“So,” she said in a low, guttural voice, “you’re the Sun Summoner. Come to save us all. Where’s the rest of you?”
I shifted uneasily.
“Well, girl, are you mute?”
“No,” I managed.
“That’s something, I suppose. Why weren’t you tested as a child?”
“Hmph,” she said. Then her expression changed. She looked on me with eyes so unfathomably bleak that a chill rippled through me, despite the heat of the room. “I hope you’re stronger than you look, girl,” she said grimly.
A bony hand snaked out from the sleeve of her robes and fastened hard around my wrist. “Now,” she said, “let’s see what you can do.”
IT WAS A COMPLETE DISASTER. When Baghra fastened her bony hand around my wrist, I realized instantly that she was an amplifier like the Darkling. I felt the same jolting surety flood through me, and sunlight erupted through the room, shimmering over the stone walls of Baghra’s hut. But when she released me and told me to call the power on my own, I was hopeless. She chided me, cajoled me, even hit me once with her stick.
“What am I supposed to do with a girl who can’t call her own power?” she growled at me. “Even children can do this.”
She slid her hand around my wrist again, and I felt that thing inside me rising up, struggling to break the surface. I reached for it, grasping, sure I could feel it. Then she let go, and the power slipped away from me, sinking like a stone. Finally, she shooed me away with a disgusted wave of her hand.
The day did not improve. I spent the rest of the morning at the library, where I was given a towering stack of books on Grisha theory and Grisha history and informed that this was just a fraction of my reading list. At lunch, I looked for Genya, but she was nowhere to be found. I sat down at the Summoners’ table and was quickly swarmed by Etherealki.
I picked at my plate as Marie and Nadia prodded me with questions about my first lesson, where my room was, if I wanted to go with them to the banya that night. When they realized they weren’t going to get much out of me, they turned to the other Summoners to chat about their classes. While I suffered with Baghra, the other Grisha were studying advanced theory, languages, military strategy. Apparently, this was all to prepare for when they left the Little Palace next summer. Most of them would travel to the Fold or to the northern or southern front to assume command positions in the Second Army. But the greatest honor was to be asked to travel with the Darkling as Ivan did.
I did my best to pay attention, but my mind kept wandering back to my disastrous lesson with Baghra. At some point I realized that Marie must have asked me a question, because she and Nadia were both staring at me.
“Sorry, what?” I said.
They exchanged a glance.
“Do you want to walk with us to the stables?” Marie asked. “For combat training?”
Combat training? I looked down at the little schedule Genya had left with me. Listed after lunch were the words “Combat Training, Botkin, West Stables.” So this day was actually going to get worse.
“Sure,” I said numbly, and stood up with them. The servants sprang forward to pull our chairs out and clear the dishes. I doubted I’d ever get used to being waited on this way.
“Ne brinite,” Marie said with a giggle.
“What?” I asked, baffled.
“To e biti zabavno.”
Nadia giggled. “She said, ‘Don’t worry. It will be fun.’ It’s Suli dialect. Marie and I are studying it in case we get sent west.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Shi si yuyan Suli,” said Sergei as he strode past us out of the domed hall. “That’s Shu for ‘Suli is a dead language.’”
Marie scowled and Nadia bit her lip.
“Sergei is studying Shu,” whispered Nadia.
“I got that,” I replied.
Marie spent the entire walk to the stables complaining about Sergei and the other Corporalki and debating the merits of Suli over Shu. Suli was best for missions in the northwest. Shu meant you’d be stuck translating diplomatic papers. Sergei was an idiot who was better off learning to trade in Kerch. She took a brief break to point out the banya, an elaborate system of steam baths and cold pools nestled in a birch grove beside the Little Palace, then launched immediately into a rant about selfish Corporalki overrunning the baths every night.
Maybe combat training wouldn’t be so bad. Marie and Nadia were definitely making me want to punch something.
As we were crossing the western lawn, I suddenly got the feeling that someone was watching me. I looked up and saw a figure standing off the path, nearly hidden by the shadows from a low stand of trees. There was no mistaking the long brown robes or the dirty black beard, and even from a distance, I could feel the eerie intensity of the Apparat’s stare. I hurried to catch up to Marie and Nadia, but I sensed his gaze following me, and when I looked back over my shoulder, he was still there.
The training rooms were next to the stables—large, empty, high-beamed rooms with packed dirt floors and weapons of every variety lining the walls. Our instructor, Botkin Yul-Erdene, wasn’t Grisha; he was a former Shu Han mercenary who had fought in wars on every continent for any army that could afford his particular gift for violence. He had straggly gray hair and a gruesome scar across his neck where someone had tried to cut his throat. I spent the next two hours cursing that person for not doing a more thorough job.
Botkin started with endurance drills, racing us across the palace grounds. I did my best to keep up, but I was as weak and clumsy as ever, and I quickly fell behind.
