“Because I don’t want to live in darkness,” she said. “Because you’re our best chance.”
I shook my head. “Too easy.”
She flushed. “Am I supposed to beg?”
Would she? I found I didn’t mind the idea. “You’re vain. You’re ambitious. You would have done anything for the Darkling’s attention. What changed?”
“What changed?” she choked out. Her lips thinned, and her fists clenched at her sides. “I had an aunt who lived in Novokribirsk. A niece. The Darkling could have told me what he meant to do. If I could have warned them—” Her voice broke, and I was instantly ashamed of the pleasure I’d felt at watching her squirm.
Baghra’s voice echoed in my ears: You’re taking to power well.… As it grows, it will hunger for more. And yet, did I believe Zoya? Was the sheen in her eyes real or pretense? She blinked her tears back and glared at me. “I still don’t like you, Starkov. I never will. You’re common and clumsy, and I don’t know why you were born with such power. But you’re the Sun Summoner, and if you can keep Ravka free, then I’ll fight for you.”
I watched her, considering, noting the two bright spots of color that flamed high on her cheeks, the trembling of her lip.
“Well?” she said, and I could see how much it cost her to ask. “Are you sending me away?”
I waited a moment longer. “You can stay,” I said. “For now.”
“Is everything all right?” Mal asked. We hadn’t even noticed that he’d left off sparring.
In an instant, Zoya’s uncertainty was gone. She gave him a dazzling smile. “I hear you’re quite the marvel with a bow and arrow. I thought you might offer me a lesson.”
Mal glanced from Zoya back to me. “Maybe later.”
“I look forward to it,” she said, and swept away in a soft rustle of silk.
“What was that about?” he asked as we began the walk up the hill to the Little Palace.
“I don’t trust her.”
For a long minute he said nothing. “Alina,” Mal began uneasily, “what happened in Kribirsk—”
I cut him off quickly. I didn’t want to know what he might have done with Zoya back at the Grisha camp. And that was hardly the point. “She was one of the Darkling’s favorites, and she’s always hated me.”
“She was probably jealous of you.”
“She broke two of my ribs.”
“It was an accident. Sort of.” I’d never told Mal exactly how bad it had been for me before I’d learned to use my power, the endless, lonely days of failure. “I just can’t be sure where her real allegiance lies.” I rubbed the back of my neck where the muscles had started to bunch. “I can’t be sure of anyone. Not the Grisha. Not the servants. Any of them could be working for the Darkling.”
Mal looked around. For once, nobody seemed to be watching. Impulsively, he seized hold of my hand. “Gritzki’s throwing a fortune-telling party in the upper town two days from now. Come with me.”
“His father is Stepan Gritzki, the pickle king. New money,” Mal said in a very good imitation of a smug noble. “But his family has a palace down by the canal.”
“I can’t,” I said, thinking of the meetings, David’s mirrored dishes, the evacuation of the school. It just felt wrong to go to a party when we could be at war in a matter of days or weeks.
“You can,” said Mal. “Just for an hour or two.”
It was so tempting—to steal a few moments with Mal away from the pressures of the Little Palace.
He must have sensed that I was wavering. “We’ll dress you up as one of the performers,” he said. “No one will even know the Sun Summoner is there.”
A party, late in the evening, after the day’s work was done. I’d miss one night of futile searching through the library. What was the harm in that?
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
His face broke into a grin that left me breathless. I didn’t know if I’d ever get used to the idea that a smile like that might actually be for me.
“Tolya and Tamar won’t like it,” he warned.
“They’re my guards. They follow my orders.”
Mal snapped to attention and swept me an elaborate bow. “Da, moi soverenyi,” he pronounced in somber tones. “We live to serve.”
I rolled my eyes, but as I hurried to the Materialki workrooms, I felt lighter than I had in weeks.
THE GRITSKI MANSION was in the canal district, considered the least fashionable part of the upper town because of its proximity to the bridge and the rabble across it. It was a lavish little building, bordered by a war memorial on one side and the gardens of the Convent of Sankta Lizabeta on the other.
Mal had managed to secure a borrowed coach for the evening, and we were tucked inside its narrow confines with a very cranky Tamar. She and Tolya had grumbled long and loudly about the party, but I’d made it clear that I wasn’t going to budge. I also swore them to secrecy; I didn’t want word of my little excursion beyond the palace gates to reach Nikolai.
We were all dressed in the style of Suli fortune-tellers, in vibrant orange silk cloaks and red lacquered masks carved to resemble jackals. Tolya had remained behind. Even covered head to toe, his size would draw too much attention.
