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The Setting Sun

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 PROLOGUE
The Fool — Alina’s Beginnings

 

i.

Alina doesn’t remember much, but she does remember the great fire that burned the sky to black and all its stars to red, to orange, to ash. It has not rained all summer, but she remembers hearing thunder all the same.

“Not thunder,” her mother whispers, keeping her tight in her embrace. “Horses.”

Her father’s arm comes around her, too. “Get to the bedroom. Quick.”

Then comes the shouting, the chanting, the clatter of falling in wood. Then comes more hurried whispers from her mother, her father. Then comes more fire, more heat.

“Alina,” her mother whispers. “My Alina.” Her hands come around Alina’s face, and she rubs her thumbs across the apple of her cheek. “No matter what you see, no matter what you hear, no matter what happens, you promise me— Promise me you will keep yourself safe.”

Madraya—”

“No.” She shakes her head. “Live, moya solnyshko.”

My little sun, she has always called Alina. But how little she feels now, in the darkness beneath her bed, frozen out of fear, out of blind obedience to her parents. And though she feels the heat of flames inching closer and closer toward her, the ice in her nerves never seem to melt. She cannot help but listen to the screams and cries of the town, the people, her parents, but—

You must be brave. Her father’s words echo in her mind, perhaps the last words he would ever say to her. You must live.

 

ii.

When Alina wakes, she sees darkness, smells smoke, and worse: She hears nothing. Nothing, at first. She slips from her place and sits up, pushing the burnt wood off her and taking in the sight of the ash-colored sky, the charcoal bones of what had once been homes.

Then she coughs. And coughs and coughs and coughs until she hears voices drawing nearer. Fear seizes her chest, and try as she might to stifle her coughs, her lungs are full of stubborn ash and dust.

Shadows move in front of her, and Alina shuts her eyes, prepares herself for the worst when—

“It’s a girl!” cries a voice to her right. “She’s alive!”

Alina wills herself to open her eyes just a crack. Faces loom in front of her, but they are not the sharp-eyed men of her nightmares. Ravkans, she thinks, relieved. These are my people. Still, she startles when a hand touches her shoulder.

“You’re all right,” says the voice. A figure moves in front of her and peers at her face. The man is still young—not young like she is, but his face is round, his chin bearing the barest makings of a beard. He has kind blue eyes, thinks Alina, but a crooked nose. “It’s all right now. You’re safe, girl. The Shu raiders have gone.”

She blinks. Once. Twice. She blinks another time and takes in what the man tells her.

Just because they aren’t at her village anymore doesn’t make them gone. Not like her parents. Her parents are gone. Her town is gone. But not the Shu. They’ve probably moved on, probably off to a pillage another village. She may be young, but she knows this much, at least.

“Can you stand?”

She gives a small nod and rises to her feet.

“We’re riding to the next town,” Crooked Nose tells her. His arms come around her when her knees start to buckle, holding her steady. “You’ll have to come with me. They might know people who can take care of you.”

Alina nods again.

She doesn’t protest when he lifts her onto a horse. From up high, she can see the whole of her town, see unfamiliar faces pick through its remains to look for survivors.

But the view has a hand, thinks Alina. It seems to reach into her chest and squeeze her heart tightly, so tightly it might just burst, and for a moment, she wishes it would. She has never been able to see this much of the village before. She knows she shouldn’t be able to.

“I’m riding ahead,” says Crooked Nose, and he mounts the horse after her. “The girl should get help as soon as possible.”

Faces nod and mouths move to mutter in agreement.

With a kick, the horse begins to walk. And then trot. And then gallop. Alina watches her town grow smaller and smaller in the distance, her eyelids grow heavier and heavier.

In the end, sleep takes her.

 

iii.

She is taken to the big house at the very back of the village. Caryeva, she remembers Crooked Nose saying. Now she waits for him to finish. He has to meet with people, he tells her. He has to make sure she will be taken care of, but he needs help to know where to go. She watches as he enters the private office at the end of the hallway.

A kind lady in a beautiful dress of the deepest green takes her to the kitchen. She tells Alina to drink a hot cup of tea, mint mixed with herbs Alina can’t name. “To heal your lungs,” she says, and even though Alina can breathe just fine now, she takes it gratefully. The tea is hot on her tongue, but cool down her throat.

After she has downed it all, the lady in green takes her up the stairs. She is given a bath and clean clothes and lead downstairs again, where a different lady, one wearing a plain gray dress, bids her to wait at a big room she calls a parlor.

Alina lets the details of the parlor distract her while she waits. She notes the sturdy oak planks of the floor, the striped pattern of the thick thread rug beneath the coffee table, the plush cushions of the sofa and armchairs. The walls are white drywood, decorated with crooked picture frames of more unfamiliar faces. In front of her, a cup of cold tea and a dry biscuit is left untouched. Though the house is grander than anything she remembers seeing, there isn’t very much to look at beyond that, so she distracts herself some more, fixes her gaze on the floor and counts the lines of the rug, and when she realizes she can’t count that high, she kicks off her shoes and stands on the sofa to glance at the sky outside the window.

She is wondering what birds make of the cloudless, ash-colored sky when she hears the doors of the private room creak open. Quickly, she sits properly on the couch, hastily putting on her discarded shoes, and listens as the footsteps draw closer.

A white-bearded man in a fine tan suit approaches her first. He kneels in front of her and says, very kindly, “What is your name, little one?”

She looks to Crooked Nose first. It is only after he nods in encouragement that she finally speaks. “Alina,” she says, and pauses. Her voice is a bit hoarse, and she clears her throat. “Alina Starkov,” she continues, more firmly this time.

“Alina,” he says with a smile. His old eyes crinkle at the corners when he does. He points to where Crooked Nose stands behind him. “This man’s name is Maksim. He’s going to take you to a place called Keramzin, a big town north of here. They can take care of you there.”

She nods. Then, after a moment, she asks, “Are there other people who…?” Alina doesn’t finish her question. She doesn’t need to. Maksim must know she’s asking about her town and gives a firm shake of his head. No other survivors. Alina gulps. “Am I going there now?” she asks instead. She ignores the tightness growing in her chest. The same hand she feels before is squeezing her heart again, and it threatens to squeeze her throat, too—threatens to steal the air from her lungs all over again.

“We have plenty of room here, Alina,” says the old man. “You’ll have a room for the night, but you leave tomorrow morning.”

 

iv.

“What’s at Keramzin?”

“The Duke Keramsov has a place there, a summer home. He opens it to the otkazat’sya.”

Okatasya?”

Otkazat’sya,” corrects Maksim. Then, he gives her a funny look. “How old are you?”

Alina raises her chin. “Almost five.”

“Four, then.” He smiles. Even though it is not unkind, Alina feels a twinge of annoyance. “You’re very young,” he adds. This time, sadness laces his voice.

“I didn’t go to school yet,” says Alina. “What does okatasya mean?”

Otkazat’sya.”

“What does it mean?”

He doesn’t look at her when he answers. “It’s another word for orphan.”

 

v.

Maksim points the house to her as soon as it comes within eyeshot, but house is a generous way of describing it. Duke Keramsov has a large home, a gated estate that stands gray against a grayer sky.

The inside isn’t quite what she expected. It is grand in the same way standing clocks are, antique but old with time. Though the wooden floor shines with fresh wax, the tall walls of the foyer are lined with wallpaper that has begun to crisp at the edges. Framed artwork lines the walls, some straight, some crooked, paintings of a scenery far grander than any view Alina has seen on her journey from Caryeva. More than that—

There are a lot of people here, she realizes. She hears voices from the kitchen, from the dining room, from the echoes of hallways upstairs.

But she has no time to search for their sources. Maksim leads her to the parlor where an older lady waits with her arms crossed over her chest. Her stern face is full of hard lines, her mouth forever drawn down in a scowl.

“Is this her?” asks the lady.

Maksim nods. “Found her in a town not too far from Caryeva. The Shu—”

“Yes, yes. I’m aware of most circumstances.” Stern Face waves a dismissive hand at him before setting her sights on Alina. “You, girl,” she says, beckoning forward. “What’s your name?”

“Alina Starkov.”

“Can you cook, Alina?”

A shake of her head.

“Can you clean?”

“A little,” she says, nodding.

“How old are you?”

“Almost…” She bites her lip, hesitating. Maksim might have taken kindly to her little jokes, but she has a feeling this woman does not share the same humor he does. “I’m four,” she says instead.

Stern Face studies her closely, her stormy eyes narrowing, before finally pulling back. She looks at Maksim. “Be thankful our Duke is a kind man,” she says.

“He is renowned for his kindness, I’m sure,” says Maksim dryly. “Please pass along my gratitude when the Duke visits.”

“Are you leaving now?” asks Alina suddenly. Her eyes trained on Maksim.

He smiles and kneels in front of her, meets her gaze at her eye-level. “I have to,” he says, “but I’m glad you got here safe.” He points to Stern Face. “The nice woman there is Ana Kuya. She takes care of the Duke’s house when he isn’t here, so she’ll take care of you, too.”

Alina nods.

“This is the last you’ll have to see me,” says Maksim. “No more staring at my messed up nose, eh?”

“I called you Crooked Nose,” she admits. “Before I knew your name.”

“Did you?”

“I did.” Alina manages a smile. “Thank you for taking me all this way.”

“It was my pleasure.” He wears a kind smile on her face as he rises to take his leave. “You’re a brave girl, Alina. Take care of yourself, all right?”

She nods again.

“Come, child,” says Stern Face—no, Ana Kuya. “Let’s get some supper in you.”

Even as she walks away, in the direction of the noisy dining room, Alina casts Maksim a glance over her shoulder and waves goodbye.

 

vi.

That night, Alina jolts awake with fresh tears and a raw throat. It feels like she’s swallowed the fire in her nightmares. No amount of tears can ever soothe her burns.

“Someone shut her up.” The older kid in the bed next to hers rolls over, but not before pushing her bed away with a vicious shove.

“Learn quick, kid,” hisses a voice. When Alina dares look up, a boy with a mean face looms over her, sneering. “Some of us are trying to sleep. If you have a nightmare, do us all a favor and scream more quietly.”

Alina’s eyes widen as he lifts his hand, and only the sound of her heartbeat fills her ears. She shuts her eyes to prepare for the worst when—

A thud.

And then, shuffling footsteps and low grumbling.

“Heartless,” chastises a gentle voice—smooth like silk, warm like summer. Immediately, the vicious drum of her pounding heart slows to a pleasant, calming beat. Alina dares crack an eye open, and in the dim moonlit room, she sees a round face, long lashes framing gray-green eyes. “Are you okay?”

Slowly, she nods.

“If those boys bother you again,” the girl tells her, “call for me. My name is Galena. My bed is the one across the room, straight ahead of yours. Okay?”

She nods again.

“What’s your name?”

“Alina,” she whispers. “My name is Alina.”

 

vii.

Summer comes around again before she knows it. Ana Kuya keeps her busy with little chores—little ways a little girl can pull her weight, and Alina does it without much protest. Mostly, she helps the older girls with their chores. She clings to Galena more, comes with her outside to hang sheets dry, tails her ‘round the kitchen to wash dishes.

She has done a good enough job so far—only with chores but never with nightmares, and tonight is the worst of it.

Another fiery dream burns through her sleep, but when she wakes, she realizes it isn’t the phantom heat of the fire nor the distant screams of the town that fill her with fear. No— It’s the blurry faces of Madraya and Papa that scare her most.

Galena is at her side almost instantly, and she takes Alina’s little hands in her own.

“What is it, Alina?” she asks. “Is it the same dream?”

“It’s getting worse,” sobs Alina. “I can’t remember them. My mom and dad. Their faces. I… I don’t know why it keeps happening. They’re just… gone.”

At once, Galena’s arms are around Alina, holding her in a tight embrace. Though her comfort soothes Alina, slows her pounding heart to a calm beat, it is not enough.

But it seems like Galena knows this already. “Tell me about them, then,” she says, her gentle voice firm. “Tell me a new story everyday, so you won’t forget them, even if you forget their faces.”

And so Alina does.

 

viii.

When winter comes the following year, the house becomes a severe thing. The cold has an odd effect on the servants and caretakers, fueling their hot tempers. The adults opt to spend their days and nights warm by the fire, drinking nastoiki and playing cards.

Galena is assigned to snow duty today. As one of the older children, Ana Kuya has her shoveling the snow off the front porch of the Duke’s household while the boys are off hunting. Alina hasn’t seen her all day— She chickens out of being Galena’s shadow for once, choosing to help the servants tending to the food by the warm hearth of the kitchen.

When she finally finishes her duties, she races to the porch, very nearly running into the batty housekeeper’s wiry frame.

Alina stumbles back from the impact, nearly falling back on her feet. “Sorry,” she mutters. “Where’s Galena?”

The housekeeper doesn’t answer right away. Her weary eyes strain on the big troika pulling past the estate’s white stone gates, lead by three great black horses lined abreast. With a jolt, Alina realizes that Galena must be—

“They’re taking her away,” says Alina, voice rising in slow panic, and she runs forward in a hurry, only for Ana Kuya to hold an arm out to stop her. “But they’re taking Galena away—”

“Because she is special.” Ana Kuya says the last word in a funny way, talking with her teeth grit together. “That child,” says the housekeeper, “is Grisha.”

 

ix.

Alina has only ever heard about them in passing. Grisha. She remembers hearing the whispers about them, remembers Madraya talking about them in a low voice.

They have special gifts, she recalls her mother saying, and though Alina can’t read so well, she takes to the library for the children’s books there. Pictures explain enough. Some Grisha can mold metal without heat. Some Grisha can summon wind or fire or water. Some Grisha can heal or wound without touch.

She thinks of Grisha with wonder, but the older children around her beg to differ.

“Witches, the lot of them,” hisses one boy, Osyen. “Unnatural. People shouldn’t be able to do any of that shit.”

“Can’t believe we lived with one of them.” Another boy, Luka, shudders from the thought. “Now she’ll be with the rest of the pompous bastards in their Little Palace.”

“I don’t know,” says Sabina. “I kind of feel sorry for her.”

“Sorry for her? Are you stupid?”

“The Darkling lives there, doesn’t he?” Sabina continues. Alina thinks she’s never seen someone look so pale, so sick. “Must be awful, knowing that someone like him is so close—”

“Who’s the Darkling?” Alina speaks up at last, her curiosity getting the better of her. “What did he do that’s so awful?”

Osyen and Luka turn to each other before turning to her, their faces slack with disbelief. “No one ever taught you? Ever?”

“I don’t—”

“Everyone knows who the Darkling is,” says Sabina. She tries to keep her voice gentle, but a little bit of her annoyance shines through anyway. “He’s the only Grisha who can summon darkness, summon shadows.”

“Heard this Darkling’s lived for more than a century.” Osyen nods at Luka. “You’d think he’d gotten rid of the Fold by now, in all the time he’s been alive.”

More than a century? The Fold? Alina has more questions than answers, but the looks on their faces tell her they aren’t in the mood. She listens on in silence.

 

x.

The autumn after Alina turns seven is when she starts school. Part of her day is spent with irritable teachers in makeshift classrooms. As time passes, she learns that their displeasure is easy to earn and often coupled with a heavy hand.

Though she can read and write well enough, it’s the other things they teach that frustrate her. Subjects like the common science or history or even math are difficult but manageable, but it’s the “lady training” she struggles with most. She can barely sow or cook or clean the proper way, and so, alongside the endless hours of lessons, Alina has to endure their yelling—and some slapping, too, if she happens to be particularly unlucky that day.

Today is one of those days.

That night, she doesn’t sleep in the room. She spends the late afternoon wandering and exploring the maze of empty rooms in the Duke’s estate. At last, she settles in a room where she can cry to herself without more reprimands.

But in the darkness, the strangest thing happens: Light, small and flickering like candlelight, comes alive at her fingertips.

 

xi.

The next morning, Alina wakes to sunlight streaming through the windows.

She stares at her fingertips, where she swears light had just been glowing last night. It’s only a dream, she thinks, but a quiet, desperate part of herself really hopes it isn’t.

 

xii.

After a day of classes and an afternoon of chores, Alina finds solitude in the attic this time, where she knows she is far from prying eyes. There, she calls on the light.

To her delight, it answers.

 

xiii.

At the end of the week is a “Free Day,” where the children have all of daylight to do as they please, provided they “comply with the Duke’s household rules,” so says Ana Kuya.

Alina takes to the library and scours its shelves for a story—any story—that even slightly resembles what she dreamed, but all she finds are old legends of gods and goddesses from a time before the Saints, before Ravka, before countries.

She reads and reads and reads, fills her mind with all sorts of stories. Yhi and the Dreamtime. Koyash and the Sun Strands. Ekhi and the Reddish Seas. Shi He and the Ten Suns. Biejje and the Winter Solstice. Aynia and the Midsummer Night. Saule and the Moon Faces. But there is nothing about little girls who can call on light.

And so, Alina decides her light must be her closest guarded secret.

 

xiv.

But, thinks Alina, it is a secret she cannot part with.

She practices with her light, makes it bigger or smaller, hotter or colder, brighter or dimmer. She practices and practices until one day, she turns herself invisible. Alina has her teachers to thank for the realization—their lessons in the common science tell her that people see because of the way light reflects off objects. Now she can get herself into all sorts of fun and trouble.

But, thinks Alina, it is the sort of trouble she can live with.

 

xv.

When Alina isn’t off stirring trouble, she knows she can take to the library and fill her afternoon with reading, but even then, her small bit of comfort is limited. Once a week, the servants come in to clean the Duke’s library, leaving Alina without a nook to tuck herself into.

Bored out of her mind, she wanders, finds her instructors sat around the parlor, passing a bottle of nastoiki and playing cards. She watches them a while, listening to their tipsy conversation and obnoxious laughter, before they finally notice her.

“Come here, girl!” howls one of her instructors. Alina bristles but obeys, rounding the table to come to Uchitel Markov’s side. He holds cards out before her. “You know how to play?”

Alina shakes her head. At the same time another instructor, Uchitel Ravensky, speaks up to chastise his friend. “Are you an idiot? Of course she doesn’t,” he says, half-grumbling as he snatches away the playing cards. “She’s a child, Markov.”

“I want to learn.” Before she knows it, the words already escape her lips. At once, the room silences, and every eye turns to her. “I mean,” she says, “I… I don’t have anything better to do.”

Another silence passes, one Alina can barely recognize over the nervous beat of her heart. The silence finally breaks with Uchitel Ravensky’s howling laughter. “You heard the little lady,” he says. “Nothing better to do! We might as well teach her!”

Uchitel Veronin pulls a chair up for her. “Sit,” he orders, but his usual imperious tone is tainted with amusement. The alcohol, Alina supposes. “Watch the masters at work.”

 

xvi.

Though the whole experience has left her a little rattled, she is thankful for it all the same. They are less harsh with her actual lessons, more patient.

They even invite her to a game from time to time. Alina’s quiet laughter is drowned out by the rambunctious open-mouthed laughs of her instructors, but she doesn’t mind.

It feels good to laugh so freely.

 

xvii.

Another summer has come and gone, and by the time Alina is eight-years-old, the Duke’s estate is nearly empty. By the time they turn sixteen, the older children leave to find work in the town or to serve in the First Army.

Just as she grows used to being on her own, a boy her age shows up, a mess of brown hair and blue eyes like the sky. He is bright like her sunlit dreams, though his eyes gleam with the dark tint of trouble and mischief.

He approaches her after dinner one night and dares her to steal the last of the summer peaches from the kitchen.

Alina doesn’t tell him that she has been considering the idea. “I can’t,” she whispers, but the smile threatening to lift at the corners of her lips betray her. “Ana Kuya would be so mad.”

“She’ll only be mad if she catches us.” The boy smiles, wide and brilliant, and at once, Alina decides they will be the best of friends. He holds a hand out. “What do you say?”

“I think,” she says slowly, an air of haughtiness about her, “I should know the name of my partner-in-crime.” She raises her chin and tries to look appraising, but she is doing a terrible job of keeping the smile from her face.

“Malyen Oretsev,” he says, “but call me Mal.”

“I’m Alina,” she says, taking his hand. “Alina Starkov. It’s nice to meet you, Mal.”

 

xviii.

In the summer, they take to the woods to hunt for birds’ nests or swim in the muddy little creek. Some days, they lie for hours in the meadow, watching the sun pass slowly. Alina treasures those moments, not only for Mal’s company, but for the long hours she spends with the sun on her skin.

She has taken to thinking of the sun as her friend, too.

 

xix.

In the winter, they take to the kitchen hearths for warmth or sneak about the cold and empty halls of the Duke’s estate. One night, after Ana Kuya finishes with guests, they sneak into the cool cellars and try kvas.

As it turns out, kvas is bubbly and bitter and bad.

“And they’re supposed to like this stuff?” asks Alina. She upends the rest of the drink on the floor. “It tastes awful.”

