A boy and a girl, orphans from the border wars, arrive at the Duke’s estate within a month of each other. They’re the youngest orphans there, and they quickly grow attached to each other. The servants and the housekeeper, Ana Kuya, dislike the girl in particular—she’s skinny, pale, and doesn’t eat much. The girl also knows she’s different, but she keeps this a secret. The two children spend their summers in lessons or in the woods or their meadow, dreaming about owning a dairy farm one day. In the winter, when the Duke leaves for his house in Os Alta, they try to keep warm playing in the empty rooms.
Shadow and Bone’s opening passage sets the scene: this country is war-torn, and many kids are orphans. Referring to these children simply as the boy and the girl reinforces how insignificant they are—they’re just two more orphaned kids. However, this doesn’t mean that these two aren’t able to find their own joy with each other. Indeed, the descriptions of dreaming in the meadow or playing in the house seem happy, highlighting the strength of the kids’ friendship.
The boy and the girl are looking for the mail coach on the day that the Grisha Examiners arrive. Immediately upon seeing the troika’s three elegant passengers get out and enter the house, the children slip into a gallery above the room where Ana Kuya receives guests. She’s speaking to the examiners, one dressed in crimson, one in bright purple, and the other in dark blue, about how little she knows about the children and how insolent they are. The man in purple, however, says the children are listening—so Ana Kuya calls for Alina and Mal to come downstairs. When asked, Mal blurts that he thinks the examiners are witches. Angry, the woman in red says they practice the Small Science and they keep the kingdom safe.
This passage highlights how poor, rural folk see the Grisha: they’re witches, they’re fancy, and they’re frightening. The female Grisha clearly resents this assessment and insists that they’re anything but fancy witches—they’re righteous soldiers defending the country. This disconnect between how the Grisha are viewed and what the Grisha actually do underpins one of the central conflicts in the novel: the Grisha aren’t well understood or trusted by the general population, and this causes major issues.
The man in purple kneels before Alina and Mal. He explains that they’re here to test the children to see whether they can master the Small Science. Anxious, Mal asks what happens if they’re Grisha. The woman in red says that in that case, they’ll go to a special school, learn a lot, and have all the food and fine clothes they desire. Ana Kuya says this would be the best way to serve the King. The children exchange glances and grab hands. Nobody sees the look pass between them, but the Duke—who’s spent years on the northern borders where peasant villagers fight battles with little help—would recognize the look in a man’s eye as he defends his home with only a rock.
One might expect that Alina and Mal would want to be Grisha, if it means they essentially get to live in luxury. However, the look the children share suggests they’d rather be together than have just one of them venture into the unknown. The narrator’s description of the children’s shared look suggests that nobody (except, perhaps, the Duke) realizes just how attached the kids are to each other. The implication is that the kids are each other’s home—the Duke’s estate is just where they happen to live.