“Probably drunk,” said Genya, stirring her tea. “He devotes all his time to hunting, horses, and imbibing. Drives the Queen mad.”
“Well, Ravka is at war. He should probably be more concerned with matters of state.”
“Oh she doesn’t care about that. She just wants him to find a bride instead of gallivanting around the world spending mounds of gold buying up ponies.”
“What about the other one?” I asked. I knew the King and Queen had a younger son, but I’d never actually seen him.
“You can’t call a royal prince ‘puppy,’” I laughed.
“That’s what everyone calls him.” She lowered her voice. “And there are rumors that he isn’t strictly royal.”
I nearly choked on my tea. “No!”
“Only the Queen knows for sure. He’s a bit of a black sheep anyway. He insisted on doing his military service in the infantry, then he apprenticed to a gunsmith.”
“And he’s never at court?”
“Not in years. I think he’s off studying shipbuilding or something equally dull. He’d probably get along well with David,” she added sourly.
“What do you two talk about, anyway?” I asked curiously. I still didn’t quite understand Genya’s fascination with the Fabrikator.
She sighed. “The usual. Life. Love. The melting point of iron ore.” She wound a curl of bright red hair around her finger, and her cheeks flushed a pretty pink. “He’s actually quite funny when he lets himself be.”
Genya shrugged. “I think so.”
I patted her hand reassuringly. “He’ll come around. He’s just shy.”
“Maybe I should lie down on a table in the workroom and wait to see if he welds something to me.”
“I think that’s the way most great love stories begin.”
She laughed, and I felt a sudden niggle of guilt. Genya talked so easily about David, but I’d never confided in her about Mal.
That’s because there’s nothing to confide, I reminded myself harshly and added more sugar to my tea.
ONE QUIET AFTERNOON when the other Grisha had ventured out of Os Alta, Genya convinced me to sneak into the Grand Palace, and we spent hours looking through the clothes and shoes in the Queen’s dressing room. Genya insisted that I try on a pale pink silk gown studded with riverpearls, and when she laced me up in it and stuck me in front of one of the giant golden mirrors, I had to look twice.
I’d learned to avoid mirrors. They never seemed to show me what I wanted to see. But the girl standing next to Genya in the glass was a stranger. She had rosy cheeks and shiny hair and … a shape. I could have stared at her for hours. I suddenly wished good old Mikhael could see me. “Sticks” indeed, I thought smugly.
Genya caught my eye in the mirror and grinned.
“Is this why you dragged me in here?” I asked suspiciously.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I just thought you might want to get a good look at yourself, that’s all.”
I swallowed the embarrassing lump in my throat and gave her an impulsive hug. “Thanks,” I whispered. Then I gave her a little shove. “Now get out of the way. It’s impossible to feel pretty with you standing next to me.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon trying on dresses and goggling at ourselves in the mirror—two activities I never would have expected to enjoy. We lost track of time, and Genya had to help me scramble out of an aquamarine ball gown and back into my kefta so that I could hurry down to the lake for my evening lesson with Baghra. I ran all the way but I was still late, and she was furious.
The evening sessions with Baghra were always the hardest, but she was particularly tough on me that night.
“Control!” she snapped as the weak wave of sunlight that I’d summoned flickered on the lakeshore. “Where is your focus?”
At dinner, I thought but didn’t say. Genya and I had gotten so caught up in the distractions of the Queen’s wardrobe that we’d forgotten to eat, and my stomach was growling.
I centered myself and the light bloomed brighter, reaching out over the frozen lake.
“Better,” she said. “Let the light do the work for you. Like calls to like.”
I tried to relax and let the light call to itself. To my surprise, it surged across the ice, illuminating the little island in the middle of the lake.
“More!” Baghra demanded. “What’s stopping you?”
I dug deeper and the circle of light swelled past the island, bathing the whole lake and the school on the opposite shore in gleaming sunlight. Though there was snow on the ground, the air around us shone bright and heavy with summer heat. My body thrummed with power. It was exhilarating, but I could feel myself tiring, bumping up against the limits of my abilities.
“More!” Baghra shouted.
“I can’t!” I protested.
“More!” she said again, and there was an urgency in her voice that sounded an alarm inside of me and caused my focus to falter. The light wavered and slipped from my grasp. I scrambled for it but it rushed away from me, plunging the school, then the island, and then the lakeshore back into darkness.
“It’s not enough.” His voice made me jump. The Darkling emerged from the shadows onto the lamplit path.
“It might be,” said Baghra. “You see how strong she is. I wasn’t even helping her. Give her an amplifier and see what she can do.”
The Darkling shook his head. “She’ll have the stag.”
