“Mal is going to ask you and Tolya to be members of my personal guard.”
Tamar’s face broke into a beautiful grin. “Really?”
“You’re practically doing the job now, anyway. But if you’re going to be guarding me morning and night, you need to promise me something.”
“Anything,” she said, beaming.
“No more talk of Saints.”
AS THE CROWDS of pilgrims grew, they became harder to control, and soon I was forced to ride in the coach. Some days Mal accompanied me, but usually he chose to ride outside, guarding the vehicle with Tolya and Tamar. As eager as I was for his company, I knew it was for the best. Being stuck in the lacquered little jewel box always seemed to put him in a bad mood.
Nikolai only joined me on our way into or out of every village, so that we would be seen arriving or departing together. He talked constantly. He was always thinking of some new thing to build—a contraption for paving roads, a new irrigation system, a boat that could row itself. He sketched on any piece of paper he could find, and each day he seemed to have a new way to improve the next version of the Hummingbird.
As nervous as it made me, he was also eager to talk about the third amplifier and the Darkling. He didn’t recognize the stone arch in the illustration either, and no matter how long we squinted at the page, Sankt Ilya wasn’t giving up his secrets. But that didn’t stop Nikolai from speculating endlessly on possible places to start hunting the firebird, or questioning me about the Darkling’s new power.
“We’re about to go to war together,” he said. “In case you’ve forgotten, the Darkling’s not particularly fond of me. I’d like us to have every advantage we can get.”
There was so little for me to tell. I barely understood what the Darkling was doing myself.
“Grisha can only use and alter what already exists. True creation is a different kind of power. Baghra called it ‘the making at the heart of the world.’”
“And you think that’s what the Darkling is after?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. We all have limits, and when we push them, we tire. But in the long term, using our power makes us stronger. It’s different when the Darkling calls the nichevo’ya. I think it costs him.” I described the strain that had shown on the Darkling’s face, his fatigue. “The power isn’t feeding him. It’s feeding on him.”
“Well, that explains it,” Nikolai said, his fingers beating a tattoo against his thigh, his mind already churning with possibilities.
“That we’re still alive, that my father is still sitting the throne. If the Darkling could just raise a shadow army, he’d have marched on us already. This is good,” he said decisively. “It buys us time.”
The question was how much. I thought back to the desire I’d felt looking up at the stars aboard the Volkvolny. Hunger for power had corrupted the Darkling. For all I knew, it might well have corrupted Morozova, too. Bringing the amplifiers together might unleash misery of a kind the world had never seen.
I rubbed my arms, trying to shake the chill that had dropped over me. I couldn’t speak these doubts to Nikolai, and Mal was already reluctant enough about the course we’d chosen.
“You know what we’re up against,” I said. “Time may not be enough.”
“Os Alta is heavily fortified. It’s close to the base at Poliznaya, and most important, it’s far from both the northern and southern borders.”
“Does that help us?”
“The Darkling’s range is limited. When we disabled his ship, he wasn’t able to send the nichevo’ya to pursue us. That means he’ll have to enter Ravka with his monsters. The mountains to the east are impassable, and he can’t cross the Fold without you, so he’ll have to come at us from Fjerda or Shu Han. Either way, we’ll have plenty of warning.”
“And the King and Queen will stay?”
“If my father left the capital, it would be as good as handing the country over to the Darkling now. Besides, I don’t know that he’s strong enough to travel.”
I thought of Genya’s red kefta. “He hasn’t recovered?”
“They’ve kept the worst of it from the gossips, but no, he hasn’t, and I doubt he will.” He crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side. “Your friend is stunning. For a poisoner.”
“She isn’t my friend,” I said, though the words sounded childish to my ears and felt like a betrayal. I blamed Genya for a lot of things, but not for what she’d done to the King. Nikolai seemed to have spies everywhere. I wondered if he knew what kind of a man his father really was. “And I doubt she used poison.”
“She did something to him. None of his doctors can find a cure, and my mother won’t let a Corporalki Healer anywhere near him.” After a moment, Nikolai said, “It was a clever move, really.”
My brows shot up. “Trying to kill your father?”
“The Darkling could have murdered my father easily enough, but he would have risked outright rebellion from the peasants and the First Army. With the King alive and kept in isolation, no one knew quite what was happening. The Apparat was there, playing the trusted adviser, issuing commands. Vasily was off someplace buying up horses and whores.” He paused, looked out the window, ran his finger along its gilded edge. “I was at sea. I didn’t hear the news until weeks after it was all over.”
I waited, unsure if I should speak. His eyes were trained on the passing scenery, but his expression was distant.
