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Born to Destroy You

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Chapter 1: The Girl who Held the Sun

 

I was born July 23rd amid a Lunar eclipse. ‘The brightest day of the century.’ My mother claimed that dates and events hold prophecies. For my birthday in particular, she claimed that it foretold that I’d be a bright mind and soul. A person of honesty and who’d brighten even the dullest of souls. She claimed I was born laughing.

 

‘If by laughing you mean making me and the people around us deaf.’

 

That’s what they’d argue about the most—not about what I sounded like when I was born, though that wouldn’t be all that surprising knowing them—but the idea that the past holds doorways to the future. My father had always been more of an evidence-based individual. ‘I’m a realist,’ Is what he'd always tell me, ‘And you ought to be one too.’

 

Like my blood, I can’t escape or embrace either of their ideals. They mix within me, which similar to my appearance, the mix seems to be one of the worst ones possible. I’m Shu where it’d hurt me and Ravkan where Shu would be more flattering. I suppose it doesn’t help that my parents would have the hardest time getting me to eat growing up. It never interested me; I suppose. My body did however always crave something. What? I did not know.

 

My parents, not being formally educated citizens, quickly got taken by the draft. I was eight yet could very well take care of myself. I suppose the one ounce of pride I had resided entirely on that. Living on the edge of The Fold near a military camp was never a fun experience. ‘The Military Trolls,’ some would call us children whose parents are off at war. I suppose having something in common made it easier to trust one another.

 

The first group of friends I ever had, ‘The Trolls of Terminov.’ is a group of misfits who would cause all sorts of trouble throughout the seemingly non-ending city in which we live. Mostly petty theft, or mild destruction of property, but enough to attract the attention of the city guard. We sliced our hands open as a promise to never reveal our comrades' positions if caught. I could’ve sworn I saw a flash of light.

 

The first time I had gotten caught, it was a mere slap of the wrist. It stung for days after, but still, I was let off easy by their standards. They didn’t even know I was a part of, ‘The Trolls of Terminov.’ Who could? I looked hardly capable of movement, just a bag of bones. Only stealing an apple—not even for myself. It wouldn’t have made it different in their eyes anyway.

 

The second time was—tough to say the least. There was no mistaking my associations of the group this time around. I planted a stink bomb in the city square; however, some people reported my less than normal behavior as I moved about the crowds. I had assumed that my slight figure would be enough to shield me from the gaze of the suspicious. Spending a month in the cells ensured that I ended my ties with the group. They simply shrugged before snatching my gloves, cloth mouth cover, and materials. I had hoped they’d been more appreciative. Then again, what was I expecting from a group of abandoned children?

 

I still remember the day the letter arrived. Like most days, it was hot, sunny, and sweat combined with body odor flooded throughout the city. Carriages and horses of the troops pulled into town. I could immediately tell who was Grisha, not just by their distinct kefta, but by the waft of perfume that seemed to follow them. I kept telling myself I’d take the smell of musky odor over fake florescence any day. Somedays I could almost fool myself.

 

I had been productively ignoring my homework when the thud of my door banging caught my attention. A military guy stood in front of me, clearly not a newer recruit from the distant, cold sheen over his eyes. The eyes of war. He almost seemed faintly surprised by just a half-Shu tiny girl being the only occupant, but he seemed to cast it aside just as quickly as it came. He handed me the letter, leaving me with only a gruffly muttered phrase.

 

“I’d pack if I were you.”

 

I didn’t have time for the confusion to set in as I hastily grabbed the nearest pocket knife and sliced the top of the envelope. The scent of the paper was my first warning. It had a faint fluorescence instead of its typical cedar. It was folded neatly in three equal sections. That was the second warning. My throat almost closed as my eyes took in the first words.

 

‘To Miss Starkov,’

 

That is what confirmed it. The third and final warning. I could already feel my eyes glossing over with moister but chose to continue. Perhaps if I continued I might be pleasantly surprised? I knew deep down it was a stretch, but my optimism ceased to falter. I suppose I am a mix of them both after all.

 

‘We regret to inform you that on the 20th of July presumed around the time of 13:45-16:45 both your parents had valiantly sacrificed their lives for the honor of Ravka. Their sacrifices have not been overlooked. Teardrop. We cannot begin to apologize enough for the suffering you must be enduring, Teardrop. but we can assure you Teardrop. that their lives helped Teardrop. our great mother country prevail Teardrop. and serve Teardrop. victorious at the battle. Teardrop. Once again, Teardrop. we deeply Teardrop. apologize on behalf Teardrop. of your sorrow, Teardrop. and hope Teardrop. that you feel Teardrop. pride and one day Teardrop. join them Teardrop. amongst the ranks Teardrop. to Teardrop. protect Teardrop. your Teardrop. community. Teardrop.

 

Nothing.

 

My body seemed to react, yet my mind remained frozen. ‘No. They can’t be gone—it’s impossible. They promised. They promised me they’d come back. They can’t leave me now. I—can’t…’ My hands began to tremble and clench, taking the letter with it, crumpling within my hands.

 

“No.” The word comes out as a whisper; you could miss it if the wind blew the wrong way. My knuckles shift white. “No.” This was firm. This was certain. “No. No. No. No! No! NO!”  My voice echoes through the walls of my now empty home. The one thing that made it worth it—gone. I almost believe that I’m imagining my skin turning a few shades lighter and continuing to do so.

 

I can’t convince myself otherwise when my skin begins to glow bright white. Brighter. Brighter. A little bit more. I do not doubt that the light can be seen from outside my house, although the feeling of completeness for the first time ever, cuts off all thought. ‘This is what I’ve been craving. This sweet rush of energy. It flows through my veins. It gives me strength.’

 

It’s not until I open my eyes, that I begin to panic. Black spots begin to form in my vision, a stark contrast to my world of blinding white. I open my mouth to scream but nothing comes out. I am completely under the control of whatever power has a hold of me. When the light abruptly stops and my senses fail me, I find myself falling. I don’t comprehend the arms that break my fall.

 

 

I awaken to a blasting chill rushing through me, causing me to jolt up with a shriek. It takes me a moment to realize that ice water is what had just been poured over me, and I wrap my arms around my tremoring torso. My clothes are the one thing that protects me from the cold, and with it soaked through, combined with the fact that I have no body fat, I’m entirely unable to fend off the violent chills sending shockwaves through my nerves.

 

I hear someone mutter something in a tongue that I almost don’t recognize. I don’t understand it, however, I can vaguely remember my mother using a similar tongue when she believes herself to be alone. ‘Oh.’ My gaze turns to the people looming over me. ‘They’re Shu.’ When they look at me, there is not an ounce of empathy, or even sympathy, one of them simply grabs my wrist and pulls me out of the room with a bone-crushing grip.

 

‘I suppose I did always ask to not be treated like a helpless kid. How wrong I had been.’

 

“Please let go, you’re hurting me I—” A sharp sting is the first thing I sense, her hand had moved too fast to be seen clearly. My knees almost give out from the shock of it, and I cling my one free hand to my cheek, too stunned to be able to emit any noise.

 

“Speak only when spoken to.” Her words come out like a lash, her tongue being the whip. At that moment I begin to understand my mother’s talent for verbal punishment. She would’ve never hit me though, nor would my dad. ‘Is this—normal for Shu children to experience?’ Still clutching a hand to my cheek, teary-eyed, I nod. “Clever girl.” Despite the phrase being a ‘compliment’, the tone feels like anything but. She doesn’t pause for long before dragging me once more.

 

Even the walls are different from common Ravkan ones. Ravka, using mostly wood, clay, and plaster; these walls shone with an intricate layering of stone, paint, and stained glass. Different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. The flooring beneath was covered with mats, which confused me since they didn’t seem to have any practical use. Too distracted with my surroundings, I hadn’t even noticed the differences in clothing. Where Ravkan clothing focused on structure and functionality, Shu clothing seemed to have more of a draped, yet flowy silhouette.

 

I felt deathly out of place.

 

The woman, along with a small entourage following behind us eventually did turn down a discreet hallway before entering a room at the very end of it. There was a table, a small wooden structure protruding on the floor, which I could assume to be a bed from the cloth draped across it. That was pretty much it. A barren room consisting of mostly open space.

 

The woman spat commands in Shu to the servants, which they quickly scattered about the room in response. I couldn’t tell what they were trying to do from their quick movements. They moved swiftly with precision, something that seemed to be a theme for the Shu—or at least, from what I could tell.

 

It wasn’t even a second later before the ladies began to swarm me. I barely had time to register anything when I could feel my clothes being stripped from me. I couldn’t even be ashamed of my nakedness before new clothes were replaced with my old ones.

 

Oh.’ The material was soft. Softer than anything I’ve ever worn before. The most interesting aspect of the clothing to me was how it was applied. Cloth being wrapped and draped. Covering, but not with thick materials that increase body temperature. I vaguely remember the maps I had seen at school, where Shu had been further south and consisted of more mountain and desert terrains.

 

Things around here must move fast because as soon as my hair had been pinned up in a way I had never seen before, I was being pulled away again. I almost wanted to snap at them, ‘Stop dragging me everywhere, I feel like my arms going to fall off.’ The memory of the woman’s palm causes me to bite my tongue. Besides, I doubt many of them can even speak Ravkan, similarly to how well I can speak Shu—which is none.

 

I’m led through a courtyard of sorts, however, with my new outfit and hairstyle, I’m no longer stared at like a freak of nature. Most even glance past me, which causes me to appreciate my Shu heritage in public for once. I notice several statues and structures woven throughout the courtyard, at least one person around each one. I couldn’t help but feel calmer there. I’m dragged away sooner than I would’ve liked.

 

Finally, we approach these large red-painted doors with two people sanctioned at the front of them. With a gesture from the woman, they open the doors. The servants, having stayed in my room or scattered to a different post, leaves just me and the woman to walk in alone, my wrist still firm in her grip. I almost gasp as soon as I take in the surroundings.

 

Colors are floating all around me in a beautiful display of light, causing me to glance up. The stained-glass ceiling. I almost don’t notice the hand-crafted banners and portraits and scrolls and polished stone flooring and—my eyes drift to the table at the center. Dozens of faces have their eyes on me. Some expressions are neutral, some seem deviously pleased, some scowl. I shrank under their gaze.

 

The woman roughly pulls me back upright snipping in my ear, “Don’t slouch.” I swallow and nod slightly praying to the saints that she doesn’t hurt me again. When she switches her attention to the people sitting at the table, she says something loudly in Shu. Her voice bounces off the walls, powerful and certain. ‘I wish I had that confidence and respect.’ She commands the room with the flick of her tongue.

 

One of the people at the table responds to her, mid-sentence gesturing to me. I flush under their gaze, trying my best to stand upright when they look at me as if they’ll tear me down at any moment. The woman replies with ease, and I almost feel like I can keep up with the conversation despite not being able to understand them. ‘What do they want with me? I don’t know.’

 

They speak to each other back and forth for a while, taking scare glances and gestures towards me every once in a while. I can do nothing but stand there, making sure not to slouch. I hope she doesn’t notice me fidgeting with the draped cloth of my shirt.

 

“Girl.” The woman's voice snaps my focus to her. She gestures from me to the council before adding, “State your name.” I freeze for a moment, not a sound goes through the hall as their gazes bun through me. I swallow the lump in my throat, letting out a shaky breath.

 

“A-alina Starkov,” I say, trying to project my voice as loud as I could, but it still came out like a whimper. I expect the woman to reprimand me for the lack of celerity in my voice, however, she just continues, speaking to them once again in Shu. A couple of minutes later, she turns back towards me.

 

“State the events that happened before you were taken here.” She tells me and I almost freeze. ‘I—what exactly happened?’  I remember opening up a letter and reading—well, reading about my parents' deaths. What happened after was a blur. All that I remember what my grief and blinding light. ‘What was that light?’

 

“I—I don’t know, my mind is still fuzzy,” I replied after a short pause, biting my lip as a nervous tick. I nearly jumped out of my skin as a hand slammed on the table in front of me. A man stood up, his gaze hot on me.

 

“You Lie.” His accent was thick, but the words did not escape me as a tremor rushed through my body and my face pales. I shake my head reverently, hoping that he would believe me. His jaw tightened as he took a step towards me, however, the woman help up her hand to stop him and gestured firmly for him to sit. He reluctantly did so.

 

When the woman spoke again, her voice was louder, swifter. The people around her seemed to listen to her entirely, even the man who spoke out. She paces slowly around me as she spoke, and their conversation continues for over thirty minutes. Never had I ever wanted to speak Shu more than then. I hardly realized when the meeting had been adjourned, only the sight of the people at the table standing up alerted me to its end.

 

The woman didn’t wait a second before grabbing my wrist again. I was sure that there’d be bruising in the shape of her long skeletal fingers the next morning. I could hear the people’s voices behind me as we left the room. As soon as we made it to the hall, the guards shut the doors, effectively cutting off their voices. I was alone with her again.

 

“I know I’m not supposed to speak, but can you please tell me what’s going on?” I ask, hesitantly. I could see her glare, not even a second after I asked, shutting me up entirely. She didn’t say a word as she took me back through the courtyard and down the halls before finally ending at a place I vaguely recognized. The old chambers of which I had been changed.

 

She paused at the door before speaking, “The servants will take care of you now; I advise you not to speak for now. You’ll be informed of your—situation tomorrow. For now, follow instructions and don’t cause too many headaches.” I didn’t even have time to respond before she was gone, the only thing I saw was the sway of her clothing and the back of her head, her black hair cut short.

 

I did as I was told, simply because I had nothing else that I could do. I knew that it was likely impossible that I’d be able to escape on my own but even worse that I didn’t even know where I’d escape to. I had no more life. No more purpose. Not without them.

 

The servants changed me into an article of soft robe-like clothing, undoing my hair as well. They didn’t linger long after they finished, leaving me alone in my sparse room, too large for any person let alone a child. Sitting on the wooden ‘bed’, I tugged my knees up to my chest, burrowing my head into them. I lost count of the hours I had cried.

 

 

I awoke with a violent tug of my blanket off my small form. I barely had enough time to rub my puffy, sleepless eyes before I was being dragged again. Servants swarmed me stripping me to my skin before pushing me into a room that I could only assume was their version of a bathroom. As they pushed me in, water sloshed everywhere, although they didn’t seem to mind, quickly scrubbing and making work of getting the dirt off of my body. I was too tired to even have it in me to feel shy. ‘Nothing they hadn’t seen before, I suppose.’

 

Not even an hour later I was back into Shu clothing with my hair pinned, the servants waiting patiently beside me. Not a sound could be heard throughout the room as they waited, and I wasn’t going to be the one to break the atmosphere. Luckily, the door once again burst open to a face I’ve grown familiar with. The servants scatter at a mere phrase from her tongue, however, instead of gripping my wrist, she beckons for me to follow. I don’t have to be told twice.

 

Following right on her heel, she leads me a different way than the room I had been in before. I’m almost disappointed knowing that I’ll miss out on the courtyard and the stained-glass ceiling, however, I won’t miss the stares that followed. I can only hope that I won’t be led to a similar circumstance. My gut says I will. I’ve learned not to trust my gut so often.

 

There are fewer people in this area of the town we’re in. The buildings look older, more worn yet with history. I can’t decide which I like better. Perhaps both. There aren’t any guards at the doors we approach. A small wooden door. Chipped and unassuming. Mother always told me it’s what’s most unassuming that will surprise you the most.

 

I didn’t know what to expect as she opened the door. Perhaps another entourage of judgmental faces, maybe even an executioner—the reality was surprising. There doesn’t seem to be a lack of empty rooms here because that was all there was. Nothing—nothing except for an old woman standing in the center, waiting patiently.

 

At the vaguely intrusive sound of the door shutting behind us, the old woman seemed to reanimate, her eyes opening to gaze blankly at us. Her silvery-grey hair tied in an up doo different than how I’ve seen the majority of the other Shu woman, and her robes seemed a fair bit more distinguished than even the officials I had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting yesterday.

 

It didn’t surprise me when the woman began to converse in Shu as any other conversation has been. I had never wanted so badly to be able to speak Shu; I even felt a pang of guilt for not being remotely connected to the culture that composed half of my blood. They didn’t continue for very much longer, yet I could tell the woman acted differently around the older lady than with the others. Respect is the only word that comes to mind.

 

It wasn’t long before the woman turned to me, her once neutral expression turned hard upon meeting my gaze as she spat, “Behave. There will be no second chances.” That was the only and last thing she said to me before turning her back to me and exciting the doors. Just like that, I was alone in a room with a woman whom I had no idea what to expect.

 

“Girl.” The older woman’s voice came out pointed, easily slicing through my skin and skull. I almost didn’t dare to turn and face her, however, the fear of what she might do to me was more than enough to get me to push the fear down and turn to her.

 

I was surprised to see her so close. For an old woman, she sure moves fast. I averted my gaze to the floor to avoid her piercing stare, yet her bony fingers grabbed at my face, pulling me back to her gaze. I had to swallow back the lump in my throat.

 

Finally, after what seemed like forever gazing into her deadly stare she said, “Do you have the faintest idea of why you’re here?” She questioned, her eyes betraying nothing. I shook my head, ‘no’ hoping that she can see the truth in my eyes. Then a sharp pain began to pulse up my arm, causing me to gasp, pulling away for her. Her grip on my arm kept me put.

 

“A, ‘Yes ma’am, or No ma’am’ will suffice.” She tells me as I try to blink away the tears. I hadn’t seen what she hit me with, although it certainly seemed far harder than any hand. I couldn’t help to gaze at my arm watching as the red began to form and puff.

 

“No, m-ma’am,” I say, my voice soft as I continue to gaze at my arm. Not even a second later I’m struck again, this time on the hand opposite to the previously struck arm. I had been able to see precisely what had hit me. Well… I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but it appeared to be made of metal, well—and it hurt. I couldn’t suppress the shriek that passed through my throat at the impact.

 

Once again she dragged my face up to meet hers saying, “Do you have no respect, brat? You will look at me when speaking to me. Now try again and with less stuttering this time.” I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from sobbing as I felt my eyes begin to fill with tears. She only looked bored at my glossed-over eyes. Not even the guards from my old hometown were this heartless.

 

I swallow back another sob before replying, “No, ma’am.” I lift my chin for extra measure. Her gaze lingers on me before she seems satisfied, releasing me from her firm grip.

 

“Pitiful, but I suppose you’ll have time to do better.” She spits, circling me. All that I can do is stand and follow her with my gaze. “Now, tell me what you know of Grisha.” She tells me, the command taking me aback. Grisha? Why would she want to know what a kid is aware of Grisha? I suppose I don’t have much of a choice but to not question her commands.

 

“Grisha? Well—I know they’re basically… enhanced persons. People who can manipulate the elements around them. The only other thing I know about them is that they serve our—the Ravkan second army.” She mulls over my words, her gaze dissecting me apart as I speak causing me to sweat.

 

“And..?” She pries, and a furrow my brows in confusion. Does she believe me to be lying? What else could I possibly know? Is that why I’m here? Do they believe me to have some information on Grisha?

 

“I swear that’s all I know about them, ma’am.” I almost beg but think better of it knowing that she’d likely be displeased by such an action. She scoffs as soon as I finish speaking, once again eliminating the space between us. I flinch from her from impulse which causes her gaze to tint with something dangerous.

 

“You expect me to believe that? A ten-year-old girl unaware of what she is?” She questions, her cruel smile like a serpent. I do my best to show my honest confusion. What I am? What is that supposed to mean? I’m just a half Shu Ravkan girl. Nothing special.

 

“I’m sorry, I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. I think there’s been some sort of misund—” 

 

“There is no misunderstanding.” She cuts in, her words laced with venom that makes me flinch. I close my eyes for seconds? Minutes? I’m not certain, all that I know is that the feeling of stinging against the back of my head jolts me from my stoop.

 

I stumble in her direction, landing on the ground on top of the silk train of her dress. I gaze up, not able to hide my tears, quivering tremors darting through my entire being. Never has an old woman ever looked so monstrous.

 

“You don’t know what I’m referring to—huh?” She questions, amusement seeping from her expression. I flush in embarrassment, despite not knowing what she’s referring to. I may be young but I’m fully aware of knowing when I’m being mocked. “You,” She continues, “Are the sun summoner.”

 

I freeze mulling over what she’s just said. I’m—I’m what?! No. This is ridiculous. I would know if I had anything of the sort within me. I would laugh if it weren’t for the pain scorching through my entire body. How can they possibly believe that—that I’m the sun summoner?!

 

“You don’t know.” She seems genuinely surprised for the first time; her gaze turned more curious than sharp. “This certainly makes this more interesting.” She adds, a spark within her gaze. She asses me again, her gaze less strict as she does so before she continues, “I’ll let you mull things over. We’ll start training tomorrow.” Her tone is dismissal, and she quickly pulls me up onto my feet before opening the doors.

 

She hands me off to one of the guards at the door, who holds a firm grip on my shoulder as I pushed back through the halls. This time, I have no thought to assess my surroundings, stuck in my head.

 

Sun summoner. Sun Summoner. They believe me to be the sun summoner. Is it—could it possibly be true? They seem to think so, so I suppose it does’ t matter what I believe. When they find out I’m nothing special they’ll likely kill me or toss me aside.

 

As the guard puts me in my room and maids surround me again, all I can think is how this might be my last day alive. I finch as the maids mindlessly brush past and or press on bruises and marks from the old woman, however, they also apply ointment.

 

I don’t pay any thought as they rinse me of my exterior blemishes and sweat. I don’t glance at any of them as they wrap me in a soft sleep gown. I do however miss their company as I’m once again left alone in my much too large room.

 

It’s my last night alive and I’m all alone.

 

 

The sun hasn’t even winked into the sky when the servants begin to flood my room again. It’s not like it bothered me considering that I hadn’t gotten an ounce of sleep. After all, I was mulling over everything that’s happened in my life and what I could’ve done differently. I suppose there’s no use in wondering past choices. It won’t change my current fate.

 

The routine of the day has all already become familiar as they strip and reclothe, scrub and apply, tug and pull. I almost want them to knock against the bruises, scrapes, and sores. At least they remind me that I’m still alive.

 

I don’t say a word as I’m led back to the door of the old woman, somehow looking far more mortifying as I freeze in front of it. ‘What has she in store for me today?’ I didn’t wish to find out, but with the forceful ushering of the guards, I had no choice but to enter the dreaded room.

 

She stood as she had before when I first saw her. Patiently waiting expectantly.  I no longer wondered what their uttered phrases in Shu were, or the clothing draped amongst them, or the intention behind their words. I only existed. These are to be my last moments, so I don’t want to dwell on anyone else.

 

I do, however, flinch when the door shuts, my gaze jutting to the old woman. Her gaze goes right through me, as she sizes me up, pulling me apart with her gaze alone.

 

She sighs before uttering, “We have a lot of work to do.” I almost don’t process what she says. I was preparing myself for a million things, but this I wasn’t sure what she was insinuating. I just stand there as she looks at me, expectantly for a few painfully long moments.

 

“I’m confused, ma’am,” I reply, shying away from her gaze. I’ve always been the type of person who preferred lurking in the shadows anyways—even more so when she glances at me like I’m the least interesting thing in the world.

 

“Always with the confusion and denial.” She mutters hobbling over to me with startling swiftness. “Just do girl—as I say.” My wrist is now within her firm grasp and a almost flinch at the feeling of her dripping around my preexisting bruises, although I can only assume that she would punish me for flinching too, so I push it back. “Now.” She begins, creating some distance between us, “Let’s get started.”

 

I shrink from the implication of those words; the only thought running through my head being, ‘I fear this is only the beginning.’

 

Chapter Text

Born to Destroy You

 

Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to the characters, setting, and various topics mentioned throughout. All the rights belong to Leigh Bardugo. Also, I hold the most reference to the books, however, I have taken some changes the show has made. I do not describe these characters like the actors, nor do I try to.

 

 

Chapter 2: The Woman in White

 

[Eight Years Later]

 

“Again.”