Mal squeezed my hand, and I felt a surge of giddy excitement. My cloak was uncomfortably warm, and my face was already starting to itch beneath the mask, but I didn’t care. I felt like we were back at Keramzin, casting off our chores and braving the threat of the switch just to sneak away to our meadow. We would lie in the cool grass and listen to the hum of the insects, watch the clouds break apart overhead. That kind of peace seemed so far away now.
The street leading to the pickle king’s mansion was clogged with carriages. We turned onto an alley near the convent so that we’d be better able to mix in with the performers at the servants’ entrance.
Tamar carefully shifted her cloak as we descended from the coach. She and Mal were both carrying hidden pistols, and I knew that beneath all the orange silk, she had her twin axes strapped to each thigh.
“What if someone actually wants his fortune told?” I asked, tightening the laces of my mask and pulling my hood up.
“Just feed him the usual drivel,” said Mal. “Beautiful women, unexpected wealth. Beware of the number eight.”
The servants’ entrance led past a steam-filled kitchen and into the house’s back rooms. But as soon as we stepped inside, a man dressed in what must have been the Gritzki livery seized my arm.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he said, giving me a shake. I saw Tamar’s hand go to her hip.
“You three should already be circulating.” He shoved us toward the main rooms of the house. “Don’t spend too long with any single guest. And don’t let me catch you drinking!”
I nodded, trying to get my heart to stop hammering, and we hurried into the ballroom. The pickle king had spared no expense. The mansion had been decorated to look like the most decadent Suli camp imaginable. The ceiling was hung with a thousand star-shaped lanterns. Silk-covered wagons were parked around the edges of the room in a glittering caravan, and fake bonfires glowed with dancing colored light. The terrace doors had been thrown open, and the night air hummed with the rhythmic clang of finger cymbals and the wail of violins.
I saw the real Suli fortune-tellers scattered throughout the crowd and realized what an eerie sight we must make in our jackal masks, but the guests didn’t seem to mind. Most of them were already well in their cups, laughing and shouting to one another in boisterous groups, gawking at the acrobats twirling from silk swings overhead. Some sat swaying in their chairs, having their fortunes told over golden urns of coffee. Others ate at the long table that had been set up on the terrace, gorging on stuffed figs and bowls of pomegranate seeds, clapping along with the music.
Mal snuck me a little glass of kvas, and we found a bench in a shadowy corner of the terrace while Tamar took up her post a discreet distance away. I rested my head against Mal’s shoulder, happy just to be sitting beside him, listening to the thump and jangle of the music. The air was heavy with the scent of some night-blooming flower and, beneath that, the tang of lemons. I breathed deeply, feeling some of the exhaustion and fear of the last few weeks ease away. I wriggled my foot from my slipper and let my toes dig into the cool gravel.
Mal adjusted his hood to better hide his face and tipped up his mask, then reached forward and did the same with mine. He leaned in. Our jackal masks bumped snouts.
I started to laugh.
“Next time, different costumes,” he grumbled.
“Maybe we could just wear baskets over our heads.”
Two girls came swaying up to us. Tamar was by my side in an instant. We pushed our masks back into place.
“Tell our fortunes!” the taller girl demanded, practically toppling over her friend.
Tamar shook her head, but Mal gestured to one of the little tables laid with blue enamel cups and a golden urn.
The girl squealed and poured out a tiny amount of sludge-like coffee. The Suli told fortunes by reading the dregs at the bottom of the cup. She downed the coffee and grimaced.
I elbowed Mal in the side. Now what?
He rose and walked to the table.
“Hmmm,” he said, peering into the cup. “Hmmm.”
The girl seized his arm. “What is it?”
He waved me over. I gritted my teeth and bent over the cup.
“Is it bad?” the girl moaned.
“Eeet eeees … goooood,” said Mal in the most outrageous Suli accent I’d ever heard.
The girl sighed in relief.
“You weeel meet a handsome stranger.”
The girls giggled and clapped their hands. I couldn’t resist.
“He weeel be very wicked man,” I interjected. My accent was even worse than Mal’s. If any real Suli overheard me, I’d probably end up with a black eye. “You must run from theees man.”
“Oh,” the girls sighed in disappointment.
“You must marry ugly man,” I said. “Very fet.” I held my arms out in front of me, indicating a giant belly. “He weeel make you heppy.”
I heard Mal snort beneath his mask.
The girl sniffed. “I don’t like this fortune,” she said. “Let’s go try another one.” As they flounced away, two rather tipsy noblemen took their place.
One had a beaky nose and wobbly jowls. The other threw back his coffee like he was gulping kvas and slammed the cup down on the table. “Now,” he slurred, twitching his bristly red mustache. “What’ve I got in store? And make it good.”
Mal pretended to study the cup. “You weeel come into a great fortune.”
“Already have a great fortune. What else?”
“Uh…” Mal hedged. “Your wife weeel bear you three handsome sons.”