SHADOW & BONE


BEFORE

The servants called them malenchki, little ghosts, because they were the smallest and the youngest, and because they haunted the Duke’s house like giggling phantoms, darting in and out of rooms, hiding in cupboards to eavesdrop, sneaking into the kitchen to steal the last of the summer peaches. 

The boy and the girl had arrived within weeks of each other, two more orphans of the border wars, dirty-faced refugees plucked from the rubble of distant towns and brought to the Duke’s estate to learn to read and write, and to learn a trade. The boy was short and stocky, shy but always smiling. The girl was different, and she knew it.

Huddled in the kitchen cupboard, listening to the grown-ups gossip, she heard the Duke’s housekeeper, Ana Kuya, say, “She’s an ugly little thing. No child should look like that. Pale and sour, like a glass of milk that’s turned.” 

“And so skinny!” the cook replied. “Never finishes her supper.”

“Crouched beside the girl, the boy turned to her and

whispered, “Why don’t you eat?”

“Because everything she cooks tastes like mud.”

“Tastes fine to me.”

“You’ll eat anything.”

They bent their ears back to the crack in the cupboard doors.

A moment later the boy whispered, “I don’t think you’re ugly.”

“Shhhh!” the girl hissed. But hidden by the deep shadows of the cupboard, she smiled.

In the summer, they endured long hours of chores followed by even longer hours of lessons in stifling classrooms. When the heat was at its worst, they escaped into the woods to hunt for birds’ nests or swim in the muddy little creek, or they would lie for hours in their meadow, watching the sun pass slowly overhead, speculating on where they would build their dairy farm and whether they would have two white cows or three. In the winter, the Duke left for his city house in Os Alta, and as the days grew shorter and colder, the teachers grew lax in their duties, preferring to sit by the fire and play cards or drink kvas. Bored and trapped indoors, the older children doled out more frequent beatings. So the boy and the girl hid in the disused rooms of the estate, putting on plays for the mice and trying to keep warm.

On the day the Grisha Examiners came, the boy and the girl were perched on the window seat of a dusty upstairs bedroom, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mail coach. Instead, they saw a sleigh, a troika pulled by three black horses, pass through the white stone gates onto the estate. They watched its silent progress through the snow to the Duke’s front door.

Three figures emerged in elegant fur hats and heavy wool kefta: one in crimson, one in darkest blue and one in vibrant purple.

“Grisha!” the girl whispered.

“Quick!” said the boy.

In an instant, they had shaken off their shoes and were running silently down the hall, slipping through the empty music room and darting behind a column in the gallery that overlooked the sitting room where Ana Kuya liked to receive guests.

Ana Kuya was already there, bird-like in her black dress, pouring tea from the samovar, her large key ring jangling at her waist.

“There are just the two this year then?” said a woman’s low voice. 

They peered through the railing of the balcony to the room below. Two of the Grisha sat by the fire: a handsome man in blue and a woman in red robes with a haughty, refined air. The third, a young blond man, ambled about the room, stretching his legs.