“Not what you expected?” Genya asked with some amusement.
“I just thought …” But what had I thought? Did I really think I belonged in Grisha robes?
“The King expects to see a humble girl plucked from the ranks of his army, an undiscovered treasure. If you appear in a kefta, he’ll think the Darkling’s been hiding you.”
“Why would the Darkling hide me?”
Genya shrugged. “For leverage. For profit. Who knows? But the King is … well, you’ll see what the King is.”
My stomach turned. I was about to be presented to the King. I tried to steady myself, but as Genya hurried me out the door and down the hall, my legs felt leaden and shaky.
Near the bottom of the stairs, she whispered, “If anyone asks, I just helped you get dressed. I’m not supposed to work on Grisha.”
“Because the ridiculous Queen and her more ridiculous court think it’s not fair.”
I gaped at her. Insulting the Queen could be considered treason, but Genya seemed unconcerned.
When we entered the huge domed hall, it was crowded with Grisha in robes of crimson, purple, and darkest blue. Most of them looked to be around my age, but a few older Grisha were gathered in a corner. Despite the silver in their hair and their lined faces, they were strikingly attractive. In fact, everyone in the room was unnervingly good-looking.
“The Queen may have a point,” I murmured.
“Oh, this isn’t my handiwork,” said Genya.
I frowned. If Genya was telling the truth, then this was just further evidence that I didn’t belong here.
Someone had seen us enter the hall, and a hush fell as every eye in the room fastened onto me.
A tall, broad-chested Grisha in red robes came forward. He had deeply tanned skin and seemed to exude good health. He made a low bow and said, “I am Sergei Beznikov.”
“I know who you are, of course,” Sergei interrupted, his white teeth flashing. “Come, let me introduce you. You’ll be walking with us.” He took me by the elbow and began to steer me toward a group of Corporalki.
“She’s a Summoner, Sergei,” said a girl in a blue kefta with flowing brown curls. “She walks with us.” There were murmurs of assent from the other Etherealki behind her.
“Marie,” said Sergei with an insincere smile, “you can’t possibly be suggesting that she enter the hall as a lower-order Grisha.”
Marie’s alabaster skin went suddenly blotchy, and several of the Summoners got to their feet. “Need I remind you that the Darkling is himself a Summoner?”
“So you’re ranking yourself with the Darkling now?”
Marie sputtered, and in an attempt to make peace, I interjected, “Why don’t I just go with Genya?”
There were a few low snickers.
“With the Tailor?” Sergei asked, looking aghast.
I glanced at Genya, who simply smiled and shook her head.
“She belongs with us,” protested Marie, and argument broke out all around us.
“She’ll walk with me,” said a low voice, and the room went silent.
I TURNED AND SAW the Darkling standing in an archway, flanked by Ivan and several other Grisha whom I recognized from the journey. Marie and Sergei backed away hastily. The Darkling surveyed the crowd and said, “We are expected.”
Instantly, the room bustled with activity as the Grisha rose and began to file through the large double doors that led outside. They arranged themselves two abreast in a long line. First the Materialki, then the Etherealki, and finally the Corporalki, so that the highest-ranked Grisha would enter the throne room last.
Unsure of what to do, I stayed where I was, watching the crowd. I looked around for Genya, but she seemed to have disappeared. A moment later, the Darkling was beside me. I glanced up at his pale profile, the sharp jaw, the granite eyes.
“You look well rested,” he said.
I bristled. I wasn’t comfortable with what Genya had done, but standing in a room full of beautiful Grisha, I had to admit that I was grateful for it. I still didn’t look like I belonged, but I would have stuck out much worse without Genya’s help.
“Are there other Tailors?” I asked.
“Genya is unique,” he answered, glancing at me. “Like us.”
I ignored the little thrill that went through me at the word us and said, “Why isn’t she walking with the rest of the Grisha?”
“Genya must attend to the Queen.”
“When Genya’s abilities began to show themselves, I could have had her choose between becoming a Fabrikator or a Corporalnik. Instead, I cultivated her particular affinity and made a gift of her to the Queen.”
“A gift? So a Grisha is no better than a serf?”
“We all serve someone,” he said, and I was surprised by the harsh edge in his voice. Then he added, “The King will expect a demonstration.”
I felt as if I’d been dunked in ice water. “But I don’t know how to—”
“I don’t expect you to,” he said calmly, moving forward as the last of the red-robed Corporalki disappeared through the door.
We emerged onto the gravel path and into the last of the afternoon sunshine. I was finding it hard to breathe. I felt as if I were walking to my execution. Maybe I am, I thought with a surge of dread.
“This isn’t fair,” I whispered angrily. “I don’t know what the King thinks I can do, but it isn’t fair to throw me out there and expect me to just … make things happen.”
“I hope you don’t expect fairness from me, Alina. It isn’t one of my specialties.”