“It’s all they’re gonna have in the First Army,” says Mal. Unlike Alina, he takes another swig, finishing the rest of his drink before wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. “Might as well get used to it.”

Alina looks sourly at her empty cup. “I guess so.”

 

xx.

One day, they sit, perched on the window seat of a dusty upstairs bedroom, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mail coach. Instead, Alina sees a familiar troika pass through the white stone gates of the estate.

Three figures emerge, wearing elegant fur hats and heavy wool kefta: one in crimson, one in midnight blue, and one in vibrant purple. Colors of the different Grisha orders, if Alina remembers correctly. Red for Corporalki, the Order of the Living and the Dead. Blue for Etherealki, the Order of Summoners. Purple for Materialki, the Order of Fabrikators.

“Grisha,” Alina whispers, but she is frightened. She remembers why the troika is familiar now: It’s the same troika that had taken Galena away.

“We have to be quick!” says Mal, and he seizes her hand and takes her down the hall, slipping through the empty music room and darting behind a column in the gallery that overlooks the sitting room where Ana Kuya receives guests.

They peer through the railing of the balcony to the room below and see the batty housekeeper already there, wearing her favorite black dress and pouring tea from the samovar.

“Only two this year?” The woman in red speaks first, her voice deep and haughty and refined, taking her place in the chair closest to the fireplace and nursing a cup of tea.

The blue-clad Grisha takes the spot across from her, and the third, a young blond man in purple robes, ambles around the room, stretching his legs.

“Yes,” says Ana Kuya. “A boy and a girl. Both around eight, we think.”

“You think?” asks the Summoner.

“The girl we know for sure. She says she remembers her birthday, but the boy…” Ana Kuya trails off. “It’s hard to tell when the parents are deceased.”

“We understand,” says the Corporalki woman. “We’re great admirers of your institution. We only wish more of the nobility took an interest in the common people.”

Ana Kuya nods. “Our Duke is a very great man.”

“And what are they like, the children?”

“The girl has some talent for drawing, I suppose, though she spends a significant amount of time in the library. The boy is most at home in the meadow and the wood. He has the makings of a great tracker.”

“Perhaps you did not hear me correctly,” says the woman. “What are they like?”

Ana Kuya purses her withered lips. “They are undisciplined, contrary, far too attached to each other. They—”

“—are listening to every word we say,” interrupts the Fabrikator. He is staring directly at their hiding spot.

Mal and Alina jump back in surprise, shrinking behind the column, but it’s too late. Ana Kuya calls them down furiously, her voice lashing out like a whip. They reluctantly make their way down the narrow staircase, where they are immediately greeted by the Corporalki woman.

“Do you know who we are?” she asks. Her hair is steel gray with age, and though her face is lined, she is still remarkably beautiful.

“You’re witches!” blurts Mal.

Witches?” she snarls. She whirls on Ana Kuya. “Is that what you teach at school? Superstition and lies?” The housekeeper flushes with embarrassment. Before she can say anything, the Grisha woman turns back to Alina and Mal, her dark eyes blazing. “We are not witches,” she says sourly. “We are practitioners of the Small Science. We are Grisha. We keep the country safe.”

“As does the First Army.” There is an unmistakable edge to Ana Kuya’s voice.

The Corporalki woman stiffens, but eventually, she concedes, “As does the King’s Army.”

The man in purple, the Fabrikator, smiles and moves to kneel before the children. Gently, he says, “When the leaves change color, do you call it magic? What about when you cut your hand and it heals? When you put a pot of water on the stove and it boils? Is it magic then?”

Mal shakes his head. His eyes are wide, almost frightened, but in spite of his fear, he dares, “Anyone can boil water.”

Ana Kuya sighs in exasperation, but behind her, the Summoner laughs.

“You’re very right,” continues the Fabrikator, stifling laughter himself. “Anyone can boil water, but not just anyone can master the Small Science. That’s why we’ve come to test you.” He rises and turns to Ana Kuya. “Leave us.”

“Wait!” exclaims Alina. When they all face her, fear seizes her chest. “What… What happens to us? If we’re Grisha?”

“If, by some small chance, one of you is Grisha,” starts the woman, “then that lucky child will go to a special school where Grisha learn to use their talents.”

“You will have the finest clothes, the finest food, whatever your heart desires,” adds the Etherealki man. “Would you like that?”

That’s where Galena will be, thinks Alina, but still. The fear in her chest won’t ease.

Still hovering by the door, Ana Kuya adds, “It is the greatest way to serve your King.”

“That is very true,” continues the Summoner. The smile on his face doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Dlya Ravka.” For Ravka.

Dlya Ravka,” Ana Kuya agrees. Finally, she exits.

Alina and Mal glance at each other, their eyes mirrors of terror, even if they fear different things. There’s no way Mal can be Grisha, and of that, Alina is certain. She has never seen him summon wind or water or fire, never seen his wounds heal quickly, never seen him mold objects without tools.

She is different. Not exactly Grisha, but not exactly normal either. What will they do if they find out about her? Will they try to take her away from her home, from Mal?

 

xxi.

They are pulled apart, each of them held down by strong arms. Alina kicks and thrashes, thrashes and kicks, but her struggle makes no difference. She watches in horror as the Fabrikator tosses a screaming Mal over his shoulder and takes him into the library. Even as the doors slam, she can still hear Mal shouting her name.

In that moment, the choice is not difficult.

 

xxii.

The Corporalki woman slides her hand around Alina’s wrist, and for a moment, Alina pauses her struggles a moment as pure certainty washes over her, calling forth the familiar ring of power.

But—

She fights. Alina pushes down her light with a vicious shove, and though she struggles to breathe, she focuses on Mal’s voice as he shouts her name over and over and over.

Alina. Alina. Alina.

She squeezes her eyelids shut and shoves her light away, away—

Gone.

 

xxiii.

At last, Alina breaks from the woman’s grip and runs to Mal.

 

xxiv.

They watch the Grisha leave. Mal’s eyes are full of relief and disdain, but Alina cannot stop the earthquake in her bones, the fear that still seizes her chest. But it isn’t the Grisha that scare her, no. What she really fears is losing her light.

It has to be there, she reminds herself, turning her gaze to her upturned palms. It has to.

“Awful,” Mal says sourly. “I’m glad they’re gone. They were unnatural. Grisha shouldn’t exist at all.”

Alina agrees with an absent nod, but her mind wanders for the rest of the day, for the rest of the night, too.

If Grisha are unnatural, what exactly does that make her?

 

xxv.

She sneaks out of her bed to find solace in the attic. With tear-filled eyes, she calls on her light, desperately hoping it hasn’t been extinguished.

To her relief, it answers.

 

xxvi.

As she stares at her light in wonder, Alina realizes that Mal can never understand this part of her—never hope to understand. His words echo in her mind:

Grisha shouldn’t exist at all.

Her decision comes easy, but it’s the burden of loneliness that weighs heavy on her heart. Her light will be her secret and hers to bear alone.

 

xxvii.

Alina dreams the same thing every night after. She is walking down a narrow hall with only a candle to light a ways, but the fire goes out, and she is left in the dark.

Light. She calls it with a thought, a breath, a hope, but nothing answers.

In spite of the tears she wakes with, she is more determined to keep her light alive. She practices and practices, to the point of sacrificing sleep, but she finds that she doesn’t mind that as much. Without sleep, she won’t have to wake to lightless nightmares.

 

xxviii.

When Alina is ten, she convinces Mal to come with her to the library. He frowns at all the dusty books and crooked shelves, and Alina laughs, taking his hand and leading him through the maze of stories before finally settling down at her favorite spot by the fireplace. 

“I want to share a story with you,” she says, a little sheepishly. She pulls a book closer, a leather-bound book etched with stars letters that read, Istorii Zvezd. “Did you know there are stories about the stars?” 

“And?” 

And,” says Alina, flipping to a certain page, “each of us is born under a special star pattern—a constellation. It changes every month.” 

Mal frowns. “But I don’t even remember my actual birthday, so I don’t think—” 

“You’re missing the point.” Alina points to the outlines of constellations. “This is how I wanted to cheer you up. I want you to pick your constellation.” 

“Just like that?” 

“Just like that.” 

“Okay,” says Mal, and he grins now, eyes full of mischief as they scan the page of stars. “Then I pick… this one.” 

Alina leans over to get a good look at the constellation he chooses. “The Hunter,” she says, smiling. “Of course you’d pick that.” 

“Which one is yours?” 

Her smile broadens. She flips to the next page over and shows him. “The Lady of the Valley,” she says proudly. “Actually, the Hunter is in her story, too.” 

“Really?” Mal’s eyes are full of light, shining brighter than the stray embers of the fireplace. “Can you read it to me?” 

Who is she to tell him no? Alina smiles and begins after clearing her throat.

In an ancient time when gods still roamed the earth lived a pretty young girl—orphaned, but looked after by the people of her valley village. She is beloved by all, with the sun in her heart and light in her eyes…

 

xxx.

“Ever heard of soulmates?” asks Mal. They are twelve-years-old now, and they spend the early afternoon walking through the wood, following the little creak.

Alina frowns. “Of course I have,” she says. “I’m not stupid.”

“I never said you were.” There’s a small smile tugging at the corner of Mal’s lips. “Read about it in a book, I’m guessing.”

“You should try it some time.”

“Never. I prefer hunting.”

“You boys and your hunting.” Alina shakes her head. “So,” she asks after a moment, “why are you asking about soulmates?”

“I just heard about it in passing is all. One of the hunters just turned eighteen. We were with him when he got his soul marks,” he explains, tapping his wrist. “Kind of romantic, don’t you think?”

Again, Alina frowns. “I don’t see how a tattoo of just your soulmate’s first name is romantic,” she says. “I mean, why not their whole name? How are you supposed to know for sure?”

“Exactly!” Mal grins. “Your soulmate will be more than just a name on your wrist. When you meet them, I like to think you’ll feel something else, something right, like everything falling into place and the universe making sense.”

“You’re such a loser.”

“I prefer hopeless romantic.”

Alina laughs. Then, she shoves him into the stream and runs. Serves him right, she thinks, laughing harder as he shouts after her. Hopeless romantic, my ass.

 

xxxi.

Alina knows a lot can change in a year, but for once, change is not unwelcome. At thirteen, Mal is shaping up to be an excellent tracker. He frequents hunting trips with the servants at Keramzin now, leaving Alina to her own devices.

Mostly, she spends the time practicing light. Her latest challenge is trying to think of ways to make her bright bursts of light invisible. She sits on the idea a while when the idea hits her in the middle of a lesson—a lesson on commerce and the fishing industry, of all things!

What if she makes a net—a grid of thin, invisible stretches of light—and casts it around her, so she can practice summoning light in a controlled area, “see” everything that the light, her light, touches even with her eyes closed?  

It’s a struggle at first, to stretch the light and keep it invisible at the same time. Alina can’t help but wonder if it would have been easier for her to learn if she had only shown her power to the Grisha woman years ago.

 

xxxii.

On her fourteenth birthday, Mal returns from another hunting trip. She is in her usual chair in the library, curled up by the fireplace with a book on her lap, when he runs out to her, wearing a wide grin, fistful of flowers in hand.

“Mal!” she shouts, excited, tackling him in a fierce hug. “You’re back!”

“Hey!” he protests. “Watch the flowers!”

She makes a face at him before letting up, her book already long forgotten on the floor. 

Still, Mal remains smiling and squeezes her once, tightly, before letting go. “I missed you too much to stay away,” he says, half-joking, and he holds out the flowers to her. “Happy birthday, Alina.”

“For me? Really?” Alina takes the flowers from him, doing her best to ignore the way her heart does somersaults in her chest, and admires the gift. At last, she manages a laugh. “You really are a hopeless romantic.”

“Every girl loves flowers,” says Mal, winking playfully. The light in his eyes can almost rival the sun in its shine. “I saw these growing in the shade, just shy of the snowbanks. Christmas roses, I think. Tough fuckers bloom in the winter, of all times. It reminded me of you.”

Alina almost kisses him, right then and there. Almost.

Instead, she tackles him in another embrace, tucking her face into the crook of his neck. “Thank you,” she whispers. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” he replies. “Just be my best friend. Be Alina.”

 

xxxiii.

For old times’ sake, Alina and Mal sneak to the music room upstairs and settle behind in the small space behind the column, peeking out just enough to see the gallery below. Ana Kuya has another guest, one of Duke Keramsov’s friends, a name Alina doesn’t catch. The man has a familiar face, lined and mustached like all old noblemen’s faces, only his white-haired mustache makes him look like the world’s ugliest cat.

“I hear you have a hidden gem in your midst,” says the old nobleman. Alina has taken to calling him Whiskers. “One of Duke Keramsov’s, ah, charges. The maids have a penchant for gossip when they stop by the square.”

Ana Kuya frowns, but she amends, “The girl is beautiful, I suppose, if only she knew some proper manners. Or learned to cook or clean well. That might make her a proper lady. The little brat much prefers to spend her days in the muds of the wood with the boys, I’m afraid.”

Whiskers lets out a laugh—at least Alina thinks it’s a laugh. It also sounds like a cough. “So harsh!” he says. “Give it a couple years, madame. I’m sure she’ll blossom into the lovely and proper young lady you want her to be.”

Alina can’t stand to hear the rest of the conversation. She crawls out from her hiding place and sneaks away, Mal trailing behind her.

Lovely and proper young lady,” repeats Alina, mimicking the haughty huff of the old nobleman’s voice. “Any lady in their right mind shouldn’t have to listen to old men tell them what is and isn’t proper.”

“Technically, they do,” Mal supplies unhelpfully. Alina smacks at his shoulder, and he yelps in pain. “Well, I didn’t say anything wrong!”

“You said everything wrong!”

He raises his hands defensively. “Okay, okay! I’m wrong! Please don’t hit me.”

“Whatever.”

“For what it’s worth,” Mal says, “you really are beautiful.”

Alina hides her blush with a proud jut of her chin. “I think so, too.”

 

xxxiv.

The conversation she overheard only spurs Alina’s penchant for troublemaking. She’s been a bit lax about it, but with Mal’s help, she gets back into the swing of things, playing pranks on Ana Kuya and blaming any broken or missing objects on the dogs.

(They don’t have dogs.)

When Alina isn’t off planning devious tasks with Mal, she is in her spot in the attic, finding new ways to fiddle with light. She can make illusions now, but her goal is to refine them to perfection. She can easily control the light that falls upon them, but she cannot control the shadow.

 

xxxv.

Alina is fifteen when Ana Kuya has her mending pottery in the kitchen with one of the maids. Mal is away on a hunting trip, but he should be on his way back by now. He’s been going on those trips more and more frequently.

She stands at the counter, trying but failing to glue together the jagged pieces of a blue cup. Admittedly, her mind is elsewhere. She misses her best friend, so she watches the field outside the window, waiting for him to come back home.

At last he comes to view, and all rational thought leaves her mind. She’s too overcome with giddy excitement. Alina runs to the doorway and waves, still holding a piece of broken pottery in her hand.

When Mal catches sight of her, his face breaks into a grin. Though Alina crosses the yard slowly, he speeds his walk to a jog and his jog to a run and by the time he reaches her, Alina’s greeting is lost in a surprised shout.

“What the hell are you doing, Mal?!” she cries as he picks her up and spins her in a circle. Her heart skitters around in her chest. “Mal!” Dimly, she is aware of the broken shard in her hand, digging in her palm, but her arms are tight around him, and she is scared of letting go.

“I’m home,” he whispers into her hair, and he gives her a quick squeeze before finally setting her down. “I missed you, Alina.”

She shoves at him with her shardless hand. “Asshole,” she chastises. “I can’t believe I missed you.”

The smile never leaves his face. “Come on,” he says, taking her hand. “I’m starved.”

“You’re lucky I’m headed to the kitchen anyway.” When she follows after him, it is impossible to fight the smile off her face.

 

xxxvi.

Ana Kuya’s reprimands are drowned out by her thoughts. Alina is vaguely aware of her stern warnings and the vicious tug she gives at her bandages, but she can only stare absently at the new wound on her palm.

All this for a stupid boy, she thinks, but he might be well worth it.

 

xxxvii.

When Alina goes to sleep that night, a new hope takes root in her chest. Even if she finds the idea of a soulmate ridiculous, she starts to think that it might not be as ridiculous as she had made it out to be at first.

Maybe, just maybe, she finds herself hoping that Mal is her soulmate.

 

xxxviii.

At sixteen, Mal signs up for conscription. Alina signs up, too.

Chapter Text

i.

Mal is right. It’s all Alina thinks days into her time at the military camp in Poliznaya. Mal is and will continue to be very wrong about a great many things, but she remembers the time they had sneaked down the Duke’s cellars to taste kvas.

It really is all they have in the First Army.

The water is usually muddied, so kvas is what the soldiers drink. The meat is impossibly dry to the bone, so kvas is what they cook with. Alina wonders if a day will come where kvas is what they shower with, too.

She does not look forward to it.

 

ii.

Truthfully, Alina doesn’t know what to expect when she first comes to Poliznaya. Perhaps the skies are a brighter blue or the ground is covered with greener grass, but her imagination too often gets the better of her. She won’t make the same mistake of placing Poliznaya with Os Alta simply because it sits close to Ravka’s capital.

Poliznaya is an ugly little thing, dingy and glum, but according to the snippets of conversation she catches from the older soldiers milling about, it is in far better condition than the other encampments. Proximity to the capital, Alina supposes, though, as she looks at the shabby olive drab of their First Army uniforms and smells waste mixing with the mud puddles of last spring, the King can probably afford to be more generous. Surely, Ravka’s coffers can spare better protection and better supplies.

At least the Documents Tent is neatly kept and brightly lit, lined with rows of drafting tables where artists and surveyors bent to work. In her first days at camp, Alina reins in her nerves and opts to take comfort in the crackle of paper, the smell of ink, the soft scratching of nibs and brushes.

Before the comfort can settle, however, her supervisors have a new task for the apprentices.

“Take in the camp,” says Cheslav. He’s the junior cartographer who generously took Alina on as his apprentice. “Know where everything and everyone is, have a feel for the distance. Then, get it on paper and hand it to me at the end of the day.”

Alina and his other apprentices disperse, sectioning themselves into groups to tour the camp. She awkwardly makes her way to the closest cluster to introduce herself.

“Mind if I join you?” she asks, and once they cast their enthusiastic agreement, she slows her pace to walk in line with them. “I’m Alina, by the way. Alina Starkov.”

“Eva Bakhtin,” says the only other girl. She has wide green eyes and a pig-like nose. “We were just talking about home. I expected Poliznaya to be less of a garbage dump.”

At that, Alina smiles, and a little bit of her nervous energy melts away. “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“I’m from Balakirev. I miss it already.” Eva sighs. “You’d think all pines are the same, but I’m pretty sure the air here rots the smell of tree sap,” she says, and her nose scrunches up in disgust.

“Couldn’t agree more.” The fair-haired boy next to her raises a hand in greeting. “Raffael Grosha,” he says to Alina. “I’m from Balakirev, too. We all are. We went to the same school—it’s how we know each other. Right, Eva?” He throws her a grin, and she blushes and looks away. “The quiet one is Tomas, by the way,” he continues, pointing his thumb back at the lanky boy trailing behind him.

Lanky Boy—well, Tomas—frowns. “I can speak for myself, you know.”

Raffael’s smile only grows wider. “Oh, I know.”

Alina smiles at their interaction. Raffael reminds her of Mal, if only just a little: he’s friendly and easy to talk to. She finds herself relaxing the more time she spends in his company—their company.

“Tomas Lobov,” continues the lanky cartographer. He doesn’t quite meet her eyes, but the small smile on his lips is genuine.

“Nice to meet you,” starts Alina, and before she can turn to ask for the name of the dark-haired boy beside him, the boy extends a loose hand toward her in the most condescending way possible.

“And I’m Alexei,” he says smoothly, taking her hand in a firm shake. His voice is pointed, as if all this new information is obvious and she ought to feel stupid for not knowing his name sooner. “Alexei Kerensky.”

Alina is so taken aback, she can’t find it in herself to feel affronted. “Oh,” she manages meekly.

Eva is the one who takes insult on her behalf it seems. She rolls her eyes. “You think you’re such hot shit, Alexei,” she says. “One of these days, your head will explode from all the hot air you inflate it with.”

“My head swells with talent, actually,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m surprised yours doesn’t shrink from the lack of it.”

A look of horror strikes Eva’s face, quickly followed by prickling anger. She opens her mouth to prepare for a retort, but Raffael interrupts, placing himself firmly between them.

“Alexei, please.” He throws his friend a withering look, but there’s no mistaking the exhaustion in his voice. “You’re gonna scare away Alina,” he adds, sparing her an apologetic look. “Sorry about him.”

Alina waves away his concern. “Don’t be,” she says with a small laugh. “This is all… familiar, in a way. It reminds me of home.”

At that, Tomas speaks up. “Where are you from?”

