“I’m just here to talk,” he said.
“So talk,” Mal retorted. “Who are you, and what are you playing at?”
“Nikolai Lantsov, but please don’t make me recite my titles again. It’s no fun for anybody, and the only important one is ‘prince.’”
“And what about Sturmhond?” I asked.
“I’m also Sturmhond, commander of the Volkvolny, scourge of the True Sea.”
“Well, I’m vexing at the very least.”
I shook my head. “Impossible.”
“This is not the time to try to be entertaining.”
“Please,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “Sit. I don’t know about you, but I find everything much more understandable when seated. Something about circulation, I suspect. Reclining is, of course, preferable, but I don’t think we’re on those kinds of terms yet.”
I didn’t budge. Mal crossed his arms.
“All right, well, I’m going to sit. I find playing the returning hero a most wearying task, and I’m positively worn out.” He crossed to the table, poured himself a glass of kvas, and settled into a chair with a contented sigh. He took a sip and grimaced. “Awful stuff,” he said. “Never could stomach it.”
“Then order some brandy, your highness,” I said irritably. “I’m sure they’ll bring you all you want.”
His face brightened. “True enough. I suppose I could bathe in a tub of it. I may just.”
Mal threw up his hands in exasperation and walked to the flap of the tent to look out at the camp.
“You can’t honestly expect us to believe any of this,” I said.
Sturmhond wiggled his fingers to better display his ring. “I do have the royal seal.”
I snorted. “You probably stole it from the real Prince Nikolai.”
“I served with Raevsky. He knows me.”
“Maybe you stole the prince’s face, too.”
He sighed. “You have to understand, the only place I could safely reveal my identity was here in Ravka. Only the most trusted members of my crew knew who I really was—Tolya, Tamar, Privyet, a few of the Etherealki. The rest … well, they’re good men, but they’re also mercenaries and pirates.”
“So you deceived your own crew?” I asked.
“On the seas, Nikolai Lantsov is more valuable as a hostage than as a captain. Hard to command a ship when you’re constantly worrying about being bashed on the head late at night and then ransomed to your royal papa.”
I shook my head. “None of this makes any sense. Prince Nikolai is supposed to be off somewhere studying boats or—”
“I did apprentice with a Fjerdan shipbuilder. And a Zemeni gunsmith. And a civil engineer from the Han Province of Bolh. Tried my hand at poetry for a while. The results were … unfortunate. These days, being Sturmhond requires most of my attention.”
Mal leaned against the tent post, arms crossed. “So one day you decided to cast off your life of luxury and try your hand at playing pirate?”
“Privateer,” he said. “And I wasn’t playing at anything. I knew I could do more for Ravka as Sturmhond than lazing about at court.”
“And just where do the King and Queen think you are?” I asked.
“The university at Ketterdam,” he replied. “Lovely place. Very lofty. There’s an extremely well-compensated shipping clerk sitting through my philosophy classes as we speak. Gets passable grades, answers to Nikolai, drinks copiously and often so no one gets suspicious.”
Was there no end to this? “Why?”
“I tried, I really did. But I’ve never been good at sitting still. Drove my nanny to distraction. Well, nannies. There was quite an army of them, as I recall.”
I should have hit him harder. “I mean, why go through this whole charade?”
“I’m second in line for the Ravkan throne. I nearly had to run away to do my military service. I don’t think my parents would approve of my picking off Zemeni pirates and breaking Fjerdan blockades. They’re rather fond of Sturmhond, though.”
“Fine,” said Mal from the doorway. “You’re a prince. You’re a privateer. You’re a prat. What do you want with us?”
Sturmhond took another tentative sip of kvas and shuddered. “Your help,” he said. “The game has changed. The Fold is expanding. The First Army is close to outright revolt. The Darkling’s coup may have failed, but it shattered the Second Army, and Ravka is on the brink of collapse.”
I felt a sinking sensation. “And let me guess: You’re just the one to put things right?”
Sturmhond leaned forward. “Did you meet my brother, Vasily, when you were at court? He cares more about horses and his next drink of whiskey than his people. My father never had more than a passing interest in governing Ravka, and reports are he’s lost even that. This country is coming apart. Someone needs to put it back together before it’s too late.”
“Vasily is the heir,” I observed.
“I think he can be convinced to step aside.”
“That’s why you dragged us back here?” I said in disgust. “Because you want to be King?”
“I dragged you back here because the Apparat has practically turned you into a living Saint, and the people love you. I dragged you back here because your power is the key to Ravka’s survival.”
I banged my hands down on the table. “You dragged me back here so you could make a grand entrance with the Sun Summoner and steal your brother’s throne!”