I stared at him. What was I supposed to make out of that?
The Darkling glanced down at me. “Do you really believe I brought you all this way to make a fool out of you? Out of both of us?”
“No,” I admitted.
“And it’s completely out of your hands now, isn’t it?” he said as we made our way through the dark wooded tunnel of branches. That was true too, if not particularly comforting. I had no choice but to trust that he knew what he was doing. I had a sudden unpleasant thought.
“Are you going to cut me again?” I asked.
“I doubt I’ll have to, but it all depends on you.”
I was not reassured.
I tried to calm myself and to slow the beating of my heart but, before I knew it, we had made our way through the grounds and were climbing the white marble steps to the Grand Palace. As we moved through a spacious entry hall into a long corridor lined with mirrors and ornamented in gold, I thought how different this place was from the Little Palace. Everywhere I looked, I saw marble and gold, soaring walls of white and palest blue, gleaming chandeliers, liveried footmen, polished parquet floors laid out in elaborate geometric designs. It wasn’t without beauty, but there was something exhausting about the extravagance of it all. I’d always assumed that Ravka’s hungry peasants and poorly supplied soldiers were the result of the Shadow Fold. But as we walked by a tree of jade embellished with diamond leaves, I wasn’t so sure.
The throne room was three stories high, every window sparkling with gold double eagles. A long, pale blue carpet ran the length of the room to where the members of the court milled about a raised throne. Many of the men wore military dress, black trousers and white coats laden with medals and ribbons. The women sparkled in gowns of liquid silk with little puffed sleeves and low necklines. Flanking the carpeted aisle, the Grisha stood arranged in their separate orders.
A hush fell as every face turned to me and the Darkling. We walked slowly toward the golden throne. As we drew closer, the King sat up straighter, tense with excitement. He looked to be in his forties, slender and round-shouldered with big watery eyes and a pale mustache. He wore full military dress, a thin sword at his side, his narrow chest covered with medals. Beside him on the raised dais stood a man with a long, dark beard. He wore priest’s robes, but a gold double eagle was emblazoned on his chest.
The Darkling gave my arm a gentle squeeze to warn me that we were stopping.
“Your highness, moi tsar,” he said in clear tones. “Alina Starkov, the Sun Summoner.” A rush of murmurs came from the crowd. I wasn’t sure if I should bow or curtsy. Ana Kuya had insisted that all the orphans know how to greet the Duke’s few noble guests, but somehow, it didn’t feel right to curtsy in army-issue trousers. The King saved me from making a blunder when he waved us forward impatiently. “Come, come! Bring her to me.”
The Darkling and I walked to the base of the dais.
The King scrutinized me. He frowned, and his lower lip jutted out slightly. “She’s very plain.”
I flushed and bit my tongue. The King wasn’t much to look at either. He was practically chinless, and close up, I could see the broken blood vessels in his nose.
“Show me,” the King commanded.
My stomach clenched. I looked at the Darkling. This was it. He nodded at me and spread his arms wide. A tense silence descended as his hands filled with dark, swirling ribbons of blackness that bled into the air. He brought his hands together with a resounding crack. Nervous cries burst from the crowd as darkness blanketed the room.
This time, I was better prepared for the dark that engulfed me, but it was still frightening. Instinctively, I reached forward, searching for something to hold on to. The Darkling caught my arm and his bare hand slid into mine. I felt that same powerful certainty wash through me and then the Darkling’s call, pure and compelling, demanding an answer. With a mixture of panic and relief, I felt something rising up inside me. This time, I didn’t try to fight it. I let it have its way.
Light flooded the throne room, drenching us in warmth and shattering the darkness like black glass. The court erupted into applause. People were weeping and hugging one another. A woman fainted. The King was clapping the loudest, rising from his throne and applauding furiously, his expression exultant.
The Darkling let go of my hand and the light faded.
“Brilliant!” the King shouted. “A miracle!” He descended the steps of the dais, the bearded priest gliding silently behind him, and took my hand in his own, raising it to his wet lips. “My dear girl,” he said. “My dear, dear girl.” I thought of what Genya had said about the King’s attention and felt my skin crawl, but I didn’t dare pull my hand away. Soon, though, he had relinquished me and was clapping the Darkling on the back.
“Miraculous, simply miraculous,” he effused. “Come, we must make plans immediately.”
As the King and the Darkling stepped away to talk, the priest drifted forward. “A miracle indeed,” he said, staring at me with a disturbing intensity. His eyes were so brown they were almost black, and he smelled faintly of mildew and incense. Like a tomb, I thought with a shiver. I was grateful when he slithered away to join the King.
I was quickly surrounded by beautifully dressed men and women, all wishing to make my acquaintance and to touch my hand or my sleeve. They crowded on every side of me, jostling and pushing to get closer. Just as I felt fresh panic setting in, Genya appeared by my side. But my relief was short-lived.