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Solncestojaniye

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before.

The girl tries to remember.

She tries to remember the feel of her mother’s touch; she tries to remember the sound of her soothing voice or the colour of her eyes. She tries to recall the shape of her father’s face, the roughness of his hands, the pace of his gait.

She cannot.

What she does remember are the men who stormed her house. She remembers their loud barking voices and black uniforms, and how they took away her mother and put a bullet through her father’s head.” “Traitors,” one of them has said, spitting on her father’s corpse.

What she remembers is her life being shattered.

What she remembers is Karamzin, a mansion covered in ice, an orphanage, a prison.

The girl grows.

She leaves the prison, the missing memory of her past fuelling her anger. She loves a good, hardworking boy, who dreams of a better life, who dreams of freedom. She hopes until she hears their voices again, until her world gets shattered again, until she sees him fall.

The girl takes the quill into her hand.

She writes.

The girl takes a banner into her hands.

She runs.

 

i.

She moves, feeling the moistness of the stone wall underneath her palms. In front of her, in the darkness, she sees her scrawny, white legs with ball-like knees. 

Sometimes she stands up and paces; here and there, here and there, here and there, until she cannot feel anything anymore, until those legs give in to her own weight, until there is nothing left but the darkness surrounding her. Lost in her thoughts, her mind is preoccupied with concepts she will never be able to formulate, questions she will never know the answers to.

“Why?” she asks herself in the darkness.

“Why?” she whispers to the moist stone in front of her.

There is no answer. Only silence and the sound of her own heavy breathing.

 

ii. 

She walks in darkness, hiding behind her closed eyes. She expects to hear them shout, hear the voices of the people she is fighting —dying— for. She wants to hear them for one last time, hear them condemn her to death. It’s how it goes, after all; the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading. Yet all she hears is silence. Pure and perfect, visionless, broken only by the dull sound of their own footsteps. She feels the guard’s grip on her arm. Hard, merciless, while at the same time undeniably emitting the natural warmth she has craved so very much. How long has it been since the king’s soldiers dragged her down from the barricade? How long has it been since she has awoken in the darkness? Weeks? Months? She cannot say. She is weak, her bony legs almost unable to walk. What she believes to be tile is cold beneath her feet. She savours the sensation, knowing this might be the last time she will ever feel it.

Halt.

Creak of an old wooden door.

Then, the momentary return of the visionless silence. She hears her knees collide with the floor before she begins to register the convulsive pain. She forces her eyelids to rise, facing a delicate tile floor made of white marble, embroiled with golden veins; the brightness of the colour hurts her brain.

“I brought the prisoner, moi soverenyi.” She hears the words as if her head were underwater: loud, hollow, everywhere.

“Leave us,” says another voice. It sounds sharper, less muted. She lifts her head, searching for its owner. What she finds is a silhouette of void facing away from her. She knows him. He has many names — the shadow of the Tsar. She knows she should not dare to speak out without being asked, but while a moment ago she was prepared for death, this is not the execution block and he is not the hangman. Not directly, at least.

“I thought I was going to die,” her own voice feels foreign in her throat. Not as hollow as the others, but too present, too forceful.

“A lot of things can happen until dawn.”

She knows.

“I’ve read your manifesto. It was… stimulating.” He says to the window and continues to quote her own words. “‘What light is to the eyes—what air is to the lungs—what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man.’”

Her words vocalized by his velvet voice vibrate through the room. Her body tenses in a spasm. They feel like venom to her ears. He turns, his gloved hands neatly clasped behind his back. Bowing her head, she listens as he brings the darkness that is his physical form closer, as the slow, carefully measured footsteps erase the distance between them. She thinks she feels his proximity the way prey can sense its closing predator. The tile presses its flat surface into her knuckles as she sinks into herself, preparing her body for the collision of his fist with her skull. In her head she prays. She prays for herself, only herself.

“Alina.”

She does not hear.

Once again, she is underwater, in the dungeons of the underworld. It is the sensation of his warmth that brings her back—back from the darkness of her cell, from the darkness of her own soul, back to this world, back to him. She looks at him. He is beautiful, but only a fool would expect terror to be anything else.

“Let me help you get up,” he says, his voice nothing but a whisper and she does. She lets him raise her to her feet, lets his eyes linger on her wretched from, lets him slowly sit her down into an overly padded ebony chair. She sees his youth then—a boy buried beneath a steel exterior, cloaked in shadows.

“I hope you excuse Ivan’s harsh ways.”

She clasps her hands together. The trembling seems to ease. The guard, Ivan, does not care for her forgiveness.

“Why am I here?” she asks, his dark form towering above her.

“To talk.”

“I … I already talked to—” she pauses. “I already talked to someone.”

Someone isn’t me.”

She looks at him, her hands still forcibly pressed together. She does not understand and she does not know if she wants to. She knew people, important people, people who wrote words of consequence, great people, people whom she admired, people who left to meet this man and never returned—and if they did, they carried scars deeper than on the surface of their skin. She wants to spit in his face, to let him know what she truly thinks of him and the things he has done to those she has loved. Deep down, however, she knows she is too weak to do anything but stare. She is too weak to die when she might be given an opportunity to live.

“Things have changed since your containment, Miss Starkov. When we arrested you, you were a free thinker, a writer, a fighter—one of thousand. But now, you have come to be something else entirely.” She watches as the man’s lips curve into a small, appreciative smile. “You became an embodiment of hope, a symbol of revolution. You and the rebels have became one.”

He eases himself into a seat next to her. She swallows, releasing her dirty hands so they could freely rest in her lap. She thinks back to the moment when the bullet hit Mal’s chest, to the moment when she lost all hope, all sense of self-preservation. They killed the man she loved and along with him, the world she dreamed of. A symbol? She would laugh if the weak muscles in her stomach would allow her to. She is no symbol. She used to be a young girl in love, a selfish girl who faced death only because she had nothing to lose. And now? Now she is not even that.

She looks down at her hands, avoiding his inquiring stare. “Why? Why me?” There were so many others. Others, dead and alive, more suitable to become leaders, and yet...

 “Oh Alina,” he says, shaking his head as if he were approaching a child. “You are everything; the orphan, the commoner, the intellectual, the soldier. No one cared about your little pamphlet before you decided to grab a flag and face the royal army—on your own. Now it’s the only thing people read. The city is filled with inscriptions: liberty is to the soul of men, they say. Sol Koroleva, svobóda buda. I have dozens of men washing them down—it serves no purpose. Next morning, they are back. They love you, Alina.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she whispers.

“I could not agree more,” his voice vibrates with amusement. “And yet, Sol Koroleva.” He says, his lips curving into a mocking smile, “it is so.”

Sol Koroleva, the words echo in her head. What a repulsive, monarchy-stained title they gave her. “Do you want to make an example out of me?” she asks, raising her head to meet his eyes for the first time. If he is her end, she might as well meet his gaze. “Do you want to stage a public execution?”

“It would be a smart move, wouldn’t it?” He asks rhetorically, his eyes gaining sudden intensity. ”But no, Alina. Why make you a martyr when I can make you a conqueror?”

There is a certain quality to the velvet voice that consumes her senses. He is like a drug; sweet but blinding, intense but terminal.

“A conqueror?”

Sol Koroleva,” he whispers, smiling slightly as she shakes her head in resistance. She is no queen, no conqueror, and she is not for him to make.

“You can end this bloodshed, Alina. You can bring our people the freedom and liberty they ache for. It is you who can feed them. It is you who can give them justice. But you need someone to stand at your side, someone to be able to watch over you. Someone who will make you rise.” She watches him lean towards her, watches him, as their faces are only inches apart. “You need me, Alina, as much as I need you,” he says, his breath warm against her face. “I've been waiting for you a long time. You and I are going to change the world.”

She does not argue.

When she leaves the room, she does not bear scars. But how many scars can someone who has made a pact with the devil truly bear?

Chapter Text

i.

 

They take her from the capital to a castle in the woods. A heavily carved structure rising above the surrounding trees like something cut out of an enchanted forest. She has never seen anything like it, a cluster of dark wood and golden domes. The Little Palace, they call it.

They feed her with heavy soups from beet and pickled cucumbers, with meat from venison and sturgeon. She needs to regain her strength, they say; the strength she has lost in the dungeon. Eight weeks she has spent there, eight weeks of darkness and horror and hate. Eight weeks of torturing herself over Mal’s death. It wasn’t her fault and yet she cannot erase the image of his lifeless body from her head.

When she finally rises from her bed, they dress her in simple but fine clothes—all black. You are his now, the dresses seem to say as their soft fabric slides over her skin. When she sees herself in a mirror for the first time, she gasps. Sol Koroleva, the people call her, but the reflection staring back at her is nothing more than a skeleton covered in skin. Nothing more than a prophecy of death.

“I want to run with you in the mornings,” she tells the guard, Ivan, who has accompanied her to the Chancellor’s private residence.

“We leave at six,” is all he says in response.

She runs then, from six to eight; for the rest of the day, she reads. On Sundays, she goes to the church. She is forbidden to speak to anyone. Ivan tells her it’s for her own safety. She does not believe him. She might not be in a prison cell anymore, but she is not free either.  

He comes a month later. She sees his black carriage approach as she reads by the window. The house, breaks down into chaos—he came unexpected. His lean silhouette enters the house and as she hears the walls carry the faint resonance of his velvet voice, her hands start to shake. I will not be afraid, she thinks, closing her eyes. I will not be afraid.

It takes until the evening before they meet. The table is set for two.

“Alina.”

"Moi soverenyi,” she whispers.

“You look better.”

Not well, better. She raises her chin. “Is it time?”

“No,” he says simply, moving towards the table. “Not yet.”

“Why have you come then?”

“To see you.”

“Liar.”

He chuckles, the sound too pleasant for her liking. “You don’t know me, Miss Starkov. Don’t pretend you do.”

“I know enough to see that you are not a man who is keen on wasting his time.”

“Seeing you is not a waste of time.”

She looks deep into his quartz grey eyes, starting to contemplate her choice yet another time. Between life and death, she chose life. What kind of life, she did not know; beggars can’t be choosers, but she won’t bow to him. Not when she knows he needs her, not when she knows she does not have to.

His delicate hand finds its way into his dark cloak, revealing a small picture in a gilded frame. The girl with sun around her head looks powerful and pure. She looks like a queen, like a saint. She looks like her.

“What is it?”

He smiles, putting the picture into her hands. “It’s you. I had it made shortly after our first meeting to keep the memory of your heroism alive.”

She looks at the picture in disgust. It looks like an idol. “I am no saint,” she states flatly and hands the picture back to him, watching as he hides it back in his breast pocket.

“You don’t have to be, as long as the mob believes it.”

She shakes her head. “I know I agreed to be your pawn for the good of the people, but I don’t let you twist the ideology I stand for. I am neither a queen nor a saint. I am Ravkan.”

To her surprise, his lips curve in a proud smile. “Bravo, Alina,” he says. She tries to detect sarcasm in his voice, but finds none. He stands up, his hand trailing along the edge of the set table.

“The crowd will cheer your name when you tell them what you just told me; when you condemn the first and second estate in that not-so-steady voice and declare yourself to be one of them. No nobility, no clergy, but a Ravkan.”

“I am Ravkan,” she says. She feels her hands form tight fists. He is so close to her now she can feel his warmth. Subconsciously, her nostrils flare and she inhales his fresh scent. He smells like the air in the middle of the night, a coniferous forest bordering the Ravkan plains.

“I know you are, and they might love you for it,” he tells her, the velvet quality of his voice washing over her, “but they won’t remember you for it. Let me create an image, so you can deny it—shatter it! Let me do what I do best, so when you return to the capital, all you’ll have to do is lead.”

She hates him then more than she has ever hated him in his absence. She hates him because she knows he is right—this might be the only way, the only way for both of them to succeed.

Stepping away from him, she moves to her own seat. They eat in silence. It is then when she takes the time to truly study him for the first time; the harshly beautiful face of terror everyone knows and fears, and yet she realizes that it is not his handsomeness that makes your eyes linger. It is the presence he seems to radiate, the magnetism he emits. Wrapped in black silk, he reminds her of a black hole that draws in everything and anything that comes its way. When his eyes meet hers, she summons her voice, praying it won’t shake.

“What do you want from me?” It is a simple question—a question that has been on her mind ever since she regained enough of her strength to really care.

“To lead a rebellion,” he says, his voice without intonation.

She knows that, and yet, she does not know how. She knows people—some people at least—but she is not what he thinks she is and she cannot do what he thinks she can—she does not want to.

For lack of a better response, she says, “It’s not that simple.”

“Of course it is not that simple.” It is him who studies her now. Self-conscious of her every curve, she watches him as he slowly rises from his heavily decorated armchair and makes his way along the long table towards her, his steps smooth and graceful—a king’s gait.

“You want to know what I want from you?”

The question sends a shiver down her spine. He lowers himself to her, his too perfect face only inches away from hers.

“I want you to come back when the time is right and become what everyone else already believes you are—a leader, a conqueror. I want you to grab the banner once more and lead our people in front of the royal palace. I want you to be the embodiment of their visions, their hopes, and their dreams. I want you to meet me in front of the gates and I want us to walk through them together. Not as an official and a rebel, but as citizens of a free state.”

“And then…” Slowly, his mouth brushes lightly along her earlobe, the blood in her veins pulsing in an irregular rhythm. Her eyes close and she wants to run. Not from him, but from herself, from her own body’s reaction to his touch. Since it is not only terror she feels now, but also excitement.

“And then,” he repeats into her ear, “when there is no one to challenge us, I want you to rule beside me. I want you to be Tsarevna, Sol Koroleva, but mostly, I want you to give yourself up to me. I want you to be mine.”

When she opens her eyes, he is gone. In the morning, she finds he has left the castle completely.

 

 

ii.


I do not want to be a queen
, she thinks, as she lies awake in her bed that night. But her mind wanders. It wanders to the images he has painted in her head; images of glory and splendour, images of justice and wealth of a nation; her nation, images that make sense only with him in them. 

“No,” she whispers into her pillow, because she remembers; remembers the uniforms of the men who years ago came to kill her father and to take away her mother to the gulag, remembers the symbol embroidered on the right arm of the boy, who fired the shot that had ended Mal’s life. She cannot forget; cannot forgive what he and his men have done.

When sleep finally takes her, she screams herself awake.

Firm hands clasp her shoulders as she lift herself on her hands. In front of her, a girl with hair like flames sits on her bed. “It was just a bad dream,” she says.

Alina nods absently, taking the sight of the girl’s golden eyes flickering in the dim candlelight. Dressed in a white night gown, she looks like a creature from the myths.

“Who are you?”

“Genya,” the girl tells her, smiling. “Genya Safin. I am a tailor.”

“A tailor?”

Genya nods. “I will be the one attending to you from now on.”

“What about Luba?” Alina asks, suddenly remembering the old, barking woman, who comes to wake her every morning.

“That old crane?! She has enough work as it is. But now, sleep! We’ll talk in the morning,” she says with a wink, before she takes the candle she has brought and leaves the room.

Alina stares at the canopy above her, the symbol of an eclipse embroidered in its silk fabric. She might do what he asks of her. She might hand him the country on a silver platter, but she will not be his lover and she will not be his queen. And if opportunity itself, she will turn against him and let him fall with the monarchy he so willingly served.

In her dreams however—the dreams that frequent her mind as often as her nightmares—a crown rests upon her head and she finds herself in his bed.

 

 

iii.


She jolts awake.

“What an ungodly hour to wake up,” a voice says to the open space in her room. Opening her eyes, she sees the redheaded girl from last night buzzing around her room.

“We have to eliminate this nonsense. I am not a morning person.”

Alina blinks. Luba came in, woke her up and left. No questions, no commentaries, no words at all.

“You are a maid,” Alina dares, her voice raspy from sleep.

The girl, Genya, turns to her, her golden eyes ablaze. “I am a tailor, Alina, not a maid. There is a difference.” Her tone is directive—a tone an older sister might have when schooling her younger sibling. “And I don’t wake up before sunrise. Not for you, not for Morozova, not even for the Queen.”

“The Queen? You served the Queen?”

“Among others, yes,” she says, while she scans her wardrobe. “What is this?” She asks, taking out the pair of leather pants and a dark shirt they got for her so she could be comfortable running.

Alina blinks. “My running attire?”

“Saints,” the tailor swears, murmuring something under her breath. “All right, you’ll run in this one last time. I’ll think about something till tomorrow, unless you’ll come to your senses and decide to drop this silly idea of running after Ivan. Now, get up.”

Alina does as she is told, feeling weirdly drawn to the girl. “You are the first one to talk to me here,” she tells her in truth.

Genya looks at her, folding the dark shirt across her arm. “Don’t blame them, Alina. They are afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Of what might happen to them if the Chancellor fails. Of where they might end up if someone finds out they took care of you, if someone finds out they helped him in his treason.”

Treason, she thinks. Traitor, that’s what she is now. That’s what the man in black is now too—just like her parents.

“I thought,” she starts, “I though he forbade them to talk to me.”

Genya shakes her head. Before she speaks, she scans her face as if to anticipate her reaction. “The Chancellor is ruthless, but he is not unjust,” she tells her after a while. “This all,” gesturing with her free hand around the room, “is conspiracy against the Tsar and so he told them as much. They might not know who you are, or what he is planning, but they knew enough to make up their own mind.”

Suddenly, the two items of clothing the tailor has been holding land in Alina’s hands. “Here, get dressed. I’ll help you with your dress once you return. I am going back to bed.”

“Genya?” Alina asks as she sees the tailor make her way towards the door. “Why aren’t you scared?”

The redheaded girl places her hand at the door handle. “Because I’ve done worse things than helping you.” Her face seems to harden. “Because I am a soldier.”

 

 

iv.


When she runs with Ivan, her animosity for the man is overpowered by her curiosity. “Why do you serve him?” she asks in the middle of the woods where no one can hear them. There is no need to clarify to whom she is referring.

He stops, putting his hands on his knees, his breath heavy in the cold air. “Why do you care?”

“Because I do.” It’s the best she can offer.

Ivan straightens his body, looking her over as if he is seeing her for the first time, as if it wasn’t him who broke her arm and dragged her through the palace to meet her fate.

“He is a man of his word.”

“What does that mean?”

The guard narrows his eyes and she watches his face being slowly flooded with liquid gold. Behind her back, the sun must be rising.

“It means that I believe in him,” he says, his breathing still heavy from the run.

She swallows, her throat dry. “Why?”

He shakes his head, looking into the distance.

“Why?” she presses, dedicated to get the information she needs. “Why do you believe in him?”

“That’s none of your concern.”

“Please.” She takes another step towards him. It is a risky game she plays, but she needs to know. She needs to know if the monster she agreed to serve is truly a monster. If she should be ashamed for the images she has dreamed about through the night.

“It was his men who killed my parents,” she breathes, her voice weaker than she would like. “His men, who killed and tortured my friends; his men, who killed the man I loved. Men like you. I need to know why.”

She sees him shift his weight.