 

I pull the current rising through me like a wave and push the energy outwards, flowing past my skin and into the world. It’s during these moments that I can truly be at peace with myself. My power guides me, comforts me, healing me from the inside out.

 

“Remember,” Ancestor Min-Yang instructs, “No light, only heat.” It takes all of my control to hold the light within me. I take a deep breath through my nose, briefly shutting my eyes before bringing my hands together and expanding them outwards like a canary, pleasant warmth radiating throughout the general vicinity. Even mistress seems a bit taken aback by the muscle-numbing energy radiating throughout.

 

‘It only takes a spark.’ She had warned. As I grew older I became more aware of the subtext beneath her words, yet the practicality behind them as well has proved invaluable. I shift my gaze over to her, awaiting her command. As she lifts her hand in a vague gesture of dismissal after the initial surprise had evaporated I immediately drop my arms and with it, the heat.

 

“Adequate.” Her words strike more as an insult than anything else, but I take pride in her non-negative descriptor. I hear the soft patter of her footsteps as she circles me, encompassing me in her glare. I hold my head up high. “I suppose we’ve accomplished what we set out to do today, so you can be off. Remember testing starts at 17:00, so don’t be late.” She adds and I suppress cold nausea that runs through me.

 

Truth be told, I never liked testing. A necessary evil, some would tell me. Others have the balls, to be honest to me saying that they didn’t give two damns about my well-being. Nonetheless, it didn’t change my obligations. I serve the Shu, my blood, my people.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” I reply confidently, much more so than what was currently running through my mind. She doesn’t even glance at me, however, I do notice the slight peek the very moment I exit and shut the door. As soon as the door is shut, I let out a sliver of a smile. Perhaps she is warming up to me after all.

 

Half the people I walk past don’t even acknowledge my existence, whilst the other half scowl at my presence. ‘The life to be living.’ I think as I make my way through the courtyard. My silk skirt breezes along the floor as I walk, only a couple of paces away from my destination.

 

The training fields.

 

Hundreds of people fighting with various weapons, methods, skill levels, ages, some even by themselves against anything they can find. Most take notice of my presence rather quickly. ‘The air stinks with mutt as soon as you walk by.’ I snap the memory away as soon as it comes. I can’t let Wàn Yú get to me. ‘To respond to such idiocrasies would be a waste of anyone’s breath monster or not.’

 

As I make it further down the field, tuning out what everyone has to say about me, I guide myself to the archery grounds, targets mounted and circulating for seemingly fields down. ‘Eyes straight, chin up, don’t let them get to you.’

 

Eventually, I find what I was looking for. A curtain of long, pen-straight, black hair, a soft, rounded dough figure, with a glowing olive hue to her skin. It’s safe to say that anyone would feel ugly next to her, including Wàn Yú. When she took notice of me, her bright, red-stained lips from reoccurring appliances, curve upwards showing her radiant white teeth. It’s then that I notice the peach dragon flower currently clipped in her hair. Must be from one of her admirers since those aren’t exactly easy to find or harvest.

 

“Lí Lí!” She calls out, a nickname from my Ravkan name, ‘Alina’, better suited to the Shu dialect. It’s hard to remember the last person who called me by my real name. I’m even surprised I still remember it. I suppose it’s something that’ll never leave you. I’m cut off from my train of thought when I feel a warm embrace wrapping around my arms.

 

I was always taken aback by her intense nature of physical interaction. Whilst most of the people here would rarely ever hug each other, even close family, Wong Min would never shy away from the embraces, cheek kisses, she even was very open about sexuality and love.

 

“How was training with Ancestor Min-Yang?” She questions, I recognize it as simply being polite. Everyone knows what goes down with whoever is under the mentorship of the Red Warrior—or was the Red Warrior. She may have physically deteriorated as the years went by; however her mind has only seemed to grow sharper, almost as sharp of her tongue and touch.

 

“You know…” I trail off, not bothering to finish the sentence. There’s no point in elaborating on something quite obvious. Ancestor Min-Yang isn’t the most pleasant instructor, but she also isn’t the worst either. Her methods, though cruel, are very effective and have led me to master my summoning over these past few years.

 

“I suppose it is silly of me to ask you that same question every day.” She mumbles, a pink hue bubbling across her pleasantly padded cheeks signifying her embarrassment. I can feel the light in her—the life in her as she speaks. Each word reverberates in its honesty. Truth be told, I’ve grown quite well at sharpening my less obvious skillsets that come with my powers as well. I think back to the labs.

 

 

“Along with the quite visible signals of her light we’ve also found other traces of abilities within her power, much similar to how we’ve been studying the sun and then some.” One of the scientists rambles as they stumble with the scrolls within their grasps. “Her abilities with the right concentration can alter matter. A slow poisoning if you will. On a molecular level. It’s quite astounding really.”

 

“So it’s like Merzost?” One of the lead scribes questioned, rapidly scribbling with their ink pen on the parchment. I always enjoyed the smell of it, the earthy yet familiar sensation it fluttered throughout me.

 

“No. It doesn’t take from anything, it—restructures it, rearranging the composition of whatever biological materials it’s best focused on. I hypothesize that in large quantities, either at once over overtime, some rather damaging effects could occur from this exposure.”

 

“So—our government could have some key use of her abilities within the artillery department, perhaps even using her as a vessel to wipe out our enemies.” The scribe sounds enthralled with the information, while I shrink back at the thought. The last thing I want to do is hurt, innocents. Men, women, and children are reduced to whatever effects this ability within my blood contains.

 

“Do you always think of violence, there are other practical, and lifesaving uses for it as well, and besides, we intend to keep the empress—unaware of our little lab rat for now. You know what they do to the Grisha they get their hands on, much less one of her magnitudes. There are still so many contributions she could make towards the bettering of society!”

 

“How can our society get better while we’re at war with the other nations. We need to be the sole power to expand your idealist views out into the world—though I suppose I’ll let you keep your rat for now. We’ll talk soon.” The scribe exits on that note, leaving me and the scientist to wallow in our self-agony, both for entirely different reasons.

 

 

“You’re getting lost in thought again,” Min says, snapping me out of my head. She laughs as I regain awareness of the environment around me. “It’s okay, I get it.” She adds, and I can’t help the sliver of resentment that sides up to my body and into my throughout. ‘How could you understand, you’re a rich girl, loved by all who’s likely never been hit in her life.’ I feel immensely guilty after the thought occurs, however. How could I think that way about the one person who seemed to give a damn about me? Maybe I was a monster.

 

“Apologies, I didn’t mean to. I just—” I trail off not knowing how to continue. “Have a lot on my mind.” I finish as soon as the right words come to mind. I’m still feeling pretty drained from training, and I still have labs after this.

 

“Aww, I’m sorry. Do you want to get tea now then, before you get sent off to the blue room?” She asks. The blue room is what most people not involved call the labs because it’s made from blue shingles and the workers inside only wear blue.

 

“I’d like that,” I add finally, which causes her to squeak with delight and immediately loop her arm into my, dragging me along with her, in the direction of the central marketplace. I can tell she isn’t as used to the comments as I am as we make our way through the hordes of people. She would occasionally snap back at some of the particularly cruel comments I receive, but my insistence of her trying not to respond does seem to be helping.

 

Nonetheless, it takes surprisingly less time than would be anticipated with Min’s determined which paces with her much larger legs than my short twigs, to exit the fields and towards the marketplace. The first thing I sense is the smell of fish and herbs, then the heat signatures radiating from the persons within the market, and lastly the market itself.

 

I try my best to remain invisible to the people around me, but even in the bustling environment of the marketplace, I still stand out. My pale skin and Ravkan features shine through making me hard to miss. Not to mention my other-prominant featuresThe only thing that I appreciate about myself is my height, even in Shu society I’m shorter than average and can sometimes be overlooked by the particularly tall Shu persons walking by. Sometimes I wonder though if my life would be easier if I were beautiful in the eyes of Shu society. ‘Try not to occupy yourself with such pointless ruminations, girl. They’ll do you no good.’

 

Despite the less-than-ideal journey, we eventually do make it to the tea shop along with one of the dark alleys where I immensely feel safer. In the dark people don’t always recognize who I am, In the dark is where the monsters can roam free.

 

Min orders us two cups of ginger and honey tea with some miso treats, mostly for her since eating too many of them makes me sick. I do appreciate the gesture though; any act of companionship and kindness is more than enough for me, and I am in no position to be picky whatsoever.

 

It’s hard to keep up conversations with Wong Min. With her fickle nature when it comes to conversing, I do my best to keep up with her, although with even the slightest irregularity snapping my attention, it’s hard to do anything that requires any mental effort. I enjoy the tea and company though, thriving on these moments of peace in a life where uncertainty follows me like a shadow.

 

But like all good things, they come and go too quickly. Eventually, the cups drain of tea, and the sun moves further along. Min and I both know that it´s time for me to go, yet neither of us has the courage to part ways. This was the only solace in my days, and she has told me repeatedly that I´m the only one who´s entirely honest with her. I also helped teach her Ravkan when we first met.

 

¨I think it´s time for me to go. ¨ I say eventually, barely louder than a whisper. She nods in agreement moving to stand up. I follow in suit, straightening my dress as I do so. I don´t like to see her so dejected, however, it´s a necessary evil for the development in the knowledge of my ability. ´Progress takes sacrifice.´

 

¨I´ll be seeing you tomorrow, right?” Is her response. I’m not sure why she bothers with this question. She asks me this every day and my response is always the same.

 

“If I can help it.”

 

 

17:00 comes too soon, I always pause for a moment before entering the more modern doors, quite dissimilar from Ancestor Min-Yang’s red-painted door. ‘One step at a time. To rush is to fail.’ I enter and my arm begins to itch. The sound from the bustling streets immediately cease as soon as the bulky door shut behind me, the walls illuminated with a new invention that improved the candle made from them studying inferni.

 

The lab scientist, Sei Wong, has been studying me since the first week I’ve arrived. Extracting blood, putting me under endurance tests with my abilities, DNA samples, testing if I was fireproof and the full extent of my abilities. I don’t enjoy it, yet they’re quick to remind me that there are worse places to be.

 

‘Ravka sends their Grisha to die all for the selfishness and stupidity of their tsar. Kerch works them as slaves. Fjerda straight out hunts them, so drawing blood is the least of your worries.’

 

I expect to only see Sei when I walk into the room where I’ve gone since day one of testing, however within the room is the woman who originally oversaw me when I first came here. My cheek still stings when I see her, and she appears to be discussing with Sei. Upon noticing me, she glares at Sei before returning to her indifferent expression.

 

“Alina Starkov.” It’s the first time I’ve heard my name in years and I immediately tense feeling an urge to rip it from her throat and mind. “Pack your things you’ll be leaving at dawn.” She tells me and all I can do is stand frozen not fully comprehending her words.

 

“But there’s still so much to learn—” Sei begins only to be cut off again.

 

“Quiet, rat! She’s developed enough, now it’s time to have her do what we sought her out to do from the beginning.” I stand silent amongst their arguing, the dread beginning to clog my throat. I couldn’t show my fear though, so I even out my breathing to gain some composure.

 

“What must I do?” I ask, effectively breaking them from their bickering. Sei storms out of the room before the woman can respond, leaving us alone.

 

“I take it that means you accept this assignment?” She questions, her eyes alight with some strange. I nod stiffly, doing my best to remain the strong, composed soldier.

 

“You,” She begins, walking closer to me. I can hear my heartbeat as she stops right in front of me before continuing, “Are going to go back to Ravka.” I stare at her for a moment uncomprehensive. I haven’t even left the facility much less, Shu Han, how can they confine me only to set me loose?

 

“What?” I ask hesitantly. She doesn’t bother to hide her annoyance as she moves across the room, glancing at various lab results and equipment.

 

“Did you not hear me?” She spits, not bothering to glance in my direction.

 

“I meant Why? What does taking me to Ravka accomplish?” I question. She responds with a cold laugh, her eyes dissecting me.

 

“You’re in the long game now.” That is all she says before exiting the room, leaving me cold and alone. I haven’t been to Ravka, not since—even the thought of them hurts years later. I suppose that makes me weak. ‘Time heals all wounds, so stop sulking and let them pass.’ I suppose it’s time. Time to face what I’ve been running from. Time to go back. Time to see them again—but not really.

 

 

After the maids had gone from my room, I sit alone on my bed, my fingertips tracing the veins of my arms, feeling the pulse. I stay there, repeating the action until I fall onto my back onto the wooden bed. I don’t stop the tears that form in my eyes as I remember the stories my mother would tell me when I was younger. I lift my hands and glowing figures of light begin to dance across my vision.

 

I let the figures of the stories lull me to sleep, shutting my eyes just before a glowing white stag leaps across my blurred vision. I don’t dream.

 

 

It’s weird being in Ravkan clothes after so long. It feels so much heavier, but I also did feel it was better for fighting in than the flowy silks. I stand at the gate separating me from the world I haven’t experienced in so long. I stand there in anticipation as the stone and wood begin to lift and the sun comes shining on my face. I fight the urge to smile or laugh under its heat. Instead, I focus on the mission, despite my lack of information provided to me courtesy of General Hsu.

 

I notice a carriage being set up a couple of meters away and pace over. A few workers loaded and organized everything, but no one I could recognize. I skim my hand along the delicate curves of the carriage, wishing I had an inkbrush to paint the beautiful structure. As I make my way around the carriage someone stops me dead in my tracks who I can only assume is the person in charge of organizing the carriage.

 

“This way, the rest of your party are already seated inside.” He says before leading me to the ornately painted doors and opening them. Stepping inside I notice General Hsu and another person whom I don’t recognize. They left the bench opposite to them completely open for me as I take a hesitant seat. General Hsu doesn’t look my way, however, the woman next to her is staring daggering into me. I almost flinch under her gaze. Almost.

 

I force myself to ignore her and stare out the window at the scenery around me. I’ve never seen the native wild flora of Shu Han and once again I find my hand itching to pain and memorize everything my eyes can consume. The sound of the carriage door opening snaps me from my thoughts as the organizer peeks his head inside.

 

“We’ll be off in three minutes, is there anything else you need?” He asks. I glance out of the corner of my eye to see the woman still staring at me.

 

“No, that’ll be all, thank you.” The woman starring at me states, never breaking her stare. Once the door shuts she adds, “My assistant, he is rather handy.” I pause for a moment making sure she’s talking to me, before turning to meet her gaze.

 

“He seems dependable, although I haven’t made your acquaintance.” I’ve never been a fan of idle talk, but with her being here I can only assume she is a high-ranking officer of some kind.

 

“Roa.” She says and for some reason, that name sounds deathly familiar before she adds, “Empress Roa.” I feel my heart stop for a moment, as the blood drains from my face.

 

“Your highness, I would bow but it seems we’re currently preoccupied,” I reply to which she snickers, her smile almost as sharp as her stare.

 

“Yes, I think she’ll be just fine, right Yuki?” She asks and I can see General Hsu’s face redden. Wait, is that her name?

 

“I thought we agreed not to acknowledge each other unless at court.” She grumbles, still avoiding to look in our direction. I can feel the pleasure the empress gets in prying her, but why?

 

“Oh Kiki, that’s no way to speak to your sister.” Ah, so this is why. The general moves then, glaring at the empress.

 

“You overstep. Besides, we need to stay on topic. Starkov,” I alert to attention at her address before she adds, “We’re headed to Ravka to a dinner meeting we’ll be negotiating terms of—alliance.” She almost spits the last word as if it disgusted her.

 

“Forgive me if I ask too much, but why am I going as well?” The empress smiles, although I can see the hatred and even worse fascination in her eyes.

 

You are our bargaining chip.” I stop then, feeling the breath catch in my throat.

 

“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask before I can think better of it. I quickly open my mouth again to apologize before the empress gestured me to stop.

 

“Ravka likes their Grisha, we like quicker and easier trade routes to the rest of the world. Let’s just say it’s the best of both worlds. My hands tighten in the cloth of my jacket.

 

“What was the point then? Of training me.”

 

“One, it makes a good show. Two, you won’t only be a bargaining chip, you’ll be a tool. You are loyal to your country, yes?” She questions and I nod firmly. Of course. The country that didn’t segregate me on my face. “You will also serve as a spy to gather information and—other things.” She adds the last part coldly.

 

“When they take me, what will happen, where will I go?”

 

“My, my you do ask a lot of questions. All that I know is that you’ll likely be taken to the little palace. That’s all.” I shut my mouth then, mulling on her words. What makes them think that I’d be enough? ‘It’s not enough, girl.’

 

I spent the next few hours glancing out the window as the world flew by, only this time I wasn’t marveling at the life and splendor of it, I was settling the fear of being thrown into a foreign land. I was dealing with the anger of them being willing to throw out a girl they practically raised. I suppose even a part of me is curious to see what Ravka is like now, and most of all to see another Grisha.

 

I expected more talking, but no one initiates anything, although the empress does seem intent on staring at me every once in a while for longer than I’m comfortable with. I decide that maybe trying to fall asleep might help keep my mind off everything, so I move to lay down on the bench.

 

I hear the muffled voices of the coachmen talking about taking the route around the mountains before sleep overtakes me.

 

 

‘Come to me.’

 

I jolt up startled, only to find myself in a forest covered in frost and snow. What is this place? Why am I here? What happened to the carriage. The chill as a whisp of cold air whips past me as I begin to move. The ground is frozen solid, likely in permafrost underneath the hoard of snow.

 

‘Hello?’ I call out. Nothing answers I continue my way throughout the woods hesitantly, peeking around every corner to make sure I’m not walking into any danger.

‘Come to me.’ I hear it again and my heart lurches into my throat as I whip around. Only the darkness greets me. I summon light as make way to the darkened part of the forest where the evergreens grow. I feel something watching me, but nothing is there.

 

I hear crunching in the snow behind me and turn to see a stag as white as the snow beneath it. I stand in awe. It’s just like the ones my mom would tell me about. I reach up to stroke the stags face, but as I touch it, the scene changes. The stag is shot dead, blood seeping into the snow, its antlers placed in my blood-stained hands. Dropping it, my breath catches in my throat as I shuffle away.

 

I bump into a solid form. I turn behind me, and a man made of darkness grabs a hold of me.

 

My vision goes black.

 

I scream.

 

 

I jolt up from the carriage bench gasping and turn to see two familiar faces that I’ve never been so glad to see. Actually, that I’ve never been glad to see.

 

“Good, you woke just in time.” General Hsu says causing me to look out the window and—wow. I forget to breathe. A beautiful building of carved stone and a structure so Ravkan, yet classic at the same time.

 

“Where are we?” I ask, still in awe of the building. I hear a snicker that can’t be anyone but the empress.

 

“We, my tool, are at the Little Palace.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: The Invisible Girl

 

 Blood spilled from my mouth as I received another blow directly to my jaw. My whole body stung and cringed at every movement. I glance up at General Hsu who smiles at me wickedly as if she’s always wanted to do this.

 

“Isn’t this enough?” I ask her, my voice coming out scratchy and brittle. Ignoring me she moves to the table next to her with all of her instruments of torture. I’ve already been slashed, beaten, poked, how much more can she do? Seeing her move to the fireplace and place a metal rod in there told me, she can do so much worse.

 

My muffled screams bore out into the room as she singed my flesh making me see white. I just have to endure this for a little longer. The worst part was the empress sitting across from us watching. Wicked glee shone in her eyes. I endure.

 

 

When she finally finishes her work, I can hardly stand, breathe, live. She gestured for two of the Shu guards to bind my hands behind my back and place a cloth in my mouth. When they’re finished I can hear the timbre of her footsteps approaching me.

 

“Good job, soldier. You know your job, now let’s get started. Remember, be honest, they can feel if you’re lying.” I try to nod, but all of my muscles are tense and burning, so I opt to quietly murmur a sound of agreement.

 

I’m being moved barely after I get the response out of my mouth, dragged by the two soldiers who bound me. I briefly feel the outside air before they’re wrapping a cloak around me, likely to hide my battered state before moving me into the little palace.

 

They seem to drag me forever, only faint tedious conversations before we’re taken into a louder room which I can only assume is the meeting room. The chatter stops at seeing we’ve arrived, and I can only assume their eyes wander over the bunch of us, likely lingering on me.

 

“Thank you for having us.” I hear the empress say in Ravkan which is surprisingly articulate, her voice both condescending and charismatic at the same time. I hear chairs get pulled out, assumably for the empress and the general as the guards forced me to sit a little ways behind them.

 

“I think it would be best for us to come to some sort of agreement, yes?” I hear a gruff gurgle of sound and immediately can tell that only a voice that gross can be the tsar.

 

“My thoughts exactly. You’re aware of our wants for easier trade and the conflicts don’t help with our already limited sources. Although, I’m sure you all are curious as to what we can offer you.” She says before she’s cut off by the tsar, who seems to have no respect for anyone whatsoever.

 

“What of that person behind you?” He asks and I immediately become more alert. I hear additional murmurs of agreement from the people around him.

 

“Well, this is what we have to offer Ravka in exchange for what we want.” I hear her say which causes the guards to rip off my cloak and shove me to the ground. My muffled groan isn’t fake as I take the brunt of the impact in my chest and ribs. I barely have the energy to scramble up back into a sitting position, but the guards help by violently tugging me back up to face them.

 

A table of wide eyes stars at me. The Tsar, of vision of disgust, overweight, the blood vessels in his face tells me he’s a drunkard. The people around him, however, I have no idea who they are. Although, a group to the left of the king catches my eye.

 

Grisha.

 

Two men in red, a woman in blue, and a few others watch me, yet it’s the person in the middle of them that makes my blood pressure rise. A man dressed in black, who mistress and almost every Shu warned me about. The cruel and cold, Black General. The darkling. Hatred bubbles in my stomach, however, I force my face to mask it in a blank, dead slate.

 

“What is the meaning of this?!” The king sounds more unnerved than outraged. The empress moves to stand and walks up next to me before looking back at the tsar.

 

“We found her in one of the border cities of Shu Han and Ravka. She—was summoning—” Technically not untrue. Terminov was both a border city to Shu Han and Ravka as well as a city that also bordered the fold.

 

“All of this for one Grisha. We know what you do to them, so what is she really?” The tsar asks, his voice booming. The empress places a cold harsh hand on my shoulder wish causes me to attempt to flinch back from the stinging pressure, but the guard's hold on me keeps me still. I see some of the Grisha tense at this.

 

“She’s something else. We don’t have a classification for her at all. She has the ability to become invisible.” The whole room goes silent for a moment before the tsar speaks up.

 

“Impossible, no such Grisha exists!” As soon as he speaks almost everyone in the Ravkan side of the room burst into conversing. Almost everyone. The Black General stares directly at me, his face indifferent, yet the depth of it makes my heart compress in anxiety.

 

“Do you believe I would waste your time? Everyone’s time.” At the empress’s voice, the room quiets once more, many gazing curiously at me. The empress turns to the Grisha saying, “Everything I’ve said tonight is true.” The men in red both nod, likely confirming that she is telling the truth.

 

“Even if what you said is true, that simply isn’t enough to open all of our trade routes. We need something more.” The advisor next to the tsar replies. The tsar pats him on the back muttering, ‘Exactly what I was thinking.’ I almost roll my eyes at the childishness of this man.

 

“Yes, which is why we also offer our reserves of Grisha knowledge we’ve acquired over the centuries.” My mask almost breaks at that. I wasn’t expecting her to offer anything of actual value. The Tsar seems to ruminate on everything as if he can actually think.

 

A different voice responds for him, “We need the girl first, and then the information provided before we can trust you enough to open our borders.” I turn to see that it was the Darkling that had spoken, his gaze never leaving me. “Additionally, we need to have her healed to see if what you say is indeed true.”

 

“And what leverage will we have to ensure that you don’t keep your borders closed anyway?” General Hsu says, glaring daggers at the Darkling.

 

“You can slowly integrate your research of Grisha to Ravka and if we shut you out, you withhold the information.” I’m almost impressed at this man’s ability to negotiate. He may be impassive, but he’s already a better leader than the tsar by miles. This seems to satisfy General Hsu as she settles back into her seat.

