“I was surprised he even knew they existed.”
He crossed to the bed, and I bent my knees to make room for him.
“Tamar’s right,” he said, settling by my feet. “That could have been much worse.”
I sighed. “So much for seeing the sights.”
“I shouldn’t have suggested it.”
“I shouldn’t have gone along with it.”
He nodded, scuffed the toe of his boot along the floor. “I miss you,” he said quietly.
Soft words, but they sent a painful, welcome tremor through me. Had a part of me doubted it? He’d been gone so often.
I touched his hand. “I miss you too.”
“Come to target practice with me tomorrow,” he said. “Down by the lake.”
“I can’t. Nikolai and I are meeting with a delegation of Kerch bankers. They want to see the Sun Summoner before they guarantee a loan to the Crown.”
“Tell him you’re sick.”
“Grisha don’t get sick.”
“Well, tell him you’re busy,” he said.
“Other Grisha take time to—”
“I’m not other Grisha,” I said, more harshly than I intended.
“I know that,” he said wearily. He let out a long breath. “Saints, I hate this place.”
I blinked, startled by the vehemence in his voice. “You do?”
“I hate the parties. I hate the people. I hate everything about it.”
“I thought … you seemed … not happy exactly, but—”
“I don’t belong here, Alina. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
That I didn’t believe. Mal fit in everywhere. “Nikolai says everyone adores you.”
“They’re amused by me,” Mal said. “That’s not the same thing.” He turned my hand over, tracing the scar that ran the length of my palm. “Do you know I actually miss being on the run? Even that filthy little boardinghouse in Cofton and working in the warehouse. At least then I felt like I was doing something, not just wasting time and gathering gossip.”
I shifted uncomfortably, feeling suddenly defensive. “You take every chance you get to be away. You don’t have to accept every invitation.”
He stared at me. “I stay away to protect you, Alina.”
“From what?” I asked incredulously.
He stood up, pacing restlessly across the room. “What do you think people asked me on the royal hunt? The first thing? They wanted to know about me and you.” He turned on me, and when he spoke his voice was cruel, mocking. “Is it true that you’re tumbling the Sun Summoner? What’s it like with a Saint? Does she have a taste for trackers, or does she take all of her servants to her bed?” He crossed his arms. “I stay away to put distance between us, to stop the rumors. I probably shouldn’t even be in here now.”
I circled my knees with my arms, drawing them more tightly to my chest. My cheeks were burning. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“What could I say? And when? I barely see you anymore.”
“I thought you wanted to go.”
“I wanted you to ask me to stay.”
My throat felt tight. I opened my mouth, ready to tell him that he wasn’t being fair, that I couldn’t have known. But was that the truth? Maybe I had really believed Mal was happier away from the Little Palace. Or maybe I’d just told myself that because it was easier with him gone, because it meant one less person watching and wanting something from me.
“I’m sorry,” I rasped.
He raised his hands as if to plead his case, then dropped them helplessly. “I feel you slipping away from me, and I don’t know how to stop it.”
Tears pricked my eyes. “We’ll find a way,” I said. “We’ll make more time—”
“It’s not just that. Ever since you put on that second amplifier, you’ve been different.” My hand strayed to the fetter. “When you split the dome, the way you talk about the firebird … I heard you speaking to Zoya the other day. She was scared, Alina. And you liked it.”
“Maybe I did,” I said, my anger rising. It felt so much better than guilt or shame. “So what? You have no idea what she’s like, what this place has been like for me. The fear, the responsibility—”
“I know that. I know. And I can see the toll it’s taking. But you chose this. You have a purpose. I don’t even know what I’m doing here anymore.”
“Don’t say that.” I swung my legs off the bed and stood. “We do have a purpose. We came here for Ravka. We—”
“No, Alina. You came here for Ravka. For the firebird. To lead the Second Army.” He tapped the sun over his heart. “I came here for you. You’re my flag. You’re my nation. But that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Do you realize this is the first time we’ve really been alone in weeks?”
The knowledge of that settled over us. The room seemed unnaturally quiet. Mal took a single tentative step toward me. Then he closed the space between us in two long strides. One hand slid around my waist, the other cupped my face. Gently, he tilted my mouth up to his.
“Come back to me,” he said softly. He drew me to him, but as his lips met mine, something flickered in the corner of my eye.
The Darkling was standing behind Mal. I stiffened.
Mal pulled back. “What?” he said.
“Nothing. I just…” I trailed off. I didn’t know what to say.