“You make us look like monsters.”

“Help me understand, then,” she says then, taking another step to him. “Tell me why!”

Ivan’s brown eyes lock with hers. “They killed my father.” His voice vibrates with internalized anger. “He was defending this country against the Shu Han and they killed him. Then they killed my uncle and with him my two little brothers. All dead, because of a stupid war; a war that we wage so we could live these miserable lives, a war that never seems to end.”

She feels herself swallow.

“You want to know why I believe in someone who sends others to slaughter people like you? Who sends those who disagree with the king to the north? I’ll tell you. It’s because he promised that he would avenge my family, because he promised that when the time is right, he will make it stop.”

There is a brief pause before he looks at his shoes and breathes, “You don’t have the monopoly on tragedy, girl. We have all suffered in one way or another.”

She nods—it’s an instinct more than a thought-through action. Seeing the pain in his chocolate eyes, her cheeks grow red from embarrassment. “I am sorry,” she whispers. “I did not mean to…”

He shakes his head. “You did mean to, but it doesn’t matter. The problem with you is that you think the enemy feasts in the castle, while you starve in the streets, but the true enemy is at the borders and waits; waits for the chaos to break out. You think you can do everything with bayonets, but you are not going to be able to sit on them.” His voice vibrates with tension now, his face reddened by the intensity of his emotions. “You need a leader,” he tells her then, while his massive hand point to the ground. “Someone who is going to have the trust of the generals, the skill to lead the army and to rule the country. I don’t care if he ends up calling himself Tsar, King, President or a Saint. If he promises to make the wars stop, if he promises to make this country strong again, I will follow him.”

“No matter the cost?”

His jaw clenches. “Sometimes you have to lose a battle in order to win the war. I am willing to lose a few more if it means there is a victory at the end.”

She swallows her anger, looking into the depth of the forest in search for consolidation. It is still, too still for what has been said in between its trees.

“I am a soldier, Alina,” Ivan says, his voice a lot calmer now. In her head, she hears the echo of Genya’s words from the morning: because I am a soldier. “I do what I am told. I don’t know his plans and I don’t know what he wants with you, or why you are so important that I have to sit in this godforsaken place and look after you, but I trust him and so should you, because if it weren’t for him, you would have lost your head a long time ago.”

Absently, she feels herself nod. The weight of her wet coat pins her to the ground. It reminds her of the stark reality she is so unwilling to accept.

“Thank you for telling me,” she says after a while, the words burning in her throat.

He shrugs, the anger slowly leaving his face.

“We should get a move on.”

“All right,” she agrees and follows him as he turns his back on the rising sun.

Chapter Text

i.

Five weeks after her arrival, she finally takes a quill in her hand, but her mind is blank. She leans into the heavy armchair, her eyes scanning the books surrounding her. It’s the most exquisite library she has ever seen. Embedded in carvings of ebony woodwork, it looks as if the manuscripts have grown out of the shelves they stand on—as if they were part of the house itself. It has every book she has ever heard of, every manuscript the regime has ordered to burn, including hers. For every item she sees and recognizes, there is a life; a life that no longer is.

 

ii.

In the morning, she puts on her black coat and waits for Ivan to escort her to the church. She tried to go alone before, but the man dragged her back and would have beaten her up if he wasn’t forbidden to do so. They talk now. Not much and not often, but she appreciates it nevertheless.

Her eyes wander to the large window. What she sees makes her shiver—a frosty fog spreading into all directions. The glass in her room froze overnight, so that she could trace the patterns of the frost with her finger. She used to be forced to go outside in a cold like this, to chop wood until her fingers were so cold she could no longer feel them. Ana Kuya never bothered to tell them how cold it actually was, but after a while, she and Mal learned to guess. A frosty fog was the best of all bad options. Frosty fog meant forty degrees below zero. A temperature one could still handle without severe frostbites.

“Shall we?” a velvet voice says from behind her back.

Masking a flinch, she turns, her bony figure concealed by several layers of fur. “You are back,” she says as she rises from her seat.

He nods. Dressed in a black wool coat and a fur hat, he looks almost ordinary, and yet the gracefulness in his moves seems to betray him.

“Ivan?” she asks, hoping the man she has managed to partially befriend will accompany them.

“Would you prefer his company to mine?”

Yes, she thinks. Yes, I would. But instead of defying him, she shakes her head, not trusting her voice enough to answer him.

Narrowing his quartz eyes, he studies her for a brief moment.

“I don’t like being lied to, Alina.”

She swallows. Holding his gaze, she says, “I enjoy Ivan’s company.” A half-truth is not a lie.

The Chancellor nods. “Good that I mean to bribe you, then.”

“Bribe me?”

He nods again, offering her his arm before he leads her into the white cold. “Come.”

Feeling the freezing air on her cheeks, she accepts his offer. Outside, her brown eyes take in the sight of two black horses. Involuntarily, she gasps with excitement. Ivan never lets them ride, worried she might escape. From the corner of her eye, she can see Morozova’s cunning smile.

“I know you know better than to run from me,” he tells her then in a hushed voice, as if he were reading her mind.

 

iii.


The journey to the village takes about an hour and a half, if your pace is quick. They ride in silence, the horses seemingly keener on each other than their masters. From time to time, she gathers enough courage to study his profile. There is something about him that unsettles her, draws her in—something magnetic. He lets her get away with it, with these inquiring looks and glares, until they become too obvious, too demanding. It is then that he turns to her, his eyes resembling two pieces of ice.

“Ask.” The sound of his voice makes her blink.

“How old are you?”

She sees the corner of his mouth curve slightly. “Is that the best you’ve got?”

“It’s the one thing you might answer.”

He nods in silent approval. “Twenty-eight.”

“How?” She cannot help but be impressed. “How did you rise through the ranks so quickly?”

“Skill.”

“That’s not an answer.”

This earns her an uninterested shrug. “I did what had to be done.”

She swallows at the reality of that statement. That he did, she knows. She thinks of all those people around her, who vanished into thin air in the middle of the night and never returned. Where did they go, she wonders as she contemplates her next question.

“Why the Little Palace?”

“Hm?”

“You could choose any residence. You could even stay in Os Alta. Why should you choose a castle in the middle of nowhere?”

“Can’t a man have a home?”

“Home?” she asks, surprised. She never thought of him as having a home, or a childhood at that. Looking at him, all she sees is the cold exterior and sharp edges. There is nothing familial about him, nothing that could be considered warm and kind.

“My ancestors built this place. I made it my mission to get it back.”

“So you did not grow up here,” she says, more to herself than to him.

“No,” he says and she waits, waits for him to explain.

“I grew up in the north.”

“Where in the north?”

The way his gloved hands clench the reins tells her she has touched a sore chord. Alina has never before seen the man out of comfort, never out of control and while his face remains a mask of calmness, the spasm in his hands seem to betray him. Watch his hands, she thinks, you have to always watch his hands.

“Narilsk,” he breathes then, without granting her the opportunity to see into his face.

Her eyes grow wide. “But—” she stutters, stopping her horse in disbelief as the gravity of his revelation hits her. “There is nothing in Narilsk. Nothing but…”

“A labour camp,” he agrees, still avoiding her glare. “Nothing but hell covered in eternal snow.” The tone of his voice is flat, too flat to be genuine. She hears herself gasp as she watches his beautiful face turn to hers.

“I’ve seen pain, Alina,” he tells her, his expression blunt and hollow. “More pain than you have ever seen.”

She opens her mouth, but his sharp eyes stop her. “Enough,” he whispers. “Enough questions for one day.”

“I am sorry,” is the only thing she manages to say, before he urges his horse into a gallop and leaves her for the solitude of the woods to consume her.

She could run away, if she wanted.

She doesn’t.



iv.

 
She finds him again in front of the church. He stands in a small circle, surrounded by the villagers, listening to their chatter. He nods his head and smiles as he shakes an old man’s hand. The man bows to him and smiles in return. She has forgotten his role here – he is not a chancellor, he is their master, their gubernatika man in charge of their land. From afar, she sees a small huddle of young women her age approach the crowd.

“It’s him!” She hears one of the girls scream to the others as she storms towards the church. “He is back!”

It is then when his head rises and his eyes meet hers. The small smile he was wearing washes off his face, and despite her better judgement, she feels hurt. Bowing his head slightly, he excuses himself from the crowd and walks towards her.

“You are a slow rider,” he says, petting the nape of her mare.

“I didn’t know it was a race.”

“It’s always a race.”

He offers her his arms to slide into, and with one good measured glare towards the crowd of his admirers, she lowers herself into his embrace. With his arms strong around her torso, she cannot help but savour his touch and the natural warmth it offers. To her surprise, he does not let go. Not immediately.

His right hand grasps her chin and the momentary tenderness disappears from his face. “I would appreciate, if what I told you back in the forest would stay between us.” His tone vibrates with warning.

She nods, meeting his steel-like gaze. “It will.”

“Good,” he says, placing a light kiss on her lips.

Over his shoulder, she sees the group of girls sulk in jealousy. Run, she thinks, looking at them, run while you still can.

  

v.


The service is short and simple and for the first time, she is glad of it. She is too aware not only of his proximity, his smell and warmth, but also of the glares the villagers give her. She is not what they think she is. She is not his whore and yet she feels guilty, because somewhere deep inside, she wants him; not his power, not his promises, but him. She wants to sit here next to him and place her hand on top of his. Make a claim on him. It is silly, she knows, and yet…

Rising from the banks, she watches him as he does his rounds. To her surprise, he seems to know every name of every peasant who comes his way. Even the girls who so obviously lust after him receive a small bow and an indication of a smile.

“I need to go back to the capital,” he tells her as they exit the building with the crowd of villagers at their backs. Raising her head, she sees his black carriage already waiting.

“I will be back.”

I know you will, Alina thinks, as her eyes linger on the carriage. “When?” she asks, her voice marked with genuine interest. There is so much she wants to ask him now. So much more she needs to know before she makes the decision to trust him.

He turns to her, his eyes scanning her face. “Soon,” he says, tracing his thumb across the bottom of her chin. “We’ll talk then.” A suggestion of a smile flashes across his face as he leaves her in order to exchange a few words with Ivan. Not before long, he raises his hand to the villagers surrounding them. “Do svidaniya, tovarishii.”

Do svidaniya!” echoes the goodbye around her, as she watches the carriage swiftly disappear on the frozen horizon. Behind her, Ivan stands holding the reins of their horses.

“She’s yours.”

“What?” she breathes, her eyes never leaving the horizon.

“The mare. The Chancellor wishes for you to have it.”

She turns around to look into the horse’s eyes. “What else did he tell you?”

“That you are slow,” he says, and to her surprise, a small smile appears on the man’s face.

Chapter Text

i. 

The nights mature and the cold grows gradually more severe. She cannot distinguish between her dreams and her nightmares. “I don’t want to be a queen,” she continues to tell herself, but deep down, she is starting to realize it’s a lie.

Her body has regained its strength. Her breasts are full and her curves are starting to fill the vacant fabric of her exquisite dresses. She is no longer a bony creature—a grey mouse in the crowd. Her brown hair is thick and healthy now, her lips full and red, her skin white and soft. Her eyes, while still underlined by dark crescents, gleam with a newly acquired spark.

“You look beautiful, ” the tailor tells her as she pins one of the last pins into her hair. Nonsense, Alina thinks as she slowly smiles at her own reflection.

The Chancellor comes and goes now. She has learned to look forward to his presence, has learned to see the softness in his ice-like eyes. She knows now that there is a way to decipher the small smiles playing around the corners of his lips. They dine together as they did before, but now he also finds the time to accompany her on her rides. Deep in the woods, he tells her a story; a story about a boy born in a snowstorm—a story of a child born of rape. Those born in gulags do not stay there, she knows. Usually, they are taken to orphanages, far away from those who sired them—far away from those who might ever know their true names. This story is different, since he has stayed and lived to tell the tale.

It is then when he confides in her about his father, a high-ranking official, who due to his own pride did not allow his son to be raised in a distant orphanage. He tells her about his mother, who became his father’s slave, only so she could enable him a better life by her side. He tells her how she taught him to read in the dim light of the candles and how he read every book in the camp over and over until he had memorized them all. He tells her how he learned the working of the camp and how he began to train with the guards—how he learned to shoot with guns and rifles and survive in the harshest of conditions and then when the time came, how he asked his father for permission to join the royal army and enlisted.

“We are similar, Alina,” he tells her at the end, when his breath is shallow and his eyes are hollow. “All our lives, we have fought for ourselves. We have fought because we were angry; because we wanted our own lives and the lives of those we loved to be different—to be better. We were both selfish. But there is no room for selfishness anymore. Not now, Alina. Not ever.”

She grasps his hand then, tears forming in her eyes. “Did you save her?” she asks, her voice only a whisper, thick snow falling down for the grey sky above. “Your mother? Did you save her?”

He looks at her, the sadness spreading plainly across his beautifully sharp face. “I saved her body, but I was too late to save her soul.”

 

 

 
ii.


Next time she sees him, she is strolling with Genya along the frozen lake spreading behind the castle. Walking down the small hill, followed by two of his men, he looks like a moving shadow. He must have come straight from the carriage, she thinks, looking at the heavy decoration of his coat. He never shows his wealth here.

“Leave us,” he says, looking at the tailor. His voice was calm, almost flat sounding.

Moi soverenyi,” Genya whispers as she bows deeply and walks away.

Alina stands still, inclining her head as she watches him slowly approach her. No matter how her feelings might have changed, no matter if the thought of his touch and the sound of his voice makes her tremble, she will not bow.

Moi soverenyi.”

“Alina,” he says, offering her his arm. “I have news.”

She nods, waiting until they put some distance between them and his men.

“It’s time,” she says then. Not a question, but a statement.

“The winter is upon us,” he nods in agreement. “Shu Han is withdrawing their forces from our borders. We strike after Solncestojanyie.”

“Why wait?” she asks as she imagines the map. With Shu Han forces gone for the time being, Ravka will avoid a two-front war if the country would succeed into chaos.

He turns her towards him, putting his hand on her shoulders. “Because we need to maintain appearance.”

She looks into his quartz eyes, raising one hand to her face to discipline the loose strand of her hair. “Appearance?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding. “Appearance and tradition—the Little Palace has been the second largest venue for solstice celebration since I came into the office.”

She swallows, her throat dry. “I see,” she says without truly seeing.

 

 

 

iii.


The preparations turn the house into chaos. More and more servants arrive, more and more rooms are being cleaned and regularly heated. The two side wings of the palace come to life. It s then when Alina sees the great hall for the first time—a room in the right wing of the palace, which spreads nearly across the totality of its blueprint. It carries the same spirit as the rest of the castle, an unveiling magnificence in natural simplicity. Glorious in its heavy woodwork, the hall creates an impression of a wooden cave; a place where vila could come and dance with those inhabited by mortal souls.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Genya tells her as she grabs her hand.

“Why?” Alina asks her, her eyes watching the dim winter light coming through the irregularly shaped windows fade away in the black ceiling.

“It’s a secret.”

“What kind of secret?”

Genya shakes her head and pushes her outside of the hall. “Not mine to tell,” she says with a light wink, slamming the heavy door into her face.

 

 

iv. 

On the day of the celebration, they dress her into a fabric resembling a liquid shadow—black as night, the dress is embroidered with a golden thread, revealing more of her pale skin than she would wish. On top of her head, rests a golden crown; a jewel delicately crafted to resemble a blazing sun. She looks like a queen and to her own dismay, she likes it.

There is a knock on the door. She turns her head slightly.

“It’s open,” she says, feeling his presence from behind the heavy wooden door. He comes in, a thin black box in his hand.

“Alina,” he greets her. His lips curve into an appreciative smile as he comes to stand beside her and his scans her slim form. “You look… magnificent.”

His breath is warm on her neck and she feels her pull to him grow. "We both do,” she says then, her eyes meeting his in the reflection.

He dismisses her compliment with a brief nod. “I have something for you,” he tells her, opening the box in his hand.

“A necklace?” she asks as she turns to inspect the present he has brought her; antlers made of white gold. “Wouldn’t flames be more fitting?”

Shaking his head, he smiles a calculating smile. “What do you know of white stags?”

Alina thinks for a moment, her eyes scanning the delicate piece of handiwork. Her throat grows increasingly dry as she remembers. “A white stag appears when something sacred is being defiled,” she whispers. “When a law code is broken.”

He nods, taking the antlers from the small velvet box and attaching them to her neck, his fingers lingering on her delicate collarbones. “Tonight, I will deliver what I promised,” he tells her, his lips inches from her ear. “Tonight, I will make you.”

When she looks back into the mirror, she sees it—a white stag hidden in black cloth; a prophecy predicting the fall of the monarchy—a carrier of light.

 


 

v.

She stands at the top of the stairs, observing. Men in uniforms decorated with medals made of gold and silver, women dressed in vibrant evening gowns with elaborate jewellery hanging around their necks—the crowd is an ostentation of wealth and power floating over the varnished floor.

“Disgusting, isn’t it?”

Lifting up her chin, she clasps her gloved hands as she feels him approach. “Yes,” she agrees, her eyes never leaving the crowd. She does not need to look at him to know his lips are curved into a mocking smile.

“You know what to do?”

A nod. Genya hasn’t told her everything, but she has told her enough.

“Shall we, then?”

“We shall.”

Taking his arm, they slowly descend the wooden stairs, watching as the crowd ceases its meaningless jabber. Turning, the mass seems almost as one being—a monster from another time. Feeling heavy under its hundreds of hungry eyes, she tightens the grip on Morozova’s arm. They are not looking at them, she knows, they are looking at her. They want to know who she is, who the man they fear has chosen to occupy his side. As they reach the floor, the crowd retreats, the people slowly bow their heads. She feels as if she is stepping on hot coals that warm up with each and every move she makes. Filling up the great hall with its limbs, the crowd follows her. Somewhere at the end of the hall, an orchestra begins to play. Recognizing the tune, she raises her chin, focusing her eyes in the distance and step by step she goes.

They turn, seeing the crowd spreading in the open space behind them. They stand at a small podium now, the orchestra at their backs. Filled with people, the grand hall seems even more imposing than in its peaceful emptiness. But it’s not the hall that catches her immediate attention, it is the chandelier, disguised as a lifeless sun.

Moji tovarishii,” Morozova says then, raising his free hand in greeting. “I am pleased to welcome you to the Little Palace. We live in a time of change, where nothing can be certain, where nothing can be guaranteed. Therefore let us rejoice and turn in our prayer to the sun tonight in a hope of a better future.”

Scanning the room with his ice-like eyes, he slowly snaps his fingers.

Behind her, one of the musicians sounds the gong. Servants, standing next to the hundreds of candles lighting up the hall, put them out. Darkness spreads around the room. Another musician imitates the sound of thunder. It’s fast, so fast that unless you know where to look, you would see nothing but the snap of Morozova’s fingers. It’s a spectacle, orchestrated for one reason only—the crowd’s pleasure. Hearing gasps of terror, Alina smiles.

It is then when he turns to her.

