“Have you been checking the casualty lists?”

It’s the right question to ask, though I’m almost ashamed of how easily it comes to my lips.


Alina gives a single sharp nod as her hands clench the edge of the infirmary sheet. I’m sorry to see her hurting, but I can’t help being fascinated by the play of emotion over her face. She hasn’t learned to hide what she feels. It’s all there for anyone to read from moment to moment: happiness, relief, fear, and always fatigue, the deep weariness she carries everywhere. That lack of caution is a novelty at court. I have to remind myself not to stare.

I bring her pen and paper so she can write out the tracker’s name: Malyen Oretsev. I know it well enough by now. He’s the only person she’s written to this whole time at the Little Palace. Instead of posting her letters, the servants bring them to me, and I pass them along. I don’t know if the Darkling reads them or if they sit unopened, a growing stack in some bureau drawer.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” I tell Alina as I slip the paper into my sleeve. Again, her face comes alive: Red in her cheeks—she’s ashamed to have asked. Lips pressed together—she hopes anyway. It’s almost painful to watch. I think she’s so used to being unnoticed that she doesn’t realize how much she shows. I have to bite back the urge to tell her to be more careful. It’s not my place to give her warnings, but I seem to keep finding myself doing so.

Before I go, I bully her into letting me fix the dark circles beneath her eyes. She grumbles and groans, and I burst out laughing when she finally relents, hurling herself back against the pillows as if I’ve insisted on reading her a sermon. Ridiculous girl.

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My hands drift over her skin. Maybe it’s my way of apologizing. And honestly, I can’t help myself. It’s like wiping the smudges off a looking glass or putting flowers just so in a vase—sometimes my fingers fairly itch to set her to rights. Besides, in this moment, I’m her friend. I can pretend all the little betrayals don’t exist. I can ignore the paper with Oretsev’s name on it burning a hole in my sleeve.

In the end, I leave Alina arguing with the Healer about checking out of the infirmary and turn my steps to the war room. I take the long way so I can pass by the big, sunlit windows of the Fabrikator workshops. I won’t stop in, not today, but I can still treat myself to a glimpse of David’s bent shoulders and messy brown hair. I’m deep in a daydream of him letting me cut it when I come around the corner and nearly slam into Zoya.

“Where are you rushing off to?” she says with a sniff. “Does the Queen have a party to attend?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” I say coolly. “But I have a few moments if you want me to see to your eyes. They’re looking awfully red.”

She keeps that haughty look, but her shoulders stiffen and she has to work a bit harder to lift her perfect nose in the air. I know I shouldn’t enjoy her misery as much as I do. I also shouldn’t have a second buttered roll with my breakfast every morning, but sometimes one must indulge. Anyway, Zoya bought this trouble for herself.

“Hay fever,” she mutters. “There’s something new in the air here that irritates me.”

“Yes,” I say as I glide past her. “I hear you practically choked on it.”

I learned a long time ago never to give Zoya a chance at the last word. That girl finds openings like water in a sieve. I’d planned to leave a message for the Darkling with his guards, but I meet Ivan coming out of the war room.

“Back from visiting the invalid?” he asks as I follow him out of the Little Palace.

“She’s hardly that.”

“Well, she looks the part.”

“Should she be leading a fencing lesson by the lake? Zoya broke two of her ribs.”

“Shame,” he drawls.

I arch a brow. “The Darkling thought so. Please tell me you were there when he told Zoya she’d be leaving Os Alta.”

“I was.”

“And?” I urge as we head down the hill to the birch grove. I’m a greedy thing, but how can I be expected to resist this gossip? Ivan shrugs, scowling. “He just made it clear that she’s replaceable and Starkov isn’t.”

I grin. “Does that worry you, Ivan?”

“No,” he snaps.

“Careful,” I say. “Keep frowning like that, and even I won’t be able to fix your wrinkles.”

Impossibly, his features twist into a deeper snarl, and I have to restrain a snort. Ivan struts around like a robin, all puffed up pride and red plumage. It’s just so easy to ruffle his feathers. I know he begrudges me any word or confidence shared with the Darkling. Still, I like him. He treats me with disdain, but it’s the exact same disdain he shows everyone else.

As we enter the birch grove, I glimpse a few oprichniki standing guard, nearly hidden in the gloom between the trees. I’ve never grown used to them. They’re a brotherhood of their own, and they keep to a separate code. They never mix with the Grisha or the court.

When we finally arrive at the banya, the Darkling is just emerging from the baths, pulling a clean shirt over his head. He really is something to look at, all lean muscle and pale skin beaded with moisture from the steam.

He runs a hand through his damp hair and gestures me forward. “How is she?”

“Better,” I reply. “She’s asked to be moved from the infirmary.”

“I’ll approve it,” he says with a nod to Ivan. Without a word, the Heartrender disappears back into the trees to see it done.

The Darkling takes his kefta from a waiting oprichnik and shrugs it on. I fall into step beside him on one of the narrow paths that wends through the grove.

“What else?” he asks.

“The Apparat visited her last night to rant about Saints and saviors. From what I could piece together, he was either trying to scare her senseless or bore her to death.”

“I may need to have a word with the priest.”

“I told her he’s harmless.”

“Hardly that,” says the Darkling, “but he has the King’s ear. For now that’s all that matters.”

An uneasy silence descends as we emerge from the trees onto the dirt path that leads to the training rooms and the stables. The Darkling knows there’s more to tell and that I’m not quite ready to say it.

It’s deserted here at this time of day, no sound but the nicker of horses in their paddocks. The winter air carries their warm animal smell and, beneath it, the sweet scent of hay. I wrinkle my nose. Just steps from the Little Palace, and this place feels positively rural.

Six black horses are in the western paddock—the matched team that pulls the Darkling’s coach. When we reach the fence, the Darkling gives a low whistle and one of the horses ambles over to us, twitching its silky mane.

I slip the piece of paper from my sleeve and hand it to the Darkling.

“The tracker again,” he says, unsurprised.

“She’s afraid he was killed in action and hasn’t shown up on the lists yet.” I hesitate, then say, “But I think she’s almost as scared that he’s alive and well and through with her.”

He studies the paper for a moment, then gives it back to me. He strokes a hand over the horse’s long, velvety nose.

“What should I tell her?” I ask.

He glances at me. “The truth. Tell her where the boy is stationed.”

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