“A proposal for repairs to an aqueduct outside of Chernitsyn.”
“All this for an aqueduct?”
“Don’t worry,” said Nikolai. “I’ll have the rest delivered to your room.”
“There’s more? Can’t one of the ministers—”
“You saw what happened when our father let others take over the business of ruling Ravka. We must remain vigilant.”
Warily, Vasily lifted the topmost paper from the pile as if he were picking up a soiled rag. It took everything in me not to burst out laughing.
“Vasily thinks he can lead as our father did,” Nikolai confided to me later that afternoon, “throwing banquets, giving the occasional speech. I’m going to make sure he knows just what it means to rule without the Darkling or the Apparat there to take the reins.”
It seemed like a good enough plan, but before long, I was cursing both princes beneath my breath. Vasily’s presence ensured that meetings ran twice as long. He postured and preened, weighed in on every issue, held forth at length on patriotism, strategy, and the finer points of diplomacy.
“I’ve never met a man who can say so much without saying anything at all,” I fumed as Nikolai walked me back to the Little Palace after a particularly wretched session. “There’s got to be something you can do.”
“Get one of his prize ponies to kick him in the head.”
“I’m sure they’re frequently tempted,” Nikolai said. “Vasily’s lazy and vain, and he likes to take shortcuts, but there’s no easy way to govern a country. Trust me, he’ll tire of it all soon enough.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I’ll probably die of boredom before he does.”
Nikolai laughed. “Next time, bring a flask. Every time he changes his mind, take a sip.”
I groaned. “I’d be passed out on the floor before the hour was up.”
* * *
WITH NIKOLAI’S HELP, I’d brought in armaments experts from Poliznaya to help familiarize the Grisha with modern weaponry and give them training in firearms. Though the sessions had started out tensely, they seemed to be going more smoothly now, and we hoped that a few friendships might be forming between the First and Second Armies. The units of Grisha and soldiers who had been assembled to hunt down the Darkling when he approached Os Alta made the fastest progress. They returned from training missions full of private jokes and new camaraderie. They even took to calling each other nolniki, zeroes, because they were no longer strictly First or Second Army.
I’d been worried about how Botkin might respond to all the changes. But the man seemed to have a gift for killing, no matter the method, and he delighted in any excuse to spend time talking weaponry with Tolya and Tamar.
Because the Shu had a bad habit of taking a scalpel to their Grisha, few survived to make it into the ranks of the Second Army. Botkin loved being able to speak in his native tongue, but he also loved the twins’ ferocity. They didn’t rely only on their Corporalki abilities the way Grisha raised at the Little Palace tended to. Instead, Heartrending was just one more weapon in their impressive arsenal.
“Dangerous boy. Dangerous girl,” Botkin commented, watching the twins spar with a group of Corporalki one morning while a clutch of nervous Summoners waited their turn. Marie and Sergei were there, Nadia trailing behind them as always.
“She’f worf than he if,” complained Sergei. Tamar had split his lip open, and he was having trouble talking. “I feel forry for her hufband.”
“Will not marry,” said Botkin as Tamar threw a hapless Inferni to the ground.
“Why not?” I asked, surprised.
“Not her. Not brother either,” said the mercenary. “They are like Botkin. Born for battle. Made for war.”
Three Corporalki hurled themselves at Tolya. In moments, they were all moaning on the floor. I thought of what Tolya had said in the library, that he wasn’t born to serve the Darkling. Like so many Shu, he’d taken the path of the soldier for hire, traveling the world as a mercenary and a privateer. But he’d ended up at the Little Palace anyway. How long would he and his sister stay?
“I like her,” said Nadia, looking wistfully at Tamar. “She’s fearless.”
Botkin laughed. “Fearless is other word for stupid.”
“I wouldn’t fay that to her fafe,” grumbled Sergei as Marie dabbed his lip with a damp cloth.
I found myself starting to smile and turned aside. I hadn’t forgotten the way the three of them had welcomed me to the Little Palace. They hadn’t been the ones to call me a whore or try to throw me out, but they certainly hadn’t spoken up to defend me, and the idea of pretending friendship was just a little too much. Besides, I didn’t quite know how to behave around them. We’d never been truly close, and now our difference in status felt like an unbridgeable gap.
Genya wouldn’t care, I thought suddenly. Genya had known me. She’d laughed with me and confided in me, and no shiny kefta or title would have kept her from telling me exactly what she thought or slipping her arm through mine to share a bit of gossip. Despite the lies she’d told, I missed her.
As if in answer to my thoughts, I felt a tug on my sleeve, and a tremulous voice said, “Moi soverenyi?”
Nadia stood shifting from foot to foot. “I hoped…”
“What is it?”
