Actions

Work Header

Conqueror

Work Text:

The history books will tell you that it was the death of Alina’s parents that set her on the path to destroying the Fold, but that’s not quite true. Her parents’ deaths were the beginning, yes, but the real fork in the road of Alina Starkov’s story was the death of Mal Oretsev, years later: yet another First Army casualty in the heart of the Fold.

The night Alina got word of his death--ten miles away from where Alina was stationed with her unit, nothing but ten miles away, so close and yet too far to be of any use--her agony was sharp enough to cut her to ribbons, a yawning chasm inside of her that could not be filled.

Her unit had been kind, as much as they could be, taking her back to the tent, plying her with extra rations of liquor until she’d finally collapsed into numb sleep.

And that night, the worst night of Alina’s short sad life, that night was when she received her first vision of the stag.

It was the only relief she’d had, that first week. Her waking hours were nothing but a dull grey blur of grief, walking when she was told to walk, sitting when she should sit, mechanically working through her tasks until her shift was done for the day and she could collapse into her cot at night. But at night--at least at night there was oblivion, with flashes of a glorious stag in the woods, lit with a cold gleaming light, his antlers rising up into the air like a crown. Silent and majestic, and the most beautiful thing Alina had seen, even if it was only in her dreams.

If Alina had been able to focus on anything, that first week, she might have wondered at having the same dream over and over again, might have wondered at how specific it was, might’ve just wondered but why a stag?

But she didn’t, and so that horrible week went, until the stag came for her.

*

Years and years down the line, there are numerous stories about the night that Alina Starkov was summoned to her path by Morozova’s Stag. People will claim they witnessed it, that the camp was filled with a glorious white light, that they witnessed Sankta Alina astride the stag, both of them luminous in their beauty and glory, before they both disappeared in a flash of blinding sunlight, never mind that it was hours after sunset.

This is all nonsense, of course. The truth is that Alina Starkov disappeared, and no one was much bothered by the desertion of one recruit, particularly (as some said) a half-Shu cartographer who probably was up to no good, and certainly couldn’t be trusted. There were no witnesses to anything at all, and if anyone noticed the hoofprints around one of the tents in the morning, they didn’t say.

*

It’s another two years before Alina Starkov sees the Fold again.

 

*

Two years of revelations about herself, of diligent training, of transformation into a vehicle of light to destroy the Fold, the thing that killed everyone she's ever loved, and this is where Alina finally finds herself, riding the back of a mystical stag as she goes directly into the heart of the Fold.

The stag gently nickers as it senses her thoughts. "It's okay, I'm ready," Alina says automatically, her voice still rusty after two years of only having the stag for company.

The wind picks up as they get closer, and Alina could almost swear she hears the roars of the volcra swarming in the depths of the Fold, or maybe that's just the sound of her heartbeat pounding in her ears.

A wave of comfort washes over her, the stag offering up more of that bottomless compassion and trust--sending a message that the stag knows she's ready, knows she can control her powers with the stag there to act as the amplifier she needs, that they can take down the Fold together, but if she wants to wait, if--

If she isn't yet ready to face her near-certain death.

You're young, the stag tells her. So young still. So much life left in you.

But there's nothing left for Alina in this world. And the idea of trying to find something to do with her life while more people are dying in the reaches of the Fold, more soldiers like Mal being served up as sacrifices, more families like hers being torn apart...

The best thing that Alina can do with her life now is to make this attempt, no matter what it costs.

No matter if it costs her everything.

"I'm ready," Alina says, her voice surer now, and the stag lets out a huff of understanding.

And so Alina keeps going forward, and lets the darkness swallow her up, her body trembling as she waits for the perfect moment to let herself call upon the light, and for her destiny to be fulfilled at last.

*

It's an idle fantasy for some historians, in the decades to come, to wonder what would have happened had the Sun Summoner been recovered at the site of the (former) Fold by the West Ravkan army first, rather than by the Grisha of the Second Army. If it had been General Zlatan to be the first to greet the Sun Summoner, rather than General Kirigan...how would the nascent movement for an independent West Ravka have been affected? Would the movement have been able to survive for longer? What would General Zlatan have been able to accomplish, with the Sun Summoner safely behind the city limits of Novokribirsk?

Some historians might dare to wonder about that alternate series of events, but they are not foolish enough to put these idle imaginings down on paper. At least, the smart ones aren't.

The new rulers of Ravka are all that is just and benevolent, but it's not prudent to discuss a world where their rule failed to come into existence, after all.

*

Alina was mostly correct, that fateful morning when she set out to embrace her destiny.

She was capable of destroying the Fold.

She was ready to sacrifice herself to achieve her goal.

But Alina, who had already lost so much, mother and father and childhood companion, did not think she had anything left to lose, or that there was any way for her to be left behind again.

In this, and only in this, she was wrong.

 

*

It takes Alina a long time to open her eyes, in the wrecked landscape that once held the Fold. There’s shouting and blood and dirt in the air, and she’s lying on the ground, dazed and bewildered, her heart like a hummingbird in her chest, her breathing weak and unsteady.

There’s the corpse of a volcra near her, a hole in its chest and its blood thick on the ground, tongue lolling out of its mouth.

And above her head, a blue, blue sky, not a cloud to be seen.

Distantly she hears someone shouting, “There’s someone here!”

Alina has the vague feeling that she ought to get up, but it’s all she can do to keep breathing, so she closes her eyes and focuses on that. At some point there are people around her, shouting, demanding her name, what she’s doing here, what has she done--

None of them get too close to her, however. The fact that she’s still glowing with light is probably why.

A shadow falls over Alina’s face, and she wearily opens her eyes to look upon, frankly, the most beautiful man she’s ever seen. She stares dumbly into his dark eyes and handsome face, vaguely noticing the black kefta he wears, along with the unshakeable air of authority.

Black kefta…

He kneels next to her in the dirt, bending over her as he asks, very quietly, “Who are you?”

Alina licks at her dry lips. “Did it work? Is the Fold gone now?”

His eyes narrow, but he doesn’t deny it. “Who are you?”

Alina sighs in relief, and closes her eyes once more. “It doesn’t matter. I did what I had to, what we…” She automatically turns to look for the stag, even though she knows--she knows it’s gone, she saw it vanish--

It’s gone, along with Mal, along with everything she knew or loved, and in this moment, Alina wants to be gone too.

She turns away a little, wishing to disappear, wishing for that quiet oblivion where all she was capable of was breathing and blinking her eyes, but the man places two cool fingers around her chin and turns her face towards him again. “You did this?” he demands. “You?

Alina, spurred by a burst of energy she can’t explain, opens her eyes and asks, a little pointedly, “Do you see anyone else here?”

The man’s expression shifts, eyes narrowing even as the corner of his mouth quirks. He’s still touching her, fingertips resting on the curve of her chin. “No, I don’t,” he says at last. “Can you stand?”

“Probably not,” Alina answers honestly.

She expects him to call for a stretcher, not to sweep her up into his arms, lifting her with seemingly little effort.

“What--” Alina says, startled. The fur of his collar is soft beneath her cheek, and she reflexively turns her face into it for one moment before remembering herself.

“You need to see a healer,” the man says coolly. “And I’m not going to leave the Sun Summoner and savior of Ravka lying in the dirt.”

Alina’s stomach cramps a little, hearing that title from another human being for the first time in her life. “I’m, I’m not the--”

The man tilts his head to look at her, a dark eyebrow raised just so. “We’ve only just begun our relationship, there’s no need to start by trying to lie to me.”

Alina doesn’t know what to say to that, so she lets her gaze look past the man’s face (his absurdly beautiful face) and she starts to take in the scene around her, the piled-up bodies of the volcra scattered all across the landscape, gruesome and awful.

And all the people, all the Grisha of Ravka’s Second Army, and a good many soldiers of the First Army, openly staring at them. At her. Some of them are murmuring, some of them have tear-tracks on their cheeks.

“Oh, Saints,” she says faintly.

The man says quietly, with a sudden urgency, right into her ear, “Give me your name. Something to tell them.”

“It’s Alina. Alina Starkov.”

“Alina,” the man murmurs, making it sound like a caress.

“General,” a timid voice says, approaching from Alina’s left. Alina turns her head to look at the Healer approaching, and the Healer--a pale-eyed and pale-faced girl, who only goes paler as Alina catches her eye. “We, ah, we are ready to tend to the, to...her. The stretcher is here, if--”

The general--Saints, this must be General Kirigan, it’s Kirigan that’s holding her in his arms, descendent of the Black Heretic, leader of the Second Army--

Kirigan gracefully lowers her into the stretcher, slow and careful, like she’s a treasure to be handled delicately.

“Her name is Alina Starkov,” he says quietly to the Healer, who looks at them both with dazzled eyes. He rises and says it again, more loudly, for the crowd surrounding them at large. “This is Alina Starkov,” he says, each word deliberately uttered for as much impact as possible. “The Sun Summoner has come to Ravka, and she has vanquished the Fold.” He turns to her, his dark eyes blazing with emotion. “Her name is Alina Starkov, and she is the savior of our nation.”

Alina feels a chill go through her, and she looks around in amazement as the army roars, the cheers and shouts hitting her like a wall, ringing in her ears, ringing for miles and miles around.

*
It’s the silverware that Alina gets stuck on.

She’s in a spacious tent, surrounded by people, on a warm soft cot with a tray of delicious food in front of her, soup and bread and herring, fresh fruit and tea--and it’s the spoon and fork that she keeps lingering over.

“You should eat,” Kirigan says, watching her closely.

“I am,” Alina says, and belatedly adds, “Sir.” She quickly pops a grape into her mouth, and as the sweetness bursts on her tongue, quickly grabs more. The grapes unlock something in her head, and she is suddenly ravenous, tearing at the bread with her bare hands and stuffing it into her mouth. She moves to pick up the bowl with her bare hands too, before remembering the spoon, and flushes a little. It’s no use to hope that no one’s noticed her bad table manners, literally everyone in the room is watching her now.

It’s not like she even had cutlery or fine porcelain, living in the woods--most of what she ate was either foraged or game she caught with traps, and the most she had to use was a knife, and that she mostly used to gut and clean the animals before cooking them over an open fire.

But she’s too hungry to be self-conscious, so before long, her plate is clean, and Alina has no excuses left to avoid meeting General Kirigan’s gaze. She remembers to wipe at her mouth with the napkin on the tray, and then carefully folds her hands in her lap and lifts her eyes up to meet his.

“Tell it to me again,” Kirigan says, and Alina steels herself and starts the story again from the beginning, talking about the visions of the stag she had, before the stag came for her in the night two years ago.

Over the low murmuring of the crowd around them, Kirigan asks coolly, “How did you slip through the camp without being seen? I can’t imagine the sight of Morozova’s Stag not setting off a riot, no matter how well-trained the First Army might be.”

“We went invisible,” Alina says, and Kirigan raises an eyebrow at her.

“You...went invisible,” he repeats, enunciating each word.

A flicker of annoyance goes through her at that--as if she’s going to start lying now--and Alina says, “Yes, invisible. I’d show you, but--” she waves a hand around her, to indicate everything that’s happened, that she’s completely drained from her efforts today.

But Kirigan’s expression flickers with interest, and he suddenly steps towards her, all smooth strides, and gracefully goes down on one knee to bring himself at eye-level with her. “I can offer some assistance with that,” he says, and wraps his hand around hers.

Alina has no words for the rush that goes through her at his touch, cool and electrifying at the same time. It’s both foreign and achingly familiar, a link Alina only ever had with the stag and never thought to have again.

“You’re an Amplifier, too,” she breathes out, staring at him. The power emanating from him, the sheer overwhelming scale of it--

His gaze is steady on her face. “Show me, Miss Starkov.”

“Right,” Alina murmurs, still dazed, but with his power flowing from him to her, it’s easy enough to focus, and then to bend the light around her until she’s invisible, shielded from the gaze of everyone there.

Over the gasps of everyone, Alina clears her throat and says, “Like I said, invisible.”

She quickly lets the effect drop, re-emerging in front of the crowd, and their gasps and cries only grow louder, people clapping their hands over their mouths and drawing back, others stepping closer with round eyes and eager faces.

“Remarkable,” Kirigan breathes out, his eyes glittering in the lamplight. His hand is still on top of hers, and Alina’s fingers twitch in his before she quickly pulls her hand away.

“The stag took me to the forest, and it...taught me. I didn’t know I was Grisha, I didn’t know anything before it called on me, and I’ve spent the last two years training for this, only this.”

“Training to destroy the Fold,” Kirigan says, his voice oddly neutral.

“Of course,” Alina says. “What else was I going to do? The Fold--it took everything away from me, everyone I’ve ever loved. It’s been a blight on Ravka for centuries. What else was I supposed to do with this power?”

The words ring oddly in her head after she’s said them--what else was she supposed to do, what else is she supposed to do now, now that the Fold is gone, that the stag is gone, and she is somehow still here?

“I…” Alina lets her gaze drop. “I didn’t think I’d live through it, honestly. I thought I had a good chance at destroying it, I knew I was ready as I was ever going to be, but…” Her forehead wrinkling, Alina looks up at Kirigan again and blurts out, “What am I going to do now? What’s to become of me?”

Kirigan looks as close to nonplussed as Alina expects the man ever gets. “Do you honestly think we’re going to let the Sun Summoner rot away in the streets?” he asks mildly. Alina opens her mouth, but he continues, saying with total assurance, “You’re the savior of the country, not to mention the first of your kind. I promise you, Miss Starkov--we’ll find a use for you.”

That...is perhaps not as comforting as Kirigan means it to be, but Alina just nods in response.

*

Whatever use they’ll find for Alina, it’s going to happen at the Little Palace.

Alina tries to question Kirigan about it--Kirigan is the only one she can question, as everyone else around her, from the Healer who checks her health the following morning, to the Heartrenders who have been assigned to guard her, agrees that it is General Kirigan she should go to with her concerns and not anyone else.

Kirigan seems not to understand her concern. “You are Grisha. The rightful home of all Grisha is the Little Palace. Where else would you go?” He turns to look at her more closely, adding, “Is there another home you wish to go to?”

Alina tries not to flinch at the question. “You know there isn’t,” she says. “And that’s not the point--wouldn’t I be more useful here? I know the army’s having trouble securing all the territory where the Fold used to be--”

“Securing our borders is not the best use for you, not yet,” Kirigan says. “Not to mention the risk of you being attacked by some drüskelle assassin out in the field.” Alina blinks at that, and Kirigan asks, “Did you think I assigned Ivan and Feydor to guard you on a whim? News of the Sun Summoner has travelled through the continent like a tidal wave, and all of Ravka’s enemies will be attempting to regroup or take advantage of the chaos. The sooner you’re behind the safety of the Little Palace’s walls, the happier I will be, and the better off Ravka will be.”

There’s very little Alina can say to argue against that logic. “Very well,” she says, lowering her gaze.

When she lifts her eyes again, Kirigan is watching her closely. “Do you long for the solitude of the forest that much, Miss Starkov?”

“No,” Alina says, although if she’s honest, she does--she’d grown used to the quiet, the stillness of being alone, with only the stag for company. Alina wrenches herself away from that thought, of soft fur under her bare hand and that endless well of understanding, so needed after the loss of Mal, after the confusion of realizing who and what she was. To distract herself from that open well of grief, Alina shakes her head and admits, “It’s just that I’d never thought about what would happen after I destroyed the Fold.”

“Because you never thought to live that long,” Kirigan says, with a careful note to his voice.

“No,” Alina admits.

Something flickers across Kirigan’s face at that, and he says, “But you have lived, Miss Starkov, and you’re likely to live a good long while yet. You should think about your future, about the possibilities that are open to you.”

It takes everything Alina has to stop herself from demanding, like what? Her future feels like a void in front of her, no foundations to cling to. She swallows it back, because it’s not General Kirigan’s responsibility to reassure her, not like this.

In a feeble attempt to distract herself, she says, “You don’t need to call me Miss Starkov, you know.”

