“Something wrong?” I asked.
I thought he might not answer, but then he said, “It smells like weakness here. Like people getting soft.”
I shot a glance at the giant warrior. “Everyone is soft compared to you, Tolya.”
Tamar could usually be counted upon to laugh off her brother’s moods, but she surprised me by saying, “He’s right. This place feels like it’s dying.”
They weren’t helping to settle my nerves. Our audience in the throne room had left me jittery, and I was still a little taken aback by the anger I’d felt toward the King, though Saints knew he deserved it. He was a filthy old lech who liked to corner servant girls, to say nothing of the fact that he was a rotten leader and had threatened to execute both me and Mal in the space of a few minutes. Even thinking about it, I felt another jab of bitter resentment.
My heart beat faster as we entered the wooded tunnel. The trees pressed in on us and, above, the branches wove together in a canopy of green. The last time I’d seen them, they’d been bare.
We emerged into bright sunshine. Below us lay the Little Palace.
I missed it, I realized. I’d missed the shine of its golden domes, those strange walls carved with every manner of beast, real and imagined. I’d missed the blue lake gleaming like a slice of sky, the tiny island not quite at its center, the white flecks of the Summoners’ pavilions on its shore. It was a place like no other. I was surprised to discover how much it felt like home.
But not everything was as it had been. First Army soldiers were stationed around the grounds, rifles on their backs. I doubted they’d do much good against a force of determined Heartrenders, Squallers, and Inferni, but the message was clear: The Grisha were not to be trusted.
A group of servants dressed in gray waited on the steps to take our horses.
“Ready?” Mal whispered as he helped me dismount.
“I wish people would stop asking me that. Don’t I look ready?”
“You look like you did when I slipped a tadpole into your soup and you accidentally swallowed it.”
I bit back a laugh, feeling some of my worry ease away. “Thanks for the reminder,” I said. “I don’t think I ever paid you back for that.”
I paused to smooth the folds of my kefta, taking my time in the hope that my legs would stop trembling. Then I climbed the steps, the others trailing behind me. The servants flung the doors open wide, and we stepped inside. We passed through the cool dark of the entry chamber and into the Hall of the Golden Dome.
The room was a giant hexagon with the proportions of a cathedral. Its carved walls were inlaid with mother-of-pearl and topped by a massive golden dome that seemed to float above us at an impossible height. There were four tables arranged in a square at the center of the room, and that was where the Grisha waited. Despite their diminished numbers, they still kept to their Orders, sitting or standing in tightly clustered groups of red, purple, and blue.
“They do love their pretty colors,” grumbled Tolya.
“Don’t give me any ideas,” I whispered. “Maybe I’ll decide my personal guard should wear bright yellow pantaloons.”
For the first time, I saw an expression very much like fear cross his face.
We walked forward, and most of the Grisha rose. It was a young group, and with a twinge of unease, I realized that many of the older and more experienced Grisha had chosen to defect to the Darkling. Or maybe they’d just been wise enough to run.
I had anticipated that not many Corporalki would remain. They’d been the highest-ranking Grisha, the most valued fighters, and closest to the Darkling.
There were still several familiar faces. Sergei was one of the few Heartrenders who had decided to stay. Marie and Nadia stood with the Etherealki. I was surprised to see David slouching in his seat at the Materialki table. I knew he’d had qualms about the Darkling, but that hadn’t stopped him from sealing the stag’s collar around my neck. Maybe that was why he wouldn’t look at me. Or maybe he was just eager to get back to his workshop.
The Darkling’s ebony chair had been removed. His table sat vacant.
Sergei was the first to step forward. “Alina Starkov,” he said tightly. “I’m pleased to welcome you back to the Little Palace.” I noted that he didn’t bow.
Tension swelled and pulsed in the room like a living thing. Part of me longed to shatter it. It would be easy. I could smile, laugh, embrace Marie and Nadia. Though I’d never quite belonged here, I’d made a decent show of it. It would be a relief to pretend that I was one of them again. But I remembered Nikolai’s warnings and restrained myself. Weakness is a guise.
“Thank you, Sergei,” I said, deliberately informal. “I’m glad to be here.”
“There have been rumors of your return,” he said. “But just as many of your death.”
“As you can see, I’m alive and as well as can be expected after weeks of travel on the Vy.”
“It’s said you arrived in the company of the King’s second son,” said Sergei.
There it was. The first challenge.
“That’s right,” I said pleasantly. “He aided in my battle with the Darkling.”
A stir went through the room.
“On the Fold?” Sergei asked in some confusion.
“On the True Sea,” I corrected. A murmur rose from the crowd. I held up my hand and, to my relief, they fell silent. Get them to follow the little orders, and they’ll follow the big ones. “I have plenty of stories to tell and information to impart,” I said. “But that can wait. I’ve returned to Os Alta with a purpose.”
