“I’ve had enough of this,” I snarled, and turned my back on her. I was close to tears and I refused to cry in front of this spiteful old woman.
“Where are you going?” she called after me, her voice mocking. “What’s waiting for you out there?”
“Nothing!” I shouted at her. “No one!”
As soon as I said it, the truth of the words hit me so hard that it left me breathless. I gripped the door handle, feeling suddenly dizzy.
In that moment, the memory of the Grisha Examiners came rushing back to me.
I am in the sitting room at Keramzin. A fire is burning in the grate. The heavyset man in blue has hold of me and he is pulling me away from Mal.
I feel Mal’s fingers slip as his hand is torn from mine.
The young man in purple picks Mal up and drags him into the library, slamming the door behind him. I kick and thrash. I can hear Mal shouting my name.
The other man holds me. The woman in red slides her hand around my wrist. I feel a sudden rush of pure certainty wash over me.
I stop struggling. A call rings through me. Something within me rises up to answer.
I can’t breathe. It’s like I’m kicking up from the bottom of a lake, about to break the surface, my lungs aching for air.
The woman in red watches me closely, her eyes narrowed.
I hear Mal’s voice through the library door. Alina, Alina.
I know then. I know that we are different from one another. Terribly, irrevocably different.
I make my choice. I grab hold of the thing inside me and push it back down.
“Mal!” I shout, and begin to struggle once more.
The woman in red tries to keep hold of my wrist, but I wriggle and wail until finally she lets me go.
I leaned against the door to Baghra’s hut, trembling. The woman in red had been an amplifier. That was why the Darkling’s call had felt familiar. But somehow I’d managed to resist her.
At last, I understood.
Before Mal, Keramzin had been a place of terrors, long nights spent crying in the dark, older children who ignored me, cold and empty rooms. But then Mal arrived and all of that changed. The dark hallways became places to hide and play. The lonely woods became places to explore. Keramzin became our palace, our kingdom, and I wasn’t afraid anymore.
But the Grisha Examiners would have taken me from Keramzin. They would have taken me away from Mal, and he had been the only good thing in my world. So I’d made my choice. I’d pushed my power down and held it there each day, with all my energy and will, without ever realizing it. I’d used up every bit of myself to keep that secret.
I remembered standing at the window with Mal, watching the Grisha depart in their troika, how tired I’d felt. The next morning, I’d woken to find dark circles beneath my eyes. They’d been with me ever since.
And now? I asked myself, pressing my forehead against the cool wood of the door, my whole body shaking.
Now Mal had left me behind.
The only person in the world who truly knew me had decided I wasn’t worth the effort of a few words. But I was holding on still. Despite all the luxuries of the Little Palace, despite my newfound powers, despite Mal’s silence, I held on.
Baghra was right. I’d thought I was making such an effort, but deep down, some part of me just wanted to go home to Mal. Some part of me hoped that this had all been a mistake, that the Darkling would realize his error and send me back to the regiment, that Mal would realize how much he’d missed me, that we’d grow old together in our meadow. Mal had moved on, but I was still standing frightened before those three mysterious figures, holding tight to his hand.
It was time to let go. That day on the Shadow Fold, Mal had saved my life, and I had saved his. Maybe that was meant to be the end of us.
The thought filled me with grief, grief for the dreams we’d shared, for the love I’d felt, for the hopeful girl I would never be again. That grief flooded through me, dissolving a knot that I hadn’t even known was there. I closed my eyes, feeling tears slide down my cheeks, and I reached out to the thing within me that I’d kept hidden for so long. I’m sorry, I whispered to it.
I’m sorry I left you so long in the dark.
I’m sorry, but I’m ready now.
I called and the light answered. I felt it rushing toward me from every direction, skimming over the lake, skittering over the golden domes of the Little Palace, under the door and through the walls of Baghra’s cottage. I felt it everywhere. I opened my hands and the light bloomed right through me, filling the room, illuminating the stone walls, the old tile oven, and every angle of Baghra’s strange face. It surrounded me, blazing with heat, more powerful and more pure than ever before because it was all mine. I wanted to laugh, to sing, to shout. At last, there was something that belonged wholly and completely to me.
“Good,” said Baghra, squinting in the sunlight. “Now we work.”
THAT VERY AFTERNOON, I joined the other Etherealki by the lake and called my power for them for the first time. I sent a sheet of light shimmering out over the water, letting it roll over the waves that Ivo had summoned. I didn’t have the others’ control yet, but I managed. In fact, it was easy.
Suddenly, lots of things seemed easy. I wasn’t tired all the time or winded when I climbed the stairs. I slept deeply and dreamlessly every night and woke refreshed. Food was a revelation: bowls of porridge heaped with sugar and cream, plates of skate fried in butter, fat plums and hothouse peaches, the clear and bitter taste of kvas. It was as if that moment in Baghra’s cottage was my first full breath and I had awakened into a new life.
