I took out Nikolai’s ring and set it on the table.
“Saints,” breathed Genya. “That’s the Lantsov emerald.”
It seemed to glow in the lamplight, the tiny diamonds twinkling around it.
“Did he just give it to you? To keep?” asked Nadia.
Genya seized my arm. “Did he propose?”
“He might as well have,” Genya said. “That ring is an heirloom. The Queen wore it everywhere, even to sleep.”
“Toss him over,” Zoya said. “Break his heart cruelly. I will gladly give our poor prince comfort, and I would make a magnificent queen.”
I laughed. “You actually might, Zoya. If you could stop being horrible for a minute.”
“With that kind of incentive, I can manage a minute. Possibly two.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s just a ring.”
Zoya sighed and held the emerald up so it flashed. “I am horrible,” she said abruptly. “All these people dead, and I miss pretty things.”
Genya bit her lip, then blurted, “I miss almond kulich. And butter, and the cherry jam the cooks used to bring back from the market in Balakirev.”
“I miss the sea,” said Tamar, “and my hammock aboard the Volkvolny.”
“I miss sitting by the lake at the Little Palace,” Nadia put in. “Drinking my tea, everything feeling peaceful.”
Zoya looked at her boots and said, “I miss knowing what happens next.”
“Me too,” I confessed.
Zoya set the ring down. “Will you say yes?”
“He didn’t actually propose.”
“But he will.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
She gave a disgusted snort. “I lied. Now I have never loathed you more.”
“It would be something special,” said Tamar, “to have a Grisha on the throne.”
“She’s right,” added Genya. “To be the ones to rule, instead of just to serve.”
They wanted a Grisha queen. Mal wanted a commoner queen. And what did I want? Peace for Ravka. A chance to sleep easy in my bed without fear. An end to the guilt and dread that I woke to every morning. There were old wants too, to be loved for who I was, not what I could do, to lie in a meadow with a boy’s arms around me and watch the wind move the clouds. But those dreams belonged to a girl, not to the Sun Summoner, not to a Saint.
Zoya sniffed, settling a seed pearl kokochnik atop her hair. “I still say it should be me.”
Genya tossed a velvet slipper at her. “The day I curtsy to you is the day David performs an opera naked in the middle of the Shadow Fold.”
“Like I’d have you in my court.”
“You should be so lucky. Come here. That headpiece is completely crooked.”
I picked up the ring again, turning it over in my hand. I couldn’t quite bring myself to put it on.
Nadia bumped my shoulder with her own. “There are worse things than a prince.”
“Better things too,” Tamar said. She shoved a cobalt lace gown at Nadia. “Try this one on.”
Nadia held it up. “Are you out of your head? The bodice might as well be cut to the navel.”
Tamar grinned. “Exactly.”
“Well, Alina can’t wear it,” said Zoya. “Even she’ll fall right out of it onto her dessert plate.”
“Diplomacy!” shouted Tamar.
Nadia collapsed into giggles. “West Ravka declares for the Sun Summoner’s bosom!”
I tried to scowl, but I was laughing too hard. “I hope you’re all enjoying yourselves.”
Tamar hooked a scarf over Nadia’s neck and drew her in for a kiss.
“Oh, for Saints’ sake,” complained Zoya. “Is everyone pairing up now?”
Genya snickered. “Take heart. I’ve seen Stigg casting mournful glances your way.”
“He’s Fjerdan,” Zoya said. “That’s the only kind of glance he has. And I can arrange my own assignations, thank you very much.”
We sorted through the trunks of clothes, choosing the gowns, coats, and jewels best suited to the trip. Nikolai had been strategic, as always. Each dress was wrought in shades of blue and gold. I wouldn’t have minded some variety, but this trip was about performance, not pleasure.
The girls stayed until the lamps burned low, and I was grateful for their company. But when they’d claimed the dresses they liked, and the rest of the finery had been wrapped and returned to the trunks, they said their goodnights.
