Marie and Nadia had returned from their sleighing excursion and were sitting by the fire, drinking tea. I was shocked to see Sergei sitting next to Marie, his arm looped through hers. Maybe there’s something in the air, I thought in amazement.
I sat sipping tea with them, asking about their day and their trip to the countryside, but I had trouble keeping my mind on the conversation. My thoughts kept wandering back to the feel of the Darkling’s lips on mine and the way he’d looked standing in the lamplight, his breath a white cloud in the cold night air, that stunned expression on his face.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so when Marie suggested going to the banya, I decided to join them. Ana Kuya had always told us that the banya was barbaric, an excuse for peasants to drink kvas and engage in wanton behavior. But I was beginning to realize that old Ana had been a bit of a snob.
I sat in the steam for as long as I could bear the heat and then plunged, squealing, into the snow with the others, before running back inside to do it all over again. I stayed until long past midnight, laughing and gasping, trying to clear my head.
When I stumbled back to my room, I fell into bed, my skin damp and pink, my hair in wet tangles. I felt flushed and boneless, but my mind was still whirring. I focused and summoned a warm wash of sunlight, making it dance in slivers across the painted ceiling, letting the sure rush of power soothe my nerves. Then the memory of the Darkling’s kiss blew through me and rattled my concentration, scattering my thoughts and making my heart swoop and dive like a bird borne aloft by uncertain currents.
The light shattered, leaving me in darkness.
AS WINTER DREW to a close, talk turned to the King and Queen’s fete at the Grand Palace. The Grisha Summoners were expected to put on a demonstration of their powers to entertain the nobles, and much time was spent discussing who would perform and what would make the most impressive showing.
“Just don’t call it ‘performing,’” Genya warned. “The Darkling can’t stand it. He thinks the winter fete is a giant waste of Grisha time.”
I thought he might have a point. The Materialki workshops buzzed morning and night with orders from the palace for cloth and gems and fireworks. The Summoners spent hours at the stone pavilions honing their “demonstrations.” Given that Ravka was at war and had been for over a hundred years, it all seemed a little frivolous. Still, I hadn’t been to many parties, and it was hard not to get caught up in the talk of silks and dances and flowers.
Baghra had no patience with me. If I lost focus for even a moment, she’d smack me with her stick and say, “Dreaming of dancing with your dark prince?”
I ignored her but, too often, she was right. Despite my best efforts, I was thinking of the Darkling. He’d disappeared once again, and Genya told me that he’d left for the north. The other Grisha speculated that he would have to put in an appearance at the winter fete, but no one could be sure. Again and again, I found myself on the verge of telling Genya about the kiss, but I always stopped just as the words were on my lips.
You’re being ridiculous, I told myself sternly. It didn’t mean anything. He probably kisses a lot of Grisha girls. And why would the Darkling have any interest in you when there are people like Genya and Zoya around? But if all those things were true, I didn’t want to know. As long as I kept my mouth shut, the kiss was a secret that the Darkling and I shared, and I wanted it to stay that way. All the same, some days it took everything in me not to stand up in the middle of breakfast and shout, “The Darkling kissed me!”
If Baghra was disappointed in me, it was nothing compared to my disappointment in myself. As hard as I pushed, my limitations were becoming obvious. At the end of every lesson, I kept hearing the Darkling say, “It’s not enough,” and I knew he was right. He wanted to destroy the very fabric of the Fold, to turn back the black tide of the Unsea, and I simply wasn’t strong enough to manage that. I’d read enough to understand that this was the way of things. All Grisha had limits to their power, even the Darkling. But he’d said I was going to change the world, and it was hard to accept that I might not be up to the task.
The Darkling had vanished, but the Apparat seemed to be everywhere. He lurked in hallways and by the path to the lake. I thought he might be trying to trap me alone again, but I didn’t want to listen to him rant about faith and suffering. I was careful never to let him catch me by myself.
On the day of the winter fete, I was excused from my classes, but I went to see Botkin anyway. I was too anxious about my part in the demonstration and the prospect of seeing the Darkling again to just sit in my room. Being around the other Grisha didn’t help. Marie and Nadia talked constantly about their new silk kefta and what jewels they intended to wear, and David and the other Fabrikators kept accosting me to talk over the details of the demonstration. So I avoided the domed hall and went out to the training rooms by the stables.
Botkin put me through my paces and made me drill using my mirrors. Without them, I was still pretty helpless against him. But with my gloves on, I could almost hold my own. Or so I thought. When the lesson was over, Botkin admitted that he’d been pulling his punches.
“Should not hit girl in face when she is going to party,” he said with a shrug. “Botkin will be fairer tomorrow.”
I groaned at the prospect.
