There it was. I heaved an internal sigh. “Only a king can make a queen,” I reminded him.

Vasily waved this talk away. “My father won’t live much longer. I as good as rule Ravka now.”

Is that what you call it? I thought with a surge of irritation. I doubted Vasily would even be in Os Alta if Nikolai didn’t present a threat to his crown, but this time I held my tongue.

“You’ve risen high for a Keramzin orphan,” he went on, “but you might rise higher still.”

“I can assure you, moi tsarevich,” I said with complete honesty, “I have no such ambitions.”

“Then what do you want, Sun Summoner?”

“Right now? I’d like to go have my lunch.”

His lower lip jutted out sulkily, and for a moment, he looked just like his father. Then he smiled.

“You’re a smart girl,” he said, “and I think you’ll prove a useful one. I look forward to deepening our acquaintance.”

“I would like nothing better,” I lied.

He took my hand and pressed his moist mouth to my knuckles. “Until then, Alina Starkov.”

I stifled a gag. As he strode off, I wiped my hand surreptitiously on my kefta.

Mal was waiting for me at the edge of the woods.

“What was that about?” he asked, his face worried.

“Oh, you know,” I replied. “Another prince, another proposal.”

“You can’t be serious,” Mal said with a disbelieving laugh. “He doesn’t waste any time.”

“Power is alliance,” I intoned, imitating Nikolai.

“Should I offer my felicitations?” Mal asked, but there was no edge to his voice, only amusement. Apparently the heir to the throne of Ravka wasn’t quite as threatening as an overconfident privateer.

“Do you think the Darkling had to deal with unwanted advances from wet-lipped royals?” I asked glumly.

Mal snickered.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just pictured the Darkling being cornered by a sweaty duchess trying to have her way with him.”

I snorted and then I started to laugh outright. Nikolai and Vasily were so different, it was hard to believe they shared any blood at all. Unbidden, I remembered Nikolai’s kiss, the rough feel of his mouth on mine as he’d held me to him. I shook my head.

They may be different, I reminded myself as we headed into the palace, but they both want to use you just the same.

Chapter 17

SUMMER DEEPENED, bringing waves of balmy heat to Os Alta. The only relief to be found was in the lake, or in the cold pools of the banya that lay in the dark shade of a birchwood grove beside the Little Palace. Whatever hostility the Ravkan court felt toward the Grisha, it didn’t stop them from beckoning Squallers and Tidemakers to the Grand Palace to summon breezes and fashion massive blocks of ice to cool the stuffy rooms. It was hardly a worthy use of Grisha talent, but I was eager to keep the King and Queen happy, and I’d already deprived them of several much-valued Fabrikators, who were hard at work on David’s mysterious mirrored dishes.

Every morning, I met with my Grisha council—sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours—to discuss intelligence reports, troop movements, and what we were hearing from the northern and southern borders.