Since none of the other Grisha knew that I’d had so much trouble summoning, they were all a little baffled by the change in me. I didn’t offer any explanations, and Genya let me in on some of the more hilarious rumors.
“Marie and Ivo were speculating that the Fjerdans had infected you with some disease.”
“I thought Grisha didn’t get sick.”
“Exactly!” she said. “That’s why it was so very sinister. But apparently the Darkling cured you by feeding you his own blood and an extract of diamonds.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said, laughing.
“Oh that’s nothing. Zoya actually tried to put it around that you were possessed.”
I laughed even harder.
My lessons with Baghra were still difficult and I never actually enjoyed them. But I did relish any chance to use my power, and I felt like I was making progress. At first, I’d been frightened every time I got ready to call the light, afraid that it just wouldn’t be there and I’d be back to where I started.
“It isn’t something separate from you,” Baghra snapped. “It isn’t an animal that shies away from you or chooses whether or not to come when you call it. Do you ask your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe? Your power serves you because that is its purpose, because it cannot help but serve you.”
Sometimes I felt like there was a shadow in Baghra’s words, a second meaning she wanted me to understand. But the work I was doing was hard enough without guessing at the secrets of a bitter old woman.
She drove me hard, pushing me to expand my reach and my control. She taught me to focus my power in short bright bursts, piercing beams that burned with heat, and long sustained cascades. She forced me to call the light again, and again, and again, until I barely had to reach for it. She made me trek to her cottage at night to practice when it was nearly impossible for me to find any light to summon. When I finally, proudly produced a weak thread of sunlight, she slammed her cane down on the ground and shouted, “Not good enough!”
“I’m doing my best,” I muttered in exasperation.
“Pah!” she spat. “Do you think the world cares if you do your best? Do it again and do it right.”
My lessons with Botkin were the real surprise. As a little girl, I had run and played with Mal in the woods and fields, but I’d never been able to keep up with him. I’d always been too sickly and frail, too easy to tire. But as I ate and slept regularly for the first time in my life, all of that changed. Botkin put me through brutal combat drills and seemingly endless runs through the palace grounds, but I found myself enjoying some of the challenges. I liked learning what this new, stronger body could do.
I doubted I’d ever be able to outspar the old mercenary, but the Fabrikators had helped even the field. They’d produced a pair of fingerless leather gloves for me that were lined with little mirrors—the mysterious glass discs David had shown me on that first day in the workshops. With a flick of the wrist, I could slide a mirror between my fingers and, with Botkin’s permission, I practiced bouncing flashes of light off them and into my opponent’s eyes. I worked with them until they felt almost natural in my hands, like extensions of my own fingers.
Botkin was still gruff and critical, and took every opportunity to call me useless, but once in a while I thought I glimpsed a hint of approval on his weathered features.
Late in winter, he took me aside after a long lesson in which I’d actually managed to land a blow to his ribs (and been thanked for it with a hard cuff across my jaw).
“Here,” he said, handing me a heavy knife in a steel and leather sheath. “Always keep with you.”
With a jolt, I saw that it was no ordinary knife. It was Grisha steel. “Thank you,” I managed.
“Not ‘thank you,’” he said. He tapped the ugly scar at his throat. “Steel is earned.”
Winter looked different to me than it ever had before. I spent sunny afternoons skating on the lake or sledding on the palace grounds with the other Summoners. Snowy evenings were spent in the domed hall, gathered around the tile ovens, drinking kvas and gorging ourselves on sweets. We celebrated the feast of Sankt Nikolai with huge bowls of dumpling soup and kutya made with honey and poppy seeds. Some of the other Grisha left the palace to go on sleigh rides and dogsledding excursions in the snow-blanketed countryside surrounding Os Alta, but for security reasons, I was still confined to the palace grounds.
I didn’t mind. I felt more comfortable with the Summoners now, but I doubted I’d ever really enjoy being around Marie and Nadia. I was much happier sitting in my room with Genya, drinking tea and gossiping by the fire. I loved to hear all the court gossip, and even better were the tales of the opulent parties at the Grand Palace. My favorite was the story of the massive pie that a count had presented to the King, and the dwarf who had burst out of it to hand the tsaritsa a bouquet of forget-me-nots.
At the end of the season, the King and the Queen would host a final winter fete that all the Grisha would attend. Genya claimed it would be the most lavish party of all. Every noble family and high court officer would be there, along with military heroes, foreign dignitaries, and the tsarevitch, the King’s eldest son and heir to the throne. I’d once seen the Crown Prince riding around the palace grounds on a white gelding that was roughly the size of a house. He was almost handsome, but he had the King’s weak chin and eyes so heavy-lidded that it was hard to tell if he was tired or just supremely bored.