“Just a little north of Caryeva,” she replies. She doesn’t want to say Keramzin; she doesn’t think she can stomach their sympathy—or worse, their pity. “We always had kids coming in and out of the house, so I’m used to all kinds of insults being thrown around.”

Eva perks up at that. “So your family ran some kind of group home, then? Must be nice.” Not as nice as you think. “I’m an only child,” she explains, “and my parents are strict. The only time I got to hang out with other kids was at school.”

“I’m sure it’s not all that bad,” says Alina good-naturedly. “Even though your parents are strict, I’m sure they mean well. Are you close?”

“Not really.” Eva gives a nonchalant shrug. “I try not to be at the house for as long as possible. I can’t stand my parents.”

Alina almost flinches at her harsh words. She is more than willing to do whatever she might need to if she only gets to see her parents again, but a part of her also understands. Not all families are alike, and she can’t speak on behalf of Eva’s.

“I’m the opposite,” says Raffael with a laugh. “Though I can’t say much about my dad, I adore my mom.”

“Mama’s boy,” mutters Alexei.

“I am! I miss her!” Raffael grins. His easy admission to Alexei’s accusation makes Alina smile, too. “She makes the best semolina. The only time I’ll eat that stuff is when she makes it.”

Alexei shudders. “Gruel is gruel, and it’s disgusting.”

“Whatever, Alexei. You’re just jealous.”

This time, he doesn’t bother replying. He only rolls his eyes and falls back in line with Tomas to chatter away.

“How about you, Alina?” Raffael sidles up next to her as they walk. “What are your parents like?”

Brave, she wants to say, but she knows it will only stir confusion. She scours her mind for any stories she can remember and is thankful when one surfaces, of her mother’s voice singing a lullaby, of her father’s strong calloused hands gently sweeping back the hair from her forehead as he kisses her goodnight. It’s the last thing she remembers telling Galena before she—

“My mom liked to sing,” she decides to say, before her thoughts start in a whole other direction. “When I was young, she would sing Bayu Bayushki Bayu before bed.” The group laughs at that. Behind her, even Alexei manages a chuckle. “My dad was more quiet. He worked hard every day, but he would always come home to say goodnight to my mom and me.”

Raffael’s smile is crooked but genuine. It lights up his face. “Sounds like they really love you.”

Alina nods. She doesn’t trust herself to agree out loud without correcting him. They really loved me. She’s not sure the dead can still love, but perhaps a stubborn part of her clings to that hope, so she might still keep a part of her parents alive.

“My parents are okay, I guess,” pipes Tomas, snapping Alina from the depressing turn of her thoughts. “They wept when I was drafted.”

Alexei doesn’t miss his chance to take the jab. “Out of joy, I’m sure.”

“I hope the Saints let you rot in the dark lands when you die from your bitterness,” snaps Tomas. If he means to sound insulting, he sure doesn’t look it. Whereas Eva’s retorts are filled with ire, Tomas looks as if he’s genuinely having fun.

“I’m shaking in my boots.” Alexei turns to throw him a wilted look, but there’s no mistaking the grin on his face.

They must be close friends, Alina thinks as she glances the two out of the corner of her eye. Alexei and Tomas manage to make the most wounding insults sound like friendly banter.

“Weird, right?” Alina nearly startles when Eva’s voice hovers close to her ear, but if the other girl notices, she says nothing. Her eyes are trained on Alexei and Tomas, narrowing with suspicion. “I mean, I’ve known them since forever, and I find their friendship weird,” she continues.

Maybe weird isn’t the exact word that comes to Alina’s mind, but she does find the pairing strange. “How come?”

“Well, Tomas is usually so quiet. He’ll only talk when he feels up to it, but with Alexei, he’s practically a chatterbox.”

“Alexei’s like the Tomas Whisperer,” says Raffael. Then, he frowns. “Or maybe it’s the other way around?”

Eva waves a dismissive hand in the air. “Whatever. It’s still weird, right?”

“I don’t know,” says Alina warily. “If anything, I think they kind of suit each other. I mean, Alexei is very…” She trails off, looking for the right word, only to come up empty. “Alexei,” she amends, “but Tomas is snappier than I thought.”

At that, Raffael grins. “He is, isn’t he?” He shakes his head, but his smile remains.

Their group comes to a stop when they pass a tent, and the conversation shifts from odd friendships to matters of work. Tomas keeps to himself through most of the conversation, but he’ll look up on occasion, so Alina figures he must be paying attention. Apparently, Raffael, like Alexei, has always been particularly gifted in art, and their school teachers made them stay after hours for diligent practice so they might turn it into a career.

Raffael shrugs. “Then the draft came, so I went with the sensible thing.”

On the other hand, Eva just wants an excuse to stay far from skirmishes. She figures working with maps is her best bet.

“How about you?” asks Raffael, turning to Alina. “What made you decide for surveyors?”

“Process of elimination,” she replies. “I’m horrible at pretty much anything else, but I’m a decent sketch. When my friend and I signed up for conscription—”

From his place up ahead, Alexei turns to look at her and barks out a laugh. “Are you serious?” he asks. “You actually signed up for this hellhole?”

Alina shrugs. “Wasn’t really my idea, but my friend wanted to be a tracker,” she explains. “I went along with him—not to be a tracker, obviously, but to be a cartographer. There wasn’t much else to do in town, and I didn’t want to be stuck sewing clothes or tending cattle.”

“Huh.” Alexei’s usual haughtiness is replaced by a thoughtful look instead. “Interesting.”

“You are,” agrees Raffael. He gives her a sidelong glance, his hazel eyes sparkling with curiosity. “I’m glad we met, Alina.”

“Thanks,” she replies. “I’m glad I met you guys, too.”

When the sparkle in his eyes fades a little, she can’t help but feel she had said the wrong thing. What else is she supposed to say, anyway?

As the group trudges on, surveying the camp with a careful eye, Tomas wheels back to walk beside Alina.

“He likes you,” he whispers. “Or at least he’s starting to. He’s interested.”

Alina is understandably baffled. “Who? Alexei?” she asks, and she casts an incredulous, disbelieving glance over at the boy in question, but Tomas lets out a snort.

“Definitely not Alexei.”

He doesn’t say more, only takes out a little pad of paper from his pocket to take notes of measurements and observations, leaving Alina to her thoughts. She tries to follow his lead, but her mind is elsewhere.

Raffael? After marking up the distance between the Documents Tent and the barracks, she sneaks a glance at him, and he catches her eye and grins. It’s the same crooked smile she’s seen on his face a few times now, but it’s the first time she really lets herself recognize his boyish charm. He’s handsome, plain and simple.

She smiles and waves back.

 

iii.

“New friends already?”

Mal’s grin is teasing as Alina approaches after dinner, having just said her goodbyes to Raffael’s group and promising to sit with them again tomorrow.

He doesn’t give her a chance to retort and slings an arm over her shoulder. “My Alina is all grown up!” he gushes, ever the proud friend. “It seems like just yesterday, you were crying as I left on another hunting excursion. How time flies.”

“Knock it off,” she says, playfully shoving at his shoulder. “I never cried for your sorry ass. I had plenty of fun without you, believe it or not.” The look on Mal’s face implies he doesn’t, but before he can say anything, Alina continues, “Besides, you’re getting popular, too.” She eyes a group of giggling girls off to the side of the mess tent, eyeing Mal with a little too much fervor. “What d’you do? Bribe them?”

“Hilarious,” Mal replies. His eyeroll is audible. “Maybe I’m more charming than you think.”

“Oh, please. I’ve met rocks with more charm than you.” Her teasing is all she can do to ignore the heat of her cheeks. “Though,  you might be right,” she amends, when the giggling only grows louder. “You couldn’t have bribed those girls. Your pockets are dreadfully empty, which means those poor girls must be out of their minds.”

Mal mimes stabbing himself in the heart. “How you wound me so,” he says with a dramatic flourish. “Maybe you’re just jealous you won’t have my full attention now, but don’t worry”—he smiles his bright smile, and it’s all Alina can do to stop herself from melting into a puddle—“I won’t forget you.”

She does the lady-like thing and sticks her tongue out at him. “As if you could ever forget me.”

“As if,” Mal agrees. There’s nothing teasing about his smile now—it radiates such aching fondness that Alina has to turn her face away to hide her blush.

 

iv.

Because their lot is still inexperienced, the Head Cartographer tells the apprentices to partner up and create a detailed map of Poliznaya. From the corner of her eye, she sees Eva about to turn and ask her, but Raffael beats her to the punch, claiming the seat beside her with too much enthusiasm.

She turns to Eva, about to apologize, but the other girl has already turned to another partner, quickly diving into conversation—and work.

“Alina!” calls Raffael. He follows her name with a signature crooked grin. “Be my partner, won’t you?”

She returns his smile. “Sure,” she says, and she ignores Alexei’s indignant snort from behind her as he turns to partner with Tomas.

As they work together, taking turns filling in information for their map, Alina can’t help but notice his blatant stare and the slight tug at the corner of his mouth as he watches her work. She doesn’t know him well enough to gauge whether it’s amusement or something else.

“Is there something on my face?” she asks. She sets aside her notes to give him more space as he takes his turn to work on the map, but when he meets her gaze, he only looks confused—distracted, even.

“No,” he says, baffled. “Why do you ask?”

His response has Alina feeling equally lost. “I just—I noticed you staring, and I thought—”

“No!” he blurts. Loudly. All eyes lift to him at the noise, and he mutters an apology. Once everyone turns back to their work, Raffael lowers his voice, and he turns back to Alina. “No, there’s—there was nothing on your face,” he assures her. “Your nose just scrunches up when you’re all focused. It’s cute.”

The world tips over.

“Cute,” Alina echoes dumbly. It’s not what she expects him to say.

Raffael’s grin returns with a vengeance, lighting up his handsome face. “Cute,” he repeats. “Or maybe adorable, if you prefer.” Before he can say more, he continues his work, humming to himself now.

Behind her, Tomas coughs. She need not spare him a glance to feel the weight of the words he doesn’t say aloud. I told you so. Next to him, Alexei stifles a laugh.

 

v.

Raffael, apparently, makes it a point to compliment her every single day over the most mundane things—anything from her quiet laughter to the gleam in her eyes when Tomas snaps at Alexei.

Obviously, he’s flirting with her. In the back of her mind, Alina knows that, but she is quick to deny it anyway—not so much a refusal to acknowledge the flirting as it is confusion.

Alina is at a loss for what to do, especially when he grows a little bolder with the weeks that pass. He’ll tuck away the errant strands of hair falling in her face when she leans over to draw or “accidentally” brush his hand against hers when they work side by side or hook an arm around her shoulder when she makes a snarky comment that makes him howl with laughter.

He accompanies her to the mess tent for dinner, hands brushing every so often as they walk side by side, when Alina finally decides to ask him—to know for sure.

“What exactly are you playing at?” she asks, stopping when they are a good distance away from prying eyes.

Raffael raises an eyebrow at that, but there’s no hiding the roguish, crooked smile on his face. “Whatever do you mean?” he says, feigning innocence.

“I think you know exactly what I mean,” says Alina. She can’t help the impatient turn of her voice. “You’ll do something like this”—she gestures at their not-touching hands—“or this,” she adds, reaching up to tuck away his hair the way he might do to her.

She picks up on their closeness too late, too engrossed with demonstrating, of all things.

“Alina,” whispers Raffael, smirking, “are you flirting with me?”

“I’m not—I mean—I wasn’t—” With wide eyes, Alina takes a step back and turns away abruptly, hoping it is enough to mask the furious blush heating her cheeks. “On second thought,” she says, still refusing to meet Raffael’s gaze, “I’m not hungry.”

Before he can call her back, Alina already stalks off. In what direction, she doesn’t know, but anywhere but here is the point. She’s so caught up in her thoughts, in her embarrassment, that she bumps into someone—

“That,” says the all-too-familiar condescending voice, “was fucking hilarious.”

Alina looks up and glares. “I’m not in the mood, Alexei.”

“Maybe not hilarious for you, but I had a good time laughing.” His smile is annoyingly wide and gleeful. He turns to his usual company, elbowing him in the ribs. “Wouldn’t you agree, Tomas?”

“Alina,” says Tomas, frowning. “You’re a terrible flirt.”

“I wasn’t trying to flirt!”

“Somehow, that’s worse.” Alexei shakes his head and heaves a sigh. “Surely a pretty thing like you has had her fair share of wanted and unwanted advances. Haven’t you picked up a thing or two about flirting?”

“I wasn’t trying to flirt,” repeats Alina, “and I’m not—I mean, I’ve never had advances—”

Alexei has the audacity to look shocked. “And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse,” he says with another shake of his head. “Are you serious? Never?”

“Is it really so hard to believe?”

“Difficult, actually. Were you sheltered or what?”

Alina gives what she hopes to be an indifferent shrug. “I was homeschooled,” she says, which is honest, even if it isn’t wholly true, “and the only person my age I talked to was Mal.”

“Oretsev? That pretty boy social butterfly? He’s your friend?”

“My best friend,” corrects Alina, “and don’t sound so shocked. I have friends outside of you guys.”

“I hardly count, and Tomas doesn’t eit—”

“I definitely count,” interrupts Tomas, shooting Alexei a glare, “and it isn’t Alina’s fault she doesn’t know. Some people like to keep to themselves.”

Alina flashes him a grateful smile.

“Whatever.” Alexei waves a dismissive hand in the air. “You really should work on flirting. I can’t be seen associating with a someone so socially inept.”

It takes all Alina’s self-control not to take a fist to Alexei’s very punchable face. Tomas looks concerned—for her or for Alexei, Alina doesn’t know, but she feels better telling herself it’s for Alexei. It only means that Tomas is smart enough to know she’s capable of whooping that arrogant bastard’s ass.

If Alexei sees the storm brewing in her expression, he makes no comment of it and continues, “Practice, Alina. Practice flirting. Try me.”

The glare she shoots him is sharper than Grisha steel. “You are the farthest person I would ever attempt to flirt with.”

“I get your problem now, Alina. You see, the point of flirting is to offer compliments, smiles, touches, an innuendo or two—”

Tomas looks concerned on Alina’s behalf. “No innuendos,” he says firmly.

Alexei frowns. “Well, that’s no fun.”

“Shut up. You’re making it harder for Alina.” He turns Alexei and shoves him in the direction of the mess tent. “Go be an asshole elsewhere.”

“Why can’t I be an asshole he—”

“I’ll catch up to Your Royal Assness later. Leave.”

Alexei’s eyebrows draw together, his displeasure betrayed only by the slight curve of his lip, the beginnings of a smirk on his face. “Your Royal Assness? Come on, Tomas. You can do better than that.”

“Just go,” he insists, and with a huff, Alexei stalks off to do as he’s told, grumbling about poor comebacks. Alina is about to thank Tomas, but he turns to her and solemnly says, “Decide what you want to do, but don’t lead him on. From what I can tell, Raffael is a great guy, and it seems like he really likes you.”

He glances over his way, and Alina follows his gaze. Raffael catches Alina’s eye and grins—big and wide, a grin that lights up his whole face.

(Alina might deny it, but her heart stutters a moment.)

“Thank you,” she says quietly, abruptly cutting her gaze from Raffael to Tomas. “For the advice. And for booting Alexei.” Tomas smiles, and Alina is sure he’s about to leave it at that, so she rushes to add, “How did such a nice guy like you end up best friends with an asshole like him, anyway?”

“He’s really not so bad once you get to know him,” starts Tomas, and before Alina can open her mouth to protest, he adds, “Don’t get me wrong: Alexei’s an asshole through and through, but I doubt you’ll meet anyone more—”

“Obnoxious? Arrogant?”

“And trustworthy and loyal,” says Tomas, nodding. “He’s all of those things.”

And more, he seems to add silently. Alina wants to question him more, but she knows better than to ask. There’s only so much Tomas is willing to say, after all.

 

vi.

After Tomas and Alexei, Mal is the one who picks up on Raffael’s… well? What can she call it exactly? Flirtation? Courtship? Something in between? Alina isn’t familiar enough with anything close. She is armed only with the cheesy, fairytale romances she had read about in books—not that the knowledge will do her any good.

(Not to mention her feelings for Mal. Saints help her.)

“That Raffael guy’s been awfully friendly with you,” says Mal in lieu of a hello.

He’s frowning as she goes to meet him at their usual spot, a small hillside just a walk away from the barracks, on the outskirts of their camp. Despite the sour turn of his voice, he offers a flask of kvas, which Alina takes gratefully. Their nightly meetings become a thing of habit now, seeing as they barely have time to see each other between his tracking excursions and her training.

Mal doesn’t meet her eyes as she settles into the soft earth beside him. “Tell me what I should do, Alina,” he says, tone solemn. “Do I need to have words with him or what?”

“Oh, calm down.” She rolls her eyes, but her nonchalance is feigned at best. It’s all she can do to keep from feeling flustered, a fact she hides behind a large swig of kvas. “It’s not like that.”

“Okay,” says Mal slowly, “then what is it like?”

Truthfully, Alina doesn’t know. Everything is too new and happening too fast. She doesn’t know what to make of Mal’s reaction anymore than whatever’s happening with Raffael. All she knows is that his attention is welcome, and she enjoys talking to him—maybe almost as much as she enjoys talking with Mal.

She settles for honestly. “I don’t know.”

“Do you like him?”

“Of course I do. He’s excellent company.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it.” He pauses. “You aren’t oblivious, Alina. I know that you know he’s interested in you.”

She sighs. “I know.”

“And…?”

“And nothing. I don’t know yet. It’s— This is all new to me, Mal. I’m not like you. I can’t just charm my way through this.”

“Of course you can. You’re the most charming person I know. What’s stopping you?”

Alina does her best to ignore the way her heart leaps in her chest. That’s what, she almost blurts. I’ve only ever liked you, Mal.

Instead, she shrugs and says, “I don’t like not knowing. I don’t like uncertainty.”

“You don’t like change, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

“But things do change,” emphasizes Mal, and then he sighs. “If you’re that worried, I promise you: You and I are constant. You and I won’t change.” He faces her squarely, his expression solemn, blue eyes bright against the black night surrounding them. “It’s always you and me, Alina. Through any relationship either of us will have, we’ll always have each other. You’ll always have me, and I’ll always have you.”

Alina’s leaping heart stops. It almost melts from the sheer warmth of his expression, the conviction of his words. Briefly, very briefly, she wonders just how she expects her heart to wander from what it feels for him, when he says such wonderful things. The thought of making room for someone other than him, other than Mal, feels a little like betrayal.

She almost does it. She almost confesses the truth, opens her mouth to start with a “Mal—”

“You don’t have to decide anything about Raffael,” he continues, and just like that, she clamps her mouth shut, keeps her feelings to herself. “Sorry if it seemed like I was bugging you about it. I’m just worried about you.”

To her credit, Alina manages, “I know you are. Thank you.”

“Hey,” he says, smiling brightly, “what are friends for?”

And when Alina smiles, she only thinks of how grateful she is for the blanket of night. She doesn’t want Mal to catch the sadness tracing along her lips.

 

vii.

Alina is on her way to the barracks to turn in for the night when she catches Raffael headed out. He spots her and breaks into his signature crooked grin.

“It’s my lucky day,” he says, “or yours, depending on how you see it.” He holds out a bottle of what she guesses is unopened kvas. “Care to join me for a drink?”

Her smile is genuine. “Why not?” she asks, and reaches for the bottle to take a swig—

Only to spit it out.

Raffael laughs and laughs while Alina hunches over and tries to get the disgusting taste from her mouth with a vicious swipe of her hand. “That,” she says hoarsely, “was disgusting.”

“It’s not kvas, that’s for sure,” says Raffael, stifling laughter. “It’s white rum, a stronger blend.  These older soldiers—the guys I usually play rounds with—got some for me when they headed into town.”

Alina coughs. “Are you sure these guys don’t hate you?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because they’d willingly give you poison to drink.”

Another bout of cackling laughter from Raffael. “They know I like a strong drink,” he says. When Alina replies only with a half-hearted glare, he shrugs apologetically. “You get used to the taste.”

“I doubt it. I can barely stand kvas enough as it is.”

His smile only grows wider, and together, they walk to a dry spot on the hillside on the other end of the barracks. It’s a nice view—as nice as it can get, all things considered. At least Alina can glimpse the capital, Os Alta, see the gargantuan walls surrounding the city, keeping it protected.

“It’s amazing, huh?” starts Raffael. He settles next to her, his eyes trained on the view before them. “I’d like to visit one day.”

“We’d have to finish training first,” says Alina, sighing. “And even then, I doubt we’d even get close enough to see what really counts.”

“Curious about the Grand Palace?”

“Who isn’t?” Alina folds her knees to her chest and wraps her arms around them. “I’d much rather see the Little Palace, though.”

Raffael barks out a laugh. “That’s not curiosity. That’s a death wish.”

“Are Grisha really that bad?”