 

Thank you, Kirigan, I’ll take it from here.” The Tsar says, his tone clear. ‘Stand down. I’m the ruler, not you.’ I take more notice of the name. I haven’t heard  Kirigan from the stories and history lessons, nor from the Shu. Is that his name?

 

“Do our offers appease you, your highness?” The empress says with a brow raised in question. The Tsar grunts before standing up, clearing taking a bit of an effort.

 

“Yes, now hand us over the girl.” He demands. The empress smiles and shoves me to the floor in front of them. Two other people dressed in red with a grey embroidery immediately come to me, carefully pulling me up to my feet and taking me away.

 

The last thing I hear is the empress say, “I look forward to working with each other.” Before I’m completely out of the room and taken to an infirmary.

 

The people in red set me on one of the beds which might be the most comfortable thing I’ve laid on. An actual mattress. I sigh as one of them places her hands on my stomach and torso. Ah, healers. I feel my bones and skin mend themselves as a cool pressure fills my blood.

 

“Thank you,” I mutter weakly to the healers. The woman smiles reassuringly at me, continuing her efforts.

 

“We serve to protect all Grisha. You’re not in danger anymore.” Protect Grisha? By sending them to war? I hide my distrust and bathe in the feeling of my energy returning. Vision blurry, my eyes wander the walls and surroundings. The warmth of dark oak and stone surrounds me. I—almost forgot how beautiful Ravka was. Closing my eyes, my vision goes completely black.

 

 

I awaken to the sight of a man in red, Heartrender, I think as he pulls away.

 

“She’s awake,” He says, and I turn to the displeasure of seeing the darkling who—looks different up close. Startling so. He was in charge of the Second Army when I was a child, and he looks barely older than me. Although Grisha are known to age differently, the research provided to me said he was over one hundred years old.

 

“Are you feeling alright?” I hear him ask with a softness I wouldn’t have ever guessed he was capable of. Furrowing my brows I lift my hand, feeling no pain in my muscles or joints, testing the feel of everything in genuine awe. It’s only when I notice all of their gazes on me that I straighten myself up.

 

“Yes.” I return to my neutral expression, although push a slight panic within my gaze. Getting beaten was the easy part, now I enter the long game. There’s a short pause within the room before the Darkling moves to sit beside the bed.

 

“Do you mind telling me your name?” His tone is so much different from the meeting, so much different than everything I was expecting. I let the hesitation shine through, looking for the lie. “You’re safe now. They can’t hurt you anymore. I won’t let anything happen to you while you’re under my protection.” The way he says it almost makes me want to believe him. Maybe this is why he has an army of Grisha behind him.

 

“Alina.” I tell him after a slight moment before continuing, “Alina Starkov.” His slight glance towards the heartrender, though very subtly reveals his hesitation within me as well. The man in red’s slight nod seems to appease him before he shifts his attention back to me.

 

“Can you stand?” He asks me after a short pause. I nod, moving to sit up with no aches or pain whatsoever. “You had several broken ribs and severe burns, so do tell us if you need any more assistance.” I move to stand, but the weight of my body proves to me too much and I topple back onto the bed. I feel my face burn in embarrassment as I sit up again. “Here.” He tells me offering a gloved hand. When I take it I can feel waves of connection? Surety? I have no idea what to call it, but as soon as I feel it I pull my hand away.

 

“What are you?” I ask before I could think better of it, but the door to the infirmary opens before any response can be given. A beautiful woman with fiery red hair walks in. I forgot hair has more colors can just black and… whatever happened to my hair.

 

“Just in time, Genya.” The darkling addresses the woman before continuing, “Can you escort Ms. Starkov to her new chambers and make her presentable for the court.” He tells her as he walks to the door. He offers me one slight glance before leaving with the heartrender.

 

“My goodness, you look dreadful.” She tells me her eyes roving up and down my still dirty and tangled form. I knew I wasn’t much to look at, but she didn’t have to be so blatant about it.

 

“Apologies,” I say, folding my arms, “For not being presentable after nearly getting beaten to death.” At that, she lifts her gaze back to my face, although my words have done nothing to change her disapproving stare.

 

“Details.” She dismisses before grabbing my shoulders and ushering me out of the infirmary. She wastes no time, does she. I’m pushed through hallways too quick to take notice of my surroundings, however, sometimes along the way she collected additional maids to follow her before dragging me into a room.

 

She and the maids waste no time before stripping me of my clothing, finally something I’m familiar with. In less than a minute I’m in a bath being scrubbed from head to toe. When Genya leaves briefly to gather some soaps and concoctions the other two maids begin to gossip in Old Ravkan as if I wouldn’t be able to understand.

 

”Ironic how it’s Ravkan woman scrubbing a Shu rat’s feet.” One of them snickers.

 

“I wonder if Genya will do anything about her eyes. She’s too Shu for my taste.” The other responds and the two go back and forth before Genya returns.

 

“It’s as if you don’t bathe.” Genya remarks as she scrubs my hair, and I begin to appreciate her honest criticism. She won’t talk behind your back; she criticizes you upfront.

 

After a short while, I’m relieved when she dismisses the other maids and seats me in front of a vanity. It’s there I can see my face in all of its glory. Prominent dark circles beneath my eyes, my cheeks too shallow, skin too pale, and let’s not even mention my hair.

 

I watch as she grabs something out of some sort of case she brought with her. She pours some of the liquid into her hand before massaging it into my hair.

 

“I like your hair.” The first nice thing she’s said to me, but I’m too focused on my hair suddenly gaining more shine and thickness right underneath her hands.

 

“You’re Grisha,” I say in astonishment. She doesn’t answer, continuing her ministrations. She goes through the entire length of my hair with startling efficiency, making sure not to miss a single strand. When she’s finished she swaps the bottle for something else from her case, turning me towards her. As she moves to touch my eyes I remember what the maids said about Genya changing my eyes and pulling away hastily.

 

“Don’t change my eyes.” She looks at me with the most sympathy all day.

 

“I wasn’t planning on it. I’m just going to get rid of your eyebags.” I pause for a moment before nodding. She reaches to softly touch beneath my eyes.

 

“So you’re a healer?” I ask causing her to pause softly before continuing.

 

“I’m a Tailer, I modify what’s on the outside. Enhance if you will.” She replies, before moving away after she seems happy with the work she’s done under my eyes.

 

As she reaches for another vial I ask, “So your job is to make me pretty?” She approaches me vial and hand and begins to apply it to my cheeks and lips.

 

“My job is to make you presentable. The last thing you want in this court is to be pretty.” She tells me and I can tell immediately that she speaks from personal experience. “Sadly, even with you having the worst eye bags I’ve ever seen, your quite pretty.”

 

“You don’t have to spare me,” I tell her.

 

“One thing you’ll learn about me is that I don’t spare anything.” She says before putting the last vial away and turning me back towards the mirror. I look like I’ve gotten more than two hours of sleep and my cheeks and lips had actual color to them. Besides that I don’t look much different, in fact, the modifications she’d done made me look slightly more Shu.

 

“So, I assume I’m going to have to put on a show.” It’s more of a statement than a question, but she nods anyway, closing up the case with whatever she used to modify with.

 

“Your job is to give Ravka hope. If what she says about you is true, then you could change a lot of things in favor of Ravka.” She tells me and I hide the scoff. Yes, Ravka’s all about its symbols and figures as if true strength is more from appearances and less from substance. “Now we have to get you dressed, Kirigan was very adamant about getting you out at quick as possible.” She adds before laying out some clothes on the bed.

 

“Is Kirigan his name?” I ask before she leaves.

 

“No one knows for sure. That’s just the name given to him.” She responds her hand still on the handle, but she doesn’t move to leave just yet, “Whatever happens today, just be careful.” She says before leaving me to change. I’m left alone to try and determine what she meant.

 

 

I’m surprised to see not an elegant dress or kefta, but a first army uniform, I actually appreciate it. Wearing it makes me feel a bit closer to my parents. The uniform hardly looks different from the ones I remember them in. Just as I finished putting on the boots I hear a knock, opening the door to find two Grisha standing behind it.

 

“Follow us, ma’am.” The woman says, one moving to stand in front and the other behind me. This time I do get to look at the simple yet elegant sculpting of the walls around me. I forgot about plaster and the beautiful architecture of Ravka. While I preferred Shu Han’s use of color, I couldn’t help but prefer the crown molding and sturdy structures.

 

They lead me through the halls and to just outside the front entrance before leaving me to stand in front of an open wall, outlooking the surrounding city and I can even take notice of a large garish palace painted a greenish-gold. The attempt to make it look fancy and regal has only made it look like a child’s playpen.

 

“What do you think?” I hear a voice behind me ask. I don’t even have to look behind me to know that it’s the darkling approaching me. I just stare ahead of me and scoff outwardly.

 

“It’s uh… really something…” I reply and can sense him next to me. I can hear him let out a slight laugh next to me and I glance over at him, my eyes widening at the sound.

 

“I think it’s the ugliest building I’ve ever seen.” I can’t hold back the slight smile that screams across my face and turn away so he can’t see.

 

“What’s with the first army uniform,” I tell him after regaining my composure.

 

“If you haven’t noticed the king is an—insecure person and seeing you in first army garb will help him trust you more.” There’s a slight pause before he asks me, “Is what the empress said true? If it’s not then it’d be worse for you to continue from here.”

 

“Unfortunately it is.” That is all I respond with, glancing down at my hands. I can see him looking at me from my prereferral and I try not to sweat under his gaze. Mistress told me of all the people he’s killed, all the destruction he caused, how dangerous he is.

 

“Do you have enough energy to summon?” He asks after a moment, causing me to place my hands down and look at him. I’m almost unnerved by the expression, both cold and curious at the same time.

 

“I guess you’ll have to wait and see, general,” I tell him, flashing a bit of amusement across my features before moving to the large doors of the little palace. I turn to glance behind me at him and add, “I’m assuming this way?” Something unfamiliar to me flashes across his face before he follows behind me, opening the door, and light floods into the palace. I almost gasp at the feel of it. The energy behind it strengthens me, but remind myself that I need to hide those abilities from them, especially the darkling.

 

He leads me across the grounds and towards the garish palace, and as we walk through the gardens I remember when I first woke up and the feeling I felt when I felt him, even through his gloves.

 

“What was that when you helped me up. That feeling.” I ask in genuine curiosity. Of all the information my instructors and teachers told me about, they never mentioned anything about—whatever I felt when we touched.

 

“Usually people don’t feel it when I’m wearing gloves, but some of the more powerful Grisha can sense it sometimes.”

 

“Define, ‘it’,” I asked glancing at him skeptically. He sighs, keeping his eyes forward. I wonder if this is a sensitive subject for him. If so, then I’d love to see what makes him tick.

 

“Have you heard of amplifiers?” He asks and I remember all of the books I read in Shu Han on amplifiers and about them being made from different parts of animals. How a Grisha can only have one amplifier and any Grisha who does get an amplifier not only has an enhancement of their abilities but also sacrifice a part of themselves to the amplifier.

 

“Yes, do you have an extremely powerful amplifier on you or something?” I ask and he lets out a humorless laugh, much different than the one I heard in the little palace. Against my will, I find myself missing the sound.

 

“Not exactly.” He starts before continuing, “I’m somewhat of an amplifier myself.” At that, I stop dead in my tracks. He turns to me, his face expressionless.

 

“So your—your bones…” I trail off my face honestly expression one of horror.

 

“If someone found a way to kill me and harvest my bones, they’d have an amplifier.” For the first time, I feel a pang of sympathy at the memory behind his voice.

 

“And you speak from experience.” It’s not a question, and one he doesn’t answer as he continues walking and I struggle to catch up with my cursed short legs. We continue until we reach the door of the palace, which I remember from my lessons to be called the Grand Palace. Before he can open the door, I grab his sleeve. He turns to me in question, and I breathe in, hesitating slightly.

 

“I’m sorry,” I tell him eventually. Despite everything I can’t help but feel as if I crossed the line with my previous questions. “No one should have to live through that and—I’m sorry for stirring up old memories.” He regards me for a moment, his expression unreadable before he nods.

 

“You’re in an unfamiliar place. It’s understandable to be cautious and curious.” He responds with I give him a slight nod, trying to convey my sympathy through my eyes before he turns and finally opens the doors to the grand palace.

 

 

The darkling and I walk into the throne room side by side, remembering my old instructions from mistress, I remember to keep my head high and hide my fear. There are so many people lining the walls as we continue further towards the thrones towering high in the room. Eventually, we make it in front of the tsar and tsaritsa, who despite being on a throne can’t look regal in any regard.

 

“Moi tsar, may I present to you Alina Starkov.” The darkling says with a bow and the tsar peers and me questioningly.

 

“A Ravkan name?” He asks and I resist the urge to snap at him. How easy it would be to arc the cut in his direction and end his tyranny. I nod into a bow for good measure. “Well, Ms. Starkov. Show us what you can do.” The tsar eventually says. The darkling backs away from me to give me the spotlight, however, I notice that he stays within range, likely for support if I need my abilities amplified. Little does he know that there’s more than enough for a little show.

 

I close my eyes and the energy around me, mapping every nook and cranny of the grand palace. The further I reach with my ability the further my hands move apart. I can sense all eyes on me and even the whispers of doubt amongst the crowd. I embrace their whispers knowing that soon they’ll turn into gasps.

 

When I feel the entirety of the Grand Palace within my hold I abruptly twist my palms, bending the light around it, and open my eyes just in time to see the Grand Palace vanish entirely. The room explodes it declaration of awe and shock and they look out into the gardens and sky up above. The tsar is practically drooling as he moves to touch the wall behind him, feeling the hard plane despite not seeing it. I turn behind me to see the Darkling staring at me, a wicked gleam in his eyes. At that, I put my arms down holding his gaze for a moment before turning back to the tsar and bowing. The court erupts in applause.

 

The tsar hobbles from his elevated throne and pulls me into a gross hug and I resist the urge to cringe in his embrace. After releasing me, he claps the darkling on the back before waddling back onto his throne.

 

“You, Ms. Starkov. Are going to do wonders for Ravka.” The tsar says and I force a smile despite my feeling of resentment building. “Train her well General, I want her on the fields as soon as possible.” He adds and I suppress a shiver at the idea of actually being on the battlefield watching as people drop and die all around me.

 

“Yes, moi tsar.” The Darkling replies with a final bow, before placing a hand at the small of my back and leading me out. Right before we leave the throne room He leans in and whispers, “You were perfect.” I feel a whisper of pride shoot through me at his praise. I may not like him, but he’s still a powerful, respected general. I give him a soft smile before we exit the building heading back to the little palace.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: What We Are

 

As I sit on my lush, new bed, I place my hand on the blanket beneath me feeling the soft cloth, much different than the silks of Shu Han. Once again, I find myself preferring something else of Ravka. What would mistress say to me now if she could see me? She’d likely call me weak for being vulnerable to their temptations of comfortable beds, and empty promises.

 

I found my mind rushing in confusion everything was different from what was described to me. They told me Ravka was a cold place with even colder people who send their Grisha off to war to die. Not just their Grisha, but most of their citizens. Unless you’re the tsar of course. In Shu Han, their leaders ride into battle with their soldiers. Bravery and Loyalty above all else.

 

But—everything feels so different. Ravka may be cold, but it’s full of life, almost everyone as eccentric as Min. ‘Emotions are weakness.’ I find myself quickly shutting any thoughts of Ravka away. I have job to do. I begin writing my letter to Shu Han about the structure and hallway system of the little and grand palace as well as the details about courtly functions and what they eventually want to do with me. I leave out that I was beginning to like the Tailor or that I had a moment of weak sympathy for the darkling. I need to be stronger.

 

A knock at my door sends me flying up and I force myself to relax before saying, “Come in.” Genya walks into the door, some sort of device for measuring in hand. “Am I being fitted for something?” I add questioningly.

 

“I’m here to take measurements for your kefta.” She says, wrapping the tool around my waist I resist the urge to joke, ‘not much to measure, huh?’ Luckily I do catch myself and remember that I’m not here to make friends. This stay is temporary and being friendly to her would only be selfish on my part.

 

“Why don’t you have a kefta?” I ask her as she measures the length of her body. I notice something akin to melancholy wash over her features, but she doesn’t cease her movements.

 

“I may be Grisha, but I am also a servant of the queen. Every royal servant must wear white, and certainly, no kefta’s allowed.” She says before pausing, “And just between you and me, I have a kefta that I wear privately in my chambers, red may not be flattering, but there’s nothing else I’d rather wear.” I can help but feel for her. Stop making me like you.

 

She continues the motions for a while, even measuring the circumference of my thighs and calves as well as the typical areas of measurements. I don’t question it, knowing she’s been in this position longer than likely my other maids in Shu Han. When she's done, she looks at me before pulling out scraps of fabric.

 

“The Ravkan Grisha Analysts suspect you might be within the family of the Materialki with the ability to cloak objects rather than manipulate them.” She says before pulling out a purple kefta and adding, “This is only temporary before they decide on which class you are. Then you’ll have a Kefta that won’t fit you so loosely.” I hold the material within my hands and never before have I held anything softer or sturdier.

 

“I see why you guys would never want to take this off,” I comment, shuffling the kefta over my tunic and trousers. I test the flexibility of the material as I move with it. Sure, I may not be Materialki, but I could feel the power rush through me just from wearing the kefta.

 

“Purple’s my favorite color of kefta, although I’m not too sure it’s entirely flattering on you.” The way she says it almost makes me laugh. It sounds like a compliment, perhaps from Genya, it might be. “Wrap up quickly so I can do your hair. Breakfast ends in an hour.” She adds, pushing me down in front of the vanity once more.

 

“Haven’t you already—“ I pause searching for the word, “Tailored me recently?” I ask feeling my suspicions grow. Maybe yesterday was all a ruse and in a swipe everything, Shu about me will disappear.

 

“Relax, I’m only styling your hair.” She responds, not bothering to be gentle while she handles my hair. I curse my tender-headedness, clenching my jaw as she works, wrapping it up in a braided updo. Sleek, yet sturdy. “After Breakfast, you’ll be sent to be trained,” She says while tugging at the last strands. “But whatever you do, don’t mess with the hair.” She adds, tugging the last stand do harshly.

 

“Got it, just leave my poor scalp alone,” I say after she finished tying it off. She pauses looking at me in the mirror, lingering on my hair.

 

“Speaking of which, how did yours get to be that way?” I freeze feeling my muscles begin to tense and my throat begins to constrict. I wish I could suppress that memory, that there’s stark evidence on my every time I look at myself.

 


 

‘How much more can she take of this?’ Sei's voice is faint in comparison to my erratic heartbeat and strangled gasps. General Hsu paces around me, taking in my pain. “Maybe we should stop,” Sei adds, this does get her attention.

 

“You’re the one who wants the research, this is the best way to get it.” The general snaps, Sei doesn’t stop looking unsettled but keeps her mouth shut. The machine clicks again, and all the air is stripped from my lungs. The current flows in then out, my air and sanity going with it. I feel my light follow the current as well, fueled by my pain. It escalates to a point where there’s a burning in my lungs and I feel as if my blood is boiling beneath my skin.

 

‘It’s working.’ Sei says in astonishment, all of her sympathy gone as soon as she sees what she wants. Light begins to shine from beneath my skin, projecting inward rather than outward as a silent scream rips through my entire being. My vision goes entirely white as I feel myself burn, imploding like a supernova. Upon seeing this Sei shouts, ‘Turn it off!’ That’s the last thing I hear before my heart stops.

 

I don’t remember anything much afterward, only that they revived me with some of their other Grisha inventions. The only thing to serve as a reminder is my bone-white hair.

 


 

“I apologize if it’s a sore subject,” Genya says, and I can only assume I’ve been sitting here in silence for longer than socially acceptable. Thank you, my wandering mind. “You know I’ve seen other Grisha like you who came back from the fold. The same haunted expression. I’m sure that you could talk to someone about it.” She says which causes me to tense further.

 

Talk to someone? That’d only make me feel worse, besides, no one knows my true intentions here. With that in mind, I don’t give her a response to ease her mind, just stand up and straighten my kefta before turning towards her with a neutral expression.

 

“You said we needed to hurry to the Dining Hall for breakfast?” I ask and she nods, although I can see the pity in her gaze. I resist the urge to snap under her amber eyes. I don’t need your pity.

 

Luckily, she doesn’t say anything else as we exit the room and head down the hallways again. As we pass several people I become more self-conscious about how loose the kefta is on me and I almost want to cower my face into the material like I did before I was ten and living in Terminov. I vaguely remember the hat and clothes my mother would wear in order to hide her face whenever we were in the market.

 

I’m not that little girl anymore. Whenever I see someone glance in my direction, their gaze lingering on my face, I lift my head just a little bit higher. They can’t hurt me.

 

It takes a longer amount of time than I predicted to make it to the dining hall, but once I do, it’s unmistakable. The large oak doors and the muffled sounds of people talking and dishes clattering. I move to push the doors open, but Genya stays put.

 

“Are you not going to eat?” I ask her after a moment to which she shakes her head, ‘no’.

 

“As a servant of the queen I have to eat with the other servants.” She says after a moment, and I can see the disdain in her eyes.

 

“But you’re Grisha.”

 

“I am.” That’s all she says in response and that’s all I need to hear. I give her a small glance as I finally push the doors open and walk inside.

 

There’s a huge circular wooden table with Grisha strewn throughout. Everyone sitting with their associated class. No Shu. I walk past the Etheralki and see one of the girls bend over to whisper something in another guy’s ear. I ignore their giggles as I notice the minuscule group of people who wear purple kefta’s. I choose to sit beside one of the guys with scuffed up, curly hair who seems to be more interested in the book he’s reading than the food placed in front of him.  

 

“Hello.” I see one of the girls speak up, sitting three chairs away from me. I take notice of how young she looks immediately. She couldn’t be older than 13 with black curls in perfect spirals and the cutest dimples I’ve ever seen.

 

“Hello,” I respond unsure of what to say. Most people when I was in Shu Han would avoid me, other than Min of course. The thought of her sets a wave of guilt through me. I never did get to say goodbye to her. I push that aside and remember the manners my mother and father instilled in me from an early age. “What’s your name?”

 

“Jakayla, Kayla for short though.” She says and I take note of the meaning behind it. ‘Pure.’ Quite fitting. “How did you do it?” She asks without a second of pause. Her wide, chocolate eyes have to be the hardest tool I’ve encountered yet when it comes to spilling all my secrets. Maybe they should put her in a council meeting.

 

“Do what?” I ask, trying not to poke at the food in front of me. It’s more familiar than I was expecting. Peasant Grub. I don’t know whether I appreciate it or dread it.

 

“Make the whole Grand Palace disappear. Do you think you can teach me?” She asks, I almost melt at her hopeful expression before I push all thoughts away. What am I doing? Talking with this girl isn’t helping anyone, especially her.

 

“I don’t think I can. I’ve never been a good teacher before.” I say, trying to put as little emotion in my words as possible. Even if it hurts to see the flicker of disappointment in her gaze.

 

“I’ve never seen a Fabrikator do what you do.” She says after a moment, and I pause. Looking around to see anyone around that she might be able to talk to. With that, I notice that the ratios don’t make sense. The Etheralki and Corporalki vastly outnumber the Materialki.

 

“Why are there so few Fabrikators down here?” I ask, my eyes fleeting towards the door, hoping to see a group of people in purple kefta’s walk through them, having overslept.

 

“They’re in the shops.” The guy sitting next to me finally speaks up, his eyes lifting from the book to me for a moment before continuing his reading.

 

“Shops?” I freeze, I don’t know why the words make me feel irked, but I have a feeling that the shops aren’t necessarily a good place.

 

“Workshops, we aren’t sent to train like the other two classifications Our specialties lie in producing specialty Grisha materials rather than fighting.”

 

“I don’t see them training right now, so why aren’t the Materialki eating now as well?” I ask a wave of anger flushes through my nerves. I see the guy sigh placing down his books.

 

“We have two thirty-minute meal slips and for the remainder of the day we are working.”

 

“That’s practically enslavement,” I say, trying to calm the light and heat sitting beneath my skin.

