Then reality returned. I sat up and fumbled for the lamp on the bedside wall. I turned up the flame and surveyed the dark silk bed hangings, the slate floor, the carved ebony walls. I really was going to have to make some changes. This room was just too depressing to wake up in. It was strange to think that I was actually in the Darkling’s chambers, that I’d spent the night in his bed. That I’d seen him standing in this very room.
Enough of that. I threw off the covers and swung my legs over the side of the bed. I didn’t know whether the visions were a product of my imagination or some real attempt by the Darkling to manipulate me, but there had to be a rational explanation for them. Maybe the nichevo’ya bite had infected me with something. If that was the case, then I’d just have to find a way to cure it. Or maybe the effects would wear off with time.
The argument outside my door grew louder. I thought I recognized Sergei’s voice and Tolya’s angry rumble. I threw on the embroidered dressing gown that had been left for me at the foot of the bed, checked to make sure the fetter on my wrist was hidden, and hurried out to the common room.
I almost ran right into the twins. Tolya and Tamar were standing shoulder to shoulder, blocking a group of angry Grisha from entering my chamber. Tolya’s arms were crossed, and Tamar was shaking her head as Sergei and Fedyor loudly made their case. I was distressed to see Zoya beside them, accompanied by the dark-skinned Inferni who had challenged me the previous day. Everyone seemed to be talking at once.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
As soon as Sergei saw me, he strode forward, clutching a piece of paper in his hand. Tamar moved to block him, but I waved her off.
“It’s all right,” I said. “What’s the problem?” But I thought I already knew. I recognized my own writing and the remnants of the gold sunburst seal that Nikolai had provided for me on the paper Sergei was now shaking in my face.
“This is unacceptable,” Sergei huffed.
I’d sent out word the previous night that I would be convening a war council. Each Grisha Order was to elect two representatives to attend. I was pleased to see they’d chosen Fedyor as well as Sergei, though some of my good will wore off when the older Grisha chimed in.
“He’s right,” said Fedyor. “The Corporalki are the Grisha’s first line of defense. We’re the most experienced in military affairs and should be more fairly represented.”
“We’re just as valuable to the war effort,” declared Zoya, her color high. Even in a snit, she looked gorgeous. I’d suspected she would be chosen to represent the Etherealki, but I certainly wasn’t happy about it. “If there are going to be three Corporalki on the council,” she said, “then there should be three Summoners, too.”
Everyone started shouting again. I noted that the Materialki hadn’t shown up to complain. As the lowest Grisha Order, they were probably just glad to be included, or possibly they were too caught up in their work to be bothered.
I still wasn’t quite awake. I wanted my breakfast, not an argument. But I knew this had to be addressed. I intended to do things differently—and they might as well know just how differently or this effort would fall apart before it even began.
I held up my hand and they quieted instantly. Clearly, I had that trick down. Maybe they were afraid I was going to ruin another ceiling. “There will be two Grisha from each Order,” I said. “No more, no less.”
“But—” began Sergei.
“The Darkling has changed. If we have any hope of beating him, we need to change, too. Two Grisha from each Order,” I repeated. “And the Orders will no longer sit separately. You’ll sit together, eat together, and fight together.”
At least I’d gotten them to shut up. They just stood there, gaping.
“And the Fabrikators start combat training this week,” I finished.
I took in their horrified expressions. They looked like I’d told them we’d all be marching into battle naked. The Materialki weren’t considered warriors, so no one had ever bothered to teach them to fight. It felt like a missed opportunity to me. Use whatever or whoever is in front of you.
“I can see you’re all thrilled,” I said with a small sigh.
Desperate for a glass of tea, I walked to the table where a breakfast tray had been laid with covered dishes. I lifted one of the lids: rye and herring. This morning was not getting off to a good start.
“But … but it’s always been this way,” sputtered Sergei.
“You can’t just overturn hundreds of years of tradition,” protested the Inferni.
“Are we really going to argue about this, too?” I asked irritably. “We’re at war with an ancient power beyond reckoning, and you want to squabble over who sits next to you at lunch?”
“That’s not the point,” said Zoya. “There’s an order to things, a way of doing them that—”
They all started gabbling again—about tradition, about the way things were done, about the need for structure and people knowing their places.
I set the cover back down on the dish with a loud clang.
“This is the way we’re doing it,” I said, rapidly losing patience. “No more Corporalki snobbery. No more Etherealki cliques. And no more herring.”
Zoya opened her mouth but then thought better of it and shut it again.
“Now go,” I barked. “I want to eat my breakfast in peace.”
For a moment, they just stood there. Then Tamar and Tolya stepped forward, and to my continuing amazement, the Grisha did as they were told. Zoya looked peeved, and Sergei’s face was stormy, but they all shuffled meekly out of the room.
