A young girl is found on the side of the road, just a walk past Balakirev. There are tracks everywhere, and a fresh inch of snow. Cold, dark, a killing wind blowing harshly through the trees. A pair of brother and sister find her on their way to Kribirsk. They carry her unconscious body into the back of their caravan, out of curiosity and concern.
They take her to the orphanage just south of the Fold, she is mumbling and delirious throughout the ride. They do their best to patch her up, or at least make sure she doesn't bleed out on the road, feeling just a little bit better of themselves for their charity. The estate is the best place for her, with the orphans of the border wars and refugees plucked from distant towns.
The caretakers there stitch her up, replenish her blood and tend to her blistering feet and wounded head as best they can, but without a Grisha Healer, they can only do so much. At the very least, she is alive.
They whisper among themselves, that it was a miracle that she hadn't frozen to death in the cold. They talk of the gown she wore when she was brought to the orphanage, deep blue and embroidered with gold. Maybe some noble's daughter, a runaway countess.
Even so, most all the nobles in Ravka went to Os Alta for the winter.
They can barely guess how a noble's daughter managed to get all the way from Os Alta to Balakirev, but in her small body, she had somehow managed.
She remains unconscious for days, incoherent mutters between unseen dreams, even so far as a name.
Alina, she murmurs in her sleep. Run, Alina.
It is raining when she finally wakes. Alone, terrified, she reels from a nightmare. She tries to call out a name, but she struggles to remember it the moment it catches in her throat.
Amnesia, they diagnose.
She asks them if they know her name. The woman at her bedside smiles sadly and replies with a 'no'. They give her a name anyway. Alina, they say, a name she murmured once in her sleep, feverish and dreaming. They're not sure if it's hers, but it's a common enough name. There isn't a single town in Ravka without an Alina, named after the Sun Summoner and Ravka's hope of healing.
Alina. She likes the way it sounds. It sounds beautiful. It sounds right.
The revolution impacted Ravka greatly, changed it even. Alina guesses it must have impacted her too, from the sorrowful looks her caretakers and teachers as well as the fragments of memory she manages to pull from her dreams.
She assumes, like everyone else, that her parents were nobles. After news of the attack on Os Alta broke out, it became the clearest and most possible answer. Her parents were some duke or duchess, and they were there on the night of the infamous winter fete, where the Grisha power of Ravka was leveled, stripped of luxury and lives. How else can they explain her manner, her education, the snow-bitten gown the widows say she was found in.
The teachers think it's the trauma that led Alina to forget. Her family was killed along with the Lantsovs and the other nobility who refused to obey, and her mind had chosen to forget to deal with the grief.
It still doesn't feel like the right answer, but it's the only explanation they have. She can't find anything in her mind that confirms or denies it. She finds only her dreams, calling in the night.
Alina dreams of darkness and light, of a silver moonlit pool and of dancing in the snow. She can't grasp for further. Her past is only a light at the end of the hall and she can't reach for it. Home is a few moments of sleep away but never closer.
Keramzin does its best to give Alina that home, though she doesn't really remember any other to compare it to. It gives her a present where she can't find a past.
She has her share of chores and lessons in classrooms, though the teachers preferred more to sit by the fire in the colder days. Bored, trapped indoors, but, safe and far from the revolution in Os Alta. A boy just about Alina's age arrives in Keramzin within weeks of her. They have their share of chores and classroom hours together, stealing away into the disused rooms of the estate.
His eyes are blue like the summer sky and his arrival feels like spring. He is short and stocky but always smiling. Alina is different. She can't find it in herself to smile like he does. Ghosts of her past linger in the back of her head, nameless and faceless and taunting; but her past and the emptiness of it do not matter to him.
The seasons come and go, and Alina's dreams become just dreams, echoes of her past that she's long since given up on reaching. The summer comes, and the Duke Keramsov returns to the estate, with stories of the fete and Os Alta in winter. His eyes glance over Alina for only a second, then he excuses himself to his study.
Winter seems to be a kinder time than the summer. Their chores and lessons grow longer with the days, more stifling with the heat. When the summer heat is at its worst, Mal and Alina escape to the woods, or swim in the nearby muddy creek, or they lie for hours in the meadow they call theirs, watching the sun pass from overhead.
Alina and Mal have spent near a good year at Keramzin when the Grisha examiners come. They are huddled behind a column in the gallery above the sitting room. Ana Kuya, the Duke's housekeeper, is there in her bird-like black dress, talking to the cook.
"It isn't something to look forward to anymore," Ana Kuya tells the cook. "I expect only the worst for the Grisha among the children."
The cook leans casually on the doorway, splotches of tonight's dinner staining her apron. "Would you rather they were raised as soldiers with the King's draft?"
"Over being treated as witches and tried as criminals? Yes. They're children."
They talk of an older Ravka that Alina doesn't remember, days when Grisha were prized among people. They talk of Lantsov kings and bastard princes, and times that Alina doesn't know.
The front door opens and the chilling new winter air rushes into the room. The cook wrings her hands on her apron. "I best be getting back to that stew now, Ana." The housekeeper nods and begins to pour tea from the samovar. "You never know. The new examiners might be better to deal with than witches."