“Is this what they teach in First Army?” he sneered in his heavy Shu accent as I stumbled up a hill.
I was too out of breath to answer.
When we returned to the training rooms, the other Summoners paired off for sparring drills, and Botkin insisted on partnering me. The next hour was a blur of painful jabs and punches.
“Block!” he shouted, knocking me backward. “Faster! Maybe little girl likes to be hit?”
The sole consolation was that we weren’t allowed to use our Grisha abilities in the training rooms. So at least I was spared the embarrassment of revealing that I couldn’t call my power.
When I was so tired and sore that I thought I might just lie down and let him kick me, Botkin dismissed the class. But before we were out the door he called, “Tomorrow, little girl comes early, trains with Botkin.”
It was all I could do not to whimper.
By the time I stumbled back to my room and bathed, I just wanted to slink beneath the covers and hide. But I forced myself to return to the domed hall for dinner.
“Where’s Genya?” I asked Marie as I sat down at the Summoners’ table.
“She eats at the Grand Palace.”
“And sleeps there,” added Nadia. “The Queen likes to make sure she’s always available.”
“So does the King.”
“Marie!” Nadia protested, but she was snickering.
I gaped at them. “You mean—”
“It’s just a rumor,” said Marie. But she and Nadia exchanged a knowing look.
I thought of the King’s wet lips, the broken blood vessels in his nose, and beautiful Genya in her servant’s colors. I pushed my plate away. The little bit of appetite I’d had seemed to have disappeared.
Dinner seemed to last forever. I nursed a glass of tea and endured another round of endless Summoner chatter. I was getting ready to excuse myself and escape back to my room when the doors behind the Darkling’s table opened and the domed hall fell silent.
Ivan emerged and sauntered over to the Summoners’ table, seemingly oblivious to the stares of the other Grisha.
With a sinking sensation, I realized he was walking straight toward me.
“Come with me, Starkov,” he said when he reached us, then added a mocking “please.”
I pushed my chair back and rose on legs that felt suddenly weak. Had Baghra told the Darkling that I was hopeless? Had Botkin told him just how badly I’d failed at my lessons? The Grisha were goggling at me. Nadia’s jaw was actually hanging open.
I followed Ivan across the silent hall and through the huge ebony doors. He led me down a hallway and through another door emblazoned with the Darkling’s symbol. It was easy to tell that I was in the war room. There were no windows, and the walls were covered with large maps of Ravka. The maps were made in the old style, with heated ink on animal hide. Under any other circumstances, I could have spent hours studying them, running my fingers over the raised mountains and twisting rivers. Instead, I stood with my hands bunched into clammy fists, my heart thudding in my chest.
The Darkling was seated at the end of a long table, reading through a pile of papers. He looked up when we entered, his quartz eyes glittering in the lamplight.
“Alina,” he said. “Please, sit.” He gestured to the chair beside him.
I hesitated. He didn’t sound angry.
Ivan disappeared back through the door, closing it behind him. I swallowed hard and made myself cross the room and take the seat the Darkling offered.
“How was your first day?”
I swallowed again. “Fine,” I croaked.
“Really?” he asked, but he was smiling slightly. “Even Baghra? She can be a bit of a trial.”
“Just a bit,” I managed.
I shrugged. It felt strange to say I was homesick for the barracks of the First Army. “A little, I guess.”
“It will get better.”
I bit my lip. I hoped so. I wasn’t sure how many days like this one I could handle.
“It will be harder for you,” he said. “An Etherealnik rarely works alone. Inferni pair up. Squallers often partner with Tidemakers. But you’re the only one of your kind.”
“Right,” I said wearily. I wasn’t really in the mood to hear about how special I was.
He rose. “Come with me,” he said.
My heart started pounding again. He led me out of the war room and down another hallway.
He pointed to a narrow door set unobtrusively into the wall. “Keep right and this will lead you back to the dormitories. I thought you might want to avoid the main hall.”
I stared at him. “That’s it?” I blurted. “You just wanted to ask me about my day?”
He cocked his head to one side. “What were you expecting?”
I was so relieved that a little laugh escaped me. “I have no idea. Torture? Interrogation? A stern talking to?”
He frowned slightly. “I’m not a monster, Alina. Despite what you may have heard.”
“I didn’t mean that,” I said hurriedly. “I just … I didn’t know what to expect.”
“Other than the worst?”
“It’s an old habit.” I knew I should stop there, but I couldn’t help myself. Maybe I wasn’t being fair. But neither was he. “Why shouldn’t I be afraid of you?” I asked. “You’re the Darkling. I’m not saying you would throw me in a ditch or ship me off to Tsibeya, but you certainly could. You can cut people in half. I think it’s fair to be a little intimidated.”