I turned and took the curving staircase down to the sunken garden.
It didn’t take me long to find Mal. He was leaning against the trunk of a large oak, scanning the manicured grounds.
“Anyone lurking in the dark?” I asked.
I settled beside him against the trunk. “You should have joined us at dinner.”
Mal snorted. “No thank you. From what I could see, you looked positively miserable, and Nikolai didn’t look much happier. Besides,” he added with a glance at my kefta, “whatever would I have worn?”
“Do you hate it?”
“It’s lovely. A perfect addition to your trousseau.” Before I could even roll my eyes, he snagged hold of my hand. “I didn’t mean that,” he said. “You look beautiful. I’ve been wanting to say so since I first saw you tonight.”
I flushed. “Thanks. Using my power every day helps.”
“You were beautiful back in Cofton with jurda pollen in your brows.”
I tugged self-consciously at a strand of my hair. “This place reminds me of Keramzin,” I said.
“A little. It’s a lot fussier. What exactly is the point of teeny tiny fruit?”
“It’s for people with teeny tiny hands. Makes them feel better about themselves.”
He laughed, a real laugh. I reached into my pocket and fished around inside the black velvet pouch.
“I have something for you,” I said.
“What is it?”
I held out my closed fist.
“Guess,” I said. It was a game we’d played as children.
“Obviously, it’s a sweater.”
I shook my head.
“A show pony?”
He reached out and took my hand, turning it over and gently unfolding my fingers.
I waited for his reaction.
His mouth tugged up at one corner as he plucked the golden sunburst from my hand. The rough brush of his fingers against my palm sent a shiver up my back.
“For the captain of your personal guard?” he asked.
I cleared my throat nervously. “I … I didn’t want uniforms. I didn’t want anything that looked like the Darkling’s oprichniki.”
For a long moment, we stood in silence as Mal looked down at the sunburst. Then he handed it back to me. My heart plummeted, but I tried to hide my disappointment.
“Put it on me?” he asked.
I let my breath out in a relieved rush. I took the pin between my fingers and pressed it through the folds on the left side of his shirt. It took me a couple of tries to get it hooked. When I finished and made to step back, he took my hand and pressed it over the golden sun, over his heart.
“Is that all?” he said.
We were standing close together now, alone in the warm dark of the garden. It was the first moment we’d had to ourselves in weeks.
“All?” I repeated. My voice came out as little more than a breath.
“I believe I was promised a cape and a fancy hat.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” I said.
“Are you flirting?”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll take my first payment now.”
His tone was light, but when his lips met mine, there was nothing playful in his kiss. He tasted of heat and newly ripe pears from the Duke’s garden. I sensed hunger in the hard slant of his mouth, an unfamiliar edge to his need that sent restless sparks burning through me.
I came up on my toes, circling my arms around his neck, feeling the length of my body melt into his. He had a soldier’s strength, and I felt it in the hard bands of his arms, the pressure of his fingers as his fist bunched in the silk at the small of my back and he drew me against him. There was something fierce and almost desperate in the way he held me, as if he could not have me close enough.
My head was spinning. My thoughts had gone slow and liquid, but somewhere I heard footsteps. In the next moment, Tamar came charging up the path.
“We have company,” she said.
Mal broke away from me and unslung his rifle in a single swift movement. “Who is it?”
“There’s a group of people at the gate demanding entry. They want to see the Sun Summoner.”
“Pilgrims?” I asked, trying to get my kiss-addled brain to function properly.
Tamar shook her head. “They claim to be Grisha.”
Mal placed a hand on my arm. “Alina, wait inside, at least until we see what this is about.”
I hesitated. Part of me bridled at being told to run off and hide my head, but I didn’t want to be stupid either. A shout rose from somewhere near the gates.
“No,” I said, pulling from Mal’s grasp. “If they really are Grisha, you may need me.”
Neither Tamar nor Mal looked pleased, but they took up positions on either side of me and we hurried down the gravel path.
A crowd had gathered at the dacha’s iron gates. Tolya was easy to spot, towering above everyone else. Nikolai was in front, surrounded by soldiers with their weapons drawn, as well as armed footmen from the Count’s household. A small group of people were gathered on the other side of the bars, but I couldn’t see more than that. Someone gave the gate an angry rattle, and I heard a clamor of raised voices.
“Get me in there,” I said. Tamar cast Mal a worried glance. I lifted my chin. If they were going to be my guards, they would have to follow my orders. “Now. I need to see what’s happening before things get out of hand.”
Tamar signaled to Tolya, and the giant stepped in front of us, easily shouldering his way through the crowd to the gates. I’d always been small. Packed between Mal and the twins, with antsy soldiers jostling us from every side, it suddenly felt very hard to breathe. I pushed down my panic, peering past bodies and backs to where I could see Nikolai arguing with someone at the gate.