She turned to a murky corner of the stables and gestured to a young boy in Etherealki blue whom I’d never seen before. A few Grisha had begun to trickle in after we’d sent out the pardon, but this boy looked too young to have served in the field. He approached nervously, fingers twisting in his kefta.
“This is Adrik,” Nadia said, placing her arm around him. “My brother.” The resemblance was there, though you had to look for it. “We heard that you plan to evacuate the school.”
“That’s right.” I was sending the students to the one place I knew with dormitories and space enough to house them, a place far from the fighting: Keramzin. Botkin would go with them, too. I hated to lose such a capable soldier, but this way the younger Grisha would still be able to learn from him—and he’d be able to keep an eye on them. Since Baghra wouldn’t see me, I’d sent a servant to her with the same offer. She’d made no reply. Despite my best attempts to ignore her slights, the repeated rejections still stung.
“You’re a student?” I asked Adrik, pushing thoughts of Baghra from my mind. He nodded once, and I noted the determined thrust to his chin.
“Adrik was wondering … we were wondering if—”
“I want to stay,” he said fiercely.
My brows shot up. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to fight.”
“He would have graduated this year,” put in Nadia.
I frowned. He was only a couple of years younger than I was, but he was all bony elbows and rumpled hair.
“Go with the others to Keramzin,” I said. “If you still want to, you can join us in a year.” If we’re still here.
“I’m good,” he said. “I’m a Squaller, and I’m as strong as Nadia, even without an amplifier.”
“It’s too dangerous—”
“This is my home. I’m not leaving.”
“Adrik!” Nadia chastised.
“It’s okay,” I said. Adrik seemed almost feverish. His hands were balled into fists. I looked at Nadia. “You’re sure you want him to stay?”
“I—” began Adrik.
“I’m talking to your sister. If you fall to the Darkling’s army, she’s the one who will have to mourn you.” Nadia paled slightly at that, but Adrik didn’t flinch. I had to admit he had mettle.
Nadia worried the inside of her lip, glancing from me to Adrik.
“If you’re afraid to disappoint him, think what it will be like to bury him,” I said. I knew I was being harsh, but I wanted them both to understand what they were asking.
She hesitated, then straightened her shoulders. “Let him fight,” she said. “I say he stays. If you send him away, he’ll just be back at the gates a week from now.”
I sighed, then turned my attention back to Adrik, who was already grinning. “Not a word to the other students,” I said. “I don’t want them getting ideas.” I jabbed a finger at Nadia. “And he’s your responsibility.”
“Thank you, moi soverenyi,” said Adrik, bowing so low I thought he might tip over.
I was already regretting my decision. “Get him back to classes.”
I watched them walk up the hill toward the lake, then dusted myself off and made my way to one of the smaller training rooms, where I found Mal sparring with Pavel. Mal had been at the Little Palace less and less lately. The invitations had started arriving the afternoon he returned from Balakirev—hunts, house parties, trout fishing, card games. Every nobleman and officer seemed to want Mal at his next event.
Sometimes he was just gone for an afternoon, sometimes for a few days. It reminded me of being back at Keramzin, when I would watch him ride away and then wait each day at the kitchen window for him to return. But if I was honest with myself, the days when he was gone were almost easier. When he was at the Little Palace, I felt guilty for not being able to spend more time with him, and I hated the way the Grisha ignored him or talked down to him like a servant. As much as I missed him, I encouraged him to go.
It’s better this way, I told myself. Before he’d deserted to help me, Mal had been a tracker with a bright future, surrounded by friends and admirers. He didn’t belong standing guard in doorways or lurking at the edges of rooms, playing the role of my dutiful shadow as I went from one meeting to the next.
“I could watch him all day,” said a voice behind me. I stiffened. Zoya was standing there. Even in the heat, she never seemed to sweat.
“You don’t think he stinks of Keramzin?” I asked, remembering the vicious words she had once spoken to me.
“I find the lower classes have a certain rough appeal. You will let me know when you’re through with him, won’t you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, did I misunderstand? You two seem so … close. But I’m sure you’re setting your sights higher these days.”
I turned on her. “What are you doing here, Zoya?”
“I came for a training session.”
“You know what I mean. What are you doing at the Little Palace?”
“I’m a soldier of the Second Army. This is where I belong.”
I folded my arms. It was time Zoya and I had this out. “You don’t like me, and you’ve never missed an opportunity to let me know it. Why follow me now?”
“What choice do I have?”
“I’m sure the Darkling would gladly welcome you back at his side.”
“Are you ordering me to leave?” She was striving for her usual haughty tone, but I could tell she was scared. It gave me a guilty little thrill.
“I want to know why you’re so determined to stay.”