Over the next few days, the Darkling sets a fast pace over side roads and hunting paths. Alina gets her own horse after the first day, but she’s always aware of where the Darkling is. Since he doesn’t speak to her, she wonders if she offended him—though how she might’ve, she doesn’t know. When they stop on the fifth night, Alina wanders down to a stream to wash her face and worry about what will happen when they get to Os Alta. She’s certain she’ll disappoint the King and the Darkling, since she’s not special. They’ll probably kill her, and she didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to Mal. As she imagines saying goodbye to Mal and apologizing for falling in love with him, the Darkling appears behind her and asks why she’s smiling.
Alina remains insistent that she can’t do anything right and isn’t special—or even competent. It’s curious just how insistent she is that she’s right, especially given that it’s now pretty well established that at least in some circumstances, she can produce light. However, her focus remains on the people, specifically the men, in her life: Mal and the Darkling. She seems extremely concerned with pleasing the Darkling, implying that she cares about what he thinks (if only so she can stay alive and return to Mal).
Alina says she’s laughing at herself and jokes that she’s very funny. As the Darkling studies her, she becomes hyper-aware of how dirty and bruised she is—he still looks perfect after days of riding. Alina blurts that she’s not Grisha; her appearance should be enough evidence. The Darkling says she doesn’t understand and heads back to camp. Alina is desperate to hit him, though he’d probably cut her in half if she did. But she follows, eats her small portion of grouse, and feels bad when she wipes her fingers on her kefta. When she’s finished, she notices how the Darkling, despite being the second most powerful man in Ravka, is sitting on the ground beside his soldiers.
That Alina becomes suddenly so self-conscious about her appearance in the Darkling’s presence suggests that she is, on some level, attracted to him—even if she’s also afraid of him. Indeed, wanting to hit him but fearing grave consequences for doing so suggests that Alina has significantly less power next to the Darkling; in his presence, she constantly fears he might hurt her in some way. However, the Darkling continues to look not so bad when he sits with his soldiers, rather than insisting people treat him like he’s better than others.
Seeming to notice Alina’s stare, the Darkling comes to sit next to her and offers her a flask of kvas, a burning spirit. Then, he invites her to ask questions. Alina first asks how old the Darkling is. After some evasion attempts, he reveals he’s about 120—Grisha, he explains, get stronger and live longer the more they use their powers. Amplifiers help even more, and he’s a living amplifier; however, he’s not afraid that anyone will kill him for his teeth. Then, he asks Alina to tell him the stories she’s heard about him. Alina offers a few rumors and then shares what a serf once said: that Darklings are evil and soulless, and that’s why one created the Shadow Fold. She feels bad even saying this, but she knows people like Eva, the serf, and soldiers don’t like or trust Grisha, especially the Darkling.
In some ways, this conversation makes the Darkling seem more human and relatable: he seems to not want to frighten Alina, and he wants to tell her the truth. However, the truth he tells her still paints a picture of an extremely powerful man—if he’s not afraid of assassination attempts, this implies that he is, perhaps, too strong to take on in the first place. So, it makes some sense why people like Eva and the serf might believe rumors about the Darkling and about Grisha. They’re so powerful that they seem untouchable—and that’s threatening, particularly to those who are poor and have almost no power.
Sighing, the Darkling says his great-great-great grandfather was the Black Heretic and accidentally created the Shadow Fold because he was greedy. All the Darklings since have been trying to fix it. Alina, he says, is the first hope he’s had in years. When Alina expresses shock, the Darkling says he’s seen their enemies’ powerful new weapons; soon, Grisha won’t be the most powerful fighters. And Ravka’s First Army gets their guns by crossing the Fold, which just kills soldiers. Alina can help by destroying the Shadow Fold.
Though the Grisha have power in Ravka now, the Darkling makes it clear that this won’t always be the case. The way to ensure the Grisha stay in power, he suggests, is to get rid of the Fold with Alina’s help. That Alina is capable of doing such a thing means that she’s extremely special—nobody in the last several hundred years has been able to undo the Black Heretic’s mistake.
Then, Alina asks the Darkling to explain what he did to her attacker. He explains that it’s called the Cut and asks if Alina would be less disturbed if he’d used a sword. Alina doesn’t know. She notices a look of anger or pain cross his face and feels bad: it feels like she failed a test.
Alina is disturbed by the violence of murdering someone, regardless of the circumstances. That she feels bad about her sense of compassion shows just how much she wants to be liked, even by the Darkling: after all, it’s not strange that she’s so upset, and yet, the Darkling (perhaps unwittingly) makes her feel like she’s doing something wrong.
The party reaches Os Alta two days later. Alina and Mal trained for the military nearby, but they never visited. As they ride through the first of Os Alta’s two walls, Alina is disappointed: Os Alta is a dirty market town much like Keramzin. But that changes when they cross the bridge. The streets are wide, clean, and dotted with trees, parks, and fountains. Huge houses line the streets until, finally, they reach a golden gate. This gives way to a wide gravel path that leads, finally, to the Grand Palace—the King’s winter home. The Darkling rides up next to Alina and asks what she thinks of the elaborate, shining building. She says it’s grand, and he quips that it’s the ugliest building he’s seen.
For the first time, Alina gets a good look at the inequality that plagues Ravka. While she grew up poor (and while it seems like many in Os Alta are only a bit better off), there are also people who live comfortable upper-class lives—and a select few royals and Grisha who live in absolute luxury. This was already hinted at in earlier descriptions of the Grisha army tent, but seeing an entire upper-class neighborhood and the palace makes it more real. The Darkling, however, implies that he doesn’t like what he sees—he doesn’t find the opulence beautiful.
The Darkling leads the riders down the path and through a wood. It feels like crossing into another world—and then, they emerge into the light and look down on the Little Palace. It’s bigger than the Grand Palace and looks like it belongs in an enchanted forest. It's covered in carvings of animals and plants. Servants in charcoal rush to take the riders’ horses, and Alina follows the others into the building. In a huge hexagonal room, the Darkling pulls an elderly female servant aside, motions to Alina, and then walks away. He leaves and the servant approaches Alina. Alina follows the woman up a tall staircase and into a grand room with a big bed in it. When Alina says she doesn’t need food, the woman tells her to rest—but to lock her door as a precaution.
The Little Palace looks like an absolutely magical place. It’s highly decorated, well-appointed, and it seems like there’s food aplenty if Alina wants any. For now, Alina is focused only on getting some sleep after a hard ride. She’s not able to consider why she might need to lock her door, but this warning suggests that the Little Palace isn’t as idyllic as it might look. Alina is protecting herself from something, though what that might be is left unclear. Then, the Darkling seems to give little thought to leaving Alina alone. He may have tried to get to know her on the ride, but his behavior suggests that things are different in his domain.