Kirigan’s mouth--a very well-shaped mouth, Alina can’t help but notice--quirks with amusement. “Would you prefer Sankta Alina instead?”

Alina’s eyes grow huge with alarm. “Oh, please don’t,” she blurts out, horrified. “You can’t be serious--people aren’t calling me--are they?” Her voice rises up to a squeak by the end of her stammered half-sentence, and if she wasn’t so alarmed (Sankta Alina?) she’d be embarrassed at losing her composure so thoroughly in front of the always-composed general.

“They are,” Kirigan says. “Alina--when I called you the savior of Ravka, did you think I was being hyperbolic?”

“No, I...I knew you meant it, I just didn’t...oh, Saints,” Alina moans, putting her hands to her hot cheeks.

“This is why it’s so important for you to be at the Little Palace,” Kirigan tells her, stepping forward and gently taking one of her hands away from her face, holding it in his. “You need a new sanctuary, a refuge where you can adjust to your new life.” As Alina stares up into his handsome face, Kirigan urges her, all sincerity, “Alina--this truly is the best thing for you.”

Alina’s eyes drop, almost against her will, to their clasped hands. She can’t feel his power to the same extent she did yesterday, but she still has a sense of it there, banked but always present. His hand is rougher than she expected, a firm grip and calluses on the fingers, the hand of a man who works.

She has no reason to be lingering like this, gawking at him like a child. Alina pulls back and nods, and hopes he doesn’t read anything into the flush rising on her face. “Of course, you’re right. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me,” she adds, glancing behind him at the mountain of maps and reports on his desk.

“It was no trouble,” Kirigan says. “I’ve wrapped up what I need to anyway, before we travel to Os Alta.”

Alina blinks at this. “We?”

“Of course,” Kirigan says smoothly. “Where else would I be, if not escorting you to your new home?”

Alina’s brain goes utterly blank at the thought of a long carriage ride with Kirigan for company, the two of them together in a small enclosed place--Saints, what is wrong with her, a pretty face never used to addle her this much before--but she bobs her head and croaks out, “Of course. Right. Thank you,” before turning on her head and fleeing out of the tent, barely stopping for her new Heartrender minders.

 

*

By the time that Alina finally arrives at the Little Palace, she’s in a state of shock and she knows it. Between the attack in the woods by the Fjerdan drüskelle, nearly dying because some fanatics want her dead, watching Kirigan slice a man in half, and then riding with him the rest of the way, his solid warmth and his arm around her waist like a living band of steel keeping her upright in the saddle--Alina is too overwhelmed to take notice of anything, not even the suite of rooms that is far grander than anything her imagination could conjure up.

She numbly strips down to her underthings and goes to sleep in her bed--or rather, she tries to sleep in her bed.

It’s ridiculous to complain about, but the bed is too soft. Two years of sleeping in a cave or on a forest floor, and Alina is wholly unprepared for a mattress and bedding this soft; it feels like she’s being smothered, swallowed up into the sheets.

Finally, sometime around midnight, she gives it up and climbs down to the floor, conceding enough to bring a pillow with her to cushion her head, and nothing else.

Once she feels the firmness of the floor beneath her spine, Alina sighs in relief and drops off to sleep in only a moment.

Thankfully, she’s awake by dawn, up and awkwardly snooping around the desk, when her rooms are invaded by a parade of attendants in white with snooty expressions, led by one of the most beautiful women Alina has ever seen.

Alina blinks at them all, feeling dirty and unkempt and very out of place. “Hello?” she tries.

The red-headed woman gapes at her. “Saints! You really were in a cave for two years!”

So that introduction to Genya Safin could have gone better. Alina’s head is in a muddle, between the strangers stripping her of her clothes and shoving her into a piping hot bath--oh Saints, a bath--and whispering to each other in Old Ravkan, as though Alina doesn’t understand Old Ravkan, honestly--

And then one of the attendants says, “You’ll be tailoring her eyes then? We can’t have a Sun Summoner who looks so Shu.”

Alina freezes, as though the bathwater has gone ice cold, all from a few cruel words.

But Genya’s nostrils flare, and she says in a cutting tone, "If you can't keep a civil tongue in your head when addressing the savior of Ravka, then I question what purpose there is for you at all."

As the attendant splutters, Genya claps her hands and orders them all out, and Alina is left alone, with this strange woman who can alter Alina’s entire face.

“Don’t change my eyes,” Alina says through numb lips.

“I’m not going to change your eyes,” Genya says, kindly. “I don’t care that you’re Shu. I care that you smell and look like you’ve lived in a cave for two years, and I need to make you presentable enough for the King.”

Alina relaxes, before she hears the rest of the sentence. “King?”

"Yes, which is why we have a lot of work to do." And with that, Genya points at her tangled hair and says, "Duck your head beneath the water and I'll help wash your hair."

Given that this woman is about to help her get dressed to meet the King, Alina sees no point in arguing. She takes a breath, and ducks down beneath the steaming bathwater. (At least this is far more pleasant than trying to bathe in an ice-cold river.)

But it's still unfamiliar to her, especially when Genya takes a seat behind Alina and starts matter-of-factly washing her hair with perfumed soap, her hands gently working out the tangles and snarls. Alina flinches the first time that Genya touches her, and Genya asks, "Am I hurting you?"

"No," Alina says quickly and does her best to stay still. Genya isn't hurting her, her hands are soft, her touch light and delicate. It feels pleasant, comforting, having someone rub at her scalp and stroke her hair smooth, and Alina teeters on the verge, overwhelmed, blinking her eyes hard against the sting of tears and trying to pretend that it's just the soap.

They've only known each other for a few minutes, but it's clear that Genya Safin is no fool. "What's wrong?"

Alina sniffs, wiping at her face with her wet hand, which is patently useless.

"You're the second person to touch me in two years." Alina explains, biting at her lip. "It's just...strange, that's all."

Genya is quiet for a moment, then says softly, "I understand. Who was the first?"

"General Kirigan. After I'd destroyed the Fold, I was too weak to even stand. He picked me up and carried me off to the Healers and a stretcher."

"How dramatic," Genya says, with a hint of a laugh in her voice.

Alina starts to grin. "It was," she admits. "And confusing--I didn't even recognize him at first."

Genya actually laughs at that. "Really?"

“In my defense, it’s not like he introduced himself--”

“He typically doesn’t have to!” Genya says, still laughing--but with Alina, not at her, which has Alina relaxing even more into the warm bath and easy atmosphere. “The black kefta didn’t give it away?”

“I realized it eventually!” Alina protests, but she’s laughing too.

Genya’s still chuckling as she rinses Alina’s hair out with a pitcher of warm water. Once Alina’s wiped most of the water off her face, Genya ushers her up and helps her into a warm towel. As Alina dries off, Genya starts organizing her tools on the vanity nearby, and she says, glancing over her shoulder, “You’re not what I expected you’d be.”

Alina nearly asks, did you expect someone who wasn’t part Shu, but decides to give Genya the benefit of the doubt and holds her tongue. “Oh?”

“A hermit living in the woods with a mythical stag for two years? I was sure you’d be...oh, I don’t know, stranger. But you’re very normal.”

“And that’s...good?” Alina hazards.

Genya gives her a half-smile. “It’s refreshing.”

*

The veil is ridiculous.

“What is the point of all this?” Alina wonders as she and Genya make their way through the Little Palace. There are dozens of doors and rooms that Alina would far rather be exploring right now--the library alone--and she’d prefer to do it without the veil, thank you very much.

“Diplomacy, Miss Starkov,” a smooth male voice says to her right, and Alina turns with relief to see General Kirigan at her side, as Genya tactfully falls a few steps behind them both.

Lifting the veil up, Alina tries for a smile. “My diplomatic skills are a little rusty these days.”

Wonder of wonders, Kirigan actually smiles back at her. “That’s what I’ll be there for.”

“Good,” Alina says, a little faintly as she sees the Grand Palace for the first time. The size and grandeur of it…

“I think that is the ugliest building I’ve ever seen,” Kirigan says in a confiding tone.

Alina chokes on her laughter, but asks, “What am I supposed to do today, in front of the King? Genya says that he’ll want to see my power, but...I won’t have to talk to him, will I?”

Kirigan looks amused, but says, “As little as possible, I promise.” He stops walking for a moment and Alina, surprised, stops with him.

He looks into her face and says, “With others, I’d have to warn them against bravado or arrogance, but not you. Stay calm and composed, and remember what you have already accomplished, and who you already are. You are the Sun Summoner, and everyone in there already knows it.”

Alina swallows hard. There’s something in his support that feels familiar--not the fine words, really, but the support itself, and when Alina realizes, she has to turn away and breathe through the old grief.

Because Kirigan’s support reminds her of Mal, the way he’d coach her through trying a new thing, whether it was knocking back a glass of kvas for the first time or learning how to throw a punch. The two aren’t anything alike, not really, but Mal had never doubted her capabilities, not ever, and Kirigan’s casual confidence that she won’t make a fool of herself during this presentation is...well, it’s a reminder of what she once had, and lost.

“Alina?” Kirigan asks, sounding concerned now. “Have I upset you?”

Alina shakes her head. “No, you haven’t.” It’s been two years, and though she’d once thought it impossible, she’s learned by now that the grief does fade, and that she can somehow keep moving through it.

So she straightens her shoulders and nods at Kirigan. “Thank you. That was...you’ve been kind, and I appreciate it.”

Kirigan is a composed man, but for a second, Alina can read the surprise in his face as easily as words on a page. “There’s no need to thank me.” Alina quirks an eyebrow at him, and Kirigan’s face suddenly relaxes into a smile, a real one, teeth flashing white in his handsome face. “But you’re welcome.”

Alina exhales and nods sharply. “Well, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s go and be...diplomatic.”

Kirigan’s warm chuckle sets off a warm sense of pride, low in her belly, as they walk together into the Grand Palace.

The actual presentation is nothing like what she expects. Oh, it’s grand enough, and full of enough people that Alina is swallowing beneath her veil and wishing she could walk a little closer to Kirigan--or better yet, behind him, shielded by his height and billowing kefta.

What Alina didn’t expect was the way that all these fancy, titled courtiers would be gawking at her. There’s no dignity in their stares, no frosty remove; they’re all blinking open-mouthed at her just like the soldiers at the Fold. One of them even bows as she walks past, and that sets several others off, as Alina is the recipient of half a dozen bows or deep curtsies as she walks forward with Kirigan.

Calm and composed, calm and composed--

Alina finds herself actually thankful for the veil, particularly as she looks to the King and Queen on their thrones. The King, at least, looks deeply unimpressed with her, frowning as she approaches. Once Kirigan and Alina have stopped, Kirigan gives Alina a gentle nod to confirm she should lift her veil.

“I thought she’d be taller,” the King pronounces, looking at her with narrowed eyes.

“She doesn’t look very Shu. Well, I suppose she’s Shu enough,” the Queen adds.

It’s no worse than anything else Alina’s heard before in her life, but there’s a soft rustling and murmur behind her, and Alina tries not to turn in their direction. She can’t be sure, but...is that disapproval meant for her, or for the monarchs?

Clearly, the King has his own opinion: his face darkens as he harrumphs and says, “No matter. Well? Who are you, then?”

Alina takes a deep breath. “My name is Alina Starkov,” she says, and if her voice is wavering a little bit, at least she’s managed to string some words together. “Your Highness,” she adds quickly.

“She is the Sun Summoner,” Kirigan interjects smoothly. “And she is the one who destroyed the Fold.”

The King nods at this, eyes still narrowed. “Let’s see her talent.”

This, she knows how to do. She waits long enough for Kirigan to nod in confirmation, then closes her eyes and calls on the sun. She keeps it simple enough, an orb of light surrounding her and Kirigan, her skin glowing like a beacon, and holds it for the space of several heartbeats, long enough for everyone to gasp and exclaim, long enough for her to prove her powers to the King--

Long enough to look over at Kirigan, and see the glow of herself reflected in his face, dark eyes shining.

Alina exhales, and lets the light disappear.

Someone actually applauds as the light dissipates, although it’s quickly brought to a halt as the King lurches to his feet.

“After all these years, the Fold is finally vanquished, and it’s by this obscure mapmaker! General Kirigan, how do you explain this?”

Alina blinks and looks to Kirigan, who seems unsurprised by this question. “Moi tsar, we all know the stories of the Sun Summoner. I cannot explain why it is now that the Sun Summoner has been called, or why she was not found before now. But it’s clear that this...this is the will of fate, or perhaps the will of the Saints. Alina Starkov was called to her destiny by Morozova’s Stag, a living Amplifier, and trained in deep seclusion until she was ready to destroy the Shadow Fold that has blighted our country for too long.”

The King is nodding now in approval, saying, “And now we can turn our efforts to quashing the rebels in the West, uniting Ravka and turning our attention towards our true enemies.” He turns to Alina again and says, “Well done.”

“Thank you,” Alina says after a half-beat. “Uh, Your Highness.”

Kirigan, Saints be praised, immediately comes in and papers over that awkwardness, as he says smoothly, “Now that the Sun Summoner has been revealed, her true place is at the Little Palace with the Grisha of the Second Army. First she conquered the Fold, and now she will help us conquer our enemies.”

Alina goes still at this, but the King and the court hear nothing wrong in this at all, as the applause that breaks out is thunderous.

The royal audience is apparently at an end after that, but Alina’s introduction isn’t complete, because then she’s presented to all the other Grisha at the Little Palace, and this…this moves her in a way that the sulky king could not, strangers hugging her with tears in her eyes, one Inferni taking up her hand and kissing it, a Heartrender clapping her on the shoulder and saying, “Welcome home,” and Alina tries to pull up a smile through the sudden tears, through the emotions that threaten to overwhelm her.

“Thank you,” she says to them all, over and over again, “Thank you, thank you.”

 

*

Alina should have known that when she pleaded a headache and requested to have dinner in her rooms, it would cause a reaction.

Given that the reaction is for Genya to arrive with her tray of food and a questioning look on her face, rather than Kirigan or, Saints forbid, one of those sour-faced attendants, Alina figures it could be worse, at least.

"Are you feeling all right?" Genya asks as she sets the tray of food down on the bed, where Alina is lounging in an attempt to get used to the soft mattress and pillows. "A lot of people are disappointed not to see you in the dining room tonight."

"I just couldn't face it," Alina admits. "All those people..."

"It must be rather overwhelming for you," Genya says, sympathetic. She perches on the edge of the bed and says, kindly, "Would it help if I told you how happy everyone is that you're here? That this is your home now?"

Alina opens her mouth to deny that this palace, this ostentatious suite, is her home, but shuts it again. If this is not her home, then what is?

Home once meant wherever Mal was, but Mal is gone. The orphanage at Keramzin was never meant to be Alina's home for good, and the First Army likely wouldn't take her back even if it could--Kirigan had gracefully glided past what amounted to a crime of desertion when Alina went off with the Stag, but Alina's sure that others haven't forgotten.

Given that she expected to be dead a few days ago, Alina feels ridiculous about complaining or resenting her good fortune, but the problem is that it doesn't feel like her good fortune, or her rightful place--all of this feels like a happy ending meant for someone else.

"Alina?"

Alina realizes she's been silent for too long, and forces a brief smile. "I think I just need time to adjust."

"That's reasonable," Genya agrees. "Is there anything that could help?"

Alina opens her mouth to say no, but instead says, "Could I have a sketchbook, do you think? And some charcoal?"

Genya smiles. "I think we can manage that."

*

Combat training is harder than Alina expects.

There’s the sheer physical labor of it, learning to throw a punch, learning how to properly spar. Sun Summoner or not, Alina is still a novice, and it’s rather humbling to be tossed into the dirt within five moves. Six if she’s lucky.

But even that part isn’t so bad, when her opponents fall all over themselves to apologize and pick her up, with Marie and Nadia in particular fluttering around her like happy birds. And there’s a thrill at working with Botkin, seeing someone whose face looks like hers, hearing his booming voice call out, “Daughter! Mind your thumbs when you make a fist, or it will be you with broken bones, rather than your enemy!”

