She couldn’t shake the image from her mind. Despite their harrowing trek through the woods, the reunion with Nikolai, the constant thrum of motion, of preparation, of war at the Spinning Wheel, she found the same picture painting itself over and over again when she closed her eyes. In her quiet moments, she would pick it up and study it, like a rare and beautiful gem.
The sharp lines of his face. The slant of sunlight through the window. The stillness of him, the hitch in his breath, the waver on the edge of a precipice he so wanted to fall into. She had known that feeling many a time, the waiting, the wanting, the lure of it. But she hadn’t expected to see it in him.
She had more quiet moments than she wanted, too. Nikolai was immersed in his plans and his strategies; it was impossible to say what would happen if he ever stayed still.
Mal kept his distance and his stony silence, which stung until it didn’t. The lurch of hurt was easier to bear when it turned to anger. The anger found its way so naturally to a bitter indifference. Indifference, she thought with a rush of righteous rage, would hurt the most in kind. He had always insisted on being the strong one between them, the protector. He couldn’t figure out what else to be for her; she had seen as much etched into his skin.
As for the other Grisha, she didn’t know what she was to them. Genya and David kept to themselves, Zoya was… well Zoya, and the others—was she their friend? She thought of them as friends. But they saw her as a leader. And leaders didn’t have friends.
It was impossible to say whose voice that was in her head. Was that Nikolai’s counsel? Her own, a cynicism she barely recognized? Or was it his?
Alina hadn’t returned to see him since she appeared to him in the Grand Palace—and he, too, left their tether untouched—but the memory of it remained always within her grasp. She hadn’t expected to see a falter in the surety that had come to define him. She hadn’t expected the way he stilled for her, as though holding his breath. The way he conceded to her with only one touch. Saints, she scoffed to herself, if that’s all it took, maybe she didn’t need the firebird after all.
But even that thought sent a pang through her core. It didn’t matter if she needed it. She wanted it. The wanting felt sick inside, sick like Mal’s silence, sick like the sky beyond the glass dome threatening to swallow them all up, sick like the itch and thrum under her skin that had nowhere to go.
Alina closed her eyes and let the restless thrum expand until it burst, until it poured into the dull tug that always lingered. When she opened her eyes, she was standing in the war room of the Grand Palace. Grisha bordered the long table, alert and attentive, their shapes indistinct but the colors of their keftas unmissable. She couldn’t hear the words beyond a muffled rush in her ears.
He saw her immediately. But there was no flash of surprise this time—which she found disappointing and rude. Their eyes met for only a moment; then he turned his attention back to the meeting.
Alina scowled. What, she wasn’t as interesting as a field report?
She took her time winding down the length of the table, letting her hand trail along the backs of the occupied chairs. She imagined herself as a chill passing over them, a ghost drifting by, though she knew they couldn’t sense her at all. She only existed to him.
“What’s the meeting about?” she called out, her voice echoing in the lofty ceiling. No one around the table reacted. He only narrowed his eyes. “Big plans?” she asked, craning her neck to peer over someone’s shoulder at the documents dotting the table, even though she could only see their blurred outline, nothing but a contrast of pale color against the dark wood.
“Are you certain this source is credible?” the Darkling asked whoever was speaking. His gaze flicked to her for a moment before he said, slow and deliberate, “After all, there are spies everywhere.”
She snorted. “As though you didn’t do the same thing to me?”
In truth, it was a relief to finally understand how this connection worked from the other end of it. She had beaten herself up wondering how much information she had unknowingly passed to the Darkling when he visited her. But seeing things from the other end, it wasn’t exactly useful for espionage. He knew that, and now she did, too.
But it was useful for other things.
“Hello,” she said when she reached the head of the table where he sat like a languid, stretched-out cat. Alina leaned back against the table and glanced down at him. He drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair without sparing her a glance.
She cocked her head at him. “Not feeling chatty today? Usually you’re so eager to give me cryptic statements about plans and power and—”
“Get to the point,” he snapped, gaze boring a hole in whichever blurry Grisha was unfortunate enough to be on the other end.
“Sorry, am I distracting you?”
The Darkling flexed his jaw and then replied to someone she couldn’t see clearly. “The Fjerdans won’t attempt to—”
“Should I come back later? You seem a bit busy.”
“—unless we keep it open for trade—”
“Do you think this meeting is going to take all day?”
“—but given the issue that arose last time—”
“Ooh,” Alina cooed, “Is there an issue?”
His fingers curled until his knuckles whitened. Forget espionage. Maybe she could annoy him to death in this war. Though that, too, was not why she had come. She wanted to see it again, the catch of his breath. She wanted to know what she could do to him.