Baghra scowled. “You’re a fool.”
“I’ve been called worse. Often by you.”
“This is folly. You must reconsider.”
The Darkling’s face went cold. “I must? You don’t give me orders anymore, old woman. I know what has to be done.”
“I might surprise you,” I piped up. The Darkling and Baghra turned to stare at me. It was almost like they’d forgotten I was there. “Baghra’s right. I know I can do better. I can work harder.”
“You’ve been on the Shadow Fold, Alina. You know what we’re up against.”
I felt suddenly stubborn. “I know that I’m getting stronger every day. If you give me a chance—”
Again, the Darkling shook his head. “I can’t take that kind of a chance. Not with Ravka’s future at stake.”
“I understand,” I said numbly.
“Yes,” I said. “Without Morozova’s stag, I’m pretty much useless.”
“Ah, so she’s not as stupid as she looks,” cackled Baghra.
“Leave us,” said the Darkling with surprising ferocity.
“We’ll all suffer for your pride, boy.”
“I won’t ask you again.”
Baghra gave him a disgusted glower, then turned on her heel and marched back up the path to her cottage.
When her door slammed shut, the Darkling regarded me in the lamplight. “You look well,” he said.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, my eyes sliding away. Maybe Genya could teach me to take a compliment.
“If you’re returning to the Little Palace, I’ll walk with you,” he said.
For a while, we strolled in silence along the lakeshore, past the deserted stone pavilions. Across the ice, I could see the lights of the school.
Finally, I had to ask. “Has there been any word? Of the stag?”
He pressed his lips together. “No,” he said. “My men think that the herd may have crossed into Fjerda.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment.
He stopped abruptly. “I don’t think you’re useless, Alina.”
“I know,” I said to the tops of my boots. “Not useless. Just not exactly useful.”
“No Grisha is powerful enough to face the Fold. Not even me.”
“I get it.”
“But you don’t like it.”
“Should I? If I can’t help you destroy the Fold, then what exactly am I good for? Midnight picnics? Keeping your feet warm in the winter?”
His mouth quirked up in a half smile. “Midnight picnics?”
I couldn’t smile back. “Botkin told me that Grisha steel is earned. It’s not that I’m not grateful for all of this. I am, truly. But I don’t feel like I’ve earned any of it.”
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Alina. I asked you to trust me and I haven’t delivered.”
He looked so weary that I felt instantly contrite. “It’s not that—”
“It’s true.” He took another deep breath and ran a hand over his neck. “Maybe Baghra’s right, as much as I hate to admit it.”
I cocked my head to one side. “You never seem fazed by anything. Why do you let her bother you so much?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I think she’s good for you.”
He started in surprise. “Why?”
“Because she’s the only one around here who isn’t scared of you or constantly trying to impress you.”
“Are you trying to impress me?”
“Of course,” I laughed.
“Do you always say exactly what you’re thinking?”
“Not even half the time.”
Then he laughed too, and I remembered how much I liked the sound. “Then I guess I should count myself lucky,” he said.
“What’s Baghra’s power, anyway?” I asked, the thought occurring to me for the first time. She was an amplifier like the Darkling, but he had his own power, too.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I think she was a Tidemaker. No one around here is old enough to remember.” He looked down at me. The cold air had put a flush in his cheeks, and the lamplight shone in his gray eyes. “Alina, if I tell you that I still believe we can find the stag, would you think I’m mad?”
“Why would you care what I think?”
He looked genuinely baffled. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I do.”
And then he kissed me.
It happened so suddenly that I barely had time to react. One moment, I was staring into his slate-colored eyes, and the next, his lips were pressed to mine. I felt that familiar sense of surety melt through me as my body sang with sudden heat and my heart jumped into a skittery dance. Then, just as suddenly, he stepped back. He looked as surprised as I felt.
“I didn’t mean … ,” he said.
At that moment, we heard footsteps and Ivan rounded the corner. He bowed to the Darkling and then to me, but I caught a little smirk playing on his lips.
“The Apparat is getting impatient,” he said.
“One of his less appealing traits,” replied the Darkling smoothly. The look of surprise had vanished from his face. He bowed to me, completely composed, and without another glance, he and Ivan left me standing in the snow.
I stood there for a long moment and then made my way back to the Little Palace in a daze. What just happened? I touched my fingers to my lips. Did the Darkling really just kiss me? I avoided the domed hall and went straight to my room, but once I was there, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I rang for a dinner tray and then sat picking at my food. I was desperate to talk to Genya, but she slept at the Grand Palace every night, and I didn’t have the courage to go try to find her. Finally, I gave up and decided to go down to the domed hall after all.