Today was no different. I ran my hand over the empty surface of the table.
“Where are you, Mal?” I whispered. But there was no one there to answer.
WHEN I THOUGHT things couldn’t get any worse, they did.
I was sitting at breakfast in the domed hall when the main doors blew open and a group of unfamiliar Grisha entered. I didn’t pay them much attention. Grisha in the Darkling’s service were always coming and going at the Little Palace, sometimes to recover from injuries received at the northern or southern front, sometimes on leave from other assignments.
Then Nadia gasped.
“Oh no,” groaned Marie.
I looked up and my stomach lurched as I recognized the raven-haired girl who had found Mal so fascinating back in Kribirsk.
“Who is she?” I whispered, watching the girl glide among the other Grisha, saying her hellos, her high laugh echoing off the golden dome.
“Zoya,” muttered Marie. “She was a year ahead of us at school and she’s horrible.”
“Thinks she’s better than everyone,” added Nadia.
I raised my eyebrows. If Zoya’s sin was snobbery, then Marie and Nadia had no business making judgments.
Marie sighed. “The worst part is that she’s kind of right. She’s an incredibly powerful Squaller, a great fighter, and look at her.”
I took in the silver embroidery on Zoya’s cuffs, the glossy perfection of her black hair, the big blue eyes fringed by impossibly dark lashes. She was almost as beautiful as Genya. I thought of Mal and felt a pang of pure jealousy shoot through me. But then I realized that Zoya had been stationed at the Fold. If she and Mal had … well, she might know if he was there, if he was all right. I pushed my plate away. The prospect of asking Zoya about Mal made me a little nauseated.
As if she could feel my stare, Zoya turned from where she was chatting with some awestruck Corporalki and swept over to the Summoners’ table.
“Marie! Nadia! How are you?”
They stood to hug her, their faces plastered with huge, fake smiles.
“You look amazing, Zoya! How are you?” gushed Marie.
“We missed you so much!” squealed Nadia.
“I missed you, too,” Zoya said. “It’s so good to be back at the Little Palace. You can’t imagine how busy the Darkling’s kept me. But I’m being rude. I don’t think I’ve met your friend.”
“Oh!” Marie exclaimed. “I’m so sorry. This is Alina Starkov. The Sun Summoner,” she said with a little pride.
I stood up awkwardly.
Zoya swept me into an embrace. “It’s such an honor to finally meet the Sun Summoner,” she said loudly. But as she hugged me she whispered, “You stink of Keramzin.”
I stiffened. She released me, a smile playing on her perfect lips.
“I’ll see you all later,” she said with a little wave. “I’m frantic for a bath.” And with that she sailed from the domed hall and through the double doors to the dormitories.
I stood there, stunned, my cheeks blazing. I felt like everyone must be gaping at me, but no one else seemed to have heard what Zoya said.
Her words stayed with me the rest of the day, through another botched lesson with Baghra and an interminable lunch during which Zoya held forth on the journey from Kribirsk, the state of the towns bordering the Fold, and the exquisite lubok woodcuts she’d seen in one of the peasant villages. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed like every time she said “peasant” she looked directly at me. As she spoke, light glinted off the heavy silver bracelet gleaming at her wrist. It was studded with what looked like pieces of bone. An amplifier, I realized.
Things went from bad to dreadful when Zoya showed up at our combat lesson. Botkin hugged her, kissed both of her cheeks, and then proceeded to chatter back and forth with her in Shu. Was there anything this girl couldn’t do?
She’d brought along her friend with the chestnut curls, whom I remembered from the Grisha tent. They proceeded to giggle and whisper as I stumbled through the drills with which Botkin began every class. When we separated to spar, I wasn’t even surprised when Botkin paired me with Zoya.
“Is star pupil,” he said, grinning proudly. “Will help little girl.”
“Surely the Sun Summoner doesn’t need my help,” Zoya said with a smug smile.
I watched her warily. I wasn’t sure why this girl hated me so much, but I’d had just about enough for one day.
We took our fighting stances, and Botkin gave the signal to start.
I actually managed to block Zoya’s first jab, but not the second. It caught me hard on the jaw and my head snapped back. I tried to shake it off.
She danced forward and aimed a punch at my ribs. But some of Botkin’s training must have sunk in over the last few weeks. I dodged right and the blow glanced off me.
She flexed her shoulders and circled. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the other Summoners had left off sparring and were watching us.
I shouldn’t have let myself get distracted. I took Zoya’s next punch hard to the gut. As I gasped for breath, she followed with an elbow. I managed to avoid it more by luck than skill.
She pressed her advantage and lunged forward. That was her mistake. I was weak and I was slow, but Botkin had taught me to make use of my opponent’s strength.
I stepped to the side, and as she came in close, I hooked my leg around her ankle. Zoya went down hard.
