“A prince who’s managed to evade the Darkling for months.”
Mal studied me.
“Alina, do you know how I made that shot? Back in the Kettle?”
“If you say it’s because you’re just that good, I’m going to take off my boot and beat you with it.”
“Well, I am that good,” he said with a faint grin. “But I had David put a beetle in the pouch.”
“To make aiming easier. All I had to do was track it.”
My brows rose. “Now, that’s an impressive trick.”
He shrugged. “It’s the only one I know. If Nikolai’s alive, we’ll find him.” He paused, then added, “I won’t fail you again.” He turned to go, but before he shut the door, he said, “Try to rest. I’ll be outside if you need me.”
I stood there for a long moment. I wanted to tell him that he hadn’t failed me, but that wasn’t quite true. I’d lied to him about the visions that plagued me. He’d pushed me away when I’d needed him most. Maybe we’d both asked each other to give up too much. Fair or not, I felt like Mal had turned his back on me, and some part of me resented him for it.
I glanced around the empty room. It had been disconcerting to see so many people crammed in here. How well did I know any of them? Harshaw and Stigg were a few years older than the others, Grisha who had made their way to the Little Palace after they’d heard the Sun Summoner had returned. They were practically strangers to me. The twins believed I was blessed by divine power. Zoya followed me only grudgingly. Sergei was falling apart, and I knew he probably blamed me for Marie’s death. Nadia might too. She’d grieved more quietly, but they’d been best friends.
And Mal. I supposed we’d made a kind of peace, but it wasn’t an easy one. Or maybe we had just accepted what I would become, that our paths would inevitably diverge. You’re going to be a queen someday, Alina.
I knew I should at least try to sleep for a few minutes, but my mind wouldn’t slow down. My body was thrumming with the power I’d used and eager for more.
I glanced at the door, wishing it had a lock. There was something I wanted to try. I’d attempted it a few times and never managed anything more than a headache. It was dangerous, probably stupid, but now that my power had returned, I wanted to try again.
I kicked off my boots and lay back on the narrow bed. I closed my eyes, felt the collar at my throat, the scales at my wrist, the presence of my power inside me like the beat of my heart. I felt the wound at my shoulder, the dark knot of scars made by the Darkling’s nichevo’ya. It had strengthened the bond between us, giving him access to my mind as the collar had given him access to my power. In the chapel, I had used that connection against him and almost destroyed both of us in the process. I was foolish to test it now. Still, I was tempted. If the Darkling had access to that power, why shouldn’t I? It was a chance to glean information, to understand the way the bond between us functioned.
It won’t work, I reassured myself. You’ll try, you’ll fail, you’ll have a little nap.
I slowed my breathing, letting power course through me. I thought of the Darkling, of the shadows I could bend to my fingers, of the collar around my neck that he had placed there, the fetter at my wrist that had separated me irrevocably from any other Grisha and truly set me on this path.
Nothing happened. I was lying on my back in a bed in the White Cathedral. I hadn’t gone anywhere. I was alone in a vacant room. I blinked up at the damp ceiling. It was better that way. At the Little Palace, my isolation had nearly destroyed me, but that was because I had hungered for something else, for the sense of belonging I’d been chasing my whole life. I’d buried that need in the ruins of a chapel. Now I would think in terms of alliance instead of affection, of who and what would make me strong enough for this fight.
I’d contemplated killing the Apparat today; I’d burned my mark into Vladim’s flesh. I’d told myself I had to, but the girl I’d been never would have considered such things. I hated the Darkling for what he’d done to Baghra and Genya, but was I so different? And when the third amplifier was around my wrist, would I be different at all?
Maybe not, I conceded, and with that admission came the barest tremor—a vibration moving over the connection between us, an answering echo at the other end of an invisible tether.
It called to me through the collar at my neck and the bite at my shoulder, amplified by the fetter at my wrist, a bond forged by merzost and the dark poison in my blood. You called to me, and I answered. I felt myself drawn upward, out of myself, speeding toward him. Maybe this was what Mal felt when he tracked—the distant pull of the other, a presence that demanded attention even if it couldn’t be seen or touched.
One moment I was floating in the darkness of my closed eyes, and the next I was standing in a brightly lit room. Everything around me was blurry, but I recognized this place just the same: I was in the throne room at the Grand Palace. People were talking. It was as if they were underwater. I heard noise but not words.
I knew the moment the Darkling saw me. He came into sharp focus, though the room around him remained a murky blur.
His self-control was so great that no one near him would have noticed the fleeting look of shock that passed over his perfect features. But I saw his gray eyes widen, his chest lock as his breath caught. His fingers clenched the arms of his chair—no, his throne. Then he relaxed, nodding along to whatever the person before him was saying.
I waited, watching. He’d fought for that throne, endured hundreds of years of battle and servitude to claim it. I had to admit it suited him well. Some petty part of me had hoped I’d find him weakened, his black hair turned to white like mine. But whatever damage I’d done to him that night in the chapel, he’d recovered better than I had.
When the murmur of the supplicant’s voice cut off, the Darkling rose. The throne faded into the background, and I realized that the things closest to him looked the clearest, as if he were the lens through which I was seeing the world.
“I will take it under advisement,” he said, voice cool as cut glass, so familiar. “Now leave me.” He gave a brusque wave. “All of you.”
Did his lackeys exchange baffled glances or simply bow and depart? I couldn’t tell. He was already moving down the stairs, his gaze fastened on me. My heart clenched, and a single clear word reverberated in my mind: run. I’d been mad to attempt this, to seek him out. But I didn’t move. I didn’t release the tether.
Someone approached him, and when he was just inches from the Darkling, he came into clearer focus—red Grisha robes, a face I didn’t recognize. I could even make out his words: “… the matter of signatures for…” Then the Darkling cut him off.
