The truth of that word hung between us. We stood there, in the darkness of the woods, and I felt the shard in my heart shift. I knew what it would leave behind when the pain was gone: loneliness, nothingness, a deep fissure that would not mend, the desperate edge of the abyss I had once glimpsed in the Darkling’s eyes.
“Let’s go,” Mal said at last.
“Back to the Little Palace. I’m not going to just leave you in the woods.”
We walked up the hill in silence and entered the palace through the Darkling’s chambers. The common room was blessedly empty.
At the door to my room, I turned to Mal.
“I see him,” I said. “I see the Darkling. In the library. In the chapel. That time on the Fold when the Hummingbird nearly crashed. In my room, the night you tried to kiss me.”
He stared at me.
“I don’t know if they’re visions or visitations. I didn’t tell you because I think I might be going mad. And because I think you’re already a little afraid of me.”
Mal opened his mouth, closed it, tried again. Even then, I hoped he might deny it. Instead, he turned his back on me. He crossed to the guards’ quarters, stopping only to snatch a bottle of kvas from the table, and softly shut the door behind him.
I got ready for bed and eased between the sheets, but the night was too warm. I kicked them into a tangle at my feet. I lay on my back gazing up at the obsidian dome marked by constellations. I wanted to bang on Mal’s door, tell him I was sorry, that I’d made a terrible mess of things, that we should have marched into Os Alta that first day hand in hand. But would it have mattered in the end?
There is no ordinary life for people like you and me.
No ordinary life. Just battle and fear and mysterious crackling jolts that rocked us back on our heels. I’d spent so many years wishing to be the kind of girl that Mal could want. Maybe that wasn’t possible anymore.
There are no others like us, Alina. And there never will be.
When the tears came, they burned hot and angry. I turned my face into my pillow so that no one would hear me cry. I wept, and when there was nothing left, I fell into a troubled sleep.
* * *
I woke to the soft brush of Mal’s lips on mine, the barest touch to my temple, my eyelids, my brow. The light from the guttering flame on my bedside table glinted off his brown hair as he bent to kiss the curve of my throat.
For a moment, I hesitated, confused, not quite awake, then I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him closer. I didn’t care that we’d fought, that he’d kissed Zoya, that he’d walked away from me, that everything felt so impossible. The only thing that mattered was that he’d changed his mind. He’d come back, and I wasn’t alone.
“I missed you, Mal,” I murmured against his ear. “I missed you so much.”
My arms glided up his back and twined around his neck. He kissed me again, and I sighed into the welcome press of his mouth. I felt his weight slide over me and ran my hands over the hard muscles of his arms. If Mal was still with me, if he could still love me, then there was hope. My heart was pounding in my chest as warmth spread through me. There was no sound but our breathing and the shift of our bodies together. He was kissing my throat, my collarbone, drinking my skin. I shivered and pressed closer to him.
This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? To find some way to heal the breach between us? Still, a sliver of panic cut through me. I needed to see his face, to know we were all right. I cupped his head with my hands, tilting his chin, and as my gaze met his, I shrank back in terror.
I looked into Mal’s eyes—his familiar blue eyes that I knew even better than my own. Except they weren’t blue. In the dying lamplight, they glimmered quartz gray.
He smiled then, a cold, clever smile like none I’d ever seen on his lips.
“I missed you too, Alina.” That voice. Cool and smooth as glass.
Mal’s features melted into shadow and then formed again like a face from the mist. Pale, beautiful, that thick shock of black hair, the perfect sweep of jaw.
The Darkling rested one gentle hand on my cheek. “Soon,” he whispered.
I screamed. He broke into shadows and vanished.
I scrambled out of bed, clutching my arms around myself. My skin was crawling, my body quaking with terror and the memory of desire. I expected Tamar or Tolya to come bursting through the door. Already, I had a lie on my lips.
“Nightmare,” I would say. And the word would come out steady, convincing, despite the rattling of my heart in my chest and the new scream I felt building in my throat.
But the room stayed silent. No one came. I stood shaking in the near dark.
I took a shallow, trembling breath. Then another.
When my legs felt steady enough, I pulled on my robe and peeked into the common room. It was empty.
I closed my door and pressed my back against it, staring at the rumpled covers of the bed. I was not going back to sleep. I might never sleep again. I glanced at the clock on the mantel. Sunrise came early during Belyanoch, but it would be hours before the palace woke.
I dug through the pile of clothes that I’d kept from our journey on the Volkvolny and pulled out a drab brown coat and a long scarf. It was too hot for either, but I didn’t care. I drew the coat on over my nightshift, wrapped the scarf around my head and neck, and tugged on my shoes.
As I crept through the common room, I saw the door to the guards’ quarters was closed. If Mal or the twins were inside, they must be sleeping deeply. Or maybe Mal was somewhere else beneath the domes of the Little Palace, tangled in Zoya’s arms. My heart gave a sick twist. I took the doors to the left and hurried through the darkened halls, into the silent grounds.
