I ring for a dinner tray, wriggle out of my ivory silk kefta and into a dressing gown. Only then do I see the ebony box resting on the plush cushions of the window seat. It is a simple object, completely out of place amid the frothing white and gold ornament of this room. Its elegance lies in the perfection of its angles, in its seamless sides, smooth as glass and polished to a high shine. It doesn’t bear his symbol. It doesn’t have to. And I don’t need to open its gleaming lid to know what’s inside.
I wash my face, take down my hair, toe off my satin slippers so that I can feel the grooves of the cool wood floor beneath my feet. All the while, the box lurks just out of my vision like a glossy black beetle.
The dinner tray arrives—a truffled cheese tart, wine-braised quail with crispy skin, and fish poached in butter. The food is rich, as always, but it never bothers me. No matter my worries, I can always eat.
When I’ve finished, I light the lamps in my closet. My kefta hang along one wall—wool for winter, silk for summer, thick folds of satin and velvet for when I am still asked to parties. There are two shelves stacked with rarely worn breeches and blouses, and a row of simple shifts made for me because the Queen does not approve of women wearing trousers.
The rest of the closet has been converted into my own little workshop, stocked with all the things I need for my kit: bottles of dye, sheets of gold leaf and coils of copper, tins of crushed carmine, and jars of pickled berries. They smell dreadful when opened, but the colors stay pure. There are other bottles too, full of more dangerous things that I’ve buried near the back of the shelf. There’s one in particular that I like to take out when the day has been long. I made it myself and I love the liquid’s warm golden color, its sweet cinnamon smell. Dekora Nevich, I call it. The Ornamental Blade.
Despite the trappings of my kit, there’s plenty of room in my closet. Once I fell out of favor, the new gowns stopped coming. I outgrew the layers of ruffles and puffed sleeves, and had to slouch to hide how tight my bodice had grown, the way the hems rode up my ankles. The effect was almost obscene.
And then one morning I found my child’s dresses gone and a kefta, a Grisha’s most treasured possession outside of an amplifier, hanging on my door. It was white. White and gold. It was livery.
I told myself it meant nothing. It was just a color. I made myself put it on. I fixed my hair, held my head high. I was beautiful in this, as I was beautiful in everything else. Besides, I had nothing else to wear.
But I was wrong. That color meant everything. It was a command to the Queen’s ladies that they shouldn’t greet me or acknowledge that I’d entered a room. It was an indelible line drawn between me and the other Grisha. It was a signal to the King that he could follow me into my chambers and press me up against the wall, that I was available for his use. That there was no point to crying out.
There were no good days anymore, no sweets or outings, just long hours of tedium, waiting for the Queen’s call, dreading the King’s soft tread outside my door. One night, before a party, I was summoned to the Queen’s dressing room. I darkened her lashes with black walnut, tinted her lips with peonies grown for me in the Grisha hothouses. I worked quietly, saying nothing, keeping my eyes downcast. I was to be in her retinue that night, and I’d been careful to style my own hair simply. I suppose I could have made myself plain to please her, but some part of me would not allow it.
Her gown was pale green that night, darker at the hem, fresh as new leaves. As I fastened the pearl buttons at her back, she said, “A lack of gratitude is unbecoming in a servant. You should wear the jewels my husband gives you.”
I saw it then. I understood. She’d known it would happen. Maybe from the first day she’d brought me to the Little Palace. She knew him and what he was, but I was the one she resented for it. I stood there, paralyzed, buffeted by two competing winds. I wanted to fall to my knees and bury my head in her lap, to cry and beg for her protection. I wanted to smash the mirror she feared so much and cut her face to ribbons with it, stuff her mouth with glass and make her swallow every jagged edge of my hurt and shame.
Instead, I went to the Darkling. I don’t know where I found the audacity. Even as I ran across the palace grounds, a voice in my head was cursing me for a fool, clamoring that I would never be granted audience, that I should turn back around and forget this madness. But I couldn’t bear the idea of returning to the Queen’s side, of spending the whole night with my nails digging into my palms, smelling her perfume, counting and recounting the line of buttons on that leaf green dress as she held court. The thought drove my steps all the way to the Little Palace.
I wanted to avoid the Grisha in the main hall, so I used the entrance that led directly to the war room. As soon as I made my request to the oprichnik standing guard, I regretted it. The Darkling had given me to the Queen. He would turn me away now, maybe worse.
But the oprichnik returned and simply gestured for me to follow him down the hall. When I arrived at the war room, a group of Grisha were leaving—Ivan and several high-ranking Etherealki and Heartrenders I didn’t know.
I’d told myself I would be dignified. I would plead my case rationally. But when Ivan closed the door, I started to cry. The Darkling might have chastised me or turned his back. But he put his arm around me, sat me down at the table. He poured me a glass of water and waited until I was calm enough to take a gulping sip.
“Do not let them humble you,” he said softly.
I’d had a speech prepared, a hundred things I wanted to say. All of it went out of my head, and I sputtered the first thing that came into my mind. “I don’t want to wear this anymore,” I pleaded. “It’s a servant’s uniform.”
“It’s a soldier’s uniform.”
I shook my head, choking back another sob. He leaned forward and wiped the tears from my cheeks with the sleeve of his own kefta.
“If you tell me you cannot bear this, then I will send you from here and you need never wear those colors or walk the halls of the Grand Palace again. You will be safe, I promise you that.”
I looked up at him, not quite believing. “Safe?”
“Safe. But I can promise you this, too: You are a soldier. You could be my greatest soldier. And if you stay, if you can endure this, one day all will know it.” He lifted my chin with his finger. “Do you know the King once cut himself on his own sword?”
A little laugh escaped me. “He did?”
The Darkling nodded, the barest grin playing over his lips. “He wears it constantly—just for show, mind you. He forgets it is not a toy by his side, but a weapon.” His face grew serious. “I can promise you safety,” he said. “Or I can promise to see your suffering repaid a thousandfold.” With the pad of his thumb, he brushed a stray tear from beneath my eye. “You decide, Genya.”
That choice was hard, but this one is easy.
I straighten the rows of bottles and shut the closet door. I cross to the window. When I press my face to the glass, I can see the lanterns lit across the palace grounds, and I can just make out the sounds of music playing in one of the ballrooms, the high human wail of violins. If I could see past the trees, through the dark, I might glimpse the wooded tunnel and, beyond it, down that gentle slope, the golden domes that top the Little Palace.
I think of Alina’s too-thin fingers gripping the edge of the sheet, the hope she can’t hide in her pale, expressive face as she writes out the tracker’s name.