“When word of the massacre in Novokribirsk and the Darkling’s disappearance got out, all hell broke loose. A group of royal ministers and the palace guard forced their way into the Grand Palace and demanded to see the King. Do you know what they found? My mother cowering in her parlor, clutching that snuffly little dog. And the King of Ravka, Alexander the Third, alone in his bedchamber, barely breathing, lying in his own filth. I let that happen.”
“You couldn’t have known what the Darkling was planning, Nikolai. No one did.”
He didn’t seem to hear me. “The Grisha and oprichniki who held the palace on the Darkling’s orders were caught in the lower town, trying to escape. They were executed.”
I tried to restrain a shudder. “What about the Apparat?” The priest had colluded with the Darkling and might be working with him still. But he’d tried to approach me before the coup, and I’d always thought he might be playing a deeper game.
“Escaped. No one knows how.” His voice was hard. “But he’ll answer for it when the time comes.”
Again I glimpsed the ruthless edge that lurked beneath the polished demeanor. Was that the real Nikolai Lantsov? Or just another disguise?
“You let Genya go,” I said.
“She was a pawn. You were the prize. I had to stay focused.” Then he grinned, his dark mood vanishing as if it had never been. “Besides,” he said with a wink, “she was too pretty for the sharks.”
* * *
RIDING IN THE COACH left me restless, frustrated with the pace Nikolai was setting, and eager to get to the Little Palace. Still, it gave him a chance to help prepare me for our arrival in Os Alta. Nikolai had a considerable stake in my success as the leader of the Second Army, and he always seemed to have some new bit of wisdom he wanted to impart. It was overwhelming, but I didn’t feel I could afford to disregard his advice, and I started to feel like I was back at the Little Palace library, cramming my head full of Grisha theory.
The less you say, the more weight your words will carry.
Don’t argue. Never deign to deny. Meet insults with laughter.
“You didn’t laugh at the Fjerdan captain,” I observed.
“That wasn’t an insult. It was a challenge,” he said. “Know the difference.”
Weakness is a guise. Wear it when they need to know you’re human, but never when you feel it.
Don’t wish for bricks when you can build from stone. Use whatever or whoever is in front of you.
Being a leader means someone is always watching you.
Get them to follow the little orders, and they’ll follow the big ones.
It’s okay to flout expectations, but never disappoint them.
“How am I supposed to remember all of this?” I asked in exasperation.
“You don’t think too much about it, you just do it.”
“Easy for you to say. You’ve been groomed for this since the day you were born.”
“I was groomed for lawn tennis and champagne parties,” Nikolai said. “The rest came with practice.”
“I don’t have time for practice!”
“You’ll do fine,” he said. “Just calm down.”
I let out a squawk of frustration. I wanted to throttle him so badly my fingers itched.
“Oh, and the easiest way to make someone furious is to tell her to calm down.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or throw my shoe at him.
Outside the coach, Nikolai’s behavior was getting more and more unnerving. He knew better than to renew his marriage proposal, but it was clear that he wanted people to think there was something between us. With every stop, he grew more bold, standing too close, kissing my hand, pushing my hair back over my ear when it was caught by a breeze.
In Tashta, Nikolai waved to the massive crowd of villagers and pilgrims that had formed by a statue of the town’s founder. As he was helping me back into the coach, he slipped his arm around my waist.
“Please don’t punch me,” he whispered. Then he yanked me hard against his chest and pressed his lips to mine.
The crowd exploded into wild cheers, their voices crashing over us in an exultant roar. Before I could even react, Nikolai shoved me into the shadowy interior of the coach and slipped in after. He slammed the door behind him, but I could still hear the townspeople cheering outside. Mixed in with the cries of “Nikolai!” and “Sankta Alina!” was a new chant: Sol Koroleva, they shouted. Sun Queen.
I could just see Mal through the coach’s window. He was on horseback, working the edge of the crowd, making sure they stayed out of the road. It was clear from his stormy expression that he’d seen everything.
I turned on Nikolai and kicked him hard in the shin. He yelped, but that wasn’t nearly satisfying enough. I kicked him again.
“Feel better?” he asked.
“Next time you try something like that, I won’t kick you,” I said angrily. “I’ll cut you in half.”
He brushed a speck of lint from his trousers. “Not sure that would be wise. I’m afraid the people rather frown on regicide.”
“You’re not king yet, Sobachka,” I said sharply. “So don’t tempt me.”
“I don’t see why you’re upset. The crowd loved it.”
“I didn’t love it.”
He raised a brow. “You didn’t hate it.”
I kicked him again. This time his hand snaked out like a flash and captured my ankle. If it had been winter, I would have been wearing boots, but I was in summer slippers and his fingers closed over my bare leg. My cheeks blazed red.