So Alina is learning to enjoy, or at least tolerate, that part of combat training.

It’s having to relearn how to use her magic that stings.

When the stag called Alina to her destiny, the lessons she’d learned were all about balance and stillness. About finding the power within herself and within the space around her, and amplifying her gift (with the Stag’s help) to accomplish her objective.

It was not about inflicting violence on others.

Also, Baghra’s teaching methods are...certainly different. Which makes it especially ironic that apparently Baghra hadn’t wanted to teach Alina the Cut at all, and it had taken General Kirigan marching down to her cave and having (in Marie’s words) a pitched battle over the need for the Sun Summoner to protect herself by any and all measures possible before Baghra relented.

“I still think this is ridiculous,” Baghra had grumbled at their first meeting. “You’ll never be without bodyguards for the rest of your life. Likely as not, you’ll never leave Os Alta again. What need do you have for self-defense, with an army surrounding you?”

Alina goes cold at this described vision of her future, and blurts out before she can think twice, “You don’t know that.”

Baghra just cocks an eyebrow at her and says, dryly, “Don’t I?”

And so, out of sheer stubbornness, Alina dedicates herself to learning the Cut, to fashioning her light and power into a blade strong enough to cut through anything, even steel.

Nursing her bruises at lunch one day, Alina pushes her plate aside in favor of the notebook that she carries with her always, pulling it out to add some more touches to her sketch of Mal.

“Who’s that?” Marie asks over her shoulder. “He’s handsome.”

The ache is still there, but it no longer is devastating. “Yes, he was,” Alina says, wistfully.

Marie’s mouth forms a perfect O. “I’m so sorry, was he--”

“He was my best friend,” Alina says, amazed at how even her voice is. “Mal. We grew up together at the orphanage, did everything together.” Without thinking, she opens up the palm of her hand to look at the scar that still curves along the heel of her hand. “I thought we’d be together for the rest of our lives.”

“What happened to him?” Nadia asks in a hushed voice.

“He died in the Fold,” Alina says, and her voice is no longer entirely steady. “The stag came for me a week later. ”She exhales, shaking her head a little. “I don’t have anything to remember him by, not really, so I thought...well. I have the time to sketch for myself now, why don’t I?”

“You’re very good,” Marie says, voice full of admiration.

Alina laughs, happy for the excuse to change the subject. “I’m competent enough, but I do like doing it. I can sketch something for you, if you like--a portrait, maybe?”

Marie and Nadia light up at that, as bright as any light Alina could conjure, and immediately set to bargaining over which one of them will have the honor of being sketched by the Sun Summoner first. And soon the pages of Alina’s sketchbook start to fill up with drawings, of Marie and Nadia, of Botkin’s cheerful face and sturdy frame, even of Baghra’s cave.

Alina sketches the stag and Mal too, of course, and the meadow at the orphanage, keeping memories of her old life along with the new.

The one time she absently starts sketching Kirigan, however, Alina pauses mid-line, before hastily tearing out the page and crumpling it into a ball, and then throwing it into the fire.

She refuses to examine exactly why she does that, just leaves it as a vague decision that sketching Kirigan’s face is...something best left alone.

*

“You wanted to see me, General?” Alina says tentatively, hovering at the doorway into Kirigan’s rooms.

He turns to look at her, smiling, and Alina freezes a little because Saints, that face. “Alina, yes, come in.”

Alina carefully steps inside, looking around with interest at the room around her, particularly the map that takes up so much space in the center of the room.

“I never thought I’d get the chance to remove the model of the Fold from this map,” Kirigan says as she approaches. “And now look.”

Alina smiles herself, but her smile fades as she takes a closer look at the models for the Shu Han forces at the border, the Fjerdan soldiers scattered across Ravka’s forests. “It still doesn’t look peaceful,” she ventures, glancing up at him.

“No, it isn’t,” Kirigan agrees. “Which is what I wanted to discuss with you. Over dinner, actually. You haven’t eaten yet?”

Alina mutely shakes her head, and Kirigan smiles again and gestures towards a small table, where dinner is already set out on fine porcelain dishes, silverware gleaming in the light.

“How are you settling in?” Kirigan asks as they sit down at the table, Alina carefully shaking out the napkin and placing it in her lap.

“Fine, fine,” Alina says quickly. “Everyone’s been so welcoming and kind, they’ve all been lovely.”

“I’d be concerned if they were anything else,” Kirigan says dryly.

“You know what I mean,” Alina says. “I was worried I wouldn’t fit in here, but...it’s been good.”

“And your training?” Kirigan asks.

“Training is...interesting,” Alina says after a moment, and takes up the spoon to dip into the soup before she can be asked anything else.

From the wry amusement on Kirigan’s face, he hasn’t missed her evasiveness. “And to think you were worried about your diplomacy skills,” he says. “I know Baghra can be overwhelming.”

Alina doesn’t argue with that, but says, “Really, it’s just...having to think of my magic in a new way. I’m not used to it. Before, it was about controlling and tapping into the power, not...making it into a weapon.”

Kirigan nods in understanding, but says, “It is necessary, Alina, you must see that. Despite every precaution we take, there might be a day when you will have to defend yourself against your enemies, and you need to be ready.”

Alina doesn’t want to argue, but she says, “I don’t really think of myself as having enemies.”

“You’re the Sun Summoner,” Kirigan says, gravely. “You have enemies all over the world now.”

Alina feels a chill go through her, and sets down her spoon, appetite gone.

“I don’t mean to scare you,” Kirigan says, and she can hear the apology in his voice. “I’m glad that you’re finding a home here, that the Little Palace is your sanctuary. But...it would be a disservice to you, to keep you in the dark about the upheaval that’s happened as a result of the Fold being destroyed.”

Alina sits back in her seat at that. “Upheaval?”

“Taking down the Fold was a service to the world,” Kirigan says immediately. “Ravka owes you a debt that can never be repaid. But now that the Fold is gone, everyone is left scrambling for position as we adjust to the new reality. And if we don’t move quickly, Ravka could be left in a weaker position than before.”

“How?” Alina asks. “Doesn’t the Fold coming down mean that Ravka can be united once more? No more West Ravka and East Ravka, no more difficulty moving people and goods across or around the Fold?”

Kirigan smiles, but it’s a rueful one. “Sadly, the separatist movement in West Ravka is proving to be more stubborn than we had hoped. Knitting Ravka back together will not be the work of a few months, but the work of generations to come. And the Fold, hideous demon that it was, still provided a natural security against our enemies, particularly the Fjerdans. We couldn’t get through it, but neither could they. Now that’s not true.”

Alina says, dismayed, “So...we’re in a worse position than we were before I took down the Fold?”

“No, of course not,” Kirigan says quickly. “We’re just in a different position than we were before. One with great potential...but also with great dangers.”

Alina sits with that for a moment, and Kirigan doesn’t speak, just watches her quietly. Finally, she squares her shoulders and asks, “So, what do you want me to do?”

A slow smile appears on Kirigan’s face. “I want to turn you into an icon. A symbol of Ravka’s power, of Grisha power. The people already call you Santka Alina, they already see you as Ravka’s savior. I want to spread that across the entire continent.”

“Are the people ready for a half-Shu saint?” Alina asks. “Genya’s shown me some of the posters that have been flying around--they think I’m a girl with blond hair and blue eyes.”

“We’ll make them ready,” Kirigan promises her, his voice fervent. “When we’re through, the entire world will know that Ravka is strong because of the Grisha, that we are the bedrock of Ravkan society.”

Alina feels breathless by the time he’s finished, dazzled by the conviction in his voice, the future he paints for her in just a few brief sentences. “Just like that?”

Kirigan grins at her, startlingly boyish, and says, “Compared to destroying the Fold, I don’t think you’ll have much trouble with this new mission.” He pauses and adds, “And this time, you won’t be left on your own. You’ll never be alone again.”

Alina swallows, her throat oddly tight. “Thank you, General.”

Kirigan looks at her, his eyes soft, and says, “Call me Aleksander.”

The heat that rises to her cheeks at this is immediate and, Alina fears, very obvious. “All right,” she says, her voice strangled, and drops her gaze back down to her plate.

She pokes at the fish with her fork, and asks, “Can you tell me more about the separatist movement in West Ravka?”

“Of course,” Kirigan says, as warm and kind as ever, and they continue the rest of their dinner like that, Kirigan answering her questions with grace and patience, as Alina’s understanding of the political situation grows by leaps and bounds. He’s careful never to openly criticize the king or government, but it’s clear that he’s worried that with the disappearance of the Fold, that the King and the otkazat’sya could turn on the Grisha, and that they could lose their rights and privileges. Without that protection, Ravka could revert to the way it once was, the way that it still is for so many Grisha in other countries now.

Listening to him, Alina can, perhaps for the first time since she came to the palace, see the beginnings of a new future for herself, a new purpose to work towards.

And if her pulse seems to flutter every time she looks at Kirigan’s handsome face for too long, Alina’s sure the feeling will fade away in time.

*

When Alina comes back from her afternoon ride with the General, it’s to find Genya in her quarters, carefully inspecting an elaborate gold kefta, with black embroidery picked out.

“What’s this?” Alina asks.

Genya turns to her and says, pertly, “Didn’t General Kirigan tell you of his latest gift when you were out riding together?”

Alina flushes, but says, “He didn’t mention it, no. And I already have plenty of keftas.”

“Not like this,” Genya says. “This is for your visit to the church, with the royal family.” Genya strokes the front of the gold kefta and muses, “I’m glad he took my advice on the design. Much more subtle this way, I think.”

Alina looks down at the black kefta she's wearing, at the gold embroidery on it, and says slowly, “What do you mean, Genya?”

Genya looks at her, and carefully sets the gold kefta down on the bed. “I mean that the General finds it politically advantageous to be linked to Santka Alina, the savior of Ravka. So he puts you in a black kefta, like his, rather than blue like all the other Etherealki. But he can’t be too obvious about it, and for your first visit among the public, it makes more sense to have you stand out, as one of a kind.”

“Right,” Alina says, carefully keeping her voice even.

But Genya knows her too well by this point, as she says, “He has to think about the political realities, Alina. It doesn’t mean that…well. It’s obvious he holds you in high regard.”

“Everyone holds the Sun Summoner in high regard,” Alina says. When Genya looks like she’s about to say more, Alina shakes her head and says, with a smile that feels tight and false on her face, “No, it’s fine. And you’re right, the kefta is beautiful. I’m sure it’ll be perfect for the occasion.”

Genya’s face softens. “You’ll look wonderful in it,” she reassures Alina.

*

It takes a very long time to reach the Royal Church in Os Alta, and that is not because of the distance between the church and the Little Palace.

The streets are filled with people, overflowing with people, and the carriage that Alina is in with the General is having to move at a snail’s pace as the palace guards and Grisha escorting them on horseback clear a path through the crowds.

“Oh, Saints,” Alina says, peering through the curtains as best as she can, trying not to show her face to the crowd. “I didn’t even think there were this many people in Os Alta.”

“There aren’t,” Kirigan--Aleksander--says. “People have been travelling from all over the continent to see you.”

Alina exhales and sinks back against her seat, heart hammering in her ears.

She can feel Aleksander watching her from his seat next to her, and finally he says, “What are you afraid of?”

Alina licks her lips, not wanting to say it out loud. “You’ll think I’m worrying over nothing.” She needs to stop relying on him so much.

“Anything that has you this worried is not nothing,” he tells her, and Alina’s heart squeezes at that.

She tries to keep quiet, tries to remember Genya telling her that she’s a political advantage for General Kirigan, but it’s no good, not when he gave her his first name, not when he’s so reassuring and kind, just when Alina needs that kindness the most.

“What if they see that I’m half-Shu, and they get angry?” Alina asks in a low whisper. She finally turns to look at him as she says it, and he has a crease between his eyebrows, not from anger, but from confusion.

“Even with you having destroyed the Fold?” he presses.

“It sounds mad, I know,” Alina says. “But my entire life, I’ve had to...brace myself for how strangers react to me. Sometimes they just have rude questions. Other times it’s worse. And now it’s a whole city of strangers…”

Aleksander shifts in his seat, pressing a little closer to her. “We’ve passed out posters of your face, your real face, all through the city. We’ve never hidden that you’re half-Shu. A good portion of the audience today already knows who you are, and they don’t care. The rest won’t either.” He pauses, and then adds, “And anyone who does care will have to answer to me.”

Alina finally smiles a little. “And just what are you going to do to them?”

“I have a few punishments in mind,” Aleksander says lightly. “But I won’t have to enact them. You’ll see.”

And, as is his usual habit, Aleksander is right. They eventually get to the steps of the church, and the second that Alina steps out of the carriage, holding onto Aleksander’s outstretched hand for balance, the crowd gets impossibly louder, people calling out her name, chanting, “Sankta Alina!” over and over again.

“Wave at them,” Aleksander urges in her ear, and Alina tentatively raises a hand to acknowledge the spectators, and the noise doubles. She catches glimpses of people’s faces in the crowd, some openly weeping, some looking transported with joy, others just looking awed and dazed.

No one, that she can see, is sneering.

“Come,” Aleksander says, smiling gently down at her, and out of sheer relief that he was right, Alina beams at him, and without thinking, laces her arm through his, the way she once would’ve with Mal, or any of the other mapmakers from her old unit when they were drinking.

But Aleksander looks so startled, as if no one ever reaches out to touch him, and Alina momentarily falters, wondering if she’s pressed too far--

But then his expression shifts, becoming pleased, and he tugs her a little closer as they walk up the marble steps together.

The actual sermon is...well, it’s awful. Alina tries to tell herself otherwise, tries to take each moment as it comes, but the genuflecting from people surrounding her--one of the priests kneels down and kisses the hem of her robe without even saying a word to her first, and Alina shrinks back before she can control herself. It takes an eternity to get through the aisle to where the royal family are impatiently waiting, and the scowl on the king’s face is marked, no matter how well Aleksander deflects.

And then the Apparat begins to preach, and things get far worse.

“That’s not how it happened,” Alina murmurs to Aleksander, when it becomes too much to bear. At the front of the altar, the Apparat is still droning on about Alina “conquering” the wild stag, breaking it to her purpose and to the betterment of Ravka. “I didn’t break the stag at all, it found me, it wanted--”

“Shh, shh,” Aleksander says in a whisper, placing a hand on her knee, where no one can see him do it. Alina bites the inside of her cheek and stays quiet, but she’s fuming.

That wasn’t how it happened. The stag sacrificed itself, channelled all of its power, all of that long life into Alina, deliberately putting itself into Alina’s hands for their shared purpose, their shared destiny. It had been the last friend Alina had had, her sole companion through the worst time of her life, the being that saved her, along with Ravka, and it takes everything Alina has not to jump up and shout at the Apparat for twisting their story to suit his own purposes.

Bitterly aware that everyone is watching her, Alina drops her head down to stare at her lap, blinking back angry tears of frustration, feeling the old grief rising up to choke her again--

And then Aleksander’s hand is wrapping around hers, and Alina jumps in surprise before turning her head up to look at him.

He’s looking right back at her, solemn dark eyes burning into hers, and the warmth of his hand feels like the only real thing in the world.

For a long moment, they keep staring at each other, and then Aleksander abruptly looks away, turning his attention to the sermon once more, cool and collected as ever.

His hand is still holding hers, and Alina swallows and turns her gaze forward, staring blindly at the stained-glass windows depicting the Thirteen Saints, aware of nothing but Aleksander’s hand in hers, his thigh millimeters away from hers.

*

By the time that Alina returns to the safety of the Little Palace, she is not at all in the mood for a late dinner in the dining hall with the rest of the Grisha. As they depart the carriage, Aleksander, in an unusually diffident tone for him, asks what her plans are for the evening, and Alina says wearily, “Oh, I’m just going to collapse in my bedroom and not leave unless the building is on fire.”

