I swallowed the lump in my throat and said, “Did I come at a bad time?”
Tamar shook her head. “Nikolai ended meetings early so people could attend the…” She trailed off.
They led me down a hall decorated with weapons of war and charts of the Fold. Those maps would have to change now. I wondered if anything would ever grow on those deadened sands.
“Will you stay with him?” I asked Tamar. Nikolai had to be desperate for people he could trust around him.
“For a while. Nadia wants to, and there are still some members of the Twenty-Second alive too.”
She shook her head.
“Did Stigg make it out of the Spinning Wheel?”
She shook her head again. There were others to ask after, casualty lists I dreaded reading, but that would have to wait.
“I might stay on,” said Tolya. “Depends on—”
“Tolya,” his sister said sharply.
Tolya flushed and shrugged. “Just depends.”
We reached a set of heavy double doors, their handles the heads of two screaming eagles.
Tamar knocked. The room was dark, lit only by the blaze of a fire in the grate. It took me a moment to pick Nikolai out in the gloom. He was seated in front of the fire, his polished boots propped up on a cushioned stool. A plate of food sat beside him, along with a bottle of kvas, though I knew he preferred brandy.
“We’ll be outside,” Tamar said.
At the sound of the door shutting, Nikolai started. He jumped to his feet and bowed. “Forgive me,” he said. “I was lost in thought.” Then he grinned and added, “Unfamiliar territory.”
I leaned back against the door. A lapse. Covered with charm, but a lapse nonetheless. “You don’t have to do that.”
“But I do.” His smile slipped. He gestured to the chairs by the fire. “Join me?”
I crossed the room. The long table was littered with documents and sheaves of letters emblazoned with the royal seal.
A book lay open on the chair. He moved it aside and we sat.
“What are you reading?”
He glanced at the title. “One of Kamenski’s military histories. Really, I just wanted to look at the words.” He ran his fingers over the cover. His hands were marred with nicks and cuts. Though my scars had faded, the Darkling had marked Nikolai in a different way. Faint black lines still ran along each of his fingers where claws had shoved their way through his skin. He would have to pass them off as signs of the torture he’d endured as the Darkling’s prisoner. In a way, it was true. At least the rest of the markings seemed to have faded. “I couldn’t read,” he continued. “When I was … I would see signs in store windows, writing on crates. I couldn’t understand them, but I remembered enough to know that they were more than scratches on a wall.”
I settled deeper into the chair. “What else do you remember?”
His hazel eyes were distant. “Too much. I … I can still feel that darkness inside me. I keep thinking it will go, but—”
“I know,” I said. “It’s better now, but it’s still there.” Like a shadow next to my heart. I didn’t know what that might imply about the Darkling’s power, and I didn’t want to consider it. “Maybe it will fade in time.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “This isn’t what people want of a king, what they expect from me.”
“Give yourself a chance to heal.”
“Everyone is watching. They need reassurance. It won’t be long before the Fjerdans or the Shu try to move against me.”
“What will you do?”
“My fleet is intact, thank the Saints and Privyet,” he said, referring to the officer he’d left in command when he’d given up the mantle of Sturmhond. “They should be able to neutralize Fjerda for a time, and there are supply ships already waiting in the harbor with deliveries of weapons. I’ve sent word to every operational military outpost. We’ll do our best to secure the borders. I leave for Os Alta tomorrow, and I have emissaries en route to try to bring the militias back under the King’s flag.” He gave a slight laugh. “My flag.”
I smiled. “Just think of all of the bowing and scraping in your future.”
“All hail the Pirate King.”
“Why dance around it? ‘Bastard King’ is more likely.”
“Actually,” I said, “they’re already calling you Korol Rezni.” I’d heard it whispered in the streets of Kribirsk: King of Scars.
He looked up sharply. “Do you think they know?”
“I doubt it. But you’re used to rumors, Nikolai. And this might be a good thing.”
He raised a brow.
“I know you love to be loved,” I said, “but a little fear couldn’t hurt, either.”
“Did the Darkling teach you that?”
“And you. I seem to remember a certain story about a Fjerdan captain’s fingers and a hungry hound.”
“Next time warn me when you’re paying attention. I’ll talk less.”
“Now you tell me.”
A faint smile tugged at his lips. Then he frowned. “I should warn you—the Apparat will be there tonight.”
I sat up straighter. “You pardoned the priest?”
“I had to. I need his support.”
“Will you offer him a place at court?”
“We’re in negotiations,” he said bitterly.
I could offer him all the information I had on the Apparat, but I suspected what would help most was the location of the White Cathedral. Unfortunately, Mal was the only one who might have been able to lead us back there, and I wasn’t sure that was a possibility anymore.
Nikolai gave the bottle of kvas an idle turn.
“It’s not too late,” he said. “You could stay. You could come back with me to the Grand Palace.”
“And do what?”
“Teach, help me rebuild the Second Army, rusticate by the lake?”
This was what Tolya had been alluding to. He’d hoped I might return to Os Alta. It hurt to even think about.
I shook my head. “I’m not Grisha, and I’m certainly not a noble. I don’t belong at court.”
“You could stay with me,” he said quietly. He gave the bottle another turn. “I still need a Queen.”
I rose from my chair and nudged his booted feet aside, settling on the little stool to look up at him.
“I’m not the Sun Summoner anymore, Nikolai. I’m not even Alina Starkov. I don’t want to return to court.”
“But you understand this … thing.” He tapped his chest.
I did. Merzost. Darkness. You could hate it and hunger for it at the same time.
“I’d only be a liability. Power is alliance,” I reminded him.
“I do love it when you quote me.” He sighed. “If only I weren’t so damnably wise.”
I reached into my pocket and set the Lantsov emerald on Nikolai’s knee. Genya had given it back to me when we’d left Tomikyana.
He picked it up, turned it over. Its stone flashed green in the firelight. “A Shu princess then? A buxom Fjerdan? A Kerch magnate’s daughter?” He held out the ring. “Keep it.”
I stared at him. “How much of that kvas have you drunk?”
“None. Keep it. Please.”
“Nikolai, I can’t.”
“I owe you, Alina. Ravka owes you. This and more. Do good works or commission an opera house or just take it out and gaze at it longingly when you think of the handsome prince you might have made your own. For the record, I favor the latter option, preferably paired with copious tears and the recitation of bad poetry.”
He took my hand and pressed the ring into it. “Take it and build something new.”