“I don’t have time for this,” a female voice snapped from behind the door. “Open. Now!”
I shrugged. Let them kill me or kidnap me or whatever they wanted. As long as I didn’t have to ride a horse or climb stairs, I wouldn’t complain.
I had barely unlocked the door when it flew open and a tall girl pushed past me, surveying the room and then me with a critical eye. She was easily the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. Her wavy hair was deepest auburn, her irises large and golden; her skin was so smooth and flawless that she looked as if her perfect cheekbones had been carved from marble. She wore a cream-colored kefta embroidered in gold and lined in reddish fox fur.
“All Saints,” she said, looking me over. “Have you even bathed? And what happened to your face?”
I flushed bright red, my hand flying to the bruise on my cheek. It had been nearly a week since I’d left camp, and longer since I’d bathed or brushed my hair. I was covered in dirt and blood and the smell of horses. “I—”
But the girl was already shouting orders to the servants who had followed her into the room. “Draw a bath. A hot one. I’ll need my kit, and get her out of those clothes.”
The servants descended upon me, pulling at my buttons.
“Hey!” I shouted, batting their hands away.
The Grisha rolled her eyes. “Hold her down if you have to.”
The servants redoubled their efforts.
“Stop!” I shouted, backing away from them. They hesitated, looking from me to the girl.
Honestly, nothing sounded better than a hot bath and a change of clothes, but I wasn’t about to let some tyrannical redhead push me around. “What is going on? Who are you?”
“I don’t have ti—”
“Make time!” I snapped. “I’ve covered almost two hundred miles on horseback. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a week, and I’ve nearly been killed twice. So before I do anything else, you’re going to have to tell me who you are and why it’s so very important that you get my clothes off.”
The redhead took a deep breath and said slowly, as if she were speaking to a child, “My name is Genya. In less than an hour, you will be presented to the King and it is my job to make you look presentable.”
My anger evaporated. I was going to meet the King? “Oh,” I said meekly.
“Yes, ‘oh.’ So, shall we?”
I nodded mutely, and Genya clapped her hands. The servants flew into action, yanking at my clothes and dragging me into the bathroom. Last night I’d been too tired to notice the room, but now, even shivering and scared witless at the prospect of having to meet a king, I marveled at the tiny bronze tiles that rippled over every surface and the sunken oval tub of beaten copper that the servants were filling with steaming water. Beside the tub, the wall was covered in a mosaic of shells and shimmering abalone.
“In! In!” said one of the servants, giving me a nudge.
I climbed in. The water was painfully hot, but I endured it rather than try to ease in slowly. Military life had long ago cured me of most of my modesty, but there was something very different about being the only naked person in the room, especially when everyone kept shooting curious glances at me.
I squeaked as one of the servants grabbed my head and began furiously washing my hair. Another leaned over the tub and started scrubbing at my nails.
Once I adjusted to it, the heat of the water felt good on my aching body. I hadn’t had a hot bath in well over a year, and I had never even dreamed that there might be such a tub. Clearly, being Grisha had its benefits. I could have spent an hour just paddling around. But once I had been thoroughly dunked and scrubbed, a servant yanked my arm and ordered, “Out! Out!”
Reluctantly, I climbed from the tub, letting the women dry me roughly with thick towels. One of the younger servants stepped forward with a heavy velvet robe and led me into the bedroom. Then she and the others backed out the door, leaving me alone with Genya.
I watched the redhead warily. She had thrown open the curtains and pulled an elaborately carved wooden table and chair over by the windows.
“Sit,” she commanded. I bridled at her tone, but I obeyed.
A small trunk lay open by her hand, its contents spread out on the tabletop: squat glass jars full of what looked like berries, leaves, and colored powders. I didn’t have a chance to investigate further, because Genya took hold of my chin, peering closely at my face and turning my bruised cheek toward the light from the window. She took a breath and let her fingers travel over my skin. I felt the same prickling sensation I’d experienced when the Healer took care of my wounds from the Fold.
Long minutes passed as I clenched my hands into fists to keep from scratching. Then Genya stepped back and the itching receded. She handed me a small golden hand mirror. The bruise was completely gone. I pressed the skin tentatively, but there was no soreness.
“Thank you,” I said, setting the mirror down and starting to stand. But Genya pushed me right back down into the chair.
“Where do you think you’re going? We’re not done.”
“If the Darkling just wanted you healed, he would have sent a Healer.”
“You’re not a Healer?”
“I’m not wearing red, am I?” Genya retorted, an edge of bitterness to her voice. She gestured to herself. “I’m a Tailor.”
I was baffled. I realized I’d never seen a Grisha in a white kefta. “You’re going to make me a dress?”
