His face fell. “But she stayed?”
“I don’t think she felt like she had a choice,” I said. I couldn’t believe I was making excuses for Genya, but I didn’t like the idea of David thinking less of her.
“I should have…” He didn’t seem to know how to finish.
I wanted to say something comforting, something reassuring. But there were so many mistakes in my own past that I couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t ring false.
“We do the best we can,” I offered lamely.
David looked at me then, the regret plain on his face. No matter what I said, we both knew the hard truth. We do our best. We try. And usually, it makes no difference at all.
* * *
I CARRIED MY BLACK MOOD with me to the next meeting at the Grand Palace. Nikolai’s plan seemed to be working. Though Vasily still dragged himself to the council chamber for our meetings with the ministers, he arrived later and later, and occasionally I caught him dozing off. The one time he failed to appear, Nikolai hauled him from his bed, cheerfully insisting that he get dressed and that we simply couldn’t proceed without him. A clearly hungover Vasily had made it through half of the meeting, swaying at the head of the table, before he bolted into the hallway to vomit noisily into a lacquered vase.
Today, even I was having trouble staying awake. Any bit of breeze had vanished, and despite the open windows, the crowded council chamber was unbearably stuffy. The meeting plodded on until one of the generals announced the dwindling numbers from the First Army’s troop rolls. The ranks had been thinned by death, desertion, and years of brutal war, and given that Ravka was about to be fighting on at least one front again, the situation was dire.
Vasily waved a lazy hand and said, “Why all the gnashing of teeth? Just lower the draft age.”
I sat up straighter. “To what?” I asked.
“Fourteen? Fifteen?” Vasily offered. “What is it now?”
I thought of all the villages Nikolai and I had passed through, the cemeteries that stretched for miles. “Why not just drop it to twelve?” I snapped.
“One is never too young to serve one’s country,” Vasily declared.
I don’t know if it was exhaustion or anger, but the words were out of my mouth before I thought better of them. “In that case, why stop at twelve? I hear babies make excellent cannon fodder.”
A disapproving murmur rose from the King’s advisers. Beneath the table, Nikolai reached over and gave my hand a warning squeeze.
“Brother, bringing them in younger won’t stop them from deserting,” he said to Vasily.
“Then we find some deserters and make an example of them.”
Nikolai raised a brow. “Are you sure that death by firing squad is more terrifying than the prospect of being torn apart by nichevo’ya?”
“If they even exist,” Vasily scoffed.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
But Nikolai just smiled pleasantly. “I saw them myself aboard the Volkvolny. Surely you’re not calling me a liar.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting that treason is preferable to honest service in the King’s Army.”
“I’m suggesting that maybe these people are just as fond of life as you are. They’re ill-equipped, undersupplied, and short on hope. If you’d read the reports, you’d know that officers are having trouble keeping order in the ranks.”
“Then they should institute harsher punishments,” said Vasily. “It’s what peasants understand.”
I’d already punched one prince. What was one more? I was halfway out of my seat before Nikolai yanked me back down.
“They understand full bellies and clear directives,” he said. “If you would let me implement the changes I’ve suggested and open the coffers for—”
“You cannot always have your way, little brother.”
Tension crackled through the room.
“The world is changing,” said Nikolai, the steel edge emerging in his voice. “We change with it, or there will be nothing left to remember us but the dust.”Vasily laughed. “I can’t decide if you’re a fearmonger or a coward.”“And I can’t decide if you’re an idiot or an idiot.”Vasily’s face turned purple. He shot to his feet and smacked his hands down on the table. “The Darkling is one man. If you’re afraid to face him—”“I have faced him. If you’re not afraid—if any of you aren’t afraid—it’s because you lack the sense to understand what we’re up against.”Some of the generals nodded. But the King’s advisers, Os Alta’s noblemen and bureaucrats, looked skeptical and sullen. To them, war was parades, military theory, little figures moved around on a map. If it came to it, these were the men who would ally themselves with Vasily.Nikolai squared his shoulders, the actor’s mask descending over his features once more. “Peace, brother,” he said. “We both want what’s best for Ravka.”But Vasily wasn’t interested in being soothed. “What’s best for Ravka is a Lantsov on the throne.”I drew in a sharp breath. A deadly stillness descended over the room. Vasily had as good as called Nikolai a bastard.But Nikolai had regained his composure, and now nothing would shake it. “Then let us all say a prayer for Ravka’s rightful King,” he said. “Now, shall we finish our business?”The meeting limped along for a few more minutes and then came to a welcome close. On our walk back to the Little Palace, Nikolai was uncharacteristically silent.When we reached the gardens by the pillared folly, he paused to pluck a leaf from a hedge and said, “I shouldn’t have lost my temper that way. It just pricks his pride, makes him dig in his heels.”“So why did you?” I asked, genuinely curious. It was rare for Nikolai’s emotions to get the best of him.