 

“Better than what everywhere else is offering.” He says before checking something on his wrist which I can’t seem to decipher, although I assume it must tell time because he hastily gets up and scurries off with his book, without so much of a goodbye.

 

I mull on what he said, ‘Better than what everywhere else is offering.’ I understand Kerch and Fjerda, however, what’s wrong with drawing some blood. They told me my kind of testing was an anomaly and felt no sense that they were lying. ‘What do they teach them here in Ravka?’

 

I shake my head slightly, noticing Kayla looking dejected in her seat, push aside all the warnings in my head, and sit next to her. She looks surprised at this but smiles and continues eating. I talk to her as long as I can before someone comes for her, before finishing my meal, or half of it since I’m not used to eating so much. I’m the only “Materialki” left when they call for everyone to come to training. I suppose since my abilities are slightly different they figured they could use me instead of working me to death. Classy.

 

I notice the stares of some of the other Grisha as they notice me walking with them. ‘Does she know she’s not supposed to be here?’ ‘I don’t even think she knows Ravkan.’ ‘Saints, what a waste of space.’ ‘I mean—she doesn’t really take up any space.’ I grit my teeth but ignore their outspoken mockery as we make it to the fields. Everyone immediately begins to line up and I join in suit. I’m half surprised when I see a Shu man step in front of the line of Grisha—that and everyone seems to respect him.

 

“I assume you all ate well, especially considering we’ll be working more vigorous drills today.” His eyes skim down the line and stop at me, his eyes pausing at my hair before flitting down my kefta. “You must be Ms. Starkov, please step forward.” I force back the blush from nerves that threaten to burst across my face as the direct address. Nonetheless, I step forward, ending next to him.

 

“It’s an honor to have you as the first Materialki to train,” He begins which I internally scoff at. “I would like to have you spar first before we get you into the drills so that you can see how we handle things around here. Would anyone like to—” A hand immediately shoots up and I remember the girl who was whispering about me when I first walked into the Dining hall.

 

“I would be honored, sir.” She says her eyes and smile are nothing short of murderous in their intent.

 

“Ah, Ms. Nazyalensky, my star pupil. The rest of you get started on your drills.” He says and they immediately disperse, although I can see their eyes lingering on me and the beautiful, black-haired girl in front of me. “Now the only rules are no summoning, this is purely a physical fight, so let’s see what you can do.” He says and immediately she steps into stance, me not short behind.

 

“Are you afraid?” She asks, her voice condescending as if speaking down to me. I don’t respond, I simply remain in defensive positioning, my eyes laser-focused. “I suppose you don’t understand me. That’s not important I’m sure everyone will understand your whelps of pain soon enough.” She says taking the first step towards me, a clear fake out as she immediately steps back. It’s obvious she meant for me to flinch, and I notice the slight tick of her jaw when she sees that I didn’t.

 

“We don’t have all day, are you going to fight?” Botkin’s voice rings out and I take the moment of her slight distraction to press on her body’s points of balance, and flip her onto her back, each of my limbs blocking her from any movement that would allow her to get up.

 

I notice the gasps and remarks around us as the other Grisha takes notice of the fight. I watch as the girl grits her teeth, trying to move her arms. If I weren’t trained, she’d be able to, with her being stronger than me, but I know just how to distribute my weight to keep someone twice her size pinned beneath me.

 

“Excellent form.” I hear Botkin’s voice ring joyously. I can’t help but give her a slight smile before getting up. As soon as I lift up from her, she is lashing out, her arms trashing in decent form, but I can tell the anger is making her sloppier than she usually would. I easily block and dodge each attempt before capturing one of her punches and using the momentum to send her backward, locking her arms within my grasp. She desperately tries to free herself, reminding me of a caged animal, but once again finds her efforts fruitless.

 

“Dang, this Shu girl’s making Zoya look bad here.” I fight the smile at the words knowing she heard it too, but I don’t release her until Botkin speaks up. She’s so enraged that as soon as I let go, her efforts send her to the ground. She clumsily scurries up before charging at me with surprising quickness, however, this is something I’m certain I outmeasure her in as I jolt to the side. She almost trips in her attempt to stop before turning back to me I see the rage, but also something else within her gaze and I smirk once I realize what it is.

 

“Are you afraid?” I mirror her words which causes her to barrel towards me, her face far less beautiful when it’s as red as a cherry. I lift a brow at how disorganized each of her attacks is becoming, blocking each one with ease before positioning myself behind her and sending her down to eat dirt with the sweep of my legs.

 

I hear the laughter bubble up from around us, but my eyes are fixed on Botkin, whose face can only be expressed as one of pride.

 

“Amazing, you’re finished girls. Come here Ms. Starkov, I’d like to speak with you.” He says and I follow, walking up next to him. The feeling of being thrown by the air and into the nearest wall stops me short. A deafening crack which results in pain as it radiates up my body, almost making me blackout.

 

“Ms. Nazyalensky! Summoning is strictly forbidden!” I hear Botkin’s voice, I groan rolling onto my back, my vision blurred. I feel the light beneath my skin begging to come out, to cut this Squaller in two, but I cannot reveal anything yet. They believe me to be Materialki, that's what they should believe for now. I watched as foggy figures in red and blue come to circle me, gasping and whispering. 

 

My vision goes black.

 


 

‘Come to me.’

 

Once again I shoot up, the same forest as before. I feel a shiver run down the length of my spine, but not from the frozen surroundings. What is this? What is happening to me? I summon a great amount of light, lifting it into the air as if it were a second sun, illuminating the darkness around me.

 

‘Don’t you want to light up the world? Make them bow beneath your warmth. Don’t you want to be the sun?’

 

I close my hands over my ears as the voice as it echoes inside my skull, curling in on myself.

 

‘What do you want?’ My voice comes out weak as it has only ever been once when I was ten and taken.

 

‘The real question is what do you want?’

 

I freeze at the statement, looking around for anything. The stag emerges again coming towards me.

 

‘Stay back, I’ll only hurt you.’ I say, tears filling my eyes.

 

‘I was meant for you.’

 

I feel the singing in my veins at its words, even as I back further away from it. ‘What do you mean?’

 

‘Come to me.’

 

My world goes black.

 


 

"Tell me what happened."

 

The voices are muffled as I regain consciousness, my head feeling like it's swelled two times its size. It's hard for me to first discern the voices at first, but I eventually come to recognize the condescending nature behind the first voice. The Darking.

 

"Zoya Nazyalensky... the girl practically embarrassed her in the sparing ring and Ms. Nazyalensky didn't handle it well. She summoned and threw her into the wall. The healers say she broke a rib, dislocated a shoulder, and left some bad bruises up her spine." Botkin says and I fight the urge to grit my teeth. Zoya, so that Squaller has a name along with her delicate ego. 

 

"I'll handle Ms. Nazyalensky later. For now, keep her in her chambers without her evening meal until I speak with her." The Darkling responds, his voice is flat and void of any emotion. Botkin must take this as a dismissal because as soon as his response rings out, I hear the sound of footsteps heading towards the opposite side of the room before the door opens and shuts behind him. "I know you're awake Ms. Starkov." I feel my blood rush to my head for a moment before calming and cracking an eye open. 

 

"I thought I was being sneaky," I say, my voice gravely as I peer up at the Darkling standing above me. His Black kefta is firmly in place, although it seems less formal and bulky than the one he had on yesterday. The soft warm light of sunset seeps into the room softens his features, almost making him look...human

 

The darkling lets an amused expression touch his face before replying, "I admit you're better than most, but you're breathing changed when you first woke up." 

 

"I'll keep that in mind next time I'm in here wanting to eavesdrop on you," I say, sitting up slowly to adjust to the pain in my torso. At my words, his amusement immediately drops, his expression going serious. 

 

"There won't be a next time. There never should've been a second time," He moves to sit at the end of my bed as he speaks, "You were under my protection, and not even a day later you end up back here." His expression never wavers as he speaks, and I look everywhere for the lie. 

 

"I've had worse," Is all I manage to respond with and it's then that his expression turns soft, almost in familiarity. 

 

"Yes, you have," There's a pause before he adds, "I'm sure you've been through a lot before the Shu found you," It takes me a moment before I realize and a soft laugh bubbles out. 

 

"I didn't realize Genya reported everything to you," I reply and a wave of surprise flashes across his face before it returns to the cold slate. 

 

"Only with anything that could hurt you or the people around us. I'm sure you understand me being cautious." My brows lift at that as I eye him disbelievingly, "Honestly, it's not common we adopt new Grisha past their adolescence, and I promised to protect each and every one of them." By sending them to war? 

 

"I don't think the tsar shares those sentiments," I respond seeing how he'd react. As expected his expression darkens slightly upon mention of the tsar. I suppose we do what one thing in common it seems. 

 

"Most tsars don't understand Grisha, but the little palace is the one safe haven for us. As long as I live, the tsar will never tear down what I've established." He sounds so honest, so sincere and I feel a flicker of doubt at his words. The little palace does seem to not be the worst place for Grisha that I've seen. In fact, it's the only place for Grisha I've ever seen. 

 

"He doesn't seem to mind sending them to their deaths in these wars." I respond, my expression turning solemn against my own accord. I can't help feeling this is the most real I've been since I've arrived here. 

 

"It's that or be hunted by everyone, including Ravka." I hate that his words make sense, that I can understand where he's coming from. I hate that this time when I look at the darkling, I don't hate him. The Darkling sighs before standing up, "I'll send for one of the servants to deliver some supper for you until you're fully healed. You won't go to training for the next couple of days to make sure you fully recover." 

 

I nod, forcing my eyes away from his and out the window. The sky looks beautiful as the sun leaves and welcomes the dark of night. I can hear him stand still, his eyes burning into the back of my head. 

 

"Alina," He says and I turn back to him, his eyes full of an emotion I can't yet place, "If you ever need to talk to anyone, I promise you I'll listen." A traitorous part of me whispers, 'I believe you.' I only stare at him as he turns and leaves me in the silent darkening room, and I fall back onto my bed muttering under my breath,

 

'Fuck.'

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: To Play the Fool

 

(In Shu Han)

 

“We haven’t received a letter from the yángròu, yet.”

 

My assistant doesn’t usually interrupt me during my designated tea breaks, but with the human nightlight, everyone seems to think it’s my top priority. Good. I hum into my tea, silently urging him to continue, careful to remain blissfully indifferent.

 

“We believe she may start to have a change in her allegiance, or she is starting to turn against her duties for our country.” He continues and I hide my smirk with my teacup. Then everything is going to plan, quicker than I expected.

 

“It’s still rather early, perhaps we should have a little more faith in our little puppet.” He seems to regard me for a moment before nodding. He turns to leave the room before I add, “Wait, I need you to stay for a little longer.” I relish in the way his expression turns slightly fearful when he meets my gaze, but he stands firm under his orders.

 

“W-what do you need of me?” My laugh comes out shrill and pleasant as always before I turn to him.

 

“I do appreciate you reporting to me on the girl, although I’ll need some assistance for her—mission.” My assistant looks bewildered but does as he’s told, trailing behind me as I stand up and leave the sitting room behind us.

 

I lead him throughout the palace and even through some of the gardens before we arrive at a separate building where we cultivate new inventions. I can see my assistant grows wearier as we continue, but he doesn’t cease to follow me. Maybe he’ll last longer than the others.

 

As I open the doors into the building, smoke immediately wafts into our faces despite the ventilation in the building. I smirk as my assistant coughs at the intrusion, but all that runs into my sense is the feeling of familiarity with the smell and sights of the building. Home.

 

I don’t wait for him to grow used to the environment as I enter the building, speeding past the various workers working on various weapons, and Grisha tech from our experiments. I hear my assistant struggling to catch up behind me before eventually catching me just in time as I reach the back of the building, where a large cloth separates it from the rest of the building. 

 

“Whatever you see stays between you and me, and if any word gets out—I’ll know exactly who informed the public of my project,” I warn, I expect to see fear flash across his features, but only a fire lights in his eyes as he nods surely. Interesting.

 

I pull the cloth division apart so we can slip through and enter the unknown domain of the building. I can hear him audibly gasp beside me as he takes in my masterpiece, his eyes skimming up, down, left, right, all over.

 

“What—How—” He stops short, his words catching in his throat, and I suppress a wicked laugh from tumbling out. He turns to me, his eyes full of awe, “What is this for?” At his question my eyes light darkly, a vicious smile erupting across my face.

 

This—is our real mission, our final goal, the future of Shŭhàn.” His eyes widen at the weight of the words, but his eyes, flitting back to my invention, seem to be reassured, and I even see a smile begin to settle across his features. I find myself liking it a little too much.

 

“I have nothing but the utmost faith in you, Huánghòu. I assure you this secret is safe with me.” He bows for extra measure and my eyes lighten with delight.

 

“Thank you, although I have one last thing I need for you to do,” I say before turning over to the desk in the far corner of the building. I open a drawer and pull out a letter holding it between my thumb and fingertips, feeling the rough parchment of it. “Take this to General Hsu.”

 

As he takes the letter from my hand, our hands slightly brushing as he does so, he asks, “Am I overstepping to know of the reason?” I let out a soft smile, letting go of the letter, placing my hand down.

 

“Let’s just say the time is approaching when we’ll have to visit our beloved allies.”

 


 

Alina POV:

 

It’s been a week since I’ve left the medical bay and I’ve been placed back into training, the Squaller—Zoya, I remember, pleasantly absent from the little palace. I’ve written a letter to Shu Han and sent it with the trained hawk yesterday. I haven’t received nearly as much information as needed, although it is an improvement in our current knowledge of Ravka. Even with my allegiances to Shu Han, I’m still mulling over the words the darkling told me.

 

‘He is a liar, girl. He’ll do anything, say anything to get what he wants.’

 

I’m sorry mistress. His words are so much more appealing than I had ever imagined and even worse—I find myself wanting to believe him. Despite everything, I haven’t heard from him since he came to visit me in the medical bay. I had to hear from Genya that he had been sent to the edge of the Fold to check on some troops. I didn’t dare ask when he’d be returning.

 

Now, I sit in the dining hall picking at my food surrounded by no other Materialki, not even Kayla who’d usually keep me company. Apparently, she has an early training with an elder Materialki. My head rushed nonstop, keeping my appetite at bay. I remember when Genya told me where the servants would eat, and move to stand up, not having touched my food. I see some of the other's eyes glance at me questioningly as I move to exit the dining hall, but I don’t pay them any notice.

 

I navigate the halls, still somewhat uncomfortably having not mapped out the entire building yet, though, I eventually do make it to the servants' halls. As I enter their personal dining area, I ignore their surprised or annoyed expressions, keeping my gaze and pace aimed towards the one red-haired girl within the hall. Her eyes widen as I move to sit next to her, no other servants anywhere near where she sits.

 

“What are you doing here?” He asks, her eyes both reprimanding and—appreciative.

 

“You shouldn’t have to eat alone. From now on, I’ll eat with you whenever I can. You’re Grisha, and you deserve to eat with your fellow Grisha. For now, I’ll do.” She remains silent, but I can see the softness in her gaze. She doesn’t speak as she continues to eat, although I can see the soft smile she tries to hide behind her tea.

 

I wish I had more time with her, but when one of the summoners in red come to fetch me for training, I’m forced to say goodbye to Genya, promising to see her for evening supper.

 

Training is like it has been for the past few days, thankfully injury-free. Botkin seems to have taken a liking to me and my technique, often pulling me aside for a public demonstration for the other Grisha. I can see some of their resentment growing, their eyes glowering disapproving at my kefta, then my face, then my hair.

 

I ignore them. I suppose some things never change. I stand tall. Eventually. I tell myself. Eventually, they’ll come to respect me. Eventually, they’ll see me as human.

 

‘Don’t you want to be the sun?’

 

I feel the impulse to cringe and shrink from the memory of the stag, but I can’t let anyone see my weakness. The days seem to pass by, the previous just like the one before. More Etheralki and Corporalki come to introduce themselves asking for fighting or training advice, and against everything in me, I start to like it here.

 

After training, I take a slight trip through the fields only to be tackled by tiny people in red, blue, and purple. Children. I look down to see their bright, young eyes staring up at me.

 

“Sankta, can you please show us your power?” A girl in red asks.

 

“Please?”

 

“Pretty please?”

 

“Please, sankta?”

 

I stand there frozen in shock at their words. Sankta? Do they believe me to be a saint?  Their hopeful eyes are filled with a light that feels like a distant memory. I feel a pang of emotion run through my heart as I let out a soft smile. I kneel to their level.

 

“I’m going to need a volunteer,” I say and immediately their hands shoot up, each shouting for me to pick them. As I gaze throughout them I see a familiar face. Jakaya in the back with her eyes turned to the ground. I stand up and move over to her asking, “Would you like to be my volunteer, Kayla?”

 

Her eyes shoot up in surprise, but she doesn’t hide the bright smile as she steps closer to me. I lift her up in my arm, using my other to bend the light around us and the group of young Grisha. The sky bends around us, fracturing into something akin to stained glass, and the children around us gasp and cheer. I let them revel in the scene around them before eventually dropping my hand.

 

As I place Kayla down, I bend the light around her making her invisible. The children squeal at it, moving to touch her hesitantly. The children laugh and play with Kayla in her invisible state, and not even I can hold back the smile. I lower the bending around her and to my delight the children continue to play with her, ignoring the color of her kefta as they wrap their arms around her.

 

“Children, we’re supposed to be learning how to ride a horse, not bothering the poor girl.” One of the instructors calls out, walking up to us. The children immediately disband moving to follow up with the instructor. When they turn back to me I bring my index finger up to my lips before bending the light around me. They laugh much to the instructor's dismay before they begin their way back to the group of horses a distance away.

 

I return to the little palace.

 


 

After supper with Genya, I move back to my room, taking a seat at my desk. Despite that I like Genya, I don’t trust her not to go through my things, so when I pop up a wooden plank on the side of the desk and pull out my upcoming letter to Shu Han, I feel no worry of any meddling on Genya’s part.

 

I do however feel guilt with each and every letter that I send to Shu Han, growing more and more so with each letter that I write. I feel my throat close and a sheen of sweat covers me as I sigh. I sit back at my desk, the only light being the dim candlelight softly illuminating the room. I decide that I need to breathe, to take a break from this letter and this guilt.

 

I change out of my kefta and into the soft linens of my sleeping shift and robe, much different from the silks of Shu Han. Warmer. I take out the pins keeping my hair in place and let my hair drop down, coming down in waves to my waist.

 

The library might help calm my mind.

 

I move to grab my half-melted candle, deciding not to go for the element of stealth tonight. As I open the door and head out into the darkness.

 

I know where the path to the library is after Genya told me about it two weeks ago. I now head over to read and relax almost every day now. The door to the library is unassuming, much like mistress’s door was, once again my mother’s words ringing true. I push the door open and head inside.

 

I notice some of the candles still lit, which isn’t entirely surprising, haven happened multiple times. So I continue into the rows of books, my eyes scanning the endless supply lining the aisles from head to toe. As I scan the books I notice one with a gold spine that stands out to me and move to touch it.

 

“That’s a good one.” A voice I don’t recognize speaks from behind me causing me to jolt backward. I'm met with the sight of a greasy-looking man, who I recognize to be seen the tsar more often than not. The smile on his face sends shivers down my spine as his gaze seems to dissect me from where I stand.

 

“Pardon?” I ask, trying to hide the waver behind my voice. His smile only widens, and he plucks the book from the shelf, presenting the cover. ‘Ravkan Saints of Old and New.’ I feel my blood run cold at the title remembering what the small Grisha had called me. Sankta.

 

“More and more people begin to believe you a saint. They build altars in your name. The Bezmolvnaya Sankta. The Silent Saint. I take a step away from him, ignoring the shaking in my hands.

 

“I never asked for anything. I certainly didn’t ask for this.” He seems to consider this before his unsettling smile returns. “I would very much like to be alone now, so if you’d please,” I say, taking another step away from him. He nods at this, his expression never wavering, before he places the book back into place.

 

“I should hope we meet again, Sankta.” He says before disappearing into the shadows. I cradle my hands to stop from shaking, feeling my throat tighten in panic. Is what he said true? Do they worship me as a living saint? I force back the tears as I hastily pick up my candle and exit the library swiftly needing to escape.

 

The halls echo softly with the soft patter of my slippers, cutting across the halls as quick as I could before collapsing against one of the walls, my gut tightening painfully, my breathing coming out in harsh minuscule pants. My heart feels like it’s about to burst from my chest and—I can’t breathe.

 

Help.

 

Please.

 

The memory of the device in Shu Han flashes nonstop in my head, the burning. It burns. I can’t.

 

The candle at the last of its light sputters out and I’m left in darkness and my choked sobs. With my head clouded and my body going numb I don’t realize the arms that pull me up and carry me down the halls. I don’t feel the soft cushions beneath me or the room around me beginning to illuminate, the only thought I can understand is pain.

 

Then I hear it.

 

The soft sound, almost like a song. At first, it reminds me of my mother’s voice softly humming to me. I feel my breath begin to even a bit. It takes me a moment to realize it’s not a person, but an instrument. Not one I’ve ever heard before in Shu Han, but the sound comforts me, nonetheless. It drowns out my thoughts and eventually I feel my throat begin to open and my senses return. The song continues both solemn and hopeful. My breath fills my lungs and relief fills me. I let out a soft sigh and release a soft smile as the music consumes me.

 

Eventually, I feel the need to look up and see where this music comes from. My eyes shifted around the room. It’s a sitting room of some kind, but not one that I’ve seen before. I then fix my gaze to where the moonlight spills from the windows and where the music comes from. I feel my mouth part slightly at the sight of exactly who was playing this music.

 

The darkling.

 

I almost don’t believe my own eyes, but there’s no mistaking the black kefta, pale skin, dark hair, and slate-grey eyes. The instrument is delicate in design. Small and placed under his chin with strings. A bow within his other hand that wasn't holding the instrument, softly gliding along the strings creating melodies, unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

 

I feel my breath catch in my throat almost overwhelmed by the picture of it all. My enemy comforting me, reviving me. I feel tears beginning to form in my eyes and I have to look away trying to blink them out of my vision. Even as the song comes to fade into a soft decrescendo, holding like a whisper before slipping into the air.

 

I turn my gaze back to him, his gaze firmly on me, before I mutter a soft yet sincere, “Thank you.” He places the instrument down on a stand next to him and I feel a lump in my throat as he moves to sit next to me on the couch he laid me on.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” He asks, his words careful but clear in their intent. I don’t respond, keeping my mouth shut, my head coming back to me with all the questions I have for him instead.

 

“I didn’t realize you were back in Os Alta.” I choose to respond with instead. Does he think he can disappear for three weeks and just waltz back in, wanting to know my life story?

 

“I just got back an hour ago. I had to see the tsar before coming here and well—” He saw me. He leaves out. I feel shame begin to flare across my cheeks and in my gut. He shouldn’t have ever seen me like that. He must sense me beginning to close up, because he adds, “You don’t have to tell me everything, but can you tell me what upset you to that point?” I sigh, running my hand through my hair, keeping my gaze firmly away from him.

 

“A—man approached me in the library. He—he said that people were building alters in my name deeming me as a saint.” The last words come out thin as my throat tightens. My gaze moves to my hands, digging into the material of my robe. “I never asked to be hailed as a saint. I—I don’t want them to place me on a pedal stool.” I don’t know why I’m being so honest with him. Maybe because he played music, manipulated me into giving him some of my trust.

 

“Ah, the apparat.” He responds, seeming to click the pieces together in his head.

 

“Is he a priest?”

 

“Of a sort. Some say he’s a fanatic. Others say he’s a fraud.” He replies and I dissect his words, void of any of his opinions.

 

“And you?” I ask my voice annoyingly shaky as I ask, careful to keep my distance.

 

“I say he has his uses,” He says, and I nod feeling myself begin to close off again, “But that doesn’t make it acceptable to ambush and unsettle you.” He adds and I turn back to him, my brows furrowed.

 

“I don’t matter.” His gaze turns hard at my words, and he leans just the slightest bit closer.

