“How close?” asked Pavel.
I looked to Mal.
“Hard to say,” he replied. “A mile. Maybe two.”
“So there’s some limit to his power,” Fedyor said, with no small amount of relief.
“Absolutely.” I was glad to be able to relate something that wasn’t completely dire. “He’ll have to enter Ravka with his army to get to us. That means we’ll have warning and that he’ll be vulnerable. He can’t summon them the way he summons darkness. The effort seems to cost him.”
“Because it’s not Grisha power,” David said. “It’s merzost.”
In Ravkan, the word for magic and abomination was the same. Basic Grisha theory stated that matter couldn’t just be created from nothing. But that was a tenet of the Small Science. Merzost was different, a corruption of the making at the heart of the world.
David fiddled with a loose thread at his sleeve. “That energy, that substance has to come from somewhere. It must be coming from him.”
“But how is he doing it?” asked Zoya. “Has there ever been a Grisha with this kind of power?”
“The real question is how to fight them,” said Fedyor.
Talk turned to defense of the Little Palace and the possible advantages of confronting the Darkling in the field. But I was watching David. When Zoya had asked about other Grisha, he’d looked directly at me for the first time since I’d arrived at the Little Palace. Well, not at me exactly, but at my collar. He’d gone right back to staring at the table, but if possible, he seemed even more uncomfortable than before. I wondered what he might know about Morozova. And I wanted an answer to Zoya’s question, too. I didn’t know if I had the training or the nerve to attempt such a thing, but was there a way to summon soldiers of light to fight the Darkling’s shadow army? Was that the power the three amplifiers might give me?
I meant to try to talk to David alone after the meeting, but as soon as we adjourned, he shot out the door. Any thoughts I had of cornering him in the Materialki workshops that afternoon were squelched by the piles of paper waiting for me in my chambers. I spent hours preparing the Grisha pardon and signing countless documents guaranteeing funds and provisions for the outposts the Second Army hoped to reestablish on Ravka’s borders. Sergei had tried to manage some of the Darkling’s duties, but much of the work had simply gone unattended.
Everything seemed to be written in the most confusing way possible. I had to read and reread what should have been simple requests. By the time I’d made a small dent in the pile, I was late for dinner—my first meal in the domed hall. I would have preferred to take a tray in my room, but it was important that I assert my presence at the Little Palace. I also wanted to make sure my commands were being followed, and that the Grisha were actually mixing the Orders.
I sat at the Darkling’s table. In an effort to get to know some of the unfamiliar Grisha and to avoid giving them any excuse to form a new elite, I’d decided that different people would dine with me every night. It was a nice idea, but I had none of Mal’s easy way or Nikolai’s charm. The conversation was stilted and pockmarked with awkward moments of silence.
The other tables didn’t seem to be faring much better. The Grisha sat side by side in a jumble of red, purple, and blue, barely speaking. The clink of silverware echoed off the cracked dome—the Fabrikators had not yet begun their repairs.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. It was as if I’d asked them to take supper next to a volcra. At least Sergei and Marie seemed content, even if Nadia looked like she wanted to disappear into the butter dish as they cuddled and cooed beside her. I was happy for them, I supposed. And maybe a little jealous, too.
I made a silent count—forty Grisha, maybe fifty, most of them barely out of school. Some army, I thought with a sigh. My glorious reign was off to a miserable start.
* * *
MAL HAD AGREED to join the hunting party, and I rose early the next morning to see him off. I was beginning to realize that we would have less privacy at the Little Palace than we’d had on the road. Between Tolya and Tamar and the constantly hovering servants, I’d started to think we might never get a moment alone.
I had lain awake the previous night in the Darkling’s bed, remembering the way Mal had kissed me at the dacha, wondering if I might hear his knock at my door. I’d even debated crossing the common room and tapping at the guards’ quarters, but I wasn’t sure who was on duty, and the thought of Tolya or Tamar answering made me prickly with embarrassment. In the end, the fatigue of the day must have made the decision for me, because the next thing I knew, it was morning.
By the time I reached the double eagle fountain, the path to the palace gates was swarming with people and horses: Vasily and his aristocrat friends in their elaborate riding regalia, First Army officers in their sharp uniforms, and behind them, a legion of servants in white and gold.
I found Mal checking his saddle near a group of royal trackers. He was easy to pick out in his peasant roughspun. He had a gleaming new bow on his back and a quiver of arrows fletched in the pale blue and gold of the Ravkan king. The formal Ravkan hunt forbade the use of firearms, but I noticed that several of the servants had rifles on their backs, just in case the animals proved to be too much for their noble masters.
“Quite a show,” I said, coming up beside him. “Just how many people does it take to bring down a few boar?”