“Let there be light,” he whispers in her ear as he buries his nose into her hair and slowly inhales her scent.

Smiling, she rubs her hands against each other, watching as sparks fly in between the quartz tables embedded in her leather gloves. Quickly, they light the floor, surrounding them in fire. The crowd gasps and screams. The flames she has triggered run in organized fashion through the hall, circling it until they reach the centre, rising up on invisible strings to light the chandelier, transforming it into a blazing sun. The spectacle is completed. The people gasp in awe now, their eyes lit with flames.

This is hell, she thinks then, looking at the bewildered crowd, and I am the devil’s bride.

 

 


 
vi.

They dance. The expectation dictates it. Putting her hand into his once again, he leads her down the small steps. “It’s going to be a waltz,” Genya told her. “It always is.” The music starts to play and she cannot help but smile when she recognizes the tune. Sombre and expressive, shrouded with sadness and melancholy, the piece vibrates with a desire for the unattainable. It is so unlike the music they played for her in order to teach her the necessary steps.

Morozova inclines his head, his eyes hard on her face. She bows. It’s a ritual, she reminds herself as she does so, not a sign of submission. When she rises, she makes sure to hold her head high. He places his hand on her side, while she put hers on his shoulder. The blood pulses in her veins. They wait for the right beat. They move. Round and round they go, first alone, with the crowd’s eyes upon them, then along everyone else. As the music takes on speed and vitality, she suppresses an urge to smile. They fly through the hall, everything in blur but him—everything disordered and moving but him. When he stops, everything seems to come to a halt. His chest rises and falls in quick pace, his eyes trace the line of her lips—and for a moment, she sees the young man behind some melting exterior. She wants him. She has wanted him for some time now. She does not care if she’ll be doomed even more than she already is if she allows him into her bed.

The music stops. He blinks, his eyes sliding to the antlers around her neck. He takes a step away from her. “Meet me at the library when you are no longer needed here,” he breathes, his voice horse.

There is a moment when their eyes meet in silent agreement. Bowing his head, he takes his leave. Not only from her but also from the crowd that he has assembled here. She watches as he slowly disappears, noticing only then that the guests surrounding her have stopped dancing. It only takes a heartbeat before she hears another voice, feels another hand on hers, and yet that heartbeat is enough to momentarily shake her off. He has left her.

“May I have the pleasure?” Her head snaps back from the door, where she still envisions seeing his lingering shadow.

“You cannot decline anyone who asks you to dance,” Genya has told her earlier. “No matter how tired or how bored you will be, as the hostess of the house you shall dance until your feet fall off, but do not grant anyone more than one dance. Do you understand?”

Alina nodded, scanning the tailor’s sincere face, knowing there is more to this than she lets on.

“The pleasure will be mine...” she says now, and glancing at the man’s shoulder blades, she adds, “Captain.” The man smiles, his white teeth shining in the bright light of the solstice sun hanging above their heads.

 

 


vii.

It takes more than three hours until she finally gets away. She feels like she has danced with every man and touched every inch of the floor, but while her partners made sure to give her no rest up until now, it would seem she has exhausted them. Disappearing by one of the side doors, she walks into a long, dark corridor, welcoming the stillness of her surroundings. Listening to the numb sound of music from behind the thick wooden door, she takes off her dancing shoes. She enjoys the softness of the red carpet beneath her feet, and despite her better judgement, she spins to the hushed sound of the orchestra. For the first time in months, she feels alive; living a dream she has never dared to dream. She is happy. Unafraid. She is a phoenix; she has burned and now she will rise, unless there is still part of her that is left to burn.

“Girl!”

Her body jerks away from the unexpected sound. In front of her, there stands an old, crooked woman. Clothed in black silk, she seems as if she has materialized from the shadows.

There is a deafening silence before there is sound.

“Do you know who I am, girl?” the woman asks, her voice hoarse.

“No.”

The woman smiles a familiar smile, an eerie echo of a different and much younger face.

“Look closer, then!” The woman orders, grasping Alina’s shoulder with an unexpected strength. A rotten odour hits Alina’s face, but she looks. She looks closely, seeing a reminiscence of what has once been a beautiful face. Face framed by two high rising cheekbones, decorated by two quartz jewels for eyes.

“You are his mother,” she breathes in disbelief as she scans the woman’s face for a second longer.

The woman nods.

She listens.

 

 

 

viii.
 

When she walks into the library, a place that has become her heaven, she feels his presence before she finds him with her eyes. Hidden in the veil of darkness, he sits in one of the generous armchairs, a glass of vodka in his hand.

“How many?”

She blinks, thinking back at her previous encounter.

“How many did you dance with?” he asks again, his velvet voice short of a tone change.

“I did not keep count,” she says honestly.

“Make a guess, then.”

“Twenty-five.”

He rises from his chair, nodding as he finishes the liquid still lingering in his glass. “Good. Twenty-five is enough.”

She watches him closely, giving him the benefit of the doubt. “Enough for what?”

“For a revolution, solnjushko.”

Flinching at the nickname, she swallows.

“I met your mother,” she says then and watches him as he momentarily freezes. Through the shadows, she sees the uncharacteristic hesitation written on his face.

“Did you, now?” he asks her, his tone levelled—his face unreadable in the dim light of the moon. Then, she watches as his lips curve into a nearly invisible smile. His words from not so long ago echo in her head: You know better than to run from me.

“And what did my mother tell you, Alina?” He asks her again, not waiting for a reply, as he slowly closes the gap in between them. “That there is no hope left for me? That I lied to you and manipulated you? Did she remind you of the fact that it was me who kept you in the dungeon for several weeks to break your defiance? Did she confide in you what I plan to do to all those who did not dance with you tonight?”

“You killed your father,” she says as a matter of fact, her face only inches away from his now. The animosity she has felt during their first meeting has returned. She touches her hands, as if to ensure their steadiness.

“I did.” His voice is so soft she can hardly hear it.

“And then you took over the gulag until they sent yet another tyrant just like him.”

“Yes.”

She swallows, raising her eyes to his. “Why did you lie to me?”

He smiles an uncanny smile, his eyes flashing with something she cannot place. “You know why, Alina,” he whispers.

“I am not in love with you.”

“Liar,” he says, his lips briefly touching hers.

Closing her eyes, she steps away from him. 

“What are you going to do with those men?” she asks.

"Kill them, of course.”

“In your own house?”

“Where else?” 

His voice is light now. She hates it. Hates him. For being so sure of himself. For knowing he has won.

He grabs her hips from behind and pulls her against himself, burying his face in between her neck and shoulder, grazing her nape with his teeth. Involuntarily, she leans back into his chest, her head falling on his shoulder.

His hand rises to her collarbone, tracing the antlers resting on the top. “They had a choice,” he whispers, biting her earlobe. “They could have followed my guidance. They could have danced with the white stag.”

Abruptly she breaks free from his embrace and turns in order to search his face. She hopes to find some trace of conscience, of regret. There is none.

“You are a monster,” she says then, her eyes growing hard.

“Yes,” he agrees, an eerie smile slowly spreading across his face, “and so are you.”

She gulps at the lump in her throat, clenching her jaw. Thoughts race through her head. Is she a monster? No. But she is on her way to becoming one.

“Fuck me,” she says all of a sudden, rising her head in a challenge.

He blinks, startled.

“That’s what we are here for, after all, isn’t it?” she says without shame. “The final act of your exquisite play. The final scene of your staged seduction.”

“I will not force myself on you.”

She slaps him. Hard. He does not blink. Desperate laughter escapes her throat, her eyes filling with tears.

“You forced everything on me. Everything.”

“I did,” he agrees, his eyes acquiring a new level of intensity, “and you liked it.”

Her nose wrinkles in anger. Her hands form tight fists. She wants to strike him again, but before she can decide, he clasps his own hands behind his back, and places a light kiss on her brow, like an older brother might do.

“I own you, Alina. In all ways possible, you are mine,” he says then, his eyes glimmering in the moonlight. “You cannot run from me, you cannot hide from me. Your whole existence is dependent on mine, as mine is dependent on yours. We are bound together, always.”

“What do you want from me, then?”

He takes a step away from her, slowly walking to the window. The choice is yours, the gesture seems to say, a clever lie. “I want you to say it.”

Say what? She wants to ask, but deep down she knows. “I want you.”

“What else?” His voice is hard now, hoarse with excitement.

She swallows, watching him as the golden threads in his cloak glitter in the moonlight. When she speaks, her voice shakes under her uneven breath.

“I want..." she stutters as she feels her anger block her throat. "I want to be a queen.”

“Again,” he says, his voice strong as he suddenly turns back to her.

“I want to be a queen,” she repeats. “I want to rule. I want to change what is wrong and punish those who are responsible for it. I want them to bow to me, to venerate me.”

“Good,” he says, before he walks over to her and pins her body to one of the shelves, his fingers buried in her hips. He covers her mouth with his. The gesture is sudden, unexpected. It startles her.

She thought he would humiliate her even further; force her to come to him, force her to put her lips on his, force her to beg him with the muscles of her mouth to let her in, while he would just stand there like an ancient statue sliced out of moonstone; cold and unaffected by the desperate actions of her body. She was wrong. He is in control, but he is also drunk on the prospect of power. It’s not me he wants, she knows. It’s what I can give him, the power and position he can acquire is what arouses him.

She finds that she does not care.

She grants him entry into her mouth and they melt together until they both gasp for air. His hands mirror her newly emerged curves, his knee finding its way in between her legs. The few inches that still separated them disappear. She feels his arousal against her thigh. Placing gracing kisses against her nape, she sighs loudly. It’s been so long since someone devoured her. Since a pair of hands was discovering her body. An image of the boy she used to love flashes in front of her eyes only to be consumed by the rushing ecstasy of her feeling; by the infinite darkness hiding behind her eyelids.

Her cheek is pressed to the delicate material of the book covers, her breasts aching from the collision with one of the shelves. He has turned her in order to unlace her dress.

“Here?” she gasps.

“Here.”

His teeth graze the back of her neck. He tears the dress down as her nails dig into the wood of the bookshelf. When he pushes her back against his torso, he cups her breast into her palms, before one of his hands slides south, teasing her pearl. He enters her then, her lungs responding with a sharp exhale of breath. Moving rhythmically, she closes her eyes.

There is no way back now, she hears a silent voice whisper in her head.

I don’t give a damn, she says in response as her knees tremble under the oscillating feeling of fullness.

Beneath the ink of those who sacrificed their lives, she decides the course of hers. 

Chapter Text

i.

 

She wakes up to the rhythmic sound of someone’s heavy steps echoing off the marble floor. Turning to her side, Alina buries her face into her sheets, inadvertently inhaling his lingering scent. The steps grow louder—closer, escalating with the creak of her heavy bedroom door.

It’s time.

“You leave in an hour,” Genya tells her as she walks in, her brash voice mirroring her hasty gait. It is adamant, carrying an incontestable tightness. He must have told her about what he—what we have done, Alina realizes as she sits up in her bed watching the older girl stroll around. Her body is tense, her hairstyle uncharacteristically artless, tied only in a simple braid. It is then when she notices the tailor’s inquiring look. She knows, Alina realizes suddenly, as she looks at the skillfully tucked sheets beside her. She knows, because he has made his bed—because he has made it too neatly.

There seems to be a period of stillness—a period of silent contemplation. 

“Be careful, Alina,” the tailor says finally, the tension in her girl’s voice rising, meeting Alina’s eyes.

“It’s too late for that,” Alina replies, slowly sliding out of her bed.

Shaking her head, the tailor puts her hands on her hips. “He is not telling you everything, Alina.”

“I know,” she spats suddenly, watching the other girl swallow. She is like a sister to her. The first real friend she has had in years and yet she knows enough about power and status to know that there is no place for discussion here.

They glare at each other in silence before Genya looks away. “I am sorry. It’s not my place to—“

“No,” Alina says, her voice only a whisper, “it’s not. I’ve made a choice. The only choice I could have made—a choice you yourself seemed to have encouraged.” She looks at her feet then and her body conveys a silent apology and even regret. “You have no right to school me, Genya. I know what I did. I know there is blood on my hands and I know there will be more. But I made a choice and what is done is done.”

The tailor shuts her eyes in irritation, clenching her jaw. But in the end she nods, more to herself than to Alina. The gesture is forced but it is there nevertheless. I am with you, it seems to say. I care.

 

 

ii.


When she walks outside the palace, Ivan appears at her side to escort her to the already waiting carriage. The sky is dark. The birds are silent. Everything is calm. Briefly she turns her head to look back at the wooden mansion behind her. Scanning the dark, lifeless windows, she is reminded of the silence that comes before each and every storm. It’s only a matter of time until one of the maids walks into a guest chamber and finds her masters with open throats, sleeping in sheets.

“Did you know?” she whispers to Ivan as she listens to the snow crunching beneath their feet.

“Does it matter?” he replies, his eyes never leaving the carriage in front of them. Before he opens the door, he looks at her, his brown eyes clouded by certain melancholy.

“If you betray us,” he tells her then, “we are all dead.”

Raising her chin, she holds his gaze until he opens the small carriage door, revealing Morozova’s slender form. As she climbs in, she hears the wind in the surrounding forest rustle an unknown melody.

 

 

iii.

Drawn by eight black stallions in a gallop, the carriage flies across the frozen fields. Last time she sat inside it, she was being ushered to an unknown place, shivering with cold and fear. She knew nothing about the man sitting in front of her and she wouldn’t have wished it any other way. She wonders if the situation has changed at all.

 “What now?” she asks finally, avoiding his glare. She hasn’t spoken to him since last nightsince he made her scream his name into the palm of his hand.

 “You go visit your friends,” he says absently, his eyes scanning the outdoor darkness.

 “It might take some time,” she tells him honestly. “I don’t know where they are.”

 He looks at her. “I do.”

 She blinks in disbelief. “That’s impossible.”

 He chuckles at that, thoughtfully moving his hand to his face to rub his chin. “You know what that Lantsov pup always used to say before they sent him to a boarding school? ‘When people say impossible, they usually mean improbable.’”

 “You planted a spy among us,” she says with horror.

A nod.

 “Who?”

 He smirks, his ice-like eyes gleaming with sudden amusement. “Make a guess.”

“Stop toying with me,” she tells him as she looks into his quartz eyes.

 He shrugs in disinterest, his lips curving into an amused smirk.

 He is enjoying this, she thinks as she watches him, getting a glimpse of the boyhood the man never really had. She thinks back to the people she has met in the past few years, people who put the most abstract thought into words, who wrote words that turned into weapons, but she also thinks of those whose lives have been jeopardized by those they served, workers who have dedicated their lives to make the lives of others more comfortable only to be treated with injustice and dismay, only to starve in cold rooms, while others dined on golden plates.

“It’s Zoya,” she says suddenly, thinking of the strikingly arrogant girl with raven hair who has claimed to be working at the Royal Palace. “It’s Zoya Nazyalensky.”

“Good,” he smiles.

“You fed us information!” Alina proclaims abruptly, as her thoughts begin to race. “Everything she told us, every piece of data she gave us, was from you.”

“That doesn’t make the information any less true.”

“Doesn’t it?”

He shakes his head. “I have no need to forge the court’s debauchery. The numbers were true, as were the Tsar’s future plans.”

“Gulag extensions?”

“Yes,” he affirms. “Instead of cutting his expenses, he has decided to create another five working-stations that would support his hunting trips. Unfortunately he does not seem to be aware of the fact that a state cannot run solely on camp economy.”

He says the words with unprecedented arrogance as well as extraordinary emotion. He talks from experience, she realizes as she watches him watching her.

“Ask,” he tells her then, and she is suddenly reminded of the first time he said that to her on that snow-white road somewhere between the Little Palace and the village church. “How was it?”

“How was what?”

“Being in charge of the camp?” Not being able to hold his piercing glare, she looks out the window. Far on the horizon, the sun is sending its first rays of light to announce the arrival of the new day.

“How do you think it was?” he asks in a levelled tone.

She feels her jaw clench. Forcing herself to swallow, she looks at her own image reflected in the glass window. She looks healthier than she used to and yet her face is as it always has been, round with dull brown eyes and tight lips. She looks like any other girl, but she is notnot anymore. She agreed to kill over thirty people last night and then senselessly drowned in the ecstasy of physical pleasure. Evil does not need to take a wicked shape or form; the most fascinating thing about evil lies in its banality.

“I think it was empowering,” she says finally, as she looks back at him, her face a mask of innocence.

“Yes,” he nods. There is a sudden intensity to his ice-like eyes. It seems as if he is projecting his memories to himself. Thinking back to the times when he had the power over life and death of thousands of people. When he could decide people’s destiny and at a whim and face no consequences. Did he enjoy it? she wonders. Did he enjoy hurting people? Or did he just not care?

“Why did you kill him?” she asks him then, as to force him outside his own head. “Your father. Why did you kill him?”

“Because he deserved it,” he says without a second blink.

“Not because he stood in your way?”

He looks at her, his lips curving into a minuscule smirk. “That, too.”

She looks away from him, taking a deep breath. She knows she should feel revolted by what he has done, just as she knows that she should be afraid of himafraid of what he is about to do. She knows Genya is right. He has lied to her, and even now, he is not telling her the whole truth he never will. She should try to stop this—try to stop him. But she also knows she will not.

Resting her head against the window frame, she watches the first sunrays touch the frozen fields, the snow-covered scenery glimmering in a soft light. The image is beautiful as it is lifeless. When her eyes find him again, he is sleeping quietly, his head neatly tucked between the fabric of the velvet curtain and the decorated wall. He looks so peaceful, she thinks, as she watches the morning sun crafting miscellaneous ornaments on his tranquil face. He almost looks his age.

 

 

iv.


They travel for day and night before they reach the city. He reads, she dozes off. Their conversation is sparse and of no consequence.  When they reach their destination, he helps her out of the carriage, leaving her in order to discuss something with one of his oprichniki. As she stretches her legs, she shivers from the wet cold. They have stopped at the edge of the Lukunskyij Les; somewhere beneath them covered by the white fog lies the city of one thousand towers—the city of the Tsar—Os Alta. As she stands there, scanning her surroundings, a childhood memory enters her wandering mind, a tale Ana Kuya used to tell the children when they fell sick with cold and fever after a long day of work. “When God was only a child,” she whispered to them, her tormented face covered in paper thin scars lit only by the dim light of the candle, “he created the Ravkan forests, painting them with few, but vivid colours, populating them with simple animals. As he grew older, he learned how to create new patterns—new living forms, so complex and beautiful that he got bored of his childhood creation, covering it in snow forever.”

“Alina.” She hears his velvet voice from behind her back. Turning from the hidden forest in front of her, she falls in step beside him.

“The carriage will take you to your meeting place,” he tells her without a preface then, looking straight ahead. “You’ll find some more fitting clothes for the occasion in the carriage. I’ll meet you at noon in four days in front of the Grand Palace. I bring my people, you bring yours.”

“What happens if they don’t listen to me?”