 

“You are Grisha. Unique. You are worth a hundred apparats.” I feel my throat close at this, but not in the way it had before. I feel my blood heat to the point where I have to scoot back away from the general’s pressing gaze.

 

“What do you want with me?” I ask after a moment, trying to put all the pleading into my eyes. He seems taken aback so I continue, “I’ve heard from Genya and the other Grisha that you usually keep to yourself, so what do you want with me?” I ask again and he remains silent for a moment.

 

“In my entire life, I’ve never met a Grisha like you before. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider what you could do for Ravka, but beyond that, I want to know more about you and what power lies within you.” I consider his words and consider what I can take from him too. Maybe if I learn more from him and get him to trust me I’ll be able to have more information in my mission.

 

“How can I trust you?” I ask and he sits back, giving me some space, settling into a more relaxed posture, allowing me to do the same.

 

“Perhaps we can start small.” He offers before continuing, “We can both ask one question or request of each other every day.” I laugh at that.

 

“I barely see you as it is, even if we tried, it’d fall apart within a week.”

 

“I’ve taken a bit of time out of my schedule to meet with you and analyze your abilities, to understand them more. It’s then that we can talk as well.” It’s my turn to be taken aback. If what Genya has said about him hasn’t sunk in, his lack of presence in the little place speaks that his time is incredibly valuable. Despite my emotions, I hide them from my face remaining composed, thinking back on his words.

 

“Will you be honest with me, if I were to ask a question of you?” I question, lifting a brow for extra measure.

 

“Would you believe me if I told you I haven’t lied to you from the moment I first spoke to you?” My eyes widen at this as I recall every time we ever spoke. There must be at least one time he let out a white lie, even if it was to make me feel better. I rack my brain for everything, anything, coming up empty.

 

When they trained and prepared me in Shu Han, even mistress's warnings, nothing could prepare me for the allure of the general’s words. I suppose he wouldn’t be the devil if he wasn’t convincing.

 

“So I can ask anything of you, huh?” I try to sound sure as I ask, thinking about all the questions, but my mind keeps returning to one thing.

 

“Anything.” I smile.

 

“Paint,” I say softly, “with brushes and an easel,” I add hastily and notice the amused expression spread blatantly across his face.

 

“You could ask for anything, ask any of my secrets, and you ask for paint.” He says, almost more to himself than to me.

 

“Not just paint, I want every color cultivated. All the shades and textures.” I respond and he laughs, and I feel any other words that I had left to say vanish at it. It both unsettles and excites me. The warmth of it was surprising from a man so cold.

 

The general must—

 

I cut myself off from my thoughts. When had I started thinking of the darkling as the general? I feel panic begin to fill me as I move to hazily stand up, abruptly ending any sort of—thing that was happening.

 

“I need to go,” I say, looking towards the door of the sitting room, moving to begin to walk towards it. Each step is heavy with feeling as my hand finally reaches the door.

 

“I haven’t asked my question yet.” I place my forehead against the door, half tempted to ignore him, and push through the door anyway, leaving him alone.

 

‘You’re light, Alina. A girl of honesty and compassion.’

 

‘Even for those who don’t deserve it?’

 

Especially for those who don’t deserve it.’

 

I turn to him, silently asking him to say whatever it is he wants to say. I brace myself for the worst, all of my childhood horrors and secrets being exposed by him until I’m left vulnerable and left with the scared little girl I once was.

 

“What’s your favorite book?”

 

I pause at that. He can’t have meant—he seems amused by my confusion as he sits up and walks a little closer to me.

 

“That’s your question?” I ask, knowing I must look at him as if he’s crazy. He is crazy! He leans against the back of the couch as he nods, looking at me expectantly. I feel my brow tick at that, but relax a little against the door.

 

“I suppose, and this isn’t exactly a book in itself, but ‘The legend of Morozova’s Creatures.’” His brows lift momentarily at my admittance, his gaze holding something foreign.  

 

“May I ask why?” He asks and I shrug in response.

 

“My mother would read them to me as a little girl, I suppose I always felt a connection to this legend in particular.” I leave out the dreams of the stag and the weird feeling that filled my veins whenever I’d touch or approach it. “I guess you can say it called to me.” He looks at me for a moment, looking for something.

 

“Interesting. You never cease to surprise me, Ms. Starkov.” He replies, although his questioning gaze never falters even as he addresses me. I remember my idea of earning the darkling's trust and taking a small step closer to him.

 

“Alina,” I say, looking at him directly in the eye. “If you want my trust then you might as well start calling me by my name.” Whatever he was thinking about, he either hides it or pushes it aside after my response.

 

“Okay, Alina.” He says and I ignore the little thrill from him saying my name, not for a court or for the tsar, but for me. I hold his gaze for a moment longer before turning and pushing the door open.

 

“Goodnight,” I call out, barely looking back behind me before closing the door. I rest my back to the door before a wicked smile makes its way onto my face. For once, I feel as if I’ve made an advancement in my mission. Who better to receive classified information on Ravka than the general? It’s then that General Hsu’s final request of my mission returns to my mind and my smile drops, my gaze turning serious. While this advancement excites me, it also fills me with dread to be one step closer to the final task. Her voice filled my head.

 

‘Once you have the information required, your final job is to kill the Black General.’

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: The Girl Who’ll Change the World

 

Alina POV:

 

An outlying ray of sun wakes me up early the next morning. Exhaustion weighs heavy on me from the lack of sleep having spent all night finishing my letter to Shu Han after speaking with the darkling. The trained hawk will arrive tomorrow at dusk, so I keep my letter hidden inside the board of my desk. Genya told me yesterday that she’d be tending to the queen since there’s a party happening at the grand palace today, so I’m left with cleaning myself and putting on my still ill-fitting, purple kefta. Didn’t they say, I’d get a new one?

 

I decide that trying to put my hair up is too much effort, so I just comb it out before leaving it in its limp lifeless state. I do my best to avoid mirrors.

 

I know it’s about time that people start heading to the dining hall, and since Genya’s with the queen, I know I should go too. Something holds me back. The tugging in my body to summon outweighs any slight hunger, so I remember the window of my room, popping it open before squeezing out and going onto the roof.

 

I see the pigments of the sky better now, no longer solid strips, but soft shades illuminating into a sweet blue. I remember the paints that wound up in front of my door before I passed out last night and feel the inspiration rush through me.

 

‘Not Now.’

 

The singing in my veins stops me and I remember my purpose in being out here. It’s been so long since the light has been able to breathe, and I lift my hands slightly in front of me and close my eyes. I feel the warmth and completion run through me at calling to the sun once more.

 

Everything is bright.

 

I smile as I open my eyes and see spheres of light dancing like fairies around me. The warmth of the spheres prickles against the chill of the wind around me, winter fast approaching.

 

I run through some techniques that mistress taught me. The push and pull, the control, only heat, swirl, my palm extending in a mockery of the cut, but as my hand flies down I sweep it horizontally, cranes of light fluttering outwards. I don’t resist the laugh that bubbles out to me as they swirl and tickle me with warmth.

 

Eventually, however, when the sun rises further, I know that it’s only time before training with Botkin begins. I lower my arms and the light dissipates into nothing. The heat gone.

 

 

Training is normal; however, I did sneak a peek at the instructor and technique instruction manual of Botkin’s. Something else to add to my letter.

 

I anticipate Botkin calling my name, expecting another public demonstration as I see some of the other Grisha’s eyes roll. I take my time to walk up to Botkin, but his expression isn’t in its relaxed disposure as usual. His eyes hurry me, and I don’t serve to disappoint.

 

I don’t anticipate Botkin telling me that I am to now spend my second half of training with the general, and two Oprichniki stand only a few meters away signaling for me to come over. I do, but not without a healthy dose of hesitation.

 

They lead me over to the fields where I encountered the children yesterday and I’m led over to where two horses reside, two men in red standing beside them. One of the horses has a calico design while the other (which I’m assuming is the general’s) is a pure black steed.

 

As I walk closer I see the two men more clearly, one appears to be joking, and the other doing his best not to let out a smile. I recognize the second man to be the Heartrender that follows the general around like a lost puppy. The one who never seemed to smile. As I glance between the two men, seemed, becomes more and more the keyword of that sentence. I suppose everyone has their weakness.

 

When I get close enough, the general’s henchmen’s face goes flat in a stoic expression, and the other man turns around, smiling brightly once he sees me. Once we make it in front of the men, the Oprichniki bow and leave me off with the two Heartrenders.

 

“You must be Alina Starkov, yes?” The smiley man asks and my eyes flit between the two men, then down to their matching pendants. How did he wind up with this ball of joy?

 

“It seems everyone knows who I am,” I say, half-joking. If they're close with the darkling then they might have some valuable information as well.

 

“It’s hard not to when you made the whole grand palace vanish before our very eyes.” His voice drips in honest awe, almost taking me aback. No one in Shu Han was ever this apprising and honest. There was still more you could grow; harder you could push. ‘It isn’t enough.’

 

I remain quiet for a moment before responding, “And you are?” He seems to redden for a moment before composing himself, the other Heartrender standing stoic beside him, keeping his eyes locked on me.

 

“My apologies, I’m Fedyor Kaminsky, this ray of sunshine next to me is Ivan, who I’m sure you’ve met.” Ivan only grunts in a semblance of a greeting, Fedyor extends his palm out for me to shake. Once I take it he clasps his other hand on the back of mine, almost bowing as he shakes it. He may be brazened, but he does seem to be respectful.

 

“I’m sorry if this is rude of me to ask, but I thought I’d be meeting with the general today?”

 

“No, I take no offense. He’s to be out shortly, he wanted us to look after you and the horses before he returns.” Fedyor replies I feel my jaw tick at that. The general would send his right-hand man to look after me? I probably shouldn’t be looking too into this, the guy follows him around everywhere. “Oh, and just so that you know,” Fedyor begins, snapping me from my thoughts, “Most Grisha refer to him as, Moi Soverenyi.” Sovereign, of course.

 

After a long pause I muster up the courage to ask, “Apologies if this is forward of me, but how long have you been together?” Ivan seems to take notice of this and Fedyor begins to cough. It seems I may have taken them aback.

 

“We aren’t,” Ivan says, without a hint of emotion, reading as a brick wall. He’s good, but not perfect. The way his jaw tensed slightly tells all. I raise a brow at Fedyor, wondering if I can make him crack.

 

“Officially we aren’t,” Fedyor says eventually. Ivan turns to him with a glare in retaliation and they seem to whisper to each other for moments. I almost laugh at the sight.

 

“I didn’t realize it was a secret,” I say, half laughing and Ivan sighs, Fedyor’s eyes downturned.

 

“The worst kept secret in The Little Palace, I’m afraid,” Ivan responds and I nod. I’ve heard of same-sex partnering in some of the secret books I stole away while I was in Shu Han, but it was strictly forbidden within the border, punishable by stoning. Seeing it in person, though I feel like I should be conflicted, I only feel a sort of adoration.

 

‘You’re treading on thin ice, girl.’

 

“Am I interrupting anything?” I turn to see the Gen—I catch myself. The Darkling standing behind me. I sense in my peripheral the Heartrenders stand up to attention. When I look back at them I find myself disliking Fedyor’s mask of apathy. It doesn’t suit him. “I’ll take it from here, you two can take a break until we return.” He adds, strolling over the horse with a midnight black coat.

 

“Of course, Moi Soverenyi.” They both utter before turning back in the direction of the little palace. I watch after them and the way their hands graze each other before they’re completely out of sight. I expect to see the ge—darkling’s gaze as I turn around, but he seems preoccupied with the horse, currently feeding it a carrot.

 

“Beautiful,” I say, stroking my hand through the calico horse’s mane It snorts in delight, nuzzling into my touch.

 

“Interesting,” The darkling hums, his eyes intent on where my hand is placed on the horse. “He’s usually one to be very anxious and shy around new people.” He adds and I turn back to the horse, a newfound appreciation.

 

“Like calls to like, I suppose.” Remembering the words mistress would say. The darkling goes silent as soon as the words pass my lips. If a picture can tell a thousand words, that his gaze can command a million at this moment. I can’t help but feel like I said the wrong thing.

 

“Like calls to like.” He agrees, still a lingering thought behind his gaze, one I certainly do not question. “Do you know how to ride?” He asks, after a moment, pulling himself onto his horse’s saddle, softly stroking its neck in a calming motion.

 

“Nope,” I say, lifting myself onto the Calico horse and swinging my leg over the saddle. “But I’ve always considered myself an apt pupil,” I add, quickly adjusting the tightness of the stirrups and adjusting my posture to match the darkling’s.

 

“Good.” That is all he says before beginning to trot forward across the field. It takes me a moment to figure out the proper way to get the horse moving, but I was quick to learn that a lot of the command was within the grasp of the reins and the movement of your legs.

 

Once I do get moving, it’s fairly easy to catch up to the darkling only settled at a trot. My purple kefta, still almost falling off of me, blows apart with the wind causing me to shiver as I take my place next to him. Despite the chill, which I definitely wasn’t used to yet, I can’t help but feel the rush of riding on a horse for the first time. An actual horse!

 

“If you squeeze your legs tighter and lift your weight a little, you can make him go faster.” The low sound of the darkling’s voice breaks me from my awe, my eyes flit from the horse beneath me to him, even with his horse being smaller, he somehow looms over me.

 

A slow, wicked smile spread across my face as I say. “I’ll race you.” The darkling lifts a brow at that. “Afraid you’ll lose?” I ask, taking in his questioning expression.

 

“And what would I get when I win?” I roll my eyes at that. Of course.

 

“What makes you so sure you’ll win?” I suppose I should’ve anticipated this from what mistress told me.

 

“I suppose we can discuss my reward once we make it.” He says, straightening up on the saddle. “The well at the middle of the path is the end.” He elaborates and I nod, tightening my hold on the rains. “So are you—”

 

He doesn’t finish as I squeeze my legs and push my weight forward causing the horse to break into a sprint. “Thanks for the tips,” I call out behind me as I charge along the path towards the forest.

 

The chilled wind almost stings my eyes as the horse continues its sprint, and my tailbone begins to ache from the assault of the horse. Regardless, a laugh bubbles up from my chest as I embrace the crisp kiss of the air around me. I never got to experience anything like this in Shu Han.

 

Opening my eyes, I notice that I’m approaching to enter the forest and turn behind me. The darkling wasn’t there. Not in the field up ahead of me, and I’m almost certain I didn’t hear any horse pass me, especially by such a considerable amount in a short time.

 

I feel a shiver run through me, the chill of the air becoming much more apparent. He knows. This is probably an execution. Perhaps torture. I feel my breathing quicken at the intrusive thoughts, forcing myself to remain focused on the path ahead.

 

My vision begins to blur slightly, and I shake my head, warding off the blinding breeze. It is the breeze, right? The path continues, and I squeeze my legs tighter to quicken the pace, snapping the reigns.

 

‘Come to me.’

 

No. No. No. No! NO!

 

My vision goes black for a moment before the world around me reanimates. The once brown and green forest transforms into a snow-infested tundra. I let out a sob, holding my arms to my chest.

 

“What do you want from me?” My voice encompasses the silence, not even the sound of wind breaking it. I feel my heart stutter as I stand there waiting for something—anything to happen but to no avail. “Hello?” I call out, my voice reminding me once again of the scared little girl who just lost her parents.

 

Silence.

 

I look around me in all directions, no plant in sight only the blinding white reflection of the snow and myself. I feel myself begin to shake as I tread forward on the snow. I walk for what must be minutes? Hours? Days? The hollowness within me aching with every step.

 

“Please, is anybody out there?” I call out, a desperation to my voice making it unrecognizable to my ears. “Please.” It’s only a whisper as I collapse to the ground, the palms of my hand landing in the light-filled snow beneath me. “I don’t want to be alone.”

 

The world around me darkens, the sun turning to nothing as the world around me disappears, but I can still feel the snow within my palms. Lifting my hands, I illuminate the darkness around me, curling into myself.

 

‘Alone.’

 

The echoed word sends shivers down my spine as tears begin to fill in my vision.

 

‘Alone. Alone. You are alone. All alone. Forever alone. ALONE!’

 

The sound stops as the world around me shifts, the darkness swirling around me. It takes the form of a man. A man clad in dark. A face familiar. The Darkling.

 

‘Alina.’

 

His voice beckons me, if I weren’t overcome with relief, I’m not sure I’d accept his open hand, reaching. He lifts me to my feet, pulling me closer, his head next to mine. His evil mouth curled into a grin as he turns his gaze to the side. I follow in suit and gasp.

 

‘Come to me.’

 

The stag stands before me, glowing in the dark, standing in majestic glory. I feel it’s call. I feel my blood surge at the stag’s nearness, similar to the begging of my light when it’s withheld. I shake my head, shifting to move back. The darkling’s grip on my arm holds me still.

 

‘It’s yours, Alina.’

 

I shift my gaze to him, confusion and fear written blatantly across it. He looks at me with an intensity I never expected to be possible for him. His hand grazing the length of my arm. I feel my face burn but shift my attention to the stag ahead of me.

 

“Mine?”

 

‘Yours.’

 

He lifts his arm along with mine, angled above our heads and I look up at him to see his gaze still on me. It’s then I realize the purpose of what’s to be done when our hands lower.

 

‘Together.’

 

My head pounds but any thoughts I had, drown with the want, need for power. It calls to me.

 

‘Come to me.’

 

Our hands lower together.

 

The stag falls.

 

“Alina.”

 

What—what is that?

 

“Alina.”

 

I hear the darkling, but he’s right in front of me, unspeaking.

 

“Alina.”

 

I gasp, returning to my senses as surety and completeness run through me, my power desperately pushing against my skin. If I hadn’t been instilled with control the light would’ve flown freely from my veins and into the world. My eyes shoot open.

 

The darkling stands in front of me, his brows furrowed as he looks at me with something akin to worry. If I didn’t know better I’d assume he actually cared.

 

It’s then that I realize that his hand presses against the side of my neck, and I bounce back from his touch, the surety ending abruptly with it. I can see the mask fall back into place the moment our connection severs, his eyes losing any life that dusted it before.

 

“I apologize for touching you, but you were knocked out cold on the ground.” I notice then, that I’m sitting on the ground of the forest, my horse next to the Darkling’s tied to a nearby tree.

 

“I—What?” I shake my head, pressing my palm to my forehead currently beaded with sweat. I feel my body begin to cool, my vision returning to normal. My face burns when it dawns upon me that the darkling witnessed everything. Again.

 

“Is this a common occurrence for you?” He’s careful to keep his distance, a stark difference to the man who plagued my dream—nightmare.

 

“I’m often told I can space out, but never quite like this,” I start, leaning against the tree behind me as my heart returns to normal. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

 

“We can discuss more about these—occurrences at a later time, we’ve lost almost half of our time already.” He moves to stand up, offering a hand. I ignore it. I’m capable. He probably thinks me weak.

 

‘The weaker they think you are, the more unexpected your true strength will shine.’

 

“Right—” I say, sighing and thinking back to what was happening before my—dream. ‘I want to study your ability.’ I can’t let him suspect anything of what a really am.

 

“What do you want me to do?”

 

“Anything. I just want to see how you manipulate the environment around us in order to make any inferences.” I nod, rolling up the sleeves of my kefta.

 

Taking a deep breath, I extend my hands outward feeling the surrounding around me. I can’t let him be able to discern me as an Etheralki with my technique. I remember mistress teaching me new ways to use my abilities, in a way no other Grisha classification does.

 

I touch my fingertips to each other before slowly pulling them apart filling the forest, reaching to touch its entirety. Don’t change the actual environment, just its perception.

 

I twist my hands and the world spins. Looking up, I see green. The ground, blue. The darkling looks around us with an expression similar to the one when I made the grand palace disappear.

 

The world is flipped upside down.

 

“Does this suffice?” I ask, my voice surprisingly even for the effort it takes to hold this distorted view. A shadow familiar to the intense look from the dream flushes through his features and I feel my breathing stop, lowering my hands, the world returning back to normal.

 

“Alina,” He says, pushing off from the well and taking a step closer to me, stopping directly in front of me, “We are going to change the world.” I remain silent for a moment before letting out a stressed exhale in poor excuse of a laugh.

 

“I’ve never been the world-changing type.” It’s true. A girl who cries at night and faints in the middle of a race isn’t capable of changing worlds. A girl born not quite able to fit anywhere. A girl who despite valuing honesty, can only seem to lie to everyone around her.

 

‘What do you want?’

 

The stag's voice rings in my ears, the question washing over ever thought over and over again. I don’t know.

 

“I hate to be the one to tell you, but you already flipped the world upside down.” He replies and I scoff, my eyes trailing over my palms. I summon them to do invisible.

 

“This,” I flicker my palm visible and invisible, “Is only an illusion. Even when invisible, it’s still there, the world unchanged.” I press my hand to his shoulder for the example, yet he summons his darkness to keep my hand at bay with a faint look of amusement.

 

One that falls the moment my hand touches the darkness and the world around us turns grey. We both stand in shock, unmoving as we take in the surroundings. I notice the trees don’t sway, the birds don’t sing, the clouds don’t move. Like calls to like.

 

I always knew he was my antithesis, but when I expected a violent push, all I felt was a tugging pull. Wanting, needing to be together. He gasps as his darkness moves to surround us but kept at bay with my own energy, still void of light, but the essence of it impacting it.

 

‘No matter what he says or does, you must know that he is your enemy. Nothing else.

 

I pull my hand away, the world resuming around us, filling with color. He stares at me as though the connection were still present, his expression wholly unguarded.

 

“I—“ I stutter still feeling the lingering pull, my light screaming to meet his darkness. I force my hands to remain still, tucked into my kefta. “What was that?” My question seems to snap his from his thoughts as his face returns back to its usual neutral disposition.

 

“I suspect there might be more to you than meets the eye.” I feel my blood run cold. He knows. He must know. Mistress said he’d enslave and use me if he were to ever find out of me being a sun summoner. The Sun Summoner. “I think you may have a deep connection to Merzost, similar to me.”

 

“Merzost?” So he didn’t know. I’ve never heard of Merzost before, though. I suppose despite in the lab and the occasional mutter from mistress, although they never explained. “What is that?”

 

“It is the empty space between each and everything.” He says although I can see he searches for words, “You know the common Grisha laws, yes?” I nod.

 

“You can’t create something from nothing, and all Grisha power has a source.”

 

“That’s true for most, however for other people, like you and me, it’s different. The most powerful Grisha are an—exception. Their powers stem from Merzost along with whatever element, or in your case, material you can manipulate.”

 

“But what is it?” Despite the sun now hanging lower in the sky, continuously lowering, I continue to pry. I need answers. He’s the only one who’s been remotely willing to give them to me.

 

“It is everything, Alina.” He says and I feel the breath catch in my throat at that, “Are we not all things?” He picks up a stubborn flower, persisting even in this cold weather, flipping it into his palm. He closes his eyes and I nearly gasp as I watch the flower grow younger and younger within his palm before turning into a dusting of pollen.

 

“That’s—” I state dumbfounded as he opens his eyes, “That’s not possible.”

 

“I fear you have no idea what is possible,” He says, dusting off his hand, “This changes everything. You change everything.” His eyes bore into mine for a long moment and I feel the glimmer of power and heat rush through me. He’s manipulating me. He wants to use me.

 

I take a step back.

 

The sound of hooves fast approaching shifts both of our attention to Fedyor, currently riding towards us on his brown steed, a desperate look on his face. He stops in front of my nearly jumping off his horse as he pants, his breathing sharp and inconsistent.

 

Moi Soverenyi,” He says, his eyes can only be described as urgent with an underlying tone of fear, “In the southern forest by the adolescent training ground,” He inhales sharply, his eyes squeezing shut.

 

“Breathe, Fedyor.” The general says, putting up a hand to calm him, only doing so much. “Now tell me, what’s happening?” He asks and Fedyor seems to notice me for the first time. Then looks to the darling, undoubtedly asking if I should be present for this. I faintly see him nod before Fedyor straightens again.

 

“Drüskelle came from the forest, many troops are fighting now, but we need your leadership.” I gasp my mind wandering back to Kayla and the other children. I remember reading of the horrid crimes of the Drüskelle, how they would ‘trial’ and burn Grisha at the stake in the name of their god.