Mal and Alina peer through the railings of the balcony. A tall blonde man, and a much shorter one with salt-and-pepper hair have made their way to the sitting room. The shorter man sits by the fire while the other ambles about the room.
"Only two?" The shorter man asks, his accent gruff as if it is the first time he has used his voice in a while and the winter has stolen away its depth.
"Yes," says Ana Kuya. "There have been less and less coming with the border wars ending. A boy and a girl, both around ten, we think."
The burly man stops pacing. "You think?" The words are rough, as if Ravkan isn't his first language.
"He must be Fjerdan," Mal whispers to her.
Alina nods. A Fjerdan. A shiver runs down her spine, but she can't explain it.
"Yes, well. When the parents are deceased…"
The man sitting by the fire waves his hand dismissively. He doesn't seem to be as nervous around the Fjerdan man as Ana Kuya is. "Understood. My companion here is not as familiar with this institution as we Ravkans are. Duke Keramsov's interest in the welfare of the common people is something to be admired."
"Our Duke is a very great man."
The two children listening from the balcony meet each other's gaze. Their benefactor, Duke Keramsov, was a celebrated war hero and a known friend to the people; his estate a home to orphans and widows of war. He was there the night Os Alta fell and he returned to tell the story, but he doesn't do so in front of the children and the orphans. Ana Kuya tells that the Duke has known enough about loss.
"Now, about those two children?" The Ravkan mentions. "What are they like?"
Ana Kuya's lips press into a fine line. "The girl has a talent for drawing, and the boy is most at home in the meadow and the woods."
"Yes, but what are they like?" He asks again.
The housekeeper's expression betrays nothing. "They are about as natural as two children can be. They are undisciplined, contrary, far too attached to each other—"
"Where are these children?" The Fjerdan asks.
Mal helps Alina up from the balcony floor as Ana Kuya's voice lashes out for them like a whip. "Malyen! Alina! Come down here at once!"
The two children make their way down the narrow spiral staircase at the end of the gallery. When they reach the bottom, the Fjerdan man casts a hard glance at the Ravkan and speaks with authority. "Fetch the drüsje from the sleigh."
The other man leaves out the front door to fetch… something. The Fjerdan, edge still intact, gestures them to come forward. They glance at each other briefly.
The front door opens again and the Ravkan man enters with someone else. Drüsje, the Fjerdan had called her. Her eyes, which might have once been the most beautiful shade of green, are glassy and blank. Her hair is sullen and streaked with gray, ratted and in clumps. Her hands are shackled together in front of her.
The tall blond Fjerdan turns to Ana Kuya. "You may leave us now." The old housekeeper leaves, though she hovers at the door for a few seconds before finally disappearing into the kitchen.
"Wait!" Mal exclaims. "What happens if we're Grisha? What happens to us?"
He looks down on them, then shares a look at the Ravkan man.
"That is not for us to say," the Ravkan shares.
Alina isn't paying much attention to them. Her eyes are looking at the shackled woman. She can tell that she might have been beautiful, though her face has sunken and her breath is shaky. She wears tattered red robes with light embroidery pulled and torn in places. She carries the clothes barely, as if it weighs like lead on her back. Tentatively, Alina tries to reach forward.
Her eyes snap to Alina and Alina's hand falters in shock.
"You're here," the woman whispers. Her voice is soft, weak, audible only to Alina. The other men are too busy talking with Mal to notice.
Alina's eyebrows knit in surprise and confusion. "What happened to you?"
"What happened to you?" She mirrors the question back to Alina. Her eyes gloss over with something Alina can't quite recognize.
The woman reaches forward to grasp Alina's face, but the palm never touches, only hovers over her cheek. Alina steps back and the woman follows, but the chains at her feet hold her back. She looks… broken, held together only by the chains that bind her. If she's freed, Alina feels like the woman might just fall apart.
The towering Fjerdan turns to the sound of clanking chains and catches Alina looking at the red-robed woman. "Do not fear it. The drüsje is subdued and can do you no harm like this."
The drüsje, as the Fjerdan calls her, casts a dark glare at the men before returning her soft gaze to Alina.
"Drüsje." Alina feels the syllables on her lips. They taste foreign, wrong.
The woman gives the barest shake of her head and a whisper soft enough for only Alina to hear. "Grisha."
One of the men pull the chains back and the Grisha woman shuffles to where they direct her.
"Despite her crimes, this one has been pardoned for her abilities," the Ravkan man explains. "Come here," he gestures for them to move closer.
Reluctantly, they do so. They stand close to each other, Mal's hand reaching out to clasp Alina's. The Fjerdan man harshly shoves the Grisha toward them and Alina winces. This isn't how people are meant to be treated.
The woman in red takes Mal's free hand, closing her hand around his wrist. Mal only stares at the place where the Grisha's hand meets his. Their hands fall. The men watch tentatively as she shakes her head and moves to Alina.
She takes Alina's wrist gently, her touch warm against Alina's skin, but she feels like there is more to it. Alina gazes up at the woman's lifeless green eyes, now alive, burning with fear.