Seconds after they left, Nikolai appeared in the doorway, and I realized he’d been eavesdropping in the hall.
“Nicely done,” he said. “Today shall be forever remembered as the date of the Great Herring Decree.” He stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “Not the smoothest delivery, though.”
“I don’t have your gift for ‘amused and aloof,’” I said, sitting down at the table and tearing eagerly into a roll. “But ‘grouchy’ seems to be working for me.”
A servant rushed forward to bring me a cup of tea from the samovar. It was blissfully hot, and I loaded it with sugar. Nikolai took a chair and sat without being asked.
“You’re really not going to eat these?” he said, already piling herring onto his plate.
“Revolting,” I said succinctly.
Nikolai took a big bite. “You don’t survive at sea if you can’t stomach fish.”
“Don’t play the poor sailor with me. I ate on your ship, remember? Sturmhond’s chef was hardly serving up salt cod and hardtack.”
He gave a mournful sigh. “I wish I could have brought Burgos with me. The court kitchens seem to feel that a meal isn’t complete if it isn’t swimming in butter.”
“Only a prince would complain about too much butter.”
“Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, patting his flat stomach. “Maybe a royal gut would lend me more authority.”
I laughed and then nearly jumped as the door opened and Mal entered. He stopped when he saw Nikolai.
“I didn’t realize you’d be dining at the Little Palace, moi tsarevich.” He bowed stiffly to Nikolai and then to me.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
“Yes he does.”
“You heard Prince Perfect,” Mal said, and joined us at the table.
Nikolai grinned. “I’ve had a lot of nicknames, but that one is easily the most accurate.”
“I didn’t know you were awake,” I said to Mal.
“I’ve been up for hours, roaming around, looking for something to do.”
“Excellent,” said Nikolai. “I’ve come to issue an invitation.”
“Is it to a ball?” asked Mal, snagging the remaining bit of roll from my plate. “I do so hope it’s to a ball.”
“While I’m sure you dance a magnificent waltz, no. Boar have been spotted in the woods near Balakirev. There’s a hunt leaving tomorrow, and I’d like you to go.”
“Short on friends, your highness?”
“And long on enemies,” replied Nikolai. “But I won’t be there. My parents aren’t quite ready to let me out of their sight. I’ve spoken to one of the generals, and he’s agreed to have you as his guest.”
Mal leaned back and crossed his arms. “I see. So I go gallivanting off to the woods for a few days, and you stay here,” he said with a meaningful glance at me.
I shifted in my chair. I didn’t like the implication, but I did have to admit it seemed like an obvious ploy. Too obvious for Nikolai, really.
“You know, for two people with a love eternal, you’re awfully insecure,” Nikolai said. “Some of the highest-ranking members of the First Army will be in the hunting party, and so will my brother. He’s an avid hunter, and I’ve seen for myself that you’re the best tracker in Ravka.”
“I thought I was supposed to be guarding Alina,” Mal said. “Not running around with a bunch of pampered royals.”
“Tolya and Tamar can manage while you’re away. And this is a chance for you to make yourself useful.”
Great, I thought as I watched Mal’s eyes narrow. Just perfect.
“And what are you doing to be useful, your highness?”
“I’m a prince,” said Nikolai. “Being useful isn’t part of the job description. But,” he added, “when I’m not lazing about being handsome, I’ll be trying to better equip the First Army and gather intelligence on the Darkling’s location. Word has it he’s entered the Sikurzoi.”
Mal and I both perked up at that. The Sikurzoi were the mountains that ran along much of the border between Ravka and the Shu Han.
“You think he’s in the south?” I asked.
Nikolai popped another piece of herring into his mouth. “It’s possible,” he said. “I would have thought he’d be more likely to ally with the Fjerdans. The northern border is far more vulnerable. But the Sikurzoi are a good place to hide. If the reports are true, we need to move to forge an alliance with the Shu as fast as possible so that we can march on him from two fronts.”
“You want to take the war to him?” I said, surprised.
“Better than waiting for him to be strong enough to bring it to us.”
“I like it,” Mal said with grudging admiration. “It’s not something the Darkling would expect.”
I was reminded that, while Mal and Nikolai had their differences, Mal and Sturmhond had been on the way to becoming friends.
Nikolai took a sip of tea and said, “There’s also disturbing news coming out of the First Army. It seems a number of soldiers have found religion and deserted.”
I frowned. “You don’t mean—”
Nikolai nodded. “They’re taking refuge in the monasteries, joining the Apparat’s cult of the Sun Saint. The priest is claiming you’ve been taken prisoner by the corrupt monarchy.”