He comes to an abrupt halt, turning back to her, his black coat copying his motion with a minimal delay. Slowly, his hands find his way to her shoulders, giving her a gentle squeeze. “They will listen to you, Alina,” he says with a sincere look in his quartz eyes. “They have no other choice.”

She nods absently, pressing her eyes shut. She was never one of the people to whom others were willing to listen to. That was Mal. Mal was the one who talked his way out of everything. Who could convince others he would become the next Tsar if he wished to do so. But Mal is no more.

As if sensing her doubts, he grabs her chin, making her look into his ice-cold eyes. “I will meet you there, Alina,” he says, his voice strong and directive. When he presses his lips to hers, there is no kindness in that gesture. It’s a demand, an order—a threat.

 

 

v.


She changes into the ordinary clothes as the carriage descends into the city. The pants—not a skirt—are dull beige, the shirt is white and washed out. The coat is made out of rabbit’s fur. She remembers when she bought one just like it. It must have been last winter, when after several weeks of hard work she has managed to finally finish one of her cartographical deeds—a grand depiction of the country’s guberniyias. She was proud back then—proud she could afford a coat like that. Now she feels like she can do better—like she deserves better. Reluctantly she puts it on and has to immediately suppress a shiver. She looks outside the window, feeling the carriage weaving its way through the narrow streets of the old town, its wheels bouncing on the uneven cobblestones. I am home, she tries to convince herself then, but the tangled streets does not feel like home anymore. The wooden structure with golden domes does.

After a while, the carriage comes to a lazy halt. Alina steps out, her lips immediately curving into a suggestion of a smile as she raises her head to take a look at the sign of a small, unevenly drawn tennis ball loosely hanging above her head. Kort was rather a traditional venue—one that was too busy for anyone to pay much attention, but also quite enough for those who desired to avoid unwanted publicity. It has been sacked by the royal forces a few years ago and since then, their presence here has decreased significantly; but the core of the resistance kept true to the Kort, meeting here every now and then as if to maintain a sense of tradition.

Walking through the rusted wooden door, she moves slowly to the man behind the bar, carefully scanning the room. “Svoboda. Bratstvo. Ravenstvo,” she whispers under her breath when she reaches the bar, remembering as they drilled the three words into her.

“It’s what we write on the walls—Svoboda. Ravenstvo. Bratstvo, only in a different order. That’s our code. Do not forget it.” She did not and yet as she waits for the man to react, she wonders. He studies her, his pig eyes slowly narrowing, making his sturdy face even uglier than before. He does not recognize me, she thinks as she raises her chin in a silent challenge.

“Follow me,” he says finally, giving her one last measuring glare. She follows him to the back, releasing the breath she did not know she was holding. They walk through a short dark corridor, before they manage to reach the back chamber.

“I don’t like the look of you,” he tells her as he unlocks the door. She slides her eyes in disgust over his fat breasts and greasy hair. I owe nothing to the likes of you, she thinks. It is then when the man opens the heavy door and the bright, liquid-like sunrays light the dark corridor. Smiling against the sun, she lets it lead her inside. The doors behind her shut close. The conversation in the chamber comes to an abrupt halt. The men and women she used to call her brothers and sisters turn to her, carefully scanning her face. They don’t know who I am, she realizes then, horrified. Just like the man at the bar, they don’t recognize me. Her newly acclaimed self-confidence deserts her then. Her shoulder falls down and she feels herself grow smaller, weaker. Shrinking in her own body, she succumbs to the desire to put her arms around her own torso. Instinctively her eyes try to search for familiar faces. She cannot find anyone—the sun too blinding for her to see clearly.

The dead silence occupying the room grows into infinity, until she hears her name.

She closes her eyes.

She know that voice—knows it all too well.

It belongs to Mal. 

Chapter Text

i.

The boy she believed to be dead presses her to his broad chest. He is crying, whispering words of love. She closes her eyes, slowly inhaling his scent. He smells like cinnamon and dry wood—warm and sweet. Their bodies are pushed together, physically aching from the sudden ecstasy of emotion. The boy cups her face into the palms of his hands and presses his forehead to hers.

“I thought you were dead,” he whispers.

She presses her mouth to his. However desperate, the gesture is brief. I am here, it seems to say, I always have been. When she breaks away, she sees his eyes asking after a silent promise—a promise she nevertheless cannot give and will not give.

Facing the crowd, her eyes take in the totality of the room—its rotten beams, its small windows, its moist walls. All eyes are on her. The silence has once again established its steady presence. Every shallow breath is audible now, ever nervous movement plainly visible. She swallows, her throat dry. Feeling the weight of a specific gaze, she turns her head only to meet two brown eyes set on a wrinkled face. They belong to Botkin Yerzov—a former ethics professor and an unofficial leader of the revolution.

“Last time we’ve heard from you, you were taken by the royal guard and thrown into a dungeon,” he says and she feels heavy under his measuring glare. “But that is not the whole truth, is it, Alnjushka?”

Hiding her insecurity, Alina raises her chin. Quickly, her eyes search the room for a sign of support. She feels Mal taking a step towards her. The gesture is good-hearted and yet, in that moment, she despises him for it. She does not want his backing. She does not need it. Not anymore.

Focusing on her task, she spots Alexej and with him Sergei and Marie—huddled together as they always are. Next to them, little bit to the right, there is Nadia, watching her with her cat-like eyes. In the back then, Alina finds Zoya sitting on a high stool. Filing her nails, she acts as if she is utterly disinterested in the spectacle occurring right in front of her. She won’t help me. None of them will, Alina realizes then. I have to do this alone.

She meets Yerzov’s glare. “No,” she agrees then, making sure that the sound of her voice does not to waiver. “No, that’s not the whole truth.”

“Well, then,” gestures the older man. “It’s time for you to share the story.”

Nodding, Alina talks.

 

 

ii.


Cries erupt in the room. They accuse her of succumbing to the lures of the enemy—of trusting a royal headsmen. They say she has gone mad in the darkness of her cell and forgot her ways. They call her a whore; they call her a traitor and when she defies them, they spit in her face.

She waits then, waits for the chaos to wear off, waits for an opportunity to speak. When she hears the murmur cease, she rises.

“Citizens!” she says. “Fellow brothers and sisters! Listen to yourself!” Her voice is uncharacteristically strong—coloured with undeniable emotion. “We argue and quarrel and in the mean time, the world has changed and the time has come, where words have reach their limit and wield no longer the power they once had. It is time to mark clearly the beginning of the revolution, and the end we want to reach; it is time for us to take account both of the obstacles that still keep us from it, and of the means we ought to adopt to attain it. It is time to act. My fellow brothers and sisters, we have fought numerous battles and each time we have failed to implement the reign of that eternal justice whose laws have been inscribed, not in marble and stone, but in the hearts of all men—even in that of the tyrant who denies them. But we shall fail no more, since while it was not in our power to pass the royal gates, our words and ideas corroded the structure from within.”

She pauses, taking a deep breath, her eyes scanning the suddenly speechless crowd. Look at me, she thinks, look at the girl you used disregard and mock.

“You may call me a traitor,” she says then, her voice the sound of steel. “You can spit at me and accuse me of selling my soul to the devil, but you would wrong me, my fellow citizens—and you would wrong yourselves, since I have not made a pact with one of them, but with one of us. Be brave! Let us finally take the step we have feared. Let us march on the Royal Palace, let us storm its gates and take over what rightfully belongs to every one of us. Let us implement equality and the rule of justice, so that once again, Ravka rises strong and is able faces the challenges coming from outside its border with the pride she deserves.”

Finishing, her breath is shallow, her throat is dry. Everything is silent, motionless almost. She closes her eyes, bowing her head in exhaustion. In the west, the sun is slowly beginning to set, its red light warm on her face.

“I am done waiting.”

Recognizing Alexej’s voice, Alina slowly raises her head. When she meets his gaze, she nods. There is resolve in his face—a strong willpower to make a change.

“Me too,” says a round man standing next to him.

“I’ve for starved long enough,” Marie says to Sergei then, as she rises to her feet. He looks at her, confusion in his eyes.

“You can’t be serious!”

The girl only shrugs. “The man wants to be a king? He can be my guest. I want pork for dinner.”

“And fresh bread, too!” Another girls proclaims in agreement while she stands up.

Others follow her lead.

Alina smirks, watching as everyone slowly rise to their feet. It’s done, she thinks proudly then, her eyes searching for Botkin in the sea of heads. In the end it is him who finds her, his raspy voice warm on her ear.

“Why should we exchange one tyrant for another?”

She looks at him, her lips slowly curving into a clod smile, the noise of the suddenly erratic crowd around them. “Because you have no other choice.”

 

 

iii.


When everyone starts to leave, Mal waits for her at the door. Once she does not move from her seat, he comes to sit by her, taking her hands into his.

“It’s time to come home,” he tells her.

She is silent. I have no home, she wants to say.

“We can’t stay here,” he says in the end, rising to his feet.

“There is no we,” she says then. “Not anymore.”

He blinks. His face consumed by sudden confusion.

“Mal,” smiling a soft smile. “I am no longer the girl you knew.”

Narrowing his eyes, he shakes his head. “But you—“

“No,” she interrupts him and while she raises her chin in defiance, she stands up from her seat walks away from him.

Resigned, he lets his arms fall down along his body. “You know,” he says, his voice desperate and cold, “when you first entered, I could hardly recognize you. The clothes, the colour in your cheeks, but still I knew it was you until—“ He shakes his head in disbelief. “Until you started to speak. You were like a stranger, Alina,” he says then. “Beautiful. Terrible.”

Closing her eyes, she looks away from him. “Go,” she tells him.

“I can’t,” he says. “Love does not work that way.”

She feels her jaw clench. “Love,” she muses then, her eyes scanning the horizon through the dusty glass of the small window. “All my life, I loved you. I loved you so much I was ready to die the moment I believed you were dead. I thought I could not live without you.” She shakes her head. “It was only after, that I realized I have never lived at all. It was always you, Mal. You decided to leave Karamzin. You decided to come to Os Alta. You decided to become a revolutionary. You decided we are going to live together and it was also you, who cheated on me countless times. But that is over now. Your death taught me I don’t need you to make decisions, I don’t need you to live. In fact, it has taught me that I don’t need you at all.”

The boy opens his mouth but no words come out. When he leaves the room, the doors slam shut.

 

 

iv. 

She gets herself a chamber upstairs and dines a simple meal of bread a cheese. For the first time in months, she is alone. Savouring the feeling she makes the chamber her small kingdom, organizing it and re-organizing it to her liking. It is then, with a mirror in her hand, when she hears a silent knock on her door.

“Come in,” she says, knowing whom to expect.

The raven hair girl storms in, inspecting the small room with her critical eye. “This is terrible.”

Alina swallows, giving the other girl a bored look. “What do you want, Zoya?”

The girls shrugs, her raven hair falling into her eyes. “I want to make sure you are comfortable.”

“Nonsense,” she says, rising her eyebrow.

Zoya smirks, making herself comfortable in Alina’s bed. “I am checking in on you.”

“To spy?”

“To ensure your safety.”

“I am safe. Now, leave.”

Zoya laughs, her blue eyes acquiring a new kind of light. She is like wind before the storm, Alina thinks as she looks at her—unyielding, destructive, free. “Did you suspect me?”

“Is this what this is really about? Your pride?”

The girl shrugs. “Maybe.”

Alina smiles a little. “No,” she tells her. “I hated you, but I did not suspect you.”

Nodding, Zoya stands up. “Good,” she says, her face plainly displaying her smugness in her soul. “I’ll see you in the morning, Starkov.”

 

 

v.


On the eve of the revolution they assemble in an old pub at the city outskirts. The room is small, the air is heavy. It smells like sweat. They go over the plan. Again and again and again, until she can recite it to them back an fourth, until she stops listening.

“It will work,” she tells them. It has to work, she tells herself.

Mal is nowhere to be seen. It upsets her and pleases her at the same time. When she asks Botkin what he knows of the boy, he tells her he knows she broke his heart.

She says nothing.

 

 

vi.


Shortly before noon, it is time for her to join the procession. Thousands have already come and many more will appear spontaneously. That is how these things go. A friend tells a friend and he tells his friend in return.

On a minor square, Botkin hands her the red banner. The gesture is practical. Unlike Morozova, the ethics professor does not care for theatrics. When he meets her eyes, he gives her a silent nod. She sees doubt in his warm, brown eyes—doubt about their actions, doubt about her. I don’t like this, his body language seems to say and yet he stands right there, beside her. Not because he believes in the justice of her cause, but because he has found no other way—because in the end he is first and foremost a patriot and if he is confronted with the choice between the freedom of his country and the fall of the monarchy, he will choose his country. He will chose Ravka. Around her, the crowd chants her title in turn with other revolutionary tunes. “KOROLEVA,” they cry, “SOL KOROLEVA!” Morozova’s trickery has worked its toll. Not only do the people remember her, they love her. They want to make her their queen.

They march. They march through the narrow streets, their feet sliding over the frozen cobblestones. They march following a well-known path. Up and up the steep, snow-covered hill, up the heights, up to the Grand Palace where the Tsar resides. Alina moves forward, the banner rising high over her head and which every step she takes, with each and every note she sings, she feels the crowd at her back grow. Somewhere in there, there is Mal. Somewhere there is Alexej and Sergei. Somewhere there is Zoya. And they all march as one—one man, one people, one nation—her nation.

The bells strike noon. They have reached their destination. In front of her, there is the palace square—an area of several hundred square meters framed by the walls of the imperial buildings. Gilded and tall, they are displaying the wealth of the monarchy. The red banner flying over her head, she marches forward, through the square, through the centre of the country, to the gates. There are no guards to stop her. No power to force her out. Behind the golden gates, she sees a swarm of soldiers. They stand still, watching, waiting. In front of them there is a sole figure. Clothed in black, he sits on a massive horse. It is then when she realizes he was truly meant to wear a crown.

She marches, the crowd behind her pulsing with energy—swarming with ecstasy. The gates open and the armed forces march outside in an organized fashion, the sound of their steps amplified by the surrounding walls. Leaving his horse behind, he walks in front of them, his gloved hands hanging loosely at his sides. He is unarmed. It does not take long until they meet each other half way, until she can clearly see the darkened colour of his eyes—until she can decipher the curve of his thin lips. She stops, raising her arm. The people behind her come to a halt, their singing slowly fading away into silence. This is it, she thinks, this is the moment when history gets writtenthe moment great painters will paint. In front of her, Morozova follows her example. Rising his hand, he gives the signal. His army, five thousand men cease to walk. When she meets his eyes, he gives her a brief nod. Now, the gesture seems to say. They meet in the empty space spreading in between the two armies. His quartz eyes dark with excitement, he stretches out his arms, slowly dropping to his knees. Behind him, his men slowly follow. The sound of their guns colliding with the square echoes through the empty space. It is then when her pulse speeds up, when she licks her lips and smiles for no one but herself. It is a spectacle–a show for nothing but the show’s sake. She wishes she could see the faces of the ordinary people behind her, of those who know nothing about the event’s careful staging. Supressing the adrenalin floating in her veins, she walks up to the man in front of her, offering him one of her bare hands. He raises his head, his eyes once again meet hers–the emotion she finds in them matches hers. He slides his gloved hand into hers and slowly rises to his feet.

When his other hand touches the wooden pole she is holding, his lips quiver into a cunning smile.

“Shall we?”

Nodding, she lets him carry the banner; glad she can rid herself of its undeniable weight. Side by side, they walk through the armed forces followed by the cheering crowd.

They march through the gates as citizens. The next time they exist, they do so as royals.

Chapter Text

i.

They fight on the first eve. They fight and Alina wonders if it’s always going to be this way, if he will ever learn to trust her. They fight over the bodies of the Tsar, Tsarevna and Tsarevich, about the fact that he has given the order to assassinate them long before she has ever entered the castle—long before she had the country at her feet. He has done it the night before. Unobserved, his most ruthless oprichniki have entered the royal bedchamber and stabbed the royals before they could even get out of their bed. Then, they tossed their already mutilated bodies from a second floor window onto piles of manure. She has been told they are still there—left for everyone to see as they slowly rot away.

“I don’t approve of this,” she tells him, her voice shaking with anger. We should be celebrating, she thinks as she looks at him.

“Tell me, Alina. What exactly do you disapprove of? The assassination, or simply the fact that I did not tell you?”

“Both,” she barks. “They should have been given a fair trial. They should have been executed by the state, not you.”

He slides his hands into his pockets, his lips curving into a cold smile. “I am the state, Alina.”

“No!” she snarls. “No, you aren’t!” shaking her head. She wishes she could say more, wishes she could accuse him of all the crimes he has committed to be able to stand where he now stands—in his own bedchamber in the Royal Palace. But she cannot. She cannot say anything, because the moment she does, she acknowledges her own fault in this. What if I'm no better than him? She thinks then. What if instead of stopping him, I become his avalanche?

Walking up to her he takes her chin into his fingers, forcing her to look at him. With his unkempt hair and unfastened white shirt he looks vulnerable—almost like the man he is and not the demon everyone sees him as.

“You are right to be angry,” he tells her, his voice void of emotion.

Her head spans up in defiance, but his fingers bury themselves into the skin of her chin and hold it still.

“I should have told you. You had the right to know,” he whispers. Seductively, he lets his hand slides down her neck. The touch makes her pulse grow faster. “But I am not going to apologize for what I’ve done, or the way I’ve done it. We have no time for trials. The war is coming and every time someone questions our legitimacy, Ravka will suffer. They are dead, so we can be here. They are dead, so we can win.”

“I want the bodies removed from the gardens,” she says.

“No,” he tells her simply, his voice offering no room for discussion.          

She clenches her jaw, taking a step towards him. “I said I want those bodies removed.”

His hand finds her hip, pressing her lower body to his. His other hand slides into her hair, jerking her head back so she would be forced to look up at him.

“And I said no.”

“I don’t care,” she spits out. “It’s the right thing to do. I want it done.”

The fury in his eyes makes her believe that he will toss her on the ground and leave, ending the argument with the one thing he seems to know best—violence, but instead of pushing her away he presses her closer. She watches as his eyes turn from quartz to dark grey and the thin lips of his month form a tight smirk.

“Beg me, then,” he whispers in her ear.

She bites down her bottom lip, turning her head only so slightly to face him. “Please,” she breaths, knowing this will yield her the results she desires and maybe much more. He has not touched her since the night at the library—he has not even indicated to her that he might want to—until now.

“Again.”

“Please,” she says, feeling his hardness against her tight. Her hands find the hem of his unbuttoned shirt and she draws him closer, her face colliding whit his face. “Please, moi soverenyi,” she whispers, her teeth grazing his smoothly shaved cheek.

Moi Tsar,” she adds then, and hears him sucks in a shallow breath. When her hand slides to undo his pants, his fingers already work on her laces. But she won’t let him have her clothed again. She wants to see him and if she has to beg to achieve that, she will. They kiss, their teeth colliding in a vibrant clash. The gesture is angry, passionate. She tears down his shirt and to her own surprise he lets her, guiding her feet to his own bed.