“Well, they aren’t bad, but… They’re unnatural, Alina, and they get special treatment because of it. They hoard all the King’s gold and supplies while we commoners get to slum it out here in the muck. You know what the witches call us? Otkazat’sya. Orphans. Whiny, abandoned children with no otherworldly powers to our name. It’d be nice to knock them off the pedestal they’re so desperate to climb.”

Alina feels each word like a slap to the face. Otkazat’sya. Orphan. Abandoned. Is that what she is doomed to be, with the power that prowls beneath her skin? What is she then, if she is neither Grisha nor otkazat’sya? Dread pits at her stomach, but thankfully, her mind runs faster than her heart, and she moves to change the subject entirely. “Any other places you’re curious to visit?”

“I’d like to see Os Kervo,” he says, grinning now. “I mean, we’ll be headed there anyway, after the Crossing—if we survive, that is.”

“You should have more confidence than that,” she replies, more relived than teasing. “It helps if you think of the Fold as another annoying ink blot you can’t get out.”

“Yeah? You should tell that to the volcra. Nasty fuckers—or so I hear.”

Alina shudders. “I remember when I dragged Mal to the library with me,” she starts. “We looked at a book about the Fold. Well, I made him look, but still. It was only just a picture but…” She trails off and gives another shudder, wrapping her arms more tightly around her legs. “One thing I am definitely not looking forward to.”

A small but comfortable silence drifts between them before Raffael breaks it and says, “You and Oretsev grew up together, right?”

It’s an abrupt change of subject but a welcome one. Alina can’t stand to think about the volcra for another minute. “We did,” she says. “He’s the friend that roped me into signing up for the conscription.”

“Is that all?”

Alina turns to look at him then, not understanding the question. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you guys just friends, or…?”

She tries not to look too alarmed. “We’re friends,” she says with as much conviction as she can muster. “He’s my best friend. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” he says softly, turning to look at her at last, “I’ve been working up the nerve to kiss you”—her breath catches at the serious look in his eyes—“but I’m pretty sure you have feelings for him, and I’m not like that.”

“So?” blurts Alina. She catches him by surprises—catches herself by surprise, too, if she’s being honest. She ignores the sound of her heartbeat pounding in her ears and continues, her voice barely above a whisper, “Kiss me anyway.”

She can almost laugh at his reaction. Almost. He looks like he’s about to fall over from shock, but he meets her gaze steadily and leans in close. Alina closes her eyes and waits for a kiss that doesn’t come.

A long second passes before Alina cracks an eye open, only to see Raffael smiling at her, amused.

“No, Alina,” he whispers. “I won’t kiss you. Not like this. I’m better than that.” Still, his eyes drift to her lips before coming back up to her eyes. He doesn’t even move away. “I should go before I do something stupid,” he says, and pauses a moment before adding, “Good night.”

In one swift movement, he’s on his feet, already moving toward the barracks, leaving Alina to her thoughts.

“Good night,” says Alina to no one in particular.

 

viii.

That night, Alina lies awake in her cot, still feeling horrifically embarrassed for what happened earlier. Her heart beats a loud, pounding rhythm in her ears, keeping her further from sleep.

Kiss me anyway.

Her words echo in her mind, sending an embarrassed flush up her neck. She has never felt more ridiculous, more stupid. Beyond the part of herself writhing from embarrassment is the part of her that cries out in betrayal.

But a betrayal of what? Her feelings for Mal? It’s fairly obvious he has only ever seen her as a friend—his best friend, but a friend nonetheless. Nothing more, and definitely nothing else soon.

Would it be so bad if I got to know other people, too?

Though her heart no longer pounds away at her ears, she spends a good chunk of the night mulling over that question. A part of her wonders if it’s possible she might have conflated her feelings for Mal with all the time they’ve spent together. She’s only ever caught the gazes of other people, but she’s considered none of them.

She thinks back to an earlier conversation with Mal, remembers her own words.

I don’t like not knowing. I don’t like uncertainty.

But how will she ever know if she won’t try?

 

ix.

Alina tries to catch Raffael alone. She finds him having an early breakfast at the mess tent and takes the spot next to him. His hazel eyes light with both delight and surprise, and he opens his mouth to speak—only Alina doesn’t give him a chance to.  

“I hate sweets,” she starts, “and I can’t sing for shit, so if I ever get drunk enough to try, gag me. My favorite color is blue, but not a sky blue or a sea blue—the dark blue, almost black, color of the sky just hours before the sun rises. Not harsh like midnight, but softer. That blue.”

Raffael’s smile grows, as does his confusion. “Not that I’m not happy to know more about you,” he says, “but what’s this about, Alina?”

“It’s an apology. Sort of,” she says, grinning sheepishly. “I’m sorry about last night. I don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, and I’ve only ever had feelings for Mal. Makes sense, since he has the biggest presence in my life, but…” She bites her lip. “I’m willing to try if you are, because I do like you, and I am interested in getting to know you, too.”

His grin becomes impossibly wider and brighter, rivaling the sun in its shine. “You’ve just made me the happiest person alive,” he says, and he leans over to kiss her on the cheek. “I would love to try with you, Alina Starkov.”

 

x.

“Raffael has been especially irritating today,” says Alexei, glaring at Alina over lunch. “He won’t stop smiling. And laughing. He didn’t even look remotely insulted when I called him—”

“Please don’t repeat what you called him. I’d like to keep my appetite.” Tomas grimaces at the memory but still takes the spot next to his friend. He casts Alina a sidelong glance. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with his—what’s the word?”

“Jaunty,” says Alexei helpfully.

“Yes, perfect—jaunty attitude these past couple of days, do you?” Tomas looks at Alina expectantly, keeping one eyebrow arched. “Well?”

Alina shrugs, raises her drink to her mouth to hide the smile on her lips. “Maybe.”

“You are one awful liar.” Alexei shakes his head. “I can’t believe we’ll have to deal with a bubbly Raffael. When he starts shitting sunshine and rainbows, I won’t be surprised. I’ll be pissed.”

“Is he going to join us for lunch?” asks Tomas.

“No, Cheslav has him on inventory,” says Alina. “It’ll take up the afternoon, but he’ll be around for dinner.”

“Great.” Alexei groans, rolls his eyes. “Good to know I’ll be sitting elsewhere tonight.”

For once, his petty jabs don’t get to her. Alina might not be as expressive about it as Raffael, but she feels—

What does she feel?

It’s not quite happy, but it might be close to content, she thinks. Maybe her heart just needs some catching up to do. That must be it.

Chapter Text

xi.

The time she spends with Raffael is the most fun she’s had in a long while.

Alina likes his attention, the way his eyes light up when he talks about his mom and little sisters, the way his laughter comes so unrestrained and hearty, the way his mouth presses against hers. Alina likes him. She does.

(Admittedly, she has started to get a little antsy about the touches. Sometimes his hands dip lower than they should and his kisses press rougher and harder than they should, but that’s normal, isn’t it? They’re a couple, after all, and that’s the sort of thing that couples do with each other.)

But long while only lasts a couple months as she starts to get to know him.

There are things Alina cannot bring herself to like: the brash way he talks about Grisha, the pity that sometimes shines in his eyes after she had told him the truth of her upbringing, the lingering taste of alcohol on his lips after he kisses her.

Even more than that, she doesn’t like how his arm comes around her a little more tightly when Mal is nearby.

“He’s just a friend,” she assures him, one too many times more than necessary.

“Yeah, but does he know that?” If looks can kill, the glare Raffael throws Mal might have annihilated him on the spot. Alina returns it with her own withering stare, and Raffael amends, “I’m sorry. I’m protective because I like you. Can you blame me?”

Protective isn’t the word she has in mind, but still, she likes Raffael. She had smiled the first time he kissed her, after all.

(Even if he does taste like alcohol.)

 

xii.

After they finish their morning training, Mal drags Alina over to his part of camp, some surprise he must show her. Despite his buzzing excitement, Alina finds it harder and harder to have some of her own as she takes in the crowd here, full of howling older men that remind her of the instructors at Keramzin.

Their loud laughter, however, is where the similarities end. In the air is the unsaintly smell of drunken fools who are in desperate need of a shower, though the hungry look in their eyes as they catch her walking past tells her they are even more desperate for something else.

“Oretsev!” hollers one of the soldiers. He’s red-faced, his dirty blond hair tucked into a lopsided officer’s cap. A triangular patch with three stripes is sewn onto the drab olive sleeve of his First Army jacket, indicating his standing: a sergeant, five ranks above either of them. “That your girl?”

While Mal hesitates a beat, throwing Alina a questioning look, she feels her stomach sink as she takes in the way the soldier looks at her—the way the lot of them look at her, she adds, after seeing a few others stop their card game to give her a lewd once-over.

Alina gives Mal’s arm a vicious tug and hisses in his ear. “Say yes.”

“But you’re with Raffael, and we’re not—”

“Just do it!”

Thankfully, Mal is quick on the uptake. He loops an arm around her shoulders and holds her close. “My girl,” he affirms. “Just taking her around. We won’t be long.”

“She’s almost too pretty for you.” The muddy brown eyes of the same officer continue to look their fill of her. It takes all her self-control not to shrink under her disgust and fear. “Let me know when you get bored of him, won’t you, doll?” he says, winking.

Mal’s grip tightens. “She’s not like that,” he says firmly. “Let’s go, Alina.”

She stumbles after Mal, her footsteps clumsy as she tries to reel in her nausea. Of all the goings-on in the camp, she doesn’t think she’ll ever get used to the lecherous gazes of older men. She won’t mind if they forfeit their lives on the next crossing.

 

xiii.

“Hey,” greets Raffael, smiling as Alina approaches. He leans up to kiss her on the cheek. “Missed you at lunch today. Had afternoon plans?”

“Mal wanted to show me this batch of flowers he found—firelillies, if you can believe.” Her smile is half-hearted when she takes the spot beside him, sitting so her knees are tucked to her chest. The flowers might have helped lift her mood, but a part of her is still rattled from earlier. She can still feel their eyes on her, a chill she can’t quite shake. “We took the long way back, though. I couldn’t—I can’t stand the older soldiers at camp. I wanted to avoid them.”

He doesn’t miss the strain of her voice. “Did something happen?”

She purses her lips. “I’ve just—I didn’t like the way they looked at me, those older soldiers,” says Alina, holding back a shudder at the memory. “I had to ask Mal to pretend I was with him when they asked if I was his girl. Who knows what they would have done if I said—”

“Wait, why didn’t you just explain you were with someone else? Someone who wasn’t Oretsev?”

Alina flinches from the bitter edge of his voice, the anger and jealousy there. “Like I was about to say,” she says slowly, calmly, “who knows what they would have done if I said no? Their looks weren’t exactly friendly, Raffael.”

Still, he persists, “Why Oretsev?”

“Because he was there! And he’s my friend. He’s—” Alina stops herself from continuing. “I shouldn’t have to explain  myself. You know Mal and I are just friends. Why are you so riled up over it?”

For a moment, Raffael’s anger lingers, but he blinks, and it disappears at once, replaced by a concern that softens his gaze. “I’m sorry,” he says. It’s all he says before he offers his flask to her. “Drink?”

This time, Alina doesn’t bother hiding her grimace. “No thanks.”

He shrugs and takes a swig. They sit in silence a moment before Raffael speaks up. “Maybe you should stop hanging around Oretsev for a while. After what happened earlier, who knows what he might do? I don’t want him getting ideas.”

You’re the one with ideas, Alina wants to snap. Instead, she says coolly, “Your jealousy is misplaced. Mal isn’t like that, and we’re friends. Just friends.”

The same angry look returns, and he raises his voice when he says, “I thought you said you were going to give us a try?”

Alina tries hard not to flinch at the accusation in his tone. “I did. That doesn’t mean I should cut out friendships. Do you expect me to stop talking to Tomas and Alexei, too?”

“Of course not, but you didn’t have feelings for either of them. You told me you had feelings for Oretsev. There’s a big difference, Alina.”

“I might have feelings for Mal, but he’s my best friend, too. You can’t just ask that of me. It’s not fair.”

“Not fair? You know what’s not fair? The fact that you can carry on being with me when you still have feelings for him.” Alina feels his words like a slap to the face. “What am I here for then? Just a cushion to smother what you really feel? I’m better than that.”

“You are.” Alina utters the words with more conviction than she feels. “I know that. I’m not using you as a cushion. I do like you, Raffael.”

“Then end whatever it is you have with Mal. End that or this”—he gestures to the space between them—“is over.”

An ultimatum? Alina is torn between throwing her head back in laughter or throttling him here and now. Maybe both. “Really?” she asks, near incredulous. “Just like that?”

When he only gives a grim nod in answer, Alina makes her decision. She doesn’t think she’s made an easier choice in her life.

She stands up quickly, brushing the dirt from her breeches. “Fine,” she says curtly. “Good night, Raffael.”

“What are you—”

“I’m not going to put up with this,” she cuts off, mimicking his gesture and pointing between them. “You can’t ask me to cut people out of my life because you feel threatened, and I shouldn’t have to try this hard to convince you of anything. We’re done here.”

Alina starts to walk away, but Raffael grabs her and says, “We are not done—”

“We are.” The glare she gives him is enough to freeze. “Take your hand off me,” she says coldly, and when he only stands there, stunned, she adds, “Now.”

He does. And a stricken look washes on his face. He stays silent as Alina trudges off in the direction of the barracks, but she swears she can feel the weight of his stare at her back. Even so, she cannot bring herself to feel guilty. If anything, the little bit of fear prickling at her chest isn’t the niggle of guilt she expects—

The fear is from not feeling anything at all.

 

xiv.

It causes an awkward rhythm in their group when Alina distances herself. The fact that she has to convince herself to feel some semblance of guilt for the sullen turn of Raffael’s usual cheer is concerning. She tells herself the distance is for his sake, but—

Maybe it is for hers.

Alina doesn’t even talk to Mal about it, and Mal has only asked her once.

“So,” he says one day, as she takes up the spot beside him. “Are you and Raffael…?”

“Not a thing,” she says, and there is enough dismissal in her voice for Mal to get the hint: She will only talk when she’s ready.

In the meantime, she grows more vigilant. She pays more attention to who is assigned what and when. All to avoid running into Raffael.

After two weeks, it almost feels normal as she sits at her usual spot with Tomas and Alexei. They haven’t asked—haven’t needed to, it seems, after seeing a glum Raffael tear his gaze abruptly from hers and move elsewhere. For a while, Tomas and Alexei have said nothing.

But apparently, for a while ends today.

Alexei drops his tray across from Alina with little grace and says, “Fix him.”

“She doesn’t have to fix anything,” snaps Tomas, cutting in before Alina can answer. He throws her an apologetic glance. “Ignore Alexei. He’s just pissy that Raffael’s sulking takes precedence over feeling insulted. He’s feeling smarted is all.”

At last, a little feeling of guilt jolts through Alina, but she has to remind herself it has no place here—not when Raffael is the one at fault.

Still. She can’t help but ask, “Is it that bad?”

“Nothing too awful,” says Alexei, sighing, “but I’ll live, thank you for asking.”

“I wasn’t talking about you, Alexei.”

“Shame. I’m an excellent topic of conversation.” He turns to the sloppy mess of food on his stray now, idly pushes it around with a fork. “What happened?”

It’s the quiet, almost gentle turn of his voice that gets Alina to answer. “I broke things off—”

“Obviously,” grumbles Alexei, any semblance of gentleness long gone. He yelps when Tomas kicks him under the table.

“Like I was saying”—Alina cuts a glare at Alexei—“I broke things off with him because he made an ultimatum: stop being friends with Mal or…” She trails off with what a shrug, knowing she needs to say nothing more. Hoping she needs to say nothing more.

“And you chose Oretsev.” Not as much a question as it is a guess. From Alexei, it is both unhelpful and unwelcome.

“No.” Her tone is clipped, and she stabs a piece of venison—if the food can even be called as such—and tears her gaze away, decidedly staring at the mush on her tray. “I chose me,” she says pointedly. “He had no right telling me who I can and can’t be friends with.” Regardless of any lingering feelings I might have, she doesn’t say aloud. She moves to change the subject. “You didn’t bring it up days ago. Did something happen?”

“It’s nothing Eva hasn’t delegated herself to,” says Tomas. “Haven’t seen her around much because she’s always off trying to cheer him up for the past week. It’s resorted to that.”

“Eva’s been making herself scarce,” says Alina, giving a noncommittal shrug. “Let her, if she thinks it will make Raffael feel better. Better her than me.”

“Are you sure?”

Tomas gives Alexei a good kick in the shin for even asking. Alina looks up, just once, and mouths her thanks.

 

xv.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Everything is wrong.

Alina can’t help but think she should have paid more attention to the sinking feeling in her stomach when she goes to check on a drunken Raffael—all this trouble to quell the worry of their friends.

I miss you, he’d said. Do you have any idea how much I missed you?

The kiss is rancid. The smell of alcohol fills her nostrils and shrivels her tongue. There is too much between the taste of rum—and whiskey and gin and vodka—and the forceful press of his lips on hers, his hands on the small of her back, slipping lower and lower—

At her every shove, his grip only grows tighter. At her every “stop,” his kiss only presses harder. Alina panics and fumbles, looking for a way out, but the feeling of helplessness grows stronger and stronger.

Briefly, very briefly, she considers using her powers to stun him long enough, but before she can move, she hears voices.

“Alina, are you—”

“Son of a bitch.”

The latter voice she recognizes as Tomas, and only because he comes so close, close enough to punch Raffael in the jaw.

And he does.

More surprising than the flip in the quiet, timid Tomas she knows is the gentle hold Alexei keeps on her, loose enough for her to pull away but comforting enough for her to know that he is a friend, that he isn’t him.

Tomas comes back with a bruise on his cheek, and Alina prepares to hiccup an apology, for letting things get so far, for letting them get involved when—

“We’re sorry,” says Tomas. “We’re so sorry, Alina. We should have never let you see him alone. Not ever, and especially not when he’s… you know.”

She knows now. You’re right is what she wants to say, but aloud, she mumbles, “Thank you.”

 

xvi.

“Alina?”

She straightens when she hears Mal approach, makes quick work of her tears with a vicious swipe of her hand. She almost says the lie, Fine. I’m fine. But the words don’t come.

Mal settles next to her, close enough for her to feel his warmth. “Everything okay?”

It takes her a while to answer, and it takes her even longer to find her voice.

“No,” she manages at last, voice breaking. “It’s not.”

Mercifully, Mal says a simple “Okay,” and not the dreaded, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Because she doesn’t—doesn’t want to, doesn’t think she can stomach remembering that glazed look in Raffael’s eyes, doesn’t want to think about what might have happened if Tomas and Alexei hadn’t been there.

She swallows the back the bile building in her throat.

A long stretch of silence drifts between them, but it is not uncomfortable. She almost reaches out to hold his hand, almost sags into his arms, almost breaks down into tears in his lap. Almost. It will be a miracle if she ever finds the strength to stomach touching another person for a while.

But still. Mal stays, and that is enough.

 

xvii.

  • When Raffael comes the next day, mortified and apologetic, he apologizes to Alina, who forgives him. But he takes her forgiveness as a second chance. Alexei starts to correct him, but Alina is the one who snaps. Raffael flinches and stalks off, and when Alina sits down, Alexei looks smug—no, he looks proud.

 

xviii.

Still, dinner the following evening is almost unbearably uncomfortable. The usual flow of banter between Alexei and Tomas is absent, and Eva has returned to their table, having heard what Raffael had done.

Now that she’s had the time to think on everything, Alina finds that she’s in disbelief—over Eva and Tomas and Alexei. They’ve known Raffael for so long. Up until recent events, they’ve been friends. How can they not know that he—that he’s—

“We weren’t friends,” says Alexei, when he catches the accusation, the question in Alina’s eyes. “I have always only tolerated his existence.”

Eva is the one who gives an actual answer. “It’s different, I guess,” she says with an uncomfortable shrug. “You go to school with someone and you feel like you’ve known them all your life.”

Tomas shakes his head. “You think you know someone.”

“You think you know someone,” Alina agrees.

 

xix.

Alina grows more vigilant on her walks around camp. Everywhere she goes, gazes linger, tracing the generous curves of her body—a prospect that once thrilled her but has since dismissed. She even notices Raffael’s stare and shudders, wondering if he had always stared at her this way and she had just been too blind to notice, too giddy from his handsome face and kind words.

The men who have stayed there the longest are the worst by far, with their vile remarks and lewd stares. She walks faster when she passes them, but she knows it’s only a matter of time before they get drunk on drinks stronger than kvas and follow after her.

(Her mind wanders again: If Tomas and Alexei hadn’t come to her during the Raffael incident, who knows what might have happened?)

Among the other girls in the First Army, a story like that is not uncommon.

Finally, she goes to Mal, unable to bear the thought of doing nothing about the sinking feeling in her stomach. When they are both free from training, she demands that he teach her how to fight.