Mal snorted. “This is nothing. Another group of servants left before dawn to set up the camp. Saints forbid a prince of Ravka should be kept waiting on a hot cup of tea.”
A horn blew and the riders began to fall into place in a clatter of hooves and clanking stirrups. Mal shook his head and gave a firm tug on the cinch. “Those boar had better be deaf,” he grumbled.
I glanced around at the glittering uniforms and high-polished boots. “Maybe I should have outfitted you in something a little more … shiny.”
“There’s a reason peacocks aren’t birds of prey,” he said with a grin. It was an easy, open smile, the first I’d seen in a long time.
He’s happy to be going, I realized. He’s grumbling about it, but he’s glad. I tried not to take it personally.
“And you’re like a big brown hawk?” I asked.
“Or an overlarge pigeon?”
“Let’s stick with hawk.”
The others were mounting up, turning their horses to join the rest of the party as they headed down the gravel path.
“Let’s go, Oretsev,” called a tracker with sandy hair.
I felt suddenly awkward, keenly aware of the people surrounding us, of their inquisitive stares. I had probably breached some kind of protocol by even coming to say goodbye.
“Well,” I said, patting his horse’s flank, “have fun. Try not to shoot anyone.”
“Got it. Wait, don’t shoot anyone?”
I smiled, but it felt a bit forced.
We stood there a moment longer, the silence stretching out between us. I wanted to fling my arms around him, bury my face in his neck, and make him promise to be safe. But I didn’t.
A rueful smile touched his lips. He bowed.
“Moi soverenyi,” he said. My heart twisted in my chest.
He climbed into the saddle and kicked his horse forward, disappearing in the sea of riders flowing toward the golden gates.
I made the walk back to the Little Palace in low spirits.
It was early, but the day was already growing warm. Tamar was waiting for me when I emerged from the wooded tunnel.
“He’ll be back soon enough,” she said. “No need to look so glum.”
“I know,” I replied, feeling foolish. I managed a laugh as we crossed the lawn down to the stables. “At Keramzin, I had a doll I made out of an old sock that I used to talk to whenever he was away hunting. Maybe that would make me feel better.”
“You were an odd little girl.”
“You have no idea. What did you and Tolya play with?”
“The skulls of our enemies.”
I saw the glint in her eye, and we both burst out laughing.
Down at the training rooms, Tamar and I met briefly with Botkin, the instructor tasked with preparing Grisha for physical combat. The old mercenary was instantly enchanted with Tamar, and they yammered away at each other in Shu for nearly ten minutes before I managed to raise the issue of training the Fabrikators.
“Botkin can teach anyone to fight,” he said in his thick accent. The dim light gave the ropy scar at his throat a pearly sheen. “Taught little girl to fight, no?”
“Yes,” I agreed, wincing at the memory of Botkin’s grueling drills and the beatings I’d taken at his hands.
“But little girl is not so little anymore,” he said taking in the gold of my kefta. “You come back to train with Botkin. I hit big girl same as little girl.”
“That’s very egalitarian of you,” I said, and hurried Tamar out of the stables before Botkin decided to show me just how fair-minded he could be.
I went straight from the stables to another war council meeting, then I just had time to tidy my hair and brush off my kefta before heading back to the Grand Palace to join Nikolai as the King’s advisers briefed him on Os Alta’s defenses.
I felt a bit like we were children who had intruded on the adults. The advisers made it clear that they felt we were wasting their time. But Nikolai seemed unfazed. He asked careful questions about armaments, the number of troops stationed around the city walls, the warning system that was in place in case of attack. Soon the advisers had lost their condescending air and were conversing with him in earnest, asking about the weaponry he’d brought with him from across the Fold and how it might be best deployed.
He had me give a short description of the nichevo’ya to help make the case for arming the Grisha with new weapons as well. The advisers were still deeply suspicious of the Second Army, but on the walk back to the Little Palace, Nikolai seemed unconcerned.
“They’ll come around in time,” he said. “That’s why you need to be there, to reassure them and to help them understand that the Darkling isn’t like other enemies.”
“You think they don’t know that?” I asked incredulously.
“They don’t want to know it. If they can maintain the belief that the Darkling can be bargained with or brought to heel, then they don’t have to face the reality of the situation.”
“I can’t say I blame them,” I said gloomily. It was all well and good to talk about troops and walls and warnings, but I doubted it would make much difference against the Darkling’s shadow soldiers.
When we emerged from the tunnel, Nikolai said, “Walk with me down to the lake?”
“I promise not to drop to one knee and start composing ballads to your beauty. I just want to show you something.”
My cheeks went red, and Nikolai grinned.
“You should see if the Corporalki can do something about that blush,” he said, and strolled off around the side of the Little Palace to the lake.