His mouth twitches, but he says, still in that cautious voice, “Reasonable enough, but perhaps--if you wished, we could have dinner together again. In private, I mean, I won’t subject you to more public scrutiny.”

“That would be lovely,” Alina says with enthusiasm, before wincing--does she seem too eager? Did she say yes too quickly?

But Aleksander looks pleased again by her quick agreement, smiling as he says, “Excellent. Shall we say, seven bells?”

Alina doesn’t bother trying not to beam at him. “Perfect.”

Once Alina is back in her bedroom, he spends far too long staring at the contents of her wardrobe and simultaneously wishing for something to wear that isn’t an endless parade of keftas and also knowing that even if she did have something else, such as a dramatic flowing gown like the heroines in the romance novels that made up a large portion of the library at the orphanage, she wouldn’t actually wear it--it would feel too obvious, too revealing.

So Alina sets out her usual black kefta and then determinedly turns back to the books she’d picked up in the library in an attempt to brush up on her political history of Ravka. She actually manages to mostly focus until it’s ten to seven, and then she scrambles and quickly changes into her kefta, momentarily fiddling with her hair before accepting she can’t do better with it in the time she has left, and keeping it loose around her shoulders and back as she quietly leaves her room and heads to Aleksander’s quarters.

She slips into the room with a careful knock at the door, only to freeze in the doorway, because Aleksander has decided to forgo his kefta for the evening, and his black shirt exposes both his throat and his forearms.

“Um,” Alina says, intelligently. “Hello.”

Aleksander turns to her with a soft smile, looking soft and approachable and so handsome it almost hurts to look at him. “Alina, come in.” He gestures at the table where they’ve had dinner before, and Alina knows that he’s made sure to order her favorites, and she can see the bottle of sweet wine that she’s already developed a weakness for.

It’s the sight of that small kindness, added up to all the dozens of kindnesses he’s shown her already, that has Alina saying, “Aleksander, wait.”

He turns to look at her, curious, and Alina licks her lips and says, “Thank you.”

Aleksander’s mouth quirks. “For dinner?” he asks.

“For...for today, in the church, stopping me from making a scene,” Alina says, and then plunges forward, adding next, “And for everything you’ve done since I came here. You’ve made it…” She bites at her mouth, trying to untangle the thoughts in her head and make them into actual sentences, and says slowly, “I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like, after destroying the Fold. I couldn’t imagine…wanting a life after destroying the Fold, I didn’t think there would be anything left for me at all. But you...you helped make it possible. So thank you.”

Aleksander is watching her as she fumbles her way through this, a dozen different emotions seeming to flicker across his face, none of which Alina can read, before he says, his voice low, “You do not need to thank me for anything, Alina.” He reaches out and carefully takes her hand in his, squeezing her fingers as he repeats, “Not for anything.”

Alina looks down at her hand resting in his, at the smooth skin of his inner wrist, and before she can stop herself, reaches out with her other hand and lets her fingers skate up and down along his wrist, her fingertips just feeling the rapid beat of his pulse through the thin skin.

Alina looks up, ready to apologize again, except that Aleksander is staring at her, riveted. “Alina,” he says, his voice choked, and Alina opens her mouth to apologize, but reaches up and kisses him instead.

For a moment, Aleksander is absolutely still, his body rigid against hers--and then he inhales sharply against her lips and moves, reaching out to hold her face in her hands as he deepens the kiss, demanding more and more until Alina is clinging to him, breathless, every thought in her head wiped clean away.

“Alina,” Aleksander is saying against her mouth, gasping it, really, “Are you sure--”

“Yes,” Alina promises, dragging him down for another kiss, and then another. “Yes, yes.”

It’s Alina that fumbles with the belt and clasps to her kefta, shrugging it off her shoulders, before untucking Aleksander’s shirt from his pants and slipping her hands beneath the hem, something in her delighting in the way that Aleksander gasps and shakes at her touch.

She smiles against his mouth and asks, teasing, “Are you sure?”

Aleksander pulls back to look at her, cheeks flushed and mouth wet, and then he smirks, and in one swift move, sweeps her up into his arms and carries her off, into a small room she’s never been in, where the enormous bed takes up most of the available space and the shadows in the room seem to swirl around them.

No, not seem--they are. Shadows are rising up along the walls, a dark fog swirling around their feet. Alina laughs at the sight, and as Aleksander lays her down against the bed, Alina casts up small werelights to float around them, beams of light flashing though and between the shadows.

Aleksander chuckles as he notices, looming above her, as he asks, “How long do you think you can keep them going?”

Alina laughs, sinking back against the pillows. “I don’t know,” she says. “Let’s see how well you can distract me.”

Aleksander seems to like that challenge, if the way that he starts quickly undoing the buttons to her trousers is any indication, tugging them down her legs, hands skimming up her thighs as he pushes her tunic up past her belly. Alina shivers at the feeling of his hand resting low on her belly, his other hand curving around her thigh.

Aleksander looks at her, for one long moment, before dragging down her underwear and lowering his head between her legs.

Alina isn’t totally inexperienced; she’s had various fumbling moments in the army, a friendly hand between her legs, sloppy kisses and embraces when she and her partner were drunk. Nothing like this, shadows growing above her head as Aleksander feasts himself on her, licking and sucking at her clit until she’s sobbing with it, stretching her open with one finger, then two, as she futilely tries to lift up her hips to chase the feeling of his mouth on her.

Dimly, she’s aware of the noises she’s making, low cries escaping her mouth as the heat rises up and up inside of her, spiralling tighter and tighter and she can’t, she can’t, she can’t--

When she comes, it’s with Aleksander’s name on her mouth, and light flashing beneath her closed eyelids.

Blinking as she pants for air, Alina opens her eyes to find Aleksander looking back at her, wiping his mouth and chin impatiently, his eyes glittering in his flushed face, hair a disheveled wreck from her fingers.

All of her earlier insecurities have gone. Alina feels drunk, on power and lust in equal measure, as she props herself up on her elbows and says, her voice low and confident, “Come here.”

Aleksander freezes for a moment, and then crawls up to her, kissing her with desperation, Alina cradling the weight of him against her body, between her legs, swallowing up his groans as he rocks against her, his cock a heavy weight against her thigh.

“Alina,” he gasps out, “Alina, I need--”

“I know, I know,” Alina murmurs, even as a small part of her is amazed at this, at all of it, that he can want her this ferociously, just as badly as she wants him. “Here, come on--”

Between the two of them, they manage to strip off the rest of their clothes, and then, her heart pounding, Alina straddles Aleksander’s waist, carefully balancing herself as she sinks slowly down onto his cock, gasping as he stretches her open.

Beneath her, Aleksander is trembling with the effort of holding still, his hands bruisingly tight on her hips as he stares up into her face. “Alina,” he chokes out.

“Yeah?” Alina says, panting. She tries to adjust, find a better angle and oh, oh--

“I, I need, I--” Aleksander’s hands are getting even tighter on her hips, his gaze blurred with lust, and Alina feels it again, that rush of power running down her spine.

“What do you need?” she says, in a low voice she barely recognizes as her own.

He shakes his head a little, biting at his lower lip. Alina takes a deep breath, and reaches out to touch the side of his face. To her surprise and delight, Aleksander turns into her touch, eyes squeezed shut for a long moment, looking almost pained.

“Please,” he grits out at last, his eyes still shut tight, and Alina shivers at it, something locking into place that she didn’t even know she was looking for.

“Yes,” she agrees, and starts to move, cautious and awkward at first, chasing the right angle and rhythm, but it doesn’t matter, not when Aleksander is gasping and moving with her, his hips rocking up into her body until Alina braces her arms on either side of his head and starts to ride him in earnest, pleasure sparking through her like lightning in a storm, approaching closer and closer, getting just within reach--

She fucks him through another orgasm, crying out, and it’s only until then that he finally comes inside of her, choking out her name again and again as the shadows roll over them both.

Later, once they’ve tidied themselves up and Alina is dozing happily in the crook of Aleksander’s arm, she says drowsily, “That was...not how I expected tonight to end.”

“No,” Aleksander says, feelingly.

She licks at her lips and adds, cautious, “It...usually hasn’t been like that. Before.”

“Not for me either,” Aleksander says, and Alina curls into him a little more closely, hearing that.

He strokes her hair, gently, and says, almost to himself, “I really have been waiting for you for a long time. Such a long time.”

“Well,” Alina says, tilting her head up to look at him, “Here I am.”

Aleksander looks at her, an expression on his face that she can’t quite read, not with the lights dimmed so low. “Here you are,” he agrees, voice low and warm, and kisses her softly.

*

“I don’t see why I need to sit so much for this painting,” Alina mutters as Genya continues fussing with her hair. “Couldn’t they just do a few sketches of my face and then work off that?”

“If they could do that, they would,” Genya says absently, fingers nimbly working through Alina’s hair as she catches it up in an elaborate set of plaits. “Try not to fuss so much, this is meant to be a huge honor.”

“A time-consuming honor,” Alina grumbles.

“Anything else you’d rather be spending your time on?” Genya asks, too lightly for it to be an innocent question.

Alina’s cheeks flame as she catches Genya’s amused gaze in the mirror. Well, it was probably too much to hope that people wouldn’t notice that she practically never sleeps in her own suite these days. At least, not until Aleksander went off to Novokribirsk three days ago, to supervise the hunt for General Zlatan and his followers.

Alina has had a hard time sleeping on her own, these last three nights.

“Have we been very indiscreet?” Alina asks at last, giving in.

“Not very indiscreet,” Genya says thoughtfully. “It’s not a scandal for the two of you to be...involved. But people will pay attention to anything you do, Alina, doubly so when the General’s involved.” Her fingers go still in Alina’s hair, and she says, more seriously this time, “And...you should be careful, with powerful men. Remember to protect yourself.”

Alina looks at Genya’s shadowed expression in the mirror, and opens her mouth to ask what Genya means by that, when there’s a sudden knock at the door.

“Enter,” Genya calls out, her voice back to her usual brisk tones.

The doors open, and it’s one of the Squallers that Alina hasn’t had many interactions with since her arrival at the palace. Alina’s been making an effort to learn people’s names, however, and she says, with a polite smile, “It’s Zoya, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Sankta Alina,” Zoya says, folding her arms behind her back. There’s a reserve to her face that Alina’s become depressingly used to with some of the Grisha, the ones that still don’t know what to make of her as a person, or as a symbol.

“It’s just Alina, please,” Alina says.

Genya is watching Zoya closely, and says, in a not-exactly-friendly voice, “What is it you want?”

Zoya’s expression changes from reserve to determination. “To speak to the Sun Summoner.”

“Well, I’m here,” Alina says, keeping her voice light.

“Not for long, you have to get to your portrait sitting,” Genya says immediately.

Alina pauses, and then says, still light but letting her own determination show through, “And Zoya can certainly talk to me while that’s happening. It’ll be nice to have something to focus on.”

Genya is clearly not pleased, but the relief that appears on Zoya’s face is already a sign that Alina’s made the right call. “Thank you,” Zoya says, heartfelt. “Believe me, I’m not here to waste your time.”

“What are you here for?” Alina asks, standing up and smoothing her hand over her gold kefta before heading out through the door, Zoya falling into pace with her, and Genya following them.

“I wanted to talk to you about the situation in West Ravka,” Zoya says immediately.

“Me?” Alina asks, surprised.

“Yes,” Zoya says, urgently. “Sank--Alina, I don’t know if you realize how...volatile the situation is, particularly in Novokribirsk.”

“There’s a separatist movement that got halted in its tracks when the Fold came down, I’d be more surprised if it wasn’t volatile,” Alina says wryly.

“Yes, but--” Zoya checks herself, then blurts out, right as they’re about to enter the room where the artist is waiting, “But the Second Army’s actions are making it worse.”

Alina pauses to look at her, and Genya says, low, “Alina…”

And Alina isn’t a fool, she knows what Genya’s warning her about. Genya is her friend, but more than that, it’s Genya’s duty to keep Alina out of trouble, to keep Alina away from palace intrigues and political complications, and this is both.

But Alina doesn’t want to be a voiceless symbol.

“Come inside and tell me more,” Alina says, and enters the room.

The artist painting her is named Sergei Lebedev, and he is a devout believer who looks at her with dazzled eyes every time she enters the room for a sitting, tapping his forehead and then kissing his fingers the second she walks in. (The only reason he doesn’t bow or kiss her hem is because Alina had asked him not to, after their first meeting.)

So Alina feels fairly confident when she introduces him to Zoya and says, “Sergei, I know I can trust you to keep my discussion with Zoya private today, yes?”

“Of course you can, Sankta,” poor Sergei gasps, bowing and trying to balance his palette at the same time.

She can hear Genya groaning softly behind her, but it’s fine. Alina quickly drags over a second chair for Zoya to sit in, and gestures at it when Zoya hesitates. “You can sit here,” she prods.

Zoya still looks startled by this, but she does sit down.

It takes longer for Alina to get settled into the pose for her painting, making sure her kefta falls just so, that her hands are positioned correctly, so on and so on. Once Sergei and Genya have finished settling her in, Alina looks straight ahead and says, “Tell me about what’s happening in the city.”

Zoya jumps right in. “Right now the army’s focus is on tracking down the traitor Zlatan and dismantling the separatist movement. But...the methods being used are...counterproductive.”

“What methods are we using?” Alina asks.

Zoya says urgently, “Alina, I am loyal. I want nothing more than to see Zlatan in chains and Ravka united once more. But I have an aunt and a niece that live in Novokribirsk, and right now, they and everyone else in the city are more terrified of the Second Army, of us, than of anything that Zlatan could do while he’s on the run.” Zoya keeps talking, telling of Grisha and First Army soldiers running through the city as a wave of destruction, tearing apart homes and businesses for signs of dissent or sedition, scholars and students from the university being tossed into jail, of Grisha using their powers not against enemy soldiers, but against a terrified populace that cannot fight back.

And through it all, Alina has to keep her expression calm, not jerk or twitch or turn to Zoya in disbelief, no matter how badly she wants to.

Once Zoya finishes speaking, Alina says, keeping her voice calm with an effort, “So how do we fix this?”

There’s a pause that sounds stunned, and then Zoya says, slowly, “So...you will help me, then? You agree this can’t continue.”

Painting be damned, Alina turns her head in disbelief to look at Zoya and say, heatedly, “I didn’t take down the Fold to make people’s lives worse.

Zoya just blinks at her, looking even more pole-axed than before. “You are...not at all what I expected you would be,” she says at last.

“What did you expect?” Alina asks, honestly confused.

“Not you,” Zoya says, obscurely, then continues, “But what we need is to talk to the General, and then he can go to the King and to the First Army leaders.” She pauses, and then says delicately, “I know you two are...close, and I thought if anyone would have any influence over him, it would be you.”

Alina’s gaze flickers over to Genya, who is looking right back at her with an I-told-you-so expression.

"I don't--that isn't," Alina fumbles, before saying more firmly, "If you're thinking I can twist General Kirigan round my finger..."

"I'm not such a fool as to think that," Zoya says impatiently. "But you're the Sun Summoner, you do have influence, and I'm asking you to use that influence to keep things from getting worse. Will you?"

There's only one way to answer that. "Yes," Alina says. "Yes, I will."

*

Alina's original plan was to send a letter to Aleksander in Novokribirsk, or failing that, see about traveling there herself, but when she says this, both Genya and Zoya stare at her in horror.

"Are you mad?" Zoya asks, pausing in her pacing about Alina's suite like a caged bear.

"You cannot send a letter that will be read by half a dozen people before it even reaches the General's hand," Genya says sternly. "And you certainly can't leave the Little Palace. Ivan would rather tie you to a chair than risk you getting hurt or assassinated."

"All right, then what should I do?" Alina huffs at them. "You've told me how urgent and important this is, but what, you want me to wait until he comes back to Os Alta?"

"Yes," Zoya says, her mouth a grim line. "Better a delay than total failure."

"Won't be much of a delay," Genya mutters, and when Alina and Zoya look at her, she purses her lips but elaborates, "The General won't want to be away from Alina too long."

