I wanted to stay up there forever, surrounded by the flood of wind, watching the tiny, perfect world beneath us. But eventually Nikolai turned the wheel and brought us back to the lake in a slow, descending arc.
The twilight deepened to a lush purple. The Inferni lit bonfires along the lakeshore, and somewhere in the dusk, someone tuned a balalaika. From the town below, I heard the whistle and clap of fireworks.
Nikolai and I sat at the end of the makeshift pier, our trousers rolled up, feet dangling over the side. The Kingfisher bobbed beside us, its white sails trimmed.
Nikolai kicked his foot through the water, sending up a little splash. “The dishes change everything,” he said. “If you can keep the nichevo’ya busy long enough, we’ll have time to find and target the Darkling.”
I flopped back on the dock, stretching my arms overhead and taking in the blooming violet of the night sky. When I turned my head, I could just make out the shape of the now-empty school building, its windows dark. I would have liked the students to see what the dishes could do, to give them that bit of hope. The prospect of a battle was still frightening, especially when I thought of all the lives that might be lost. But at least we weren’t just sitting on a hilltop waiting to die.
“We may actually have a fighting chance,” I said in amazement.
“Try not to let the excitement overwhelm you, but I have more good news.”
I groaned. I knew that tone of voice. “Don’t say it.”
“Vasily is back from Caryeva.”
“You could do the kind thing and drown me now.”
“And suffer alone? I think not.”
“Maybe for your birthday you can ask that he be fitted with a royal muzzle,” I suggested.
“But then we’d miss all his exciting stories about the summer auctions. You’re fascinated by the breeding superiority of the Ravkan racehorse, right?”
I let out a whimper. Mal was supposed to be on duty for Nikolai’s birthday dinner the following night. Maybe I could get Tolya or Tamar to take his place. Right now, I didn’t think I could handle watching him stand stone-faced at attention all night, especially not with Vasily yammering away.
“Be of good cheer,” said Nikolai. “Maybe he’ll propose again.”
I sat up. “How do you know about that?”
“If you recall, I did pretty much the same thing. I’m just surprised he hasn’t tried a second time.”
“Apparently I’m not easy to get alone.”
“I know,” said Nikolai. “Why do you think I walk you back from the Grand Palace after every meeting?”
“For my sparkling company?” I said sourly, annoyed by the twitch of disappointment I felt at his words. Nikolai was so good at making me forget that everything he did was calculated.
“That too,” he said. He lifted his foot out of the water and scrutinized his wiggling toes. “He’ll get around to it again, eventually.”
I sighed with exaggerated woe. “How does one say no to a prince?”
“You’ve managed it before,” Nikolai said, still contemplating his foot. “And are you so sure you want to?”
“You can’t be serious.”
Nikolai shifted uncomfortably. “Well, he is first in line for the throne, of pure royal stock, and all that.”
“I wouldn’t marry Vasily if he had a pet firebird named Ludmilla, and I couldn’t care less about his royal stock.” I peered at him. “You said the gossip about your bloodlines didn’t bother you.”
“I may not have been completely honest about that.”
“You? Less than truthful? I’m shocked, Nikolai. Shocked and horrified.”
He laughed. “I guess it’s easy to say it doesn’t matter when I’m away from court. But no one here seems to want to let me forget, especially my brother.” He shrugged. “It’s always been this way. There were rumors about me even before I was born. It’s why my mother never calls me Sobachka. She says it makes me sound like a mongrel.”
My heart gave a little pang at that. I’d been called plenty of names growing up.
“I like mongrels,” I said. “They have cute floppy ears.”
“My ears are very dignified.”
I ran my finger over one of the pier’s sleek planks. “Is that why you stayed away so long? Why you became Sturmhond?”
“I don’t know if there’s just one reason. I guess I never felt like I belonged here, so I tried to make a place where I could belong.”
“I never felt like I fit in anywhere either,” I admitted. Except with Mal. I pushed the thought away. Then I frowned. “You know what I hate about you?”
He blinked, startled. “No.”
“You always say the right thing.”
“And you hate that?”
“I’ve seen the way you change personas, Nikolai. You’re always what everyone needs you to be. Maybe you never felt like you belonged, or maybe you’re just saying that to make the poor, lonely orphan girl like you more.”