Driven by curiosity and that itch in her skin, she slipped from her perch on the table and crossed behind the chair to his other side, letting her fingers trail the ornate carvings behind his head. He barely moved, except for the subtle turn of his neck tracking her movements. Even holding a rigid focus on the proceedings around him, he couldn’t help but be aware of her.
She stood a moment, silent, stationary, watching him. She had spent the previous summer in similar meetings, a dull torture made bearable only in the looks and subtle pantomime she and Nikolai traded across the table. The Darkling, she noted, had dispensed with the King’s awful chair—enormous, garishly gold, sporting eagles in flight along the back. That was too ostentatious for him; he was a man of simpler elegance.
But the fact that he hadn’t immediately sent everyone scurrying or excused himself to speak with her—like he had last time—stung. And she didn’t have the same patience to hover like a ghostly apparition.
“Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?”
Alina brushed her fingers over the ridges of his knuckles and the room jolted into focus. The others came into view, their words clear, as though she had resurfaced from below the murky water of a deep lake. She gasped at the sudden shift.
A man in a red kefta was speaking. “—including the reports of Lantsov to the north—”
The Darkling jerked his hand away and the room blurred again. “We’ll discuss that later,” he bit out. “Trade. We were discussing trade.”
Alina’s stomach rolled like spoiled supper, but she tried not to react. He was determined not to look at her anyway, hard gaze trained down the length of the table. So he didn’t want her to hear anything about Nikolai, which meant he didn’t know that they’d reconnected—that Nikolai was, in fact, a short hike up several flights for her physical body. But the Darkling was right about one thing. They were in the north.
“If you don’t want me eavesdropping,” she said, leaning over the back of his chair, “You could sever the connection. I managed it plenty of times without even knowing what I was doing. I’m sure you can figure it out, too.”
She smirked at the way the muscle in his jaw twitched again. It was so rare to have the upper hand in any conversation with him. Like the surge of power from the stag and the sea whip, this too bubbled in her with a heady rush.
“Unless,” she added, “you can’t bear to let me go.”
His gaze flicked towards her, then away again. But after another moment of pretending to listen to updates on their trade routes, he turned towards her again. To the rest of the room, he might simply have been looking out the window. His expression was a perfect mask of blankness, but she could see the irritation in his steely look. The challenge and the reprimand of it.
If he thought she was a distraction now…
Alina leaned in until her breath brushed his ear. “I didn’t come here to spy on you, I promise.”
She watched the bob in his throat as he swallowed. “And what would you need to accomplish that?” he asked in a firm voice to the blurred speaker. “What do you want?” he tacked on, softer. If the other person was confused by the gentleness of the question, Alina couldn’t see it, but she heard the Darkling agree to whatever answer he received.
As for her answer, she certainly wasn’t practiced at saying just the right thing. But the less he could say, the more she found the words springing easily to her lips. “Maybe I just like watching you squirm.”
He flushed at that. He actually flushed.
Emboldened, Alina let her hand drop onto his shoulder. The sights and sounds of the room shook with sudden clarity, but she paid no attention. After all, he’d picked the most boring topic possible for their agenda on purpose. Her hand trailed across his chest, the buttons and beading of his kefta tickling her palm. He sat up straighter, holding himself unnaturally still.
“Do you like it?” she asked. “Is that why you won’t make me go?”
She watched to see if he might nod but he stared straight ahead with absolute determination. But she could feel his chest rise and fall a little faster under her hand.
Alina’s own mouth went dry as her pulse quickened. The beat of it pressed against the fetter at her wrist, the blood in her veins thudding against the sea whip’s scales. She hadn’t come here with a plan, expecting only to exchange barbs until maybe one stuck. But for all the times he had known better, known more, orchestrated each move with careful precision, it was intoxicating to surprise him. The thrill of it thrummed through her heart, watching his impassive face for the cracks in his facade. They had once been so difficult to spot, but now they shone for her like a beacon.
“I think you do like it,” she whispered. Her lips brushed the juncture of his neck and jaw, just below his ear. He sucked in a sharp breath, exhaling slowly. She smirked and moved her mouth along the sharp angle of his jaw—not quite kissing, only letting the ghost of a caress fall along his skin. “You actually like when I take control.”
His eyes fluttered closed in a sweep of dark lashes, his breath steady and determined. She could feel the warmth of it, the shallowness of each exhale brushing her face.
“Moi tsar?” someone asked, awaiting a response to a conversation neither of them had been heeding.