Alina can feel the flush rising up all over her face at that, and says weakly, "You don't know..."

Genya levels her with an unamused look, and says, "You clearly haven't been paying attention to the way he looks at you. He'll be back within the week, if not sooner."

"Which gives us enough time to plan the right approach," Zoya says, nodding thoughtfully.

"Our approach?" Alina questions, and that is how she gets caught up into a plan of attack that is more elaborate than half the missions Alina saw when she was in the First Army.

Zoya is utterly ruthless in planning out their "approach", having Alina make a detailed list of talking points and suggestions right there at her writing desk, coaching her on the right wording, the right phrasing, until Alina finally tosses her pen down in protest. "Saints," she says, exasperated, "I don't see why we're approaching this as though Aleksander is utterly unreasonable. He's not a monster, he'll see the brutality in this--"

"And he'll think it regrettable but necessary," Zoya replies coolly, "Unless we can convince him of a better alternative that he can then sell to the King."

Alina grits her teeth, but picks up her pen again, drawing a line of emphasis under the word reconciliation.

*

Genya was right--Aleksander returns to Os Alta four days later, right on the heels of the report of General Zlatan’s capture and execution, right in the town square of Novokribirsk, by Aleksander himself.

“Carved him into pieces right there,” Ivan read out to everyone in the dining hall the night before, with relish. “A fitting end for a traitor.”

But when Aleksander strides into her quarters, early the next morning (he must have traveled through the night to get here so soon, Alina thinks) Alina is left breathless at the sight of him, at the joyful, eager smile on his face as he walks right up to her and catches her up in his arms, kissing her passionately. “How I missed you,” he murmurs against her mouth.

“I missed you too,” Alina breathes out, unable to deny it. “I sleep better when you’re around,” she confesses before she can stop herself.

Aleksander lights up at this. “I thought it was just me,” he says, pleased.

For a moment, Alina wants nothing more than to stay here in this moment, with Aleksander’s arms around her, the joy of their reunion fluttering through her, making her forget everything else.

Except that Alina does not have the luxury of forgetting.

“Sasha,” Alina says quietly, looking down at the collar of his kefta. “We...we need to talk. About West Ravka.”

She feels him sigh more than hears it, and his arms tighten around her a little more. “Alina,” he says, soothing, “I know you must be afraid, hearing about Zlatan’s plot, but I promise you--”

“What plot?” Alina asks, confused. “I was talking about the Second Army’s actions in Novokribirsk.”

Aleksander pulls back a little at this, looking closely into her face. “Oh?”

Alina opens her mouth to continue, but with excellent and awful timing, there’s a knock at the door. And of course it’s Zoya, calling out, “Alina? I heard that the General’s returned, are you ready for us to speak to him?”

Alina grimaces a little, and turns to Aleksander, whose eyebrows are raised at her, even as the rest of his expression is carefully blank. “I see we do have something to discuss, then.”

*

Sitting at his map table, Aleksander is very quiet as Alina and a nervous Zoya make their case for a change in military and diplomatic tactics in West Ravka, particularly when dealing with the civilian population. His gaze is lowered in thought, face wiped clean of any expression. It’s not even that it’s a bad sign, really, just...it’s only been a few weeks since they first came together, and Alina has already become accustomed to being able to see what Aleksander is thinking, what he’s feeling.

Finally, Aleksander looks at them and says, levelly, “You’re asking for leniency.”

“Not leniency,” Zoya says. “Diplomacy. Think of it as a carrot-and-stick approach.”

“Yes, you mentioned the carrot and stick earlier,” Aleksander says, very dryly.

Zoya opens her mouth to press further, but Alina, reading the tension in Aleksander’s jaw, interrupts to ask, “Why are you angry with them?”

Both of them turn to look at her in surprise, and Alina elaborates, “I could see it in your face just now. You don’t want to show them any leniency at all. Why?”

A muscle works in Aleksander’s jaw. “You haven’t heard, then, how we captured Zlatan and his band of traitorous deserters.”

“No,” Alina says slowly. “I only know that you caught him, and--and that he was executed in the town square.”

“Mm. We received intelligence from a soldier in Zlatan’s inner circle, someone who had been loyal to him, to the separataist movement, practically from the very beginning. A true believer in the cause, hardly the sort to turn double-agent.” Aleksander looks at them both and then says, emphasizing each word, “Now ask me why she turned on Zlatan.”

“I don’t know,” Alina says, but Zoya is looking between them both, eyes narrowed.

“Because this soldier was also a woman of faith,” Aleksander says heavily, looking right at Alina. “And she couldn’t stomach Zlatan colluding with Fjerdan hunters to assassinate the Sun Summoner.”

Alina goes cold all over, only distantly hearing Zoya’s gasp of shock.

“They were going to kill you the next time you visited the Royal Church,” Aleksander says, voice thin, eyes glittering with barely restrained fury. “Plant snipers in the crowd and open fire, delivering death and chaos on us all, they would have slaughtered you in the street--and you want me to show them leniency?

“General,” Zoya starts, but in the same breath Alina lifts her head and says, simply, “Yes.”

Aleksander stares at her for a long, long moment, jaw working, before he bursts out, bewildered and angry in equal measure, “Why?”

“Because Zlatan is not West Ravka,” Alina says. “Because there was a soldier willing to turn her back on everything she’d worked for, just to keep me from being killed. Isn’t that proof enough that they aren’t all our enemies, that we don’t need to vanquish them in order to achieve peace?”

For the space of three heartbeats, no one speaks. Aleksander is rigid in his seat, staring at her--and then he slumps a little in his seat, and Alina lets out a breath. “We can’t have traitors in the Ravkan army,” he says. “And we can’t have people preaching sedition in the streets and universities.”

“Of course not,” Zoya says quickly. “We might want to think about having the populace deliver oaths of loyalty, to the crown and to the country generally. We could also see about infrastructure programs--trains and regular wagon trips across where the Fold used to be. Show West Ravkans what they have to gain, not what they could lose.”

“Mm,” Aleksander says. “The King will like the thought of oaths.”

Zoya takes a breath, and offers next, hesitantly, “And if the Sun Summoner were to visit Novokribirsk--”

“Out of the question,” Aleksander says immediately.

“I’m willing to go,” Alina offers.

Zoya’s gaze flickers between them both; Aleksander looks at Alina and says, quellingly, “I’m not going to risk your safety by letting you walk into that powder-keg.”

“It’s just something to think about,” Zoya says, acting as peacemaker.

Aleksander taps the stack of papers they presented him with. “I’ll take your ideas to the King and the council. I can’t make any guarantees for most of this--”

“But you can guarantee the actions of the Second Army,” Alina presses, and Aleksander looks at her, one eyebrow raised. Alina just looks back at him, and Aleksander dips his chin a little, conceding.

His eyes are still on Alina as he says, in an excruciatingly polite voice, “Zoya, could you leave us, please?”

If Zoya feels any resentment at being dismissed so easily, she doesn’t let it show, bowing her head as she murmurs, “Of course, General. Alina.”

Alina waits until she hears the click of the door closing behind Zoya before speaking. “Thank you.”

“Sankta Alina, full of mercy,” Aleksander says softly.

Alina looks down and away from those dark eyes, and says softly, “I never claimed to be a saint.”

“Keep going like this and it won’t matter,” Aleksander replies. “I told you there would be difficulties ahead. We’re still at war, Alina, Fold or not.”

Alina bites at her lip, then echoes the same thing she said to Zoya days ago. “I didn’t bring down the Fold to watch the world get worse.”

“And I haven’t led the Second Army for all these years to watch our own country turn its back on Grisha,” Aleksander immediately retorts.

“Of course I want Grisha to be safe!” Alina protests. “I want everyone to be safe, but using Grisha as a weapon against our own people isn’t the answer--“

“Grisha are our own people,” Aleksander says heatedly. “Do you really think these otkazat’sya are the same as us? That they even conceive of us as human? That they wouldn’t happily turn their backs on us at the first sign of trouble?”

“If all you expect is betrayal, then that’s all you’ll ever receive,” Alina says, her heart aching. “Do you have any idea how terrifying the least talented Grisha is to someone without powers? How much damage we can do? That doesn’t excuse them for turning on us, but it doesn’t mean we can bully and terrorize them back!”

Aleksander’s jaw is so clenched that Alina’s own jaw is aching in sympathy. He turns away from her at last, saying roughly, “I wish I could live in the world you see. Unfortunately, I have to deal in realities.”

Alina’s first impulse is to respond with anger, to keep this argument going, but something stops her--the exhaustion in Aleksander’s shoulders, the memory of how eagerly he came to greet her earlier today. “So help me make a better reality,” she says, tentatively reaching out to touch his clenched fist on the table.

Aleksander looks down at her hand on his, and then slowly unclenches his fist, lacing their fingers together. He doesn’t speak for a while, just letting his thumb run along the knuckles of her index finger.

When he finally speaks, it’s with a rueful tone that is miles away from his earlier frustration, or his cool remove when Zoya was in the room. “This is not how I expected our reunion to go.”

“What did you expect to happen?” Alina asks him.

“I was thinking about having a long bath,” Aleksander muses. “With you.” He looks up at her, mouth just barely curving up at the corners. “And then I wouldn’t let you out of my bedroom for the rest of the day.”

Alina pauses for just a beat, and then suggests, delicately, “Just because we got a late start doesn’t mean we can’t put your plans into motion.”

“Is that so?”

Alina shrugs a little. “I could use a bath,” she says thoughtfully, before smiling back at him, and it’s a relief, how easily the smile comes to her lips. “And the company.”

She can see the tension leave his body at this, and his face is open to her once more as he murmurs, “I’ll call for a bath, then.”

“I’ll have Genya clear my schedule,” Alina murmurs, right before his lips seal over hers.

Aleksander is true to his word, and Alina spends a delightful hour with him soaking in the tub--and doing rather more than soaking. Then they retreat to the bedroom, where Aleksander takes her on her hands and knees on his giant bed, Alina’s dark hair a curtain around her face as she cries out in ecstasy at every rough thrust, every tiny movement Aleksander’s fingers make against her clit.

And later, when Aleksander is fast asleep next to her, Alina turns her mind away from a man being cut to pieces in a public square, and focuses her mind on the neat list of actions written in her own hand, of Aleksander bowing his head to her logic, of the crowds in Os Alta, greeting a half-Shu saint with triumphant joy. A better reality, one that won’t come easily--but neither did the destruction of the Fold.

*

Alina starts leaving the palace more often, after that.

Aleksander won’t relent on Alina visiting Novokribirsk--yet--but he reluctantly agrees to Alina visiting the shops and markets in Os Alta on a regular basis. Alina doesn’t love the wall of bodyguards he assigns to her each time she ventures out, but she knows the value of compromise.

Genya is openly skeptical of Alina’s project, but still goes out with Alina each day regardless. Alina has to admit, it’s horribly awkward at first--people gawking at her in the streets, her bodyguards bristling at anyone who comes close, and Alina doing her best not to shrink under the scrutiny.

But Alina keeps going, even when all she wants is to disappear into an empty room where no one will look at her, let alone try and kiss the hem of her robe or salute her as she passes. Alina doesn’t know how to be a living Saint, but she’s going to have to learn to be the Sun Summoner in public, or else live like a recluse for the rest of her life and leave the hard work of making the world better to everyone else.

She makes something of a breakthrough at the shop where her charcoal and art supplies come from--Alina’s begun dabbling in watercolor, even if she doesn’t yet have the nerve or the training to start working with oils. The shopkeeper and his assistant stand there mutely the first couple of times she visits, but finally, as Alina is eagerly looking at a selection of paintbrushes, the assistant asks, “Is it true you were born in Ravka, Sankta Alina?”

It’s the first actual question someone has asked her. “Yes,” she says. “I was born in Granitsagorsk, it’s a small town on the border between Ravka and Shu Han,” Alina elaborates.

The shopgirl bobs her head and blurts out, a flush rising to her cheeks, “Only some people keep swearing you were born in Shu Han.”

Ah. This again. “No,” Alina says, keeping her voice light. “I was born in Granitsagorsk, raised in Keramzin. I’ve never actually left Ravka in my life.”

“Oh,” the shopgirl says, as though Alina has shared a life-altering secret of the universe, rather than a mundane fact, but then she catches Genya’s’ disapproving glare and gasps out, face going scarlet and then white, “I--no offense meant, Sankta! Truly, I didn’t--”

“It’s fine,” Alina says quickly, because the poor girl is trembling and clearly on the verge of dropping onto her knees to grovel. “It’s fine, really--I’d rather have someone ask an honest question than repeat baseless gossip where I can’t correct it.”

The girl’s face lights up at this, and if Genya still doesn’t look thrilled, she does look more thoughtful after that.

But that awkward moment turns out to bear fruit, as the shopgirl--named Irina--and the shop owner--Evgeni, who begs her to call him Zhenya--find the nerve to actually speak to her after that, now that they know she won’t smite them with lightning for daring to utter words in her sanctified presence, or whatever nonsense the Apparat has been spouting this week.

Zhenya tentatively asks how her watercolors are coming along, and Alina confides that she’s still working on improving her blending and textures. Zhenya ventures to recommend some paintbrushes, and Irina offers up the trick of using salt on wet paint to create patterns once it dries. She even gives a quick demonstration, at Alina’s urging, and blushes red again at Alina’s praise once the paint dries.

They stay later than planned, but when they leave, Alina has a bag full of paintbrushes and pigments and three pages of hastily scribbled notes on painting techniques.

“Don’t you get tired of it?” Genya asks Alina in the carriage, on the way back to the Little Palace. “The gawking, the ignorant questions?”

Alina replies, “I’d rather have that than the slurs or insults. Sometimes, in the army, I couldn’t even get my evening ration of food if the cook on duty that day didn’t like my face.” She shrugs and says, “This is better.”

“Fair enough,” Genya concedes. She looks at Alina and says, slowly, “You’re very good at managing the public, though. I didn’t think it was possible, but you’re even more popular now.”

Her tone is grave, and Alina says, amused and a little surprised, “You make that sound like a bad thing.”

“I think,” Genya says, still in that grave voice, “that popularity can be a very dangerous thing.”

Dangerous or not, Alina can see the results of her efforts coming to life at last--when she goes out into the streets of Os Alta, there are more and more Grisha visiting the local shops, and the day she sees a young Tidemaker creating an impromptu water show for a small crowd of delighted children, Alina stops dead in the center of the street, riveted, and not just by the show of magic.

“I know it’s not much,” she tells Aleksander that night, curled up against him in bed, her head resting against his shoulder, “But it’s something, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Aleksander says, contemplative. His fingers are gently combing through Alina’s hair, and Alina closes her eyes, soothed as ever by the gesture. “It is something.”

“Enough to have me travel to Novokribirsk?” Alina asks cheekily.

Aleksander grumbles, pulling her closer to him. “Let’s not get carried away just yet.”

Alina doesn’t press the point--for now--but asks, “How are things going in Novokribirsk, by the way?”

“Improving, as you well know,” Aleksander says, amused. “I’ll admit it, the carrot-and-stick strategy is helping to keep the unrest quelled.” He pauses and adds, “The mayor of Novokribirsk will be attending the Winter Fete this month--you can meet him there if you like.”

“That would be lovely,” Alina says.

“It’ll be good to have you there,” Aleksander says, in a thoughtful tone. “You put people at ease. Give them comfort and hope. Make them...quiescent.”

Alina lifts her head at that, wrinkling her forehead. “That’s a rather dramatic way of putting it. You make me sound like a sedative for the masses.”

Aleksander grins down at her. “The last thing you are,” he promises in that low voice that promises delightful things, “is a sedative. Least of all for me.”

“Prove it then,” Alina says, lifting her chin. Aleksander smiles down at her, wolfish, and sets about doing just that.

*

“A ball gown?” Alina says doubtfully, looking from the shimmering gold fabric to the seamstress, nervously clasping her hands together in front of her. “What’s wrong with my usual kefta for the Winter Fete?”

