My hands were shaking. I wanted to dismiss the Apparat’s ramblings as nonsense, but I couldn’t. Not if people were really praying to the Sun Summoner, not if they were expecting me to save them. I remembered the Darkling’s dire words beneath the broken roof of the barn. The age of Grisha power is coming to an end. I thought of the volcra, of the lives being lost on the Shadow Fold. A divided Ravka won’t survive the new age. I wasn’t just failing the Darkling or Baghra or myself. I was failing all of Ravka.
WHEN GENYA CAME by the next morning, I told her about the Apparat’s visit, but she didn’t seem concerned by what he’d said or his strange behavior.
“He’s creepy,” she admitted. “But harmless.”
“He is not harmless. You should have seen him. He looked completely mad.”
“He’s just a priest.”
“But why was he even here?”
Genya shrugged. “Maybe the King asked him to pray for you.”
“I’m not staying here again tonight. I want to sleep in my room. With a door that locks.”
Genya sniffed and looked around the spare infirmary. “Well, that, at least, I can agree with. I wouldn’t want to stay here either.” Then she peered at me. “You look dreadful,” she said with her usual tact. “Why don’t you let me fix you up a bit?”
“Just let me get rid of the dark circles.”
“No!” I said stubbornly. “But I do need a favor.”
“Should I get my kit?” she asked eagerly.
I scowled at her. “Not that kind of favor. A friend of mine was injured on the Fold. I … I’ve written to him, but I’m not sure my letters are getting through.” I felt my cheeks flush and hurried on. “Could you find out if he’s okay and where he’s been stationed? I don’t know who else to ask, and since you’re always at the Grand Palace, I thought you might be able to help.”
“Of course, but … well, have you been checking the casualty lists?”
I nodded, a lump in my throat. Genya left to find paper and pen so I could write down Mal’s name for her.
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. I didn’t know what to make of Mal’s silence. I checked the casualty lists every single week, my heart pounding, my stomach in knots, terrified that I would see his name. And each week, I gave thanks to all the Saints that Mal was safe and alive, even if he couldn’t be bothered to write.
Was that the truth of it? My heart gave a painful twist. Maybe Mal was glad I was gone, glad to be free of old friendships and obligations. Or maybe he’s lying in a hospital bed somewhere and you’re being a petty little brat, I chided myself.
Genya returned, and I wrote out Mal’s name, regiment, and unit number. She folded the paper and slipped it into the sleeve of her kefta.
“Thanks,” I said hoarsely.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” she said, and gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “Now lie back so I can fix those dark circles.”
“Lie back or you can forget about your little favor.”
My jaw dropped. “You are rotten.”
“I am marvelous.”
I glared at her, then flopped back against the pillows.
After Genya left, I made arrangements to return to my own quarters. The Healer wasn’t happy about it, but I insisted. I was barely even sore anymore, and there was no way I was spending another night in that empty infirmary.
When I got back to my room, I took a bath and tried to read one of my theory books. I couldn’t concentrate. I was dreading returning to my classes the next day, dreading another futile lesson with Baghra.
The stares and gossip about me had died down a bit since I arrived at the Little Palace. But I had no doubt that my fight with Zoya would bring that all back.
As I rose and stretched, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror above my dressing table. I crossed the room and scrutinized my face in the glass.
The dark shadows beneath my eyes were gone, but I knew they would be back in a few days. And it made little difference. I looked the way I always had: tired, scrawny, sick. Nothing like a real Grisha. The power was there, somewhere inside me, but I couldn’t reach it, and I didn’t know why. Why was I different? Why had it taken so long for my power to reveal itself? And why couldn’t I access it on my own?
Reflected in the mirror I could see the thick golden curtains at the windows, the brilliantly painted walls, the firelight glittering off the tiles in the grate. Zoya was awful, but she was also right. I didn’t belong in this beautiful world, and if I didn’t find a way to use my power, I never would.
THE NEXT MORNING wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Zoya was already in the domed hall when I entered. She sat by herself at the end of the Summoners’ table, eating her breakfast in silence. She didn’t look up as Marie and Nadia called their greetings to me, and I did my best to ignore her, too.
I savored every step of my walk down to the lake. The sun was bright, the air cold on my cheeks, and I wasn’t looking forward to the stuffy, windowless confines of Baghra’s hut. But when I climbed the steps to her door, I heard raised voices.
I hesitated and then knocked softly. The voices quieted abruptly, and after a moment, I pushed the door open and peeked inside. The Darkling was standing by Baghra’s tile oven, his face furious.
“Sorry,” I said, and began to back out the door.
