a woman and a fair-haired man, both of whom wore Corporalki red.