I hesitated. I knew that if I said yes, there would be no turning back. My skin still burned where he’d touched me, but the excitement of the moment was melting away, and a bit of sense was returning. I wasn’t sure of what I wanted. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
I waited too long. We heard more voices coming down the hall. The Darkling pulled the door shut, striding out into the hallway as I stepped back into the darkness. I waited nervously, trying to think of an excuse for why I might be hiding in an empty room.
The voices passed and I let out a long, shuddering breath. I hadn’t had a chance to say yes or no to the Darkling. Would he come anyway? Did I want him to? My mind was whirring. I had to set myself to rights and get back to the party. The Darkling could just disappear, but I didn’t have that luxury.
I peeked out into the corridor and then hurried back to the ballroom, stopping to check my appearance in one of the gilt mirrors. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. My cheeks were flushed, my lips a bit bruised looking, but there was nothing I could do about that. I smoothed my hair and straightened my kefta. As I was about to enter the ballroom, I heard a door open at the other end of the hallway. The Apparat was hurrying toward me, his brown robes flapping behind him. Oh please not now.
“Alina!” he called.
“I have to get back to the ball,” I said cheerily and turned away from him.
“I must speak with you! Things are moving far more quickly than—”
I slipped back into the party with what I hoped was a serene expression. Almost instantly, I was surrounded by nobles hoping to meet me and congratulate me on the demonstration. Sergei hurried over to me with my other Heartrender guards, murmuring apologies for losing me in the crowd. Glancing over my shoulder, I was relieved to see the Apparat’s ragged form swallowed by a tide of partygoers.
I did my best to make polite conversation and to answer the questions that the guests asked. One woman had tears in her eyes and asked me to bless her. I had no idea what to do, so I patted her hand in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. All I wanted was to be alone to think, to sort through the confused mess of emotions in my head. The champagne wasn’t helping.
As one group of guests moved off to be replaced by another, I recognized the long, melancholy face of the Corporalnik who had ridden with me and Ivan in the Darkling’s coach and helped to fight off the Fjerdan assassins. I scrambled to remember his name.
He came to my rescue, bowing deeply and saying, “Fedyor Kaminsky.”
“Forgive me,” I said. “It’s been a long night.”
“I can only imagine.”
I hope not, I thought with a twinge of embarrassment.
“It seems the Darkling was right after all,” he said with a smile.
“Pardon?” I squeaked.
“You were so certain that you couldn’t possibly be Grisha.”
I returned his grin. “I try to make a habit of getting things hopelessly wrong.”
Fedyor barely had time to tell me of his new assignment near the southern border before he was swept away by another wave of impatient guests waiting to get their moment with the Sun Summoner. I hadn’t even thanked him for protecting my life that day in the glen.
I managed to keep talking and smiling for about an hour, but as soon as I had a free moment, I told my guards that I wanted to leave and made a beeline for the doors.
The instant I was outside, I felt better. The night air was blessedly cold, the stars bright in the sky. I took a deep breath. I felt giddy and exhausted, and my thoughts seemed to keep bouncing from excitement to anxiety and back again. If the Darkling came to my room tonight, what would it mean? The idea of being his sent a little jolt through me. I didn’t think he was in love with me and I had no idea what I felt for him, but he wanted me, and maybe that was enough.
I shook my head, trying to make sense of everything. The Darkling’s men had found the stag. I should be thinking about that, about my destiny, about the fact that I would have to kill an ancient creature, about the power it would give me and the responsibility of that, but all I could think about was his hands on my hips, his lips on my neck, the lean, hard feel of him in the dark. I took another deep breath of night air. The sensible thing would be to lock my door and go to sleep. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to be sensible.
When we arrived at the Little Palace, Sergei and the others left me to return to the ball. The domed hall was silent, the fires in its tile ovens banked, its lamps glowing low and golden. Just as I was about to pass through the doorway to the main staircase, the carved doors behind the Darkling’s table opened. Hurriedly, I stepped into the shadows. I didn’t want the Darkling to know I’d left the party early, and I wasn’t ready to see him yet anyway. But it was just a group of soldiers crossing through the entry hall on their way out of the Little Palace. I wondered if they were the men who had come to report on the location of the stag. As the light from one of the lamps fell on the last soldier of the group, my heart nearly stopped.
When he turned around, I thought I might dissolve from happiness at the sight of his familiar face. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I registered his grim expression, but it was lost in the sheer joy I felt. I sprinted across the hall and threw my arms around him, nearly knocking him off his feet. He steadied himself and then pulled my arms from around his neck as he glanced at the other soldiers who had stopped to watch us. I knew I’d probably embarrassed him, but I just didn’t care. I was bouncing on the balls of my feet, practically dancing with happiness.