“Promise me,” she orders him then, as she buries her nails into his chest making him groan. “Promise me, you will remove those bodies, and I’ll beg you on my knees.”

He shoves her onto the bed. She immediately supports herself on her elbows; her bent knee stops him from lying on top of her. “Promise me!”

His hands slowly slide along her bent leg revealing her skin, then with one quick motion, he thrusts her knee aside, pinning her down. He circles his hand around her neck, while his other one gets slowly hold of both of her arms.

“I promise you,” he whispers then, his gaze piercing into hers. Her breath grows shallow under the tightness of his grip but she forces herself to smirk, raising her chin under his forceful touch.

“Good,” she breathes, breaking free from his touch. Kicking him into his stomach, she turns them around, settling herself on his hips. Pleased with her move, she kisses his mouth, full and hard. Blindly, he pulls of the remains of her dress, revealing her breasts. It is then when she finally fully undoes his black pants and lets him slide inside her. He moans, loud and deep and she cannot help but savor the sound. His strong arms embrace her and once again, she is underneath him. He bites her neck, tracing her jawline down to her breast as he slowly thrusts into her. She closes her eyes savoring each moment, savoring each touch of skin against skin. Her legs find his hips forcing him deeper. They are both naked now. Equal. Gradually his thrusts grow faster, richer. He buries his hand into her messy hair.

“Say my name,” he commands into her ear year and she willingly complies, realizing the unexpected pleasure it gives him. No one calls him that, she has realized when he first asked her to say the name, when he has pinned her to the bookshelves in the Little Palace. Not even his mother. It’s a link to the boy he has never had the chance to be—to someone who wasn’t ruthless, who wasn’t afraid—to someone who was capable of love.

“Aleksander,” she breathes then, scratching his back with her nails lightly.

“Again.”

“Aleksander.”

He buries his face into her hair. “Ag—,“ he starts, but she says it on her own, her legs locking firmly around his hips. His arm slides to her sex, circling her pearl. She moans, turning her face towards his in order to see into his ice like eyes when the final thrust come and they both drown in each other. Biting his lip, she forces him to open his eyes, hoping his hand will not lose its coordination. When his gaze meets hers, she smirks pressing their foreheads together. She is close now, too close to speak, too close to even say his name.

With one final trust, he makes them both climax. Groaning, his full weight presses on to her. This is their victory; she thinks as she forces the mussels inside her clench around him. He laughs through his heavy breathing, then and once again bites her chin. They stay still for a few moments, before he draws himself out of her and rolls over on his back.

She closes her eyes, feeling the sudden loss of fullness—of warmth. Turning her head, she looks at him. His eyes are open, his hand placed neatly on his smooth chest. He looks like some creature from the old myths, beautiful yet terrifying and consumed by its pride. She wants to roll over to him, to embrace him, to feel his skin under his fingers without burying her nails into it—but she does not dare. Instead she covers herself with his silk sheets and slowly rises from his bed. She has her pride; she will not be dismissed.

When she places her hand on the golden handle of the connecting door between their rooms, he calls to her. Turning back, she clenches the sheets in her hand.

“I will have the bodies removed first thing in the morning,” he tells her. He says it with grace, like a sovereign would, and yet she can still detect the traces of kindness in his voice.

“Thank you.”

He nods, absently, his eyes watching her as she leaves.

 

 

 

ii.


Alina sits in her rooms, a book resting on her lap. It has been a week since they stormed the castle. Since both her and Morozova ascended out on the balcony and announced the beginning of a new era. They did not proclaim themselves rulers and yet the people seemed to have acknowledged them as such. His scheme has worked, he will be the Tsar and tomorrow she will stand by his side and watch him place the golden crown on top of his head.

“This is not a coronation,” he tells her. “This is first and foremost a union between the state and the people.”

A wedding, she muses—her wedding. As a little girl she used to imagine herself in white dress, exchanging rings with some boy in a field full of blooming flowers. She imagined herself with a bright smile on her lips, wearing a white crown of daises on her head. Her real wedding will be different, staged and tailored as the rest of her. She will wear a silken white gown embroidered with gold and on top of her head, a demon in a black cloak will place a crown inlaid with rubies. She will smile then, not with love, but with a kind of terrible joy—the joy, which comes only with power.

 

 

 

iii.


In the cathedral, she thinks of Mal. Of what could have been if she acted differently, if she ran away. Would the man waiting at the altar for her hunt her down? Would he kill her? Scanning the crowd she thinks of the old woman, whom she met in a dark corridor, infatuated by the rhythm of fast music and crazed by the ecstasy of her dance. She thinks of the woman who showed her the truth about him, who advised her to run, the woman whom she disobeyed—his mother. Alina knows she is here somewhere, in the crowd. She knows because she knows him, she knows he will make her watch. Force her to see him take the one last step to become the monster she unknowingly forged. His wedding, his coronation, they are the last chapter of her story, last act of her play. She will never play another role; never act out another piece, just as she will never again tell the story to another living soul, for she has become voiceless. In her mouth, in the place where her tongue used to be, there is only emptiness.

She watches as he crowns himself. Watches as those who represent the state and church sit by and do nothing. She lets him put a crown on top of her head and kiss on her lips and she lets him lead her through the cheering crowd as she smiles a cold smile. Fools, she thinks, fools for believing in himfools for believing in us.

She hopes she is wrong, she hopes the man she has fallen in love with, somewhere in the woods surrounding the Little Castle truly exists. She hopes that maybe with time and effort, she finds him again, saves him. Either way, looking at him now, she knows he will be merciless, but he will be just. She knows there are promises he has given that he is not planning to fulfill, but she also knows that with his ruthlessness and sharp mind, Ravka will become great again. 

 

 

  

iv.

He summons her to the council chamber in the late after noon. She obliges but does not hesitate to give his oprichniki a stern look. You don’t command me, the look seems to say, and he doesn’t either. When she walks into the room, her gait relaxed he immediately dismisses their ministers. Slowly the room empties until it’s just the two of them. As he stares into the papers in front of him she notices one of his hand resting of the map of Ravka. He is letting her wait, she knows, and she will not have it.

“You cannot keep doing this. I will not stand it.”

“Doing what?” he asks, his eyes never leaving the letters in front of him.

“Summoning me.”

Slowly raises his head. “You are wrong,” he tells her in a quite voice. “I am the only one who can summon you, Alina.” When his quartz eyes meet hers she knows her defiance is futile. She would crawl in front of him if he asked her and she would hate herself for it afterwards.

Swallowing, she raises her chin. “You—“
          

“Fjerdan armies invaded our northern border,” he interrupts her and points to a specific spot on the map in front of him. “Twenty thousand men crossed into our lands two nights ago east of Ulensk. They are marching on the city. Another group of ten thousand is reported to march on Chernast.”

“You are leaving then?”

Nodding, he looks at her and she sees his jaw clench in a spasm. He is worried, she realizes suddenly, as she watches the scarce emotion on his face.

“They will not survive this,” she tells him as she walks up to him to stand beside him. “They will not survive you.” No one does, she thinks then, as she looks at his profile and places one of he hands on his back.

He nods absently, his eyes never leaving the map. “In my absence, you need to free the rest of the gulags.”

“I will,” she tells him.

“Every able bodied man has to be send to the front.”

She narrows her eyes, her hand dropping from his back. “You cannot be serious. You cannot liberate them only to send them to die.”

Shaking his head he laughs a cold laugh. “But I can Alina, and so can you.”

“No,” she says turning away from him. “It’s terrible! They are malnourished and untrained, you will send them to their graves.”

“They will die for Ravka.”

“The country that tortured them? That send them into labour camps.”

“No,” he says, his voice directive. Grabbing her arm, her forces her to look at him, his face only inches apart from hers. “They will die for an idea of what this country could be—will be. Heroism doesn't occur from taking orders, but rather from people who through their own willpower and strength are willing to sacrifice their lives for an idea. There is a certain enthusiasm in the idea of liberty that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.” He lets go of her arm, carefully scanning her eyes. “You should know that better than me, Alina, better than anyone. You almost died for an idea yourself.”

I almost died for Mal! She wants to scream. I almost died, because I had nothing to lose, but she remains silent. “Is that why you want me to free those gulags? So you could draw benefits from the populist image you have fashioned for me?”

Narrowing his eyes, his hand grabs her chin. “Yes, but that’s not the whole truth and you know it,” he tells her. “I want you to announce it because I have an army to lead and a war to win. I want you to announce it because while you cannot sit on the council in my presence, you are still part of it and in my absence you will take my place as the ruler of the country. I want you to do this because if I lose, I want us to sink together.”

There is a period of silence before she speaks. “I’ll do it,” she agrees. “I will free the camps.”

He lets his hand slide down her throat, the touch making her blood pulse speed up. “Good,” he whispers, then, placing a small kiss on her brow. “They have called us barbarians, witches and sorcerers. They have called us subhuman and they have hunted us down and killed us in hundreds, for speaking another language, for honoring different traditions, for obeying different God—for not being them.” He looks her in the eyes, cupping one of her cheeks in his hand, his thumb gently stroking her skin. “In war there is always death and suffering, there is always pain and sacrifice. Do not try to make me a villain, Alina.”

“We are all someone’s villain,” she tells him.

“Yes,” he says, his ice-like eyes on fire, his face only inches apart from hers. “But I am not yours and I never will be.”

She nods, absently. “Make them pay,” she tells him then walking back to the door.

“I will,” he promises, his voice the sound of cold steel. “I will kill them all.”

 

 

 

v. 

In the evening she waits for him to come to her. He does not. In the morning he is gone. There is no farewell note. No instructions for her to follow. When she enters the council chamber, the men assembled around the table stand up. Their faces show confusion and fear.

Tsarevna,” a man sitting by her husbands left greets her with a small bow. “We were not aware you would be joining us.”

Arriving at the Tsar’s seat she raises her chin. “I am,” she tells the man in a steel-like voice. “But you won’t be,” she adds as she sits down and directs her eyes at the documents laying across the table.

“Excuse me, Tsarevna, but—”

“Did you assemble this council this morning?”

“Yes, but—“ he stutters.

“And was I informed?”

“No, I didn’t—“

“You broke the protocol and you are to be dismissed.”

The man opens his mouth. “We are at war, I just wanted to—“

“I care nothing for your wants. Go.”

Narrowing his eyes, he collects his papers and walks out of the room with a clenched jaw and a fast gait. Alina looks around the table, the men eying her curiously. “If you ever meet without me being present again, I will not only punish the one who gave the order. I will punish all of you. I might not be my husband but I wield his power and just as my husband, I am not afraid to use it.”

Sitting down she scans each of the nine councilmen—including Sergei. Their faces are blank, void of emotion now and yet in their eyes the fear seems to linger. “Brief me.” She says finally as she leans with her slim form back into the massive chair chair.

When the meeting ends she calls for Ivan. The click of the door comes only minutes later. She does not rise; she does not even look up from the map in front of her. “Find Botkin Yerzov and bring him to the palace. I have a position for him on the council.”

“He will not want it, moiya Tsarevna.”

She looks up then, her eyes hard. “Too bad it is not a request.”

Ivan nods his eyes narrowing surprise interwoven with respect. The following day he brings Botkin Yerzov to the palace. A week later, the man accepts the seat.

She wins.

Her days melt into a daily routine. In the morning she meets with the council, in the afternoon she deals with audiences and bureaucratic tasks. In the first week, she liberates the worst gulags in their country, including Narilsk. In the second, she gives the order to general conscription. The pamphlet she puts to circulation carries her name, but vibrates with Yerzov’s rhetoric.
          

“Ravkans!” It says. “You are naked, ill fed! The government owes you much; but it can give you nothing. Your patience, the courage you displayed in the midst of the snow, were admirable; but they procure you no glory, they bring you no riches, no freedom of the oppression that you still face. We seek to lead you into the freezing plains so like a phoenix Ravka can burn to the ground and rise again, new, fertile and free of oppression!”


In the third week, the first consequences hit the urban areas. Even with all men enlisting and moving to the Fjerdan border, women and elderly in need of food and shelter flood the northern cities. Everything they had has been sold, transformed into royal wealth—they were not expected to return, they were not expected to live.

“You need to do something about this!” Alexei barks at her then. Upon her request, Morozova has made him a gubernatik of a large region in the north. He has made him a man of power, but with power, comes responsibility.

She looks at him and sees her friend, a boy not much older than her. She sees a revolutionary, not a governor.

“I wish I could,” she breaths.

“But you can!” he cries. “You are the Tsarevna! They are thousands, Alina! Thousands!”

She shrugs. “I have no money to give you, Alexei.”

“They will freeze on the streets!”

“If that is so, make them enlist.”

"Women, Alina? Women and children who just escaped certain death and you want them to fight the Fjerdans?!”

“At least they would be useful,” she spits, immediately ashamed of what she had said. She sights pressing her eyes shut for a brief moment. “I wish I could do something, Alexei,” she says with desolation in her voice. “I wish I could help them, but I do not have the funds. We have to fight a war and we have to take of the people, who are fighting it first. If they can not make their own living, they can enlist and they will receive food and shelter.”

“And die,” he says, his voice shaking. “I can’t tell them that. I could not live with myself, Alina,” he tells her. “I can’t tell them that they should die for the country that tortured them.”

“Tell them they should die for the country that liberated them, then,” she says him repeating her husband's words. “Tell them they should go and forge the Ravka they want to see. Tell them, their time has finally come to make the change they were yearning for.”

When he leaves, she buries her face into her hand and screams—she screams in despair.

    

 

       

vi.


A fourth night after his departure, she finds herself in his room, inhaling the fresh scent that still lingers there. Two weeks later, Genya finds her sleeping in his bed, her white body covered by his soft, black sheets.

“Saints, Alina!”

She hears the older girl cry as she jerks awake. Startled, she sits up, suddenly aware of the possible implications of her foolishness. Should she be ashamed? Her actions seems so childish to her now, so naïve.

“Did you alert the guards?” she asks, nevertheless, her voice matter of fact.

“Of course not.”

“Good,” she nods relieved. “No one needs to know.”

“Know what?” Genya laughs a cold laugh. “That you miss him? He is your husband.”

Shaking her head, Alina lets her palms rub her face rubs her face. “I don’t—“ she starts with a sigh, but is immediately interrupted by the sounds of Genya’s decisive voice.

“Yes. Yes, you do. You might fool the council, maybe even your revolutionary friends, but you cannot fool a fellow woman, Alina, you cannot fool someone who knows you.”

Biting her lip, Alina looks into the older girl’s eyes.

“You look outside at the horizon way too often,” she tells her then. “You come here way too often. You might act like you do not care for him, but sometime along the way, you started to and despite all his atrocities and crimes you fell in love with him.”

Alina swallows, her jaw clenched. “I—“ she stutters. “I am scared, Genya,” she admits, hugging her knees. “I am scared we will lose the war; I am scared he will die; I am scared of what will happen if he does not return.”

Nodding, Genya sits next to her friend. “Yes,” she says scanning Alina’s face, “and yet that is not the reason why you have slept in his bed tonight. The reason why you are here is that you are afraid he does not love you.”

Clenching her jaw, Alina looks away.

“I’ve known him since I was fourteen, Tsarevna,” the older girl smiles, her voice calm and sweet. “My father died in the war when I was five, my mother followed him when I was twelve. She was a seamstress. That’s how I learned most I know and that’s how I survived after her death. I carried on the business for two years, working day and night only so I could have enough money to buy food and survive the winter. It was two weeks before the solstice when a young handsome officer came into my humble house and asked for his black coat to be fixed and embroidered with a symbol of an eclipse. When he came back and inspected the work, he offered me to come with him. He offered he is going to pay for my schooling, my food and shelter, if I remained in his service. I agreed.”

“He has found me in gutter, he has saved me from a terrible life, but while I owe him everything and there was a time, when I would do anything he would ask of me, he has never once looked at me the way he looks at you, Alina. Over the years, I have seen many girls try to fix him—to save him. He has never looked at them either. I think he had never really seen them, at all. To be honest, I think he has never truly seen anyone but you. I cannot tell you if he loves you or not. I cannot read him. What I can tell you is that if he ever will love anyone, it will be you.”

“How can you be so sure?” Alina asks. “If I remember correctly you did not approve of my choice when it happened, why now?”

“Because things have changed, I looked for signs and I’ve found them. But mostly because when we came back from the Little Palace, he has told me he has found what he was looking for—someone who could make him a better man.”

Alina smiles, her eyes remaining cold. I have not made him a better man; she thinks mockingly as she remembers the ravaged people in the streets and battlefields, he has made me a monster.

Chapter Text

i.

White envelopes sealed with a black royal seal arrive regularly into Tasarevna’s hands. They conceal updates on the movements of armies, of the fitness of the cavalry and of the struggle for supplies. Written in an elegant handwriting, the queen has no problem to decipher the dark ink absorbed in the white paper. The sentences she sees are short, the language a matter of fact. She reads the writing from the first word to the last in front of her councilmen, waiting for what seems as coerced reaction.

Simultaneously, Alina’s hands remain empty and every morning, when she wakes up in between the soft black sheets of his bed, she tells herself she does not care.

The war continues. The news sealed in letters promise a brisk victory—a glorious triumph of good over evil. She does not believe a word she reads. With the snowdrops slowly emerging from the frozen ground, her anxiety rises. As a child, she used to love seeing their little white blossoms peaking through the snow. Back then they were the promise of a better time without freezing cold and biting frost. Now, their little heads tell a different story. Spring is here, they seem to whisper as the wind wrestles their green leaves, and with spring come the Shu.

The situation in urban centers across Ravka gradually worsens. Food is scares; the oil has run out completely. She does what she can in redistribution of wealth, but she has done the math and knows that even if she sold all gold in the Grand Palace, she would never be able to feed all those in need—she would never be able to keep them warm and so she waits, and prays. She prays for the war to end and she prays for them to survive.

“People are dying, they are dying on the streets,” one of her advisors tells her. It is a re-occurring subject now—a subject that will not give her peace.

“I want to see,” she says, absently staring into the distance. There is nothing she can do, she knows—nothing, but her conscience tells her she should at least see those she has condemned to death. She knows that the Tsar would tell her these loses are only the necessary casualties. She knows that Morozova would say that anyone who was sent to the gulag died on the day of the transport. She can hear her own husband scold her, claiming she cannot kill someone who has been dead for years. But she is not someone who finds excuses. She is not like him. She should see the consequences of her actions.

“I want to go to the city.”

“Impossible,” says another of her husband’s councilmen, shaking his head. His face is strong, decisive, and protective. She sees fear in his eyes, fear mixed with admiration.

“They can do both, love you and fear you,” Aleksander has told her before he has placed the golden crown on her head she wears now. She did not believe him back then—she does now. From the other side of the room she sees Ivan give her a stern look. Slowly, she meets Botkin’s eyes. In comparison to everyone else, his face is blank, his eyes void of any emotion. After a moment of consideration, he gives her a small nod, a promise. I broke his spirit, she thinks, as she looks at the man, she has put into the same cell her husband has once put her. I broke his spirit, she thinks as she remembers the moment when they told her he has agreed to her terms and conditions. I broke his spirit, and now he will help me to break mine.