Genya blew out an exasperated breath. “Not the robes! This,” she said, waving her long, graceful fingers before her face. “You don’t think I was born looking like this, do you?”
I stared at the smooth marble perfection of Genya’s features as realization set in and, with it, a wave of indignation. “You want to change my face?”
“Not change it. Just … freshen you up a bit.”
I scowled. I knew what I looked like. In fact, I was acutely aware of my shortcomings. But I really didn’t need a gorgeous Grisha pointing them out to me. And worse was the fact that the Darkling had sent her to do it.
“Forget it,” I said, jumping to my feet. “If the Darkling doesn’t like the way I look, that’s his problem.”
“Do you like the way you look?” Genya asked with what seemed to be genuine curiosity.
“Not particularly,” I snapped. “But my life has gotten confusing enough without seeing a stranger’s face in the mirror.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Genya said. “I can’t make big changes, just small ones. Even out your skin. Do something with that mousy hair of yours. I’ve perfected myself, but I’ve had my whole life to do it.”
I wanted to argue, but she actually was perfect. “Get out.”
Genya cocked her head to one side, studying me. “Why are you taking this so personally?”
“I have no idea. I’ve always been beautiful.”
“And humble too?”
She shrugged. “So I’m beautiful. That doesn’t mean much among Grisha. The Darkling doesn’t care what you look like, just what you can do.”
“Then why did he send you?”
“Because the King loves beauty and the Darkling knows that. In the King’s court, appearances are everything. If you’re to be the salvation of all of Ravka … well, it would be better if you looked the part.”
I crossed my arms and looked out the window. Outside, the sun was shining off a small lake, a tiny island at its center. I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d slept.
Genya walked over to me. “You’re not ugly, you know.”
“Thanks,” I said drily, still staring out at the wooded grounds.
“You just look a little …”
“Tired? Sickly? Skinny?”
“Well,” Genya said reasonably, “you said yourself, you’ve been traveling hard for days and—”
I sighed. “This is how I always look.” I rested my head on the cool glass, feeling the anger and embarrassment drain out of me. What was I fighting for? If I was honest with myself, the prospect of what Genya was offering was tempting. “Fine,” I said. “Do it.”
“Thank you!” exclaimed Genya, clapping her hands together. I looked at her sharply, but there was no sarcasm in her voice or expression. She’s relieved, I realized. The Darkling had set Genya a task, and I wondered what might have happened to her if I’d refused. I let her lead me back to the chair.
“Just don’t get carried away,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” said the redhead. “You’ll still look like yourself, just like you’ve had more than a few hours of sleep. I’m very good.”
“I can see that,” I said. I closed my eyes.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You can watch.” She handed me the gold mirror. “But no more talk. And stay still.”
I held up the mirror and watched as Genya’s cool fingertips descended slowly over my forehead. My skin prickled, and I watched with growing amazement as Genya’s hands traveled over my skin. Every blemish, every scrape, every flaw seemed to disappear beneath her fingers. She placed her thumbs beneath my eyes.
“Oh!” I exclaimed in surprise as the dark circles that had plagued me since childhood disappeared.
“Don’t get too excited,” Genya said. “It’s temporary.” She reached for one of the roses on the table and plucked a pale pink petal. She held it up to my cheek, and the color bled from the petal onto my skin, leaving what looked like a pretty flush. Then she held a fresh petal to my lips and repeated the process. “It only lasts a few days,” she informed me. “Now the hair.”
She plucked a long comb made of bone from her trunk along with a glass jar full of something shiny.
Stunned, I asked, “Is that real gold?”
“Of course,” Genya said, lifting a chunk of my dull brown hair. She shook some of the gold leaf onto the crown of my head and, as she pulled the comb through my hair, the gold seemed to dissolve into shimmering strands. As Genya finished with each section, she wound it around her fingers, letting the hair fall in waves.
Finally she stepped back, wearing a smug smile. “Better, no?”
I examined myself in the mirror. My hair shone. My cheeks held a rosy flush. I still wasn’t pretty, but I couldn’t deny the improvement. I wondered what Mal would think if he saw me, then shoved the thought away. “Better,” I agreed grudgingly.
Genya gave a plaintive sigh. “It’s really the best I can do for now.”
“Thanks,” I said tartly, but then Genya winked at me and smiled.
“Besides,” she said, “you don’t want to attract too much attention from the King.” Her voice was light, but I saw a shadow pass over her features as she strode across the room and opened the door to let the servants rush back in.
They pushed me behind an ebony screen inlaid with mother-of-pearl stars so that it resembled a night sky. In a few moments, I was dressed in a clean tunic and trousers, soft leather boots, and a gray coat. With disappointment, I realized it was just a clean version of my army uniform. There was even a little cartographer’s patch showing a compass rose on the right sleeve. My feelings must have shown on my face.