“Promise not to kick me again, and I’ll promise not to kiss you again,” he said.
“I only kicked you because you kissed me!”
I tried to pull my leg back, but he kept a hard grip.
“Promise,” he said.
“All right,” I bit out. “I promise.”
“Then we have a deal.”
He dropped my foot, and I drew it back beneath my kefta, hoping he couldn’t see my idiotic blush.
“Great,” I said. “Now get out.”
“It’s my coach.”
“The deal was only for kicking. It did not prohibit slapping, punching, biting, or cutting you in half.”
He grinned. “Afraid Oretsev will wonder what we’ve gotten up to?”
That was exactly what I was worried about. “I’m concerned that if I’m forced to spend another minute with you, I may vomit on my kefta.”
“It’s an act, Alina. The stronger our alliance, the better it will be for both of us. I’m sorry if it puts a burr in Mal’s sock, but it’s a necessity.”
“That kiss wasn’t a necessity.”
“I was improvising,” he said. “I got carried away.”
“You never improvise,” I said. “Everything you do is calculated. You change personalities the way other people change hats. And you know what? It’s creepy. Aren’t you ever just yourself?”
“I’m a prince, Alina. I can’t afford to be myself.”
I blew out an annoyed breath.
He was silent for a moment and then said, “I … you really think I’m creepy?”
It was the first time he’d sounded less than sure of himself. Despite what he’d done, I actually felt a little sorry for him.
“Occasionally,” I admitted.
He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Then he sighed and shrugged. “I’m a younger son, most likely a bastard, and I’ve been away from court for almost seven years. I’m going to do everything I can to strengthen my chances for the throne, and if that means courting an entire nation or making moon eyes at you, then I’ll do it.”
I goggled at him. I hadn’t really heard anything after the word “bastard.” Genya had hinted that there were rumors about Nikolai’s parentage, but I was shocked that he would acknowledge them.
He laughed. “You’re never going to survive at court if you don’t learn to hide what you’re thinking a bit better. You look like you just sat in a bowl of cold porridge. Close your mouth.”
I shut my mouth with a snap and tried to school my features into a pleasant expression. That just made Nikolai laugh harder. “Now you look like you’ve had too much wine.”
I gave up and slouched back against the seat. “How can you joke about something like that?”
“I’ve heard the whispers since I was a child. It’s not something I want repeated outside of this coach—and I’ll deny it if you do—but I couldn’t care less whether or not I have Lantsov blood. In fact, given all the royal inbreeding, being a bastard is probably a point in my favor.”
I shook my head. He was completely baffling. It was hard to know what to take seriously when it came to Nikolai.
“Why is the crown so important to you?” I asked. “Why go through all of this?”
“Is it so hard to believe I might actually care what happens to this country?”
He studied the toes of his polished boots. I could never figure out how he kept them so shiny.
“I guess I like fixing things,” he said. “I always have.”
It wasn’t much of an answer, but somehow it rang true.
“You truly think your brother will step aside?”
“I hope so. He knows the First Army will follow me, and I don’t think he has the stomach for civil war. Besides, Vasily inherited our father’s aversion to hard work. Once he realizes what it really takes to run a country, I doubt he’ll be able to run from the capital fast enough.”
“And if he doesn’t give up so easily?”
“It’s simply a question of finding the right incentive. Pauper or prince, every man can be bought.”
More wisdom from the mouth of Nikolai Lantsov. I glanced out the coach’s window. I could just see Mal sitting tall in his saddle as he kept pace with the coach.
“Not every man,” I murmured.
Nikolai followed my gaze. “Yes, Alina, even your stalwart champion has his price.” He turned back to me, his hazel eyes thoughtful. “And I suspect I’m looking at it right now.”
I shifted uneasily in my seat. “You’re so sure of everything,” I said sourly. “Maybe I’ll decide I want the throne and smother you in your sleep.”
Nikolai just grinned. “Finally,” he said, “you’re thinking like a politician.”
* * *
EVENTUALLY, NIKOLAI RELENTED and vacated the coach, but it was hours before we stopped for the night. I didn’t have to seek Mal out. When the coach door opened, he was there, offering his hand to help me down. The square was crowded with pilgrims and other travelers, all craning their necks to get a better look at the Sun Summoner, but I wasn’t sure when I’d have another chance to talk to him.
“Are you angry?” I whispered as he led me across the cobblestones. I could see Nikolai on the other end of the square, already chatting with a group of local dignitaries.
“With you? No. But Nikolai and I are going to have words when he isn’t surrounded by an armed guard.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I kicked him.”
Mal laughed. “You did?”
“Twice. Does that help?”
“I’ll stomp on his foot tonight at dinner.” That fell well outside the kicking prohibition.
“So, no heart flutters or swooning, even in the arms of a royal prince?”
He was teasing, but I heard the uncertainty beneath his words.