“If we wanted to talk to the King’s lackey, we’d be at the doors to the Grand Palace,” said an impatient voice. “We came for the Sun Summoner.”
“Show some respect, bloodletter,” barked a soldier I didn’t recognize. “You’re addressing a Prince of Ravka and an officer of the First Army.”
This was not going well. I edged closer to the front of the crowd but halted when I saw the Corporalnik standing beyond the iron bars. “Fedyor?”
His long face broke into a grin, and he bowed deeply. “Alina Starkov,” he said. “I could only hope the rumors were true.”
I studied Fedyor warily. He was surrounded by a group of Grisha in dust-covered kefta, mostly Corporalki red, some in Etherealki blue, and a smattering of Materialki purple.
“You know him?” Nikolai asked.
“Yes,” I said. “He saved my life.” Fedyor had once put himself between me and a swarm of Fjerdan assassins.
He bowed again. “It was my great honor.”
Nikolai didn’t look impressed. “Can he be trusted?”
“He’s a deserter,” said the soldier beside Nikolai.
There was grumbling on both sides of the gate.
Nikolai pointed to Tolya. “Move everyone back and make sure that none of those footmen get it in their heads to start shooting. I suspect they lack for excitement out here amid the fruit trees.” He turned back to the gate. “Fedyor, is it? Give us a moment.” He pulled me a short distance from the crowd and said quietly, “Well? Can he be trusted?”
“I don’t know.” The last time I’d seen Fedyor had been at a party at the Grand Palace, just hours before I’d learned the Darkling’s plans and fled in the back of a wagon. I racked my brain, trying to recall what he’d told me then. “I think he was stationed at the southern border. He was a high-ranking Heartrender, but not one of the Darkling’s favorites.”
“Nevsky is right,” he said, nodding toward the angry soldier. “Grisha or not, their first loyalty should have been to the King. They left their posts. Technically, they’re deserters.”
“That doesn’t make them traitors.”
“The real question is whether they’re spies.”
“So what do we do with them?”
“We could arrest them, have them questioned.”
I toyed with my sleeve, thinking.
“Talk to me,” Nikolai said.
“Don’t we want the Grisha to come back?” I asked. “If we arrest everyone who returns, I won’t have much of an army to lead.”
“Remember,” he said, “you’ll be eating with them, working with them, sleeping under the same roof.”
“And they could all be working for the Darkling.” I looked over my shoulder at Fedyor waiting patiently at the gate. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think these Grisha are any more or less trustworthy than the ones waiting at the Little Palace.”
“That’s not encouraging.”
“Once we’re behind the palace walls, all communication will be closely monitored. It’s hard to see how the Darkling can use his spies if he can’t reach them.”
I resisted the urge to touch the scars forming on my shoulder. I took a breath.
“All right,” I said. “Open the gates. I’ll speak to Fedyor and only him. The rest can camp outside the dacha tonight and join us on the way into Os Alta tomorrow.”
“I doubt I’ll be sure of anything ever again, but my army needs soldiers.”
“Very good,” Nikolai said with a short nod. “Just be careful who you trust.”
I cast a pointed glance at him. “I will.”
FEDYOR AND I talked late into the night, though we were never left alone. Mal or Tolya or Tamar was always there, keeping watch.
Fedyor had been serving near Sikursk on the southeastern border. When word of the destruction of Novokribirsk reached the outpost, the King’s soldiers had turned on the Grisha, pulling them from their beds in the middle of the night and mounting sham trials to determine their loyalty. Fedyor had helped to lead an escape.
“We could have killed them all,” he said. “Instead, we took our wounded and fled.”
Some Grisha hadn’t been so forgiving. There had been massacres at Chernast and Ulensk when the soldiers there had tried to attack members of the Second Army. Meanwhile, Mal and I had been aboard the Verrhader, sailing west, safe from the chaos we’d helped to unleash.
“A few weeks ago,” he said, “the stories started circulating that you’d returned to Ravka. You can expect more Grisha to seek you out.”
“There’s no way of knowing.”
Like Nikolai, Fedyor believed some Grisha had gone into hiding, waiting for order to be restored. But he suspected that most of them had sought out the Darkling.
“He’s strength,” said Fedyor. “He’s safety. That’s what they understand.”
Or maybe they just think they’ve chosen the winning side, I thought bleakly. But I knew it was more than that. I’d felt the pull of the Darkling’s power. Wasn’t that why the pilgrims flocked to a false Saint? Why the First Army still marched for an incompetent king? Sometimes, it was just easier to follow.