“I left you buried beneath a pile of rubble.”
“And if I told you I respect your ruthlessness?”
“I don’t think I’d believe you.”
The barest smile touched his lips. “An apt pupil,” he repeated. “Why waste my anger on you when the fault is mine? I should have anticipated another betrayal from you, one more mad grasp at some kind of childish ideal. But I seem to be a victim of my own wishes where you are concerned.” His expression hardened. “What have you come here for, Alina?”
I answered him honestly. “I wanted to see you.”
I caught the briefest glimpse of surprise before his face shuttered again. “There are two thrones on that dais. You could see me anytime you liked.”
“You’re offering me a crown? After I tried to kill you?”
He shrugged again. “I might have done the same.”
“I doubt it.”
“Not to save that motley of traitors and fanatics, no. But I understand the desire to remain free.”
“And still you tried to make me a slave.”
“I sought Morozova’s amplifiers for you, Alina, that we might rule as equals.”
“You tried to take my power for your own.”
“After you ran from me. After you chose—” He stopped, shrugged. “We would have ruled as equals in time.”
I felt that pull, the longing of a frightened girl. Even now, after everything he’d done, I wanted to believe the Darkling, to find some way to forgive him. I wanted Nikolai to be alive. I wanted to trust the other Grisha. I wanted to believe anything so that I wouldn’t have to face the future alone. The problem with wanting is that it makes us weak. A laugh escaped me before I thought better of it.
“We would be equals until the day I dared to disagree with you, until the moment I questioned your judgment or didn’t do as I was bid. Then you would deal with me the way you dealt with Genya and your mother, the way you tried to deal with Mal.”
He leaned against the window, and the gilded frame came into sharp focus. “Do you think it would be any different with your tracker beside you? With that Lantsov pup?”
“Yes,” I said simply.
“Because you would be the strong one?”
“Because they’re better men than you.”
“You might make me a better man.”
“And you might make me a monster.”
“I’ve never understood this taste for otkazat’sya. Is it because you thought you were one of them for so long?”
“I had a taste for you, once.” His head snapped up. He hadn’t expected that. Saints, it was satisfying. “Why haven’t you visited me?” I asked. “In all these long months?”
He stayed silent.
“There was barely a day at the Little Palace when you didn’t come to me,” I continued. “When I didn’t see you in some shadowed corner. I thought I was going mad.”
“I think you’re afraid.”
“How comforting that must be for you.”
“I think you fear this thing that binds us.” It didn’t frighten me. Not anymore. I took a slow step forward. He tensed but did not move away.
“I am ancient, Alina. I know things about power that you can barely guess at.”
“But it’s not just power, is it?” I said quietly, remembering the way he had toyed with me when I’d first arrived at the palace—even before, from the first moment we’d met. I’d been a lonely girl, desperate for attention. I must have given him so little sport.
I took another step. He stilled. Our bodies were almost touching now. I reached up and cupped his cheek with my hand. This time the flash of confusion on his face was impossible to miss. He held himself frozen, his only movement the steady rise and fall of his chest. Then, as if in concession, he let his eyes close. A line appeared between his brows.
“It’s true,” I said softly. “You are stronger, wiser, infinite in experience.” I leaned forward and whispered, my lips brushing the shell of his ear. “But I am an apt pupil.”
His eyes flew open. I caught the briefest glimpse of rage in his gray gaze before I severed the connection.
I scattered, hurtling back to the White Cathedral, leaving him with nothing but the memory of light.
I SAT UP WITH A GASP, sucking in the damp air of the alabaster chamber. I looked around guiltily. I shouldn’t have done it. What had I learned? That he was at the Grand Palace and in disgustingly good health? Paltry information.
But I wasn’t sorry. Now I knew what he saw when he visited me, what information he could or couldn’t cull from the contact. Now I had practice in one more power that had only belonged to him. And I’d enjoyed it. At the Little Palace, I’d dreaded those visions, thought I might be losing my mind, and worse, I’d wondered what they said about me. No longer. I was done being ashamed. Let him feel what it was to be haunted.
A headache was starting in my right temple. I sought Morozova’s amplifiers for you, Alina. Lies disguised as truth. He’d sought to make me more powerful, but only because he believed he could control me. He still believed it, and that scared me. The Darkling had no way of knowing that Mal and I knew where to start looking for the third amplifier, but he hadn’t seemed concerned. He hadn’t even mentioned the firebird. He’d seemed confident, strong, as if he belonged in that palace and on that throne. I know things about power that you can barely guess at. I gave myself a shake. I might not be a threat, but I could become one. I wouldn’t let him beat me before I’d had a chance to give him the fight he deserved.
A quick knock came at the door. It was time. I shoved my feet back into my boots and adjusted my scratchy golden kefta. After this, maybe I’d give myself a treat and stuff the thing in a stewpot.
The services were quite a spectacle. It was still a challenge to summon so far underground, but I threw blazing light over the walls of the White Cathedral, drawing on every reserve to awe the crowd that moaned and swayed below. Vladim stood to my left, his shirt open to display the brand of my palm on his chest. To my right, the Apparat held forth, and whether out of fear or real belief, he did a very convincing job of it. His voice rang through the main cavern, claiming that our mission was guided by divine providence and that I would emerge from my trials more powerful than ever before.
I studied him as he spoke. He looked paler than usual, a bit sweaty though not particularly chastened. I wondered if it was a mistake to leave him alive, but without the rush of fury and power guiding my actions, execution wasn’t a step I was prepared to consider seriously.
A hush had fallen. I looked down into the eager faces of the people below. There was something new in their exultation, maybe because they’d gotten a glimpse of my real power. Or maybe because the Apparat had done his work so well. They were waiting for me to say something. I’d had dreams like this. I was an actor in a play, but I’d never learned my lines.
“I will—” My voice cracked. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I will return more powerful than before,” I said in my best Saint’s voice. “You are my eyes.” I needed them to be, to watch the Apparat, to keep each other safe. “You are my fists. You are my swords.”
The crowd cheered. As one, they chorused back to me, Sankta Alina! Sankta Alina! Sankta Alina!
“Not bad,” Mal said as I stepped away from the balcony.
“I’ve been listening to the Apparat go on for nearly three months. Something had to rub off.”
On my orders, the Apparat announced that he would spend three days in isolation, fasting and praying for the success of our mission. The Priestguards would do the same, confined to the archives and guarded by the Soldat Sol.