The other Summoners broke into applause. But before I had a chance to even register my victory, Zoya sat up, her expression furious, her arm slashing through the air. I felt myself lifted off my feet as I sailed backward through the air and slammed into the training room’s wooden wall. I heard something crack, and all the breath went out of my body as I slid to the ground.
“Zoya!” Botkin roared. “You do not use power. Not in these rooms. Never in these rooms!”
Dimly, I was aware of the other Summoners gathering around me, of Botkin calling for a Healer.
“I’m fine,” I tried to say, but I couldn’t gather enough breath. I lay in the dirt, panting shallowly. Every time I tried to breathe, pain tore through my left side. A group of servants arrived, but when they lifted me onto the stretcher, I fainted.
Marie and Nadia told me the rest when they came to visit me in the infirmary. A Healer had slowed my heart rate until I fell into a deep sleep, then mended my broken rib and the bruises Zoya had left on me.
“Botkin was furious!” Marie exclaimed. “I’ve never seen him so angry. He threw Zoya out of the training rooms. I thought he might hit her himself.”
“Ivo says he saw Ivan take her through the domed hall to the Darkling’s council rooms, and when she came out, she was crying.”
Good, I thought with satisfaction. But when I thought of myself lying in a heap in the dirt, I felt a burning wave of embarrassment.
“Why did she do it?” I asked as I tried to sit up. I’d had plenty of people ignore me or look down on me. But Zoya actually seemed to hate me.
Marie and Nadia gaped at me as if I’d taken a crack to the skull instead of the ribs.
“Because she’s jealous!” said Nadia.
“Of me?” I said incredulously.
Marie rolled her eyes. “She can’t bear the idea of anyone being the Darkling’s favorite.”
I laughed and then winced at the stab of pain in my side. “I’m hardly his favorite.”
“Of course you are. Zoya’s powerful, but she’s just another Squaller. You’re the Sun Summoner.”
Nadia’s cheeks flushed when she said this, and I knew I wasn’t imagining the tinge of envy in her voice. Just how deep did that envy go? Marie and Nadia talked like they hated Zoya, but they smiled to her face. What do they say about me when I’m not around? I wondered.
“Maybe he’ll demote her!” squealed Marie.
“Maybe he’ll send her to Tsibeya!” crowed Nadia.
A Healer appeared from the shadows to shush them and send them on their way. They promised to visit again the next day.
I must have fallen back asleep because, when I woke a few hours later, the infirmary was dark. The room was eerily quiet, the other beds unoccupied, the only sound the soft ticking of a clock.
I pushed myself up. I still felt a little sore, but it was hard to believe that I’d had a broken rib just a few hours before.
My mouth was dry, and I had the beginning of a headache. I dragged myself out of bed and poured a glass of water from the pitcher at my bedside. Then I pushed open the window and took a deep breath of night air.
I jumped and whirled.
“Who’s there?” I gasped.
The Apparat emerged from the long shadows by the door.
“Did I startle you?” he asked.
“A bit,” I admitted. How long had he been standing there? Had he been watching me sleep?
He seemed to glide silently across the room toward me, his ragged robes slithering over the infirmary floor. I took an involuntary step backward.
“I was very sorry to hear of your injury,” he said. “The Darkling should be more watchful of his charges.”
“Are you?” he said, regarding me in the moonlight. “You do not look well, Alina Starkov. It’s essential that you stay well.”
“I’m just a little tired.”
He stepped closer. His peculiar smell wafted over me, that strange mix of incense and mildew, and the scent of turned earth. I thought of the graveyard at Keramzin, the crooked headstones, the peasant women keening over new graves. I was suddenly very aware of the emptiness of the infirmary. Was the Corporalki Healer still nearby? Or had he gone somewhere to find a glass of kvas and a warm bed?
“Did you know that in some of the border villages, they are making altars to you?” murmured the Apparat.
“Oh yes. The people are hungry for hope, and the icon painters are doing a booming business thanks to you.”
“But I’m not a Saint!”
“It is a blessing, Alina Starkov. A benediction.” He stepped even closer to me. I could see the dark and matted hairs of his beard, the stained jumble of his teeth. “You are becoming dangerous, and you will become more dangerous still.”
“Me?” I whispered. “To whom?”
“There is something more powerful than any army. Something strong enough to topple kings, and even Darklings. Do you know what that thing is?”
I shook my head, inching away from him.
“Faith,” he breathed, his black eyes wild. “Faith.”
He reached for me. I groped toward my bedside table and knocked the glass of water to the floor. It shattered loudly. Hurried footsteps pounded down the hall toward us. The Apparat stepped back, melting into the shadows.
The door burst open and a Healer entered, his red kefta flapping behind him. “Are you all right?”
I opened my mouth, unsure of what to say. But the Apparat had already slid soundlessly out the door.
“I … I’m sorry. I broke a glass.”
The Healer called a servant to clean up the mess. He settled me back into bed and suggested that I try to rest. But as soon as he was gone, I sat up and lit the lamp by my bed.