“I did try to warn you,” she said with some sadness.
“And you know what the Darkling plans to do?”
“There are rumors,” she said uncomfortably.
“They’re all true.”
“Then it has to be done.”
I stared at her. After a moment, she looked down at her lap. Her fingers pleated and unpleated the folds of her kefta. “David feels terrible,” she whispered. “He thinks he’s destroyed all of Ravka.”
“It’s not his fault,” I said with an empty laugh. “We all did our part to bring about the end of the world.”
Genya looked up sharply. “You don’t really believe that.” Distress was written on her face. Was there a warning there as well?
I thought of Mal and the Darkling’s threats. “No,” I said hollowly. “Of course not.”
I knew she didn’t believe me, but her brow cleared, and she smiled her soft, beautiful smile at me. She looked like a painted icon of a Saint, her hair a burnished copper halo. She rose, and as I walked with her to the flap of the tent, the stag’s dark eyes loomed up in my mind, the eyes I saw every night in my dreams.
“For what it’s worth,” I said, “tell David I forgive him.” And I forgive you, too, I added silently. I meant it. I knew what it was to want to belong.
“I will,” she said quietly. She turned and disappeared into the night, but not before I saw that her lovely eyes were full of tears.
I PICKED AT MY DINNER and then lay down on my cot again, turning over the things that Genya had said. Genya had spent nearly her entire life cloistered away in Os Alta, existing uneasily between the world of the Grisha and the intrigues of the court. The Darkling had put her in that position for his own gain, and now he had raised her out of it. She would never again have to bend to the whim of the King and Queen or wear a servant’s colors. But David had regrets. And if he did, maybe others did, too. Maybe there would be more when the Darkling unleashed the Shadow Fold’s power. Though by then, it might be too late.
My thoughts were interrupted by Ivan’s arrival at the entrance to my tent.
“Up,” he commanded. “He wants to see you.”
My stomach twisted nervously, but I got up and followed him. As soon as we stepped out of the tent, we were flanked by guards who escorted us the short distance to the Darkling’s quarters.
When they saw Ivan, the oprichniki at the entryway stepped aside. Ivan nodded toward the tent.
“Go on,” he said with a smirk. I desperately wanted to smack that knowing look right off his face. Instead, I lifted my chin and strode past him.
The heavy silks slid closed behind me, and I took a few steps forward, then paused to get my bearings. The tent was large and lit by dimly glowing lamps. The floor was covered in rugs and furs, and at its center burned a fire that crackled in a large silver dish. High above it, a flap in the roof of the tent allowed the smoke to escape and showed a patch of the night sky.
The Darkling sat in a large chair, his long legs sprawled out before him, staring into the fire, a glass in his hand and a bottle of kvas on the table beside him.
Without looking at me, he gestured to the chair across from him. I walked over to the fire, but I did not sit. He glanced at me with faint exasperation and then looked back into the flames.
“Sit down, Alina.”
I perched on the edge of the chair, watching him warily.
“Speak,” he said. I was starting to feel like a dog.
“I have nothing to say.”
“I imagine you have a great deal to say.”
“If I tell you to stop, you won’t stop. If I tell you you’re mad, you won’t believe me. Why should I bother?”
“Maybe because you want the boy to live.”
All of the breath went out of me and I had to stifle a sob. Mal was alive. The Darkling might be lying, but I didn’t think so. He loved power, and Mal’s life gave him power over me.
“Tell me what to say to save him,” I whispered, leaning forward. “Tell me, and I’ll say it.”
“He’s a traitor and a deserter.”
“He’s the best tracker you have or ever will have.”
“Possibly,” said the Darkling with an indifferent shrug. But I knew him better now, and I saw the flicker of greed in his eyes as he tilted his head back to empty his glass of kvas. I knew what it cost him to think of destroying something he might acquire and use. I pressed this small advantage.
“You could exile him, send him north to the permafrost until you need him.”
“You’d have him spend the rest of his life in a work camp or a prison?”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Yes.”
“You think you’ll find a way to him, don’t you?” he asked, his voice bemused. “You think that somehow, if he’s alive, you’ll find a way.” He shook his head and gave a short laugh. “I’ve given you power beyond all dreaming, and you can’t wait to run off and keep house for your tracker.”
I knew I should stay silent, play the diplomat, but I couldn’t help myself. “You haven’t given me anything. You’ve made me a slave.”
“That’s never what I intended, Alina.” He ran a hand over his jaw, his expression fatigued, frustrated, human. But how much of it was real and how much was pretense? “I couldn’t take chances,” he said. “Not with the power of the stag, not with Ravka’s future hanging in the balance.”