 

‘Not those children, not Kayla.

 

“Then we must hurry.” The general’s voice is dark, his expression even more so as he hops onto his horse. I quickly follow in suit, ignoring the pain in my tailbone

 

“I’ll fight too,” I say, 100% sure of my sincerity. This isn’t a lie. ‘What would mistress say?’ A voice in my head whispers and I immediately stamp it down. Fuck what she has to say, children, Grisha children are in danger. The general looks at me for a moment, analyzing the expression on my face.

 

‘We don’t have time for that!’

 

“C’mon, Moi Soverenyi,” I half mock, holding tight on the reins, “Let’s change the world.” I don’t bother to look back or wait for the two men as I charge down the path and out onto the field. I don’t have to guess where the attack is concurring from, the vision of billowing smoke expanding outward lies ahead, about a kilometer away.

 

I head into the flames.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: Where Demons Run

 

The smoke covered everything with a haze.

 

All I can hear are the grunts of soldiers from both sides, along with the occasional scream. Sometimes in Fjerdan, sometimes—my horse beneath me make a startled sound of discomfort, leading me to ride just outside the smoke line, tying him to one of the posts. The sound of footsteps behind me sends me jolting around, arms raised.

 

The general and Fedyor greet me, their horses, I can see tied to a post several meters away.

 

“How can we see through all this smoke?” I ask, my eyes darting from the two men, over to the ring of grey haze and faint movement. Do the soldiers within attack anyone who comes within range, shedding their own blood?

 

“That’s the point,” The general says before leaning over to tell Fedyor something. He nods before sprinting away from the fields. I stare at the darling, trying my best to convey, ‘You better have something up your annoyingly black sleeve.’ “Until he comes back, we have to do our best. Try to help as many Grisha as possible.” He says before brushing past me. I latch onto his arm before he can get very much father, ignoring the pulse of surety that rushes through me.

 

“It’s too risky, we could kill another Grisha there, maybe even one of the children!” Although I don’t expect you to care. As if he could read my thoughts, he stands up straighter his eyes hardening.

 

“They are already dying, unless you have a better idea, going in blind is our best option.” I don’t like to admit that he has a point, but my stubbornness keeps my hand latched tight to him, keeping in his place. He eventually rips himself from my grasp, beginning to head to the field.

 

“Wait,” I call out, but he doesn’t stop moving. I’ve finally figured it out, and that goddamn prick won’t stop for a moment to even acknowledge me—damn selfish bastard. I can’t remember the last time I was so ticked off, barreling into the smoke after him. Luckily, the whisps of his black kefta remain in sight, and I grab onto him once more, this time more firmly.

 

Ms. Starkov, my patience can only stretch so thin.” He says, whirling back on me, I glare up at him in response, lifting my chin up defiantly.

 

So does mine,” I spit back before curving my hands around each other, careful not to touch my skin, before pulling them apart, with it the smoke ceases to be visible, “I think I have a better idea.” I mock. He still stares at me with a murderous look but nods slightly in approval.

 

“See if you can get to higher ground and keep the area around me covered.”

 

“How will I know where you’re at?” I ask gesturing around the smoke as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. I can see the annoyance creep its way onto his features before being pushed down once more, he turns his back to me, but not before saying,

 

“You’ll know.”

 


 

I hate that he’s right.

 

As soon as I found a higher incline and peered into the smoke, it took me no less than two seconds to figure out where he was. Large tendrils of darkness surrounded by the occasional Fjerdan shout make it obvious.

 

Okay—let’s do this.

 

Pushing my hands forward in a diamond formation, I target the vicinity around him, shielding the smoke around the tendrils. As the smoke vanishes, I can see him more clearly—I also see the moment he sees clearly too, a tick of a smile before his gaze falls onto the nearest Fjerdan soldier.

 

I can’t look away as he moves with finesse, each movement precise and practiced as he maneuvers the darkness to encompass the Fjerdan, who could barely get a choked sound out before the darkness suffocates him. I don’t even think mistress would find anything wrong with his summoning.

 

I decided to try and push my reach of the smoke further around him, despite requiring a lot more energy to bend the much more elusive, gaseous material of the smoke. Once I feel I have a sturdy hold, I spread the vicinity out further exposing three more Fjerdans to him. This time I look at the Fjerdans, who seem to have a mixture of dread and anger written across their faces as they circle the general.

 

He doesn’t look the slightest bit worried, if anything his posture seems to become more relaxed as his shadows begin to expand outwards. The Fjerdans hesitate slightly at the sight of the darkness encompassing them. They don’t hesitate for much longer, two Fjerdans leaping for him at the same time. I almost laugh at that. They’re about to get slaughtered.

 

I don’t blink as he pushes from his defensive position, his arm arcing and sending a wide strip of darkness towards the two approaching men. Within an instant the two men’s previous enraged expression fall flat, their bodies spitting into two. Their torsos fall to the ground, their legs not far behind, leaving a pool of blood behind. I feel a shiver rush through me, for the first time truly seeing him for what he is.

 

Darkling.

 

The darkling turns to the last Fjerdan, his face pale as he looks at his dead comrades. Then he runs. I push my hand out in the direction of his path, keeping him from slipping away as the darkling slips a tendril of darkness to wrap around him before smothering him. He’s still breathing. I try my best to ignore the implications as he tosses the man to the side, but not without securing darkness around his wrist and ankles.

 

With no Fjerdans around concurrently the darkling takes a quick glance towards me, but not without briefly showing his approval in the form of a nod. The sight of people approaching grabs my attention.

 

Fedyor leading a team of Squallers behind him. Smart.

 

They get to work immediately, pushing the smoke around outwards until it clears, revealing bodies upon bodies of people. Some wearing kefta, no children. The Fjerdans who aren’t dead have seemed to retreat. Why?

 

I slide down from my vantage point quickly jogging over to where the darkling and various Grisha converse. Shu Han would want to know of this attack.

 

“We did everything we could,” I hear Ivan say as I make my way over to them. Most of the Grisha look—okay. This doesn’t add up. “They were in and out, this was planned.” Ivan continues, his gaze shifting to me as I make my way next to him and the darkling.

 

“Where were you, sankta.” The word that once inspired fear only inspires rage now from his accusatory tone. My gaze heats as I open my mouth to speak up.

 

“She was covering me, Ivan,” The darkling speaks before I do, probably to keep us from ripping each other throats out. “Without her, we wouldn’t have gotten our captive.” He gestures to where the Fjerdan, still unconscious is being taken up by some Oprichniki, likely to be taken to a cell for questioning.

 

“Maybe if she hadn’t taken up so much of your time, this wouldn’t have happened.” Ivan snarls and it takes every ounce of control to not snap.

 

“I didn’t ask for this, if you have anyone to blame it’s yourself for not figuring out there were in Os Alta, to begin with—”

 

“Quiet,” The command comes out barely in a whisper, but it’s effective in keeping both of our mouths shut. “Alina, get inside.”

 

What?! I fought out here like the rest of you, don’t you think I deserve to know what happened?” My voice isn’t shouting, but the poison behind it drips freshly off each word.

 

Alina,” He hisses, his gaze dark, “Inside. Now.” I don’t say another word, lifting my head up to glare at him before bending the light around me, once again becoming the invisible girl.

 


 

I shut myself in, locked inside my rooms painting everything within sight. The mockery of stained glass with a shining sun on the ceiling, the outside forests along the walls, carriages people, Min. A wave of solemn washes through me as I trace the soft counters of her face and bright eyes. Is she happy?

 

Hours later, once almost every inch of the walls is covered with color, I slip out the window of my room, sitting on the roof of the little palace as I watch the sunset. I notice carious carriages pull up to the grand palace with many Counselman and ambassadors following within the golden gates. I hope Genya’s having a better time than I am. Likely not, if what she says about the tsarista is true, then she’s likely doing her best to remain invisible.

 

The sound of a bird’s call captures my attention, the fast brush of brown feathers is all I see before a hawk lands on one of the metal railings of the roof. I smile softly before pulling out a small, tied-off scroll, tying it to the small letter holder at the base of it. I give it a piece of herring from one of my meals, not that I’d eat it anyway. After it’s finished eating I make a clicking sound and it’s off, off in the opposite direction of the setting sun.

 

‘Take me with you.’

 

I watch the sunset up until the very last sliver of light, my power dims slightly when it welcomes the dark of night. The grand palace lights up, you can hear some of the people and music even from here, looking like sprawling ants. I do my best to ignore them, tilting my head back under the moon’s rays. A mere reflection of the sun, but it’s still light.

 

I hum under the light, bathing my skin in a soft warmth, much softer than the sun, gentler. I suppose I did always prefer the night.

 

“Alina.”

 

My eyes jolt open as I hop to my legs, slipping on the roof in the process. I brace for the fall, likely to my death from this height—but it never comes. A cool whisp of darkness keeps me upright. The feeling of it against the warmth of my own skin, despite being cold it also feels—lonely. They dissipate as soon as I’m balanced.

 

“How did you find me?” I ask after a moment of staring at him, even he looks gentler in the moonlight. A cruel trick, I suppose.

 

“That’s a funny way of saying, ‘Thank you,’” He says, making a slight gesture from where he stands, a couple of meters up and to my right. A balcony. I make my way over, balancing on the roof, my slight frame giving me an advantage in this, at least.

 

“I thought you wanted to hold me captive in my room,” I say, as soon as I hop over the railing and onto the balcony. “or does Inside. Now. Mean something else?”

 

“You were never locked in your room; I came looking for you after being told that you weren’t in the dining hall or your rooms.” He sweeps a hand through his hair, somehow looking perfect even when it’s disheveled. It’s then I realize that he looks tense—well tenser than usual. No kefta, a permeant furrow in his brows, a tick in his jaw.

 

“Can you tell me what happened?” I ask, careful to sound softer, more careful. Mistress’s warning blaze clear in my mind now. He is the darkling, a manipulative man in search of power. ‘If you think for a second that he isn’t dangerous, that’ll cost you your freedom.’ Not my life, that’s too easy. My freedom.

 

He seems to think for a moment before responding, “If you answer some questions for me, then yes, I’ll tell you.” I hide the disdain in my expression. He has to suspect something by now, am I already too late?

 

“Fine, I suppose you never did ask your question of the day,” My tone comes off more teasing than I’m feeling. I can see his gaze catch my every word, almost as if dissecting me.

 

“Where are you from?” He asks, leaning against the wall, his gaze nonchanging on my face.

 

“Terminov.” I shrug, I might as well have said nowhere. “I’m sure you’ve already looked into me and my family by now, so cut to the chase and ask what you really want.” His lip quirks and it almost feels like approval. Perhaps it is.

 

“Why didn’t you go to Os Alta after discovering you were Grisha?” I—this causes me to pause, thinking back to that scared little girl shivering in a room much too large for her. She never grew into it, did she?

 

“I had to protect myself.” The honest answer for the time, before my loyalties, began to grow for Shu Han. Half of the reason is mistress, half Wong Min.

 

“I would’ve offered you protection.” He adds, “You must’ve been aware Grisha are treated very well within the little palace.” I nod in agreement. The smell of false fluorescence still lingers within my nose.

 

“I never wanted to be a part of a war, I still don’t.”

 

“What did you call earlier today?” I  freeze at that, cold dread washing through my body. Men being sliced in half by whisps of shadow, smoke, fire, screaming, dead bodies, and I was on the sidelines, pulling the strings.

 

I feel my face harden as I whirl on him, my eyes alight with something even unknown to me, “I have answered your questions, now tell me. What. Happened.”

 

“I have been lenient with you,” He starts, his gaze piercing as his hand sets an iron grip on my arm. It’s only then that the terror slices through me. I only lift my head higher, glaring into his steel gaze. “You try my patience, maybe ask again, but as if you’re speaking to your superior.” He has nothing on mistress.

 

“You promised me.” I hiss through my teeth, “I did as you asked, now it’s time for you to hold your end of the bargain—” I gasp as his hand slides higher, a firm grip as his thumb digs into my collar bone. I—he’s holding back. “Is this what it’s like to be under your protection.” The pity in my voice causes him to release me, turning his back to me.

 

When he turns to me again I can see an exhaustion to his gaze as he responds, “You’re right, I was out of line.” I can’t even hide the surprise at this. He looks tired and—genuine. ‘He’s a liar, girl.’ I know what lies look like, and this isn’t it.

 

“I was too,” I try to express the genuine apology in my gaze the same way he did with me, “You’ve been nothing but patient, and I—I haven’t.

 

“No,” He says, lifting a hand up to stop me, “You deserve to know everything, I wouldn’t have gotten nearly enough information without you.” He sighs as the cold breeze rushes across the balcony, my white hair being strewn behind me. “The Fjerdans, they didn’t come for the palace or to weaken the first army directly they—” even he seems to have a hard time speaking as a troubled look washes across his face, “They took them.”

 

His voice is tight filled with memory and devastation that nearly causes me to panic. It’s then that I analyze what he had to say. They took them? What does that—no. Oh no, no, no, no, no.

 

“Don’t tell me—”

 

“The children, every one of them that was practicing on the fields.” He seems to know what I was asking before it even passes my lips. I can’t hold back a sob as I cover my mouth. Nausea overwhelms me to the point where I’m two seconds away from puking my heart out.

 

“Kayla,” My voice comes out desperate, tears brimming my eyes, “Please tell me she’s safe, that they didn’t take her.” His saddened expression gives me the answer I need, and I fall to my knees, my heart feeling like it’s being squeezed through my throat.

 

I don’t know how long I cry for, ten, twenty, thirty minutes. My thoughts rushing in and out in hysteria. When my throat is raw and my tears have dried all I’m left with is anger—no anger’s too nice. Rage.

 

“I’ll kill them,” My voice doesn’t sound like my own as my gaze flits to the darkling standing above me, he doesn’t startle in the slightest at my gaze, his eyes only hold an understanding as he nods.

 

We’ll kill them. I’m taking a group to Fjerda first thing in the morning—”

 

I shake my head muttering, “That’s not soon enough,”

 

“It is as soon as I can manage, we need a certain skill set to ensure that we can navigate properly and have a chance at getting them out.”

 

“Then I’ll leave by myself,” His grip keeps me in place, not without my struggle though, “Let go of me.”

 

“We need you, Alina.” I stop wriggling at his words, his eyes pleading. I’ve never been needed before. “Our chance of getting them out, Kayla out, is highest together, even if it’s later than we’d like.” He tosses ‘we’ around very liberally.

 

“We leave as soon as we can, and we move as quickly as possible.” It isn’t a question, and anything short of yes leaves them without my company.

 

“If I can help it,”

 

 

(In Shu Han)

 

“A report has shown that the letter has been sent to both parties.” Lee’s voice has become something I’ve grown more than accustomed to as he stands outside my room, the only light being the one at my desk.

 

“And is everything according to plan?” I ask as I stalk closer, my silk sleeping gown strewn lightly over me. I certainly notice the way his eyes flash as he clears his throat, standing straighter.

 

“Yes, although apologies if this isn’t the best time—”

 

“No, I rather enjoy your company,” I say, my hand flitting up his arm, still covered in the smooth silk of his Cheongsam. His face reddens as I pull my hand away, returning my gaze back to my desk.

 

“And of the summoner?” I ask as I take a seat, my eyes scanning the various scrolls laid on top of it, half are opened, half still bound.

 

“Her scroll came in just an hour ago, they should be within your collection.” His voice is slightly higher than usual, and I smirk at the implications.

 

“And you, are you feeling well?” I glance over just in time to see his eyes widen and his face redden further. I cover my mouth with a smile as I watch him stutter about.

 

“Y-yes, any day where I’m blessed with your presence is a good day.” I let out a coy laugh, returning back to my feet.

 

“That wasn’t what I asked.” I respond and before he can get out an apology I add, “But I appreciate the flattery, perhaps I should bless your presence more often.” His eyes glaze over with a heady emotion as my hand returns to his arm. He stands straighter this time at my attention that fire within his gaze that I once saw returning.

 

Finally.

 

 “Close the door,” I whisper. The last of the flame flickering out as the door to the rest of the palace shuts, swallowing us to the encompassing darkness.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: The Children of the Damned

 

(four years ago)

 

‘I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!’

 

As soon as the words slipped from my mouth mistress's hand grasped my arm in a rough grip, anger flashing in her eyes as she stares me down. I immediately regret saying anything at all.

 

‘Poor child, can’t take it anymore. People fighting and dying every day, but this poor girl can’t handle her lessons.’ I feel tears form in my eyes as I stare back at her, a lump settling in my gut at her words. ‘I’m so weak, complaining about everything. So many people have less than me.’

 

‘You’re right, mistress. I apologize.’ My words come out void of emotion, similar to the numbing feeling running through me, even as a tear slides down my face falling onto the floor. That’s the only tear I let out.

 

‘Then you won’t mind atoning for your mistake.’ I feel my heart jump at that, as she moves in a flash to the door, opening it. ‘Take her to isolation.’ A cry escapes me then, as I shuffle away from the approaching guards.

 

‘N-no, mistress—please!’ I’m now crying profusely as the guards get a hold of me, dragging me towards the door. ‘Please don’t let them take me!’ She looks at me the entire time, her eyes void of any emotion, The door shutting in front of me cuts her and me off.

 

The guards drag me over to the unpopulated side of the city, a thick iron door looming over me as they stop and open the door. I sob as they shove me in, slamming into the hard floor beneath me, the last light flickering away as they shut the door behind him.

 

As the lock sounds, I curl in on myself as the darkness overtakes me. I feel weak, deprived of all light and human connection.

 

Alone.

 

All Alone.

 

Only Alone.

 

They leave me there for three days before letting me out, a girl with foggy, swollen eyes, and trembling bones.

 

 

I stand at the edge of the Little Palace, my eyes constantly trained on the forest where the invasion happened, still burnt from the fire and smoke released there.

 

How did they get that much smoke, anyway?

 

 It won’t be long until sunrise, my horse within the stables ready if I’m to leave alone. I promised, though. The sounds of hooves approaching the gate capture my attention.

 

In the dark all I can see are four horses approaching the gate, slowing down to a trot at the front. As the guards open and let the riders in, I make my way over, being able to see the men with torchlight. The darkling in front, hopping off his horse followed by three other unfamiliar men who look utterly exhausted.

 

“Were you traveling all night?” I question, the darkling snapping his gaze to me, as he handles the reigns.

 

“I told you I needed some time to gather the people we needed,” he says, as some servants take the horses and move them. “These are who I was talking about.” He steps aside so I can look at them more closely. They aren’t Grisha. First army. Upon seeing my confusion, he adds, “Trackers of the first army, one of the only surviving trackers with experience in Fjerda.”

 

“And some of the most sleep-deprived.” One of the men says, stepping forward. Blue eyes with close-cropped brown hair. Handsome with a slight arrogance to his gaze. Perfect.

 

“I’ve known soldiers who lose days’ worth of sleep, much less a night.” I fold my arms, sending a questioning gaze at the darkling. Are these really the best men you could find?

 

“I’m sure you have.” He speaks again, “Being Grisha and all.” I sense the sarcasm immediately feeling an immediate disdain. What is that supposed to mean?

 

“You’re here to save Grisha. Some who have been taken by Fjerda and will eventually fight to protect Ravka, so I’d be careful with what you say in the future.” I look at him with the raise of my chin and he looks at me for a moment, contemplating before a smile blooms across his face, taking me aback.

 

“Mal Orestev,” He introduces, “These fine young lads are Mikhael and Dubrov” The two other men, both struggling to keep their eyes open, simply nod in greeting. “Sorry about the rocky meeting, most people say I can be an ass when I’m restless.”

 

“Damn right.” One of the men say, whom I’m assuming is Dubrov says from behind him, Mal shakes his head with an amused expression. Despite the part of me that thrills at the liveliness of the men, the looming presence of Kayla, scared and locked up under Fjerdan's watch keeps me grounded.

 

“Just promise me you will remain focused as to why we’re here. These children need our help and anything less than 100% focus is a disservice to them.” The smiles from the men immediately drop, their eyes dimming at my words. They nod in agreement.

 

‘I’m not here to make friends.’

 

I turn behind me to see the darkling gone, along with the horses and servants. I don’t have to wonder very long because soon I see a group approaching with him in the front. My eyes harden as I see Ivan with the group, of course, Fedyor following not far behind, David, one of the healers from the medical bay, a tidemaker, an inferni, and worst of all two Oprichniki with Zoya in the middle.

 

“What is she doing here?” I ask, my eyes alight as soon as he’s close enough.

 

“Despite your history, I needed the best. Zoya may be many things, but untalented isn’t one of them.” I sigh, returning my gaze to the group fast approaching. A plethora of colors and even more variations of personality.

 

“What did I sign up for?” I ask it more to myself than anything, but the darkling responds anyway.

 

“No one knows.”

 

 

At the stables, the servants there quickly grab us some of the well-rested horses, my familiar calico horse, the darkling’s pure black steed, and eight other horses. That doesn’t match the number of people here. I don’t take much notice of the thought as we’re led out into the fields, just as the sun is peeking into the sky.

 

It’s a good thing I kept everything that I needed in my bag with me, not needing to head back as I strap it onto the horse. I hear whispered talking behind me, capturing my attention as I turn my gaze to the sound.

 

Ivan and Fedyor talk quietly next to a single horse, Fedyor having a solemn expression and even Ivan can’t keep an entirely straight face. With everyone preoccupied they even share a brief embrace and it’s only until Fedyor turns in the direction of the Little Palace that I realize why the number of horses didn’t match up. For the first time, I feel a pang of sympathy for Ivan as he gazes after him before his expression hardens and returns to the task at hand.

 

‘At least there won’t be any distractions.’

 

I don’t notice the flash of red in the corner of my vision until a familiar face stands in front of me. Genya.

 

“Don’t tell me, you’re coming to.” I huff, crossing my arms. In response she shakes her head, her eyes trailing to the right of me.

 

“No, I just—wanted to say goodbye…” She says, clearly her mind somewhere else. I stare at her, confused as she keeps looking to the right of me before I follow her gaze. It takes me a moment to realize that she’s looking at David, currently fiddling with the reins of his horse clumsily. My gaze flits back and forth between them before it dawns on me.

 

“Him?!” I say a little too loud and Genya quickly comes to pull me off farther to the side, shushing me. “Sorry, sorry—it’s just,” I begin my eyes going back to David and then to Genya, “I don’t understand why you’d choose to like him of all people.”

 

“I do not,” Genya says entirely unconvincing. I fold my arms, my brows lifting before she sighs, “Fine I do, but no one can know, okay?”

 

“I wouldn’t know who to tell,” I shrug before asking, “Do you want to say goodbye to him?” Her eyes widen as she vigorously shakes her head, almost hiding in her hair.

 

“C’mon, he isn’t blind. Go ahead and talk to him if you like him so much.” I say gently pushing her, but she remains frozen, a look of horror glazes over her eyes. I stop immediately. “Are you alright?”

 

“I—” She stutters, tears beginning to fill her vision, “He knows.” She says, cradling her gut in her arms, “Everyone knows.” She begins to cry, causing my heart to break at the sight.

 

“What do they know? What’s wrong?” I ask, wrapping my arms around her as she hastily tries and fails to dab the tears away.

 

“The king, he—” She pauses. Oh no. “I mean, he does with most of his servants, but with me it’s obvious.” She hiccups fiddling with the bracelet on her wrist. “At least I get jewels out of it.” She adds, her voice cracking.

 

“You can’t possibly mean that,” I say, looking at her with abject horror. She grabs a piece of cloth, wiping the tears away.

 

“I just don’t want to imagine what he sees when he looks at me.” We’re silent for a moment before I step in front of her, grabbing her hands.

 

“How about a beautiful woman who never takes anyone’s nonsense, who is intelligent and powerful, and one of the most considerate people I’ve met.” She looks at me for a moment before she begins to cry, hugging onto me. For the first time in a long time, I hug someone back fully.

 

“Thank you.” She mumbles into my hair, and I let out a little laugh.