“Yes,” he exhaled, then amended in a firmer voice, “Very well.” His voice sounded rough, heavy, like waking from a deep sleep when he said, “And what of the south? Update Yefrem on the situation.” He nodded to a Fabrikator, and the conversation resumed around them without his input.
“If you’re trying to convince me to rule with you, you’re not doing a very good job showing why anyone would want to,” she chided. “Trade routes. Scintillating.”
His lips quirked at that, the ghost of a smile brushing his features. Somehow, that felt more dangerous than anything she had tried. Power was one thing, smiling another.
Alina responded by biting his ear.
He jerked forward with a hiss, covering the movement with a throat-clearing cough. He settled back in his chair but shot her a sharp look. She responded with a teeth-bearing grin. That’d teach him to smile at her like that.
“Don’t let me interrupt your important meeting,” she teased in a mockery of innocence.
She could see color rising beneath the collar of his kefta, and she let her fingers play over the heated skin. His pulse beat under her fingertips.
Subtly, he raised his chin, baring more of his throat to her. Her fingers explored the topography of his neck—the same way he always did to her—and then her lips followed, tracing the same path. He sighed, soft and content, tipping his head back.
“Alina,” he breathed.
It was the ghost of a whisper against her skin, but the man could make armies yield with a look. The room quieted around them.
“I- I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that?” Someone—perhaps Yefrem—asked.
Another voice, this one much closer, clarified, “We still don’t have any definitive information on the whereabouts of the Sun Summoner. Of course, people claim sightings everywhere, those fanatics—” Alina frowned at the man’s derision. “—But we continue to keep it our top priority, moi tsar.”
“We could send a scout to Cofton, there were rumors and perhaps a credible lead—” The room broke into a discussion of her whereabouts, each less likely than the next.
She tutted at him. “You’ve got armies out searching for me, yet here I am, practically in your lap.” It was so easy to speak when he was silenced, like borrowing his voice to play a role she’d watched him perform so effortlessly. She flattened her palm against the plane of his chest. “What would they say, seeing you like this?”
His jaw shifted as his eyes flickered with a familiar rush of anger. But it wasn’t the cruel kind of anger, the cold, detached burn of winter wind, the emptiness. This was searing desire and the shame of it, the resentment of a treacherous pulse, a thrumming heart, the hot heat of want. She knew that well.
“You could dismiss them and be alone with me. But you haven’t.” She tilted her head, considering him, the way she’d seen him do a thousand times. “I knew you liked this.”
Alina carded her fingers through the Darkling’s hair, through the soft black strands, threading her grip into the lock of hair at the nape of his neck. His lips parted in silent plea, a light sparked and dancing like a flame in his eyes as his gaze held hers. He melted into the touch, leaning his head into her hand.
“Stop,” he breathed with a heavy swallow. The room turned again at the sound of his voice. Clearing his throat, he gestured to the Grisha he’d silenced and hastily amended, “Repeat back what you said.”
Alina slid between him and the table. “I said I knew you liked this.”
He didn’t look away. His steady gaze looked up at her, transfixed and wondering. Heat dusted his pale skin as his chest rose and fell in sharp, shallow breaths. He was silent while the Grisha around him continued their conversation, the pair of them wrapped in their own haze now.
She had been playing a game before, testing him the way she had once tested the limits of her light. She had shorn the top off a mountain days ago. Now, all she wanted was to reach out and wind her fingers through the soft coils of hair, watch the way he melted into her touch.
Alina reached for him again, brushing through his hair—
“If,” he said sharply, wrenching away from her hand, “you still haven’t found my Sun Summoner, then perhaps we’d best conclude for the day.”
“Excuse me, moi tsar, there is still the matter of—”
“I said we’d best conclude.” He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to.
The room cleared around them in a flurry of papers and chairs scraping the floor. He pushed away from her and strode to the window, gazing out over the sun-dappled grounds with his back to her until the last of his Grisha filed out.
“Tell me why you came here,” he said as soon as they were alone. She could see the relief in him, the ability to finally speak freely to her. But there was something else, too, something in the taut pull of his shoulders. She had the chilling sensation that she might have asked for anything then and he would have given it. “Tell me what you want from me.”
This was getting dangerous again. He turned, abrupt but rooted to the spot. His eyes found hers and would not let go. Alina wanted to pull away, retreat from the intensity of it, but she would not cede the ground she had gained. This was war, after all.
She swallowed, refusing to falter under the burn of his gaze.
“Nothing at all.”
His mouth opened in a reply never uttered, a silenced plea, as she broke the connection without another word.