Sturmhond leaned back. “I’m not going to apologize for being ambitious. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m the best man for the job.”
“Of course you are.”
“Come back to Os Alta with me.”
“Why? So you can show me off like some kind of prize goat?”
“I know you don’t trust me. You have no reason to. But I’ll abide by what I promised you aboard the Volkvolny. Listen to what I have to offer. If you’re still not interested, Sturmhond’s ships will take you anywhere in the world. I think you’ll stay. I think I can give you something no one else can.”
“This ought to be good,” muttered Mal.
“I can give you the chance to change Ravka,” said Sturmhond. “I can give you the chance to bring your people hope.”
“Oh, is that all?” I said sourly. “And just how am I supposed to do that?”
“By helping me unite the First and Second Armies. By becoming my Queen.”
Before I could blink, Mal had shoved the table aside and closed in on Sturmhond, lifting him off his feet and slamming him into the tent post. Sturmhond winced but made no move to fight back.
“Easy, now. Mustn’t get blood on the uniform. Let me explain—”
“Try explaining with my fist in your mouth.”
Sturmhond twisted, and in a flash, he’d slipped from Mal’s grip. A knife was in his hand, pulled from somewhere up his sleeve.
“Step back, Oretsev. I’m keeping my temper for her sake, but I’d just as soon gut you like a carp.”
“Try it,” Mal snarled.
“Enough!” I threw out a bright shard of light that blinded them both. They put up their hands against the glare, momentarily distracted. “Sturmhond, sheathe that weapon, or you’ll be the one who gets gutted. Mal, stand down.”
I waited until Sturmhond tucked away his knife, then slowly let the light fade.
Mal dropped his hands, his fists still clenched. They eyed each other warily. Just a few hours ago, they’d been friends. Of course, Sturmhond had been a completely different person then.
Sturmhond straightened the sleeves of his uniform. “I’m not proposing a love match, you heartsick oaf, just a political alliance. If you’d stop and think for a minute, you’d see it makes good sense for the country.”
Mal let out a harsh bark of laughter. “You mean it makes good sense for you.”
“Can’t both things be true? I’ve served in the military. I understand warfare, and I understand weaponry. I know the First Army will follow me. I may be second in line, but I have a blood right to the throne.”
Mal jabbed his finger in Sturmhond’s face. “You don’t have a right to her.”
Some of Sturmhond’s composure seemed to leave him. “What did you think was going to happen? Did you think you could just carry off one of the most powerful Grisha in the world like some peasant girl you tumbled in a barn? Is that how you think this story ends? I’m trying to keep a country from falling apart, not steal your best girl.”
“That’s enough,” I said quietly.
“You can stay at the palace,” Nikolai continued. “Perhaps as the captain of her personal guard? It wouldn’t be the first such arrangement.”
A muscle jumped in Mal’s jaw. “You make me sick.”
Sturmhond gave a dismissive wave. “I’m a depraved monster, I know. Just think about what I’m saying for a moment.”
“I don’t need to think about it,” Mal shouted. “And neither does she. It isn’t going to happen.”
“It would be a marriage in name only,” Sturmhond insisted. Then, as if he couldn’t help himself, he flashed Mal a taunting grin. “Except for the matter of producing heirs.”
Mal surged forward, and Sturmhond reached for his knife, but I saw what was coming and stepped between them.
“Stop!” I shouted. “Just stop it. And stop talking about me as if I’m not here!”
Mal released a frustrated growl and began pacing back and forth again. Sturmhond picked up a chair that had toppled and reseated himself, making a great show of stretching out his legs and pouring himself another glass of kvas.
I took a breath. “Your highness—”
“Nikolai,” he corrected. “But I’ve also been known to answer to ‘sweetheart’ or ‘handsome.’”
Mal whirled, but I silenced him with a pleading look.
“You need to stop that right now, Nikolai,” I said. “Or I’ll knock those princely teeth out myself.”
Nikolai rubbed his darkening bruise. “I know you’re good for it.”
“I am,” I said firmly. “And I’m not going to marry you.”
Mal released a breath, and some of the stiffness went out of his shoulders. It bothered me that he had thought there was any possibility I might accept Nikolai’s offer, and I knew he wasn’t going to like what I had to say next.
I steeled myself and said, “But I will return to Os Alta with you.”
Mal’s head jerked up. “Alina—”
“Mal, we always said we’d find a way to come back to Ravka, that we’d find a way to help. If we don’t do something, there may not be a Ravka to come back to.” He shook his head, but I turned to Nikolai and plunged on. “I’ll return to Os Alta with you, and I’ll consider helping you make a bid for the throne.” I took a deep breath. “But I want the Second Army.”