 

 

ii.

She finds that entering the palace is easier than leaving it. The first time she succeeds to sneak out through the underground system, she does not have a plan; she just wants to see. She wants to see the mayhem abrupt liberty can bring—she wants to see what she has caused. She walks around the streets, carefully disguised, watching as hundreds freeze on the ground, as they beg for food and shelter. She thought she has given them kindness; she should have also given them charity. Before the dawn, she returns through the kitchens, stealing a still warm poppy-seed pastry. She does not do it out of need or hunger—she does it out of a whim and she does not think twice about it. During the council that day, she orders the construction of additional four public kitchens in the city centre. The councilmen frown at her; they tell her she is taking money from those, who are risking their lives for her country.

“What a grand victory we shall have, if all we save will be a graveyard,” she tells them in a voice underlined by mockery. When the meeting comes to an end and the men begin to disperse, she feels Ivan approach her. Glancing from the ink stained papers in front of her, she watches as the red fabric of his uniform gleams in the morning sun.

Moia soverena.”

She nods, gesturing for him to sit opposite to her but he does not move.

“You were outside the gates,” he tells her then, his tone wavering.

She narrows her eyes, but nods in agreement. Alina would have lied; the queen does not need to. “Indeed, I was,” she tells him in a leveled tone.

“I cannot allow that.”

“I do not care for your allowance, Ivan.”

“I have my orders, Alina,” he barks and she watches his jaw clench in a sudden upsurge of anger.

She leans into her chair. “You are afraid of him,” she says then, tilting her head a little. “What man elevates another to kingship and then is terrified to live in his kingdom?”

Ivan shifts his weight from one leg to another. His hands form into tight fists. When he speaks his voice shakes with emotion. “If you do not swear, you will not leave the palace, I will put you under twenty-four hour surveillance. I will replace your personal guards with people, who answer to the Tsar rather than you and I will never leave your side—no matter how many times you’ll try to dismiss me.”

“You cannot make me a prisoner in my own castle,” she tells him, her eyes suddenly lit by defying fire.

“I do not answer to you, Tsarevna.”

She laughs a mocking laugh. “You might not answer to me, but I, just as well, do not answer to you, soldier. There is only one person I do answer to and until he returns, I do not answer to anyone.”

Ivan shakes his head, exhaling deeply as his hands come to his side. In his red cloak, he looks like a bull—a bull ready to tear her apart. She meets the pair of his darkened hazelnut eyes ready to dismiss him and yet, when his gaze meets hers she is reminded of the times not so long ago, when she chased after the very same pair in the depths of the Czerny Les, she is reminded of what he had told her right before she has left for Os Alta.

If you betray us, we are all dead.

“I have to do this, Ivan,” she tells him then, the expression on her face suddenly filled with kindness. “I have to do this in order to save Ravka.”

“The Tsar is saving Ravka,” Ivan tells her, his eyes sincere.

“No,” she breaths, “the Tsar is saving himself.”

 

 

iii.

Next time she leaves the castle, Ivan follows her. She pretends she does not notice. She wanders through the taverns that night. Sitting in dark corners, she listens to other people’s conversations. She listen as they tell the stories of their families, listen as then list the name’s of those who passed away in the time of her reign. She settles on going once a week. It is torture, yet she knows it is right. She has to know more than numbers of how many have fallen. She has to know, who they were and whom they loved. She has to feel their loss otherwise her reign will turn into a yet another tyranny.

Three weeks after her first exploration, she—Alina, receives a letter, form the Tsar. She burns it in the fireplace, watching as the unbroken seal slowly melts away and becomes one with the flames.

Next time she sneaks out of the castle, she does not come back.

 

 

iv.

Stirring in her seat, she opens her eyes to face darkness equal to that behind her eyelids. Piercing pain descents down her spine. She groans in pain, trying to raise one of her hands to touch her neck. It is then when she becomes aware of the thick rope binding her hands behind her back. Struggling to set them free the pain in her back intensifies. Her body suddenly freezes in a spasm. She ceases the movement and leaning into the backrest she exhales deeply.

“Hello,” she says more to test how big the room might be than to attract attention. The word vibrates through the empty space. There is no echo and yet she knows the room she finds herself is no cell. Inhaling slowly, her nose is struck by an intense smell of hay and a residue of animal scent. A stable then, she thinks. Closing her eyes once more, she is uncannily reminded of the moist cell she was forced to occupy before the man who locked her in there took her for his wife. She is reminded of the infinite silence she was forced to endure—the darkness her eyes has claimed as their own and the numb pain in her side cause by the two broken ribs she has earned by her defiance. She did not understand then. She did not understand why they tortured her, or why they kept her alive. She did not understand she was valuable—she does now.

This is different, she tells herself then, in what seem like an infinite darkness. This is not how it ends.

She does not know how long she stares into the blackness of the room, how many times she slides into sleep, or how many times a man comes in from behind her to check the bucket next to her and offer her two sips of water, before the door in front of her opens and a beam of sharp light enters the emptiness of the oblong room. Blinking in order to adjust her weakened sight to the sudden brightness, she listens as pair of steps grows louder. The omnipresent smell of hay intensifies, rising into her head as if she was inhaling opium. Slowly she lifts up her chin, focusing on the two silhouettes approaching her. Unlike the last time, when she was put on the mercy of the man she now calls her husband, she will not let them see her fear. She will not tremble.

Tsarevna!” proclaims a young male voice with no small amount of enthusiasm. “Please excuse the wait. Unfortunately I have been out of the city when the news of your visit reached me. It is lovely to finally make you acquaintance.”

She blinks, his tone taking her by surprise, but she has been part of this charade for long enough now to know that it takes two to play this game. “The pleasure is all mine,” she says therefore, carefully.

“But dear! You do not even know whom you are meeting, yet!”

“Does it matter?”

“But of course it does! I am the heir of the throne you and your rascal of a husband usurped.”

Alina smiles a little at the wording of the statement. “And what throne would that be, bastard?” She says then, imitating his tone. She looks nothing like a queen. With her torn common dress and unkempt and unwashed hair.

Much to her surprise, the young man responds with a deep and healthy laughter, ordering the other man to light up a torch.  

"Very well, Alina,” Nikolai Lantsov tells her and even before the orange flames light up his handsome face, she can hear the smile that plays around his lips. “Now that we settled neither of us have the right to sit on the throne let us move to business.”

“Oh please,” she says in a light tone, keeping her mask of coolness as another piercing stab of pain comes down her spine. “I was starting to get bored.”

Smirking, he nods, putting his hands into his pockets, his golden hair falling carelessly into his eyes. “I have an offer for you,” he tells her in the same playful tone he has used before. “You kill Morozova and I will grant you the Little Palace along with its gubernaia. You will be rich and free, and able to marry whoever you want.”

Despite the pain sizing her back, Alina forces her lips to form a small smile. “Why would I do that?”

“Because you are not like him. You are not an unfeeling monster forged in a gulag.”

“How do you know?”

“Forcing him to remove my father’s and mother’s exposed bodies from the royal gardens? Sneaking in the middle of the night to eavesdrop on the conversation of the townspeople? Wandering around the streets to see the suffering poor? You have a bad conscience, dear. Something he never had—something he will never have.”

“You are right,” she says, scanning the young man face carefully, only able to do so, because the monster he condemns decided to spare his life. “I do tend to suffer from bad conscience. So, please do tell me, why would I ever kill the man I love?” There is an unprecedented sincerity in her voice, sincerity she would not be able to imitate. She is not like her husband and it is exactly because of this reason she will not betray him. Not now, not ever.

Nikolai tilts his head, looking at her with a strange amusement—it is the look you would give a puzzle you cannot solve. “You are not telling me you actually love the man, do you?”

She raises her eyebrows, silently fighting the pain in the back of her head. “What did you think? That I married him out of fear? That I married him for power?”

“Yes,” Nikolai nods, his brown eyes scanning the straw covered floor. “Yes, and I was right, in a way,” he muses. “You married him for both—out of fear and for the power he would give you, but you also married him because you genuinely like him.” Pausing for a moment he smiles a sad smile. “Fascinating.”

“I will not do what you are asking of me,” she tells him then, her voice not of a prisoner, but that of a queen, “and you can be sure he will not risk loosing Ravka to save my life. You are wasting your time, Nikolai.”

Tilting his head once more, the young observes her with a newly acquired appeal. “Indeed,” he says, his eyes sparking in the orange light of the torch. “Even though you might be wrong about him, Alina—he would risk Ravka for you, because for him, you are Ravka.”

She eyes him curiously. “Keep me here and we will soon find out.”

“Untie her,” he orders then, chuckling. When Alina slowly rises to her feet and looks him in the eyes, he takes her hand into his and kisses it lightly. “I quite like you, Tsarevna” he tells her sincerely, preforming a small bow in her honour. “Too bad we meet under these circumstances.”

Before she can react, the torch collides with the back of her head and as she feels her numb limps collapse on the floor, she once again submerges into the infinity of darkness.

    

       

v.

She wakes up in her bed, the sharp morning sun upsetting her eyes. A silent groan escapes her mouth as she once again becomes aware of the ruthless pain in her head and back. It is then, when a soft hand touches hers and she shifts her eyes towards the long, delicate fingers that circle her skin.

“It was on time,” Genya smiles, as she clasps her hand one last time and withdraws her fingers from hers.

Alina stirs a little. “How long?”

“Thirty hours.”

The queen blinks in disbelief. “How long before…?”

“Four days,” Genya exhales softly before adding. “We were worried, Alina. Saints! We thought it was all over!”

If you betray us, we are all dead.

She swallows, her throat dry. I am sorry, she wants to cry as she feels her stomach clench, but she does no such thing and she never will. When her brown eyes meet those Genya’s, they do not beg for mercy, they command.

“How did I get here?” she asks, her voice suddenly cold and firm.

“They…” the older girl starts, shaking her head uncomfortably. “They drugged you with sedatives and then through your numb body out of a carriage in front of the main gate.”

Alina’s jaw clenches. “When?”

“Early in the morning.”

When she hears the words, a feeling of relief washes over her. What a placid revenge, she thinks. Nikolai could have done so much worse. He could have burned her skin, cut her hair. He could have stripped her naked and throw her on the cobblestones in the middle of the day—left for everyone to see. Instead he decided to leave her in front of her golden cage, unharmed. It is a message. A promise.

You are not like him, it seems to say, and neither am I.

“The Tsar is livid,” Genya tells her then and Alina’s thoughts seem to blend with her surroundings.

“Good,” she says under her breath. “Is he here?” she inquires coolly, her mind alert.

Genya nods in agreement. Momentarily searching for words. A desperate laugh escapes her then, as she tries to level her fretful sound of her usually steady voice.

“It only took him three days, Alina. Three days. No one can make that distance in fewer than four and a half days. No one.

Alina’s lips curve into a cruel smile, thinking that maybe Nikolai was right after all.

“He had worn out the horse, Alina. He killed it and he would have killed much more if they....” she pauses, looking for the right words. “If we did not find you soon after his arrival.”

Alina sits up in her bed, soft pillows pleasantly pressing into her back. She thinks of the girl next to her. She thinks of her trembling voice and the newly acquired emptiness in her eyes. What has he done to her, she asks herself, abruptly seeing what appears as a palpable change.

“Where is Ivan,” she asks, then.

Genya’s jaw tightens. “He will live,” she says, her voice flat.

“What does that mean?”

“It means exactly what I have told you,” she snarls suddenly, her voice filled with suppressed anger. “He will live.”

“What happened to him?”

Silence.

“Genya, what has he done to him,” she presses.

“Nothing he didn’t deserve,” a deep, velvet-like voice announces from the entrance door. Alina raises her chin to meet his gaze. Underlined by dark crescents, she watches as his steel-like eyes take in the image of her bruised face. Her blood starts pulsing in her veins. It is uncanny—the effect he seems to have on her. She has forgotten how intense his presence can be, how consuming he can seem.

“Thank you, Genya. That will be all,” he says, as he clasps his hands at the small of his back. The tailor rises without a word and with only a small bow she takes her leave. The anger of the previous moment suppressed in the empty spaces of her broken soul.

“You disobeyed my orders,” the Tsar tells her, when he hears the door click shut.

She stares at him. She stares at him because she has nothing to say. She stares at him because they were supposed to be equal and they are not.

“Welcome home,” she says then, her voice without any trace of emotion.

Moving to her bed, he kneels on her bed pinning her into the pillows, his hand wrapping itself around her slim neck. The action is quick, too quick for her to react properly. She lies still. Her body paralyzed more by the sudden contact of skin against skin than by the threat of violence.

“You disobeyed me,” he tells her, his face so close to hers that she can feel the warmth on his breath on her cheek.

She swallows, unsuccessfully fighting the intensified pain in her head. “I did,” she agrees, but she will not surrender to him. She will not yield. “And I will do so again.”

His quartz eyes grow narrow like those of a panther might do and she feels as his grip on her neck tightens. Despite the pain, despite the fear that she is starting to feel, she remains still, her body nothing more than a numb object in his hands. Her strategy pays of. He lets her go, his hand lingering above her breasts for a brief moment before he slides of the bed and walks towards the window, his hands returning on the small of his back.

“You were watched for a good reason, Alina,” he tells her then, his voice uncharacteristically soft.

“I know,” she rasps in response.

“Then why would you disobey me?”

“Because you left me,” she tells him truthfully, because she knows well enough that she has risked her life for more than charity. No action is selfless, she had learned, just as no saint is purified of the original sin. She has risked her life to make him suffer. She wanted to hurt him; she has wanted to force him to come back. She wanted to test what Nikolai already seemed to have know. That the man she married feels something that he would give up his war, his own fight for position in order to find her—to save her.

“You locked me up in a golden cage. You bound me to you with collars made of precious stones until the only thing I could see was you and then you left me. You left me, to wage a war. You left me in order to attain the one thing I have offered you, the one thing I have brought into this union—the security of your position and while you were doing so, I was left with its consequences. You left me to deal with poverty, hunger and human misery,” she shakes her head in fury.

“People love conquers because they do what they want to,” Alina says then, her jaw tense. “They despise rulers, because they do what they have to.”

He looks at her, his steel eyes sharp on her face. “I am the Tsar, Alina.”

“Indeed,” she says mockingly, “indeed, you are!”

“What do you want from me, then?” he hisses, the sound uncomfortable.

“I want what you have promised,” Alina says.

“I have given you everything I promised.”

“No,” she leans forward. “You have not given me equality.” Her voice pulses with determination, now—with resolve foreign even to her ears. “You have not given me your trust.”

You have not given me yourself, she adds in her head as she buries her fists into the soft blankets enclosing her.

“You are right,” he replies, the muscles in his arms growing tense. “I have not given you equality. I have given you superiority to everyone—everyone, but me. As for trust, Alina, trust is not simply given. Trust is earned.”

“I have earned your trust, Aleksander. By now, I should have earned more than that,” she shakes her head, laughing in what seems to be a desperate silence. “And don’t you see? I do not care about anyone else. I care about you. I care about us.” The last word resonates through the room, bringing the air in between them into sudden paralyzes. She sees him shift his weight. The gesture seems impulsive, caused by an impetus within—a thought, perhaps, a feeling. He looks away from her then, his quartz eyes focusing on infinity.

“Do you love me?” Her voice is nothing more than a whisper as the words burn on her tongue.

He snaps back in focus, the air in the room fueled with until that point suppressed energy.

“I do,” he says finally, as he carefully scans her bruised face. “Just not in the way you want me to.”

“There is only one way, Aleksander.”

“No,” he shakes his head. “There are as many ways as there are people. You want me to say that I would die for you—that I would sacrifice my life for you, but all I can say is that I would kill for you and who else can say that?”

She swallows hard, feeling as tears start to flood her sight.

He turns his head to her ever so slightly. “Should I remind you why, Alina?” he says then, his voice soft, almost tender. “Should I remind you why I would not die for you?”

Silence.

“Because without me there would be no you.”

Chapter Text

i.


He stays. He stays not because she has asked him to, but because the country they have jointly usurped calls for its ruler.

Days fly by. The unrest in the cities grows stronger, more visible. People assemble on the squares. They chant newly found slogans. Some call for change, some call for yet another revolution and some call for Nikolai. She is starting to understand why people have to remain segregated and alone, why they should not be allowed to organize themselves.

“They are nothing but the audience—spectators of power,” the Tsar tells her as they look over the grand square from one of the marble plated hallways.

For the first time in her life, she wishes it were so.

The doctors fix her ribs and appease her spine. They rub oriental emollients into her skin and wrap her in wet sheets soaked in ancient herbs. She feels better, stronger; finally enjoying the life of luxury she has gained the access to. The royal gardens arrive in their full bloom, filling the rooms of the palace with their sweet smell. Walking on the carefully outlined sand-paths weaving their way through the colourful garden beds, the fragrant scent reminds her of the time when her and Mal were only children, playing in the wild grass fields surrounding Karamazin. It reminds her of the simple joys she left behind in order to gain power and wealth. It reminds her of the sacrifices she has made to gain the man she has never dreamed of loving, but loves nonetheless.

She observes him now—the silent creature walking next to her; his black hunting coat along with his stoic profile lit by the soft light of the sun. He looks like steel wrapped in sheath, sharp and unbreakable and yet she knows he has been broken. He has been broken so many times the world came to believe that he has always been this way—a crooked soul. She sees his scars, the anxiety that runs down his jaw, the hollow look in his quartz eyes but she is also aware of the mercilessly sharp edges. She has been cut on them, after all.

Strolling in the midst of the blossoming garden beds delicately curated to her liking, her eyes linger on the one which lies directly underneath the gilded windows of what used to be that royal chambers. It flowers red as dawn.

“I have done it for a reason,” he says quietly, following her gaze.

“I know,” she says.

A wrong one, she thinks, before she asks what she has been meaning to ask ever since she has looked into Nikolai’s warm pair of hazel eyes.

“Why did you let him go?”

There is a momentary silence, followed by an uneasy shift of weight.

“He has no right to the throne.”

She turns to look at him, her stare piercing his uncharacteristically mild eyes. She was afraid of him once. She is not afraid, anymore. Not because he is any less secretive, or cruel—but because she understands his secretes and malice.

“Maybe,” she says. “But that is not the reason why you let him go.”

He looks away from her before his gaze finds his way to one of the gilded windows.

“You knew him,” Alina breathes, giving away her sudden realization.

His lips curve in abhorrence.

“In another life, perhaps.”

 

 

ii.

 
Fjerda capitulates a fourth night after the vernal equinox. He walks into her room in a brisk pace, his grey eyes deepened by excitement.

“Fjerda is withdrawing troops from our border. They are ready to negotiate.”

Alina rises from the sofa, placing one hand on her stomach, unable to breath. The book she was reading falls out of her hand on the soft cushions of her ornate sofa.

“We won?” she huffs in surprise.