“I seem to be immune,” I replied. “And luckily, I know what a real kiss should feel like.”
I left him standing in the middle of the square. I could get used to making Mal blush.
* * *
THE NIGHT BEFORE we were to enter Os Alta, we stayed at the dacha of a minor nobleman who lived just a few miles from the city walls. It reminded me a bit of Keramzin—the grand iron gates, the long, straight path to the graceful house with its two wide wings of pale brick. Count Minkoff was apparently known for breeding dwarf fruit trees, and the hallways of the dacha were lined with clever little topiaries that filled the rooms with the sweet scent of peaches and plums.
I was provided with an elegant bedchamber on the second floor. Tamar took the adjoining room, and Tolya and Mal were boarded across the hall. A large box waited for me on my bed, and inside, I found the kefta I had finally broken down and requested the previous week. Nikolai had sent orders to the Little Palace, and I recognized the work of Grisha Fabrikators in the dark blue silk shot through with golden thread. I expected it to be heavy in my hands, but Materialki craft had rendered the fabric nearly weightless. When I slipped it over my head, it glimmered and shifted like light glimpsed through water. The clasps were small golden suns. It was beautiful and a bit showy. Nikolai would approve.
The lady of the house had sent a maid to do my hair. She sat me down at the dressing table, clucking and fussing over my tangles as she pinned my tresses into a loose knot. She had a far gentler hand than Genya, but the results weren’t nearly so spectacular. I shoved the thought from my mind. I didn’t like thinking of Genya, of what might have happened to her after we left the whaler, or of how lonely the Little Palace would feel without her.
I thanked the maid and, before I left my room, snapped up the black velvet pouch that had come in the box with my kefta. I slipped it into my pocket, checked to make sure the fetter was hidden by my sleeve, then headed downstairs.
Talk over dinner centered around the latest plays, the possible whereabouts of the Darkling, and happenings in Os Alta. The city had been swamped with refugees. Newcomers were being turned away at the gate, and there were rumors of food riots in the lower town. It seemed impossibly far away from this sparkling place.
The Count and his wife, a plump lady with graying curls and alarmingly displayed cleavage, set a lavish table. We ate cold soup from jeweled cups shaped like pumpkins, roasted lamb slathered with currant jelly, mushrooms baked in cream, and a dish I only picked at that I later learned was brandied cuckoo. Each plate and glass was edged in silver and bore the Minkoff crest. But most impressive was the centerpiece that ran the length of the table: a living miniature forest rendered in elaborate detail, complete with groves of tiny pines, a climbing trumpet vine with blossoms no bigger than a fingernail, and a little hut that hid the salt cellar.
I sat between Nikolai and Colonel Raevsky, listening as the noble guests laughed and chattered and raised toast after toast to the young prince’s return and the Sun Summoner’s health. I’d asked Mal to join us, but he’d refused, choosing instead to patrol the grounds with Tamar and Tolya. Hard as I tried to keep my mind on the conversation, I kept glancing at the terrace, hoping to catch sight of him.
Nikolai must have noticed, because he whispered, “You don’t have to pay attention, but you do have to look like you’re paying attention.”
I did my best, though I didn’t have much to say. Even dressed in a glittering kefta and seated beside a prince, I was still a peasant from a no-name town. I didn’t belong with these people, and I didn’t really want to. Still, I gave a silent prayer of thanks that Ana Kuya had taught her orphans how to sit at table and which fork to use to eat snails.
After dinner, we were herded into a parlor where the Count and Countess sang a duet accompanied by their daughter on the harp. Dessert was laid on the side table: honey mousse, a walnut and melon compote, and a tower of pastries covered in clouds of spun sugar that wasn’t meant to be eaten so much as ogled. There was more wine, more gossip. I was asked to summon light, and I cast a warm glow over the coffered ceiling to enthusiastic applause. When some of the guests sat down to play cards, I pleaded a headache and quietly made my escape.
Nikolai caught me at the doors to the terrace. “You should stay,” he said. “This is good practice for the monotony of court.”
“Saints need their rest.”
“Are you planning to sleep under a rosebush?” he asked, glancing down toward the garden.
“I’ve been a good little dancing bear, Nikolai. I’ve done all my tricks, and now it’s time for me to say goodnight.”
Nikolai sighed. “Maybe I just wish I could go with you. The Countess kept squeezing my knee under the table at dinner, and I hate playing cards.”
“I thought you were the consummate politician.”
“I told you I have trouble keeping still.”
“Then you’ll just have to ask the Countess to dance,” I said with a grin, and slipped out into the night air.
As I descended the terrace steps, I looked back over my shoulder. Nikolai still hovered in the doorway. He wore full military dress, a pale blue sash across his chest. The light from the parlor glinted off his medals and gilded the edges of his golden hair. He was playing the role of the polished prince tonight. But standing there, he just looked like a lonely boy who didn’t want to return to a party by himself.