I picked up the ring from the table, feeling the absurd weight of it in my palm.
Soon the Kingfisher would return and Nikolai and I would leave for West Ravka. By then, Mal and his team would be on their way to the Sikurzoi. That was the way it should be. I’d hated life at court, but Mal had despised it. He’d be just as miserable standing guard at banquets in Os Kervo.
If I was honest with myself, I could see that he’d flourished since we’d left the Little Palace, even underground. He had become a leader in his own right, found a new sense of purpose. I couldn’t say he seemed happy, but maybe that would come in time, with peace, with a chance for a future.
We would find the firebird. We would face the Darkling. Maybe we’d even win. I would put on Nikolai’s ring, and Mal would be reassigned. He would have the life he should have had, that he might have had without me. So why did that knife between my ribs keep twisting?
I lay down on my bed, starlight pouring through the window, the emerald clutched in my hand.
Later, I could never be sure if I’d done it deliberately, or if it was an accident, my bruised heart plucking at that invisible tether. Maybe I was just too tired to resist his pull. I found myself in a blurry room, staring at the Darkling.
HE WAS SITTING on the edge of a table, his shirt crumpled into a ball at his knee, his arms raised above his head as the vague shape of a Corporalnik Healer came in and out of focus, tending to a bloody gash in the Darkling’s side. I thought at first we might be in the infirmary at the Little Palace, but the space was too dark and blurry for me to tell.
I tried not to notice the way he looked—his mussed hair, the shadowed ridges of his bare chest. He seemed so human, just a boy wounded in battle, or maybe sparring. Not a boy, I reminded myself, a monster who has lived hundreds of years and taken hundreds of lives.
His jaw tensed as the Corporalnik finished her work. When the skin had knitted together, the Darkling dismissed her with a wave. She hovered briefly, then slipped away, fading into nothing.
“There’s something I’ve been wondering,” he said. No greeting, no preamble.
“The night that Baghra told you what I intended, the night you fled the Little Palace, did you hesitate?”
“In the days after you left, did you ever think of coming back?”
“I did,” I admitted.
“But you chose not to.”
I knew I should go. I should at least have stayed silent, but I was so weary, and it felt so easy to be here with him. “It wasn’t just what Baghra said that night. You lied to me. You deceived me. You … drew me in.” Seduced me, made me want you, made me question my own heart.
“I needed your loyalty, Alina. I needed you bound to me by more than duty or fear.” His fingers tested the flesh where his wound had been. Only a mild redness remained. “There are rumors that your Lantsov prince has been sighted.”
I drifted nearer, trying to keep my voice casual. “Where?”
He glanced up, his lips curling in a slight smile. “Do you like him?”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s harder when you like them. You mourn them more.” How many had he mourned? Had there been friends? A wife? Had he ever let anyone get that close?
“Tell me, Alina,” said the Darkling. “Has he claimed you yet?”
“Claimed me? Like a peninsula?”
“No blushes. No averted eyes. How you’ve changed. What about your faithful tracker? Will he sleep curled at the foot of your throne?”
He was pressing, trying to provoke me. Instead of shying away, I moved closer. “You came to me wearing Mal’s face that night in your chambers. Was it because you knew I would turn you away?”
His fingers tightened on the table’s edge, but then he shrugged. “He was the one you longed for. Do you still?”
“An apt pupil, but a terrible liar.”
“Why do you have such disdain for otkazat’sya?”
“Not disdain. Understanding.”
“They’re not all fools and weaklings.”
“What they are is predictable,” he said. “The people would love you for a time. But what would they think when their good king aged and died, while his witch of a wife remained young? When all those who remember your sacrifices are dust in the ground, how long do you think it will take for their children or their grandchildren to turn on you?”
His words sent a chill through me. I still couldn’t get my head around the idea of the long life that lay ahead of me, that yawning abyss of eternity.
