He studied me for a long moment, and I wished fervently that I’d kept my mouth shut. But then that half smile flickered across his face. “You may have a point.”
A little of the fear ebbed out of me.
“Why do you do that?” he asked suddenly.
He reached out and took hold of my hand. I felt that wonderful sense of surety rush through me. “Rub your thumb across your palm.”
“Oh,” I laughed nervously. I hadn’t even been aware I was doing it. “Just another old habit.”
He turned my hand over and examined it in the dim light of the hallway. He dragged his thumb over the pale scar that ran across my palm. A shivery hum shot through me.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.
“I … Keramzin.”
“Where you grew up?”
“The tracker is an orphan, too?”
I drew in a sharp breath. Was mind reading another one of his powers? But then I remembered that Mal had given testimony in the Grisha tent.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is he any good?”
“What?” I was finding it hard to concentrate. The Darkling’s thumb was still moving back and forth, tracing the length of the scar on my palm.
“At tracking. Is he any good at it?”
“The best,” I said honestly. “The serfs at Keramzin said he could make rabbits out of rocks.”
“I wonder sometimes how much we really understand our own gifts,” he mused.
Then he dropped my hand and opened the door. He stepped aside and gave me a little bow.
“Good night, Alina.”
“Good night,” I managed.
I ducked through the doorway and into a narrow hall. A moment later, I heard the sound of a door closing behind me.
THE NEXT MORNING, my body ached so badly that I could barely drag myself out of bed. But I got up and did it all over again. And again. And again. Each day was worse and more frustrating than the one before, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. I wasn’t a mapmaker anymore, and if I couldn’t manage to become a Grisha, where would that leave me?
I thought of the Darkling’s words that night beneath the broken beams of the barn. You’re the first glimmer of hope I’ve had in a long time. He believed I was the Sun Summoner. He believed I could help him destroy the Fold. And if I could, no soldier, no merchant, no tracker would ever have to cross the Unsea again.
But as the days dragged on, that idea began to seem more and more absurd.
I spent long hours in Baghra’s hut learning breathing exercises and holding painful poses that were supposed to help with my focus. She gave me books to read, teas to drink, and repeated whacks with her stick, but nothing helped. “Should I cut you, girl?” she would cry in frustration. “Should I have an Inferni burn you? Should I have them throw you back into the Fold to make food for those abominations?”
My daily failures with Baghra were matched only by the torture that Botkin put me through. He ran me all over the palace grounds, through the woods, up and down hills until I thought I would collapse. He put me through sparring drills and falling drills until my body was covered in bruises and my ears ached from his constant grumbling: too slow, too weak, too skinny.
“Botkin cannot build house from such little twigs!” he shouted at me, giving my upper arm a squeeze. “Eat something!”
But I wasn’t hungry. The appetite that had appeared after my brush with death on the Fold was gone and food had lost all its savor. I slept poorly, despite my luxurious bed, and felt like I was stumbling through my days. The work Genya had done on me had worn off, and my cheeks were once again sallow, my eyes shadowed, my hair dull and limp.
Baghra believed that my lack of appetite and inability to sleep were connected to my failure to call my power. “How much harder is it to walk with your feet bound? Or to talk with a hand over your mouth?” she lectured. “Why do you waste all of your strength fighting your true nature?”
I wasn’t. Or I didn’t think I was. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. All my life I’d been frail and weak. Every day had felt like a struggle. If Baghra was right, all that would change when I finally mastered my Grisha talent. Assuming I ever did. Until then, I was stuck.
I knew that the other Grisha were whispering about me. The Etherealki liked to practice by the lakeside together, experimenting with new ways to use wind and water and fire. I couldn’t risk them discovering that I couldn’t even call my own power, so I made excuses not to join them, and eventually they stopped inviting me.
In the evenings, they sat around the domed hall, sipping tea or kvas, planning weekend excursions into Balakirev or one of the other villages near Os Alta. But because the Darkling was still concerned about assassination attempts, I had to remain behind. I was glad for the excuse. The more time I spent with the Summoners, the greater the chance that I would be found out.
I rarely saw the Darkling, and when I did it was from a distance, coming or going, deep in conversation with Ivan or the King’s military advisers. I learned from the other Grisha that he wasn’t often at the Little Palace, but spent most of his time traveling between the Fold and the northern border, or south to where Shu Han raiding parties were attacking settlements before winter set in. Hundreds of Grisha were stationed throughout Ravka, and he was responsible for all of them.
He never said a word to me, rarely even glanced my way. I was sure it was because he knew that I was showing no improvement, that his Sun Summoner might turn out to be a complete failure after all.
