“Too much champagne?”
“Silly girl,” she said, looping her arm through mine. “There’s no such thing as too much champagne. Though your head will try to tell you otherwise tomorrow.”
She steered me through the crowd, gracefully dodging people who wanted to meet me or leer at her, until we’d made our way behind the stage that had been set up along the far wall of the ballroom. We stood by the orchestra and watched as a man dressed in an elaborate silver ensemble took to the stage to introduce the Grisha.
The orchestra struck a dramatic chord, and the guests were soon gasping and applauding as Inferni sent arcs of flame shooting over the crowd and Squallers sent spires of glitter whirling about the room. They were joined by a large group of Tidemakers who, with the Squallers’ help, brought a massive wave crashing over the balcony to hover inches above the audience’s heads. I saw hands reach up to touch the shining sheet of water. Then the Inferni raised their arms and, with a hiss, the wave exploded into a swirling mass of mist. Hidden by the side of the stage, I had a sudden inspiration and sent light cascading through the mist, creating a rainbow that shimmered briefly in the air.
I jumped. The light faltered and the rainbow disappeared. The Darkling was standing beside me. As usual, he wore a black kefta, though this one was made of raw silk and velvet. The candlelight gleamed off his dark hair. I swallowed and glanced around, but Genya had disappeared.
“Hello,” I managed.
“Are you ready?”
I nodded, and he led me to the base of the steps leading to the platform. As the crowd applauded and the Grisha left the stage, Ivo punched my arm. “Nice touch, Alina! That rainbow was perfect.” I thanked him and then turned my attention to the crowd, feeling suddenly nervous. I saw eager faces, the Queen surrounded by her ladies, looking bored. Beside her, the King swayed on his throne, clearly well in his cups, the Apparat at his side. If the royal princes had bothered to show up, they were nowhere to be seen. With a start, I realized the Apparat was staring directly at me, and I looked quickly away.
We waited as the orchestra began to play an ominous, escalating thrum and the man in silver bounded onto the stage once again to introduce us.
Suddenly, Ivan was beside us saying something in the Darkling’s ear. I heard the Darkling reply, “Take them to the war room. I’ll be there shortly.”
Ivan darted away, ignoring me completely. When the Darkling turned to me, he was smiling, his eyes alive with excitement. Whatever news he’d gotten had been good.
A burst of applause signaled that it was time for us to take the stage. He took my arm and said, “Let’s give the people what they want.”
I nodded, my throat dry as he led me up the steps and to the center of the stage. I heard eager buzzing from the crowd, looked out at their expectant faces. The Darkling gave me a short nod. With little preamble, he slammed his hands together and thunder boomed through the room as a wave of darkness fell over the party.
He waited, letting the crowd’s anticipation grow. The Darkling might not have liked the Grisha performing, but he certainly knew how to put on a show. Only when the room was practically vibrating with tension did he lean into me and whisper, so softly that only I could hear, “Now.”
Heart clattering, I extended my arm, palm up. I took a deep breath and called up that feeling of surety, the feeling of light rushing toward me and through me, and focused it in my hand. A bright column of light shot upward from my palm, gleaming in the darkness of the ballroom. The crowd gasped, and I heard someone shout, “It’s true!”
I turned my hand slightly, angling toward what I hoped was the right spot on the balcony that David had described to me earlier.
“Just make sure you aim high enough, and we’ll find you,” he’d said.
I knew I’d gotten it right when the beam from my palm shot out from the balcony, zigging and zagging across the room as the light bounced from one large Fabrikator-made mirror to the next until the dark ballroom was a pattern of crisscrossing streams of gleaming sunlight.
The crowd murmured in excitement.
I closed my palm, and the beam disappeared, then in a flash I let the light bloom around me and the Darkling, wrapping us in a glowing sphere that surrounded us like a flowing, golden halo.
He looked at me and held out his hand, sending black ribbons of darkness climbing through the sphere, twisting and turning. I grew the light wider and brighter, feeling the pleasure of the power move through me, letting it play through my fingertips as he sent inky tendrils of darkness shooting through the light, making them dance.
The crowd applauded and the Darkling murmured softly, “Now, show them.”
I grinned and did as I had been taught, throwing my arms wide and feeling my whole self open, then I slammed my hands together and a loud rumble shook the ballroom. Brilliant white light exploded through the crowd with a whoosh as the guests released a collective “Ahhhh!” and closed their eyes, flinging up their hands against the brightness.
I held it for a few long seconds and then unclasped my hands, letting the light fade. The crowd burst into wild applause, clapping furiously and stomping their feet.
We took our bows as the orchestra began to play and the applause gave way to excited chatter. The Darkling pulled me to the side of the stage and whispered, “Do you hear them? See them dancing and embracing? They know now that the rumors are true, that everything is about to change.”
