Genya squeaked, and I just stood there gaping at the contents. When I didn’t move, she reached into the box and pulled out yards of rippling black silk. The sleeves and neckline were delicately embroidered in gold and glittered with tiny jet beads.
“Black,” Genya whispered.
His color. What did it mean?
“Look!” she gasped.
The neckline of the gown was laced with a black velvet ribbon, and from it hung a small golden charm: the sun in eclipse, the Darkling’s symbol.
I bit my lip. This time, the Darkling had chosen to set me apart, and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt a little jab of resentment, but it was drowned by excitement. Had he chosen these colors for me before or after the night by the lake? Would he regret seeing me in them tonight?
I couldn’t think about that now. Unless I wanted to go to the ball naked, I didn’t have a lot of options. I stepped behind the screen and slipped into the new kefta. The silk felt cool on my skin as I fumbled with the tiny buttons. When I emerged, Genya broke into a huge grin.
“Ooh, I knew you’d look good in black.” She grabbed my arm. “Come on!”
“I don’t even have my shoes on!”
“Just come on!”
She pulled me down the hall, then threw open a door without knocking.
Zoya shrieked. She was standing in the middle of her room in a kefta of midnight blue silk, a brush in her hand.
“Excuse us!” announced Genya. “But we have need of this chamber. Darkling’s orders!”
Zoya’s beautiful blue eyes slitted dangerously. “If you think—” she began and then she caught sight of me. Her jaw dropped, and the blood drained from her face.
“Out!” commanded Genya.
Zoya snapped her mouth shut, but to my amazement, she left the room without another word. Genya slammed the door behind her.
“What are you doing?” I asked dubiously.
“I thought it was important that you see yourself in a proper mirror, not that useless sliver of glass on your dressing table,” she said. “But mostly I wanted to see the look on that bitch’s face when she saw you in the Darkling’s color.”
I couldn’t restrain my grin. “That was pretty wonderful.”
“Wasn’t it?” Genya said dreamily.
I turned to the mirror, but Genya grabbed me and sat me down at Zoya’s dressing table. She started rooting around in the drawers.
“Just wait … aha! I knew she was darkening her lashes!” Genya pulled a little pot of black antimony from Zoya’s drawer. “Can you summon a little light for me to work with?”
I called a nice warm glow to help Genya see better and tried to be patient as she made me look up, down, left, right.
“Perfect!” she said when she was done. “Oh, Alina, you look like quite the temptress.”
“Right,” I said, and snatched the mirror from her. But then I had to smile. The sad, sickly girl with hollowed-out cheeks and bony shoulders was gone. In her place was a Grisha with sparkling eyes and shimmering waves of bronze hair. The black silk clung to my new form, shifting and sliding like sewn-together shadows. And Genya had done something marvelous to my eyes so that they looked dark and almost catlike.
“Jewelry!” shouted Genya, and we ran back to my room, passing Zoya seething in the hallway.
“Are you done?” she snapped.
“For the moment,” I said airily, and Genya gave a very unladylike snort.
In the other boxes on my bed, we found golden silk slippers, glittering jet and gold earrings, and a thick fur muff. When I was ready, I examined myself in the little mirror above the basin. I felt exotic and mysterious, like I was wearing some other, far more glamorous girl’s clothes.
I looked up to see Genya watching me with a troubled expression.
“What’s wrong?” I said, suddenly self-conscious again.
“Nothing,” she said with a smile. “You look beautiful. Truly. But …” Her smile faltered. She reached out and lifted the little golden charm at my neckline.
“Alina, the Darkling doesn’t notice most of us. We’re moments he’ll forget in his long life. And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Just … be careful.”
I stared at her, baffled. “Of what?”
“Of powerful men.”
“Genya,” I asked before I could lose my nerve, “what happened between you and the King?”
She examined the toes of her satin slippers. “The King has his way with lots of servants,” she said. Then she shrugged. “At least I got a few jewels out if it.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“No. I don’t.” She fiddled with one of her earrings. “The worst part is that everyone knows.”
I put my arm around her. “They don’t matter. You’re worth all of them put together.”
She gave a weak imitation of her confident smile. “Oh, I know that.”
“The Darkling should have done something,” I said. “He should have protected you.”
“He has, Alina. More than you know. Besides, he’s as much a slave to the whims of the King as the rest of us. At least for now.”
She gave me a quick squeeze. “Let’s not dwell on depressing things tonight. Come on,” she said, her gorgeous face breaking into a dazzling grin. “I’m in desperate need of champagne!”
And with that, she glided serenely from the room. I wanted to say more to her. I wanted to ask her what she meant about the Darkling. I wanted to take a hammer to the King’s head. But she was right. There would be plenty of time for trouble tomorrow. I took a last peek in the little mirror and hurried out into the hall, leaving my worries and Genya’s warnings behind me.
