Sooner than I would have liked, we reached the golden gates of the Grand Palace. The sound of them clanging shut behind us sent a splinter of panic through me. The last time I’d passed through those gates, I’d been stowed away between pieces of scenery in a horse cart, fleeing from the Darkling, alone and on the run.
What if it’s a trap? I thought suddenly. What if there was no pardon? What if Nikolai never intended for me to lead the Second Army? What if they clamped Mal and me in irons and tossed us into some dank cell?
Stop it, I chastised myself. You’re not some scared little girl anymore, shaking in her army-issue boots. You’re a Grisha, the Sun Summoner. They need you. And you could bring this whole palace down around them if you wanted to. I straightened my spine and tried to steady my heart.
When we reached the double eagle fountain, Tolya helped me from my horse. I squinted up at the Grand Palace, its gleaming white terraces crammed with layer after layer of gold ornament and statuary. It was just as ugly and intimidating as I remembered.
Vasily handed the reins of his mount to a waiting servant and headed up the marble steps without a backward glance.
Nikolai squared his shoulders. “Keep quiet and try to look penitent,” he muttered to us. Then he bounded up the staircase to join his brother.
Mal’s face was pale. I wiped my clammy hands on my kefta, and we followed the princes, leaving the rest of our party behind.
Inside, the halls of the palace were silent as we passed from room to glittering room. Our footfalls echoed on the polished parquet, and my anxiety grew with every step. At the doors to the throne room, I saw Nikolai take a deep breath. His uniform was immaculate, his handsome face cut in the lines of a fairy tale prince. I suddenly missed Sturmhond’s lumpy nose and muddy green eyes.
The doors were thrown open and the footman declared, “Tsesarevich Vasily Lantsov and Grand Duke Nikolai Lantsov.”
Nikolai had told us that we wouldn’t be announced but that we should follow behind him and Vasily. With hesitating steps, we complied, keeping a respectful distance from the princes.
A long, pale blue carpet stretched the length of the room. At the end of it, a group of elegantly dressed courtiers and advisers milled around a raised dais. Above them all sat the King and Queen of Ravka, on matching golden thrones.
No priest, I noted as we drew closer. The Apparat had always seemed to be lurking somewhere behind the King, but now he was conspicuously absent. He did not seem to have been replaced with another spiritual adviser.
The King was far frailer and weaker than when I’d last seen him. His narrow chest looked like it had caved in on itself, and his drooping mustache was shot through with gray. But the greatest change had been wrought in the Queen. Without Genya there to tailor her face, she seemed to have aged twenty years in just a few months. Her skin had lost its creamy firmness. Deep furrows were beginning to form around her nose and mouth, and her too-bright irises had faded to a more natural but less arresting blue. Any pity I might have felt for her was eclipsed by my memory of the way she’d treated Genya. Maybe if she’d shown her servant a little less contempt, Genya wouldn’t have felt compelled to throw her lot in with the Darkling. So many things might have been different.
When we reached the base of the dais, Nikolai bowed deeply. “Moi tsar,” he said. “Moya tsaritsa.”
For a long, anxious moment, the King and Queen gazed down at their son. Then some fragile thing seemed to snap in the Queen. She sprang from her throne and bounded down the steps in a flurry of silk and pearls.
“Nikolai!” she cried as she clutched her son to her.
“Madraya,” he said with a smile, hugging her back.
There were murmurs from the watching courtiers and a smattering of applause. Tears overflowed the Queen’s eyes. It was the first real emotion I’d ever seen her display.
The King got slowly to his feet, helped by a footman who scurried to his side and guided him down the steps of the dais. He really wasn’t well. I was beginning to see that the succession might be an issue sooner than I’d thought.
“Come, Nikolai,” said the King, holding his arm out to his son. “Come.”
Nikolai offered his elbow to his father while his mother clung to his other arm and, without ever acknowledging us, they made their way out of the throne room. Vasily followed. His face was impassive, but I didn’t miss the telltale purse of his lips.
Mal and I stood there, unsure of what to do next. It was all very nice that the royal family had disappeared for a private reunion, but where did that leave us? We hadn’t been dismissed, but we hadn’t been told to stay. The King’s advisers studied us with blatant curiosity, while the courtiers tittered and whispered. I resisted the urge to fidget and kept what I hoped was a haughty tilt to my head.
The minutes crawled by. I was hungry and tired and fairly sure one of my feet had fallen asleep, but still we stood waiting. At one point I thought I heard shouting coming from the hall. Maybe they were arguing about how long to leave us standing there.
Finally, after what must have been the better part of an hour, the royal family returned. The King was beaming. The Queen’s face had gone pale. Vasily looked livid. But the most notable change was in Nikolai. He seemed more at ease and he’d regained the swagger I recognized from my time aboard the Volkvolny.
They know, I realized. He’s told them that he’s Sturmhond.