“People are talking of a wedding,” said Sergei.
Well, Nikolai would be thrilled.
“I didn’t come back here to be a bride,” I said. “I’ve returned for a single reason.” That wasn’t entirely true, but I wasn’t about to discuss the third amplifier in a room packed with Grisha of dubious loyalty. I took a breath. This was it. “I’ve returned to lead the Second Army.”
Everyone began talking at once. There were a few cheers, some angry shouts. I saw Sergei exchange a glance with Marie. When the room quieted he said, “We expected as much.”
“The King has agreed that I will hold command.” Temporarily, I thought, but did not say.
Another wave of shouts and chatter broke out.
Sergei cleared his throat, “Alina, you are the Sun Summoner, and we’re grateful for your safe return, but you aren’t qualified to run a military campaign.”
“Qualified or not, I have the King’s blessing.”
“Then we will petition the King. The Corporalki are the highest-ranking Grisha and should lead the Second Army.”
“According to you, bloodletter.”
As soon as I heard that silky voice, I knew who it belonged to, but my heart still lurched when I caught sight of her raven’s wing hair. Zoya stepped through the crowd of Etherealki, her lithe form swathed in blue summer silk that made her eyes glow like gems—disgustingly long-lashed gems.
It took everything in me not to turn around and watch Mal’s reaction. Zoya was the Grisha who had done all she could to make my life miserable at the Little Palace. She’d sneered at me, gossiped about me, and even broken two of my ribs. But she was also the girl who had caught Mal’s interest so long ago in Kribirsk. I wasn’t sure what had happened between them, but I doubted it was just lively conversation.
“I speak for the Etherealki,” said Zoya. “And we will follow the Sun Summoner.”
I struggled not to show my surprise. She was the last person I’d expected to support me. What game might she be playing?
“Not all of us,” Marie piped up weakly. I knew I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still hurt.
Zoya gave a disdainful laugh. “Yes, we know you support Sergei in all his endeavors, Marie. But this isn’t a late-night tryst by the banya. We’re talking about the future of the Grisha and all of Ravka.”
Snickers greeted Zoya’s pronouncement, and Marie turned bright red.
“That’s enough, Zoya,” snapped Sergei.
An Etherealnik I didn’t recognize stepped forward. He had dark skin and a faint scar high on his left cheek. He wore the embroidery of an Inferni.
“Marie is right,” he said. “You don’t speak for all of us, Zoya. I’d prefer to see an Etherealnik at the head of the Second Army, but it shouldn’t be her.” He pointed an accusatory finger at me. “She wasn’t even raised here.”
“That’s right!” called out a Corporalnik. “She’s been a Grisha less than a year!”
“Grisha are born, not made,” growled Tolya.
Of course, I thought with an internal sigh. He would choose now to come out of his shell.
“And who are you?” asked Sergei, his natural arrogance showing through.
Tolya’s hand went to his curved sword. “I am Tolya Yul-Baatar. I was raised far from this corpse of a palace, and I’d be happy to prove that I can stop your heart.”
“You’re Grisha?” Sergei asked incredulously.
“As much as you are,” replied Tamar, her gold eyes flashing.
“And what about you?” Sergei asked Mal.
“I’m just a soldier,” Mal replied, moving to stand beside me. “Her soldier.”
“As are we all,” added Fedyor. “We returned to Os Alta to serve the Sun Summoner, not some posturing boy.”
Another Corporalnik got to his feet. “You’re just one more coward who fled when the Darkling fell. You have no right to come here and insult us.”
“And what about her?” cried another Squaller. “How do we know she isn’t working with the Darkling? She helped him destroy Novokribirsk.”
“And she shared his bed!” shouted another.
Never deign to deny, said Nikolai’s voice in my head.
“Just what is your relationship with Nikolai Lantsov?” demanded a Fabrikator.
“What was your relationship with the Darkling?” came a shrill voice.
“Does it matter?” I asked coolly, but I could feel my control slipping.
“Of course it does,” said Sergei. “How can we be sure of your loyalty?”
“You have no right to question her!” shouted one of the Summoners.
“Why?” retorted a Healer. “Because she’s a living Saint?”
“Put her in a chapel where she belongs!” someone yelled. “Get her and her rabble out of the Little Palace.”
Tolya reached for his sword. Tamar and Sergei both raised their hands. I saw Marie draw her flint and felt the swirl of Summoner winds lift the edges of my kefta. I thought I’d been ready to face them, but I wasn’t prepared for the flood of rage that coursed through me. The wound in my shoulder throbbed, and something inside me broke free.
I looked at Sergei’s sneering face, and my power rose up with clear and vicious purpose. I raised my arm. If they needed a lesson, I would give it to them. They could argue over the pieces of Sergei’s body. My hand arced through the air, slicing toward him. The light was a blade honed sharp by my fury.