 

“It’s nothing, “I respond before pulling away, “Now go talk to him, I’m sure he’d love to see you.” She bites her lip, glancing over at him before nodding. I smile as she walks over to him, looking up at him with a bright smile. I even see David smile.

 

“That was nice,” I hear a voice behind me, jumping to see the Darkling behind me. “What you did for her.” I huff, returning my gaze to Genya, my gaze solemn.

 

“Did you know?” I ask, refusing to look at him. Neither of us speaks for a long moment, but he doesn’t move to leave either. I shut my eyes tightly before reeling over to look at him, “Did you know.” His grey eyes bore into mine for a long time, his jaw tightening. He steps away.

 

“We leave in five, make sure you have everything.” I resist the urge to shout at him as he walks away from me. Coward. Fool. Monster. He knew, maybe he always knew. Maybe that was his plan. As I glance over at Genya I make a silent promise,

 

‘I’ll kill him for you Genya. I’ll kill both of them for you. You’ll finally be free.’

 

We leave the Little Palace not five minutes later, me, the darkling, Ivan, Zoya, the healer, and the three trackers off into the growing light of the sky around us.

 

 

We ride off towards Fjerda for a good seven hours, the environment around us progressively getting cooler and cooler. Snow begins to blanket the ground and the only colors that surround us are white, grey, brown, and blue. My fingers subconsciously swirl on the reins in a mockery of the swirling of paint beneath my fingertips.

 

I notice the people around me begin to curl in on themselves and throw blankets over their shoulders, everyone except for me—and the darkling. I have my warmth to blame for that, I’ve never been cold since I’ve learned how to sustain my body heat, but the darkling looks just as unbothered.

 

We haven’t stopped once, and we almost miss the gesture the darkling makes for us to stop at a small clearing—almost. My horse, which I’ve decided to name Svet, huffs heavily as we come to a stop, clearly exhausted as I maneuver myself off, stroking his mane before turning to the rest of the group.

 

The darkling speaks with David and the tidemaker. David immediately goes to shape a fallen log into a trough, while the tidemaker takes the fallen snow, separating the molecules so it falls into the trough as water. The horses immediately lap it up as the rest of the group goes to huddle together and make a fire with the surrounding wood.

 

“How are you not freezing your arse off, Sankta?” The tracker says as he makes his way over to me, huddled in his jackets, but more in element than the majority of the other people here.

 

“I’m no saint,” I reply, looking out into the woods, feeling a faint energy coming out from it, the children are somewhere in there. Not for long.

 

“Well, that’s what I’m going to call you unless I’m given a name.” I can hear the humor in his voice as he stands behind me, the stubbornness. Much like myself when I was a child. I sigh and look behind me again, my eyes skirting to the group who just got the fire to start.

 

“Alina, if you must know.” His smile is laced in triumph as he moves to stand closer to me. “Don’t you want to stand by the fire?” I ask, gesturing my head to the group.

 

“I’m used to the cold,” He shrugs, glancing off towards them, “Besides, I think I’ve talked all of them nearly half to death by now. All except you, that is.” I scoff at that, turning towards the forest once more.

 

“I don’t have anything to say.”

 

“I don’t believe that.”

 

“Well, that’s all I have to say, so unless you have something important to tell me,” I start, glaring over at him, “Leave me alone.” His eyes widen before he mutters a quick apology and scutters off towards the fire. Self-hatred bubbles up within me, knowing how disappointed my parents would be if they saw that, but mistress would praise my cruelty. I sigh moving to head over to my horse, seeming to have gotten her fill of the water.

 

“I’m sorry,” I mutter stroking her nose, seeing Mal and Mei, mom and dad, mistress and general Hsu, Kayla and the children, Ivan and Zoya, and even the darkling. I see everyone I’ve ever met and push out the guilt as I brush her mane and feed her a carrot. “I’m sorry.”

 

 

It’s about an hour later before the darkling calls everyone around the campfire, if they aren’t already, likely to talk about the next stage of our journey. I notice, as I join the group, that many of the people have stopped shivering and the horses are huddled together on the side. I spike of warmth floods through me before I stamp it out, my gaze firm on the darkling.

 

“We’re currently at the Fjerdan border, so if you need to do anything now, be it to stretch, warm up, breathe, piss, I’d do it now. Once we leave, we aren’t stopping for any reason whatsoever. We all will stay huddled together as close as possible. Me and the trackers in the front, and Alina in the back—”

 

“Why?” I ask, glancing at him suspiciously with my arms folded. I still can’t help the sliver of distrust that runs through me. Maybe this is a trap after all. A big ruse to catch me off-guard.

 

“You will use your skillset to make the group invisible as we tread through the snow, Lev will be next to you,” He begins, gesturing to the tidemaker, “He’ll be the one covering our tracks in the snow so that the Fjerdans will have no idea of our presence.” I hate to admit it, but that’s clever. If I had gone alone, I wouldn’t have thought of that.

 

‘You can’t let your emotions blind you, girl.’

 

“Does everyone understand what’s asked of them?” The Darkling’s voice though on the quieter side, it somehow makes it all the more commanding. Everyone around the fire nods, some look nervous, some indifferent, the trackers seem to be the most comfortable though. I suppose they might be one of the only ones who have even been to Fjerda in this group. “Okay, we leave in ten, pack up everything and remove all traces of the fire.”

 

The group disbands in an instant at his command, David and the Lev getting to work on the fire, everyone else seems to be packing up. I turn my back on them towards the forest. A strange hum fills my veins as I peer into it. Maybe it’s because of the children.

 

“For a long time, I didn’t.” I hear the darkling say behind me, causing me to jerk my head around. He stands there looking at me, his face carrying its normal indifferent slate. I furrow my brows at his words, trying to think back to earlier today. “About Genya,” He clarifies, and my face immediately falls, my mouth staying firmly shut, looking for the lie. “When I found out, I talked to her about removing her from the Queen’s services,”

 

“Then why isn’t she with the Grisha now?” I call his bluff, my eyes alight with a deeply suppressed warmth of rage. It’s slipping from my grasp; I need to get better control of myself. What would mistress say?

 

“She said no.” This takes me aback as I stare at him disbelieving, I fight back the urge to refuse his claim knowing how he has a talent for twisting words.

 

“What did you tell her for her to say no,” I reply, knowing that I hit the target with this analysis from the way his jaw tenses slightly, though his eyes never waver.

 

“The truth. I told her both outcomes of her choice. She can leave and escape the king, or she can continue being a servant, and acquire more information. She chose the latter.” I consider this for a moment, knowing that there must be something omitted, although it does feel like Genya to want to serve Grisha and the darkling, especially against his not-so-subtle disliking of the king.

 

“Perhaps, but whatever you promised Genya, just know that what you are doing and what the king is doing. Both of you are wrong.” That is all I say before walking past him and to my horse, pulling myself up with a huff. “For now,” I say, looking directly at him, “We save those children.”

 

 

Snow began to pour about an hour after we passed the Fjerdan border, if people weren’t shivering before, they certainly are now. Though the darkling did put on a heavier coat, he never seemed fazed by the cold, though it was hard to tell from the back. I had to keep my energy focused on shielding the group as the tidemaker, Lev next to me remained beside me, though he was slowing down as the cold continued to pound on him.

 

The pulsing in my veins only grew more prominent the further in we went, the sturdy trees around us, keeping their leaves stubbornly in the freezing temperatures. ‘Just a little bit longer ‘For Kayla’ We trudge forward into the storm.

 

 

Two hours later, when the sun has just begun to set, I notice the group begin to turn into a slight clearing snapping me from my attention of cloaking the group. As soon as I make it into the clearing with the group, everyone seems frozen still, curling in on themselves. I hop off Svet and make my way to the one person who doesn’t seem as affected by the cold.

 

“We need to do something; they won’t be any help if they’re freezing to death,” I say as soon as I step up to the darkling. To my surprise he doesn’t say anything witty in response, simply nodding before tying his horse to a nearby tree.

 

“Help me build a fire and then we can set out to look for more wood in the forest.” He responds, adjusting his heavy kefta. “Are you not cold?” He asks eyeing my kefta. The same oversized purple kefta I’d had since the beginning of my time at the Little Palace.

 

“That’s not important,” I snip back, turning my back to him and towards the scattered wood in the clearing. The truth is, that even with my summoning, I can’t ward off all the cold. Everyone else comes first though.

 

We make quick work of gathering the wood, setting it up in a fire kindling, fire, logs, sticks, before a fire forms. The others quickly flock over to the fire as soon as it starts, though we need to head out now for wood or else it won’t last all night.

 

Looking at the darkling, I nod my head towards the forest, beckoning him to follow me. I don’t look behind me as I walk into the forest, my pulse deepening with each step. He catches up to me quickly, and I ignore the way my power pulsates as he moves closer.

 

“Cloak us.” A command, no intonation in the slightest. I roll my eyes, not pausing at my pace.

 

“I am,” I respond briefly distorting the forest around as we walk before shifting it back to normal. He doesn’t speak again as we collect wood nearby, I shovel them into an empty pouch as we go about.

 

“Have I misspoken?” He asks as I jam the last few sticks into my bag. I act as if he hasn’t spoken as I push the last stick in. “You won’t even look at me.” He adds and I sigh, turning towards him. He looks—tired, always tired now.

 

“I’m not in a good mood right now, every second we waste, Kayla and the kids have a higher and higher chance of being killed.” It’s not a lie, not exactly the truth either. I grit my teeth as I can’t seem to get the last piece of wood within my bag, and a pile already filled for me to carry. All of the sudden my vision goes foggy, and I fall back into the snow, my hair spilling out around me, blending into the snow.

 

The darkling, places down his pile kneeling beside me, asking, “Are you well, physically?” propping myself up on my forearms, I shake the snow out of my hair, trying my best to clear my vision.

 

“I’m fine,” I exhale, crawling back over to my bag, grabbing the stick I’ve been trying to push in. The Darkling’s hand closes over mine, taking the stick from my grasp and adding it to his already towering pile. “Don’t you—”

 

“I’m alright.” He says before removing the outer coat of his kefta and throwing it over my shoulders. I look at him with wide eyes, not even noticing the chills I had before as his scent and warmth wrap around me. He picks up his pile without a second glance. As I look towards my bag, I see two tendrils of darkness scoop up both my bag and the pile.

 

“I can carry something!” I say as heat floods my cheeks. I move onto my feet and jog over to him, my coordination not at its best with this weird pulsing and my vision issues. “Just hand me my bag—” He holds up a hand, staying perfectly still, effectively stopping me in my tracks as I survey the surroundings. A shadow in the trees, unnatural to the environment. A Fjerdan.  

 

“Are we invisible right now?” He whispers, not moving a hair. My small gasp is all the answer he needs as he drops the piles, and his darkness surrounds us. I move my hands to summon around us, however, he grabs my wrist keeping me from doing so. “No, I’ll handle this.”

 

“I can fight.”

 

“No.”

 

“You can’t stop me.” I fire back, lifting my head, the sound of a stick breaking snapping us. 6 Fjerdans come into view. “You aren’t alone,” I tell him quickly before widening my stance, shaking the blurred vision away. There’s time for that later. Now, it’s time to fight.

 

To my surprise, they don’t move, playing defensive. Fine by me. The darkling must’ve thought the same thing because the next second darkness floods towards the men. As soon as the darkness reaches their vicinity, a shrill sound emits before bright light emits from something by their feet. It takes me a moment, the darkling’s summoning unable to reach them before I absorb the light, as discretely as possible, as if to make it look like a mechanical error.

 

They’re fighting darkness with light machines. A device that complex would be difficult to construct.

 

Sensing the emitter from inside, still pulsing with the energy to light, I drain the energy, seeping it out as heat in the area surrounding. I hear the men curse in Fjerdan before they now move to attack, blades and axes in hand. I glance quickly towards the darkling long enough to see him smirk before darkness shrouds us, leaving us to be swallowed by the night.

 

 

“Are you hurt?” I hear the darkling ask as the darkness around us fades, the snow stained red as bodies line up. Panting, I glance over at him, giving him a once-over. He looks unfazed, hardly a hair out of place.

 

“I could ask the same for you, aren’t you tired?” He lets out a quick laugh, offering me a hand. I push back the urge to shove it aside before accepting it, feeling the energy between us as he pulls me to my feet. “Should we dispose of them,” I ask, gesturing to the Fjerdans laying around us.

 

“Not yet, I’ll go search the four over here, can you go check the two by that tree if they have any valuable information on them?” He asks, I nod silently appraising him for having the energy to fight then plan ahead like that without any sort of effort.

 

I ignore the tangle of limbs that were once two burly men and check their pockets. Jackets? Nothing. Bags? Nothing Pants? No—a folded piece of paper inside the second man’s pocket captures my attention. Pulling it out, I unfold the paper, my eyes widening as I take in its contents.

 

A map of the nearby Fjerdan camp.

 

“Did you find anything?” I jump at his voice directly behind me, clutching the map to my chest. Once I catch my breath I stand up, showing him the map.

 

“I think this is where the children are being held based on these barracks here labeled so,” I say pointing to where ‘Children of the damned’ is labeled in Fjerdan by pen.

 

“You speak Fjerdan?” I feel my blood rush hot at his question, panic rising within me.

 

“That’s not important.,” I deflect, facing towards him. “We can save them, so I figured that once the group has warmed up a bit we can head out at night and—”

 

“Alina.” He interrupts and I look up at him with furrowed brows. “They won’t be able to travel tonight, and it’s not safe. Fjerdan military bases have a day and night guard crew, both equal in size and skill. We need to wait until morning.”

 

“But what if something happens to them?” I fire back, crossing my arms in front of me. “What if we arrive the next morning and they’re already dead.”

 

All of us will be dead if we leave when we’re unprepared.” He fires back, his words like a slap in the face. “I wish we could go save than now, but in order to help them to the best of  our extent, we need to be rested and prepared with a plan.” I sigh, sweeping my hair through my hair.

 

“Fine,” I say, my left hand fiddling with my pocket slightly. “We’ll wait.” He visually relaxes at that, looking around at the scatted and bloodied sticks around us.

 

“Good. I’ll collect these sticks and the bodies, and can you fetch Lev over to dilute the blood.” I nod, chewing my cheek taking one step before I remember the coat trailing by my feet.

 

“Oh, do you want this back?” I ask, moving to untie the coat, he lifts his hands to stop me, his eyes scanning the coat on me.

 

“Keep it.” He says before something else skirts across his gaze, “Besides, black looks good on you.” He says meeting my gaze. I can’t push out the heat that floods my face as I quickly nod before scurrying back toward the group.

 

 

The sun is quite set by the time the darkling disappears within his private tent near the fire, the last to disappear after checking and rechecking the area. Of course, I’m still awake assigned to keep the camp hidden at night, although I wait about thirty minutes after the darkling disappears before I reach into my pocket.

 

He took the map I showed him of the Fjerdan camp, although he didn’t take the other one, I hid it in my pocket as I stood up.

 

I’m sorry, but I need to save those children. With or without you.

 

I walk into the dark of night, a map and dagger in hand. A warm black cloak around my shoulders, blending me into the night that encompasses the forest.

 

I’m sorry.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 9: Alive

 

The camp is a beacon within the forest, not even remotely hidden. Confident—we’ll see how long that last. My gaze returns to the map within my hands scanning over every note and symbol. A constant rotation of Fjerdan soldiers circulates along the walls of the edge, machinery I’ve only seen a semblance of in Shu Han.

 

‘You need to be smart, girl. One mistake and you’re dead.’

 

The cloak shields me from being noticeable through the dense forest surrounding the camp as I survey each wall and possible weak points. To my dismay, there was seemingly no flaw with their security, ben lining every corner with practiced poise, everything monitored meticulously.

 

‘The answer isn’t always obvious, look.

 

A wave of realization pulses through me as I glance back at the map, I smirk as I take note of the power source. The direct translation is ‘mechanical absorbent ray paneling,’ in other words solar energy. I’ve seen experiments in Shu Han with this concept, but nothing successful.

 

The light device. They found out how to harvest the sun.

 

When will people learn, that the sun doesn’t like to be caged?  There is always a flaw in the system.

 

Outstretching my palms, I push my focus toward the camp, using the map as a guide, finding my source. It takes me less than two seconds to sense it, like a wire about to snap, the sun calls to me, begging to be released.

 

With pleasure.

 

With the twist of my palms, the main factory begins to pulse with light, workers flooding from the building, some with scorches on them. I notice as half the men standing at guard are called to help alleviate the situation, leaving a portion of the wall unguarded. A blind spot.

 

Cloaking myself, I make my way to the wall, having scanned a section that was possible for me to scale, I lift my foot onto one of the rough edges and begin to climb. I suppose physical training was important after all.

 

I perch myself on the ledge of the wall, many soldiers flailing about from the recent factory ‘incident’. I resist the urge to laugh, waiting for the road beneath me to clear before hopping down, sliding into one of the darkened sections between buildings.

 

Four buildings Southeast of my current location, along the East section of the wall. Four buildings to Kayla. It takes no effort to slip over next to the looming building made of concrete and oak. Men flank the sides and in front of the building, remaining in place even with the malfunction happening.

 

There are no windows, smooth unscalable walls, bolted, bulky guns at each corner. I guess my hypothesis was correct. The children are here. Not for long. There has to be something, some way of getting in.

 

I circle the building scanning each corner, none of the soldiers moving an inch, their faces void of any emotion. ‘What would mistress say?’ I ask myself, but nothing comes up, no solutions no answers. A small voice within my head whispers, ‘What would mama say?’

 

‘Whenever you’re lost, look up, my love. That’s where it all is.’

 

I look at the sky, taking a deep breath, but as I look down, I notice something jutting out from the roof. A vent.

 

They may have this building guarded, however, the building surrounding it only has a few soldiers circulating between buildings. Still cloaking myself. I breeze over to the nearest building, using my bagger to click open a hatch next to a window, pushing myself in before any soldier could notice anything out of place.

 

I’m immediately met with a stale smell of dried meat, and I force nausea out o my system. ‘You’ve been around rotting corpses, this is nothing.’ I push past the crates of stored food, clinging to the wall in case someone was to walk in. Even with the ‘invisibility’, there are still ways people can sense my presence or even bump into me.

 

I make my way over to a bolted latter, scurrying up, into the upper storage space within the roof before pushing the hatch that leads me onto the roof. The streets below have seemed to calm down, more soldiers returning to their posts along the outer wall—not that it matters. With the buildings being so close in proximity, I’m able to skip across from this roof to the next, carefully making my way to the vent.

 

It’s easy to unscrew it with my dagger, slipping inside before propping it back into place. Ignoring the wretched smell, I tie a rope to the vent panel and let it drop down into the lower crawl section of vents beneath me. I can hear the muffled sounds of men talking in Fjerdan as I begin to crawl across the vent, careful not to make a sound. Various paneling locations line the vent, although I don’t stop moving until I see a bathroom, only one Fjerdan currently occupying it, luckily, I don’t have to wait long before he leaves giving me the opportunity to push the paneling open and hop onto the ground beneath me. I quickly put it back into place before stopping right in front of the door

 

No turning back now.

 

I quickly move to throw the door, careful to make it as discrete as possible as I step into the hallway. Concrete floors, walls, ceilings. It’s more of a prison than anything else. Of course, they take children here. I have to be a lot more careful as men pass by, the halls having the occasional soldier brush by. I just need to stay long enough to find them.

 

As I brush past a door, I stop upon hearing a snippet of the conversation.

 

“Are you sure they’ll come for them?”

 

“Certain, they have a soft spot for the children.” I resist the urge to throw up at their words, feeling my body begin to burn.

 

“In preparation, keep the West wing with half the security, but have been ready in the slide halls.” Is that where they’re keeping the children? If so, why half the security?

 

“You’re certain this’ll work? He doesn’t seem one to fall into a trap easily.”

 

“It will, and when we have him, he’ll suffer for his crimes against, Djel.”

 

It’s a trap. A trap for the darkling.

 

They must have some sort of sensor or alarm within the west wing, although the side halls heading into the wing should be open based on their conversation. Packed with Fjerdan soldiers, but open.

 

I’m coming, Kayla, just hold on.

 


 

The halls were crawling with Fjerdans, many heading in and out of the rooming lining it, cleaning weapons, counting bullets, fake fighting with their comrades, several in uniforms I recognize as Fjerdan officer uniforms Head towards the west wing, likely making sure the children are in place. I silently curse myself for not having a solid escape plan. I’ll likely have a minute of running with the children before the alarms sound. I’ll think of something.

 

As soon as I notice an officer begins to make their way towards the door, I walk behind them, slipping through the door that leads to the west wing, careful to match the pattern of my steps with theirs. One step closer to them. There are various cells along the walls, however, each of them is empty, likely any POWs being held in a different building.

 

I almost gasp when I hear the wails. Down the hall, soft moans of pain and cries emit, and it takes every ounce of my control not to burn the Fjerdan officer in front of me with the flick of my wrist. No, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. You need to stay focused.

 

When they come into view, I almost cry in relief and torment at the same time. Seeing all their little bodies huddled together, shaking in fright at the sight of the Fjerdan officer keeping an eye on them, making something on his record before continuing down the hall, his footsteps echoing softly before I hear the soft thud of a door closing behind him. It’s then that I lift the veil.

 

Some of the children take notice immediately, gasping and rushing up to the bars saying, “Sankta!” I shush them quickly, shifting my gaze to the two hallway entrances, checking if anyone heard. Seeing that no one is coming I kneel to the children’s level, my eyes quickly finding Kayla and softening. She’s okay.

 

“I don’t have much time, so I need you to listen to me very carefully, once I open this, I’m sure they’ll figure out what happened soon after, so I need you all to be brave and look out for each other, okay?” I ask and they all nod, looking at one another. “Okay, so this is my plan,”

 

 

I rush down the halls, the children trailing behind me, their footsteps soft as they follow me out the west wing, we continue carefully to avoid the sight of any wandering Fjerdan, jumping as a loud alarm blare around us.

 

They know.

 

We begin to rush faster, the door to the end of the west wing fast approaching, my heart beating loudly within my ears. Please work.

 

Right before we make it to the door, a large group of Fjerdan soldiers barges in, guns aimed and shouting, causing us all to halt in our position. A man steps in front of the men, a smirk displayed across his face.

 

“Ravka only sent a frail little girl to retrieve their precious Grisha?” He mocks in Ravkan, eyes scanning me. I recognize his voice as one of the generals that I eavesdropped on before, feeling hot dire course through my entire being.

 

“Step aside or I’ll make sure you all regret it,” I respond in Fjerdan, causing a lot of them to pause at my understanding of their language before they all burst out laughing.

 

“In what outcome do you come out on top? Honestly, witch, your arrogance and foolishness are astounding, although, you do make excellent practice for my boys here.” He responds, followed but some grunts and sneers from some of the people around him.

 

“I’m not your average witch, now step aside before I wipe the halls with you and your boys’ blood.” They laugh again at the, aiming their guns directly toward me, but the general, pulls up his hand, stopping them from firing.

 

“We want them alive, restrain the children, but keep her alive.” He says before walking out the doors leaving me with the group of over 4 dozen men all quickly approaching me. I quickly clasp my hands together before sending out a radiating pulse of burning heat, sending them all screaming, clutching their faces. While they’re distracted, I quickly work as picking them off, sending the cut flying toward as many men as I cloud to see. With them all focuses on me, the kids are all in the corner, and I take a quick moment to glance over at them, to make sure no one is approaching them.

 

My distraction leads to one of the men grabbing me, however, I’ve practiced evasive maneuvers, being able to shift his momentum to be able to push him over my shoulder and onto the floor, stopping his face so he’s out cold in an instant. Many Fjerdans have encircled me, only a pace away from pouncing, and I let out a 360-degree arc cut, slicing the men around me. The cut takes a lot out of me, and as I briefly catch my breath, I feel a quick pinch as a liquid is released into my neck. I feel my legs give out as I fall to the ground, my vision growing fuzzy.

 

“Checkmate Grisha, bitch.” One of the Fjerdan’s spit at me, gesturing for some of the men to head towards the children. His smug expression is completely wiped away as soon as I start laughing. “What’s so funny?”