But Baghra just snapped, “In, girl. Don’t let the heat out.”
When I entered and shut the door, the Darkling gave me a small bow. “How are you, Alina?”
“I’m fine,” I managed.
“She’s fine!” hooted Baghra. “She’s fine! She cannot light a hallway, but she’s fine.”
I winced and wished I could disappear into my boots.
To my surprise, the Darkling said, “Leave her be.”
Baghra’s eyes narrowed. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
The Darkling sighed and ran his hands through his dark hair in exasperation. When he looked at me, there was a rueful smile on his lips, and his hair was going every which way. “Baghra has her own way of doing things,” he said.
“Don’t patronize me, boy!” Her voice cracked out like a whip. To my amazement, I saw the Darkling stand up straighter and then scowl as if he’d caught himself.
“Don’t chide me, old woman,” he said in a low, dangerous voice.
Angry energy crackled through the room. What had I walked into? I was thinking about slipping out the door and leaving them to finish whatever argument I’d interrupted when Baghra’s voice lashed out again.
“The boy thinks to get you an amplifier,” she said. “What do you think of that, girl?”
It was so strange to hear the Darkling called “boy” that it took me a moment to understand her meaning. But when I did, hope and relief rushed through me. An amplifier! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Why hadn’t they thought of it before? Baghra and the Darkling were able to help me call my power because they were living amplifiers, so why not an amplifier of my own like Ivan’s bear claws or the seal tooth I’d seen hanging around Marie’s neck?
“I think it’s brilliant!” I exclaimed more loudly than I’d intended.
Baghra made a disgusted sound.
The Darkling gave her a sharp glance, but then he turned to me. “Alina, have you ever heard of Morozova’s herd?”
“Of course she has. She’s also heard of unicorns and the Shu Han dragons,” Baghra said mockingly.
An angry look passed over the Darkling’s features, but then he seemed to master himself. “May I have a word with you, Alina?” he inquired politely.
“Of … of course,” I stammered.
Baghra snorted again, but the Darkling ignored her and took me by the elbow to lead me out of the cottage, shutting the door firmly behind us. When we had walked a short distance down the path, he heaved a huge sigh and ran his hands through his hair again. “That woman,” he muttered.
It was hard not to laugh.
“What?” he said warily.
“I’ve just never seen you so … ruffled.”
“Baghra has that effect on people.”
“Was she your teacher, too?”
A shadow crossed his face. “Yes,” he said. “So what do you know about Morozova’s herd?”
I bit my lip. “Just, well, you know …”
He sighed. “Just children’s stories?”
I shrugged apologetically.
“It’s all right,” he said. “What do you remember from the stories?”
I thought back, remembering Ana Kuya’s voice in the dormitories late at night. “They were white deer, magical creatures that appeared only at twilight.”
“They’re no more magical than we are. But they are ancient and very powerful.”
“They’re real?” I asked incredulously. I didn’t mention that I certainly hadn’t been feeling very magical or powerful lately.
“I think so.”
“But Baghra doesn’t.”
“She usually finds my ideas ridiculous. What else do you remember?”
“Well,” I said with a laugh. “In Ana Kuya’s stories, they could talk, and if a hunter captured them and spared their lives, they granted wishes.”
He laughed then. It was the first time I’d ever heard his laugh, a lovely dark sound that rippled through the air. “Well, that part definitely isn’t true.”
“But the rest is?”
“Kings and Darklings have been searching for Morozova’s herd for centuries. My hunters claim they’ve seen signs of them, though they’ve never seen the creatures themselves.”
“And you believe them?”
His slate-colored gaze was cool and steady. “My men don’t lie to me.”
I felt a chill skitter up my spine. Knowing what the Darkling could do, I wouldn’t be keen on lying to him either. “All right,” I said uneasily.
“If Morozova’s stag can be taken, its antlers can be made into an amplifier.” He reached out and tapped my collarbone—even that brief contact was enough to send a jolt of surety through me.
“A necklace?” I asked, trying to picture it, still feeling the tap of his fingers at the base of my throat.
He nodded. “The most powerful amplifier ever known.”
My jaw dropped. “And you want to give it to me?”
He nodded again.
“Wouldn’t it just be easier for me to get a claw or a fang or, I don’t know, pretty much anything else?”
He shook his head. “If we have any hope of destroying the Fold, we need the stag’s power.”
“But maybe if I had one to practice with—”
“You know it doesn’t work that way.”
He frowned. “Haven’t you been reading your theory?”
I gave him a look and said, “There’s a lot of theory.”
He surprised me by smiling. “I forget that you’re new to this.”