When I wasn’t suffering at the hands of Baghra or Botkin, I was sitting in the library, wading through books on Grisha theory. I thought I understood the basics of what Grisha did. (Of what we did, I amended.) Everything in the world could be broken down into the same small parts. What looked like magic was really the Grisha manipulating matter at its most fundamental levels.
Marie didn’t make fire. She summoned combustible elements in the air around us, and she still needed a flint to make the spark that would burn that fuel. Grisha steel wasn’t endowed with magic, but by the skill of Fabrikators, who did not need heat or crude tools to manipulate metal.
But if I understood what we did, I was less sure of how we did it. The grounding principle of the Small Science was “like calls to like,” but then it got complicated. Odinakovost was the “thisness” of a thing that made it the same as everything else. Etovost was the “thatness” of a thing that made it different from everything else. Odinakovost connected Grisha to the world, but it was etovost that gave them an affinity for something like air, or blood, or in my case, light. Around then, my head started swimming.
One thing did stand out to me: the word the philosophers used to describe people born without Grisha gifts, otkazat’sya, “the abandoned.” It was another word for orphan.
LATE ONE AFTERNOON, I was plodding through a passage describing Grisha assistance with trade routes when I felt someone’s presence beside me. I looked up and cringed back in my chair. The Apparat was looming over me, his flat black pupils lit with peculiar intensity.
I glanced around the library. It was empty except for us, and despite the sun pouring through the glass ceiling, I felt a chill creep through me.
He sat down in the chair beside me with a gust of musty robes, and the damp smell of tombs enveloped me. I tried to breathe through my mouth.
“Are you enjoying your studies, Alina Starkov?”
“Very much,” I lied.
“I’m so glad,” he said. “But I hope you will remember to feed the soul as well as the mind. I am the spiritual adviser to all those within the palace walls. Should you find yourself worried or in distress, I hope you will not hesitate to come to me.”
“I will,” I said. “Absolutely.”
“Good, good.” He smiled, revealing a mouth of crowded, yellowing teeth, his gums black like a wolf ’s. “I want us to be friends. It is so important that we are friends.”
“I would be pleased if you would accept a gift from me,” he said, reaching into the folds of his brown robes and removing a small book bound in red leather.
How could someone offering you a present sound so creepy?
Reluctantly, I leaned forward and took the book from his long, blue-veined hand. The title was embossed in gold on the cover: Istorii Sankt’ya.
“The Lives of Saints?”
He nodded. “There was a time when all Grisha children were given this book when they came to school at the Little Palace.”
“Thank you,” I said, perplexed.
“Peasants love their Saints. They hunger for the miraculous. And yet they do not love the Grisha. Why do you think that is?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I said. I opened the book. Someone had written my name inside the cover. I flipped a few pages. Sankt Petyr of Brevno. Sankt Ilya in Chains. Sankta Lizabeta. Each chapter began with a full-page illustration, beautifully rendered in brightly colored inks.
“I think it is because the Grisha do not suffer the way the Saints suffer, the way the people suffer.”
“Maybe,” I said absently.
“But you have suffered, haven’t you, Alina Starkov? And I think … yes. I think you will suffer more.”
My head jerked up. I thought he might be threatening me, but his eyes were full of a strange sympathy that was even more terrifying.
I glanced back down at the book in my lap. My finger had stopped on an illustration of Sankta Lizabeta as she had died, drawn and quartered in a field of roses. Her blood made a river through the petals. I snapped the book closed and sprang to my feet. “I should go.”
The Apparat rose, and for a moment I thought he would try to stop me. “You do not like your gift.”
“No, no. It’s very nice. Thank you. I don’t want to be late,” I babbled.
I bolted past him through the library doors, and I didn’t take an easy breath until I was back in my room. I tossed the book of Saints into the bottom drawer of my dressing table and slammed it shut.
What did the Apparat want from me? Had his words been meant as a threat? Or as some kind of warning?
I took a deep breath, a tide of fatigue and confusion washing over me. I missed the easy rhythm of the Documents Tent, the comforting monotony of my life as a cartographer, when nothing more was expected of me than a few drawings and a tidy worktable. I missed the familiar smell of inks and paper. Mostly, I missed Mal.
I’d written to him every week, care of our regiment, but I hadn’t heard anything back. I knew the post could be unreliable and that his unit might have moved on from the Fold or might even be in West Ravka, but I still hoped that I would hear from him soon. I’d given up on the idea of him visiting me at the Little Palace. As much as I missed him, I couldn’t bear the thought of him knowing that I fit into my new life about as well as I’d fit into my old one.
Every night, as I climbed the stairs to my room after another pointless, painful day, I would imagine the letter that might be waiting for me on my dressing table, and my steps would quicken. But the days passed, and no letter came.