My elation ebbed slightly as I felt uncertainty creep in. “But aren’t we giving these people false hope?” I asked.
“No, Alina. I told you that you were my answer. And you are.”
“But after what happened by the lake …” I blushed furiously and hurried to clarify. “I mean, you said I wasn’t strong enough.”
The Darkling’s mouth quirked in the suggestion of a grin but his eyes were serious. “Did you really think I was done with you?”
A little tremor quaked through me. He watched me, his half smile fading. Then, abruptly, he took me by the arm and pulled me from the stage into the crowd. People offered their congratulations, reached their hands out to touch us, but he cast a rippling pool of darkness that snaked through the crowd and vanished as soon as we had passed. It was almost like being invisible. I could hear snatches of conversation as we slipped between groups of people.
“I didn’t believe it …”
“ … a miracle!”
“ … never trusted him but …”
“It’s over! It’s over!”
I heard people laughing and crying. That feeling of disquiet twisted through me again. These people believed that I could save them. What would they think when they learned I was good for nothing but parlor tricks? But these thoughts were only dim flickers. It was hard to think of anything but the fact that, after weeks of ignoring me, the Darkling had hold of my hand and was pulling me through a narrow door and down an empty corridor.
A giddy laugh escaped me as we slipped inside an empty room lit only by the moonlight pouring in through the windows. I barely had time to register that it was the sitting room where I had once been brought to meet the Queen, because as soon as the door closed, he was kissing me and I could think of nothing else.
I’d been kissed before, drunken mistakes, awkward fumblings. This was nothing like that. It was sure and powerful and like my whole body had just come awake. I could feel my pounding heart, the press of silk against my skin, the strength of his arms around me, one hand buried deep in my hair, the other at my back, pulling me closer. The moment his lips met mine, the connection between us opened and I felt his power flood through me. I could feel how much he wanted me—but behind that desire, I could feel something else, something that felt like anger.
I drew back, startled. “You don’t want to be doing this.”
“This is the only thing I want to be doing,” he growled, and I could hear the bitterness and desire all tangled up in his voice.
“And you hate that,” I said with a sudden flash of comprehension.
He sighed and leaned against me, brushing my hair back from my neck. “Maybe I do,” he murmured, his lips grazing my ear, my throat, my collarbone.
I shivered, letting my head fall back, but I had to ask. “Why?”
“Why?” he repeated, his lips still brushing over my skin, his fingers sliding over the ribbons at my neckline. “Alina, do you know what Ivan told me before we took the stage? Tonight, we received word that my men have spotted Morozova’s herd. The key to the Shadow Fold is finally within our grasp, and right now, I should be in the war room, hearing their report. I should be planning our trip north. But I’m not, am I?”
My mind had shut down, given itself over to the pleasure coursing through me and the anticipation of where his next kiss would land.
“Am I?” he repeated and he nipped at my neck. I gasped and shook my head, unable to think. He had me pushed up against the door now, his hips hard against mine. “The problem with wanting,” he whispered, his mouth trailing along my jaw until it hovered over my lips, “is that it makes us weak.” And then, at last, when I thought I couldn’t bear it any longer, he brought his mouth down on mine.
His kiss was harder this time, laced with the anger I could feel lingering inside him. I didn’t care. I didn’t care that he’d ignored me or that he confused me or about any of Genya’s vague warnings. He’d found the stag. He’d been right about me. He’d been right about everything.
His hand slid down to my hip. I felt a little trill of panic as my skirt slid higher and his fingers closed on my bare thigh, but instead of pulling away, I pushed closer to him.
I don’t know what might have happened next—at that moment we heard a loud clamor of voices from the hallway. A group of very noisy, very drunk people were careening down the corridor, and someone bumped heavily into the door, rattling the handle. We froze. The Darkling shoved his shoulder against the door so that it wouldn’t open, and the group moved on, shouting and laughing.
In the silence that followed, we stared at each other. Then he sighed and dropped his hand, letting the silk of my skirts fall back into place.
“I should go,” he murmured. “Ivan and the others are waiting for me.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
He stepped away from me. I moved aside, and he opened the door a crack, glancing down the hallway to make sure it was empty.
“I won’t return to the party,” he said. “But you should, at least for a while.”
I nodded again. I was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I was standing in a dark room with a near stranger and that only a few moments before I’d nearly had my skirts around my waist. Ana Kuya’s stern face appeared in my mind, lecturing me about the foolish mistakes of peasant girls, and I flushed with embarrassment.
The Darkling slipped through the doorway, but then he turned back to me. “Alina,” he said, and I could see that he was fighting with himself, “can I come to you tonight?”