“Go on,” he said to them. “I’ll catch up to you.”
A few eyebrows were raised, but the soldiers disappeared through the main entrance, leaving us alone.
I opened my mouth to speak, but I wasn’t sure where to begin, so I settled for the first thing that came to mind. “What are you doing here?”
“Hell if I know,” Mal said with a weariness that surprised me. “I had a report to make to your master.”
“My … what?” Then it hit me, and I broke into a huge grin. “You’re the one who found Morozova’s herd! I should have known.”
He didn’t return my smile. He didn’t even meet my eyes. He just looked away and said, “I should go.”
I stared at him in disbelief, my elation withering. So I’d been right. Mal was done with me. All the anger and embarrassment I’d felt over the last few months crashed in on me. “Sorry,” I said coldly. “I didn’t realize I was wasting your time.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“No, no. I understand. You can’t be bothered to answer my letters. Why would you want to stand here talking to me while your real friends are waiting?”
He frowned. “I didn’t get any letters.”
“Right,” I said angrily.
He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “We have to move constantly to track the herd. My unit is barely in contact with the regiment anymore.”
There was such weariness in his voice. For the first time, I looked at him, really looked at him, and I saw how much he had changed. There were shadows beneath his blue eyes. A jagged scar ran along the line of his unshaven jaw. He was still Mal, but there was something harder about him, something cold and unfamiliar.
“You didn’t get any of my letters?”
He shook his head, still wearing that same distant expression.
I didn’t know what to think. Mal had never lied to me before, and for all my anger, I didn’t think he was lying to me now. I hesitated.
“Mal, I … Can’t you stay a little while longer?” I heard the pleading in my voice. I hated it, but I hated the thought of him leaving even more. “You can’t imagine what it’s been like here.”
He gave a rough bark of laughter. “I don’t need to imagine. I saw your little demonstration in the ballroom. Very impressive.”
“You saw me?”
“That’s right,” he said harshly. “Do you know how worried I’ve been about you? No one knew what had happened to you, what they’d done to you. There was no way to reach you. There were even rumors you were being tortured. When the captain needed men to report back to the Darkling, like an idiot I made the trek down here just on the chance that I would find you.”
“Really?” That was hard for me to believe. I’d gotten so used to the idea of Mal’s indifference.
“Yes,” he hissed. “And here you are, safe and sound, dancing and flirting like some cosseted little princess.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed,” I snapped. “I’m sure the Darkling can arrange for a rack or some hot coals if that would make you feel better.”
Mal scowled and stepped away from me.
Tears of frustration pricked my eyes. Why were we fighting? Desperately, I reached out to lay a hand on his arm. His muscles tensed, but he didn’t pull away. “Mal, I can’t help the way things are here. I didn’t ask for any of this.”
He looked at me and then looked away. I felt some of the tension go out of him. Finally, he said, “I know you didn’t.”
Again, I heard that terrible weariness in his voice.
“What happened to you, Mal?” I whispered.
He said nothing, just stared into the darkness of the hall.
I raised my hand and rested it on his stubbly cheek, gently turning his face to mine. “Tell me.”
He closed his eyes. “I can’t.”
I let my fingertips trail over the raised skin of the scar on his jaw. “Genya could fix this. She can—”
Instantly, I knew I’d said the wrong thing. His eyes flew open.
“I don’t need fixing,” he snapped.
“I didn’t mean—”
He snatched my hand from his face, holding it tightly, his blue eyes searching mine. “Are you happy here, Alina?”
The question took me by surprise.
“I … I don’t know. Sometimes.”
“Are you happy here with him?”
I didn’t have to ask who Mal meant. I opened my mouth to answer, but I had no idea what to say.
“You’re wearing his symbol,” he observed, his glance flicking to the little gold charm hanging at my neckline. “His symbol and his color.”
“They’re just clothes.”
Mal’s lips twisted in a cynical smile, a smile so different from the one I knew and loved that I almost flinched. “You don’t really believe that.”
“What difference does it make what I wear?”
“The clothes, the jewels, even the way you look. He’s all over you.”
The words hit me like a slap. In the dark of the hall, I felt an ugly flush creeping up my cheeks. I snatched my hand from his, crossing my arms over my chest.
“It’s not like that,” I whispered, but I didn’t meet his gaze. It was as if Mal could see right through me, as if he could pluck every fevered thought I’d ever had of the Darkling right out of my head. But on the heels of that shame came anger. So what if he did know? What right did he have to judge me? How many girls had Mal held in the dark?