The Darkling was still there. “Tell him you see me when he takes you in his arms,” he said.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
Mal dropped his hands and stepped away from me, his fingers curling into fists. “I guess that’s all I needed to know.”
“You should have stopped me. All the time I was standing there, going on like a fool. If you didn’t want me, you should have just said so.”
“Don’t feel too bad, tracker,” said the Darkling. “All men can be made fools.”
“That’s not it—” I protested.
“Is it Nikolai?”
“Another otkazat’sya, Alina?” the Darkling mocked.
Mal shook his head in disgust. “I let him push me away. The meetings, the council sessions, the dinners. I let him edge me out. Just waiting, hoping that you’d miss me enough to tell them all to go to hell.”
I swallowed, trying to block out the vision of the Darkling’s cold smile.
“Mal, the Darkling—”
“I don’t want to hear about the Darkling anymore! Or Ravka or the amplifiers or any of it.” He slashed his hand through the air. “I’m done.” He turned on his heel and strode toward the door.
“Wait!” I rushed after him and reached for his arm.
He turned around so fast, I almost careened into him. “Don’t, Alina.”
“You don’t understand—” I said.
“You flinched. Tell me you didn’t.”
“It wasn’t because of you!”
Mal laughed harshly. “I know you haven’t had much experience. But I’ve kissed enough girls to know what that means. Don’t worry. It won’t happen again.”
The words hit me like a slap. He slammed the door behind him.
I stood there, staring at the closed doors. I reached out and touched the bone handle.
You can fix this, I told myself. You can make this right. But I just stood there, frozen, Mal’s words ringing in my ears. I bit down hard on my lip to silence the sob that shook my chest. That’s good, I thought as the tears spilled over. That way the servants won’t hear. An ache had started between my ribs, a hard, bright shard of pain that lodged beneath my sternum, pressing tight against my heart.
I didn’t hear the Darkling move; I only knew when he was beside me. His long fingers brushed the hair back from my neck and rested on the collar. When he kissed my cheek, his lips were cold.
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, I tracked down David on the roof of the Little Palace, where construction had begun on his gigantic mirrored dishes. He’d set up a makeshift workspace in the shade of one of the domes, and it was already covered in bits of shiny detritus and discarded drawings. The barest breeze ruffled their edges. I recognized Nikolai’s scrawl in one of the margins.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Better,” he said, studying the slick surface of the nearest dish. “I think I’ve gotten the curvature right. We should be ready to try them out soon.”
“How soon?” We were still receiving conflicting reports of the Darkling’s location, but if he hadn’t finished creating his army, it wouldn’t be long.
“A couple of weeks,” David said.
“You can have it soon, or you can have it right,” he grumbled.
“David, I need to know—”
“I told you everything I know about Morozova.”
“Not about him,” I said. “Not exactly. If … if I wanted to remove the collar. How would I do that?”
“Not now. But after we’ve—”
“No,” David said, without looking at me. “It’s not like other amplifiers. It can’t just be taken off. You’d have to break it, violate its structure. The results would be catastrophic.”
“I can’t be certain,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure it would make the Fold look like a paper cut.”
“Oh,” I said softly. Then it would be the same with the fetter. Whatever I was becoming, there was no turning back. I’d hoped the visions were the result of the bite from the nichevo’ya, that the effects might somehow diminish as the wound slowly healed. But that didn’t seem to be happening. And even if it did, I would always be tied to the Darkling through the collar. Again, I wondered why he hadn’t chosen to try to kill the sea whip himself and bind us closer still.
David picked up a bottle of ink and began twirling it between his fingers. He looked miserable. Not just miserable, I thought. Guilty. He had forged this connection, placed this chain around my neck for eternity.
Gently, I took the ink bottle from his hands. “If you hadn’t done it, the Darkling would have found someone else.”
He twitched, something between a nod and a shrug. I set the ink down at the far edge of the table where his jittery fingers couldn’t reach it and turned to go.
I stopped and looked back at him. His cheeks had gone bright red. The warm breeze lifted the edges of his shaggy hair. At least that awful haircut was growing out.
“I heard … I heard Genya was on the ship. With the Darkling.”
I felt a pang of sorrow for Genya. So David hadn’t been completely oblivious.
“Yes,” I said.
“She’s all right?” he asked hopefully.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “She was when we escaped.” But if the Darkling knew that she’d as good as let us go, I didn’t know how he might have dealt with her. I hesitated. “I begged her to come with us.”