“So you do like me?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, when I don’t want to stab you.”“It’s a start.”“No it isn’t.”He turned to me. In the half-light, his hazel eyes looked like chips of amber.“I’m a privateer, Alina,” he said quietly. “I’ll take whatever I can get.”I was suddenly aware of his shoulder resting against mine, the press of his thigh. The air felt warm and smelled sweet with the scent of summer and woodsmoke.“I want to kiss you,” he said.“You already kissed me,” I replied with a nervous laugh.A smile tugged at his lips. “I want to kiss you again,” he amended.“Oh,” I breathed. His mouth was inches from mine. My heart leapt into a panicked gallop. This is Nikolai, I reminded myself. Pure calculation. I didn’t even think I wanted him to kiss me. But my pride was still smarting from Mal’s rejection. Hadn’t he said he’d kissed plenty of girls?“I want to kiss you,” Nikolai said. “But I won’t. Not until you’re thinking of me instead of trying to forget him.”I shoved backward and lurched awkwardly to my feet, feeling flushed and embarrassed.“Alina—”“At least now I know you don’t always say the right thing,” I muttered.I snatched up my shoes and escaped down the pier.Chapter 20I STAYED WELL CLEAR of the Grisha bonfires as I strode around the lakeshore. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone.What had I expected from Nikolai? Distraction? Flirtation? Something to shake the ache in my heart free? Maybe I’d just wanted some petty way to get back at Mal. Or maybe I was so desperate to feel connected to anyone that I would settle for a false kiss from an untrustworthy prince.The idea of tomorrow night’s birthday dinner filled me with dread. Perhaps I could make some excuse, I considered as I stomped across the grounds. I could send a nice note to the Grand Palace sealed with wax and emblazoned with the Sun Summoner’s official seal:To Their Most Royal Majesties, the King and Queen of Ravka:It is with a sad heart that I must proffer my regrets and inform you that I will be unable to attend the festivities celebrating the birth of Prince Nikolai Lantsov, Grand Duke of Udova.Unfortunate circumstances have arisen, namely that my best friend can’t seem to stand the sight of me, and your son didn’t kiss me, and I wish he had. Or I wish he hadn’t. Or I’m still not sure what I wish, but there’s a very good chance that if I’m forced to sit through his stupid birthday dinner, I’ll end up sobbing into my cake.With best wishes on this most happy of occasions,Alina Starkov, IdiotWhen I reached the Darkling’s chambers, Tamar was reading in the common room. She looked up when I entered, but my mood must have shown on my face, because she didn’t say a word.I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I propped myself up in bed with one of the books I’d taken from the library, an old travel guide that listed Ravka’s famous monuments. I had the barest hope that it would point me toward the arch.I tried to focus, but I found myself reading the same sentence again and again. My head was muzzy with champagne, and my feet still felt cold and waterlogged from the lake. Mal might be back from his card game. If I knocked on his door and he answered, what would I say?I tossed the book aside. I didn’t know what to say to Mal. I never did these days. But maybe I could just start with the truth: that I was lost and confused, and maybe losing my mind, that I scared myself sometimes, and that I missed him so much it was like physical pain. I needed to at least try to heal the rift between us before it was completely beyond repair. No matter what he thought of me afterward, it couldn’t get much worse. I could survive another rejection, but I couldn’t bear the thought that I hadn’t even tried to put this right.I peeked into the common room.“Is Mal here?” I asked Tamar.She shook her head.I swallowed my pride and asked, “Do you know where he went?”Tamar sighed. “Get your shoes. I’ll take you to him.”“Where is he?”“The stables.”Unsettled, I ducked back into my bedroom and quickly pulled on my shoes. I followed Tamar out of the Little Palace and across the lawns.“You’re sure you want to do this?” Tamar asked.I didn’t reply. Whatever she had to show me, I knew I wasn’t going to like it. But I refused to just go back to my room and bury my head under the covers.We made our way down the gentle slope that led past the banya. Horses whinnied in the paddocks. The stables were dark, but the training rooms were ablaze with light. I heard shouting.The largest training room was little more than a barn with a dirt floor, its walls covered in every weapon imaginable. Usually, it was where Botkin doled out punishment to Grisha students and put them through their drills. But tonight it was crowded with people, mostly soldiers, some Grisha, even a few servants. They were all shouting and cheering, jostling and jockeying to try to get a better look at whatever was happening at the center of the room.Unnoticed, Tamar and I worked our way through the crush of bodies. I glimpsed two royal trackers, several members of Nikolai’s regiment, a group of Corporalki, and Zoya, who was screaming and clapping with the rest of them.I’d almost reached the front of the crowd when I caught sight of a Squaller, fists raised, chest bare, stalking his way around the circle the onlookers had formed. Eskil, I remembered, one of the Grisha who had been traveling with Fedyor. He was Fjerdan and he looked it—blue eyes, white-blond hair, tall and broad enough that he completely blocked my view.It’s not too late, I thought. You can still turn around and pretend you were never here.I stayed rooted to the spot. I knew what I would see, but it was still a shock when Eskil moved aside and I got my first glimpse of Mal. Like the Squaller, he was stripped to the waist, his muscled torso streaked with dirt and sweat. There were bruises on his knuckles. A trickle of blood coursed down his cheek from a cut below his eye, though he hardly seemed to notice.