I changed into a nightdress of soft white cotton and rinsed my face. As I patted it dry, I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass above the basin. Maybe it was the lamplight, but I thought I looked even better than when Genya had first finished her work on me. After a moment, I realized I was just gawking at myself in the mirror and had to smile. For a girl who hated looking at herself, I was at risk of becoming vain.
I climbed onto the high bed, slid beneath the heavy silks and furs, and blew out the lamp. Distantly, I heard a door closing, voices calling their goodnights, the sounds of the Little Palace going to sleep. I stared into the darkness. I’d never had a room to myself before. In Keramzin, I’d slept in an old portrait hall that had been converted into a dormitory, surrounded by countless other girls. In the army, I’d slept in the barracks or tents with the other Surveyors. My new room felt huge and empty. In the silence, all the events of the day rushed in on me, and tears pricked my eyes.
Maybe I would wake tomorrow and find that it had all been a dream, that Alexei was still alive and Mal was unhurt, that no one had tried to kill me, that I’d never met the King and Queen or seen the Apparat, or felt the Darkling’s hand on the nape of my neck. Maybe I would wake to smell the campfires burning, safe in my own clothes, on my little cot, and I could tell Mal all about this strange and terrifying, but very beautiful, dream.
I rubbed my thumb over the scar in my palm and heard Mal’s voice saying, “We’ll be okay, Alina. We always are.”
“I hope so, Mal,” I whispered into my pillow and let my tears carry me to sleep.
AFTER A RESTLESS NIGHT, I woke early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I’d forgotten to close the curtains when I went to bed, and sunlight was streaming through the windows. I thought about getting up to close them and trying to go back to sleep, but I just didn’t have the energy. I wasn’t sure if it was worry and fear that had kept me tossing and turning, or the unfamiliar luxury of sleeping in a real bed after so many months spent on wobbly canvas cots or with nothing but a bedroll between me and the hard ground.
I stretched and reached out to run a finger over the intricately carved birds and flowers on the bedpost. High above me, the canopy of the bed opened to reveal a ceiling painted in bold colors, an elaborate pattern of leaves and flowers and birds in flight. As I was staring up at it, counting the leaves of a juniper wreath and beginning to doze off again, a soft knock came at the door. I threw off the heavy covers and slid my feet into the little fur-lined slippers set out by the bed.
When I opened the door, a servant was waiting with a stack of clothing, a pair of boots, and a dark blue kefta draped over her arm. I barely had time to thank her before she bobbed a curtsy and disappeared.
I closed the door and set the boots and clothing down on the bed. The new kefta I hung carefully over the dressing screen.
For a while, I just looked at it. I’d spent my life in clothes passed down from older orphans, and then in the standard-issue uniform of the First Army. I’d certainly never had anything made for me. And I’d never dreamed that I would wear a Grisha’s kefta.
I washed my face and combed my hair. I wasn’t sure when Genya would be arriving, so I didn’t know if I had time for a bath. I was desperate for a glass of tea, but I didn’t have the courage to ring for a servant. Finally, there was nothing left for me to do.
I started with the pile of clothes on the bed: close-fitting breeches of a fabric I’d never encountered that seemed to fit and move like a second skin, a long blouse of thin cotton that tied with a dark blue sash, and boots. But to call them boots didn’t seem right. I’d owned boots. These were something else entirely, made of the softest black leather and fitted perfectly to my calves. They were strange clothes, similar to what peasant men and farmers wore. But the fabrics were finer and more expensive than any peasant could ever hope to afford.
When I was dressed, I eyed the kefta. Was I really going to put that on? Was I really going to be a Grisha? It didn’t seem possible.
It’s just a coat, I chided myself.
I took a deep breath, pulled the kefta off the screen, and slipped it on. It was lighter than it looked, and like the other clothes, it fit perfectly. I fastened the little hidden buttons in the front and stepped back to try to look at myself in the mirror above the basin. The kefta was deepest midnight blue and fell nearly to my feet. The sleeves were wide, and though it was a lot like a coat, it was so elegant I felt as if I were wearing a gown. Then I noticed the embroidery at the cuffs. Like all Grisha, the Etherealki indicated their designation within their order by color of embroidery: pale blue for Tidemakers, red for Inferni, and silver for Squallers. My cuffs were embroidered in gold. I ran my finger over the gleaming threads, feeling a sharp twinge of anxiety, and nearly jumped when a knock sounded at the door.
“Very nice,” said Genya when I opened the door. “But you would have looked better in black.”
I did the graceful thing and stuck my tongue out at her, then hurried to follow as she swept down the hallway and descended the stairs. Genya led me to the same domed room where we had gathered the previous afternoon for the processional. It wasn’t nearly as crowded today, but there was still a lively buzz of conversation. In the corners, Grisha clustered around samovars and lounged on divans, warming themselves by elaborately tiled ovens. Others breakfasted at the four long tables arranged in a square at the room’s center. Again, a hush seemed to fall as we entered, but this time people at least pretended to carry on their conversations as we passed.
