“The Queen wants to meet you,” she murmured into my ear. She steered me through the crowd and out a narrow side door into the hall, then into a jewel-like sitting room where the Queen reclined on a divan, a snuffling dog with a pushed-in face cradled on her lap.
The Queen was beautiful, with glossy blond hair in a perfect coiffure, her delicate features cold and lovely. But there was also something a little odd about her face. Her irises seemed a little too blue, her hair too yellow, her skin too smooth. I wondered just how much work Genya had done on her.
She was surrounded by ladies in exquisite gowns of petal pink and soft blue, their low necklines embroidered with gilded thread and tiny riverpearls. And yet, they all paled beside Genya in her simple cream wool kefta, her bright red hair burning like a flame.
“Moya tsaritsa,” Genya said, sinking into a low, graceful curtsy. “The Sun Summoner.”
This time, I had to make a choice. I executed a small bow and heard a few low titters from the ladies.
“Charming,” said the Queen. “I loathe pretense.” It took all my willpower not to snort at this. “You are from a Grisha family?” she asked.
I glanced nervously at Genya, who nodded encouragement.
“No,” I said, and then quickly added, “moya tsaritsa.”
“A peasant then?”
“We are so lucky in our people,” the Queen said, and the ladies murmured soft assent. “Your family must be notified of your new status. Genya will send a messenger.”
Genya nodded and gave another little curtsy. I thought about just nodding right along with her, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to start lying to royalty.
“Actually, your highness, I was raised in Duke Keramsov’s household.”
The ladies buzzed in surprise, and even Genya looked curious.
“An orphan!” exclaimed the Queen, sounding delighted. “How marvelous!”
I wasn’t sure that I would describe my parents being dead as “marvelous,” but at a loss for anything else to say, I mumbled, “Thank you, moya tsaritsa.”
“This all must seem so very strange to you. Take care that life at court does not corrupt you the way it has others,” she said, her blue marble eyes sliding to Genya. The insult was unmistakeable, but Genya’s expression betrayed nothing, a fact which did not seem to please the Queen. She dismissed us with a flick of her ring-laden fingers. “Go now.”
As Genya led me back into the hallway, I thought I heard her mutter, “Old cow.” But before I could decide whether or not to ask her about what the Queen had said, the Darkling was there, steering us down an empty corridor.
“How did you fare with the Queen?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I said honestly. “Everything she said was perfectly nice, but the whole time she was looking at me as if I were something her dog spit up.”
Genya laughed, and the Darkling’s lips quirked in what was nearly a smile.
“Welcome to court,” he said.
“I’m not sure I like it.”
“No one does,” he admitted. “But we all make a good show of it.”
“The King seemed pleased,” I offered.
“The King is a child.”
My mouth fell open in shock and I looked around nervously, afraid someone had overheard. These people seemed to speak treason as easily as breathing. Genya didn’t look remotely disturbed by the Darkling’s words.
The Darkling must have noticed my discomfort, because he said, “But today, you’ve made him a very happy child.”
“Who was that bearded man with the King?” I asked, eager to change the subject.
“Is he a priest?”
“Of a sort. Some say he’s a fanatic. Others say he’s a fraud.”
“I say he has his uses.” The Darkling turned to Genya. “I think we’ve asked enough of Alina for today,” he said. “Take her back to her chambers and have her fitted for her kefta. She will start instruction tomorrow.”
Genya gave a little bow and laid her hand on my arm to lead me away. I was overcome by excitement and relief. My power (my power, it still didn’t seem real) had shown up again and kept me from making a fool of myself. I’d made it through my introduction to the King and my audience with the Queen. And I was going to be given a Grisha’s kefta.
“Genya,” the Darkling called after us, “the kefta will be black.”
Genya drew a startled breath. I looked at her stunned face and then at the Darkling, who was already turning to go.
“Wait!” I called before I could stop myself. The Darkling halted and turned those slate-colored eyes on me. “I … If it would be all right, I’d prefer to have blue robes, Summoners’ blue.”
“Alina!” exclaimed Genya, clearly horrified.
But the Darkling held up a hand to silence her. “Why?” he asked, his expression unreadable.
“I already feel like I don’t belong here. I think it might be easier if I weren’t … singled out.”
“Are you so anxious to be like everyone else?”
My chin lifted. He clearly didn’t approve, but I wasn’t going to back down. “I just don’t want to be more conspicuous than I already am.”
The Darkling looked at me for a long moment. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking over what I’d said or trying to intimidate me, but I gritted my teeth and returned his gaze.
Abruptly, he nodded. “As you wish,” he said. “Your kefta will be blue.” And without another word, he turned his back on us and disappeared down the hall.