Nodding, he does not wait for her to collect herself. Laughing in eerie ecstasy, he lifts her up, spinning her in the air. The gesture takes her by surprise. It is impulsive, carless and full of life and she realizes that until now she has never truly heard him laugh. She has never heard the deep, mighty sound that now sends shivers down her spine and prompts her pulse to quicken. She has never seen his eyes to gleam with nothing else than joy.

When she lands safely back on her feet, a weight lifts from her chest.

They are free.

She does not ask him what he has ordered their troops to do to civilians in the occupied territories. She does not inquire how many innocent lives had to perish to forge this truce.

The Fjerdans would have done the same, she tells herself. The Fjerdans have done the same. Botkin once told her in reference to the war they have been waging that men often mistake killing and revenge for justice—that one should never seek revenge and call it righteousness. She does not care. There might be blood on her hands, but she will sleep all the better for it.

They make love that afternoon. Sparing on her bed in a bright daylight and while he never gives up his control over her; he is gentler this time—attentive and even kind. He traces the curve of her side with his finger, teasing her with her taste on his lips until she begs him to come inside her.

He does not leave when the act is done. Instead he cups her in his strong arms, pressing her against his robust chest until she thinks he wants their bodies to merge into one. He buries his head in the space between her neck and shoulder and she feels him inhale the smell of her hair, undoubtedly covered in their sweat. The gesture along with his actions is more primal then loving. She is aware of it and yet she cannot not help but smile, as she entwines her fingers with his, and settles into his embrace as if it was carved out for her.

“Thank you,” he whispers then, his voice so quiet she thinks she must have imagined it. “Thank you for staying.”

She closes her eyes as unfamiliar warmth spreads through her chest. He has never thanked her—not even when she has given him the nation on a silver platter and yet, she cannot help but shift in his arms, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Did I ever have a choice?” It’s a gamble to say this. To start questioning him, interrogating him right after he has opened up to her. Right after he has allowed his walls to come down.

“There is always have a choice,” he says, his voice just as quiet as before. Nonetheless, there is a subtle shift. “There always is. It is only because you keep making the same choice that it seems like you have no choice at all.”

“And what kind of choice is that?”

“To live.”

She closes her eyes; thankful she is facing away from him. He is right, of course. She chose life over death when he offered it, despite her former readiness to do otherwise. That choice left her world shaken, but while she asks herself if the choice itself was a mistake, she knows her choosing was not.

“I would do it again, you know? Even if I knew—even if I knew you the way I know now,” she tells him and feels as his grip on her tightens, until she is almost unable to breath and she wonders if he does it to punish her, or to keep her away from running—from leaving him alone.

“Tell me you will stay,” he whispers hoarsely. “Tell me you won’t leave.”

She closes her eyes, wondering why she had to turn the only gleeful day they may ever have into ashes.

“I won’t leave you, Aleksander,” she says turning her head to face him. With his ruffled coal hair and desolate smile playing along his lips, he looks younger, more vulnerable than she has ever seen him.

“You are a bad liar, Alina,” he tells her then, as he presses her towards him even tighter so she can feel the full length of his erect member against her lower back. “You always were.”

“I am not lying,” she breathes as she her body instinctively moves upwards and her leg encircles his waist to grant him access. Grabbing her breasts, he slides inside without warning and her back arches against him in order to adjust itself into the right angle.

“No, you are not,” he breaths into her ear as he starts to move in a slow rhythm. “Not now, at least.” His other hand finds her pearl and his touch immediately makes her leg to lock on his waist more tightly and forces him deeper inside her. “And yet, in time, you might.”

“How?” She says loosing track of the conversation as he stretches her insides and his hand circles her.

“If I can help it,” he whisper, his voice horse as he focuses on maintaining the harmony of his movements. “You’ll never know.”

 

 

iii.


The celebrations are imposing. They serve as a mark of a new era—an era where Ravka is forged by Ravkans and Ravkans alone. It is a showcase of power and pretended solidarity. From a grand ball to the public melting of golden objects found in the Grand Palace, the whole event is one big stage with hundreds of actors but only two main roles. The unrests come to an abrupt halt. The outcry for yet another revolution grows silent.

“We have won a battle,” her husband tells the cheering crowd, his usually velvet voice thundering through the still air. “But the war is far from over. Shu Han is marching on our borders with a newly acquired strength. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight them on their soil, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength, we shall defend Ravka, whatever the cost may be … we shall never surrender.” The masses scream in ecstasy, hypnotized by his magnetic presence. He is not the leader they chose and yet, while they followed her to freedom, they will follow him to death.

“This will not last forever,” Botkin warns her not long afterwards, his eyes hard on her face.

“We do not need it to last forever,” she tells him, looking on the rising voluntary conscription rates. “We need it to last until we win.”

It does not last until they win.

It does not even last until they start the fight.

 

 

 

iv.


The man, whose life her husband decided to spare. The man, who kidnapped her and drugged her, remerges in Sikursk with a legion of twenty thousand men. He turns the city into his citadel, proclaiming it the new capital. Promising food and shelter to anyone who joins his cause, he feeds their people with grain grown on Shu Han fields. Their spies tell them he has made a bargain with the enemy and it would seem that he has brigand well. People’s favour is unstable and it is shifting again, sliding like water out of what they believed was a tight grip. The ecstasy brought by the short-lived peace is all but gone. The mass has realized what she knew all along—that those who have not died in winter would die in spring.

“I should have killed him when I had the chance,” the Tsar tells her, as he looks out the window to the south one evening, the dim light of the flames flickering playing across his sharp face.

“Did you ever have a chance?”

He nods absently, pouring each of them a glass of last year’s kvas, the gesture, not unlike the talk, almost domestic.

“So you do make mistakes,” she muses, as she reaches for the drink, a small smile playing along her lips. It is an attempt to loosen the atmosphere, to make them both forget that a foreign army camps on their soil.

He eyes her curiously, putting one of the crystal glasses into her outstretched hand. “Of course, I make mistakes,” he tells her then as his mouth curving with desolate irony. “Just not very often.”

She has been told by Genya not to ask about Ivan and she does not—not anymore. She asks about Nikolai instead, because in the end Ivan’s life does not matter, Nikolai’s does.

“Tell me about him.”

Her tone is light, playful and yet, it is not a plea and he knows it.

Sitting next to her, he shrugs. His left hand finds his way to the collar of his shirt and she watches him as he carelessly unbuttons the first couple of silver buttons.

He seems restless, exhausted. For the first time, he seems to be lost at what to do next. He has nothing more to offer to their people than hope and he knows that hope will not feed them—he knows that hope is not enough.

“What do you know?” he asks her, his eyes watching the flames.

She shakes her head, tired of his interrogations and games. She might have been a child the first time he has met her, but she has grown, she has learned and she does not want to be tested anymore. She does not want to be tested by him and yet she swallows her pride and plays her part, because this is what they do. This is what they have always done, even the one time she has brought it upon herself.

If I can help it, you will never know.

“I know he was fond of you,” she says. “I know you took him to the front and I know he disappeared to a boarding school shortly afterwards.”

He nods, taking a sip of his glass.

“He was a smart child,” he states as if he was telling her the beginning of an ancient fable.

“There are two chief curses in this world. One is materialism—a curse the late king has suffered from. The other one is idealism. Nikolai is ready to die for his visions and misconceptions of the world. He is ready to die, only to die a hero.”

Pausing, his eyes find hers and against her will, she feels her jaw clench. You might have cured me from idealism, she thinks, but I never wanted to die to be a hero, I wanted to die because I believed the man I wanted to live for was dead and in the end despite it all I still chose life. She says nothing though. That part of her life is gone now—never to return.

“He was fond of me, you are right,” her husband continues and she sees his eyes turn fleetingly kind, before the mussels in his face shift and reveal what could only be described as passionate cruelty. “But he was fond of me the way you are fond of God—he has worshipped me, while at the same time, he has feared me more than anyone, even his father. I knew it—of course. I have seen it many times before when I myself was a child and my father has played God in his small kingdom of frost and pain and suffering. I decided to use it to Ravka’s advantage. I wanted to turn him into a weapon in my hands—I wanted to make him a king.”

“So you made him enlist—to keep him close,” she says, narrowing her eyes. “What happened then?”

“He ran away.”

“From you.”

“No. He ran away from reality. From pragmatism.”

“From a bloodshed you were in charge of.”

“A bloodshed I was trying to stop,” he snorts and looks at her then, his eyes hard. “A bloodshed I am still trying to stop.”

“What did you do?”

His jaw clenches and somehow she knows the hardness in his eyes is nothing more than a shield he has forged to protect himself from his own conscience. He looks young then, too young for the power he yields and Alina realizes that somewhere deep down, he is scared—scared that the one act of kindness will become his undoing.

“I was wrong. That’s what I did,” he says simply, collecting himself and sliding into the facade of an unbeatable ease.

Seeing him now, a part of her wants to drop the subject and never talk about it again—a part of her wants to let him forget, but she is selfish and so she straightens her posture and asks what she wanted to ask ever since she has seen his eyes wander to the gilded windows above the blood-red garden bed.

“He was your first choice, wasn’t he?”

The word choice burns on her tongue.

He has silenced her the last time she has questioned him—silenced her in a way that she could not defy and therefore she remained silent with only his name on her lips.

He looks at her, his face unreadable.

“He was the one who came before me—the one who was meant to be your symbol,” she elaborates then, her voice deceitfully amused. “Someone powerful enough to bring down the current rule, but weak enough for you to control.”

He tilts his head, his quartz eyes scanning her face. The hand that has been gently stroking her back rises to her neck and moves her face closer to his. She did not realized until now how close they were. His presence has become so natural to her, that when his touch turns forceful once again she has no other defence than to stare at him with mocking defiance.

“Sometimes it is not your first choice that matters,” he tells her then, his voice soft. His face is too close to hers for her to read.

“Sometimes it is your last.”

He lowers his eyes to trace her lips and she makes sure that he does not miss the remains of the fake smirk still playing on her lips. She never took an active role in their physical pleasure, never found the courage to approach him herself, but seeing him now, hesitating, sliding his own tongue over his lips, she grabs his shirt a jerks him forward. He looks up, startled. After half a second, his moth curves into a light smile. The shadows along with the warm light coming from the fireplace make him look like the devil in his angelic form—facing his kingdom of flames for the very first time.

What was it that made Nikolai turn away, she wonders then as she feels herself being drawn to him by some invisible force. When was the point when he walked away and I stayed?

“You asked me if I loved you, Alina,” he says then, tightening the grip on the back of her neck.

“I do love you, but when I say love, I mean violence.” Crushing her mouth with his, his rough tongue slides past her lips. She feels as if she were to choke and yet, somehow the air finds its way into her lungs and she digs her nails into the side of his chest. She lets him bite her upper lip before she breaks free from the mussel in his mouth and breathes, “I want him gone. I want to see him dead.”

His smirk grows wider, his quartz eyes detaching themselves from her swallowed lips, sparkling with pride.

“You will.”

 She wants to believe him, and perhaps, for a while, she does.

 

 

v.


The last snow melts and the Shu Han armies enter the Ravka territory through the passes surrounding Sikursk.

They are not ready for an invasion and she is starting to doubt if they will ever be. Masses leave the cities, blinded by the promise of free grain and a compassionate boy-king and she dreads the moment one of the councillors in her husband’s council suggests sealing the gates. We cannot imprison them, she thinks. The moment we do, we lose. But she can see the fear written across their weary faces. She can see that this is what they want—what they would have done if they have not feared her husband’s wrath more the possible fatality of their failure.

Despite the Tsar’s presence, she sits on the council now, yielding the same power as the man whose head she decorated with an ancient crown.

“You wanted me to make you my equal,” he has told her when he has brought to the oblong council chamber and shown her her newly carved wooden throne. “We are equal now. Equal in both—power and responsibility.”

She looks around the empty chairs that remind her of simple stoles in comparison to the throne in front of her.

“They will never agree to this,” she tells him. “It is against tradition.”

No woman has ever sat on the council. No woman, but the queen and that only on special occasion such as the Tsar’s absence and even in those cases, only after he explicitly instructed her to do so.

“Fuck tradition,” her husband says in a low voice. “You are more useful than all of them combined.”

Nodding, she touches the armchair of her new throne—a throne that is not only a pretty thing placed on a pedestal, but a seat with the promise of power.

Ever since then, she follows the Tsar into the council chamber in the mornings and in the afternoon, when he is busy assembling their armed forces, she uses the only weapon she truly yields—she writes. Twisting Nikolai’s image of a savior into one of a traitor, she summons the best cartoonists to draw the former Tsarevitch dressed in a southern, ornate dress with a foreign crown on top of his head. She fabricates a rumor about his true heritage—suggesting not only that he is of no royal blood but also that he is indeed a son of a late Shu Han general known for his brutality. When she talks about the benefits, his allegiance seems to present she implies the offered food is nothing but poison—an easy way to get rid of those who are too weak to fight or live.

Once upon a time, she has been composing essays of truth. Staining those, who were deceitful with the blackness of her ink. Now, just as convincingly, she invents carefully crafted lies, using believable half-truths of questionable character. Many of those who were perhaps ready to flee, stay, and listen to what she might have to say, because despite it all, she is till their Sol Koroleva, she is still one of them, while Nikolai never was. Yet, she knows the danger of the soft nature of propaganda. She knows well enough that if you hold it in your hands for too long, it moves like a snake and strikes the other way.

 

 

 

vi.


Two weeks later, Alina sits in her study, her hands stained with ink—the same ink she has left on her husband’s body only a couple hours ago when he came in unannounced and took her without a word on the top of her desk.

The doors open and she lifts her head to see one of her personal guards standing at the threshold.

“Zoya Nazyalensky is asking for an audience, moiya Tsarevna.

“Let her in,” she says only to watch the raven-haired girl to push the man aside and stroll inside her chamber with a mocking bow.

Tsarevna. Long time no see.”       

Alina dismisses the startled guard at her door with a lazy move of her finger and directs her full attention to the sardonic smirk on the girl’s face.

“Long time indeed,” she says in a low voice as she leans into her chair, one hand supporting her chin.

Zoya tilts her head, her attention suddenly caught by the ruffled parts spread across the heavy wooden structure in front of her. When she returns her gaze to Alina, she huffs in laughter.

“Busy afternoon?”

If she had any decency left, Alina might blushed. But she does not—not anymore. She asked her husband about the girl in front of her, once. She asked after her origins, after her skills and received a curtailed response of only a few words. The beautiful raven-haired girl is a mystery to her—a puzzle with sharp mind and tongue that was not intimidated of hers or her husband’s power as if she knew there was something greater to be feared—as if she didn’t fear the Devil for she knew it is God who sends you to hell.

“What can I do for you?” she says, letting her remark slip without a commentary.

“Listen,” Zoya tells her simply as she sits down in one of the armchairs without permission and when the afternoon light touches her raven hair, Alina cannot but envy her the carless, arrogant beauty she seems to posses. She looks like a queen, Alina thinks as she watches her. The only thing that is amiss is a crown.

“I am listening,” she says finally after a brief moment, wondering about the content of the spy’s message.

“You need to strike. Now.”

“Impossible.” Alina smiles a degrading smile. “We are not ready. But you have already heard that from the Tsar, haven’t you?”

Zoya smirks as if in response to the tight smile forming along Alina’s lips. “The Tsar,” she says, pronouncing the word as if it was composed out of separately standing letters, “is apparently too busy playing the general and fucking you in the middle of the day to hear me out properly.”

Alina raises her eyebrows. “You should mind your tongue.”

“You should mind your country.”

“I am tired of this game, Zoya,” she says then. It’s not a lie.

“Too bad, it only just started,” the girl smirks, putting her legs up on the near by armchair.

“We can’t beat him—not yet. You know that perhaps better than I do.”

“I know you can’t, but you can save yourself and this country some embarrassment trying.”

“What have you seen?” Alina asks then, leaning forward.

“I have seen an army of fifty thousand preparing for a march, and then hundreds disappear over night,” she declares cryptically. “I’ve seen several thousand torches and thousand water-proof boots imported from the swamps of Shu Han.”

“Perhaps they want to march at night.”    

“Perhaps,” Zoya shrugs dismissively. “Or maybe they found another way. Maybe they are already marching.”

“There is no other way to Os Alta then through the plains of Pliznaya. If they were on the move, we would know.”

“You are wrong.”

Alina blinks in irritation. “Tell me what you know, Zoya,” she tells her then, annoyed by the arrogance, she deep down learned to admire. “I have better things to do than to play cat and mouse.”

“I would too, if I were the mouse…”

“What. Do. You. Know.” The Tsarevna’s voice is low and sharp now. No more games it says.

No more meaningless blunter.

“There are tunnels. Hundreds of them, underground.”

Alina shakes her head in dismissal. “No one has used those tunnels for centuries. They are blocked, flooded. There are no maps describing them. If you enter, you never come back.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Nikolai might be many things, but he is not stupid. He would not waste the life of his men in this way.”

“Unless he has a map.”

“There are no maps and if there were they would be hidden in this castle.”

Standing up, Zoya shrugs. “Maybe they were, and maybe they aren’t anymore.”

 

 

 

vii.

When they decide to follow the spy’s lead, the spy is long gone.

When she realizes the spy was right, she understands why.

Chapter Text

 

i.

She—they are too late. Foreign soldier appear inside the city gates and take the city from within. She runs to his room. They need to leave, they need to leave now, but he is gone. She rushes to her chamber; her mind busy calculating possible scenarios. She could run. Leave the city she has claimed as hers and disappear into the land beyond the sea.

She could live a simple life.

Or not.

Upon entering her rooms, she sees Genya packing her clothes into two leather bags––her usual respect for the soft fabrics of her garments long gone.

“You have to go,” she yelps when she sees her. “Now.”

Alina walks to the window. It feels eerie. Standing here in silence as the city she tried to protect burns in flames. Her hands form into tight fists.

“No,” she tells the Tailor then, turning to her. “But you do.”

Genya shakes her head. “I—” she begins, but Alina cuts her off. Her voice is that of a queen. “This is an order, Genya. You are leaving. Take what you have packed for me and go through the back gate. One of my guards will accompany you. Go north. Find Alexei. He is smart enough to ally himself with Nikolai if worst comes to worst.”

“I can’t—”

“You can and you will. Go!”

The Tailor’s jaw clenches and she hesitates before she drops the dark nightdress and runs towards Alina, throwing her arms around her. “You should come with me,” she says, then, her voice shaking with anger, fear and care.

“I won’t.”

“I know, but—” she pauses, grasping her shoulders. “Don’t get killed.”

I can’t promise that, she thinks. “I won’t,” she says instead.

The Tailor nods, hot tears running down her cheeks.

When the door closes, Alina returns her eyes to the window. It would seem that people are starting to assemble in the square.

The crowd that applauds your coronation, she thinks, is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading.

 

 

 

ii.