Nikolai still hoped to take the fight to the Darkling before he’d assembled the full strength of his shadow army, but so far Ravka’s network of spies and informants had been unable to discover his location. It was looking more and more likely that we’d have to make our stand in Os Alta. Our only advantage was that the Darkling couldn’t simply send the nichevo’ya against us. He had to stay close to his creatures, and that meant he would have to march to the capital with them. The big question was whether he would enter Ravka from Fjerda or from the Shu Han.Standing in the war room before the Grisha council, Nikolai gestured to one of the massive maps along the wall. “We took back most of this territory in the last campaign,” he said, pointing to Ravka’s northern border with Fjerda. “It’s dense forest, almost impossible to cross when the rivers aren’t frozen, and all the access roads have been blockaded.”“Are there Grisha stationed there?” asked Zoya.“No,” Nikolai said. “But there are lots of scouts based out of Ulensk. If he comes that way, we’ll have plenty of warning.”“And he would have to deal with the Petrazoi,” said Paja. “Whether he goes over or around them, it will buy us more time.” She’d come into her own over the last few weeks. Though David remained silent and fidgety, she actually seemed glad to have time away from the workrooms.“I’m more concerned with the permafrost,” Nikolai said, running his hand along the stretch of border that ran above Tsibeya. “It’s heavily fortified. But that’s a lot of territory to cover.”I nodded. Mal and I had once walked those wild lands together, and I remembered how vast they’d felt. I caught myself looking around the room, seeking him out, even though I knew he’d gone on another hunt, this time with a group of Kerch marksmen and Ravkan diplomats.“And if he comes from the south?” asked Zoya.Nikolai signaled Fedyor, who rose and began to walk the Grisha through the weak points of the southern border. Because he’d been stationed at Sikursk, the Corporalnik knew the area well.“It’s almost impossible to patrol all the mountain passes coming out of the Sikurzoi,” he observed grimly. “Shu raiding parties having been taking advantage of that fact for years. It would be easy enough for the Darkling to slip through.”“Then it’s a straight march to Os Alta,” said Sergei.“Past the military base at Poliznaya,” Nikolai noted. “That could work to our advantage. Either way, when he marches, we’ll be ready.”“Ready?” Pavel snorted. “For an army of indestructible monsters?”“They’re not indestructible,” Nikolai said, nodding to me. “And the Darkling isn’t either. I know. I shot him.”Zoya’s eyes widened. “You shot him?”“Yes,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t do a very good job of it, but I’m sure I’ll improve with practice.” He surveyed the Grisha, looking into each worried face before he spoke again. “The Darkling is powerful, but so are we. He’s never faced the might of the First and Second Armies working in tandem, or the kinds of weapons I intend to supply. We face him. We flank him. We see which bullet gets lucky.”While the Darkling’s shadow horde was focused on the Little Palace, he would be vulnerable. Small, heavily armed units of Grisha and soldiers would be stationed at two-mile intervals around the capital. Once the fighting began, they would close on the Darkling and unleash all the firepower that Nikolai could muster.In a way, it was what the Darkling had always feared. Again, I remembered how he’d described the new weaponry being created beyond Ravka’s borders, and what he’d said to me, so long ago, beneath the caved-in roof of an old barn: The age of Grisha power is coming to an end.Paja cleared her throat. “Do we know what happens to the shadow soldiers when we kill the Darkling?”I wanted to hug her. I didn’t know what might happen to the nichevo’ya if we managed to put the Darkling down. They might vanish to nothing, or they might go into a mad frenzy or worse, but she’d said it: When we kill the Darkling. Tentative, frightened, but it still sounded suspiciously like hope.* * *WE FOCUSED THE MAJORITY of our efforts on Os Alta’s defense. The city had an ancient system of warning bells to alert the palace when an enemy was in sight. With his father’s permission, Nikolai had installed heavy guns like those on the Hummingbird above the city and palace walls. Despite Grisha grumbling, I’d had several placed on the roof of the Little Palace. They might not stop the nichevo’ya, but they would slow them.Tentatively, the other Grisha had begun to open up to the value of the Fabrikators. With help from the Inferni, the Materialki were trying to create grenatki that might produce a powerful enough flash of light to stall or stun the shadow soldiers. The problem was doing it without using blasting powders that would level everyone and everything around them. I sometimes worried that they might blow up the entire Little Palace and do the Darkling’s work for him. More than once, I saw Grisha in the dining hall with burnt cuffs or singed brows. I encouraged them to try the more dangerous work by the lakeside with Tidemakers on hand in case of emergency.Nikolai was intrigued enough by the project that he insisted on getting involved in the design. The Fabrikators tried to ignore him, then pretended to indulge him, but they quickly learned that Nikolai was more than a bored prince who liked to dabble. Not only did he understand David’s ideas, he’d worked long enough with the rogue Grisha that he slipped easily into the language of the Small Science. Soon, they seemed to forget his rank and his otkazat’sya status, and he could often be found hunched over a table in the Materialki workshops.I was most disturbed by the experiments taking place behind the red-lacquered doors of the Corporalki anatomy rooms, where they were collaborating with the Fabrikators to try to fuse Grisha steel with human bone. The idea was to make it possible for a soldier to withstand nichevo’ya attack. But the process was painful and imperfect, and often, the metal was simply rejected by the subject’s body. The Healers did what they could, but the ragged screams of First Army volunteers could sometimes be heard echoing through the halls of the Little Palace.Afternoons were taken up by endless meetings at the Grand Palace. The Sun Summoner’s power was a valuable bartering chip in Ravka’s attempts to forge alliances with other countries, and I was frequently asked to put in appearances at diplomatic gatherings to demonstrate my power and prove that I was, in fact, alive. The Queen hosted teas and dinners where I was paraded out to perform. Nikolai often dropped by to dole out compliments, flirt shamelessly, and hover protectively by my chair like a doting suitor.But nothing was as tedious as the “strategy sessions” with the King’s advisers and commanders. The King rarely attended. He preferred to spend his days hobbling after serving maids and sleeping in the sun like an old tomcat. In his absence, his counselors talked in endless circles. They argued that we should make peace with the Darkling or that we should go to war with the Darkling. They argued for allying with the Shu, then for partnering with Fjerda. They argued every line of every budget, from quantities of ammunition to what the troops ate for breakfast. And yet it was rare that anything got done or decided.When Vasily learned that Nikolai and I were attending the meetings, he put aside years of ignoring his duties as the Lantsov heir and insisted on being there as well. To my surprise, Nikolai welcomed him enthusiastically.“What a relief,” he said. “Please tell me you can make sense of these.” He shoved a towering stack of ledgers across the table.“What is this?” Vasily asked.