“I know what she’ll think, Genya.”
I lean against the fence, my back to the paddock, fingers worrying the scrap of paper as the Darkling murmurs softly to the horse, low words I can’t make out.
I can’t meet his eyes, but somehow I summon the courage to say, “Do you care about her at all?”
There’s the briefest pause.
“What are you really asking, Genya?”
I shrug. “I like her. When this is all over—”
“You want to know if she’ll forgive you.”
I run my thumb over Alina’s choppy writing, all graceless slashes and blunt lines. She’s the closest thing I’ve had to a friend in a long time.
“Maybe,” I say.
I suspect he’s right. I certainly wouldn’t. I just didn’t think it would matter to me as much as it does.
“You decide,” he says. “I’ll have the letters brought to you.”
“You kept them?”
“Post them. Give them back to her. Do whatever you think best.”
I watch him closely. This feels like some kind of trick. “You can’t mean that.”
He looks at me over his shoulder, his gray eyes cool. “Old bonds,” he says as he gives the horse a final pat and pushes off from the fence. “They can do nothing for Alina but tie her to a life long gone.”
The paper is starting to fray beneath my fingers. “She’s suffering.”
He stops my fidgeting with the briefest touch of his hand. His power flows through me, calming, the steady rush of a river. Best not to think where the current may take me.
“You’ve suffered, too,” he says.
He leaves me standing by the paddock, the tracker’s name folding and unfolding in my hands.
The Queen does have a party to attend that night. After I’ve changed my mud-spattered slippers and rid myself of the scent of the stables, I find her seated at her dressing table, a maid tending to her hair. There was a time when she wouldn’t let anyone else but me see to her preparations. “Genya does it better than any of you,” she would say, waving the servants away. “Go and bring us tea and something sweet.”
I’m pleased to see that the maid is doing a terrible job of it. The style is nice nough, but it isn’t suited to the Queen’s face. I would place the pins higher, leave a strand free to curl around her cheek.
“You’re late,” she snaps as she catches sight of me in the mirror.
I curtsy. “Apologies, moya tsaritsa.”
It takes me over an hour to finish working on her face and neck, and the maid is long gone by then. The skin pulls strangely at the Queen’s cheekbones, and the blue of her eyes is an indigo too vibrant to be believed. But she wanted the shade to match her gown, and I no longer argue. Still, it drives me nearly mad. It’s that itch again. I can’t walk by a crooked picture frame and not set it right. The Queen always pushes too far—a bit more, a bit more, until the angle is all wrong.
She hums to herself, sucking on a waxy bit of lokum flavored with rosewater, and coos to the dog curled in her lap. When I bend to adjust the bows on her slippers, she absently rests a hand on my shoulder—almost a caress, or maybe a scratch behind the ears. Sometimes it’s as if she forgets to hate me. It’s as if I were still the girl she treasured, the doll she loved to dress up and show off to her friends. I’d like to say I resisted such treatment, but I loved every minute of it.
I’d been ordinary among the Grisha, a pretty girl with a modicum of talent. At the Grand Palace, I was cherished. In the mornings, I would arrive with the Queen’s tea and she’d throw open her arms. “Pretty thing!” she’d exclaim, and I’d run to her.
“Where shall we walk today? Shall we go to the gardens or take a trip into town? Shall we find a new gown for you?”
I didn’t realize then what I was giving up, the way the distance would grow between me and the Grisha, how I would lose their language when I didn’t take the same classes or know the right gossip or sleep under the same roof. But I didn’t have time to contemplate such things. The Queen fed me on candied plums and cherries soaked in ginger syrup. We painted silk fans and discussed fashionable novels with her friends. She let me pick out which wriggling puppy would be hers and we spent hours choosing his name. She taught me to walk, to curtsy. It was easy to adore her.
Even now, it’s hard not to fall back into the habit of loving her. She is so poised, so regal, a creature of sublime grace. I help her into her wrap, lush violet silk that makes her eyes glow even brighter. Then I tend to the veins on her hands.
“Do my knuckles look swollen?” she asks. Her fingers are heavy with jewels—sapphire bands and the Lantsov emerald wedged between them. “My rings feel tight.”
“They look fine—” I begin.
“I’ll fix them.”
I’m not sure when things began to change, when I started to feel less easy in her company. I felt her slipping away from me, but didn’t know what I’d done wrong or how to stop it. I only knew I had to work harder to coax smiles from her, that my presence seemed to bring her less pleasure.
I do remember the day I was working on her face, easing the faint furrows that had started to appear across her forehead.
When I was finished, she peered into the mirror. “I still see a line.”
“It won’t look right,” I said, “if I keep going.”
She rapped me once, hard, across my knuckles with the golden handle of her hairbrush. “You’re not fooling anyone,” she spat. “I won’t let you make me look a hag.”
I’d drawn back, cradling my hand, baffled. But I pushed down my confused tears and did as she asked, still hoping that whatever I’d broken might be repaired.
There were good days after that, but there were more when she would ignore me completely, or tug my curls so hard my eyes watered. She would pinch my chin between her fingers and mutter, “Pretty thing.” It stopped sounding like praise.
Tonight, though, her mood is good. I snip a thread from her cuff, smooth the train of her gown. With her blond hair shining in the lamplight, she looks like a gilded painting of a Saint.
“You should wear the lily in your hair,” I suggest, thinking of the blue glass comb I’d once helped to make for her in the Fabrikator workshops.
She glances at me, and for the briefest moment, I think I see warmth in her gaze. But it must be a trick of the light, because in the next second, she laughs in her brittle way and says, “That old thing? It’s long out of fashion.”
I know she hopes to wound me, but the girl who flinched at her barbs is long gone.
“You’re right, of course,” I say and curtsy deeply.
The Queen waves one smooth white hand. “Surely you’re wanted elsewhere?” She says it like it’s the last thing she believes.
When I finally get back to my chamber, the lamps have been lit and a fire burns merrily in the grate. One of the serving girls has set a fragrant bundle of kitchen sage on the mantel. They understand what it is to live beneath this King’s rule. Or maybe it would be the same under any Lantsov. I’ve met the heir, Vasily. He has his father’s soft chin, his wet lower lip. I shudder.
If I could wish for anything in this world, it wouldn’t be jewels or a coach or a palace in the lake district. I’d wish to be a true Grisha again, of course—but short of that, I’d settle for a lock on my chamber door.