Two girls in Summoners’ robes swooped down on us. I recognized Marie from her argument with Sergei before the processional.
“Alina!” she said. “We weren’t properly introduced yesterday. I’m Marie, and this is Nadia.” She gestured to the apple-cheeked girl beside her, who smiled toothily at me. Marie looped her arm through mine, deliberately turning her back on Genya. “Come sit with us!”
I frowned and opened my mouth to protest, but Genya simply shook her head and said, “Go on. You belong with the Etherealki. I’ll fetch you after breakfast to give you a tour.”
“We can show her around—” began Marie.
But Genya cut her off. “To give you a tour as the Darkling requested.”
Marie flushed. “What are you, her maid?”
“Something like that,” Genya said, and walked off to pour herself a glass of tea.
“Far above herself,” said Nadia with a little sniff.
“Worse every day,” Marie agreed. Then she turned to me and beamed. “You must be starving!”
She led me to one of the long tables, and as we approached, two servants stepped forward to pull out chairs for us.
“We sit here, at the right hand of the Darkling,” said Marie, pride in her voice, gesturing down the length of the table where more Grisha in blue kefta sat. “The Corporalki sit there,” she said with a disdainful glance at the table opposite ours, where a glowering Sergei and a few other red-robed figures were eating breakfast.
It occurred to me that if we were at the right hand of the Darkling, the Corporalki were just as close to him on the left, but I didn’t mention that.
The Darkling’s table was empty, the only sign of his presence a large ebony chair. When I asked if he would be eating breakfast with us, Nadia shook her head vigorously.
“Oh no! He hardly ever dines with us,” she said.
I raised my eyebrows. All this fuss about who sat nearest the Darkling, and he couldn’t be bothered to show up?
Plates of rye bread and pickled herring were placed in front of us, and I had to stifle a gag. I hate herring. Luckily, there was plenty of bread and, I saw with astonishment, sliced plums that must have come from a hothouse. A servant brought us hot tea from one of the large samovars.
“Sugar!” I exclaimed as he set a little bowl before me.
Marie and Nadia exchanged a glance and I blushed. Sugar had been rationed in Ravka for the last hundred years, but apparently it wasn’t a novelty in the Little Palace.
Another group of Summoners joined us and, after brief introductions, began peppering me with questions.
Where was I from? The North. (Mal and I never lied about where we were from. We just didn’t tell the whole truth.)
Was I really a mapmaker? Yes.
Had I really been attacked by Fjerdans? Yes.
How many volcra had I killed? None.
They all seemed disappointed by this last answer, particularly the boys.
“But I heard you killed hundreds of them when the skiff was attacked!” protested a boy named Ivo with the sleek features of a mink.
“Well, I didn’t,” I said, and then considered. “At least, I don’t think I did. I … um … kind of fainted.”
“You fainted?” Ivo looked appalled.
I was exceedingly grateful when I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw that Genya had come to my rescue.
“Shall we?” she asked, ignoring the others.
I mumbled my goodbyes and quickly escaped, conscious of their stares following us across the room.
“How was breakfast?” Genya asked.
Genya made a disgusted sound. “Herring and rye?”
I’d been thinking more about the interrogation, but I just nodded.
She wrinkled her nose. “Vile.”
I eyed her suspiciously. “What did you eat?”
Genya looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was within earshot and whispered, “One of the cooks has a daughter with terrible spots. I took care of them for her, and now she sends me the same pastries they prepare for the Grand Palace every morning. They’re divine.”
I smiled and shook my head. The other Grisha might look down on Genya, but she had her own kind of power and influence.
“But don’t say anything about it,” Genya added. “The Darkling is very keen on the idea that we all eat hearty peasant fare. Saints forbid we forget we’re real Ravkans.”
I restrained a snort. The Little Palace was a storybook version of serf life, no more like the real Ravka than the glitter and gilt of the royal court. The Grisha seemed obsessed with emulating serf ways, right down to the clothes we wore beneath our kefta. But there was something a little silly about eating “hearty peasant fare” off porcelain plates, beneath a dome inlaid with real gold. And what peasant wouldn’t pick pastry over pickled fish?
“I won’t say a word,” I promised.
“Good! If you’re very nice to me, I might even share,” Genya said with a wink. “Now, these doors lead to the library and the workrooms.” She gestured to a massive set of double doors in front of us. “That way to get back to your room,” she said, pointing to the right. “And that way to the Grand Palace,” she said, pointing to the double doors on the left. Genya started to lead me toward the library.
“But what about that way?” I asked, nodding to the closed double doors behind the Darkling’s table.
“If those doors open, pay attention. They lead to the Darkling’s council room and his quarters.”
When I looked more closely at the heavily carved doors, I could make out the Darkling’s symbol hidden in the tangle of vines and running animals. I tore myself away and hurried after Genya, who was already on her way out of the domed hall.