“I don’t know,” he said, shredding the leaf. “You got angry. I got angry. The room was too damn hot.”“I don’t think that’s it.”“Indigestion?” he offered.But I wasn’t going to be put off by a joke. Despite Vasily’s objections and the council’s reluctance to do much of anything, through some magical combination of patience and pressure, Nikolai had still managed to push through a few of his plans. He’d gotten them to approve relief for the refugees fleeing the shores of the Fold, and requisitioned Materialki corecloth to outfit key regiments of the First Army. He’d even gotten them to divert funds for a plan to modernize farm equipment so that peasants could manage something other than subsistence. Small things, but improvements that might make all the difference in time.“It’s because you actually care about what happens to this country,” I said. “The throne is just a prize to Vasily, something he wants to squabble over like a favorite toy. You’re not like that. You’ll make a good king.”Nikolai froze. “I…” For once, words seemed to have deserted him. Then a crooked, embarrassed smile crept across his face. It was a far cry from his usual self-assured grin. “Thank you,” he said.I sighed as we resumed our pace. “You’re going to be insufferable now, aren’t you?”Nikolai laughed. “I’m already insufferable.”* * *THE DAYS GREW LONGER. The sun stayed close beneath the horizon, and the festival of Belyanoch began in Os Alta. Even at midnight, the skies were never truly dark, and despite the fear of war and the looming threat of the Fold, the city celebrated the endless hours of twilight. In the upper town, the evenings were crowded with operas, masques, and lavish ballets. Over the bridge, raucous horse races and outdoor dances shook the streets of the lower town. An endless stream of pleasure boats bobbed through the canal, and beneath the glimmering dusk, the slow-moving water circled the capital like a jeweled bangle, alight with lanterns hung from a thousand prows.The heat had relented slightly. Behind the palace walls, everyone seemed in better spirits. I’d continued to insist that the Grisha mix their Orders, and at some point, I still wasn’t sure how, uncomfortable silence had given way to laughter and noisy conversation. There were still cliques and conflicts, but there was also something comfortable and boisterous in the hall that hadn’t been there before.I was glad—maybe even a little proud—to see Fabrikators and Etherealki drinking tea around one of the samovars, or Fedyor arguing a point with Pavel over breakfast, or Nadia’s little brother trying to chat up an older and decidedly disinterested Paja. But I felt as if I were watching them from a great distance.I’d tried to talk to Mal several times since the night of our argument. He always found an excuse to walk away from me. If he wasn’t hunting, he was playing cards at the Grand Palace or haunting some tavern in the lower town with his new friends. I could tell he’d been drinking more. Some mornings his eyes looked bleary and he sported bruises and cuts as if he’d been in a brawl, but he was unfailingly punctual, relentlessly polite. He kept to his guard duties, stood silently in doorways, and maintained a respectful distance as he trailed me around the grounds.The Little Palace had become a very lonely place. I was surrounded by people, but I almost felt like they couldn’t see me, only what they needed from me. I was afraid to show doubt or indecision, and there were days when I felt like I was being worn down to nothing by the constant weight of responsibility and expectation.I went to my meetings. I trained with Botkin. I spent long hours at the lake trying to hone my use of the Cut. I even swallowed my pride and made another attempt to visit Baghra, hoping that, if nothing else, she might help me to develop my power further. But she refused to see me.None of it was enough. The ship that Nikolai was building in the lake was a reminder that everything we were doing was most likely futile. Somewhere out there, the Darkling was gathering his forces, building his army, and when they came, no gun, no bomb, no soldier or Grisha would be able to stop them. Not even me. If the battle went badly, we would retreat to the domed hall to await relief from Poliznaya. The doors were reinforced with Grisha steel, and the Fabrikators had already started sealing up cracks and gaps to prevent entry by the nichevo’ya.I didn’t think it would come to that. I’d reached a dead end in my attempts to locate the firebird. If David couldn’t get those dishes working, then when the Darkling finally marched on Ravka, we would have no choice but to evacuate. Run and keep running.Using my power brought me none of the comfort it once had. Every time I summoned light in the Materialki workshops or on the shore of the lake, I felt the bareness of my right wrist like a brand. Even with everything I knew about the amplifiers, the destruction they might bring, the permanence of the way they might change me, I couldn’t escape my hunger for the firebird.Mal was right. It had become an obsession. At night I lay in bed, imagining that the Darkling had already found the final piece of Morozova’s puzzle. Maybe he held the firebird captive in a spun gold cage. Would it sing to him? I didn’t even know if a firebird could sing at all. Some of the tales said so. One claimed the firebird’s song could lull entire armies to sleep. When they heard it, soldiers would cease fighting, lay down their weapons, and nod off peacefully in their enemies’ arms.