When Fedyor finished his tale, I asked that he be brought dinner and advised him that he should be ready to travel to Os Alta at dawn.
“I don’t know what kind of reception we can expect,” I warned him.
“We’ll be ready, moi soverenyi,” he said, and bowed.
I started at the title. In my mind, it still belonged to the Darkling.
“Fedyor…” I began as I walked him to the door. Then I hesitated. I couldn’t believe what I was about to say, but apparently Nikolai was getting through to me—for better or worse. “I realize you’ve been traveling, but tidy up a bit before tomorrow. It’s important that we make a good impression.”
He didn’t even blink—just bowed again and replied, “Da, soverenyi,” before disappearing into the night.
Great, I thought. One order down, a few thousand more to go.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING, I dressed in my elaborate kefta and descended the dacha’s steps with Mal and the twins. The gold sunbursts glittered from their chests, but they still wore peasant roughspun. Nikolai might not like it, but I wanted to erase the lines that had been drawn between the Grisha and the rest of Ravka’s people.
Though we’d been warned that Os Alta was teeming with refugees and pilgrims, for once Nikolai didn’t insist that I ride in the coach. He wanted me to be seen entering the city. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to put on a show. My guards and I were all seated on beautiful white horses, and men from his regiment flanked us on both sides, each bearing the Ravkan double eagle and flags emblazoned with golden suns.
“Subtle, as always,” I sighed.
“Understatement is overrated,” he replied as he mounted a dappled gray. “Now, shall we visit my quaint childhood home?”
It was a warm morning, and the banners of our processional hung limp in the still air as we wended our way slowly along the Vy toward the capital. Ordinarily, the royal family would have spent the hot months at their summer palace in the lake district. But Os Alta was more easily defended, and they’d chosen to hunker down behind its famous double walls.
My thoughts wandered as we rode. I hadn’t gotten much sleep and, despite my nerves, the warmth of the morning combined with the steady sway of the horse and the low hum of insects made my chin droop. But when we crested the hill at the outskirts of the town, I came quickly awake.
In the distance, I saw Os Alta, the Dream City, its spires white and jagged against the cloudless sky. But between us and the capital, arrayed in perfect military formation, stood row after row of armed men. Hundreds of soldiers of the First Army, maybe a thousand—infantry, cavalry, officers, and grunts. Sunlight glittered off the hilts of their swords, and their backs bristled with rifles.
A man rode out before them. He wore an officer’s coat covered with medals and sat atop one of the biggest horses I’d ever seen. It could have carried two Tolyas.
Nikolai watched the rider galloping back and forth across the lines and sighed. “Ah,” he said. “It seems my brother has come to greet us.”
We rode slowly down the slope, until we came to a halt before the masses of assembled men. Despite the white horses and glittering banners, our processional of wayward Grisha and ragged pilgrims no longer seemed quite so grand. Nikolai nudged his horse forward, and his brother cantered up to meet him.
I’d seen Vasily Lantsov a few times at Os Alta. He was handsome enough, though he’d had the bad luck to inherit his father’s weak chin, and his eyes were so heavy-lidded that he always looked very bored or slightly drunk. But now he seemed to have roused himself from his perpetual stupor. He sat straight in his saddle, radiating arrogance and nobility. Next to him, Nikolai looked impossibly young.
I felt a prickle of fear. Nikolai always seemed so in control of every situation. It was easy to forget that he was just a few years older than Mal and I were, a boy captain who hoped to become a boy king.
It had been seven years since Nikolai had been at court, and I didn’t think he’d seen Vasily in all that time. But there were no tears, no shouted greetings. The two princes simply dismounted and clasped each other in a brief embrace. Vasily surveyed our retinue, pausing meaningfully on me.
“So this is the girl you claim is the Sun Summoner?”
Nikolai raised his brows. His brother couldn’t have given him a better opening. “It’s a claim easy enough to prove.” He nodded to me.
Understatement is overrated. I raised my hands and summoned a blazing wave of light that crashed over the assembled soldiers in a cascade of billowing heat. They threw up their hands, and several stepped back as the horses shied and whinnied. I let the light fade. Vasily sniffed.
“You’ve been busy, little brother.”
“You have no idea, Vasya,” replied Nikolai pleasantly. Vasily’s mouth puckered at Nikolai’s use of the diminutive. He looked almost prim. “I’m surprised to find you in Os Alta,” Nikolai continued. “I thought you’d be in Caryeva for the races.”
“I was,” said Vasily. “My blue roan had an excellent showing. But when I heard you were returning home, I wanted to be here to greet you.”
“Kind of you to go to all this trouble.”
“The return of a royal prince is no small thing,” Vasily said. “Even a younger son.”
His emphasis was clear, and the fear inside me grew. Maybe Nikolai had underestimated Vasily’s interest in retaining his place in the succession. I didn’t want to imagine what his other mistakes or miscalculations might mean for us.