I DRIFTED THROUGH the half-light, past the silent lawns covered in mist, the clouded windows of the greenhouse. The only sound was the soft crunch of my shoes on the gravel path. The morning deliveries of bread and produce were being made at the Grand Palace, and I followed the caravan of wagons straight out the gates and through the cobblestone streets of the upper town. There were still a few revelers about, enjoying the twilight. I saw two people in party dress snoozing on a park bench. A group of girls laughed and splashed in a fountain, their skirts hiked up to their knees. A man wearing a wreath of poppies sat on a curb with his head in his hands while a girl in a paper crown patted his shoulder. I passed them all unseen and unremarked upon, an invisible girl in a drab brown coat.
I knew I was being foolish. The Apparat’s spies might be watching, or the Darkling’s. I might be seized and hauled away at any moment. I wasn’t sure it mattered to me anymore. I needed to keep walking, to fill my lungs with clean air, to shake the feeling of the Darkling’s hands on my skin.
I touched the scar at my shoulder. Even through the fabric of my coat, I could feel its raised edges. Aboard the whaler, I’d asked the Darkling why he’d let his monster bite me. I’d thought it was out of spite, so I would always wear his mark. Maybe there had been more to it than that.
Had the vision been real? Was he there, or was he something my mind had conjured? What sickness was inside of me that I would dream such a thing?
But I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to walk.
I crossed the canal, the little boats bobbing in the water below. From somewhere beneath the bridge, I heard the wheeze of an accordion.
I floated past the guard gate and into the narrow streets and clutter of the market town. It seemed even more crowded than it had before. People hung off stoops and overflowed from porches. Some played cards on makeshift tables made of boxes. Others slept propped up against each other. A couple swayed slowly on a tavern porch to music only they could hear.
When I came to the city walls, I told myself to stop, to turn around and go home. I almost laughed. The Little Palace wasn’t really home.
There is no ordinary life for people like you and me.
My life would be allegiance instead of love, fealty instead of friendship. I would weigh each decision, consider every action, trust no one. It would be life observed from a distance.
I knew I should go back, but I kept on, and a moment later, I was on the other side of the wall. Just like that, I’d left Os Alta.
The tent city had grown. There were hundreds of people camped outside the walls, maybe thousands. The pilgrims weren’t hard to find—I was surprised to see how their numbers had increased. They crowded near a large white tent, all facing east, awaiting the early sunrise.
The sound began as a swell of rustling whispers that fluttered on the air like the wings of birds and grew to a low hum as the sun peered over the horizon and lit the sky pale blue. Only then did I begin to make out the words.
Sankta. Sankta Alina. Sankta. Sankta Alina.
The pilgrims watched the growing dawn, and I watched them, unable to look away from their hope, their expectation. Their faces were exultant, and as the first rays of sun broke over them, some began to weep.
The hum rose and multiplied, cresting and falling, building to a wail that raised the hair on my arms. It was a creek overflowing its banks, a hive of bees shaken from a tree.
Sankta. Sankta Alina. Daughter of Ravka.
I closed my eyes as the sun played over my skin, praying I would feel something, anything.
Sankta Alina. Daughter of Keramzin.
Their hands lifted heavenward, their voices rose to a frenzy, shouting now, crying out. Old faces, young ones, the sick and the frail, the healthy and the strong. Strangers every one.
I looked around me. This isn’t hope, I thought. It’s madness. It’s hunger, need, desperation. I felt as if I were waking from a trance. Why had I come here? I was more alone among these people than behind the palace walls. They had nothing to give me, and I had nothing to offer them.
My feet ached, and I realized just how tired I was. I turned and began pushing my way back through the crowd, toward the city gates, as the chanting reached a roaring clamor.
Sankta, they shouted. Sol Koroleva. Rebe Dva Stolba.
Daughter of Two Mills. I’d heard that before, on the journey to Os Alta, a valley named after some ancient ruin, home to a sprawl of tiny, unimportant settlements on the southern border. Mal had been born near there too, but we’d never had a chance to go back. And what would have been the point? Any bit of family we might have had was long buried or burned.
I thought again of my few memories from before Keramzin, of the dish of sliced beets, my fingers stained red with them. I remembered the dusty road, seen from someone’s broad shoulders, the sway of ox tails, our shadows on the ground. A hand pointing out the ruins of the mills, two narrow fingers of rock, worn down to bare spindles by wind, rain, and time. That was all that remained in my memory. The rest was Keramzin. The rest was Mal.
I shoved my way through the mass of bodies, pulling my scarf tighter around my ears to try to block out the noise. An old pilgrim woman stepped into my path, and I nearly knocked her over. I reached out to steady her, and she latched on to me, barely keeping her balance.
“Forgive me, babya,” I said formally. Never let it be said that Ana Kuya hadn’t taught us manners. I gently set the woman back on her feet. “Are you all right?”