“Later,” he said sharply, and the Corporalnik skittered away.
The room emptied of sound and movement, and all the while, the Darkling kept his eyes on me. He crossed the parquet floor. With each step, the polished wood came into focus beneath his boot, then faded away again.
I had the strange sensation of lying on my bed in the White Cathedral and being here, in the throne room, standing in a warm square of sunlight.
He stopped before me, his eyes studying my face. What did he see there? He had come to me unscarred in my visions. Did he see me healthy and whole, my hair brown, my eyes bright? Or did he see the little mushroom girl, pale and gray, battered by our fight in the chapel, weakened by life underground?
“If only I’d known you’d prove such an apt pupil.” His voice was genuinely admiring, almost surprised. To my horror, I found that pathetic orphaned part of me taking pleasure in his praise. “Why come to me now?” he asked. “Has it taken you this long to recover from our skirmish?”
If that had been a mere skirmish, then we really were lost. No, I told myself. He’d chosen that word deliberately, to intimidate me.
I ignored his question and said, “I didn’t expect compliments.”
“I left you buried beneath a pile of rubble.”
“And if I told you I respect your ruthlessness?”
“I don’t think I’d believe you.”
The barest smile touched his lips. “An apt pupil,” he repeated. “Why waste my anger on you when the fault is mine? I should have anticipated another betrayal from you, one more mad grasp at some kind of childish ideal. But I seem to be a victim of my own wishes where you are concerned.” His expression hardened. “What have you come here for, Alina?”
I answered him honestly. “I wanted to see you.”
I caught the briefest glimpse of surprise before his face shuttered again. “There are two thrones on that dais. You could see me anytime you liked.”
“You’re offering me a crown? After I tried to kill you?”
He shrugged again. “I might have done the same.”
“I doubt it.”
“Not to save that motley of traitors and fanatics, no. But I understand the desire to remain free.”
“And still you tried to make me a slave.”
“I sought Morozova’s amplifiers for you, Alina, that we might rule as equals.”
“You tried to take my power for your own.”
“After you ran from me. After you chose—” He stopped, shrugged. “We would have ruled as equals in time.”
I felt that pull, the longing of a frightened girl. Even now, after everything he’d done, I wanted to believe the Darkling, to find some way to forgive him. I wanted Nikolai to be alive. I wanted to trust the other Grisha. I wanted to believe anything so that I wouldn’t have to face the future alone. The problem with wanting is that it makes us weak. A laugh escaped me before I thought better of it.
“We would be equals until the day I dared to disagree with you, until the moment I questioned your judgment or didn’t do as I was bid. Then you would deal with me the way you dealt with Genya and your mother, the way you tried to deal with Mal.”
He leaned against the window, and the gilded frame came into sharp focus. “Do you think it would be any different with your tracker beside you? With that Lantsov pup?”
“Yes,” I said simply.
“Because you would be the strong one?”
“Because they’re better men than you.”
“You might make me a better man.”
“And you might make me a monster.”
“I’ve never understood this taste for otkazat’sya. Is it because you thought you were one of them for so long?”
“I had a taste for you, once.” His head snapped up. He hadn’t expected that. Saints, it was satisfying. “Why haven’t you visited me?” I asked. “In all these long months?”
He stayed silent.
“There was barely a day at the Little Palace when you didn’t come to me,” I continued. “When I didn’t see you in some shadowed corner. I thought I was going mad.”
“I think you’re afraid.”
“How comforting that must be for you.”
“I think you fear this thing that binds us.” It didn’t frighten me. Not anymore. I took a slow step forward. He tensed but did not move away.
“I am ancient, Alina. I know things about power that you can barely guess at.”
“But it’s not just power, is it?” I said quietly, remembering the way he had toyed with me when I’d first arrived at the palace—even before, from the first moment we’d met. I’d been a lonely girl, desperate for attention. I must have given him so little sport.
I took another step. He stilled. Our bodies were almost touching now. I reached up and cupped his cheek with my hand. This time the flash of confusion on his face was impossible to miss. He held himself frozen, his only movement the steady rise and fall of his chest. Then, as if in concession, he let his eyes close. A line appeared between his brows.
“It’s true,” I said softly. “You are stronger, wiser, infinite in experience.” I leaned forward and whispered, my lips brushing the shell of his ear. “But I am an apt pupil.”
His eyes flew open. I caught the briefest glimpse of rage in his gray gaze before I severed the connection.
I scattered, hurtling back to the White Cathedral, leaving him with nothing but the memory of light.
I SAT UP WITH A GASP, sucking in the damp air of the alabaster chamber. I looked around guiltily. I shouldn’t have done it. What had I learned? That he was at the Grand Palace and in disgustingly good health? Paltry information.
But I wasn’t sorry. Now I knew what he saw when he visited me, what information he could or couldn’t cull from the contact. Now I had practice in one more power that had only belonged to him. And I’d enjoyed it. At the Little Palace, I’d dreaded those visions, thought I might be losing my mind, and worse, I’d wondered what they said about me. No longer. I was done being ashamed. Let him feel what it was to be haunted.
A headache was starting in my right temple. I sought Morozova’s amplifiers for you, Alina. Lies disguised as truth. He’d sought to make me more powerful, but only because he believed he could control me. He still believed it, and that scared me. The Darkling had no way of knowing that Mal and I knew where to start looking for the third amplifier, but he hadn’t seemed concerned. He hadn’t even mentioned the firebird. He’d seemed confident, strong, as if he belonged in that palace and on that throne. I know things about power that you can barely guess at. I gave myself a shake. I might not be a threat, but I could become one. I wouldn’t let him beat me before I’d had a chance to give him the fight he deserved.