 

“Checkmate, you son of a bitch.” I spit back, confusion racks across his face before he hears his comrades’ yelp behind him, watching as the children completely disappear before their eyes.

 

“What did you do?!” He fires at me, pulling me up by my coat, and I can hardly stay conscious. “WHAT DID YOU DO?!”

 

“I won,” I say before my vision goes black.

 


 

(Darkling POV):

 

I could hardly sleep that night, the children and the group on my mind. Everyone’s suffering. Be it frostbite, exhaustion, anxiety, even Alina seems to be having classic symptoms of certain illnesses. Grisha don’t get sick. That being said, Grisha don’t turn invisible—didn’t turn invisible. I suppose I’ll have to make a mental note of her ‘illness’ when we get back.

 

I sigh, feeling overheated, despite the radiating cold all around me, I push the sheets off of me and get up, pressing a hand to my temple before sweeping it through my hair, mussed from sleep. I should be getting up soon anyway so that we’ll be ready for infiltration later today.

 

I pick up the Fjerdan map as well as the previous knowledge I’ve attained about their scheduling, holidays, everything. Around late afternoon is when the guards switch out creating a slight moment of weakness within their rotations, along with Alina’s ability of invisibility, this should go fairly smoothly if we play out cards right.

 

Shifting on my kefta, I leave the tent, the sun just beginning to light up the sky, everyone else fast asleep, their tents in close proximity to the dwindling fire. Memories of cold Fjerdan winters with my mother flood my mind, the smell of burnt flesh keeps us moving, keeps us hidden.

 

“Cold? Do you think they feel cold, Aleksander?”

 

I shove the memory out as quickly as it comes, ever since she disappeared, every memory of her is seeped grey, always.

 

The sound of rustling from the forest captures my attention as I peer from which it came. I sense the shadows within that section of the forest and feel people cut through them. Immediately I move outside of Alina’s tent, pushing the flaps open.

 

“Get up, we need to—” Only an empty room greets me, my eyes lingering on the bundle of blankets where she should be. No. Heat courses through my entire being as I move out of the tent, summoning the darkness within the forest to join me in a defensive stance as the people draw nearer.

 

I arc my arm, readying for the cut, but at seeing the figures approaching, I stop, standing frozen in place.

 

The children.

 

I immediately move to the healer’s tent first, before waking the others and they quickly move to bundle the sobbing children within blankets. Olga quickly moved to work on any flesh wounds they have, Ivan assists a bit, increasing the body heat as much as possible.

 

“What happened?” I hear Zoya ask me, “How are they here right now, is this a trap--” I move my hand to silence her, before moving to Jakaya, the Materialki Alina seemed to be attached to, kneeling in front of her,

“What did Alina tell you?” I ask softly, the shivering girl’s eyes shine with confusion behind the clouded pain.

 

“I-is she not here, yet?” She asks, confirming my suspicions. Saints, Alina. Damn it.

 

“What did she tell you before you escaped?” The entire group has their eyes on us, careful not to miss anything she says.

 

“S-she said for us to move through the side hall after every soldier floods out, before finding the bathroom with the oak door and escaping through the vent. She said that she isn’t sure how much time she’ll be able to give us or when her cloaking on us should drop, but she said to move quickly and that one of the side entrances should have cleared out with what she's about to do.” She blabbers, tears beginning to form in her eyes, “S-she said she meet up with us here and to follow the map home.” She sniffled holding out two maps. One was a hand-drawn map to this very camp and the other was a close replica of the one she gave to me.

 

I feel my whole body harden at the sight of the maps, needing to step away from the children as a precaution. I feel my shadows begin to crowd me as I run a hand through my hair, doing my best not to snap. Are you ignorant of everything I say?

 

I should’ve seen this coming, I should’ve—

 

A looming explosion from miles away jolts the entire ground as smoke fills the sky. For a moment I’m unable to move, the only thought filling my head begins, Alina.

 

“Olga and David, stay here with the children, everyone else, let’s move,” I command, my voice the most uneven it’s been in a while as I pull a tidal wave of shadow from the forest, the other’s falling not far behind as we head towards the explosion.

 


 

(Alina POV):

 

It burns.

 

Why does everything burn?

 

Help me.

 

Help. 

 

Help.

 

H E L P !

 

All I can sense is light and the shouts of some of the Fjerdans around me, weightlessness settling over me, as a newfound strength fills me. Smoke floods my nose as screams surround me.

 

“You can only help yourself.”

 


 

(Darkling POV):

 

The entire camp is ash and smoke, the familiar scent of singed flesh causes me to coil, but I continue to push forward anyway, desperately looking through the smoke.

 

“Zoya.” I snip, and she doesn’t hesitate to move the smoke within her current of air, settling it out around the sky as everything comes into view.

 

There is nothing.

 

The ground is singed and steaming, the only thing left is ash that scatters about the ground. For the first time in decades, I feel a sharp sense of loss overtake me at the sight. She’s gone.

 

“There’s something there.” I hear Ivan say, peering into the still uncovered portion of the camp, and a Zoya pushed the remainder of the smoke aside the entire group freezes.

 

Alina stands there in the center, covered in blood with an absent look on her face.

 

I don’t have time to be surprised as I race towards her, noticing the waver in her legs, catching her before she drops.

 

“What—”

 

“Not now, Ivan!” I snip quickly jogging with her trembling form in my arms, “For now keep her alive until we take her to Olga.” I don’t have time to question how she was able to obliterate an entire Fjerdan camp, or how she survived, for now, the only thought is getting her to Olga. She’s alive.

 

Alive.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Revelation

 

“What was that?” Ivan’s voice pierces my tent as I scrub my hands, freshly stained with blood. Olga said she won’t know the extent of the damage done to Alina for a while, which finally leaves me some time to think.

 

“I’m unsure, maybe she imploded one of the mechanical gas tanks there.” I hypothesize, scrubbing the last bit of copper away, as soon as it’s gone, I immediately put my gloves back on, almost automatically. “Then again, that wouldn’t explain the extent of the damage, nor how she was the only one to survive.”

 

“What if there’s more to her than just cloaking, maybe her abilities come from an inferni source—”

 

“No, though the scorching and smoke match with that hypothesis, the blast reduced concrete to ash, which is unheard of even for the most powerful inferni.” I can sense Ivan’s anxiety from here, an uncommon occurrence that not even I can pull off all the time. He’s afraid of her.

 

“Then what could she have done? Do you think she has an amplifier?” I consider this for a moment before shaking my head.

 

“I would’ve sensed it if she had one,” I respond, noticing Ivan gaze at my hands briefly before returning it to me. “Besides, there is nothing that could’ve done that other than Merzost,” I add.

 

“But having an attachment to Merzost is incredibly rare, almost as rare as you.” I laugh darkly at that. If only.

 

“And yet, a repressed Grisha managed to destroy one of the most prominent Fjerdan bases in a matter of seconds. That fact alone should head no doubt.” Ivan nods at this, although his discomfort is still quite evident.

 

“Then is she safe to be around, or is she a danger to everyone, including the children?” He seems more than prepared to act on his distaste, but he takes a step back noticing my dark gaze.

 

“Careful Ivan,” I mutter darkly, “You’re starting to sound like the Otkazat’sya.” His eyes widen at my words. How many tsars have hunted me down for the same resentment Ivan was displaying? Too many to count.

 

‘They fear what they do not know—use that to your advantage.’

 

Moi Soverenyi, with all due respect—”

 

“General!” Olga burst into my tent, effectively interrupting Ivan. She catches her breath, placing her bloodstained hands on her pants before composing herself. “The girl—Alina—she’s gone.”

 


 

 Alina POV:

 

I woke to the feeling of burning against my skin, the pressure of hands gliding along my ribs, which leaves the feeling of smoke being clogged in my lungs. I jump up immediately, pushing myself out of the touch of the person, and nearly fall from the weakness in my legs.

 

“It’s alright,” A soft voice says to me, carefully reaching forwards, “I’m only trying to help you, now if you’ll please—” Her words are cut off by the sight of blood covering my body, almost like a second skin. I feel my thought tighten as panic fogs my brain. I welp at the feeling of hands on my skin again, pushing the person away from me before bolting as quickly as I could away, tears running red down my face as I run into the forest, the sun still high in the sky.

 

I don’t remember how long I’ve been running, nor what I was even looking for, but my feet take me farther anyway. The ache builds and builds with each step until I have no choice but to collapse onto the dirt beneath me, only at feeling a much too solid surface against my knees. The crystallized material beneath me could only be ice, not dirt.

 

‘Rinse yourself, child, we are not barbarians.’

 

I press my palms against the surface of the eye, focusing all my energy on projecting heat into it. The ice makes creaking sounds before splitting open allowing me to rinse the red paint away. My whole body is dunked in the water, and all I can sense is relief as the natural color of my skin and hair return.

 

I dunk my head under the water, rinsing the remnant of it away, but with the last of the redness leaving my scalp, however with the blood gone, all I’m left with are the screams, terrible, awful, desperate screams that encompass my entire body as my gut tightens painfully. It’s only now that I can feel the bone-shatter cold all around me with the last of my summoning leaving me, so I quickly push up to resurface.

 

A firm surface stops me and the realization that the ice had frozen back over wracks my body with different kinds of chills as I press my palms again the new plane of ice above me. I try to summon desperately as the corners of my eyes start to darken.

 

‘It’s for the best’ The screams tell me ‘After what you did to us.’

 

My whole-body tenses at their words until I can no longer move, beginning to sink like a rock away from the soft light above. The light recedes, yet I can still feel the cold around me, but I can faintly hear a distant crack before I go numb. I’m in darkness for longer than I can remember until warmth suddenly fills my chest. Faintly, I realize, I’m breathing.

 

Confusion clouds me before the darkness recedes only to notice that I’m no longer within the water and am currently being held within a man’s grasp. The numbness slowly starts to leave me as he sets me down, my entire body trembling. I can feel a faint warmth encompass me as I notice the black cloth around me and that I’d only been wearing a tunic and trousers.

 

As the man begins to move away, I cling to him, desperate for warmth and comfort, even with the screams beginning to leave my head. I begin to sob as I realize the twisting in my gut had been guilt. I’m vaguely aware of the arms that wrap around me, and a sense of surety pours into me, calming my heart.

 

I sigh as warmth and sense begin to return to me, holding on tighter to the person next to me. The screams are gone.

 

“It’s okay, Alina.” Confusion begins to settle, the voice sounds familiar, but the softness within it is not, and as I lift my head up weakly to look at the person holding me, I’m me with slate grey eyes. With my head being foggy, it takes me a moment to realize just who I was being held by.

 

Though I freeze at the realization, I don’t jump back as I had expected I would, I only look at him my mind running like a freight train despite having no thought on board.

 

“Are you okay?” He asks with a gentleness even softer than when I first met him. That question jumpstarts a tsunami of memories as I begin to shake once more, sobs racking my body as I try desperately to pull out of his grasp. “Alina,” I hear him call out keeping me firmly in place, “What’s wrong?” The second my body gives up against fighting his is when the tears come pouring out.

 

“I—I k-killed them.” Comes out between gasps, “S-so much blood,” I feel my hands grasp rightly onto the darkling’s tunic, my knuckles turning white. “G-get back, I’m a-a monster.” My actions directly negate my words as all I can seem to do is pull him in close, pressing my forehead to his chest.

 

Alya.” I almost don’t hear it, more of a whisper than anything, as he tilts my face to look at him. “You’re not a monster. You saved them, you saved Kayla.” Despite the large selfish part of me that wants to throw his words aside, I find myself listening remembering the way the Fjerdans spoke about me, Grisha, the children, and even him.

 

“I don’t even know what happened—” I mutter, shutting my eyes tightly, “I don’t know what I did or—”

 

“That’s not important right now.” He responds after hushing me, something close to understanding within his gaze. “For now, we need to make sure you’re okay and let Olga heal you.” He adds and I shake my head ‘no’, wavering slightly as I stand up.

 

“I’m alright,” I tell him, suddenly feeling my sense of pride and self-preservation, though my body seeks out that surety as soon as it’s gone. “I don’t need your help,” I add a little too harshly.

 

“Too bad.” He says before lifting me into his arms, and for a moment I’m too stunned to do anything as he carries me, but shortly after I begin to thrash within his hold.

 

“I can walk! Put me down.” I can see the amusement written plain as day across his face as he continues to carry me further into the woods. Despite my verbal protests, I find myself burrowing into his warmth and surety before eventually, the exhaustion of everything hits me, and the world around me darkens into the realm of my mind.

 

What a terrifying place.

 


 

Darkling POV:

 

Alina feels like nothing as I trek through the sturdy oak forest towards the camp. It wasn’t hard to find her, her energy sparkling in the air around her and the trail of blood she left behind. It’s like my power was being pulled to hers, similar to when our powers had directly made contact before. I could almost feel her pain as she was drowning and could see a younger more naive version of myself in her shaken form.

 

I’ve been trying to push back any attachments, and have been successful for over a century, but as my gaze keeps flitting down to the slight girl within my arms perhaps more scared of herself than anyone else is, I can only feel a tugging pull and calming warmth.

 

‘Like calls to like.’

 

But why?

 

What is she?

 

The more I know her, the more I realize I don’t know her, but despite, the satisfaction of seeing her in my color, and the desire to keep her by my side, blocks out all my sense of self-preservation.

 

‘Wanting makes us weak.’

 

And so, I continue further until the first few tents come into view and place Alina down on the makeshift cot in front of Olga. The walls surrounding my conscience stand tall but begin to crack. I cannot let that happen.

 

 

“How is she?” Olga stands, currently leaning over Alina, her brows furrowed as her palms rest over her stomach. “Is something wrong?”

 

“No—well, the explosion seemed to not have done any damage to her, but something’s off, there’s foreign in her circulatory system, and I’ll notify you as soon as I’ve figured it out, Moi Soverenyi.” I nod at this, taking one last look at the girl with hair like light and snow before exiting the tent once more. I can practically hear my mother chastising me in my head.

 

‘Weak.’

 


 

Alina POV:

 

When I awaken this time, a colling softness washes over me, a soft sigh escaping as I slowly open my eyes. As soon as I open them, I recognize the middle-aged healer, feeling my gut tense as a wave of memories comes back to me.

 

“I’m sorry,” I tell her softly, the words still feeling foreign on my tongue.  “I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

 

She smiles kindly at me before responding, “I was more worried than anything, and I’m glad you’re feeling better. As soon as your abilities renewed, you got better fairly quickly. I think you just needed rest.” I nod, my body completely relaxed as I sit up. “Did give me a good scare though.” She adds with a laugh.

 

“Sorry, I—wasn’t expecting—uh—well—” I can’t seem to find the right words which only makes her laugh more, standing up beside me.

 

“It’s alright, I understand, although, the general did tell me that we’d be leaving back for Os Alta as soon as you got better. You’re feeling good enough to stand, right?”

 

“Better than good, actually,” I respond, practically jumping to my feet. She smiles waving goodbye as I exit the tent. Maybe it’s an effect of being healed, or almost dying, but I find myself beginning to grow attached to the people around me.

 

She reminds me of mama.

 

As soon as I exit the tent, the coldness of reality hits me both literally and figuratively. As I look in the direction of the trackers, they quickly look away from me, fear evident in their eyes. Mal particularly looks especially disturbed, and even several Grisha find it difficult to look at me. The only person not looking at me with gingerly glances was Zoya.

 

“Are you really that big of an idiot?” She tells me as I pass by her, causing me to glance behind at her, eyes wide. “You go against Kirigan’s orders, you endanger the lives of not only the children by going alone, but also by leaving us unprotected and uncloaked. I hope you’re proud of yourself.” Zoya spits at me before marching over to her tent. At least she’ll look at me.

 

She’s right. The darkling has only ever been meticulous and cautious about his plans and has been doing this longer than I’ve been alive. Plus, I did leave them out in the open for any of the night scouters in the forest to kill them.

 

‘They’re your enemies, you shouldn’t feel sympathy for them.’

 

No one ever told me enemies were supposed to be so—real.

 

 

“Are you feeling okay?” Olga asks me for the hundredth time as we ride on our respective horses, side-by-side. I only send her a glance; in response, she lets out a sigh that comes out more like a laugh. “Sorry, I just want to make sure, considering everything that happened.”


“I understand, but I promise you I’m fine, in fact, I feel better than fine,” I say, sitting up straighter for emphasis. The rest of the group is in front of us, still shivering, but certainly better off than when they first rode into Fjerda. No casualties. No mourners.

 

‘Except for us’

 

I shut my eyes tightly becoming the voices out of my head, the throbbing I felt before leaving for the Fjerdan camp coming back in full force. I grip slightly tighter on the reins, tethering me to the horse as I regain my senses, the ache in my head subsiding slightly.

 

“Now I’m defiantly worried? Do you need me to—”

 

I’m fine.” I grit through my teeth, immediately regretting the way she recoils, the one person other than the darkling to show me kindness even after murdering thousands of people. “Sorry,” I muttered, using a hand to rub a temple, “I guess I do have a slight headache.” I reluctantly admit, though slight certainly wouldn’t be the correct word.

 

“I wonder…” She says before trailing off, seemingly stopping herself from speaking. I lift a brow at that, giving her a question glance becoming her to tell me. “I—I’m not supposed to say right now with everything happening, but while I was making sure you were alright, I found something—odd in your bloodstream, I fear it might be a slow affecting poison.” I hear her whisper, at the same time the front of the group halts, causing me to shift my attention to the reins to stop the horse, but not before furrowing my brows in confusion.

 

Poison? I thought they hadn’t found me out. Maybe I was wro—

 

The sound of a gasp cuts off my thoughts as I quickly glance up at Olga, still sitting on her horse. The frozen, shocked expression on her face causes me to glance down, my blood running cold as I notice a piercing hole in her chest, right where her heart would be. An archer.

 

I remain frozen in shock and horror, the sight of Olga flashing to the ashen remains of Fjerdan soldiers, red flooding my vision. The sound of Olga hitting the snow beneath us is what breaks me from my stupor. I feel my chest tighten as tears begin to fill in my eyes.

 

I scream.

 


 

Numb.

 

All I feel is a numbness as I continue to kneel over the fallen corpse of the kind-hearted healer beneath me.

 

Is this how mama died too?

 

“Keep a lookout—” I hear muffled voices around me, “—how many?” “—Can’t pinpoint where—” “Stay close.”

 

I begin to feel warmth begin to tickle my fingertips as hot seeping rage fills my blood. The world resumes around me, the group spanned out closely together, scanning the trees and surrounding brush. While their eyes are all on the environment around us, mine is on the tree behind Olga.

 

Thin spine, thin pointed tip, thin, small feathers designed for optimal swiftness.

 

This arrow—it—it. I almost can’t breathe, heat and confusion clouding my head as I look for something, anything to prove me wrong, but to no avail.

 

The archer is from Shu Han.

 

Immediately a panic begins to settle in my gut remembering all the different equipment and techniques Mei told me about while I was in the camp. Immediately scanning as high up into the tree as I could I looked for the sighs she had told me about.

 

‘We never travel in groups larger than 5 when assigned—if it’s a small group, they’ll usually send one. If it is a solo mission, they’ll be high up in the trees with a certain list of who to go after first.’

 

‘The highest in command?’ I remember myself asking her and she laughed at that, bright and bubbly as always.

 

‘Of course, unless they have a healer. In that case, we go for the healer first, then the highest in command.’

 

The darkling.

 

My eyes quickly find where he’s located darkness curling around him, taunt like a live wire, ready for a fight as he scans the surrounding flora with a stifling precision.

 

‘Try as they might, no average eye will be able to detect us.’

 

I begin running for him, feeling the heat of the person perched on the tree, can feel their eyes on him.

 

‘Why are you trying to protect him, your job is to kill him, let the arrow strike.’

 

Despite the slight halt of my movements, I quickly resume to where he is just a few meters away.

 

‘What are you doing? How many of us has he killed, let him die.’

 

When he turns slightly to look at a different corner of the forest, I hear the soft whistle, remembering the sound from the times I watched Mei shoot.

 

‘Stop, let him die.

 

“NO!” I shout, causing the darkling to turn to me, the arrow fast approaching as I run in front of him.

 

The last thing I see are his wide eyes as the world around me goes black.

 


 

(Darkling’s POV)

 

The world around me halts as I stare at her, an arrow in her gut, the light fading from her eyes as she falls to the ground. For the first time in over a century ice runs through my veins as I stare at the fallen girl in front of me. She saved me.

 

Shadows curl around me in an instant, and I immediately send them out to where the arrow had come from, wrapping around the archer still hidden from sight.

 

Found you.

 

If I were in my right mind, I would torture him, extracting as much information from him before bringing him to Os Alta, but as soon as the archer falls into my sight, right next to Alina, all I feel is rage.

 

I arch my hand and send the sharp strip of shadow on the archer, his head coming off in one clean swipe. I don’t spare a second glance as I fall to my knees directly in front of Alina, grabbing her wrist to feel a pulse.

 

“Ivan!” I shout as soon as I feel the faint beat beneath my fingertips, the feeling of panic and relief rising in me, unfamiliar. Luckily, Ivan doesn’t waste time making his way over to me, his eyes wide as he takes in Alina’s state. “Can you save her?” I ask, my voice uncharacteristically tight as I pull her closer to my chest.

 

“I—no injury to this degree, but I can slow her heart to slow the loss of blood.” He replies and I nod, quickly grabbing a piece of cloth, tearing a long strip from my tunic, before making a makeshift bandage for her. “Sir, I don’t know if she’ll—”

 

“Not now, Ivan! Your orders are to keep her alive at all costs, do you understand?” I bite out and he nods curtly in response. He stays close to me as I stand up, Alina firmly within my grasp. We move over to the horses and I’m about to hoist Alina onto my saddle when I hear her groan softly beneath me, her eyes opening a sliver.

 

“No.” I hear her utter softly, her face pinches as she writhes in my grasp, a thin sheen of sweat begins to gloss over her skin as if she’s in the middle of a night terror. Both Ivan and I glance at each other, confusion evident on his face. She shouldn’t be this cognizant of the amount of blood she’s lost.

 

“Alina?” I ask hesitantly, and her eyes snap open, her pupils blown wide as she jumps out of my grasp and onto the group, “Alina, you need to—”

 

“No. No. No. No! Make it stop!” She shouts her hands clasping her head as her eyes shut tightly. I make a gesture to Ivan to put her to sleep, but before Ivan can reach out, she flings her arms outwards a pulsating wave of heat outstretches and shoves the entire group away onto our backs.

 

When I glance back towards Alina her eyes are fogged, her face pale, and I’m about to reach out to her with my darkness before light begins to come from the side of the forest approaching us. I’m left laying there aghast when a vision of white emerges from the forest, and I feel my power reach out to it as soon as I see it.

 

The stag.

 

The creature I’ve been hunting for centuries.

 

Just here, no explanations or—

 

Her.

 

“I don’t know why—I just always felt a connection to it.”

 

She meant the stag.

 

Alina’s gasp breaks me from my thoughts, as light begins to flow throughout the forest as the stag approaches her. All any of us can do is stare in awe as she reaches out to the creature, and as soon as her fingertips graze the stag, blinding white fills every inch of the forest.

 

When the light recedes, Alina is floating off the ground, the stag’s spirit behind her as her eyes shine white pulses of warmth flood the area as the snow melts around us creating a circle of grass and greenery. I can't take my eyes off her as the stag’s antlers begin to embed into her collar, life seeming to fill her from head to toe.

 

Her cheeks and body begin to fill out slightly, the bags disappearing from her eyes, her skin gaining color, but most notably, her hair turns into a rich brown in thick waves.

 

She’s—beautiful.

 

When she falls back onto the ground, everyone can only seem to stare at her in awe. One of the people in the group utters, “Sankta.” Under their breath. I’m the first to stand, slowly approaching her. I don’t have time to speak to her, because the second I come within a couple of meters of her, her eyes flutter shut, and I’m left to run after to catch her as my brain struggles to process what the fuck just happened.