But she wasn’t looking at my face—she was staring at my throat. My hand flew up to my neck. It was too late. The scarf had slipped free.
“Sankta,” the woman moaned. “Sankta!” She fell to her knees and seized my hand, pressing it to her wrinkled cheek. “Sankta Alina!”
Suddenly there were hands all around me, grasping at my sleeves, the hem of my coat.
“Please,” I said, trying to push away from them.
Sankta Alina. Muttered, whispered, wailed, shouted. My name was strange to me, spoken like a prayer, a foreign incantation to keep away the dark.
They crowded around me, closer and closer, jostling to get near, reaching out to feel my hair, my skin. I heard something rip and realized it was the fabric of my coat.
Sankta. Sankta Alina.
The bodies pressed tighter, pushing and shoving, shouting at each other, each wanting to get nearer. My feet lost contact with the ground. I cried out as a chunk of my hair was ripped from my scalp. They were going to tear me apart.
Let them do it, I thought with sudden clarity. It could be over that easily. No more fear, no more responsibility, no more nightmares of broken skiffs or children devoured by the Fold, no more visions. I could be free from the collar, from the fetter, from the crushing weight of their hope. Let them do it.
I closed my eyes. This would be my ending. They could give me a page in the Istorii Sankt’ya and put a gold halo around my head. Alina the Heartsick, Alina the Petty, Alina the Mad, Daughter of Dva Stolba, torn to pieces one morning in the shadow of the city walls. They could sell my bones by the side of the road.
Someone screamed. I heard an angry shout. Massive hands took hold of me, and I was lifted into the air.
I opened my eyes and saw Tolya’s grim face. He had me in his arms.
Tamar was beside him, palms up, turning in a slow arc.
“Stay back,” she warned the crowd. I saw some of the pilgrims blink sleepily, a few simply sat down. She was slowing their heart rates, trying to calm them, but there were just too many. A man dove forward. Like a flash, Tamar had drawn her axes. The man bellowed as a red streak bloomed on his arm.
“Come closer, and you’ll lose it,” she snapped.
The pilgrims’ faces were wild.
“Let me help,” I protested.
Tolya ignored me, pushing his way through the crowd; Tamar circled around him, blades in motion, widening the path. The pilgrims groaned and wailed, their arms outstretched, straining toward me.
“Now,” Tolya said. Then louder, “Now!”
He bolted. My head banged against his chest as we plunged toward the safety of the city walls, Tamar at our heels. The guards had already seen the turmoil erupting and had started to close the gates.
Tolya bulled forward, knocking people from his path, charging through the narrowing gap between the iron doors. Tamar slipped in after us, seconds before the gates clanged shut. On the other side, I heard the thump of bodies pounding against the doors, hands clawing, voices raised in hunger. Still I heard my name. Sankta Alina.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Tolya bellowed as he set me down.
“Later,” Tamar said curtly.
The city guards were glaring at me. “Get her out of here,” one of them yelled angrily. “We’ll be lucky if we don’t have a full-fledged riot on our hands.”
The twins had horses waiting. Tamar yanked a blanket from a market stall and threw it around my shoulders. I clutched it to my neck, hiding the collar. She leapt into her saddle, and Tolya tossed me up unceremoniously behind her.
We rode in harried silence all the way back to the palace gates. The unrest outside the city walls had not yet spread within, and all we garnered were a few questioning looks.
The twins didn’t say a word, but I could tell they were furious. They had every right to be. I’d behaved like an idiot, and now I could only hope that the guards below could restore order without resorting to violence.
Yet beneath the panic and regret, an idea had entered my mind. I told myself it was nonsense, wishful thinking, but I could not shake it.
When we arrived back at the Little Palace, the twins wanted to escort me straight to the Darkling’s rooms, but I refused.
“I’m safe now,” I said. “There’s something I need to do.”
They insisted on trailing me to the library.
It didn’t take me long to find what I wanted. I’d been a mapmaker, after all. I tucked the book under my arm and returned to my room with my scowling guards in tow.
To my surprise, Mal was waiting in the common room. He was seated at the table, nursing a glass of tea.
“Where were—” Mal began, but Tolya had him out of his chair and slammed against the wall before I could even blink.
“Where were you?” he snarled into Mal’s face.
“Tolya!” I shouted in alarm. I tried to pull his hand from around Mal’s throat, but it was like trying to bend a steel bar. I turned to Tamar for help, but she stood back, arms crossed, looking just as angry as her brother.
Mal made a choking sound. He hadn’t changed his clothes from last night. There was stubble on his chin, and the smell of blood and kvas hung on him like a dirty coat.
“Saints, Tolya! Would you just put him down?”
For a moment, Tolya looked like he had every intention of crushing the life out of him, but then he relaxed his fingers and Mal slid down the wall, coughing and gulping air.