The King and Queen reseated themselves on their thrones. Vasily went to stand behind the King, while Nikolai took his place behind the Queen. She reached up, seeking his hand, and he laid it on her shoulder. That’s what a mother looks like with her child. I was too old to be pining for parents I’d never known, but I was still touched by the gesture.
My sentimental thoughts were driven from my head when the King said, “You’re very young to lead the Second Army.”
He hadn’t even addressed me. I bowed my head in acknowledgment. “Yes, moi tsar.”
“I am tempted to put you to death immediately, but my son says that will only make you a martyr.”
I stiffened. The Apparat would love that, I thought as fear coursed through me. One more cheerful illustration for the red book: Sankta Alina on the Gallows.
“He thinks you can be trusted,” the King quavered. “I’m not so sure. Your escape from the Darkling seems a very unlikely story, but I cannot deny that Ravka does have need of your services.”
He made it sound like I was a groundskeeper or a county clerk. Penitent, I reminded myself, and bit back a sarcastic reply.
“It would be my greatest honor to serve the Ravkan King,” I said.
Either the King loved flattery or Nikolai had done a remarkable job of pleading my case, because the King grunted and said, “Very well. At least temporarily, you will serve as the commander of the Grisha.”
Could it possibly be that easy? “I … thank you, moi tsar,” I stammered in baffled gratitude.
“But know this,” he said, wagging a finger at me. “If I find any evidence that you are fomenting action against me or that you have had any contact with the apostate, I will have you hanged without plea or trial.” His voice rose to a querulous wail. “The people say you are a Saint, but I think you are just another ragged refugee. Do you understand?”
Another ragged refugee and your best chance of keeping that shiny throne, I thought with a surprising surge of anger, but I swallowed my pride and bowed as deeply as I could manage. Was this how the Darkling had felt? Being forced to bend and scrape before a dissolute fool?
The King gave a vague wave of his blue-veined hand. We were being dismissed. I glanced at Mal.
Nikolai cleared his throat. “Father,” he said, “there’s the matter of the tracker.”
“Hmm?” said the King, glancing up as if he’d been nodding off. “The…? Ah, yes.” He trained his rheumy stare on Mal and said in a bored tone, “You have deserted your post and directly disobeyed the orders of a commanding officer. That is a hanging offense.”
I drew in a sharp breath. Beside me, Mal went very still. An ugly thought leapt into my head: If Nikolai wanted to get rid of Mal, this was certainly an easy way to do it.
An excited murmur rose from the crowd around the dais. What had I walked us into? I opened my mouth, but before I could say a word, Nikolai spoke.
“Moi tsar,” he said humbly, “forgive me, but the tracker did aid the Sun Summoner in evading what would have been certain capture by an enemy of the Crown.”
“If she was ever really in any danger.”
“I saw him take up arms against the Darkling myself. He is a trusted friend, and I believe he acted in Ravka’s best interest.” The King’s lower lip jutted out, but Nikolai pressed on. “I would feel better knowing that he is at the Little Palace.”
The King frowned. Probably already thinking of lunch and a nap, I thought.
“What do you have to say for yourself, boy?” he asked.
“Only that I did what I thought was right,” Mal replied evenly.
“My son seems to feel you had good reason.”
“I imagine every man thinks his reasons are good,” Mal said. “It was still desertion.”
Nikolai raised his eyes heavenward, and I had the urge to give Mal a good shake. Couldn’t he be a bit less flinty and forthright for once?
The King’s frown deepened. We waited.
“Very well,” he said at last. “What’s one more viper in the nest? You will be dishonorably discharged.”
“Dishonorably?” I blurted.
Mal just bowed and said, “Thank you, moi tsar.”
The King lifted his hand in a lazy wave. “Go,” he said petulantly.
I was tempted to stay and make an argument of it, but Nikolai was glaring a warning at me, and Mal had already turned to leave. I had to scurry to catch up with him as he marched down the blue-carpeted aisle.
As soon as we left the throne room and the doors closed behind us, I said, “We’ll talk to Nikolai. We’ll get him to petition the King.”
Mal didn’t even break his stride. “There’s no point,” he said. “I knew it would be this way.”
He said that, but I saw in the slump of his shoulders that some part of him had still hoped. I wanted to grab hold of his arm, make him stop, tell him I was sorry, that somehow we’d find a way to make things right. Instead, I hurried along beside him, struggling to keep up, keenly aware of the footmen watching us from every doorway.
We retraced our steps through the gleaming hallways of the palace and down the marble staircase. Fedyor and his Grisha were waiting by their horses. They’d cleaned up as best they could, but their brightly colored kefta still seemed a bit bedraggled. Tamar and Tolya stood slightly apart from them, the golden sunbursts I’d given them sparkling on their roughspun tunics. I took a deep breath. Nikolai had done what he could. Now it was my turn.
THE WINDING WHITE gravel path led us through the palace grounds, past the rolling lawns and follies, and the high walls of the hedge maze. Tolya, ordinarily so still and silent, squirmed in his saddle, his mouth set in a sullen line.