He’s averse to the idea at first, but—

“I guess,” he amends at last. “It will help. In case something ever happens. I can’t always look out for you, and I don’t want you to be defenseless.”

“Exactly.” She smiles and lifts her chin in the air, mustering some confidence. “When do we start?”

 

xx.

Alina is sure Mal is a great teacher. Really. She understands well enough, learns well enough according to him. Mal is a great teacher, but he can afford to be more merciful. The lessons are brutal, and more often than not, Alina is left bruised and breathless.

(And not in a good way.)

“You’re insane,” she gasps, stumbling into the ground after another lost sparring match against him. “You’re insane, and I hate you.”

“You’re a liar,” Mal counters, “and a weakling. Get up, Alina!”

“No!” She groans and rolls over in the dirt. She doesn’t care if mud cakes her hair or covers her face. She’ll take the comfort of the soft earth over a bruised rib any day. “I thought this would be easier,” she complains into the ground. “ You can do it, after all.”

“You wound me,” he deadpans.

You wound me! ” snaps Alina, and despite her aching limbs, she manages to kick Mal from where he stands, knocking him into the dirt with her. “Finally,” she mumbles. “I knocked your ass flat.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mal groans. He heaves himself up with a grunt and moves to lie next to her. “I already won.”

“What happened to never letting your guard down?”

Mal turns his head to face her. “What do you know?” he says as a slow grin spreads across his lips. “You do listen after all.”

Affronted, Alina moved to whack him on the arm, but he catches her wrist.

“Or maybe not,” he says, laughing.

“I hate you.” Alina pouts, crosses her arms over her chest. “If you were my friend, you wouldn’t subject me to this torture.”

“You love me,” Mal corrects, “and a real friend wouldn’t take it easy on you. Besides, you’re the one that asked for training, so don’t go pointing fingers at me.”

Alina scoffs. It’s all she can do to ignore the jolt that goes through her at Mal’s words. You love me. If only he knows just how much. She throws up a wall of indifference, steels into her voice.

“Don’t you scoff at me. I’m right.”

“Whatever.”

“You know I’m right.”

Whatever.”

They lay there for a few moments, staring up at the night sky, both on the cusp of laughter. Despite the smell of crusted earth and fast-drying mud in her hair, Alina thinks she could have laid there for hours, even days, if it came to it. For all the grief she gives him, she is glad to have Mal in her life. She can’t imagine ever being without him.

Chapter Text

xxi.

Nearly a year into Poliznaya and Alina is only now getting used to the way of the camp. At the very least, she starts to get the hang of it. There is a delicate order to things, it seems, and a universal fact held among all soldiers, besides their love of kvas, is gambling.

Even Mal is coming around. On her search to find him for their sparring match, she catches him finishing a round of cards with familiar faces—the men from his unit.

“Alina!” Mal’s face brightens, and he waves her over to his side. “Sorry I’m late, I was—”

“Getting your ass beat in a different way,” finishes Alina. Without taking her eyes from Mal, she taps into her power and peaks at everyone’s hand. Surely enough, Mal has done poorly compared to everyone else. “Mind if I join the next round?”

“Do you even know how to play?” asks Mikhael. He sounds exhausted, as if the prospect of teaching her is the most tiresome task in the world.

“I’m a fast learner,” she replies, throwing him a cool look. It’s not exactly a lie, but it’s not exactly the truth, either. Alina is a little too well-versed in all sorts of card games thanks to the days she spent with the instructors at Keramzin. It also helps that she has light on her side, has practiced enough with that aspect of her powers—not that she needs it. “Deal me in,” she says, and takes the empty spot next to Mal. When no one moves, she nods at Dubrov, who holds the deck. “Go on.”

Mal raises an eyebrow in silent question, as if asking, Are you sure?

She waves him off. It’ll be fine is her quiet response. Aloud, she says, “How much?”

 

xxii.

“No way,” says Mikhael. He stares at Alina, red-faced with fury. “There’s just no way!”

Pavel’s glare is so sharp it can cut through steel. “Beginner’s luck,” he all but spits. He throws another handful of coppers onto the money pile. “Double or nothing.”

“Okay,” she says, trying her best to hide her smug confidence. The slow smile spreading across her face is anything but genuine. She tosses the same amount of coins as Pavel, and everyone in the circle does the same but Mal.

He holds up a hand at Dubrov, who cast a wordless question at him. Mal only raises a hand up and shakes his head. “Pass.”

“Tired of getting your ass kicked?” she teases.

You’re the one getting tired of an actual ass-kicking,” he says, and he digs at her with an elbow. “And take that smile off your face, would you? You look like you’ve gotten away with murder.”

Alina frowns, but quickly recovers, saying, “How I wish that were true.” She sighs and takes the cards Dubrov begrudgingly deals her. “You’re still here, after all.”

Mal feigns shock, mimes getting stabbed in the heart. “You wound me, Alina.”

This time, the smile on her face is genuine.

 

xxiii.

After Alina collects her earnings, Mal walks her back to her barracks. He has a hard time masking his awe, and she smiles a little too smugly at that, a little pep in her step as she makes her way to the barracks.

“Where did you learn to play like that?” he asks. “Was there a lesson in gambling that I somehow missed at Keramzin?”

“Something like that.” Alina’s grin broadens. “Though, you never paid much attention to class anyway. I don’t blame you for missing it.”

“I can’t possibly have missed it. You’re not telling me something, Alina.”

She bats her lashes at him with feigned innocence. “Whatever do you mean?”

Mal gives her a square look, hands on his hips, a picture of stern demand.

Alina barely manages to rein in her laughter as she tells him, “I didn’t cry when you left on your hunting excursions, you know. I made friends with our instructors—a while before I knew you, actually. They taught me how to play, and I’m known to sit in on their games from time to time.”

His face goes slack with surprise. “Damn, I should have figured. They were always sweet on you.”

“You couldn’t have guessed. I’m very easy to love, after all.”

She says it airily, light banter meant to bait more teasing, but Mal stops and looks at her—really looks at her—with a kind of wonder on his face she’s never seen before. It knocks all the breath out of her lungs.

“Yeah,” he says, so softly it’s barely a whisper in the night breeze. “You really are.”

Alina swallows back the lump in her throat, the heartbeat pulsing a pounding rhythm into every vein and vessel in her body. With equal softness, she whispers, “Mal?”

“Hm?”

“Tell me what that look means.”

“What look?”

“That one. You’ve never…” She swallows again. “You’ve never looked at me like that.” Like I might have hung all the stars in the sky. Like you might actually love me as much as I love you. “Tell me what it means,” she whispers.

And just like that, the look flickers in and out of his eyes, blending with a little bit of confusion. “I don’t—,” he starts, and then shakes his head and says, “It’s nothing.”

A knot twists in her stomach. “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” he says, but his voice is shaky. He starts moving again, heading in the direction of the barracks. “Let’s head back. It’s getting late.”

Wordlessly, she follows. The rest of their walk is spent in stifling silence—at least Alina feels that way. The quiet between them muffles out the sounds of crickets chirping, of stragglers chattering away in the background of the encampment. They don’t speak again until they reach the section reserved for surveyors.

Alina speaks first. “My stop,” she says a little hoarsely, a little desperately, a little too eager to break the silence between them. She pauses, gauging his expression, but sees no trace of the look from earlier. Her stomach churns, but she musters, “Thank you. For walking me back. You didn’t have to.”

“I do. I should.” Mal still looks frazzled, but at least he meets her eyes when he says, “Good night, Alina.”

She manages a smile for him, albeit a sad one. “Good night, Mal.”

 

xxiv.

Instead of going to Mal, as she usually does, she spends the rest of her afternoon in extra sessions with Cheslav. It’s easy to pretend she isn’t avoiding Mal when she busies herself with work—not that the practice seems to be doing her any good.

When Cheslav leaves her table to check on the others, Alina is left to her own devices.

“Alina?” She doesn’t bother turning around. She’s familiar enough with the sound of arrogance. “Are you still seriously drawing right now?”

A frown works its way onto her face. “I’m not as good as you, Alexei,” she says, almost whining. “I wanted to get some good practice in.”

“I mean this is the nicest way possible,” starts Alexei, which is code for I’m about to insult you so brace yourself, “but you can’t possibly ever be as good as me.”

Alina almost snaps her pencil in half. “Can’t hurt to try,” she says through gritted teeth.

“Cheslav can’t teach for pig shit. Scoot over.” When Alina doesn’t move, Alexei makes her, forcing her to move down the bench with a pushy shove of his shoulder. “I’m going to help you,” he says, but it’s in such a condescending manner, Alina almost punches him in the face.

Instead, she musters a small smile. “Thanks,” she says, and she hopes it is enough gratitude to hide the bitter edge of her voice, “I could really use it.”

“You certainly can.”

And he wastes no time in his critical but unnervingly helpful comments on her work.

When her pencil finally snaps, she blames it on her firm grip, as Alexei likes to call it, and she definitely does not at all imagine it to be Alexei’s skinny little neck.

 

xxv.

It is with equal parts dismay and gratitude that Alina treats the increasing rate of Alexei’s everyday presence. After the incident with Raffael, he’s become a thorn in her side—if thorns insisted that they were flowers, that they were helpful, that they had every right to be a nuisance, that is.

She can’t gauge whether or not he feels guilty for the Raffael incident or genuinely likes her company. The former is the most plausible, though it’s unlikely for Alexei to feel something like guilt. The latter is even more unlikely, so Alina doesn’t quite know what to make of the shift in routine. When he finishes his work early, he chatters away with Tomas or hovers her shoulder and makes his usual criticisms and insults.

Although lately, Tomas has been making himself scarce.

It only means Alexei has nothing better to do than bother her. Alina wonders why it took so long to finally snap.

“Alexei,” she says with all the sickly sweetness she can muster, “do you ever shut the fuck up?”

He only smiles at her, looking pleased—and a little bit proud. “Finally,” he says, and he has the audacity to sound excited. “I finally got you to really snap at me.”

What?

“I knew you had it in you, Alina. I mean, you clearly don’t have a talent for drawing—”

“Hey!”

“—so I took it upon myself to decide your talents are elsewhere.” He finishes with an appraising look at her, unfazed by her glare. “You know, you’re a hell of a lot more interesting than you let on. You sell yourself short.”

His voice is warm, almost fond, like his words are somehow meant to be compliment. And yet, Alina feels insulted. “What?”

“I mean, the way you snapped at Raffael was indication enough! And then I hear about a pretty cartographer girl racking up wins at the tables. Where did you learn how to play cards like that? Not to mention those ungainly bruises on your arms,” continues Alexei, and his eyes scan the spots of blue along her arms. “What exactly do you get up to after dinner? Tomas is too polite to ask about it, but I have no qualms. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were part of some underground market scheme to make good coin.”

What,” repeats Alina, but she can’t seem to make it a question. “Are you insane, Alexei? Were you dropped on your head as a baby? Do you cultivate your stupidity like you do your talent for drawing?”

“I can’t even bring myself to feel insulted.” He laughs. “It took you long enough to snap at me. Sharp wit is a talent in and of itself. Don’t be so timid, Alina. This place is boring enough as it is.”

“Do you make it a point to press people’s buttons?”

“Only the people I find interesting.”

Alina sets her jaw. “I am not interested.”

“Of course not. I never said you were,” says Alexei. “I said you were interesting. Not that I was interested. Don’t flatter yourself that much. I’m not as taken with your pretty face as everyone else seems to be.”

“Then what are you interested in?”

“Friendship,” he says simply. The honesty stuns Alina, drains the anger from her expression. “In a little less than a year, we march to the Fold. We’ve been companions, but certainly not friends—though, Tomas might disagree. But Tomas is Tomas, and I’m me. I take a lot more warming up to.”

“You don’t say.” Her mouth twitches up in the beginnings of a smile, but she is still, understandably, pissed at him. “What makes you think I even want your friendship?”

“Because I’m amazing? Talented? Incredibly witty?”

“And humble,” grumbles Alina. “Can’t forget humble.”

“Not to mention how I’m going to help you keep your place among the cartographers,” says Alexei, going on like he hadn’t even heard Alina. “If your draw too poorly, they might just reassign you with the foot soldiers, and you’re far too pretty to be cannon fodder.”

“Your concern is astounding.” And Alina’s eye roll is audible. “I’d have half a mind to throttle you right now. The urge grows stronger every time you open your mouth.”

“So scary! Tell me, Alina: Will you draw a crooked sword to beat me with?” He yelps in pain when she punches him in the arm. “Maybe that’s why your drawings suck,” he tells her. “Punching too many helpless boys takes a toll on the hand. Is that how you treat a friend?”

“I punch Mal, too.”

“I almost forgot your odd friendship with Oretsev. I almost feel sorry for him.”

“He’s a big boy. He can take care of himself.”

“Not for the bruise of your fists. For being your friend.”

It earns him another punch. Still, Alina smiles, and Alexei is smiling too. Somewhere under his grimace, at least.

 

xxvi.

“You’ve been avoiding me.”

“I have not.” A lie. A blatant one at that. “Besides,” adds Alina, “who needs me when you’ve got all those girlfriends?” She cuts a glance at a group of girls waving enthusiastically, trying to get Mal’s attention, and tries her best to hide the frown on her face. She’s not quite sure she did a good job of it.

“So what if I made some friends? Alina,” says Mal, loosing a mocking gasp, “don’t tell me you’re jealous.”

“I am not jealous.”

“You know, you’ve been spending an awful lot of time with that Alexei guy. And that Tomas, too. More than before, at least. If anything, I’m the one who should be jealous.”

Alina can’t help it; she laughs herself hoarse. It’s only after her laughter dies down that she musters, “I’m sorry—I didn’t realize we were having a competition on jealousy.”

“Well, you were always slow on the uptake.”

Mal’s mirth is contagious. When he smiles, Alina finds herself smiling, too. “You’re hilarious,” she tells him. “And I’m just—I don’t know—worried, I guess. I don’t want you to forget me.”

“Me? I could never.” Though his voice is joking, there is something solemn in Mal’s expression that stops her. “You’re unforgettable, Alina. In fact, I’m the one who’s worried you’ll forget me.”

Alina grins. “I could never,” she promises. “It’s you and me, Mal.”

He returns her smile easily, his expression warm enough to melt away the chill of the night. “You and me, Alina,” he says. “It’s always you and me.”

And there’s that strange, wonderful look on his face again. She doesn’t ask what it means this time—doesn’t need to. Instead, Alina savors the moment, lets her smile grow wider as she feels a kernel of hope take root in her chest.

 

xxvii.

The thought strikes Alina late in the night, as she stares up at the canvas tent and plays with the sliver of moonlight splitting between her fingers. She doesn’t want to keep secrets from Mal. Mal, who has been there for her through everything, her best friend and perhaps, should Fate allow it, her soulmate.

She wants to tell him—no, she wants to show him. Show him what she can do with light, with a power that has always belonged to her.

It’s time.

 

xxviii.

  • The next morning, Grisha come to visit to share information with the Commanders at Poliznaya. At dinner, Alina sees that Mal has a black eye and worries. Apparently, he had gotten into a fight with one of the Heartrenders, but before it can escalate, they are broken apart. He spits, “Bloodletter,” and shoves his way out of the crowd they had drawn. Alina remembers why she decided to keep her light ability a secret. It looks like it will remain a secret after all.

 

xxix.

A scoff comes over her shoulder, and Alina turns to glare at the source.

“Shut up, Alexei,” she huffs. “Perfection takes time to master.”

“It’s barely passable,” he says, and though Alina knows he’s right, she can’t very well admit it outright. He plops down on the seat next to her. “Give it here, Alina.”

“I can do it!” she insists.

“I’m not saying you can’t. I’m saying I can do it better. Give it here.”

“Fine.”

He takes the charcoal from her hand and works on the remainder of the map. He doesn’t need to tell Alina to watch him closely. She does it anyway, tries to see how he draws the land to scale, shapes every hill and slope with careful precision. Alina almost twinges with jealousy.

“Why do you always help me?” she asks quietly. “And don’t tell me it’s what friends do. I know it’s what friends do, but…” She trails off, unsure how to place her words correctly.

Alexei raises an eyebrow at her. “Please don’t tell me you think I’m trying to make a move on you,” he says. He must have seen the shock on her face, because he amends at once, “Alina, please. We’ve known each other—what, a year now? When I said I wanted your company, your—” He pauses. For a minute, Alina sees his prickly demeanor melt into something bashful. “Your friendship,” he says at last, his face twisting into a grimace from the effort, “I meant it. Besides, I have standards, and you fail to meet the bare minimum.”

“You had me at the first half, I’ll admit,” says Alina dryly. “Then you just had to go insult me.”

“If I’m too nice, I might combust. Or you might combust from the sheer un-rightness of it all. It’s better this way.”

Alina rolls her eyes and continues to watch him work, but something else he says bothers her. “Hey,” she starts after a moment. “How exactly do I fail to meet your standards?”

“You don’t fail to meet my standards,” corrects Alexei. “You fail to meet the bare minimum. There’s a difference.”

“What do you mean? What exactly is your type Alexei?”

“Why do you care so much?”

“You’re the one who said we’re friends. Friends care. I care.”

“You make me regret deciding to be friends with you.”

“No, you don’t,” says Alina, smiling. “I’m a delight.”

“You’re a pain in the ass.”

“And you’re stalling. You might as well tell me.”

“Or else?”

“Or else I’ll start guessing, and I will guess the most outrageous things about the kind of girls you like.”

Alexei snorts. “Good luck.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not attracted to girls, genius.”

Alina blinks. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh.” Alexei rolls his eyes and continues working. “Are you always this articulate?”

“Only when I’m being an asshole,” says Alina, feeling sheepish. “I’m sorry for assuming.”

“Apology accepted. You’re lucky I’m in a forgiving mood.”

“Saints forbid it were otherwise.”

“And besides, there are other ways you fail to meet the bare minimum,” says Alexei, tapping his wrist.

It takes a long second before Alina catches his meaning. “You’re waiting on your soulmate?” she asks, incredulous. SHe can’t help her burst of laughter. Who knew Alexei had a romantic bone in his body! “How adorable,” she teases, pinching his cheek. “Who knew that under all that cynic beats the heart of a true romantic.”

“Stop it!” He bats her hand away. “It’s not anything special. It’s what I’ve always thought. Grisha might be witches, but we all possess a little bit of magic. That’s what soulmates are for.”

“An artist and a poet,” Alina continues. “Why, Alexei, maybe I’ve changed my mind. Maybe I am interested after all.”

“You should work on lying,” he says sourly. “Your lying is awful. It’s impossible to miss the longing looks you throw Oretsev’s way. Anyone from Os Alta to Os Kervo can feel your painful pining. Even the volcra in the Fold weep for you.”

Alina frowns. “Did I mention how much I hate you? Because I do. I hate you.”

“How you fill my heart with woe,” Alexei deadpans. “Here is your finished sketch, Alina. I tried to sprinkle some blemishes here and there so it can pass as yours.”

“My hate only burns stronger.”

“If only hate can make your drawings better.”

 

xxx.

Though the long days of apprenticeship and training with Mal make it hard to find time for it, Alina still practices wielding her light, commanding it to blossom even in the darkest of nights.

She might not be able to tell Mal—might not be able to tell anyone—but it certainly won’t stop her from cultivating her gift, the one thing that has always, always belonged to her.

I will not forget .

When Alina goes to sleep that night, there is a dull ache of what she can only think to describe as loss. As she threads her fingers through the stray strands of moonlight slipping through the cracks of the barracks’ entrance, bending its silver light this way and that, she feels overcome with loneliness.

She finds herself wishing she wouldn’t have to work so hard to keep her powers hidden, wishing she had let the Grisha woman take her all that time ago.

But what about Mal?

That’s right. Mal is the reason why she’s here, why she opted to sign up for the conscription instead of waiting to be drafted for it.  

It’s always been Mal.

Chapter Text

xxxi.

“You’re about as subtle as a stab wound.”

Alina glances up as Alexei takes the seat next to her. All regiments of the First Army gather around their respective places for dinner, and Alina has been watching a girl—whose name she doesn’t quite catch—chatting up a storm with Mal.

“Saints,” whispers Alexei. His hand goes over hers, easing some weight from the fork she clutches so tightly. “You’ll poke a hole through the table, Alina.”

“Oh. I didn’t realize.” Still, Alina releases her firm grip with some reluctance before turning her attention to Alexei. “Who is she?”

“The girl Oretsev is talking to?”

Alina nods.

“Beats me. I don’t talk to people unless they’re important.”

“That’s Lyeta,” says Tomas, without looking up. “I don’t know her last name. She’s one of the foot soldiers, I think. Can’t remember which regiment.”

Alina works to master the sour turn of her face, but apparently, it isn’t enough. Alexei stares at her strangely. “Are you jealous?”

“What? Of course not.”

“You are,” he says, laughing. “Oh, Alina. Sweet, darling Alina.” He shakes his head and carries on, eating his food and drinking kvas. “You’re a terrible liar.”