Alina stills for a moment, the woman's hands clamping down tighter and tighter around the girl's wrist. She feels a gentle coaxing, a reassuring whisper, reluctant.
It whispers, unraveling and shattering something inside her. It builds slowly, slowly. Alina can feel its faint pulse from within her. It feels warm like fire flowing in her veins, and suddenly it stops.
The woman lets go of Alina's wrist in one sharp motion. A moment, a beat. She shakes her head, her eyes still alive, still afraid; Alina only feels empty.
The two men nod sagely to each other.
"Are you going to take us away?" Mal asks.
They shake their heads. "The results are as they should be. We won't be taking any of you away."
There is a sign of relief and Mal's sweaty palm letting go of Alina's. The examiners leave as quickly as they arrive, unsatisfied but unsurprised.
She can't get the sound of heavy chains or those burning green eyes out of her mind.
Later in the day, she and Mal sit perched on the windowsill like twin statues on a wall, and Alina can't help but ask. "Did you feel anything," she starts, "when she touched you?"
He shakes his head. "Nothing really. Just how cold her hand was."
Cold? Her touch was anything but cold.
"She creeps me out," Mal says. "I can't stop thinking about it. I was scared that she might eat us if she wasn't all chained up."
She pokes him in the stomach. "If she did eat children, she'll only eat you. The cook says witches like fat, meaty children over a sack of bones like me."
Witch. The word doesn't sound right. The examiner was no witch. She was Grisha.
Alina stays in Keramzin while her dreams come and go, Mal along with them. He's always out in town, or exploring the woods. Alina stays inside, drawing or dreaming.
On a summer afternoon, they sit on the kitchen counters eating leftover peach tarts. They're far too grown to be doing this, yet here they are stealing sweets from the kitchen like they're still ten years old.
"I've enlisted to join the Army," he says between moments of silence.
Alina isn't surprised. Mal had always spent his days with the soldiers who passed over the nearby towns, telling stories from them to her. He has always had a clear fascination
She nibbles on her tart. Her eyes are fixed at the bottom of the plate, like she's counting the crumbs she's dropped. "How soon?"
How soon will you leave for Poliznaya?
"Within the week." He answers in the same fashion. They can't even look at each other.
He finishes the last of his peach tart and finally their eyes meet. "Tonight," he corrects. "I'll pack my bags and then I'll be headed to the military encampment in Poliznaya."
Alina doesn't know what to say, so she doesn't really say a thing.
She helps him pack what little belonging he has into a rucksack, and joins him as he bids his goodbyes to Ana Kuya and the others in the estate. The war widows hold him by his cheeks and bid him wishes of good luck. One even goes so far as to hold him by the ear and make him promise to return.
After all the other farewells, Mal faces Alina, all his belongings slung over his back. He pulls her into a warm embrace. "Take care of yourself, Alina."
Suddenly everything feels so surreal. Should Alina be crying? She feels like she should be crying. Mal is leaving. She can't let him be another one of the things she has lost. And the worst is that she will remember him.
She steps away from him and fixes his collar. "I'm more worried about you," she jokes. "What would you do without me?"
"I haven't died yet."
"You fell out of a tree while I was sick in bed."
"Like I said, I haven't died yet."
Mal adjusts the rest of his clothes and Alina places her hands on his chest. There's a soft moment of silence, then he nods and bids goodbye. He doesn't even try to stay for supper.
Alina stays at the open doorway until Malyen Oretsev is barely a speck on the horizon.
She forces herself through the next few minutes, she forces herself through a first supper that Mal never made it in time for. She resolves to the fact that, for a while, she will just have to force herself through everything. Ana Kuya pulls her aside. They're in the sitting room, just the two of them.
"If I had known you would be like this, I wouldn't have let Malyen leave," Ana Kuya jokes. At least, Alina hopes it was a joke. "But then that means I'd still have to deal with the two of you. I believe it's time that you left us as well. All you've been is a thorn in my side since the day you were brought here."
Alina gapes at the statement, but doesn't argue. All the trouble she and Mal used to get into...
"How is it you don't have a clue of who you were before you came to us?"
It's been ten years, but Alina still can't answer the question.
"But... we actually do have a clue," Ana Kuya produces a parcel of black cloth and shows it to Alina. "This is all you had the day you were brought to us."
She unravels the package, revealing a deep blue dress embroidered in what looked to be actual gold, small and it didn't seem to be able to fit more than a child. Alina traces the embroidery with a light touch of her hand. "I... I don't understand."
"It's a kefta," Ana Kuya explains, "Though grander than the ones I used to see. It was once worn by the Grisha of the Second Army, so why is it that you came to us wearing a this days after the attack at the Grand Palace? You are no Grisha. The tests have seen to that. Who are you, Alina?"
She is Alina the orphan. Is she more, is she less? She grazes her hand over the soft fabric of the kefta.
"You'll find your answers in Os Alta."
For that moment, she imagines another universe, another world, a moment where she'd gone with Mal to the Army. A moment where she chooses to find who she could be, never finding who she was. In that world, she is still Alina the orphan, but she is also Alina, the soldier from the First Army.
That world lasts for only a moment, and wherever that moment went, it left with Malyen Oretsev.