“It was your shift,” Tolya rumbled, jabbing a finger at Mal’s chest. “You should have been with her.”
“I’m sorry,” Mal rasped, rubbing at his throat. “I must have fallen asleep. I was right next—”
“You were at the bottom of a bottle,” Tolya seethed. “I can smell it on you.”
“I’m sorry,” Mal said again, miserably.
“Sorry?” Tolya’s fists flexed. “I ought to tear you apart.”
“You can dismember him later,” I said. “Right now I need you to find Nikolai and tell him to meet me in the war room. I’m going to go change.”
I crossed to my room and closed the doors behind me, trying to pull myself together. So far today, I’d nearly died and possibly started a riot. Maybe I could set fire to something before breakfast.
I washed my face and changed into my kefta, then hurried to the war room. Mal was waiting there, slumped in a chair, though I hadn’t invited him. He’d changed clothes, but he still looked rumpled and red-eyed. There were fresh bruises on his face from the previous night. He glanced up at me as I entered, saying nothing. Would there ever be a time when it didn’t hurt to look at him?
I set the atlas on the long table and crossed to the ancient map of Ravka that ran the length of the far wall. Of all the maps in the war room, this one was by far the oldest and most beautiful. I trailed my fingers over the raised ridges of the Sikurzoi, the mountains that marked Ravka’s southernmost border with the Shu, then followed them down into the western foothills. The valley of Dva Stolba was too small to be marked on this map.
“Do you remember anything?” I asked Mal without looking at him. “From before Keramzin?”
Mal hadn’t been much older than I was when he came to the orphanage. I still remembered the day he’d arrived. I’d heard another refugee was coming, and I’d hoped it would be a girl for me to play with. Instead I’d gotten a pudgy, blue-eyed boy who would do anything on a dare.
“No.” His voice still sounded rough from the near choking he’d received at Tolya’s hands.
“I used to have dreams about a woman with long gold hair in a braid. She would dangle it in front of me like a toy.”
“Mother, aunt, neighbor. How should I know? Alina, about what happened—”
He contemplated me for a long moment, then sighed and said, “Every time I smell licorice, I remember sitting on a porch with a red painted chair in front of me. That’s it. Everything else…” He trailed off with a shrug.
He didn’t have to explain. Memories were a luxury meant for other children, not the Keramzin orphans. Be grateful. Be grateful.
“Alina,” Mal tried again, “what you said about the Darkling—”
But at that moment, Nikolai entered. Despite the early hour, he looked every inch the prince, blond hair gleaming, boots polished to a high shine. He took in Mal’s bruises and stubble, then raised his brows and said, “Don’t suppose anyone’s rung for tea?”
He sat down and stretched his long legs out before him. Tolya and Tamar had taken up their posts, but I asked them to close the door and join us.
When they were all assembled around the table, I said, “I went among the pilgrims this morning.”
Nikolai’s head snapped up. In an instant, the easygoing prince had vanished. “I think I must have misheard you.”
“She was almost killed,” said Tamar.
“But I wasn’t,” I added.
“Are you completely out of your mind?” Nikolai asked. “Those people are fanatics.” He turned on Tamar. “How could you let her do something like that?”
“I didn’t,” said Tamar.
“Tell me you didn’t go alone,” he said to me.
“I didn’t go alone.”
“She went alone.”
“Tamar, shut up. Nikolai, I told you, I’m fine.”
“Only because we got there in time,” said Tamar.
“How did you get there?” Mal asked quietly. “How did you find her?”
Tolya’s face went dark, and he pounded one of his giant fists down on the table. “We shouldn’t have had to find her,” he said. “You had the watch.”
“Leave it alone, Tolya,” I said sharply. “Mal wasn’t where he should have been, and I’m perfectly capable of being stupid on my own.”
I took a breath. Mal looked desolate. Tolya looked like he was about to smash several pieces of furniture. Tamar’s face was stony, and Nikolai was about as angry as I’d ever seen him. But at least I had their attention.
I pushed the atlas to the center of the table. “There’s a name the pilgrims use for me sometimes,” I said. “Daughter of Dva Stolba.”
“Two Mills?” said Nikolai.
“A valley, named after the ruins at its mouth.”
I opened the atlas to the page I had marked. There was a detailed map of the southwestern border. “Mal and I are from somewhere around here,” I said, running my finger along the edge of the map. “The settlements stretch all along this area.”
I turned the page to an illustration of a road leading into a valley studded with towns. On either side of the road stood a slender spindle of rock.
“They don’t look like much,” grumbled Tolya.
“Exactly,” I said. “Those ruins are ancient. Who knows how long they’ve been there or what they might have been? The valley is called Two Mills, but maybe they were part of a gatehouse or an aqueduct.” I curved my finger across the spindles. “Or an arch.”