Alina has to restrain herself from upending Alexei’s drink over his big head. She is not jealous. She can’t be. Mal is allowed to have friends, even if it’s only girls he seems to talk with these days.

Ordinarily, she can easily say she hardly minds the gender of his friends—because such a little thing is barely any consequence—but are friends supposed to press up against each other like that? This Lyeta girl is practically straddling him!

It’s an effort to turn away, but Alina manages. She’s almost too caught up in her thoughts to notice the dark look Tomas throws Alexei. It’s startling enough to drain away any anger she may or may not feel.

She glances between the two of them and asks, “Is everything okay?”

“Perfect,” comes their simultaneous reply.

For once, Alina listens to her survival instincts. Instead of prying further, she sits in the stifling atmosphere she inadvertently created.

 

xxxii.

“Do you like her?” Mal’s voice cuts through her thoughts as she loses herself in cataloguing her mistakes. They’ve just finished their fighting session, and he’s wrapping a bandage over her injured hand.

It’s hard to hide the sour turn of her voice. “Who?” she asks, even though she already knows who he’s talking about.

“Ruby,” he says, like there isn’t any other person he could refer to. “She’s nice, right?”

Alina rolls her eyes.

“Right?”

“Why do you want me to get along with every one of your little girlfriends?” she grumbles. Last week it had been Kristina. Before her, Alma. And before her, Lyeta. On and on his list of tumbles go, and Alina’s mood only sours.

If Alexei could only see her face. His teasing would be a more welcome torture than what Mal is putting her through—and she isn’t talking about their fighting lessons.

“She’s not my girlfriend.” This time, Mal rolls his eyes. “And I was asking because I saw you guys talking earlier. Seems like the two of you would really get along.”

It’s an effort not to roll her eyes again. Instead, Alina settles for a frown. “All she wants to talk about is you.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It really is.” Still, she sighs and does her best to put a smile on her face. “For what it’s worth,” she tells him, shrugging nonchalantly, “I like her just fine.”

Mal raises an eyebrow, but he doesn’t question her. It almost looks like he believes her.

How’s that for lying? she wants to tell Alexei.

 

xxxiii.

Mal grows more distant. Well, no—that’s not right. He doesn’t choose to be distant, but the timing can be better. Even though it’s only been a little over a year, Mal has already been promoted one rank, and by the time they get around to crossing the Fold, Alina won’t be surprised if he is already up another rank. More promotions mean more hunting excursions, and more excursions means less time to spend with her.

Though Alina isn’t lonely—at least not literally—she can’t deny how much she misses Mal any more than Alexei can’t miss the sad look on her face.

He heaves an exaggerated sigh, but his usual sarcasm is betrayed by the concern gleaming in his eyes. “Talk to me, Alina,” he says. “What’s wrong?”

Alina doesn’t want to talk about it. Instead, she says, “You tell me. What’s going on with you and Tomas?”

“You’re changing the subject.” Alexei frowns. “I was talking about the forlorn way you pine after Oretsev now that he’s off on so many hunts.”

“And you’ve been avoiding the subject entirely. Every time I bring up Tomas, you clam up. And for you, that’s impossible. You always have something to say.” Alina nudges him in the side with her elbow. “This thing with Mal—it happens all the time. I’ll get over it. You, on the other hand? You seem… less like yourself. And Tomas has been distancing himself lately. I’m not stupid. One has to do with the other.”

Her words flip a switch in Alexei. It’s the first time Alina sees his bravado chip. “I might be compelled to tell you after a long drink,” he says, and then quickly adds, “That is, if you can stomach seeing me completely wasted.”

She appreciates the considerate thought. “Depends. What kind of drunk are you?”

“The most entertaining kind. The emotional kind. The really chatty kind.”

“Oh. So you’re still you,” starts Alina, reining her laughter, “only drunk?”

“Watch it, Starkov. I might not want to be drunk enough to pour my heart out to you.”

Alina rolls her eyes. “When can I expect to see Drunk Alexei make an appearance?”

He hesitates, and though it’s all Alina needs to know that conversation will have to wait, Alexei still tells her, “Another day.”

 

xxxiv.

Alina is still bothered by the sudden distance between Tomas and Alexei. Because her conversation with the latter is a dead end—for now—she goes to the former for answers.

Not that it helps any.

“You’re both my friends, Tomas,” she reasons, when he is just as intent on avoiding an answer as Alexei is. “It’s weird seeing you guys apart.”

He shrugs. “Get used to it,” he says, “but for the record, Alexei was never just a friend. Not to me.”

“Exactly. You guys are best friends, and—”

Tomas heaves a sigh, pinches the bridge of his nose. “Never mind. You don’t get it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ask Alexei.”

Before Alina can protest, Tomas turns on his heel and leaves her to her thoughts.

 

xxxv.

She watches. It’s all she can do, all that they allow her to do.

Besides, Alina isn’t one to push, no matter how much it pains her to see. For all the forlorn pining Alexei claims she does, he’s the one who looks miserable. It’s harder to tell, because Alexei is Alexei, but she sees it in the way he watches Tomas’s retreating figure, the way his eyes echo with fondness and heartbreak alike.

Oh, she realizes, remembering her conversation with Tomas. That’s what he meant.

Mealtimes have never been more quiet. With Tomas making himself scarce and Alexei in a bad mood, Alina mostly talks to Eva, who has only now picked up on the tension between the two.

She turns to Alina with alarm. “Is everything okay between them?”

From the corner of his eye, Alexei cuts Eva a nasty glare but says nothing, only excuses himself from the table with a grunt. It only seems to freak Eva out more.

“He’s usually more of an ass,” she starts, half panicked. “Alexei always has something to say. Is he okay? Is it the end of the world already? Should I just ask?”

“It’s better not to,” Alina tells her. “Trust me. I already tried.”

“As weird as it was seeing them together,” says Eva, “it’s even freakier seeing them apart.”

And as she looks across the mess tent and sees Tomas gaze at a retreating Alexei, Alina can’t help but agree.

 

xxxvi.

“You’re happy.” Beside her, Alexei’s face twists into a grimace. “It’s horrifying. Now who else am I going to be miserable with?”

“Ah,” says Alina, smirking, “so you admit to being a miserable mess?”

Alexei huffs. “I said no such thing.”

“It was implied. You implied it.”

“I did not. You’re delusional.”

“And you’re even worse at lying than I am.” Alina rolls her eyes, but the smile she wears so broadly remains on her face. “I’m just happy. Be happy for me, won’t you?”

Alexei frowns. “Oretsev is getting back from his trip today, isn’t he.” He says his words flatly, not so much a question as it is a statement. Before he can say more, his eyes focus on something behind Alina. “Don’t look now,” he whispers, “but I think he’s already back.”

“Where—?” Alina whips her head around fast enough to make her dizzy and—

Of course. Of course Mal is with another doe-eyed girl with a pretty smile. At least he has the decency to notice Alina when she looks over at him, has the decency to smile and wave in greeting. And then, as if she were only a fly he intended to bat away, he quickly turns back to the girl seated on his lap.

“I told you not to look,” says Alexei.

She wants to tell him the obvious. Of course she’ll look if he tells her not to, but… It isn’t Alexei’s fault. He’s not to blame for the way Mal has been acting lately.

“Alina?”

It’s an effort to tear her gaze away, but she turns to Alexei when he calls her name. “What is it?”

“You okay?”

“Fine,” she says all too quickly, putting as much nonchalance as she can into a shrug. “Never better. Let’s go. We don’t want to be late.”

Still, as they walk on, Alina can’t help but follow Mal with her eyes, watch as he laughs and laughs and laughs with his friends, with his girlfriend, without her.

So much for not forgetting.

 

xxxvii.

“Why do you like him, anyway?”

Alina sits with Alexei, drinking kvas outside the barracks, faces turned to the black night sky. She usually sits with Mal like this, but she sees Mal less and less these days. If he isn’t off hunting, he’s off sleeping with girls stupid enough to fall for him.

You’re one of the stupid girls too, she reminds herself. He just isn’t tumbling you.

She takes a swig. She doesn’t know why that fact hits her harder today than any other day. “I don’t know,” she says, passing the flask back to him. “It was easier, when we were younger. We grew up together, you know?”

“In the group home?”

Another swig. “Keramzin.”

Beside her, Alexei stiffens. He doesn’t expect her answer. “I see,” he says. “Must have been tough.” An unspoken I’m sorry hangs in the air. It’s what people always say when they find out she’s orphaned. I’m sorry you lost your parents.

All the same, Alina is glad it goes unspoken. She doesn’t need pity. “Only the older kids gave me trouble,” she says, carefully leaving out mentions of the nightmares that plagued her sleep. “Well, the older kids and Ana Kuya, the Duke’s housekeeper. What a terrifying woman.”

“I bet.”

“Mal and I got in all sorts of trouble with her. We’d steal food from the kitchen all the time. We even snuck down to the cellars to drink kvas once. She was furious.”

Alexei laughs, and Alina laughs with him, but her heart isn’t with it. Fond as she is of Alexei’s company, a part of her aches for Mal, for the familiar sound of his laughter ringing at her ear.

But he‘s not here, is he?

“I know,” starts Alexei, after a lull in conversation, “I know that you miss him. I know my company isn’t much, but I mean it when I say you’re too good for him, Alina.”

That makes her smile. “You’re being nice today,” she comments. “Whatever happened to Cocky Alexei?”

“You don’t need Cocky Alexei right now,” he says. “You need Optimistic Alexei.”

“So many types of Alexei.” Alina’s smile widens just a bit more. “How ever do you manage them all?”

“With more grace than you can ever hope to muster, I’m afraid.”

At once, Alina frowns. “What happened to Optimistic Alexei?”

“I am also Honest Alexei. I’m multifaceted like that.”

“I’d like to request Quiet Alexei,” says Alina. “Or perhaps Humble Alexei.”

“Out of stock. Try again later.”

Another laugh escapes her lips, this time more full and joyful than the last.

“There we go,” says Alexei, smiling. “You finally laughed like you mean it.”

Alina smiles, too. “What would I do without you?”

“You’d probably die of boredom. Or maybe you’d wallow in your loneliness until you died of that, too. Or maybe both.”

“Seriously, what happened to Optimistic Alexei? Ran out of nice things to say?”

He feigns a gasp. “Obligatory insult.”

“Did you just—”

“I run out of mean things to say, too, Alina. I’m only human.”

She rolls her eyes. “Well, then,” she starts. “Obligatory retort.”

Another exaggerated gasp. “I’ll pretend I didn’t just hear that! Proper ladies shouldn’t curse.”

Alina laughs again. She leans her head on his shoulder. “You’re a good friend, Alexei,” she says sincerely. “I’m glad I met you.”

“I’m your best friend,” he corrects, and despite the huff of his voice, he leans his head on hers and adds, “and I’m glad I met you, too.”

 

xxxviii.

A few nights later, Alina has had just about enough of the deafening silence between Alexei and Tomas. When she and Alexei settle in their usual spot on the hill overlooking camp, she asks, “So are you going to tell me what’s wrong with you and Tomas or what?”

Alexei gives her a blank stare. “Do I look anymore compelled to tell you than the last time you asked?”

“I came prepared.” Alina holds up two bottles of vodka. “Stopped at town earlier to buy these. Feeling compelled yet?”

“I might be,” starts Alexei, plucking one bottle from her hand, “but it depends on how much alcohol I consume.”

“Good thing I’m not much of a drinker.”

 

xxxix.

They drink. And drink. And drink. And by they, Alina means Alexei. Only Alexei. She doesn’t think she’s seen him so drunk.

(He hadn’t been exaggerating when he told her he was a mess inebriated.)

When he’s red enough in the face, he tells her, “You wanna know what happened between me and Tomas? I’ll tell you.” He hiccups. “Did you know he’s convinced I’m the love of his life? I am, too, only he can’t possibly love me. I mean, I’m about as asshole as it gets.”

“You’re not that much of an ass.” Mostly.

“Bite me, Alina. Don’t lie. I might be an asshole, but I’m not stupid.” He takes a big swig, wipes away the excess trickle of liquid with a swipe of his wrist and continues, “Besides, I can’t—We can’t—It’s just not going to happen. He got his soul marks some time ago, you know? That’s how we got to where we are. My name isn’t on his wrist. It’s some Isaak or Iosef or whatever. Who gives a flying fuck? It’s not me, but he doesn’t seem to care. He’s all, ‘Fuck Fate! I love you! Who cares about a stranger’s name on my wrist?’” Alexei shakes his head, a bitter smile curling at the corners of his lips. “Stupid Tomas. Stupid Tomas and his stupid handsome face. It doesn’t work that way.”

Alina furrows her brow in confusion. “I don’t get it.”

“You’re a creature of lesser intelligence, Alina. It’s expected.”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. I mean, I don’t get why you would let him go over that. He doesn’t care about the name on his wrist. He loves you, Alexei. Why let him go?”

“Better to lose him now than lose him later.” Alexei drags his finger in a slow circle around the mouth of the bottle, lost in thought. “I’m a selfish bastard. I don’t want to get hurt when he finds his soulmate and leaves me.” He lowers his voice to a whisper and says, “Besides, the sooner we end whatever was between us, the better. He deserves to be happy. Even if it isn’t with me. No,” he corrects quickly, “especially if it isn’t with me. He just has to realize that. Fate’s a bitch, but it’s Fate for a reason. Fate doesn’t make mistakes.”

Silence drifts between them. Then—

“You have a good heart, Alexei,” says Alina. She hopes he can hear her sincerity. “I just… I hope you work something out with Tomas, anyway. Both of you are so sad, and you should see the way he looks at you—”

“How does he look at me?” asks Alexei, his voice eager. Before Alina can answer, he quickly waves a dismissive hand in the air. “Never mind, I don’t want to know. Let me deal with my sadness my way, Alina.”

“You’re drowning your sadness in vodka.”

“Better alcohol than tears.”

“Which is probably what Tomas is doing since you broke his heart.”

“Stop it. Stop that. I can’t feel bad, I’m—I’m trying to get over him. If I’m weak, or sad enough, I might do something horrible like tell him I miss him or worse—that I love him. I can’t recover from that.”

“Would you really? Tell him Tomas you love him?”

“I absolutely would, you awful enabler. You put vodka in my hands, and now I’m saying stupid shit I’d never admit if I were sober.” And with one last swig, his bottle is gloriously empty. “I swear to Fate and all the fucking Saints, Alina: If I remember this tomorrow, you better run.”

She shrugs. “If it will help, I can always hit you over the head with a bottle.”

“You would do that?” Alina is horrified to see Alexei not only consider her proposition but also look genuinely touched. “You’re a good friend, Starkov. If I could ever bring myself to fall for a woman, it would probably be you.”

“I’m… flattered?”

“You should be,” says Alexei with his usual imperious tone. “Now, help me hobble back to the barracks, would you? I can’t feel my legs.”

 

xl.

The following morning, the first thing Alexei tells Alina is, “I remember.”

“At least give me a minute’s head start,” she replies, not at all serious. One look at Alexei and she can see how he’s plagued by a wicked hangover. He can barely get out of bed, let alone follow through on his threat from last night. “I might just stand a chance.”

Perhaps Alina ought to have taken him more seriously, given more thought to what sort of thing Alexei might threaten her with, because he gives her a glare—that knowing, scheming glare—

And lurches.

Right where she stands.

Alina doesn’t breathe, doesn’t dare take a whiff of the foul stench that must be slowly creeping onto her. She only cuts a look to Alexei, who grins maniacally. Not even an ounce of remorse on that arrogant, tear-stained face of his.

“We’re even,” he declares, rolling over in his cot.

And damn Fate and all the fucking Saints. He has the audacity fall back asleep before Alina can retort, can rage at him with the might of a thousand suns.

She’ll let him have his peace. For now.

 

xli.

“Don’t look now,” says Alexei, later that afternoon, “but Oretsev incoming. Your seven.”

“You’ve been hanging around the marksmen too much.” Alina twists in her seat, but Alexei bats at her arm. She swears, rubbing the sore spot. “Why the hell—”

“Did you learn nothing from the last time I started a sentence with, ‘Don’t look now’? Come now, Starkov. We’ve been over this.”

“I swear to Fate and all the fucking Saints, Alexei—”

“Hey, Alina?” Before she can finish cursing Alexei’s name, Mal’s voice cuts in, and he walks toward her with a sheepish smile on his face. “Can I borrow you for a second?”

It’s Alexei who answers first. “Unfortunately for you, Oretsev, the rental contract clearly states that I have custody until—”

“Gladly.” Though Alina’s response is meant for Mal, she throws a wilting glare Alexei’s way.

The bastard only shrugs in response before shooing her off.

Alina follows Mal, and when they’re far enough away to talk in private, he speaks up at last. “So. You and Alexei?”

“Yeah, right.” She fights the urge to snort. “Why don’t you just tell me what you wanted to talk about?”

“I want to talk to you about anything—everything, Alina,” starts Mal, and he emphasizes her name, like it’s the only thing he says that matters. “Just like we used to.”

“You should have thought about that before you forgot about me.”

“Are you mad at me?”

Alina’s voice is dripping in sarcasm when she asks, “What do I possibly have to be mad about?”

“You’re mad.” Mal looks sincere—blissfully unaware of what a major ass he’s been these past few days. He adds, “You’re mad because I’ve been hanging out with other people?”

Is he serious? “I’m mad because you forgot about me. I’m mad because you’ve barely have time for me these past couple weeks, and every time I try to find you, you’re off to your latest romantic tryst.” When Alina turns to face him, she hopes he can see the hurt in her eyes, the accusation there. You promised you wouldn’t forget about me. “Why wouldn’t I be mad? You’re supposed to be my best friend. Where were you when I needed you?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”

“Of course you didn’t,” says Alina, voice barely above a whisper. “You never do.”

The silence between them is uncomfortable, lingering long enough for Alina to think about turning back when—

“Sparring match,” says Mal suddenly. “Let’s go a round. For old time’s sake.”

Alina wants to tell him that the time isn’t from long ago at all, but she bites her tongue. Instead, she thinks of how good it will feel to knock Mal into the ground.

“Fine,” she says finally, positioning herself across from him. “Just one round.”

 

xlii.

She knocks him on his ass—perhaps with more ease than Mal might admit, but she knows him well enough to be certain he hadn’t been easy on her. Alina only wishes she could capture the look of pure disbelief on his face as soon as his back hit the dirt. It’s almost enough to forgive him.

Almost.

“Better than I remember,” he wheezes.

Alina shrugs. “Maybe you’re worse than you remember.”

Mal is quiet a moment before he says, “I really am sorry, you know.”

“I know.” She reaches a hand down to help Mal up, but he gives her a light tug—not enough to trip her, but a request. He sits up but doesn’t straighten further. “Mal?”

“Sit beside me, won’t you?” he says, and tugs her again.

This time, Alina obliges, and the two of them are silent a moment, staring at each other like they might be the only people around. Her heart aches at the thought, fights forgiving him so easily, but when he looks at her that way, how can she not? It’s hardly fair.

“I missed you,” says Mal, a little breathlessly. She is quick to blame their spar, but a part of her thinks—hopes—it is for the same reason her breath catches every time she looks at him. “I missed you so much, Alina.”

There’s that twist in her chest again. “I missed you, too,” she says, and she’s about to leave it at that, but other words tumble out of her mouth before she can give them a second thought, “but you were the one who grew distant in the first place. Why now, Mal?”

“Alina, you can’t just… Well, okay. Okay, that’s fair. I’ll admit, I have been distant, and I really am sorry. I am. I just—I missed you. Every day. I missed my best friend. I missed talking to you. And I wasn’t ignoring you on—on purpose or anything, I was just… I was so caught up with—”

“I know what you were so caught up with.” Alina rolls her eyes. “Or should I say ‘who’? Several whos, actually—”

“Will you please let me finish?” She waves a hand nonchalantly, and Mal continues, “Anyway, I was caught up in attention and fun, and by the time I turned around to tell you all about it—”

“You realized you had pushed me away,” finishes Alina. The words taste bitter on her tongue. “How convenient for you.”

“It’s not like that and you know it.” Mal sighs, drags a hand down his face. “I know I’ve been an idiot, an asshole, you name it. I’m all of those things, but I know I’m your best friend, too. From the beginning, it’s been you and me, Alina. It’s always you and me.”

Her heartbeat surges at the thought, pounding in her ears at his words, at the solemn look on his face. “It’s always you and me,” she agrees, then jokingly adds, “Even when you’re an ass.”

Mal rolls his eyes at the same time Alina does, and when they look at each other, they burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter—howling, stomach-aching laughter she swears even West Ravka can hear beyond the Fold. Even when their laughter ceases, an echo of it still rings in Mal’s eyes as they fix on her, brilliant and bright and blue.

(It takes her breath away.)

“Did you know,” starts Mal, “that I was afraid of the dark when I was younger?”