Genya is already frowning next to her, and when the seamstress says, timidly, “A special command from the King, my lady. He made it clear that you were to wear a special gown for the Fete, not a military uniform or kefta,” Genya’s expression shifts to alarm, her normally pale skin going snow-white.

Alina glances over at her, silently asking, What is this? But Genya is still frozen still, eyes darting back and forth as she thinks, and after all, an order from the king is still an order from the king. So Alina puts a polite smile on and says, “Whatever the king wants,” and tries to ignore the flinch from Genya at her words.

Alina keeps quiet during the fitting, holding still and moving only when told, but the second that the seamstress and her assistants leave the room, piles of fabric carried out with them, she looks to Genya and asks, slowly, “Genya? Is this something to worry over?”

Genya shakes her head a little, still looking disturbed. “I don’t know yet. But I don’t like it.” She bites at her lip and starts to pace back and forth, wondering to herself, “But what do they gain from it?” After a few moments of watching Genya pace, Alina says slowly, “Genya?”

Genya stops in her tracks, looks at Alina and says, firmly, “I should talk to the General.”

“Oh, Genya, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry Aleksander over--”

“The General should be told,” Genya says firmly, and walks right out of Alina’s quarters to presumably do just that.

If Alina is honest with herself, she thinks of it mostly as a strange whim of a monarch, but Aleksander is just as perturbed as Genya is, if not more so. “Have you had anyone approach you lately?” he questions her over their dinner that night.

“Everyone approaches me, Sasha,” Alina says wryly, spearing a piece of asparagus with her fork. “Do you know how many courtiers and church officials I have to try and avoid each day?”

“Who?” Aleksander demands, as though this is new information, and as though the shorter reply wouldn't be to say who doesn’t come to Alina, whether to ask for favors or to, as Genya says tartly, bask in the reflected glory of the Sol Koroleva (Alina’s latest title, per the newspapers in East and West Ravka).

“It’s just a dress, isn’t it?” Alina says, starting to feel some nerves herself.

“With court politics, it’s never ‘just’ anything,” Aleksander says darkly, but when he catches sight of Alina’s expression, he sets his utensils down and says, with more reassurance, “But it will be fine, even if I have to make it so myself.”

Alina nods, reassured--but only somewhat. She traces the rim of her wine glass, and asks, “Will you save me a dance?”

Aleksander’s eyes soften. “Darling,” he promises her, “I will keep every dance saved for you.”

“Good,” Alina says, smiling at him. “Because my dancing instructor despairs of me, and I’d rather step on your toes than a stranger’s.”

The sound of Aleksander’s rich laughter is the greatest accomplishment of Alina’s day.

But, to Genya’s grim validation and Alina’s growing alarm, the dress is in fact the start of what turns out to be...some type of political maneuvering, even if Alina can’t see the point of it all. The very next day, Alina receives a message from the king--a hand-written message, even--informing her that she will be escorted by the Crown Prince Vasily at the Winter Fete, rather than arriving in the company of Aleksander and her fellow Grisha.

“What, but--why?” Alina asks out loud, baffled, the letter still in her hand.

Genya is very quiet, and very alarmed. “I don’t like this,” she tells Alina, clearly on edge. “Alina, I don’t like this at all.”

“Well, I don’t like it much either,” Alina huffs, sitting down at the edge of her bed with a thump. “I have enough to worry about at this Fete without having to worry about offending a prince!”

“You won’t offend him,” Genya says, abstracted. “He’s more likely to offend you, and anyone else within earshot.” At Alina’s questioning look, Genya elaborates with a grimace, “He’s a boor who cares about nothing but drinking his next glass of kvas and having a pretty girl on his arm. If you’re looking to have any diplomatic successes at the Fete, I recommend freeing yourself from his side as soon as possible.”

“Ugh,” Alina groans. Yet another thing to worry over, right next to remembering how to waltz and keeping the names of every diplomat there in her head. She pauses, because the last thing she wants is to egg Genya and Aleksander on when they’re already so overprotective, but she has to say it, “There is a political plot happening, isn’t there.”

Genya hesitates, and then in a rush, goes down onto her knees in front of Alina and vows, fervently, “You are going to be just fine, Alina. You’ll be all right. No matter what we have to do to make it so.”

Alina smiles down at her friend, crookedly, and says, “Thank you, Genya. You shouldn’t worry so much about me though, I have done a pretty good job of taking care of myself up until now.”

“I don’t know how,” Genya says tartly as she gets up to her feet, squeezing Alina’s hand as she does. “You have the worst sense of self-preservation of anyone I’ve ever met.”

But Alina’s self-preservation sense is improving, which is why she reaches out to Zoya to get her perspective on whatever is happening with the royal family. It’s not entirely without risk, as Alina doesn’t quite consider Zoya a friend (mostly because of Zoya’s unmistakable desire to keep Alina at a remove) but she does consider Zoya an ally, at least.

And, even though Alina doesn’t like to think of it in these terms, she did help Zoya when Zoya asked her, and she knows that Zoya will consider it a debt that needs to be repaid.

Zoya listens silently as Alina shares the latest series of events, and once Alina has finished, simply says, “Well, this sounds like a disaster in the making.”

“Oh no, it isn’t that--“ Alina starts automatically, but she falters in the face of Zoya’s obvious skepticism. “I mean, I want to avert…whatever’s happening before it becomes a disaster.”

“Easier said than done,” Zoya tells her as they continue to walk through the garden, snow crunching under their boots as they move in a slow circle around the fountain, free from prying eyes or ears.

Zoya hesitates before saying next, “Alina…do you see the danger?”

Alina bites at her lip before admitting, “I can see that the king wants to make it look like I’m closer to him, to the royal family, than I really am, but I can’t see the long-term benefit of it…”

“The benefit of basking in the reflected glory of the Sun Summoner?” Zoya prods.

“But he’s the king,” Alina protests. “What does he need my supposed glory for?”

Zoya pauses and steps closer to Alina, lowering her voice even though there’s no one else nearby to overhear. “Perhaps another king would simply be grateful to have the Fold gone, and focus his energies on what needs to be done next for the good of all Ravka.” Zoya lifts her gaze up to Alina’s, and says, deliberate, “Or…they might be short-sighted and petty, and be envious of a living saint’s popularity, of how it is the Saint receiving credit for quelling the revolt in West Ravka, rather than their own army, their own power.”

Alina’s breath catches in her throat. “But I hardly did anything about West Ravka! It was Aleksander who caught Zlatan, it was you who suggested we try diplomacy rather than force--“

“And it’s you that successfully convinced the General and the king to show mercy to the West Ravkan populace, and everyone knows it,” Zoya says. “The king and the General are still viewed in West Ravka with suspicion and fear. Hell, they’re viewed here with suspicion and fear by anyone not in the palace. But you…you are the Saint that saved the country, that showed mercy to your enemies. That called off the wolves and gave them a chance to rebuild, rather than collapse into open rebellion and a civil war they can no longer hope to win. You are who the people care for. Not the descendent of the Black Heretic who they’ve always feared, and not--“ Zoya checks herself, but says even more quietly, “Not the spendthrift king who empties the country’s coffers on his endless wars and expensive trinkets for his queen and mistresses.”

Alina is wrapped in heavy wool and furs, shielded from the cold, but the cold isn’t why she’s suddenly shivering.

“The royals aren’t popular in Ravka, Alina,” Zoya says with urgency. “They haven’t been popular for a very long time, on either side of the Fold. And now they look at you, and they see nothing more than a potential threat in the making. If they can neutralize you by presenting you to the world in a pretty gold dress and sticking you on the arm of their fool of a crown prince, then they will.” Zoya takes a breath, and says, “And if they have to do more than that, worse than that…they won’t hesitate.”

“Ah,” Alina says faintly, her heart starting to pound in her chest. “So. A disaster in the making, then.”

“Unless we are very careful and cunning, yes,” Zoya says.

Despite the panic rising up in her chest, Alina repeats in surprise, “We?”

Zoya flushes a little, but stands her ground. “You are our Sun Summoner and the country’s savior, of course I’m on your side.” Her voice warms a little as she adds, dryly, “And you’re like a babe in the woods when it comes to politics; leaving you to sink or swim on your own would just be embarrassing to watch.”

Alina’s shocked into laughter by Zoya’s frank analysis, and Zoya watches her, looking for all the world like a smugly pleased cat.

“Gloves are finally off, I see,” Alina says, once her slightly hysterical laughter has abated.

“I think you can take it,” Zoya says lightly. “And if we’re going to keep you safe and free from palace machinations, then there’s no point tiptoeing around anything, is there?”

“No,” Alina agrees. “No, there isn’t.”

*

By the time the Winter Fete finally arrives, Alina wishes for nothing more than for it to be over already.

Her waltz has been deemed passable, the gold dress is complete, and now all that Alina has to do is refrain from screwing up in front of hundreds of people. So no pressure.

The night of the fete, Genya spends an age fussing over everything, from the way that Alina’s embroidered skirts fall to how Alina’s hair is woven into a complicated knot at the base of her neck, before carefully placing a gold band on top of her head, the spikes radiating out from it as if to evoke a halo. Or a crown.

“Don’t you think,” Alina begins, worried, but Genya just shakes her head and says tightly, “I know, but the king insisted.”

Well, there’s not much to be done about that.

Genya paints a subtle flush of color over Alina’s lips, darkens her lashes and paints a thin line of kohl over her lids, lightly touches the wide neckline of Alina’s dress to adjust it by a fraction of a millimeter, and then steps back, nodding to herself. “Yes. You’re ready.”

The image Alina is greeted with in the full-length mirror is…well, it’s not her. It’s a beautiful dress, sweeping and dramatic; Genya’s work is as wonderful as ever--but…she doesn’t look like Alina Starkov, an orphan from Keramzin. She looks like…like the Sun Summoner, the Sol Koroleva, the untouchable icon whose legend has traveled all over the continent, and likely farther than that.

She looks like a stranger to herself.

Alina exhales, and wishes once more, futile though it is, that it was Aleksander escorting her tonight. He would be able to make her feel like herself, even in the midst of all this disorienting finery.

“Your work is beautiful, Genya,” Alina says at last, not wanting to be ungrateful.

Genya approaches her from behind, clasping her shoulders in a gesture of comfort. “It’s just one night,” she says, soothing. “We will all be there with you, and absolutely nothing is going to go wrong.”

Alina nods sharply, trying to project confidence, both to Genya and to herself. “Yes, it will.”

As she exits her quarters, Alina schools her expression into a calm mask, prepared to greet the courtiers that will deliver her to Crown Prince Vasily, but when she opens the door to find Aleksander, and only Aleksander, there, waiting for her in his all-black finery, her calm mask shatters as she gapes at him, speechless.

“General?” Genya asks, bewildered.

Not bothering with his title, Alina gasps out, stunned, “Sasha, what--“

“Sadly, the Crown Prince is…indisposed tonight,” Aleksander says, all decorum, even if his dark eyes are alight. “Nasty bout of food poisoning, I hear. Quick recovery is all but assured, but for tonight…”

“Tonight?” Alina presses hopefully.

Aleksander steps closer to her and says, “Tonight I will be the Sun Summoner’s escort.” His lovely mouth curves into a smile, even as he leisurely looks her up and down.

Alina lifts up her chin, and asks, archly, “Well? Do I pass muster?”

“I like you best in a black kefta, of course,” Aleksander says smoothly. “But you look…absolutely radiant.”

“Thank you,” Alina says, smiling. “You also look…tolerable enough.”

Aleksander laughs wholeheartedly at this, that boyish smile Alina loves best stealing across his face. “Tolerable?” he demands, mock-indignant.

“Not all of us have a Genya to assist,” Alina says graciously, nodding to Genya. Genya rolls her eyes fondly at them, looking more at ease than Alina has seen her in days.

“You two should get going,” she reminds them lightly.

“Of course,” Aleksander agrees, and offers his arm to Alina. Alina takes it, joy and relief and excitement mingling together, and they begin to walk down the hallway in perfect sync, Genya following them a half-step behind.

*

Alina has spent so long preparing to grimly endure the fete that it takes her an astonishingly long time to realize that she’s actually enjoying herself.

Aleksander is the biggest difference maker, of course. With him at her side, it’s easy for Alina to meet the crowds with confidence, to not trip over her skirts or shy away when people attempt to approach. Though so far, no one is trying to get too close, not with Aleksander staring everyone down.

They are presented to the King and Queen first, of course, Alina sinking into a flawless curtsy (Genya made her practice for ages) as Aleksander makes a deep bow.

King Piotyr looks at them with a sour expression, obviously displeased with this turn of events. Alina just barely keeps from reacting to this--is it somehow her fault that the Crown Prince ate some bad eggs or whatever it was?--but she drops her eyes and says, demurely, “Moyi tsar, moyi tsaritsa.”

A muscle twitches in the King’s jaw, and he says to the assembled crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sun Summoner, Alina Starkov.”

He hasn’t gotten out of his throne, let alone made a speech worthy of the occasion, and Alina has been at court long enough to know the insult in it.

It’s fine. Everything is going to be all right. Tonight is just one night.

So Aline smiles out at the crowd of strangers and nods to Aleksander, who obligingly draws the shadows in, casting the entire ballroom into darkness.

Over the low murmurs of the crowd, Alina says clearly, “Two years ago, I was brought to my calling by the being known as Morozova’s Stag. It was our work together that brought down the Fold. Tonight, I offer this as tribute to the Stag, and to all those lost to the Fold.”

Her brief speech finished, Alina brings her hands together, and she calls forth the sun.

The light comes to her with ease, appearing first as one orb of light that multiplies until dozens of werelights are dancing through the crowd, before they all converge into one bright ball of light that then explodes out into expanding waves of light that dissipate as they pass over the crowd, like ripples opening in water.

And over her head, Alina wears a different crown to the gold circlet given to her, a crown of antlers, fashioned entirely of white light.

As her light fades and Aleksander’s shadows retreat, the room bursts into rapturous applause, and Alina slowly lowers her hand, savoring her success.

Everyone is looking at her, Alina knows it, but it’s Aleksander that she looks to, and seeing herself reflected in his approving gaze makes her feel, if only for a moment, like the miracle others claim her to be.

*

It’s very difficult for Alina to move around the ballroom after that. Everyone wants to be introduced to her, speak to her, stand close enough so that they can be seen to be in her presence. Alina was warned about it, and she’s done her best to be prepared for it, but the sheer noise and scale of it is overwhelming.

She does her best to swim in the deep waters she’s been dropped into, however, and this is where all her political cramming and etiquette lessons with Genya save her, as she is actually remembering the names of each diplomat and ambassador from Kerch, Novyi Zem, and Shu Han that’s introduced to her.

And to surprise, she finds herself in a genuinely enjoyable discussion with the junior ambassador from Kerch, a middle-aged man named Jonas de Ligt with dark skin and an affable air to him. Admittedly, Alina might be drawn to him because he looks as overwhelmed by the pomp and grandeur as Alina wants to let herself be.

To put him at his ease, Alina asks about his career before he was appointed to this role by the Kerch government. A little to her surprise, de Ligt is so pleased by her question that he launches into tales from his former career on merchant ships, and Alina in turn finds herself drawn to his descriptions of the Wandering Isle, the islands off the coast of Novyi Zem, what it was like traveling for a season with Suli nomads in a caravan train.

He pauses mid-anecdote to smile at her and say, “From those shining eyes, I suspect you have the soul of a wanderer, Miss Starkov.”

Alina smiles crookedly, even as she shakes her head. “Hardly. I’ve never even crossed the Ravkan border in my life.”

Kindly, de Ligt offers, “Well, you’ve been rather busy in your short life! I should imagine there’s plenty of time for you to see the world now, with the Fold gone and your destiny accomplished. Ravka is--well, it’s a wonderful country, of course, but the world is very wide, and full of wonders as miraculous as yourself. It would be a shame if you never got the chance to see it.”