Genya stared at me, aghast.
“What?” I asked defensively.
“Alina,” Genya said slowly, “no other Grisha has ever been permitted to wear a Darkling’s colors.”
“Do you think he’s angry?”
“That’s hardly the point! It would have been a mark of your standing, of the Darkling’s esteem. It would have placed you high above all others.”
“Well, I don’t want to be high above all others.”
Genya threw up her hands in exasperation and took me by the elbow, leading me back through the palace to the main entrance. Two liveried servants opened the large golden doors for us. With a jolt, I realized that they were wearing white and gold, the same colors as Genya’s kefta, a servant’s colors. No wonder she thought I was crazy for refusing the Darkling’s offer. And maybe she was right.
The thought stayed with me through the long walk back across the grounds to the Little Palace. Dusk was falling, and servants were lighting the lamps that lined the gravel path. By the time we climbed the stairs to my room, my stomach was in knots.
I sat down by the window, staring out at the grounds. While I brooded, Genya rang for a servant, whom she sent to find a seamstress and order up a dinner tray. But before she sent the girl away, she turned to me. “Maybe you’d prefer to wait and dine with the Grisha later tonight?” she asked.
I shook my head. I was far too tired and overwhelmed to even think about being around another crowd of people. “But would you stay?” I asked her.
“You don’t have to, of course,” I said quickly. “I’m sure you’ll want to eat with everyone else.”
“Not at all. Dinner for two then,” she said imperiously, and the servant raced off. Genya closed the door and walked to the little dressing table, where she started straightening the items on its surface: a comb, a brush, a pen and pot of ink. I didn’t recognize any of them, but someone must have had them brought to my room for me.
With her back still to me, Genya said, “Alina, you should understand that, when you start your training tomorrow … well, Corporalki don’t eat with Summoners. Summoners don’t dine with Fabrikators, and—”
I felt instantly defensive. “Look, if you don’t want to stay for dinner, I promise not to cry into my soup.”
“No!” she exclaimed. “It’s not that at all! I’m just trying to explain the way things work.”
Genya blew out a frustrated breath. “You don’t understand. It’s a great honor to be asked to dine with you, but the other Grisha might not approve.”
Genya sighed and sat down on one of the carved chairs. “Because I’m the Queen’s pet. Because they don’t consider what I do valuable. A lot of reasons.”
I considered what the other reasons might be and if they had something to do with the King. I thought of the liveried servants standing at every doorway in the Grand Palace, all of them dressed in white and gold. What must it be like for Genya, isolated from her own kind but not a true member of the court?
“It’s funny,” I said after a while. “I always thought that being beautiful would make life so much easier.”
“Oh it does,” Genya said, and laughed. I couldn’t help but laugh, too.
We were interrupted by a knock on the door, and the seamstress soon had us occupied with fittings and measurements. When she had finished and was gathering up her muslin and pins, Genya whispered, “It isn’t too late, you know. You could still—”
But I cut her off. “Blue,” I said firmly, though my stomach clenched again.
The seamstress left, and we turned our attention to dinner. The food was less alien than I’d expected, the kind of food we’d eaten on feast days at Keramzin: sweet pea porridge, quail roasted in honey, and fresh figs. I found I was hungrier than I’d ever been and had to resist picking up my plate to lick it.
Genya maintained a steady stream of chatter during dinner, mostly about Grisha gossip. I didn’t know any of the people she was talking about, but I was grateful not to have to make conversation, so I nodded and smiled when necessary. When the last servants left, taking our dinner dishes with them, I couldn’t suppress a yawn, and Genya rose.
“I’ll come get you for breakfast in the morning. It will take a while for you to learn your way around. The Little Palace can be a bit of a maze.” Then her perfect lips turned up in a mischievous smile. “You should try to rest. Tomorrow you meet Baghra.”
Genya grinned wickedly. “Oh yes. She’s an absolute treat.”
Before I could ask what she meant, she gave me a little wave and slipped out the door. I bit my lip. Exactly what was in store for me tomorrow?
As the door closed behind Genya, I felt fatigue creep over me. The thrill of knowing that my power might actually be real, the excitement of meeting the King and Queen, the strange marvels of the Grand Palace and the Little Palace had kept my exhaustion at bay, but now it returned—and, with it, a huge, echoing feeling of loneliness.
I undressed, hung my uniform neatly on a peg behind the star-speckled screen, and placed my shiny new boots beneath it. I rubbed the brushed wool of the coat between my fingers, hoping to find some sense of familiarity, but the fabric felt wrong, too stiff, too new. I suddenly missed my dirty old coat.