“If you’re going to lie, stick with something more believable,” says Alina. “You? Afraid of the dark? Even back then, I’d have half a mind to think you were afraid of anything at all.”

“I was! I really was! Ana Kuya knew about it, too. She gave me hell for it.” Mal’s voice takes a higher, rougher pitch as he does a poor imitation of the housekeeper, saying, “‘You’re on the cusp of manhood now, boy. Do you see little Alina begging me to keep the lamp on through the night?’ And I told myself that I had to be brave—for you—because one day, even the Brave Alina might fear something, and I wanted to be able to protect you.”

She angles her face away to hide her blush. “I don’t need your protection.”

“No,” says Mal, “you certainly don’t.”

Alina peaks up at him through her lashes, catches that same wonderful look on his face she’s seen him wear only a few times before. A look like I might have hung all the stars in the sky.

“I didn’t need the story, you know,” she says, playfully shoving at him. “I already forgave you.”

“I know.” Mal grins then, his smile aching with so much fondness Alina thinks her heart might burst. “It was worth telling all the same.”

 

xliii.

According to the Senior Cartographer, the march to Kribirsk will last two weeks, and they make for the Fold just a couple weeks before winter begins. A stupid idea, thinks Alina, but it isn’t like her opinion will matter much.

Instead, she jumps into the preparations as Poliznaya buzzes with activity.

She hasn’t realized there have been so many people living in the encampment until she sees the swarms of bodies run about this way and that, several units preparing to march, packing tents, supplies, weapons, rations, and whatever else they might need. Luckily, the surveyors never need too much supplies, so Alina and Alexei need little beyond what they can carry on their back.

Still, it doesn’t make the long trek any easier.

“It’s ‘the safest time to travel,’ my ass,” grumbles Alexei, huffing as he trudges on beside Alina. “Winter is the worst. I don’t know how those Fjerdans do it.”

Just a bit more and they will have reached the outskirts of a small town ten miles out from where they started—and they’ve been marching for hours now.

Alexei heaves an angry sigh and watches the plume of breath curl in front of him, a ghost of the oncoming winter chill. “And their stupid theory about volcra hibernation? It’s shit. Absolute shit. A monster is still a monster, and I doubt it cares what season it is before deciding to kill. Does it even snow in the Fold? Does the Fold even have seasons?”

“It might. But it might not. Then again, even unnatural things bend to the laws of nature every once in a while,” reasons Alina. “I suppose we’ll find out when we get there.”

At last they set down their packs and rest their feet. Alina knows they ought to pitch their tents, lay out their cots and furs and try to get as much sleep as possible, but after she and Alexei take out their bedroll, all they do is sit there and groan, rubbing their aching feet through their boots.

“And to think we have to endure two weeks of this,” says Alexei. He bumps his shoulder against Alina’s, smiling smugly. “Regret signing up for the army now?”

Alina is quick to counter, “Regret not telling Tomas your feelings before I kill you in your sleep?”

Even though Alexei doesn’t so much as flinch at the words, he scoffs at them. “And I thought I was petty.”

“I learn from the best.”

“So the student surpasses the master. If only that were the case with your drawings.”

“See, I would ask if you were nervous about crossing the Fold, but I guess I don’t have to since you clearly have a death wish. Hell, you might not even survive to cross.”

“Empty threats, empty threats.” Alexei shakes his head. “I’ll have you know that I’m scared shitless of crossing the Fold, Starkov. Everyone in their right mind ought to be.”

“Scared enough to confess your real feelings to Tomas?”

“Your constant badgering might just result in your death, you know. You’re not the only who can throw their weight around.”

“I’m serious, Alexei. It’s been weeks now, and you guys are still moping. With the crossing coming up, I just think—”

“Well, I think you should mind your own business,” snaps Alexei. “And I think I’ll tell Tomas when you tell Mal, and that’s about as likely to happen as a snowstorm in the summer.”

Alina frowns. “I’m just worried about you.”

“Worry about yourself, Starkov,” says Alexei, waving a dismissive hand. Still, after a small moment of silence, he adds, “I might consider it, you know. Telling him. If I survive the Fold.”

When you survive the Fold,” corrects Alina. “You will live, Alexei, or so help me, I swear to Fate and all the fucking Saints I will drag you across that damn Fold myself.”

And yet, Alexei still shakes his head. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Alina.”

 

xliv.

A week into their journey to Kribirsk and they’ve reached Seredina, one of the larger encampments, a halfway mark between Poliznaya and Kribirsk. It’s no inn, but Alina is grateful for the barracks, for a place where she need only place her bedroll atop a little cot and sleep.

Her plans are sorely interrupted when Mal drops by, deigning to grace her after spending time casually wandering ‘round the gigantic Grisha tents, perhaps sizing up his latest conquest.

She is not jealous, she reminds herself, when Alexei signals his approach, adding a smirk when he catches something in her expression.

(It’s come to that, she supposes. She and Alexei have come up with gestures to signal certain things, with certain things being Tomas’s approach, if ever—a quick three squeezes to the bicep—or Mal’s approach—a quick two taps on the wrist.)

To prove just how Not Jealous she is, Alina teases, “Are the Grisha girls not up to standard?”

Ah. There might have been a twinge of bitterness there, anyway. Alexei coughs and awkwardly shuffles away, she knows she’s done a piss-poor job of showing her Not Jealousy.

Mal scowls, not at Alina’s comment, but at Alexei’s figure walking off to who knows where. “That’s not it,” he says. “I’m worried about you. I can’t leave you alone with that Alexei guy for long. He’s such an ass.”

Alina only rolls her eyes. “Alexei’s an ass, but he’s also my friend. He won’t ever try anything with me,” she says. “And besides, I’m not his type.”

“What do you mean? You’re everyone’s type.”

Even yours? She bites back the retort and promptly changes the subject. “What are you really doing here, Mal? You’re a far way from your unit’s barracks.”

“I meant it. Not about Alexei, but… I’m just worried about you, is all.” He gestures outside. “Walk with me?”

She follows, and they tread in silence for a minute or so before stopping at a flat area by a copse of trees behind the barracks where they settle into the grass, sitting side by side while they watch the nighttime bustle of the encampment, the dozens of fires lighting the burning the black sky orange.

Mal is the first to speak. “Have you been sleeping well?”

“About as well as I can be, I guess.” Alina shrugs. “You?”

“Like a log, actually. Does that mean you’re not nervous, then? About the crossing, I mean.”

“Of course I’m nervous,” says Alina. “We’re walking into unknown territory—territory we can hardly see in, let alone defend ourselves in. It warrants some nerves, maybe even some terror.” Her eyes go over him, see the confident way he still holds himself, the excitement and mischief alight in those blue eyes. “You’re not at all scared, are you?”

“It’s kind of weird. I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be.” Then he turns his head to her and grins. “If I was none the wiser, I think I’d have you to thank,” he says. “You’re like light, Alina. I feel like anything’s possible when I’m with you. Is that weird?”

Alina ignores her thundering heartbeat, the way it seems to skitter and dance and backflip in her chest. “Not weird at all,” she manages at last. “Is it weird I feel the same way when I’m with you?”

His smile becomes impossibly wider and brighter. “Not at all.”

 

xlv.

“You’re too chipper for this hour,” complains Alexei, as Alina sneaks past him to get to her cot. “It’s the dead of night, Alina. Wipe that annoyingly giddy smile off your face. Some of us are trying to sleep bitterly.”

“You do everything bitterly. What difference will it make?”

“Touché.” Alexei waits for Alina to settle in before speaking up again, “I’m assuming you had another late night talk with the love of your life.”

“Shut up, Alexei. You’re just jealous.”

“I am jealous. Unlike you, I can admit when I’m green.”

“Aren’t you a little too talkative for his hour?”

“I’m always too much of everything. It’s expected of me.”

“Of course. I forget who I’m talking to.” Alina rolls over in her cot. “Get some sleep, Alexei.”

“Fine,” he grumbles, turning over too. Barely a heartbeat passes before he whispers softly, “Good night, Alina.”

“Good night, Alexei.”

 

xlvi.

Alina counts down the days to her birthday.

With all the time they’ve spent traveling, keeping track of the date proves difficult, but as Kribirsk looms closer, she can taste the long night to come—the longest night: the winter solstice, to mark the beginning of Ravka’s harshest season—and her eighteenth birthday.

The day she receives her soul marks.

She wonders how it will look on her skin. Alina has only ever caught the mark in passing glances at people’s wrists—once, closely, at Tomas’s wrist when he deigns to talk to her, remembers the sloppy scrawl wedged between the shaft of a spear. It seems the marks are personalized with some names weaved into patterns of whorls or vines or whatever else, perhaps Fate’s only hint at whom one might be bound to for life.

For a single, selfish moment, she wonders how Mal’s name might look on her skin. Will it be something simple and plain? Or maybe it will be written into a compass needle, a beacon to the boy she has come to call home.

Alina clings to the hope that Fate will be on her side.

It’s an easy hope to cling to when she remembers the past they share, the years they have together, the years they will have when they’re soulmates.

It’s an easy hope to cling to when Mal will catch her eye and wave and smile that sunlit smile of his. Naturally, she waves back.

“You better close your mouth, lover girl,” teases Alexei, “before something flies in.”

Alina snaps her mouth shut and glares at him. “I wasn’t staring that hard.”

“Uh-huh. You tell yourself that, Alina.” Alexei leans in close and lowers his voice in a conspiratorial whisper, “But between you and me, I said nothing about the way you stared at Oretsev.”

She shoves him away from her. “Ass.”

Alexei’s only response is the loud cackle of his laughter. Still, Alina marches on after him.

They have a long trek ahead. The road is crowded, coated in the slop of snow-mud sludge, but Alina stumbles on, looking down onto the white fields and abandoned farms of the Tula Valley. Beyond them, she catches her first real glimpse of the Shadow Fold.

Her regiment has been marching down the Vy for two weeks now, and even though the winter sun hidden behind a thick sheet of clouds, the air somehow feels chillier than it ought to be. She blames the Fold.

On maps, the Fold is a black slash that severs eastern Ravka from its only coastline, leaving much of the country landlocked. Sometimes, it appears like a stain, other times a bleak and shapeless cloud or a long, narrow lake labeled by its other name, the Unsea.

Considering merchants and soldiers are required to cross the black gloom, thinks Alina with a shudder, you’d think they would come up with a more encouraging name.

“What was that?” Alina startles, not realizing she had spoken aloud until Alexei turned his attention to her.

“Nothing,” she says. She shakes the chill from her bones and wishes she can summon some warm light to shine on her skin, but she is not fond of looking like a walking candlestick, much less the attention she will draw from the spectacle. “I just want to get the crossing over with.”

“Don’t we all?” Alexei huffs. “Maybe I should plan on getting trampled.”

“What?” Alina snaps from her thoughts, her attention fully on the present now.

“It’s brilliant. Foolproof, one might say,” starts Alexei, looking thoughtful, considering. “I faint, get trampled, grievous injuries all around. I might even get you injured. Then neither of us have to risk our lives crossing that hot piece of black death.”

She looks mildly horrified. “Please never refer to the Fold as a ‘hot piece of black death.’”

“We all cope with our imminent death in different ways. I prefer to do it with my incredible sense of humor. You should try it, too.”

“You are not dying on the Fold.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I don’t, but who cares? I will it into existence: Alexei Kerensky will not die.”

“If only you were a Saint.” Alexei sighs. “Or maybe someone stronger than a Saint. A god—goddess. Then maybe I’ll consider believing you.”

“You’re impossible.” Alina shakes her head. She’s about to say more when Alexei is abruptly shoved to the ground. In the same instance, strong arms lift her off her feet, yank her toward the side of the road. Before she can protest, a clatter of hooves and shouts split the air, and a huge black coach roars past, scattering people before it as they run to avoid getting trampled by four black horses. Beside the whip-wielding driver perches two soldiers in charcoal coats.

The Darkling. There’s no mistaking the black coach or the uniform of his personal guard. In a split second, Alina wishes she had gotten a better look at him. She imagines he must be something ancient, older-looking, exuding power. Then, just as quickly as it came, she shakes the thought from her head and turns to her savior.

“Mal?” She blinks back her surprise. “I didn’t even realize you—”

“He shoved me!” interrupts Alexei. He’s on his feet now, brushing dirt from his breeches. “He just—”

“I saved you,” Mal interrupts. “The Darkling’s coach would have trampled you.” Another coach, lacquered red, rumbles past at a more leisurely pace. “Or a bloodletter’s coach,” says Mal. “Either way, you should…”

He trails off, and when Alina turns back to the road, she sees why. A blue coach follows the red, and a Grisha girl leans out the window, a silver fox hat framing the perfect curls of her black hair. Her eyes scan the crowd and linger on Mal.

Even after they disappear, he goggles dumbly after her, his mouth hanging.

“Close your mouth,” says Alina, a slight edge of bitterness to her voice, “before something flies in.”

Then, she abruptly shoves past him, takes hold of Alexei’s arm and marches on. Behind her, she hears the bellows of Mal’s tracker friends, Mikhael and Dubrov, as they howl about Mal’s quest—and possible success—at bedding the Grisha girl.

She doubts she will be missed.

 

xlvii.

“Saints, Alina! Slow down!” Alexei yanks his arm from her vice grip. “What’s your rush? We’ll be late to the Documents Tent anyway. Nothing we can do about it.”

“I know,” she starts, and then repeats more firmly, “I know. I’m sorry.”

Alexei’s gaze softens. “It’s okay,” he says. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t even want to acknowledge what happened.”

“All right. Fair enough.”

They continue their trek in silence.

Kribirsk isn’t much to look at. It’s a ramshackle port city, its drydocks sporting the sandskiffs that wait to take passengers across the murky gloom of the Shadow Fold. Still, there is some life to it, even if it mostly serves to cater to the First Army. Taverns and pubs and brothels line its streets, as well as the obligatory shops of rifles and crossbows, lamps and torches, and all necessary equipment for crossing the Fold.

A little church sits on the far corner of the town, with its whitewashed walls and snow-covered onion domes in surprisingly good repair.

“We should pay the church a visit later,” suggests Alina. She isn’t really one for prayer, but it might be what Alexei needs. “Pray for safety.”

He shakes his head. “Saints don’t always answer,” he says, his voice taking an unusually grim turn. “Once we’re out there, the only great power worth praying to is death.”

 

xlviii.

It’s only after entering the white canvas cover of the Documents Tent that Alina—and Alexei, it seems—can finally relax. There’s something familiar about the bright light of hanging lamps and the rows of drafting tables where other surveyors bent to their work. The journey to Kribirsk had been too full of noise and jostle; it’s nice to be around the soothing sound of crackling paper, of fresh ink, of scratching nibs and brushes.

Alexei lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank the Saints,” he says, relinquishing his pack to the floor by an empty desk, “the Senior Cartographer isn’t here.”

Alina couldn’t care less for their supervisor. She’s just glad Alexei’s in better spirits.

 

xlix.

The rest of the afternoon passes in the blink of an eye. After Alina submits her work, she and Alexei grab dinner, listen in on camp gossip, but there isn’t much to gossip about. Mostly, everyone is nervous about the crossing.

Even when evening rolls around, the atmosphere of the barracks is glum. Alina unfurls her bedroll on a narrow cot, removes her boots, hangs her pack. She wriggles into her layers of blankets and furs and stares at the roof, waiting for sleep.

It never comes.

Instead, her mind buzzes with nerves. She remembers the Grisha coaches from earlier, the way Mal had goggled after the Etherealki girl. She remembers what day it is tomorrow. Her birthday. Her eighteenth birthday. When she wakes tomorrow morning, she will finally see her soul marks.

I’ll see Mal’s name, she thinks, lifting her wrist in front of her eyes. It has to be.

Minutes turn to an hour or two, and from the cot next to hers, Alexei’s voice comes softly. “Alina,” he whispers. “Are you still awake?”

“I’ve never been good at catching sleep,” she admits. “Wanna go out for some air?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” She hears shuffling, and then: “I still have a bottle of kvas,” says Alexei. “I was saving it for after we cross the Fold, but—”

Alina sits up quickly. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “Save it. Drink it after we cross.”

He shrugs. Once the both of them slip back into their boots before coming into the bone-chilling cold of the winter air outside. They settle onto the steps leading to their barracks, head tilted up at the sky.

“Well, fuck,” grumbles Alexei, shivering in his furs, “now there’s no way I can go back to sleep. Too damn cold. Going outside was a terrible idea.”

“Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get frostbite,” says Alina. Even after discreetly warming both herself and Alexei, the chill still lingers, and Alina has to rub her hands down her arms before coming up to her frozen face, cupping around her mouth to warm her hands with her breath. “Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to chop off a finger or two. Then there’s no way either of us could go on the Crossing tomorrow.”

Alexei looks impressed. “Who knew that pretty head of yours had an inkling of brilliance? I must be rubbing off on you.”

“I have another possibility, too.” Alina hopes her glare is scalding enough to boil despite the freezing cold. “I could kill you. Right here. Before the Fold can.”

“How generous. I think I might just take my chances with the Fold, after all.”

She prepares herself for another retort when a different voice calls her name.

“Alina?” When she turns in the direction of the source, she finds Mal walking toward her. “I thought I heard your voice.”

Alexei immediately jumps to his feet. “I am suddenly overcome with the tremendous urge to sleep,” he says, and he does a poor job of faking a yawn. “Good night, Alina. I’ll see you again in the morning.”

Her eyes widen in silent protest, but before she can say anything, Mal is already beside her. “Couldn’t sleep?”

She doesn’t turn to him, fixing her gaze back to the sky instead. “No,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“What’s wrong?”

Alina shrugs.

“Is it the Fold?”

“Sure.” It’s easier to pretend her worry is for the enormous cloud of darkness plaguing the horizon ahead and not because of a stupid name that might appear on her wrist. “The Fold.”

“We’ve faced worse,” he says, nudging her shoulder with his. “If we can take on Ana Kuya, we can handle a few volcra.”

Her frown only deepens. “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’m trying to be reassuring. You could at least pretend I’m succeeding.”

“I don’t know, Mal.” Alina sighs. “I’ve never been good at lying.”

Silence sits between them, but it doesn’t last long.

“Wanna know something funny? I miss her sometimes.”

“Who?”

“Ana Kuya.”

Alina tries to hide her surprise. She’s spent more than half her life at Keramzin, but a part of her missed her father and mother more than the batty housekeeper. She might not remember a great deal about her parents—she can barely remember their faces—but she can never forget their parting words to her.

Live, moya solnyshko.

Be brave. You must live.

Their last words mean more to her than any piece of wisdom Ana Kuya had uttered. It definitely means more to her than the housekeeper’s heavy-handed version of wisdom.  

“Me, too,” she lies. She hopes it is enough for him to believe her. Still, Alina hides her grimace behind her hands, fanning a warm breath on her frozen fingers and palm, and suggests, “You could write.”

“Maybe,” Mal agrees. Suddenly, he reaches out and takes hold of her hand, and a jolt goes through her. “By tomorrow afternoon,” he says, “we’ll be sitting in the harbor at Os Kervo, looking out at the ocean and drinking kvas.”

Alina wrinkles her nose as she thinks of the last time she went drinking with him. “Is Dubrov buying?”

“Just you and me.” He squeezes her hand, but to Alina, he might as well squeeze her heart, too. And steal the air from her lungs while he’s at it.

“Really?”

“It’s always you and me, Alina.”

For a moment, it seems like the truth. The world is the step, the circle of lamplight, the two of them suspended in the dark.

Even as he departs with Mikhael, throwing a wide smile and a lighthearted goodbye over his shoulder, Alina takes it. She takes the small but growing feeling of hope in her chest and runs with it.

 

l.

“You look happy,” says a drowsy Alexei.

Alina rolls her eyes. “You can barely see me.”

He shrugs and rolls over in his cot. “Don’t need to,” he mumbles. “You’re practically radiating springtime glee.”

And maybe she is.

When she settles into her cot that night, she stares at her bare wrist, still unmarked. By tomorrow morning, she thinks, I’ll see Mal’s name

Chapter Text

i.

Her wrist does not, in fact, read Mal’s name.

 

lii.

“Fuck,” she says. She is still nursing her wrist, holding it closer to her face as if squinting at it long enough will change the name. It does not work. The name remains, simple, black, and elegant, bearing a stranger’s unfamiliar hand, not at all the sloppy scrawl of the boy she loves. “Fuck,” she repeats, but no amount of cursing will alter the brand.

Soulmates are called soulmates for a reason. Fate binds two souls together, and Fate does not make mistakes.

But that doesn’t mean it is without fault.

Fate, she decides, is a wretched and cruel thing. It isn’t enough to be orphaned by war and forced to live at the mercy of a noble who couldn’t care less for the children he housed, nor the heavy-handed housekeeper he placed in charge. And that’s not to mention how long she’s gone hiding her powers, her gifts, for the sake of staying by Mal’s side, out of fear she will be taken from the second home she’s claimed for herself.