Alina finds herself thinking on the idea, long after the Kerch ambassador is gently ushered away, even as she’s moving through polite discussion with the Countess of Voransk (because she can’t be seen to be overlooking the Ravkan nobles amidst all the foreigners) Alina is turning over the idea of leaving in her head.

For so long, her future had seemed so small--the orphanage, being funnelled into the army, and trying to survive--and even when her future had opened up to include the stag, her powers, her responsibility to change the world, the physical barriers of it had hardly opened up. Ravka has felt like the only place in the world, but...Alina is suddenly powerfully drawn to the idea of being on a ship, heading out for places she’d only ever read about, seeing things she could only picture in her mind before.

To leave...to be beholden no longer to anyone or anything...to have the freedom to just go…

“Where have you gone?” Aleksander murmurs in her ear, and Alina twists around in surprise at herself for not realizing that he’d arrived next to her side, or how close he’d gotten. “Oh, I--I went nowhere,” Alina says quickly, with a smile.

“Then come and dance with me,” Aleksander urges with a soft smile, and Alina takes his offered hand, letting him lead her away.

It’s easily managed once they’re standing on the dance floor, as the opening strains of the waltz begin and Aleksander’s hand is resting in the small of her back as Alina looks up into his handsome face.

“There you are,” Aleksander says approvingly, and it’s only then that Alina can feel the tension leaving her body, all at his touch. “Has someone upset you?”

“No,” Alina says quickly, following Aleksander’s lead as they begin to dance, carefully minding her steps. “No, everyone’s been lovely. Though I don’t know how long that will last, now that they’re seeing my fumbling attempts to dance.”

Aleksander takes the opening, just as she knew he would. “Oh, I’ll help you muddle through,” he offers, amused, and Alina exhales in relief, pushing her idle fantasies to one side, and lets herself be present in this moment, where she is whirling around the room with Aleksander, safe in his arms.

The evening is more of the same, polite conversation and dancing occasionally broken up by performances, until it all culminates in a grand display of fireworks. When it’s time for Alina to join the royal family and government officials out on the balcony, she takes Aleksander’s arm and makes a point of ignoring the long look the Apparat gives them as they step out onto the balcony together, after the royal family.

The crowd is already cheering for the king and queen, but the second that Alina steps into sight, the cheers of the crowd become deafening, impossible though it seems.

She acknowledges the crowd’s cheers with a wave and smile, breathless as ever from all the force of that adulation, that love, but with it comes a prickle of alarm--what is the King going to think of these cheers? Of her dangerous popularity?

But then the fireworks start to explode over their heads, and Alina tips her head back to take in the wash of colors and sound in the night sky, and where no one can see, she holds on tightly to Aleksander’s arm, leaning on him for support like she always has.

*

“...no, I’m not sure…”

Alina drowsily turns her head, blinking awake to discover that she’s alone in Aleksander’s bed for once. She squints to look at the clock before groaning and collapsing back into the bed, appalled at the early hour, but goes still as she hears the murmur of agitated voices from the war room attached to Aleksander’s sleeping quarters.

It’s Aleksander speaking to Genya, and Alina frowns a little before climbing out of Aleksander’s huge bed and reaching for his black sleeping robe, wrapping it tightly around her and cinching the belt around her waist.

“Genya?” she calls out as she walks into the war room on her bare feet. Aleksander is still shirtless where he’s standing next to the map table with Genya, both of them looking upset.

“What is it?” Alina asks.

Aleksander exhales, his back rigid with tension. “The King is summoning us for an audience today.”

“Oh,” Alina says after a moment, looking between them. “That’s…”

“Yes,” Genya says with a sigh. “Exactly. Alina, I’m sorry, but the audience is in an hour, and I need to get you ready.”

“Of course,” Alina says with a sigh. Before she can turn to go back to Aleksander’s bedroom to gather her discarded clothes, Aleksander strides towards her in a few quick steps and pulls her into a hard kiss, his hands cupping her face.

“Everything is going to be fine,” he promises, resting his forehead against hers.

“Of course it is,” Alina agrees, trying to pretend that she believes it.

*

It is not at all fine.

Alina wonders if perhaps it would be better for her and Aleksander to arrive at the Grand Palace separately, for discretion’s sake if nothing else, but Aleksander disagrees. “There’s no point in dissembling, and a united front is more valuable to us than anything else,” he says as they walk across the courtyard, Alina’s arm threaded through his.

“And you want to protect me,” Alina says quietly, glancing up at him.

Aleksander breathes out through his nose and concedes, “And I want to protect you.”

Alina reaches out with her free hand to squeeze his wrist, and says softly, “Don’t do anything foolish, Sasha, please.”

“It’ll be fine,” Aleksander insists, and they’re already walking through the doors before Alina can press him any further.

Alina doesn’t think it’s a good sign that for once, the King and Queen are not surrounded by their usual attendants and courtiers. The only other people there in the small war room are the Apparat and Prince Vasily, who does not look entirely recovered from his food poisoning, if the grayish tinge to his skin is any indication.

“Sit, sit,” the King says impatiently, so Alina and Aleksander take their seats in front of the map table, the mirror of Aleksander’s.

The King doesn’t speak for a long moment, glowering at Alina, before he finally says, “You were a grand success last night.”

“Thank you,” Alina says, trying not to look at Aleksander. “The fete was wonderful.”

“You’ve become very popular, it seems,” the King says, mouth pursed, as though the words are bitter in his mouth. “Quite an effect you have on the masses. The question now is, how do we use that effect for the greater good?”

There’s an awful crawling feeling going up and down Alina’s spine, and she says, carefully, “I have always wanted to act for the greater good, your Highness.”

“If there’s a question of loyalty, moi tsar,” Aleksander begins, and the King waves a hand, dismissive.

“No one thinks she’s a spy, Kirigan, far from it. No, it’s an honor that I’m looking to bestow on your Sun Summoner.” The King stares at Alina, before declaring, “We have decided...to bless the Sun Summoner with marriage to our heir, Vasily.”

There’s one awful moment where the words don’t register. Where the sentence the King says simply makes no sense--and then it does make sense, and Alina goes cold all over.

“I’m sorry,” Aleksander is saying, in a voice that sounds strangled. “What?”

“She’ll be marrying Vasily,” the King says, as if he’s ordered nothing more than a cup of tea, or a fresh horse to be saddled for an afternoon ride. “Past time we had our heir married, getting a new generation of heirs for the succession. I know these Grisha powers don’t always pass down to the children, but if we can have another Saint in the family, I won’t complain--”

“No,” Alina says.

They all pause and look at her. “No?” the King repeats in disbelief.

“I’m not marrying him,” Alina says. She looks at a discomfited Vasily, and repeats again, for emphasis, “I’m not going to marry you.”

“You’ll do as you’re damned well told,” the King retorts, starting to go red in the face. “For the good of Ravka--”

“For the good of Ravka I destroyed the Fold,” Alina retorts, furious. “For the good of Ravka I came here, and I have worked to make things better for the country, for the people, not to pacify your insecurities, or to marry some stranger I don’t even know--”

“Alina,” Aleksander is saying urgently, but Alina is past restraint now, past heeding Aleksander’s murmured warnings. She turns to him, wild-eyed and desperate, heart pounding in her ears as she says, “Sasha, don’t tell me you want me to do this.”

Distantly, Alina hears the Tsaritsa sniff in disapproval, saying, “What ridiculous dramatics. Honestly, Kirigan, we all know you’re fond of the girl, but you’ll just have to make her see her duty--”

But Aleksander is looking straight at Alina, his dark eyes fixed on her, only her. “No,” Aleksander says, looking at Alina when he says it, but his words are for everyone else. “No, I won’t.”

He reaches out to take Alina’s hand, holds it in his, as he turns to everyone else and says, “I will not tell the savior of Ravka that it is her duty to be used as a broodmare by the royal family--”

“Kirigan!” the King roars, but Aleksander continues relentlessly, “Nor will I force her to marry anyone she doesn’t wish to.” His furious gaze lands on the Apparat, and he says, icily, “And I find myself shocked, Apparat, that the church would sanction such treatment of a living Saint--”

“Now, hold on just a moment,” the Apparat says quickly, hands held up in protest. “I think, perhaps, we all need to take a moment and consider--”

“You may consider all you like,” Aleksander says coolly, rising to his feet, bringing Alina with him, his grip like iron on Alina’s hand. “And while you reconsider the wisdom of this proposal, as I’m sure you will, the Sun Summoner will stay with me in the Little Palace, continuing to be engaged to no one.”

There’s more shouting, more demands, but Aleksander leads Alina out of there without a second glance, striding away at such a fast clip that Alina has to work to keep up with his long legs. Two of the King’s guards attempt to stand in their way, but Aleksander says, his voice a snarl that Alina’s never heard from him before,, “Move or I will make you move,” and out of the corner of her eye, Alina sees the wisp of shadows forming.

The guards’ composure and discipline breaks, and they quickly scramble out of their way; even as the King bellows and the Tsaritsa shrieks in protest, it doesn’t matter, because they’re through the doors and through the hallways and out into the courtyard, Aleksander saying under his breath, “Keep moving, keep moving, don’t look back--”

And then they’re in through the front doors of the Little Palace, where Aleksander is barking out at the guards, “Lock the entire palace down. No one enters, no one leaves.”

*

It feels like Alina doesn’t take a single deep breath until she’s in Aleksander’s quarters, with Ivan and Feydor guarding the doors. But once the doors are bolted and shut, once she’s as safe as she can be, Alina starts gasping for breath, a band getting tighter around her chest, her body trembling, even as Aleksander rushes to her side and embraces her gently, saying softly, “Shh, shh, it’s all right--”

“It’s not all right,” Alina chokes out. “They’re going to force me into marrying that prince, I don’t want to marry him--”

“You won’t marry him,” Aleksander promises urgently, cupping her face in his hands. “Alina, I promise you, you will never marry that idiot of a crown prince--”

Alina’s still shaking, even in Aleksander’s arms, where she’s always felt so safe, she’s still shaking. “Don’t let them, don’t let them take me--”

The rest of her plea is swallowed up when Aleksander kisses her, hot and frantic. Alina clutches at him with all of her strength, holding on even when he pulls back far enough to vow, his breath hot on her lips, “No one is taking you away from me, do you understand? No one.”

His hands are working at the belt to Alina’s kefta, roughly sliding it free and tossing it aside. Alina’s already shuddering before he even gets his hands on her bare skin. Aleksander brushes her own hands aside, ruthlessly stripping her naked and laying her out on his bed before quickly taking off his own clothes as well, before he crawls on top of her, and then the weight of his body on hers blots out every thought in her head.

“Please,” Alina murmurs against his mouth. “Please--”

Except Aleksander is already giving her everything she wants, his hands and mouth moving over her until Alina is practically sobbing. And then he’s pushing into her, each thrust of his cock leaving her gasping for air, clutching and clawing at his back, and they move together in desperation and lust.

Alina tries, she tries to keep the words trapped behind her teeth, but they spill out of her anyway, “I, I love you, Sasha, I--”

Aleksander freezes for just one moment, on top of her and inside her, and then he growls out against her throat, “Say it again.”

“I love you--”

“Again,” Aleksander groans, moving once more, bracing himself up on his arms so he can stare down at her face as he fucks her, as he watches her declare her love for him over and over again, his eyes black and his expression twisted as if in agony, as if part of him is dying right at this very moment.

Her orgasm comes upon Alina like a clap of thunder, sudden and overwhelming, and she clings to Aleksander, gasping soundlessly for air, arms wrapped around Aleksander’s neck as he continues to fuck her relentlessly until he finally spills inside of her with a low grunt, teeth sharp where he bites at the curve of her neck.

In the aftermath, lying quietly in the ruined sheets while Aleksander carefully and gently cleans between her legs with a silk cloth, Alina asks, staring up at the ceiling, “What are we going to do?”

“You’re not marrying Vasily,” Aleksander says.

“Obviously, but how do I avoid it?” Alina asks, plucking nervously at the sheets with her fingers. “Maybe if I left Ravka--”

Aleksander’s hand tightens around her thigh momentarily, hard enough to bruise. “Absolutely not.”

But Alina can’t stop herself from following the thread of this thought, like poking at a bruise. “If I left, then I wouldn’t be so obviously popular, and I wouldn’t have to marry the Prince, or worry about political plots--”

“No,” Aleksander grinds out, looming over her again, his hand braced next to her head. His voice is like gravel as he says, “You tell me you love me, and you make plans to leave, practically in the same breath?”

Above their head, shadows are gathering, blotting out the light from the lamps. Alina reflexively creates a few werelights to compensate, but they hardly manage to cut through the darkness suddenly surrounding them.

Slowly, Alina reaches out to touch his face, but the tension in Aleksander’s jaw and mouth doesn’t lessen. “I don’t want to be...a disruption. Wouldn’t it be easier for you, for the Grisha here, if I wasn’t a lightning rod, a complication--“

“Keep talking about yourself like that and I will be very displeased,” Aleksander says tightly, nostrils flaring. He leans in closer to Alina’s face and says, “You are our Sun Summoner. We’re not going to discard you at the first grey cloud on the horizon. I am not--“ He checks himself, and finally says, low and furious, “I am not giving you up. Not now, not ever. You are the best thing, the most miraculous thing, to happen to me in--“

He cuts himself off, bowing his head, and then starts to speak at a faster clip, emotion thick in his voice. “You come here and you save the world and you make me fall in love with you, and now you want to just disappear? To leave me behind and--“

“I don’t,” Alina whispers, her heart cracking open in her chest, even as she strokes his soft hair, tries to get him to look at her. “I don’t, I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want you to suffer--“

“If you leave, I will suffer,” Aleksander says with finality, head still bowed. “So don’t leave.”

The band is back, squeezing around her chest. “I won’t, I won’t.” Aleksander exhales slowly, lifting his head up to kiss her once on the mouth, sealing the bargain.

*

Aleksander makes the strong suggestion that Alina should stay in his quarters for the time being, and Alina doesn’t argue. While Aleksander is off hatching plans and counter-plans, Alina stays in the war room, looking quietly at the map of the continent.

There’s a murmur of voices outside the door, and Alina looks up just in time for Genya to come in, a valise in her hands and a worried expression on her face.

“I’ve got a change of clothes,” Genya offers, holding up the valise. “You can’t borrow the General’s, you’ll drown in them.”

Alina bursts out laughing. “Of course you’d think of that,” she says, but even she can hear the edge in her own voice.

Genya hesitates, then sets the valise down on the floor and comes to Alina’s side, sitting down next to her by the map table and taking her hand. “How are you?”

“Horrified,” Alina says after a moment. “You tried to tell me to be more careful, I should have listened.”

Genya shakes her head. “Against the avarice of the Lantsovs, there’s very little defense. I should know.”

The bitterness in her voice has Alina looking at her more closely, before asking, “What do you mean, Genya?”

Genya looks at her, startled. “Didn’t you know?” At Alina’s baffled look, Genya exhales and says, slowly, “I told you I was given to the Queen when I was eleven...but once I became older, the King took..a special interest in me as well.” Genya swallows and emphasizes, “A...lustful interest. One I could not refuse.”

Alina is cold with horror. “Genya,” she whispers, nearly stammering with shock. “Didn’t...couldn’t Aleksander have done something? Intervened somehow?”

Genya’s eyes are squeezed shut, and she’s gripping Alina’s hand like a lifeline. “He tried, but...there’s only so much you can do, against the king of Ravka.” She lets out another sigh, before saying next, “But when you arrived, and I was assigned to be your aide...the General suggested that anyone serving you, serving a living Saint, must be...pure and chaste, free from scandal. He said it in front of the Apparat and half of the bishops, and the King had to back down, or look like the lecherous wretch he is.” Genya’s eyes are swimming with tears, even as she smiles at Alina and says, “So you see, not only did you save us from the Fold, but you saved me as well.”

Alina has to work to speak past the lump in her throat. “Genya, I…”

“Don’t worry,” Genya says, squeezing Alina’s hand, her eyes shining in the lamplight, the sort of fervour Alina has only seen from true believers. “We’ll get you free from the Lantsovs soon. I promise you that.”