I had a quick dinner in the domed hall and then, before anyone could corner me, I hurried up to my room, already thinking of my beautiful sunken tub. The banya was fun, but I’d had my share of communal bathing in the army, and privacy was still a novelty to me.
When I’d had a long, luxurious soak, I sat down by the windows to dry my hair and watch night fall over the lake. Soon, the lamps lining the long drive to the palace would be lit as nobles arrived in their lavish coaches, each more ornate than the last. I felt a little prickle of excitement. A few months ago, I would have dreaded a night like this: a performance, playing dress-up with hundreds of beautiful people in their beautiful clothes. I was still nervous, but I thought it all might actually be … fun.
I looked at the little clock on the mantel and frowned. A servant was supposed to be delivering my new silk kefta, but if she didn’t arrive soon, I was going to have to wear my old wool one or borrow something from Marie.
Almost as soon as I’d had the thought, a knock sounded at the door. But it was Genya, her tall frame swathed in cream silk heavily embroidered in gold, her red hair piled high on her head to better display the massive diamonds dangling from her ears and the graceful turn of her neck.
“Well?” she said, turning this way and that.
“I loathe you,” I said with a smile.
“I do look remarkable,” she said, admiring herself in the mirror over the basin.
“You’d look even better with a little humility.”
“I doubt that. Why aren’t you dressed?” she asked, taking a break from marveling at her own reflection to notice I was still in my robe.
“My kefta hasn’t arrived.”
“Oh, well, the Fabrikators have been a bit overwhelmed with the Queen’s requests. I’m sure it will get here. Now, sit down in front of the mirror so I can do your hair.”
I practically squealed with excitement, but I managed to restrain myself. I’d been hoping Genya would offer to do my hair, but I hadn’t wanted to ask. “I thought you would be helping the Queen,” I said as Genya set her clever hands to work.
She rolled her amber eyes. “I can only do so much. Her highness has decided she doesn’t feel up to attending the ball tonight. She has a headache. Ha! I’m the one who spent an hour removing her crow’s feet.”
“So she’s not going?”
“Of course she’s going! She just wants her ladies to fuss over her so she can feel even more important. This is the biggest event of the season. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
The biggest event of the season. I let out a shaky breath.
“Nervous?” asked Genya.
“A little. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe because a few hundred nobles are waiting to get their first look at you.”
“Thanks. That really helps.”
“You’re very welcome,” she said, giving my hair a hard tug. “You should be used to being gawked at by now.”
“And yet I’m not.”
“Well, if it gets too bad, give me a signal, and I’ll get up on the banquet table, toss my skirt over my head, and do a little dance. That way no one will be looking at you.”
I laughed and felt myself relax a bit. After a moment, trying to keep my voice casual, I asked, “Has the Darkling arrived?”
“Oh yes. He arrived yesterday. I saw his coach.”
My heart sank a little. He had been in the palace for an entire day and he hadn’t come to see me or called for me.
“I imagine he’s very busy,” said Genya.
After a moment, she said softly, “We all feel it, you know.”
“The pull. Toward the Darkling. But he’s not like us, Alina.”
I tensed. Genya kept her gaze studiously focused on the coils of my hair.
“What do you mean?” I asked. Even to my own ears, my voice sounded unnaturally high.
“His kind of power, the way he looks. You’d have to be mad or blind not to notice it.”
I didn’t want to ask, but I couldn’t help myself. “Has he ever … ? I mean, have you and he ever … ?”
“No! Never!” A mischievous smile twitched on her lips. “But I would.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Her eyes met mine in the mirror. “But I’d never let my heart get involved.”
I gave what I hoped was an indifferent shrug. “Of course not.”
Genya raised her flawless brows and tugged hard on my hair.
“Ouch!” I yelped. “Will David be there tonight?”
Genya sighed. “No, he doesn’t like parties. But I did just happen to drop by the workrooms so he could get a peek at what he was missing. He barely looked at me.”
“I doubt that,” I said comfortingly.
Genya twisted a final piece of my hair into place and secured it with a golden hairpin.
“There!” she said triumphantly. She handed me my little mirror and turned me around so that I could see her handiwork. Genya had piled half of my hair into an elaborate knot. The rest cascaded around my shoulders in shining waves. I beamed and gave her a quick hug.
“Thank you!” I said. “You’re spectacular.”
“A lot of good it does me,” she grumbled.
How was it that Genya had fallen so hard for someone so serious and so quiet and so seemingly oblivious to her gorgeousness? Or was that exactly why she had fallen for David?
A knock at the door pulled me from my thoughts. I practically ran to open it. I felt a rush of relief when I saw two servants standing in the doorway, each carrying several boxes. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how worried I was about my kefta arriving. I laid the largest box on the bed and pulled off the lid.