“You never considered it, did you?” said the Darkling. “You live in a single moment. I live in a thousand.” Are we not all things?
In a flash, his hand snaked out and seized my wrist. The room came into sudden focus. He yanked me close, wedging me between his knees. His other hand pressed to the small of my back, his strong fingers splayed over the curve of my spine.
“You were meant to be my balance, Alina. You are the only person in the world who might rule with me, who might keep my power in check.”
“And who will balance me?” The words emerged before I thought better of them, giving raw voice to a thought that haunted me even more than the possibility that the firebird didn’t exist. “What if I’m no better than you? What if instead of stopping you, I’m just another avalanche?”
He studied me for a long moment. He had always watched me this way, as if I were an equation that didn’t quite tally.
“I want you to know my name,” he said. “The name I was given, not the title I took for myself. Will you have it, Alina?”
I could feel the weight of Nikolai’s ring in my palm back at the Spinning Wheel. I didn’t have to stand here in the Darkling’s arms. I could vanish from his grip, slide back into consciousness and the safety of a stone room hidden in a mountaintop. But I didn’t want to go. Despite everything, I wanted this whispered confidence.
“Yes,” I breathed.
After a long moment, he said, “Aleksander.”
A little laugh escaped me. He arched a brow, a smile tugging at his lips. “What?”
“It’s just so … common.” Such an ordinary name, held by kings and peasants alike. I’d known two Aleksanders at Keramzin alone, three in the First Army. One of them had died on the Fold.
His smile deepened and he cocked his head to the side. It almost hurt to see him this way. “Will you say it?” he asked.
I hesitated, feeling danger crowd in on me.
“Aleksander,” I whispered.
His grin faded, and his gray eyes seemed to flicker.
“Again,” he said.
He leaned in. I felt his breath against my neck, then the press of his mouth against my skin just above the collar, almost a sigh.
“Don’t,” I said. I drew back, but he held me tighter. His hand went to the nape of my neck, long fingers twining in my hair, easing my head back. I closed my eyes.
“Let me,” he murmured against my throat. His heel hooked around my leg, bringing me closer. I felt the heat of his tongue, the flex of hard muscle beneath bare skin as he guided my hands around his waist. “It isn’t real,” he said. “Let me.”
I felt that rush of hunger, the steady, longing beat of desire that neither of us wanted, but that gripped us anyway. We were alone in the world, unique. We were bound together and always would be.
And it didn’t matter.
I couldn’t forget what he’d done, and I wouldn’t forgive what he was: a murderer. A monster. A man who had tortured my friends and slaughtered the people I’d tried to protect.
I shoved away from him. “It’s real enough.”
His eyes narrowed. “I grow weary of this game, Alina.”
I was surprised at the anger that surged to life in me. “Weary? You’ve toyed with me at every turn. You haven’t tired of the game. You’re just sorry I’m not so easily played.”
“Clever Alina,” he bit out. “The apt pupil. I’m glad you came tonight. I want to share my news.” He yanked his bloody shirt on over his head. “I’m going to enter the Fold.”
“Go ahead,” I said. “The volcra deserve another piece of you.”
“They will not have it.”
“You hope to find their appetites changed? Or is this just more madness?”
“I am not mad. Ask David what secrets he left for me to discover at the palace.”
“Another clever one,” said the Darkling. “I’ll be taking him back too, when this is all over. Such an able mind.”
“You’re bluffing,” I said.
The Darkling smiled, but this time the turn of his lips was cold. He shoved off the table and stalked toward me.
“I will enter the Fold, Alina, and I will show West Ravka what I can do, even without the Sun Summoner. And when I have crushed Lantsov’s only ally, I will hunt you like an animal. You will find no sanctuary. You will have no peace.” He loomed over me, his gray eyes glinting. “Fly back home to your otkazat’sya,” he snarled. “Hold him tight. The rules of this game are about to change.”