*

For two days, Alina is trapped within Aleksander’s quarters. Her meals are delivered there, her sketchbook and paints are brought to her, she takes her baths in Aleksander’s enormous bathtub, and it’s Aleksander’s bed that she sleeps in, with Aleksander clutching her close, even in his sleep.

It’s a confinement she understands as necessary, but one that she chafes at regardless.

“It won’t be much longer,” Aleksander promises her, with a kiss to her forehead. “We just need a little more time.”

“You think the King will come to his senses that soon?” Alina asks doubtfully.

Something flickers in Aleksander’s dark eyes. “It’ll all be settled soon, my love. I’m sure of it.”

He drops another kiss on her head before leaving, and Alina is left alone in Aleksander’s bed, with little to do but wait for rescue.

A few hours later, Alina is scowling as she rips up the latest spoiled watercolor sketch, only to shriek as she hears someone behind her say, dryly, "Well, I see you're keeping busy in your cage."

"Baghra," Alina gasps out, hand over her pounding heart as she stares at Baghra, who has appeared literally out of nowhere and is watching Alina with her usual sardonic gaze. "I didn't hear--how did you get in?"

Baghra is still watching her closely. "So the General didn't see fit to warn you about the secret passages he had installed in his quarters."

Alina bristles. "Of course he did, I just didn't think you could get into them."

Baghra quirks an eyebrow at that, but says lightly, "Well, here I am anyway." She cocks her head and asks, "Unless you're not interested in company?"

Alina has no reason to think that Baghra is here for a pleasant chat, but she says slowly, "No, it's fine. Have a seat."

Baghra makes a show of settling herself at the map table, cane resting against her chair as she keeps watching Alina. Looking for something to occupy herself with, Alina offers, "Would you like some tea?"

"No," Baghra says.

"All right, well, I'll have some tea," Alina says.

As she busies herself with preparing a cup, Baghra says, mildly, "The king's guards tried to kidnap your doppelganger last night."

The tea slops over the rim of the cup, Alina's hands clenching around the teapot. Marie had volunteered to have Genya tailor her face, to act as Alina's double for security reasons, and when Alina had tried to protest, she had come into the room and sworn up and down she was ready and willing, but--

"They were almost hilariously unsuccessful, of course," Baghra adds casually. "Didn't even make it to your suite before they were apprehended. Still interesting though--one or two of their fellows turned traitor, warned the General before the attempt. Couldn't stomach the thought of kidnapping a Saint, I expect."

"Perhaps," Alina says, the alarm she'd felt draining away and leaving exhaustion in its wake.

"So is this your plan, then?" Baghra asks, making a show of looking around her. "To hide behind the General as you wait for others to fix your mess?"

Alina chokes back the half-dozen angry replies she could make to that--starting with demanding to know how this is her mess, when it's the King who started all this--but there's something in Baghra's bright, challenging gaze that has Alina checking herself, biting the inside of her cheek as she tries to think of something smarter to say, something Zoya would advise her to say.

"You're a very unpleasant person, you know," Alina says, her voice as icy as she can make it, which is very. "If you have something to say to me, Baghra, say it. Otherwise I have enough to be dealing with already, without having to tolerate your rudeness."

Baghra doesn't look insulted--pity; instead she lifts up her chin and says, "Fine, then. You're making a mistake, relying on the General to save you. I know he's good at playing the role of savior and protector, but you have no idea what he's capable of. The things he's done, and the things he's willing to do."

It's impossible for Alina to actually see red, but Saints above, that is what it feels like, like her anger has reached a point where all she can see is red mist.

"Exactly who am I supposed to place my trust in then?" Alina demands. "Should I trust the king who is trying to marry me off to his son? Should I trust the Apparat? Or should I trust you--the woman without a kind word for anyone, who speaks in riddles instead of saying what she means?" She exhales sharply through her nose, and finishes, "Whatever power struggle you and the General are engaged in--leave me out of it. And get out of this room. Through the front door, please."

A complicated mix of emotions flashes across Baghra's face--and something in that feels oddly familiar, in a way Alina can't place--but then her face settles into a cool mask, and she gets up and walks out, dignified and calm as ever.

Alina hangs onto her own dignity, and does not slam the door shut behind her.

*

If Alina is angry and frustrated with Baghra, Aleksander is incandescent with rage.

“She did what?”

Alina’s own anger has burned down to ash by this point in the evening, and she shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter, it’s not as if I’m going to listen to anything she says.” She pushes at her dinner with her fork, but has no appetite. “And you’re sure that Marie’s all right?”

“Marie’s fine, the King’s guards never even got within sight of her,” Aleksander assures her. “She knew the risks when she volunteered--”

“But I don’t want her to be at risk,” Alina protests. “I don’t want people putting themselves at risk to protect me--“

“You’re the Sun Summoner,” Aleksander says, an impatient edge to his voice. “You aren’t some lowly private in the First Army anymore, you’re Sankta Alina; people will sacrifice themselves to save you whether you want them to or not.”

“So is this the plan?” Alina asks, despair sinking into her. “Throwing people between myself and danger, over and over again?”

“Of course not,” Aleksander says, abandoning his dinner to reach out and take Alina’s hand in his. “Alina, this won’t continue forever. Trust me.”

Alina swallows, as the warmth of his hand sinks into her chilled fingers. She can never seem to get warm enough, these last few days. The automatic response--the one she still wants to give--is to say, ‘Of course I do,’ except…

“Why would Baghra try to turn me against you?” Alina asks quietly, looking at their interlaced fingers.

His fingers tighten around hers, the grip almost painful for a moment before he eases up. “Baghra and I have...a complicated history, and long-standing disagreements on how best to protect our fellow Grisha. With everything so unsettled, she likely saw an opportunity to strengthen her own power base at the expense of mine.”

“I see,” Alina says, pursing her lips. “You know, growing up at the orphanage, nearly every toy there was a hand-me-down from local families. But there was one porcelain doll that was practically new, and all the children there would fight over it. They’d steal and hide it away from each other, just so the other children couldn’t get at it.”

Aleksander is watching her closely. “Whatever happened to the porcelain doll?”

“The same thing that happens to every toy that’s loved too well,” Alina says with a shrug. “It was eventually broken and ruined past repair.”

“Alina,” Aleksander says, his eyes so tender, his voice so soft. “Absolutely nothing and no one is going to ruin you. I’ll destroy anyone who tries.” Alina doesn’t respond to this reassurance, and Aleksander leans in over the table and says, urgently, “Alina, trust me. This will be over soon.”

To that, Alina gives the only answer she can. “Of course I trust you.”

And it’s true. Alina trusts Aleksander; she has since the day they first met.

But in retrospect, Alina will have cause to wish that while she was giving Aleksander her trust (along with her heart, her body, her support, everything that she was, everything she had), she had stopped to ask Aleksander exactly how he planned to resolve this conflict with the royal family.

But by that point, it’s far too late for Alina to ask, or to stop him. It’s far too late to stop him at all.

*

The next day, Alina is interrupted in her studies by someone frantically pounding at the door. Before she can move from her desk, Zoya is slipping into her room past the guards, wild-eyed and flushed.

“What’s happened?” Alina asks through numb lips, already realizing that something must have gone very wrong. “Has someone hurt Marie?” At Zoya’s shake of the head, Alina’s stomach clenches with panic. “Is it Genya? Is Aleksander…”

Zoya shakes her head again, seemingly coming back to herself. “No, no. Genya and Kirigan are fine.” She pauses, then says with an odd emphasis, “They are fine.”

“Oh,” Alina breathes out, having to lean against the desk for support, the relief making her knees tremble. “Zoya, don’t scare me like--”

But Alina trails off as she sees that the tension in Zoya’s face isn’t easing away.

Zoya takes a deep breath. “Did you know what the General was planning?” Before Alina can open her mouth to deny it, or to ask what Zoya could mean, Zoya mutters to herself, “No, of course you didn’t, stupid question.”

“Of course I don’t know what Aleksander’s done,” Alina says, exasperated. “I don’t even know what’s happening, I’ve been trapped here for days!”

Zoya takes a step towards her, her voice hushed, eyes still wide with...fear, that’s fear Alina’s seeing in Zoya’s eyes now. “Alina, he’s--”

“Thank you, Zoya, that will be all,” Aleksander says calmly from where he’s standing in the doorway.

Zoya checks herself, and looks at Aleksander for a long moment. “Of course,” she says slowly. “General.”

She leaves, although not without giving Alina a long look over her shoulder, her face full of worry.

Once the door is shut, Alina says, forcing herself to stay calm, “What is happening, Sasha? What has Zoya so worried?”

“You don’t need to worry about Zoya,” Aleksander promises her, coming forward and taking her hands in his.

“Telling me I shouldn’t worry isn’t going to help me not worry,” Alina says, her voice tight, frustration crawling along her limbs. “Sasha, tell me what is going on.”

Aleksander looks down at her, his gaze oddly remote. “The King has...fallen ill. He’s taken to his bed. The prognosis...it doesn’t look good.”

Alina is shocked into silence. Fumbling for words, she stammers, “What, I…” But something in Aleksander’s assessing gaze has her going quiet once more. Unease rising up inside of her, Alina says, slowly, “How...sudden this illness is. And how fortuitously timed, too.”

Aleksander doesn’t answer, and a cold pit starts to grow in Alina’s stomach. “Sasha--”

“He won’t recover,” Aleksander says, in a hard voice that Alina has never heard from him before. “I am assured of it.”

Alina tries to stay calm. Tries. “And the Tsaritsa, the Crown Prince...just because the King is--”

“They too are suffering from the same symptoms as the King,” Aleksander says smoothly. “What a pity.”

Alina slowly pulls her hands free from his, and she asks, her heartbeat pounding loudly in her ears, “Sasha, what have you done?”

“I have done,” Aleksander says, deliberately, “--exactly what I said I would. I have kept you safe, and destroyed those that would ruin you.”

“By assassinating a monarch?” Alina hisses in disbelief. “By murdering people?”

“What else would you have me do?” Aleksander demands, coming forward, wrapping an arm around her waist to keep her close, even as Alina stares up at him with horror. “Wait for the Apparat and the church officials to find their courage and speak out against the King? Or should I have stood aside and watched as the woman I love is handed off to that oaf of a prince, to be used as a broodmare for that wretched inbred family--”

“There had to be another way--”

“There wasn’t,” Aleksander says with finality. “In one swoop, I have eliminated the greatest remaining threat to Grisha in this country--the Lantsovs. Now we’re all safe, free to build a better reality.”

Alina shivers as she recognizes her own words, spoken back to her. As she starts to shake, Aleksander begins stroking her hair, a gesture meant to soothe. “I never meant this,” she says, desperate. “I never wanted--”

“I know, I know,” Aleksander soothes. “My love, I know you didn’t. That’s why I did it for you. A living saint shouldn’t worry themselves over such things. That’s what you have generals for.”

He pulls her into a gentle embrace, and Alina is too numb to protest, shutting her eyes as she tries to breathe.

“Every war has its casualties,” Aleksander murmurs, his chin resting on top of her head. His hand is moving in soothing circles between her shoulder blades. “There’s no such thing as a bloodless revolution. Grisha will be better off, the country will be better off. Even the church.”

“Yes, because power vacuums are so good for countries,” Alina says sarcastically, but her voice wobbles despite herself.

“There won’t be a power vacuum,” Aleksander says, with total confidence.

“Exactly how won’t there be,” Alina starts, beginning to pull back to stare at him, but she freezes mid-motion, remembering the crowds that still wait for her each week in front of the church without fail, the cheers she received at the Winter Fete. And Aleksander, there by her side each and every time, watching her, watching the crowd’s response to her…

“Aleksander, no,” Alina says, with as much force as she can put into it.

But one look at his face and Alina knows he’s not going to relent. “No, what?” Aleksander prods, almost gently.

“I don’t want a crown,” Alina says. “Or a throne.”

“You didn’t want a suite of rooms at the Little Palace either,” Aleksander says, with remarkable unconcern. “Or to face the adulation of the crowds. But with each and every challenge put before you, you rose up to the occasion. You, Alina Starkov, are the one person that can reunite Ravka, make it a true sanctuary for all Grisha.”

“And while I’m being a grand symbol of hope and reunification, who exactly is going to be running the country?” Alina asks, sharply. “All this time we’ve talked about my lack of ambition, when really I should have been wondering about your ambitions instead.”

Aleksander tilts his head to consider her. “Do you want to return to your forest? Disappear to another country?” Slowly, he releases her from his embrace and Alina holds herself still, refusing to acknowledge how cold she feels, without the warmth of his arms around her. “I can’t stop you.”

“Can’t you,” Alina says, witheringly sarcastic.

“Am I going to be as bad as King Piotyr, and try to imprison a living saint?” Aleksander scoffs. “Of course not. You could go, Alina, and watch from the shadows as the country crumbles without you...but you won’t. We both know you aren’t capable of it.”

Alina clenches her fists and says, “You’re willing to bet a lot on that.”

“Of course I am,” Aleksander says, with perfect unconcern. “Who would ever bet on you being a coward?”

Alina nearly chokes at the audacity of this, the arrogance, and half-shrieks, “It’s not cowardice to not want to be a part of a coup, let alone--”

Let alone regicide, is what she means to say next, but the words stick in her throat. After what feels like an eternity, Alina says, through gritted teeth. “This will never work. The army, the church, the public will never stand for--“

“Won’t they?” Aleksander prods. “You don’t yet realize, Alina--I have the army. I have the church, thanks to that coward of an Apparat. And you…have the hearts of everyone in the country.” He swallows, throat working as he adds, “You have my heart. Blackened though you might find it at this particular moment, it is yours. Just as your heart is mine.”

Alina’s heart, pounding with panic in her chest, twists at that, and she half-turns away from him, wanting for the first time to deny it, wanting to deny him--

“Don’t,” Aleksander grits out, and in the space of a moment he’s in front of her again, clutching her to him, his desperation finally clear in the tight grip of his hands on her arms, in the way that he tries, futilely, to catch her gaze. “Alina, you were meant for this. You were meant for Ravka, for me, you cannot deny it now, not now--

As he continues to talk, to argue, Alina squeezes her eyes shut, blocking him out, blocking out the tears that threaten to come. She should have seen this coming, how did she not see this coming, how could she not have known--

But hadn’t she always known? It had been that desperate need in him that Alina was drawn to from the beginning, the way he gripped her so tightly, responded to her touch like a starving man. Alina had always known there was a darkness to Aleksander, a need left unfulfilled, and she’d grabbed onto him anyway, wanting an anchor, wanting--

She’d wanted somewhere safe to put all of her love, wanted to love someone strong enough to survive anything, and she’d found it. Saints help her, she’d found him.

Slowly, painfully, Alina drifts back in to hear Aleksander pleading with her, the way that she knows he never does with anyone else, “Don’t do this, you can’t, Alina, please--

It should be harder. That’s what Alina will remember from this day. It should have been harder.

Her voice comes out as a whisper. “I won’t be a tyrant.” Aleksander lifts his head up at that, eyes sharp, a wolf sensing that its prey has made itself vulnerable at last. Alina swallows, and amends it to, “We…we won’t be tyrants.”

“Of course,” Aleksander agrees.

“I won’t be put on a leash.” Alina’s mouth is dry as she forms the words.

“I would never try to put you on one,” Aleksander says.

“And I don’t want any more bloodshed,” Alina says, desperately. “I don’t--“

“Of course, of course,” Aleksander soothes, but in his eyes Alina can see the triumph there, the savage joy at her capitulation. For one wild moment, she wants to take it back, she wants to take it all back--

But then Aleksander is brushing his mouth against her forehead, tenderly, and he says, standing so close that she can’t tell if the tremors she feels are from him or her or both, “I have waited…such a long time for you.”

Alina shuts her eyes, and makes her choice. “Well,” she says. “Here I am.”