“Don’t pretend this is about Ravka’s welfare. You lied to me. You’ve been lying to me since the moment I met you.”
His long fingers tightened around the glass. “Did you deserve my trust?” he asked, and for once, his voice was less than steady and cold. “Baghra whispers a few accusations in your ear, and off you go. Did you ever stop to think of what it would mean for me, for all of Ravka, if you just disappeared?”
“You didn’t give me much choice.”
“Of course you had a choice. And you chose to turn your back on your country, on everything that you are.”
“That isn’t fair.”
“Fairness!” he laughed. “Still she talks of fairness. What does fairness have to do with any of this? The people curse my name and pray for you, but you’re the one who was ready to abandon them. I’m the one who will give them power over their enemies. I’m the one who will free them from the tyranny of the King.”
“And give them your tyranny in return.”
“Someone has to lead, Alina. Someone has to end this. Believe me, I wish there were another way.”
He sounded so sincere, so reasonable, less a creature of relentless ambition than a man who believed he was doing the right thing for his people. Despite all he’d done and all he intended, I did almost believe him. Almost.
I gave a single shake of my head.
He slumped back in his chair. “Fine,” he said with a weary shrug. “Make me your villain.” He set his empty glass down and stood. “Come here.”
Fear shot through me, but I made myself rise and close the distance between us. He studied me in the firelight. He reached out and touched Morozova’s collar, letting his long fingers spread over the rough bone, then slide up my neck to cradle my face with one hand. I felt a jolt of revulsion, but I also felt the sure, intoxicating force of him. I hated that it still had an effect on me.
“You betrayed me,” he said softly.
I wanted to laugh. I had betrayed him? He had used me, seduced me, and now enslaved me, and I was the betrayer? But I thought of Mal and swallowed my anger and my pride. “Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry for that.”
He laughed. “You’re not sorry for any of it. The only thought you have is for the boy and his miserable life.”
I said nothing.
“Tell me,” he said, his grip tightening painfully, his fingertips pressing into my flesh. In the firelight, his gaze looked unfathomably bleak. “Tell me how much you love him. Beg for his life.”
“Please,” I whispered, fighting the tears that welled in my eyes. “Please spare him.”
“Because the collar can’t give you what you want,” I said recklessly. I had only one thing with which to bargain and it was so little, but I pressed on. “I have no choice but to serve you, but if Mal comes to harm, I will never forgive you. I will fight you any way that I can. I will spend every waking minute looking for a way to end my life, and eventually, I’ll succeed. But show him mercy, let him live, and I will serve you gladly. I will spend the rest of my days proving my gratitude.” I nearly choked out the last word.
He cocked his head to one side, a small, skeptical smile playing about his lips. Then the smile disappeared, replaced by something I didn’t recognize, something that looked almost like longing.
“Mercy.” He said the word as if he were tasting something unfamiliar. “I could be merciful.” He raised his other hand to cup my face and kissed me softly, gently, and though everything in me rebelled, I let him. I hated him. I feared him. But still I felt the strange tug of his power, and I couldn’t stop the hungry response of my own treacherous heart.
He pulled away and looked at me. Then, his eyes still locked on mine, he called for Ivan.
“Take her to the cells,” the Darkling said when Ivan appeared in the doorway of the tent. “Let her see her tracker.”
A sliver of hope entered my heart.
“Yes, Alina,” he said, stroking my cheek. “I can be merciful.” He leaned forward, pulling me close, his lips brushing my ear. “Tomorrow, we enter the Shadow Fold,” he whispered, his voice like a caress. “And when we do, I will feed your friend to the volcra, and you will watch him die.”
“No!” I cried, recoiling in horror. I tried to pull away from him, but his grip was like steel, his fingers digging into my skull. “You said—”
“You may say your goodbyes tonight. That is all the mercy traitors deserve.”
Something broke loose inside me. I lunged at him, clawing at him, screaming my hate. Ivan was on me in moments, holding me tight as I thrashed and strained in his arms.
“Murderer!” I shouted. “Monster!”
“All of those things.”
“I hate you,” I spat.
He shrugged. “You’ll tire of hate soon enough. You’ll tire of everything.” He smiled then, and behind his eyes I saw the same bleak and yawning chasm I had seen in Baghra’s ancient gaze. “You will wear that collar for the rest of your very, very long life, Alina. Fight me as long as you’re able. You will find I have far more practice with eternity.”
He waved his hand dismissively, and Ivan pulled me from the tent and down the path, still struggling. A sob tore loose from my throat. The tears I had fought to hold back during my conversation with the Darkling gave way and streamed unchecked down my cheeks.
“Stop that,” Ivan whispered furiously. “Someone will see you.”
“I don’t care.”