A cruel and wretched thing indeed.

A part of her wants to cry, but there is another, louder part of her scorns the idea, abhors it.

How ridiculous, a voice—her voice—seethes. You want to cry because of a measly name on your wrist? Because the boy you love is not the one you are meant to be with? There are bigger things than what Fate decides.

She withholds her tears, but the same cannot be said of the pain that seems to cleave her heart, splits it in two.

But pain isn’t the only emotion that wrought her chest.

Anger beats a furious rhythm into her heart, boiling her blood, blending with the pain that still lingers there. More than her anger at Fate, at the Saints, at whatever power exists beyond her, she is angry at herself.

How can she let this happen? How can she tether all her belief to the hope she might be Mal’s soulmate? How can she be so naïve?

All this, she realizes, to make sure she will never be alone. Everyone else has left her, after all, off to a place she can’t follow. First her parents. Then, the man with the crooked nose, Maksim. Then, the girl with green eyes, Galena. On and on the list will go. People will leave her, and she will be alone.

Will Mal be one of them, too?

 

liii.

“Alina?” Alexei’s voice snaps her out of her reverie. He calls out to her absently as he packs his bedroll away. “You’ve been quiet for a while now, and I…” He trails off as soon as he sees the stricken look on her face, and he immediately rushes to her side. “What happened? Who do I kill? Oretsev?”

“No,” says Alina, giving a weak shake of her head. “It’s nothing, I—”

“Your wrist,” Alexei interrupts suddenly. His eyes don’t miss where she holds her right hand. “You got your soul marks.”

“I did, but you—”

It’s too late. He lifts her hand to see for himself, see the swollen letters of the black brand across her wrist. A puzzled look crosses his face. “Who the fuck is Aleksander?” At once, five heads turn his way, confused at his outburst. Alexei waves them off. “Carry on. Nothing to see here.”

There are grunts of annoyance, but nothing more.

Alina doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. How nice, she thinks, for Fate to give me the most common Ravkan name there is. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, yanking her arm from Alexei’s grip. “Whatever I thought, it doesn’t matter. It was stupid of me to hope.”

“You’re not wrong for hoping, Alina,” insists Alexei. “There’s nothing wrong with hoping. A little hope goes a long way. I…” He trails off again, uncertainty touching his voice. “I know,” he starts, “that this might not be what you want to hear right now, but don’t lose hope, Alina. Don’t let this bump in the road get you down.”

Her glare is lethal, her anger and anguish turned inside out. “You couldn’t possibly understand,” she says, deathly calm. “How can you? It’s not like you know how it feels to cling so desperately to a home—a hope—that isn’t meant for you.”

Alexei’s face goes slack, but before Alina can snatch back her words, apologize, she knows: She’s too late. There is no taking back the hurt she caused him, the pain, the betrayal.

He recovers quickly, twists his expression into calm anger akin to Alina’s. “I can’t possibly understand?” he asks, indignant. “And here I thought you had been listening when I poured my heart out to you about my troubles. Was I talking to myself the whole time? Was your presence a desperate concoction of booze?”

“Alexei, I’m so sor—”

“If we survive this,” he starts, and then corrects, “If I survive this, I am kicking your ass. I understand how important those fucking soul marks are to you, but you do nothing by taking your frustrations out on me.” Outside, the Head Cartographer calls out their unit, and Alexei shrugs on his pack. “Let’s get going.”

Guilt bubbles up inside her. Oh, she thinks. What have I done?

 

liv.

Alina chases after Alexei, but calling after him proves futile. She loses him in the bustle of the crowd as people prepare to board the sandskiffs.

Animals are too skittish to make the trip across the Fold, so instead of traveling with their help, crossings are made on sandskiffs, shallow sleds rigged with enormous sails that skate almost soundlessly over the dead gray sands, moved with the guidance of Grisha.

Each skiff is full of supplies: grain, timber, and raw cotton. On the trip back, they are stocked with sugar, rifles, and all manner of finished goods that have passed through the seaports of West Ravka.

Alina makes it aboard the skiff assigned to her unit and looks out at the skiff’s deck, marking the only haven anyone might have from the volcra. Equipped with little more than a sail and a rickety railing, the skiff offers little place to hide. She is armed only with an army-issue knife, so she feels even more grateful for the Second Army soldiers.

At the mast of each sled are two Squallers, flanked by First Army soldiers bearing rifles. Lining the railings is a line of both army units, in alternating rows of drab olive jackets and dark blue kefta. She even sees Mal and his unit on the other side of the skiff, bearing rifles, a row of archers behind them.

Alina considers waving to get his attention when she finally finds Alexei standing a few feet away from the Senior Cartographer, who takes his place beside the Squallers, compass in hand, ready to navigate the murky darkness of the Fold.

(Not that it will help.)

She settles into the spot beside him, open her mouth to apologize, but—

“Don’t,” he warns.

At that, Alina clamps her mouth shut. Still, she doesn’t move much farther away, and he doesn’t either. In fact, he moves closer when the skiffs move, practically pressing himself into her side as he takes her hand in a vice grip.

“I’m still mad at you,” says Alexei. He doesn’t look at her but fixes his gaze on the murky gloom ahead of them. “You just happen to be within vicinity.”

Alina knows it isn’t true, that there are plenty of other people around them, but she doesn’t allow herself to feel relieved just yet. Comfort, though? She figures she can manage that much.

She gives his hand a quick squeeze as they enter the Fold.

 

lv.

At first, it feels like drifting into a thick cloud of smoke, only there is no heat, no smell of fire. Sounds seem to dampen, and the world stills. Darkness falls around them, black and weightless and absolute.

This, Alina thinks, must be what it is to stand at the end of everything.

With her free hand, she holds tight to the skiff railing, feeling the wood dig into her palm, grateful for something solid to hold on to.

And yet, despite the dark gloom surrounding them, a niggle of energy buzzes through her then, as she breathes in the dark air, and she has the sudden urge to give her powers a try; perhaps to feel secure or perhaps to prove she can, Alina isn’t sure, but the urge is there nonetheless.

The urge ebbs as they drift on—for minutes or hours, Alina doesn’t know. In the Fold, time seems to stand still.

But we’ll be okay. Alina gives Alexei’s hand another reassuring squeeze, and to her relief, he squeezes back, returning the silent sentiment. We’ll be okay.

Then her mind drifts to Mal, because she hasn’t talked to him since last night—or since getting her soul marks, she adds hastily, as the brand on her wrist buzzes with newfound energy.

(She almost confuses it for the return of the urge to try her powers, but this feels… different. It feels like the mark is alive, like it sings in the darkness, like it seeks to greet it hello. Ridiculous, right?)

Suddenly, the grip on her hand turns tighter.

Alina is about to protest when Alexei’s panicked whisper hovers just above her ear. “Listen,” he urges, voice hoarse with terror.

For a moment, all Alina hears is his ragged breathing and the steady hiss of the skiff. She remains silent, listening more intently, when she finally hears another sound, faint but relentless: the rhythmic flapping of wings.

She holds tight to Alexei, moving her grip from his hand to his arm as her free hand goes to the hilt of her knife, her heartbeat pounding away at her ears. Alina tries to swallow back the fear pulsing through her veins as death threatens to loom closer, but it is impossible.

Through the darkness, she hears triggers being cocked, arrows being notched, knives being unsheathed. Someone whispers, “Be ready.”

She waits. Everyone waits with bated breath as the beat of wings grows louder with each second that passes, like the drums of an oncoming army.

(Alina swears she feels the wind stir with unease.)

“Burn!” the command rings out in the darkness. Flint strikes stone, its crackle piercing the air at the same time rippling blooms of Inferni fire erupt from each skiff.

Alina squints with the sudden burst of brightness, adjusting her eyesight, when she sees them:

Volcra. She remembers reading about them, how they travel in small flocks, but in the firelight, she sees hundreds, hovering and swooping above the skiff, more frightening than any book could have pictured, than anything she could have imagined.

Shots ring, arrows fly, and the shrieks of volcra split the air, high and terrible.

The creatures dive. To her right, someone cries out, and Alina watches in horror as a soldier is lifted from his feet and carried into the air, kicking and struggling.

Alina and Alexei huddle together, crouched low against the railing, clinging to the flimsy knives at their side. She can hear him mutter prayers as the world dissolves into nightmare. All around them, men shout, people scream, and soldiers stay locked in combat with the massive, writhing forms of winged beasts. The unnatural darkness of the Fold is broken in fits and starts by bursts of golden Grisha flame.

A cry rents the air beside Alina. She gasps as Alexei’s arm is yanked from hers. In a spurt of flame, she sees his death grip on the railing, his howling mouth, his wide, terrified eyes, and the monstrous thing that holds him in its glistening gray arms, wings beating the air as it lifts him from his feet, thick claws sunk deep into his back, talons already wet with his blood. Alexei’s fingers slip on the railing when Alina lunges forward to grab his arm.

“Hold on!” she cries. Her mind is a whirlwind, thinking of whatever she can do to keep him here, to keep her promise to him. You will live, Alexei, or so help me, I swear to Fate and all the fucking Saints I will drag you across that damn Fold myself. Her flimsy knife is no use, but—

My powers, comes the sudden thought. My light. She searches within herself for the courage to call on the sun, to protect, to ward, but there’s too much of fear clamping down on her chest, crushing her lungs, stealing her breath.

Suddenly, Alina remembers the moment that orphaned her, the darkness beneath her bed as fire rained down on her town. She remembers the screams, the cries, the clatter of falling wood—

Behind her, the mast falls, startling her into letting go.

Fear lumps her throat. Fear drains her blood. Fear freezes her in place, breaking only when Grisha flames erupt nearby, and the last thing she sees is the look of terror on Alexei’s face.

“Alina! Alina!” he shouts and shouts and shouts over and over. He calls out her name, but the darkness swallows his screams, swallows him whole as the volcra takes him, and—

Silence.

For one long second, there is a terrifying moment of deathly stillness, as the Inferni recharge their flame, as the marksmen reload their weapons.

Alina screams. At least she thinks she does. There is a desperate, hollow sound ringing in her ears, filling the space in her head—the sound of heartbreak and mourning. Still, it feels so far away, like that part of herself had also been snatched away by volcra.

The world doesn’t stay still for much longer. Soon, the sounds of man and monster clashing join the chaos, and she watches the silhouettes of smoke and shadow stand stark against the flare of Inferni fire.

She doesn’t remember falling to the floor. Alina only realizes when the railing looms taller, when the wood beneath her creaks with the sudden weight. She doesn’t even hear the volcra approach, firelight glinting off its milky, sightless eyes, gaping mouth crowded with rows of sharp, crooked black teeth.

(Perhaps she doesn’t care.)

Even when its talons pierce her shoulder, Alina doesn’t cry out. In the back of her mind, she recognizes the slickness of her blood spreading, coating her shirt, but she feels neither pain nor terror. She is too numb—with heartbreak, with remorse.

I’m sorry, Alexei. I’m so, so sorry.

Her body drags across the floor as the volcra takes flight, when suddenly—

A flash of powder. A monstrous cry. A familiar voice, calling her name over and over.

“Alina! Alina!”

She thinks of Alexei, of how her name is the last thing he screamed when the volcra took him, and—

“Move!”

 

lvi.

It’s Mal, rifle in hand, face streaked in blood. “Move!” he repeats, and he grabs her arm and pulls her behind him.

His shot isn’t enough to keep the volcra down; it claws its way across the deck, one wing hanging at a crooked angle. Dimly, Alina registers Mal’s fast hands, trying to reload in the firelight, but the volcra recovers quickly, talons slicing through his arm.

Panic shoots through her, and before she can stop herself, the thought crosses her mind—

Mal will die.

“Not here,” she pleads—prays, to Fate or the Saints or whatever twisted power lies beyond comprehension, beyond belief—as Mal’s blood stains her shirt. “Not now.”

Not like Alexei.

Crying out, Alina lunges forward, driving her little knife down the volcra’s jagged wing. From behind her, someone shoots, taking down the thrashing creature at last.

“Hang in there, men!” a voice calls out, through the thick of darkness. “We’re almost through!”

Almost seems like too far a word to cling to, but Alina tries and tries to hold on to it—to hold on to Mal.

“Alina, I—”

“Don’t move,” she croaks, tearing off a piece of her shirt to wrap around his arm. “You’ll make it worse.”

If he sees her trembling hands struggle to tie the makeshift bandage, he says nothing, only:

“Are you okay?”

It’s the question she doesn’t want to hear, let alone answer. Isn’t it obvious? She isn’t okay. A part of her is broken so completely she can barely spare enough breath to be thankful that Mal is here, that Mal is alive because—

Alexei is dead, and it’s all my fault.

“Alina.” Mal’s voice is firm, but she can’t bring herself to look him in the eyes. He calls her name over and over again, but she shakes her head.

Her guilt and grief are too much for her broken heart to bear.

 

lvii.

When they finally clear out of the Fold, Alina doesn’t feel relief. She hears it all around her, feels everyone else’s tension unravel like spool, but the weight on her shoulders never eases. It coils around her, squeezes the life out of her. Even with the sun beating down, its usual warmth is gone; instead, the light feels cold on her skin.

Where were you? she wants to demand, her hands clenching into fists. Where were you when I needed you? Where were you when Alexei was taken?

The sun doesn’t answer.

She already knows the answer, anyway. Light can only perform its miracles when she calls to it, and in the swath of darkness and gloom, she let fear overcome her instead.

If you hadn’t been afraid of your light, of what you could do, of what it could mean for you, maybe Alexei might have lived.

Her voice snarls the horrible thought in her mind. It makes Alina sick. Unable to bear her guilt or fear or shame any longer, she runs to the edge of the skiff and lurches, her hands clutching tightly to the railing.

Mal is at her side almost instantly. “Alina!” he cries out, his voice heavy with concern. He moves to wrap an arm around her. “Alina, are you—”

She flinches away from his touch, too distraught to bear any contact, even if it means receiving comfort. She doesn’t deserve it.

“Don’t,” she says. Her own voice sounds foreign to her ears. So defeated and tired and lost. “I can’t. Not after…” She fights back another urge to hurl with a shake of her head and opts to swipe at her tears with the heel of her hand. “Just don’t.”

He doesn’t protest. Mal stands in silence beside her as the Senior Cartographers navigate the skiffs into their drydocks. Vaguely, her mind registers the hopeful whoops of joy that sweep around her in waves at the sight of the green hills and blue skies of Novokribirsk. She can’t bring herself to feel much of anything at all, not even when Mal presses his palm into hers.

Alina almost hisses at the touch, but her energy is drained. She doesn’t even have the strength to hold on.

 

lviii.

The First Army Commanders don’t even give them time to grieve the dead. They see to the injured, but nothing more.

Dead men are the weight they cannot afford to carry. Dead men are no help to the living. Dead men are a name, a number, a formatted letter of grievance to yet another family who has lost a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister.

Alina’s afternoon is a blur. She blinks, and someone ushers her off the skiff. She blinks, and the commanders count off the living. She blinks, and someone is seeing to her shoulder.

She blinks, and it is already evening.

Her feet move on their own, heading toward the opposite side of the infirmary tents where the riflemen gather, where Mal might be.

“Alina?”

She turns, not because she hears Mal’s voice, but because it sounds like—

Tomas.

She almost doesn’t recognize him. His brown hair is now black from the blood matting it. The rest of him looks worse for wear with bandages wrapping half his body and a sling on his arm, but he’s alive.

(Still, Alina can’t help but wonder if living is worse than death when all that wracks the heart is pain and sorrow.)

She musters a smile as she comes to his bedside. “It’s been a while,” she whispers. She almost reaches for his hand, but the thought has her nearly blanching as she remembers Alexei. Tears prickle at her eyes. “How—what hap—”

“Volcra got me good,” says Tomas hoarsely. “Part of my arm and shoulder. At least I’ll live.”

Alina chokes back a sob. “At least you’ll live.”

“And Alexei?” His eyes brighten with so much hope its light burns a hole in Alina’s chest. “I haven’t seen him yet, but is he here? Is that why you’re in the sick ward?”

“Alexei’s not—isn’t—” She takes a deep breath, wills the tears in her eyes to stop from spilling. “He’s gone, Tomas,” she says, so quietly, so hopelessly. “He didn’t make it.”

And just like that, all the light, all the life, drains from his face. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “It can’t be. That’s not—no. It’s Alexei. It’s my Alexei. He can’t just… No, Alina, I can’t believe that. Tell me you’re wrong.” His eyes scan her for deceit, for cruelty, but turn up empty at the honesty he sees, the sorrow coupled with it.

“I wish I was.” No matter how hard she tries, the tears spill from her eyes in endless streams of salt and grief. “I wish I was wrong.”

No.”

Who can ever guess how much heartbreak goes into a single syllable? The world shatters at the word, and Tomas and Alina take comfort in each other, holding each other close. It is all they can do to keep from falling apart completely.

“I’m so sorry, Tomas,” she sobs and sobs and sobs over and over again. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“I loved him.” Tomas sniffles, head buried in Alina’s shoulder. “Even when we stopped talking, even when he ended it. I loved him. I still love him. And he’s gone.”

“He’s gone,” she echoes, because it’s easier than saying Alexei loved him, too.

 

lix.

Something has to change.

Alina can’t go on like this. She can’t bear to be in the First Army—not when they care so little for the fallen, for the families and friends they leave behind. More than that, she can’t bear to face herself—not when she has pushed away the chance to learn about her powers, not when she has lost her friend to the Fold because she was too afraid to try.

All her life, she has clung to people time and again, too afraid to face the bone-deep loneliness that will always follow her because she is special, because she can summon the sun.

But for all the life the power of light gives her, it seems like darkness is always around the corner, waiting to take people from her.

But that isn’t the problem.

The problem is that she is always afraid. She is afraid of loneliness, afraid of being left behind.

In this moment, the choice is not difficult.

 

lx.

  • She turns down Mal’s invitation for drinks and packs. She stares forlornly at the bottle of kvas she managed to get from Alexei’s things, the drink he said he’d share with her when they survived the crossing. She swipes away an errant tear and leaves when everyone is asleep, making a stop at the infirmary to give Tomas a letter.

  • She makes her way to Mal, to drop off a letter for him, too, when he wakes up.

  • Mal is taken aback. The somber look on his face gives way to confusion, and Alina tells him she needs to go. She tries to explain why, but it’s too complicated. She settles for telling him she can’t stay in the First Army, but Mal is even more confused. Is it because of her loss? Because she can mourn—she’s entitled to her grief—but she can’t just desert the First Army. It’s treason.

  • Alina doesn’t want to explain. She shakes her head and hands Mal her letter, tells him everything he needs to know is in there but warns him not to read it until after she departs.

“So this is it, then? This is goodbye?”

Alina doesn’t think she can bear to look at Mal, can’t stomach seeing him look so hurt. There are dying stars in his eyes, dim and unshining and so far away. It’s an effort to tear her gaze from his, to shrug on her pack and look off in the distance, in the black horizon of the True Sea at night.

“If you’re that somber about it, think of this as a ‘See you later,’” she replies in a poor, hoarse attempt to lighten the mood. “I’m not dy—” She chokes on the last word and shakes her head. “I’m still alive,” she says instead.

“And I’m glad for it,” starts Mal, “but you’re defecting from the First Army. That’s almost worse than dying.”

“Almost,” she echoes absently. She almost wants to ask Mal if he would like to tell Alexei that, but her heart writhes at the thought, and she bites back her retort until she tastes blood. Instead, she says, “Don’t make it harder than it already is.”

“Alina—”

“Don’t.” She shakes her head. After everything they’ve been through, the thought of leaving him is painful, but the thought of staying hurts even more. “I can’t say goodbye, Mal,” she whispers. “I won’t say goodbye.”

Mal doesn’t protest. He is silent a long moment, and then:

“I won’t say goodbye either,” he says at last, but his eyes echo with farewell all the same.

 

interlude.

Across the Unsea, a pair of silver eyes are wide open—with shock, with wonder, with surprise.

It’s impossible. It can’t be.

He has never been one to dream, but he has dreamed tonight, and he remembers the vision clearly: A hand, not his, holding up a cheap bottle of kvas. A creaky wooden boat barely large enough for cargo. The expanse of True Sea before him, its horizon tainted with shadow and speckled in moonlight.

It cannot be possible, to smell and taste and see the sea so vividly, because he has not been to the shore in months, too busy preparing his Grisha for the crossing and fortifying the borders from foreign attack.

But more than the betrayal of his senses is a flood of feeling, of aching sadness, of guilt and grief and longing and farewell, of the overwhelming sense of relief and clarity past it. That he feels at all is strange enough, that he cannot control it is far stranger.

Because, he realizes, the feeling is not his.

He has not touched the mark in years, finds himself rather content leaving the matter be entirely, but tonight, the brand is alive, buzzing with whatever twisted connection Fate and the Saints have concocted between him and the stranger whose name he bears:

Alina.