But Nikolai just smiled. I remembered his advice: Meet insults with laughter.
“We younger sons learn to appreciate what we can get,” he said. Then he called to a soldier standing at attention down the line. “Sergeant Pechkin, I remember you from the Halmhend campaign. Leg must have healed well if you’re able to stand there like a slab of stone.”
The sergeant’s face registered surprise. “Da, moi tsarevich,” he said respectfully.
“‘Sir’ will do, sergeant. I’m an officer when I wear this uniform, not a prince.” Vasily’s lips twitched again. Like many noble sons, he had taken an honorary commission and done his military service in the comfort of the officers’ tents, well away from enemy lines. But Nikolai had served in the infantry. He’d earned his medals and rank.
“Yes, sir,” said the sergeant. “Only bothers me when it rains.”
“Then I imagine the Fjerdans pray daily for storms. You put quite a few of them out of their misery, if I recall.”
“I seem to remember you doing the same, sir,” said the soldier with a grin.
I almost laughed. In a single exchange, Nikolai had seized control of the field from his brother. Tonight, when the soldiers gathered in the taverns of Os Alta or played cards in their barracks, this was what they would be talking about: the prince who remembered an ordinary soldier’s name, the prince who had fought side by side with them without concern for wealth or pedigree.
“Brother,” Nikolai said to Vasily. “Let’s get to the palace so we can dispense with our greetings. I have a case of Kerch whiskey that needs drinking, and I’d like to get your advice on a foal I spotted in Ketterdam. They tell me Dagrenner is his sire, but I have my doubts.”
Vasily tried to disguise his interest, but it was as if he couldn’t resist. “Dagrenner? Did they have papers?”
“Come have a look.”
Though his face was still wary, Vasily spoke a few words to one of the commanding officers and leapt into his saddle with practiced ease. The brothers took their places at the head of the column, and our procession was moving once again.
“Neatly done,” Mal murmured to me as we passed between the rows of soldiers. “Nikolai’s no fool.”
“I hope not,” I said. “For both our sakes.”
As we drew closer to the capital, I saw what Count Minkoff’s guests had been talking about. A city of tents had sprung up around the walls, and a long line of people waited at the gates. Several of them were arguing with the guards, no doubt petitioning for entry. Armed soldiers kept watch from the old battlements—a good precaution for a country at war, and a deadly reminder to the people below to keep things orderly.
Of course, the city gates sprang open for the princes of Ravka, and the procession continued through the crowd without pause.
Many of the tents and wagons were marked with crudely drawn suns, and as we rode through the makeshift camp, I heard the now-familiar cries of “Sankta Alina.”
I felt foolish doing it, but forced myself to lift my hand and wave, determined to at least make an effort. The pilgrims cheered and waved back, many running to keep pace with us. But some of the other refugees stood silent by the side of the road, arms crossed, expressions skeptical and even blatantly hostile.
What do they see? I wondered. Another privileged Grisha going to her safe, luxurious palace on the hill while they cook on open fires and sleep in the shadow of a city that refuses them sanctuary? Or something worse? A liar? A fraud? A girl who dares to style herself as a living Saint?
I was grateful when we passed into the protection of the city walls.
Once inside, the procession slowed to a crawl. The lower town was full to bursting, the sidewalks crammed with people who spilled onto the street and halted traffic. The windows of the shops were plastered with signs declaring which goods were available, and long lines stretched out of every doorway. The stink of urine and garbage lay over everything. I wanted to bury my nose in my sleeve, but I had to settle for breathing through my mouth.
The crowds cheered and gawked here, but they were decidedly more subdued than those outside the gates.
“No pilgrims,” I observed.
“They’re not allowed within the city walls,” said Tamar. “The King has had the Apparat declared an apostate and his followers banned from Os Alta.”
The Apparat had conspired with the Darkling against the throne. Even if they’d since severed ties, there was no reason for the King to trust the priest and his cult. Or you, for that matter, I reminded myself. You’re just the one dumb enough to stroll into the Grand Palace and hope for clemency.
We crossed the wide canal and left the noise and tumult of the lower town behind. I noticed that the bridge’s gatehouse had been heavily fortified, but when we reached the far bank, it seemed that nothing in the upper town had changed. The broad boulevards were spotless and serene, the stately homes carefully maintained. We passed a park where fashionably turned out men and women strolled the manicured paths or took the air in open carriages. Children played at babki, watched over by their nannies, and a boy in a straw hat rode by on a pony with ribbons in its braided mane, the reins held by a uniformed servant.
They all turned to look as we passed, lifting their hats, whispering behind their hands, bowing and curtsying when they caught sight of Vasily and Nikolai. Were they really as calm and free of worry as they seemed? It was hard to fathom that they could be oblivious to the danger threatening Ravka or the turmoil on the other side of the bridge, but it was even harder for me to believe they trusted their King to keep them safe.