MY BLACK KEFTA caused quite a stir in the domed hall as Marie and Nadia and a group of other Etherealki dressed in blue velvets and silks swarmed around me and Genya. Genya made to slip away as she usually did, but I held fast to her arm. If I was wearing the Darkling’s color, then I intended to take full advantage of it and have my friend by my side.
“You know I can’t go into the ballroom with you. The Queen would have a fit,” she whispered in my ear.
“Okay, but you can still walk over with me.”
As we walked down the gravel path and into the wooded tunnel, I noticed that Sergei and several other Heartrenders were keeping pace with us, and I realized with a start that they were guarding us—or probably me. I supposed it made sense with all of the strangers on the palace grounds for the fete, but it was still disconcerting, a reminder that there were a lot of people in the world who wanted me dead.
The grounds surrounding the Grand Palace had been lit up to showcase tableaus of actors and little troupes of acrobats performing for wandering guests. Masked musicians strolled the paths. A man with a monkey on his shoulder ambled past, and two men covered from head to toe in gold leaf rode by on zebras, throwing jeweled flowers to everyone they passed. Costumed choirs sang in the trees. A trio of redheaded dancers splashed around in the double-eagle fountain, wearing little more than seashells and coral and holding up platters full of oysters to guests.
We had just started to climb the marble steps when a servant appeared with a message for Genya. She read the note and sighed.
“The Queen’s headache has miraculously disappeared, and she has decided to attend the ball after all.” She gave me a hug, promised to find me before the demonstration, and then slipped away.
Spring had barely begun to show itself, but it was impossible to tell that in the Grand Palace. Music floated down the marble hallways. The air felt curiously warm and was perfumed with the scent of thousands of white flowers, grown in Grisha hothouses. They covered tables and trailed down balustrades in thick clusters.
Marie, Nadia, and I drifted through groups of nobles, who pretended to ignore us but whispered as we passed by with our Corporalki guard. I held my head high and even smiled at one of the young noblemen standing by the entrance to the ballroom. I was surpised to see him blush and look down at his shoes. I glanced at Marie and Nadia to see if they had noticed, but they were gabbling about some of the dishes served to the nobles at dinner—roasted lynx, salted peaches, burnt swan with saffron. I was glad that we’d eaten earlier.
The ballroom was larger and grander than even the throne room had been, lit by row after row of sparkling chandeliers, and full of masses of people drinking and dancing to the sounds of a masked orchestra seated along the far wall. The gowns, the jewels, the crystals dripping from the chandeliers, even the floor beneath our feet seemed to sparkle, and I wondered how much of it was Fabrikator craft.
The Grisha themselves mingled and danced, but they were easy to pick out in their bold colors: purple, red, and midnight blue, glowing beneath the chandeliers like exotic flowers that had sprung up in some pale garden.
The next hour passed in a blur. I was introduced to countless noblemen and their wives, high-ranking military officers, courtiers, and even some Grisha from noble households who had come as guests to the ball. I quickly gave up trying to remember names and simply smiled and nodded and bowed. And tried to keep myself from scanning the crowd for the Darkling’s black-clad form. I also had my first taste of champagne, which I found I liked much better than kvas.
At one point, I discovered myself face-to-face with a tired-looking nobleman leaning on a cane.
“Duke Keramsov!” I exclaimed. He was wearing his old officer’s uniform, his many medals pinned to his broad chest.
The old man looked at me with a flicker of interest, clearly startled that I knew his name.
“It’s me,” I said. “Alina Starkov?”
“Yes … yes. Of course!” he said with a faint smile.
I looked into his eyes. He didn’t remember me at all.
And why should he? I was just another orphan, and a very forgettable one at that. Still, I was surprised at how much it hurt.
I made polite conversation for as long as I had to and then took the first opportunity to escape.
I leaned against a pillar and grabbed another glass of champagne from a passing servant. The room felt uncomfortably warm. As I looked around, I suddenly felt very alone. I thought of Mal, and for the first time in weeks, my heart gave that old familiar twist. I wished he could be here to see this place. I wished he could see me in my silk kefta with gold in my hair. Mostly I just wished that he was standing beside me. I pushed the thought away and took a big gulp of champagne. What difference did it make if some drunk old man didn’t know me? I was glad he didn’t recognize the scrawny, miserable little girl I’d been.
I saw Genya gliding through the crowd toward me. Counts and dukes and wealthy merchants turned to stare at her as she passed, but she ignored them all. Don’t waste your time, I wanted to tell them. Her heart belongs to a gangly Fabrikator who doesn’t like parties.
“Time for the show—I mean, the demonstration,” she said when she reached me. “Why are you all by yourself?”
“I just needed to take a little break.”