“Put that down,” said a man with a short goatee. “Unless you want to see your girl plugged full of bullets.”
Mal set his rifle back on the rock.
“Come on over,” said the man. “Nice and slow.” He wore a First Army coat, but he looked like no soldier I had ever seen. His hair was long and tangled, kept from his eyes by two messy plaits. He wore belts of bullets across his chest and a stained waistcoat that might have once been red but was now fading to a color somewhere between plum and brown.
“I need my boots,” said Mal.
“Less chance of you running without them.”
“What do you want?”
“You can start with answers,” the man said. “Town nearby, plenty more comfortable places to hole up. So what are a dozen people doing hiding out in the forest?” He must have seen my reaction, because he said, “That’s right. I found your camp. You deserters?”
“Yes,” said Mal smoothly. “Out of Kerskii.”
The man scratched his cheek. “Kerskii? Maybe,” he said. “But—” He took a step forward. “Oretsev?”
Mal stiffened, then said, “Luchenko?”
“All Saints, I haven’t seen you since your unit trained with me in Poliznaya.” He turned to the other men. “This little pissant was the best tracker in ten regiments. Never seen anything like it.” He was grinning, but he didn’t lower his rifle. “And now you’re the most famous deserter in all of Ravka.”
“Just trying to survive.”
“You and me both, brother.” He gestured to me. “This isn’t your usual.”
If I hadn’t had a rifle in my face, the comment might have stung.
“One more First Army grunt like us.”
“Like us, huh?” Luchenko jabbed at me with his gun. “Take off the scarf.”
“Bit of a chill in the air,” I said.
Luchenko gave me another poke. “Go on, girl.”
I glanced at Mal. I could see him weighing the options. We were at close range. I could do some serious damage with the Cut, but not before the militiamen got off a few rounds. I could blind them, but if we started a firefight, what might happen to the people back at camp?
I shrugged and pulled the scarf from my neck with a rough tug. Luchenko gave a low whistle.
“Heard you were keeping hallowed company, Oretsev. Looks like we caught ourselves a Saint.” He cocked his head to one side. “Thought she’d be taller. Bind them both.”
Again, I locked gazes with Mal. He wanted me to act, I could feel it. As long as my hands weren’t bound together, I could summon and control the light. But what about the other Grisha?
I held out my hands and let the woman secure my wrists with rope.
Mal sighed and did the same. “Can I at least put my shirt on?” he asked.
“No,” she said with a leer. “I like the view.”
Luchenko laughed. “Life’s a funny thing, isn’t it?” he said philosophically as they marched us into the woods at gunpoint. “All I ever wanted was a drop of luck to flavor my tea. Now I’m drowning in it. The Darkling will empty his coffers to have the two of you delivered to his door.”
“You’re going to hand me over that easily?” I said. “Foolish.”
“Big talk from a girl with a rifle at her back.”
“It’s just good business,” I said. “You think Fjerda or the Shu Han won’t pay a small fortune—maybe even a large fortune—to get their hands on the Sun Summoner? How many men do you have?”
Luchenko glanced over his shoulder and wagged his finger at me like a schoolteacher. Well, it had been worth a try.
“All I meant,” I continued innocently, “was that you could auction me off to the highest bidder and keep all your men fat and happy for the rest of their days.”
“I like the way she thinks,” said the woman with the topknot.
“Don’t get greedy, Ekaterina,” Luchenko said. “We aren’t ambassadors or diplomats. The bounty on that girl’s head will buy us all passage through the border. Maybe I’ll catch a ship out of Djerholm. Or maybe I’ll just bury myself in blondes for the rest of my days.”
The unsavory image of Luchenko cavorting with a bunch of curvy Fjerdans was driven from my mind as we entered the clearing. The Grisha had been rounded up at its center and were surrounded by a circle of nearly thirty armed militiamen. Tolya was bleeding heavily from what looked like a bad blow to the head. Harshaw had been on watch, and one glance at him told me he’d been shot. He was pale, swaying on his feet, clutching the wound at his side and panting as Oncat yowled.
“See?” said Luchenko. “With this windfall, I don’t need to worry about the highest bidder.”
I stepped in front of him, keeping my voice as low as I could. “Let them go,” I said. “If you turn them over to the Darkling, they’ll be tortured.”
I swallowed the bolt of rage that coursed through me. Threats would get me nowhere. “A living prisoner is more valuable than a corpse,” I said meekly. “At least untie me so I can see to my friend’s injury.” And so I can mow down your militia with a flick of my wrist.
Ekaterina narrowed her eyes. “Don’t do it,” she said. “Have one of her bloodletters take care of him.” She gave me a jab in the back and steered us into the group with the others.
“Spy that collar?” Luchenko asked of the crowd. “We have the Sun Summoner!”
There were exclamations and a few whoops from the rest of the militia. “So start thinking about how you’re going to spend all of the Darkling’s money.”
“Why not ransom her to Nikolai Lantsov?” said a soldier from somewhere near the back of the circle. Now that I was in the middle of the clearing, there seemed to be even more of them.
“Lantsov?” Luchenko said. “If he has a brain in his head, he’s rusticating somewhere warm with a pretty girl on his knee. If he’s even alive.”
“He’s alive,” said someone.
Luchenko spat. “Makes no matter to me.”
“And your country?” I asked.
“What has my country ever done for me, little girl? No land, no life, just a uniform and a gun. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Darkling on the throne or some useless Lantsov.”
“I saw the prince when I was in Os Alta,” said Ekaterina. “He’s not bad looking.”
“Not bad looking?” said another voice. “He’s damnably handsome.”
Luchenko scowled. “Since when—”
“Brave in battle, smart as a whip.” Now the voice seemed to be coming from above us. Luchenko craned his neck, peering into the trees. “An excellent dancer,” said the voice. “Oh, and an even better shot.”
“Who—” Luchenko never got to finish. A blast rang out, and a tiny black hole appeared between his eyes.
I gasped. “Imposs—”
“Don’t say it,” muttered Mal.
Then chaos erupted.
GUNFIRE SHATTERED the air around us, and Mal knocked me from my feet. I landed with my face in the mulch of the forest floor and felt his body shielding mine.
“Stay down!” he yelled.
I twisted my head to the side and saw the Grisha forming a ring around us. Harshaw was on the ground, but Stigg had his flint in hand, and flames shot through the air. Tamar and Tolya had charged into the fray. Zoya, Nadia, and Adrik had their hands up, and leaves lifted in gusts from the forest floor, but it was hard to tell friend from foe in the tangle of armed men.
There was a sudden thump beside us as someone swung down from the treetops. “What are you two doing barefoot and half naked in the mud?” asked a familiar voice. “Looking for truffles, I hope?”
Nikolai slashed through the bonds on our wrists and yanked me to my feet. “Next time I’ll try getting captured. Just to keep things interesting.” He tossed Mal a rifle. “Shall we?”
“I can’t tell who’s who!” I protested.