The Shu soldiers enter the castle sooner than she expects. The process seems to be without obstacles––too easy for her liking. Someone has let them in, she thinks as she watches the entrance door to her chambers. Someone has betrayed us. She does not need to wait for long until the soldiers storm her rooms. They point their rifles into her face, screaming words she does not understand. “Papexy!” she hears them repeat. “Papexy.” She is calm, her eyes piercing into theirs. She thinks of the last time soldiers have invaded her house. She thinks of the man in a black uniform, who spit on her father’s bleeding corps. She thinks of their screams. Of the way her body shook against her wish as she watched the scene. Raising her chin, she smiles a cold smile. They can’t hurt me, she thinks. Not here and not now.

 

 

 

iii.


Nikolai pays her a visit later in the afternoon. He strolls into her room, dismissing the foreign looking soldiers at her door with a wave of his hand. The staged ease he seems to command forces her to narrow her eyes. What a good actor he would make, she thinks as she watches the dashing smile compellingly fixed along his thin lips.

“Alina,” he trills in greeting. “I knew we would meet again.”

“So did I.” She smiles, turning her head to face him. “Only under slightly different circumstances.”

“Oh,” he says with a false sadness in his voice as if the information startled him. “I am sorry, I did not actually think you believed this would last.”

“A girl can hope,” she says then, her voice void of emotion.

“I guess a girl should rather think than hope, given the current turn of events.”

She turns away from him again, smirking.

“The girl is thinking, I see,” he states after a momentary silence.  

“Of course, I am thinking, Nikolai. But do you know about what?” Her voice is playful, almost patronizing. “I am thinking about you and what you have done to the country you claim to protect. I am thinking about the people whom you called to your aid. I am thinking about the long years of suffering and war, about those whose lives were lost so that Ravka will stay Ravkan—so that Shu Han, or Fjerda will never reap grain from our soil. I am thinking about how you spit on their graves the moment you have led your foreign army through our borders. I am thinking about how you managed to make them believe you are the one liberating them, while in truth you were the one who sold them out.” She shakes her head; her eyes never leaving his. “Well done, Nikolai,” she tells him as she watches his face momentarily betray him. “You managed to rape Ravka and still make her scream in pleasure.”

“I offered you a better solution,” he tells her, his voice suddenly serious.

“You did not offer me a solution, you offered me treason.”

He shakes his head. “Peace is purchased in the currency of loss.”

She laughs bitterly. “Did he teach you that?”

“No.”

“No, because he knows sometimes the price is too high to pay.”

The room grows silent and she watches him as he sits on the empty sofa next to her. She could kill him if she wanted. One of her hairpins would do, but what then? The city belongs to the Shu—not the viper they chose for their leader.

“Where is he?” she asks then.    

“I was tempted to strip him naked and throw him into to garden, but in the end I decided a proper trial would be the best option.”

“Where is he?” she repeats coldly.

“In the dungeon. Since last night.”

Of course, she thinks as she realizes he has cut of the head of their army a long time before the battle. No wonder the city has been paralyzed. They had no commander.

“Take me to him.” Her voice is an order, not a plea.

“If I do that, there is no way back,” he says. “No one knows you are here, Alina. You can run. I am not going to chase you.”

She shakes her head, standing up. There is a cruel smile tugging on her lips.  “No,” she tells him, the word resonating through the room. “Take me to him, so you can kill us side by side. You should enjoy your last triumph in its full glory, because once we are dead, there will be no more Ravka for you to rule. There will only be Shu Han, and you its slave.” The air around them is raw and thick but she does not mind—she is not the one struggling for breath.   

“I’ll have someone escort you. The trial will be in a week,” he tells her, the ease that used to mark his voice all but gone. Nodding she walks towards the door.

He might be sending her to death but at least she has won their last battle.

 

 

 

iv.


As she goes down the spiral stairs she is seized by a sudden fear—a fear she thought she has already conquered. She wants to stop. She wants to freeze in her spot, but the man whose tight grip seized her upper arm pushes her forward and so on an on she goes, her head held high despite hearing the voice of the girl she used to be. Not that cell again, it calls to her from deep within. Not that cell again, please. Her hands start growing moist and unsteady and suddenly she fights the impulse to run. A moment ago she wished for a peaceful moment—for a time to ask for forgiveness. Now her legs move on their own, forgetting about her superior command. She wants to escape—to size her freedom. Not again. Not again. Not again. Tripping over her own foot, she slips down a couple of the moist stairs, falling onto the cold wet floor. The man picks her up, barking words whose meaning she will never understand. Her breath starts to colour the air white. She shivers only to forget about her cold again.  Not again. Not again. Not again. She thinks of Ivan, her jailor—her guard, and Genya, the girl whom she saved. She thinks of her walking in a deep snow struggling to get to get to the man she knows will not betray her. Alexei—the only true friend she has ever had, a friend that liked her and listened to her even when she was less than nothing.

I should have listened to the spy, she thinks then.

I should have known.

Not again, shrieks the young voice inside her.

Not again.

They twist and turn. Endlessly wandering through the underground maze. Sometimes she hears quiet screams coming from the cells, realizing she has caused them all—be it by condemnation, or elevation. Not again. They ascend another spiral staircase only to descend another one. A moment later she registers the smell of fresh air. She looks back at the man, his stern face lit by the flames, wondering if he is leading her in circles. It is only then when he stops. The two men emerging from the darkness nod to him in greeting, before unlocking the heavy iron door hiding behind their back. They push her inside and her eyes become numb with the sudden eruption of light. She blinks. Once. Twice. Then, she stirs in her own body, taking in the brutal beauty of the view in front of her—a relatively spacious room carved into black sapphire with light beams coming in from the air shafts high above her head all supported by the almost intrusive Romanesque arches. This is a cell for a king, she thinks and closing her eyes as she moves her lips in silence. I can breathe.

Ni yhuya xohaoshe.” The man whose handprint marks her upper arm barks to the darkness behind the beams.

The darkness stirs.

The man shuts the door.

 The lock clicks into its place.

She stares in front of her.

“Where are we?”

The shadows move from their place and he emerges, his form bathed in the soft light of the sunbeam. His temple is smeared with blood; his right eye and his lips are swollen, carrying the colour of their surrounding. His usually perfect satin attire is ruffled and torn.

“Everywhere,” he says, his voice cold. “Nowhere.”

He looks like a hurt beast. A man conquered, but not yet broken.

“Aleksander,” she breathes quietly, taking a step forward only to collide with his the palm of his hand. He slaps her quick and hard, so that she almost falls onto the ground.

Her mouth fills with the taste of iron. She must have bitten herself.

“Fool,” he says as he grabs her arms in order to steady her. Unconsciously she puts her fingers on her lips only to see them covered in red.

He has hit me, she realizes as she looks into his blazing, bloodshot quartz eyes. He has never hit me before.

“Fool,” he repeats, now, shaking his head. “You could have saved yourself. You could have run away and what do you do? You stay! For what? To keep me company? I locked you in cell.” He shakes with her body. “I tortured you, abducted you and made you into a monster and what do you do? You fall in love with me.”

She glares at him, still startled. His voice sounds like ice, but she knows that voice. She has heard him use it before.  

“Judge me all you like,” she breathes, the blood flowing slowly down the corner of her mouth.

“But don’t you dare lie to me.”

He shifts uncomfortably. His jaw grows tense.            

She smiles. It might not be a game anymore, but she is still playing.

“You wished that I would come.”

He takes a in a sharp breath.

She raises her chin letting her lips ghost over his swollen lips.

“Say it.”

Silence.

“Say it, Aleksander,” she presses, her eyes locked with his. “You have lost everything. Let go.”  

“Liar,” he whispers against her face.

 She smiles at the reminiscence of times long past—at words spoken and never forgotten. “I am not lying. I have told you before.”

The skin around his left eye wrinkles. A muscle tugs at the corner of his mouth.

“Do you want me to say it? Do you want me to say that I wished that you would come? That I prayed to all the saints for the door to open only to reveal you? Not exhausted and bruised but in all your glamour—as the Tsarista that you are. As a woman, who chose me over everything else in the world?”

He brings her closer to him. One of his hand encircling her waist, while the other ghosts over the nape of her neck.

“Of course,” he breathes. “I have always been selfish man. I do not have to let go of anything to admit that.”

It is then when he kisses her. His tongue enters her blood filled mouth while her lips press on the hardness of the dark bruise spreading across his face. The contact is brief and intense—just like their coexistence. When it breaks however, it does not remain broken. They sit on the bed hidden in the shadows. Talking. Waiting. He tells her the guard said they had one hour. She tells him they will have much more. She will not leave the room. She will not leave him.

She tells him about Nikolai, about the tunnels. He listens in silence, nodding only every once in awhile.

When she asks him about an escape he only shakes his head. “Impossible,” he breathes absently as his voice trembles a little at the prospect of death.

 

 

 

v.


Their hour together passes, as does the following one. Side by side, they sit resting their heads on the wall carved out of precious stone. Somehow she feels as if she is already dead, her head severed from her body through the awareness of the absence of a future.

“Will you forgive me?” he asks suddenly, his eyes never leaving the infinity in which they stare.

“For what?”

“For everything I have done.”

She scans his profile—the sharp line of his beautiful face now rounded by the traces of violence, while his words echo in her head. Everything. Forgive me for everything. Everything. Forgive me.

She swallows.

I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

“I have given you my love,” she says finally in a quiet voice, silencing the voice residing in her head. Looking at him—his bruised face, ruffled hair and torn jacket, she almost pities him. She pities him, because while she fears death, he seems to fear the way he will be remembered—as a usurper rather than a king, as a villain rather than a hero.

“I have given you my love—and I have given you my life, but only the saints can give you forgiveness.”

“I am doomed then,” he notes absently.

Aren’t we both?

The light beams shift their color from white to silver and the inhabitants of the sapphire cell fall asleep. Their bodies close but not touching, their minds alike, but separate.

 

 

 

vi.


The days come and go. Nikolai feeds them as he would feed his guests and she silently thanks him for it, remembering the muddy stew and foul bread she had to force down during her last imprisonment.

She asks Morozova who has built their prison and he tells her a story of love and death. A story about a Tsar who has married the guardian goddess of dusk, Zorja Vechernjaja—a Tsar who carved a chamber for her carved out of night itself. He tells her that he had showered the goddess with gifts and unyielding affection, giving her his kingdom to rule at night while he ruled at day.

“The legend says that she bore him three sons, two fair, with blond hair as the Tsar himself and third dark and mysterious as his mother—all smart and kind. When the Tsar died of an old age, the goddess was called back to the heavens to resume her guard at the gates of the night and the three boys were left to rule the kingdom. The two fair-haired boys, jealous of the child of the night and his right to rule unchallenged, locked the dark-haired boy inside his mother’s chamber and split the kingdom in half.”

“I have heard this story before,” Alina smiles faintly as she remembers Anya Kyuna’s curt narration. The orphanage was a cold place, a place of children without souls. “The dark-haired boy called to his mother for help,” she says to her husband, “and she sent stars to his cell to keep him company—to ease his suffering.”

“Indeed,” he nods, looking into the darkness. “But this is not how the story ends.”

“How does it end?”

“The boy cuts his wrists on the stars’ sharp edges and bleeds to death under the evening sky.”

 

 

 

vii.


They take them to the courtroom, in front of the people they have sworn to protect only so they can judge them—execute them. In the darkness of the underground tunnels, they walk side by side, the only noise the hollow sound of their footsteps. It is a charade, they both know—a way for Nikolai to maintain the appearance of justice. She wanted to do the same once. She wanted to stage a trial, an execution. She wanted to watch the Tsar’s head fall off his neck and call it justice while the man walking beside her slaughtered him in his own bed instead. She hated what he has done, hated that he killed the man in secrecy while she wanted for the whole world to see. She wishes Nikolai would have done the same now. She wishes he would slit their throats in the folds of the black silk of her husband’s bed and be done with it. She does not believe in afterlife, in heaven or hell.

When she saw the blood-stained garden bed, she did not fear the punishment of the dead. She feared the living.

The man in the colorful uniforms march them from the darkness of the tunnels into the light and she smiles to herself as she sees the crowd shriek in excitement. They are the king and queen of the underworld, the royals of death—and death always wins. She looks at her husband, his face cold, his pale skin almost transparent; the bruise on his face slowly turning yellow. She expects rotten apples and half-eaten potatoes to fly their way but the air above their heads is clear and she realizes the people do not have any apples—rotten or not, they have eaten them all. They are starving, after all. They walk into the courtroom through a heavily ornamented iron gate. Passing the small daemons frolicking around the entrance, she smiles only to see them smile back.

The courtroom is full.  They force them to sit on a long wooden bench facing large gothic windows. Next to her, Morozova’s eyes rise to meet those of the man sitting at the balcony on the right—a foreign soldier whispering something in his ear. Absently the man’s eyes find her husband’s gaze and he freezes in spot. Hesitating he nods ever so slightly in greeting. Her husband smirks in response. He still fears him, she thinks as she watches Nikolai stare at the man beside her with liquid eyes. He always will.

“You once asked how I managed to become who I am at my age,” she hears Morozova murmur next to her, his gaze never leaving that of the man above them. “You’ll have your answer soon enough.”

Before she can say something in reply, the judge forces the room to silence.  

The guard next to them barks an order in his own language.

Aleksander turns to him, the playful smirk never leaving his face. “Excuse me, what did you say?”

A few people in the audience suppress a chuckle. She raises her eyebrows in surprise. They have not talked about the trial in their solitude. She thought it pointless. She thought he thought so too and yet, it seems he will not let them die as sheep. The arrogance in his voice, the evil satisfaction his eyes; this is no longer the hurt beast but the man she got to know.  

The judge—a man in his late fifties with a white beard she has never seen before—looks at them then, his voice deep and strong. “You talk when asked,” he addresses her husband, who chuckles in response.

“I talk when I want to,” he says calmly before the fist of the colorfully dressed soldier next to them collides with his sharp face.  He hardly moves as the blood streams from his nose down his lips. His hands are tied but even if they weren’t, Alina thinks he would not bother with wiping it away. It’s a show. They read their offences, one by one: treason, murder, theft. They read the names of every nobleman they have killed, every description of every piece of furniture and piece of gold they have dissembled and melted to keep the mob warm and fed.  They read the names of their culprits—anyone of importance who was ready to side with them and call them by their usurped titles. She waits to hear Alexei’s name—to hear Botkin’s name. She hears neither.

The man next to her listens, the blood from his nose long dry on his handsome face. He looks calm, almost bored. Sometimes he shakes his head in amusement. As if it they were not about to be sentenced to death, as if it was all nothing but a joke.

In the late afternoon, when the sun is low and its light turns dark orange, they march them back to their sapphire cell. Once inside he touches his face only to smile a crooked smile, his eyes boring into hers. “Just because you cannot win, it does not necessarily mean the other one has to.”

 

 

 

viii.


The following week entails a procession of witnesses—people they have never seen, testifying about their atrocities in a grave detail. Gearing their questions towards emotions rather than fact, the persecution lets them talk for hours. A gardener is forced to paint a detailed picture of the mutilated bodies of the royal couple as if he was a realist painter depicting a brutal scene. A maid from the Little Palace is forced to describe the gluiness of blood she had to scrub off the floors. All they say is true, she knows. She thinks she should feel shame and regret, but she feels nothing. All she can think about are the polished floors in the Little Palace. All she wants to know is if the maid managed to scrub them clean. Get on with it, she thinks as she listens to their pointless blunter. Get on with it so we can all go where we belong––to hell.

They seem all the same to her. Peasants, one like the other, all equal in their performance but one—a young man her age with curly hazel hair and dark green eyes that stare in her direction with nothing but emptiness. Beside her, she feels Morozova tense, his eyes scanning the man’s face with interest, as his own face grows hard. Is this what he looks like at a battlefield? Alina thinks as she looks at Aleksander’s ruthless expression. Is this the man born into a frozen hell?

“State your name.”

“Bezinkov,” replies the man absently his eyes never leaving those of her husband. “Sergei,” he breathes.  

“Former Rank?

Serzhant.”

“How do you know Aleksander Morozova?”

“I was,” he says stopping to look at the prosecutor. “I was one of his oprichniki.”

“What are oprichniki?”

“They are,” Bezinkov swallows, his voice trembling. “They were the Chancellor’s personal guards.”

“What else.” The prosecutor's intonation turns his questions into statements.

“We were,” he begins, stuttering, his eyes fixed on Morozova. “We were a death squad.”

Aleksander’s eyes narrow, his face transforming into that of a predator watching his pray. The man, as if hypnotized starts shaking uncontrollably.

“You were in the north with your unit three years ago, is that right?”

An absent nod.

“State your response clearly!”

“Yes,” he huffs. His breathing quickens and suddenly he looks confused—confused about where he is and who is in charge.

“What orders did you receive?”

“None,” he blurts out as if his tongue twisted in his mouth. “We did nothing. I mean we did nothing out of the ordinary.” His breath quickens. “I swear!” he adds harshly. The man beside her straightens his posture. His lean torso suddenly the most dominating piece in the courtroom.

“That is not what you told us in private, Serzhant.” The prosecutor states calmly now.  

“I lied,” the man says.

“It is considered treason to lie to officials of the royal court,” the prosecutor points out, clearly hoping to sway the man’s mind.    

“They forced me,” Bezinkov yells in bewilderment, his eyes fixed on her husband. It is almost as if the man forgot about the judges and prosecutors. As if he forgot all about the trial and all about the crowd surrounding them. It is as if he is alone—alone with his commander. “They tortured me. They said if I don’t say what they want me to, they would kill me. I… I,” he stutters again, his voice shaking. “I did what they wanted. I was afraid; I saw blood in the cell. I am still afraid. They, they, they... they must have killed someone there before. I don’t want to die. I really don’t want to die, please I just did what they asked me to do, I… I don’t want to be afraid, I just, I want to feel safe again, please! I just want to be safe!” He sobs, fear in his eyes.

“Take him away,” the man orders as Bezinkov yelps on, his words turning into an incoherent babble.  “Safe,” is the only word she can understand. “Safe, safe, safe.” They grab him and drag him out of the courtroom all while the mob screams in confusion and anger. When she looks at her husband, his face turns to its usual blankness. She narrows her eyes, half in admiration, half in disgust.  

 

 

  

ix.

In the evening as they sit on their separate straw-padded cots, she tells him she wants to know the truth. She wants to know, because of the fear she has seen in Bezinkov’s eyes—because of his desperate plea for safety. She wants to know because the Serzhant’s plea was not meant for the man on the balcony, but for the man sitting next to her. The man bound in iron shackles.

“I know the Serzhant was not afraid of Nikolai, or his soldiers,” she says quietly, as she listens to the regularity of his breath. “His words belonged to you.”

“His words did not belong to me,” he replies, eyes closed, his head rested on the night-like gem wall. “They belonged to himself—to the man he used to be.”

“Who did he used to be?” she asks resolutely. She will not resign to the vagueness of his expression. She will not have his riddles. She will know the truth and she will know it now.

Oprichniki were my most trusted soldiers,” he exhales, as his eyes remain closed and his posture relaxed. “They were also the most ruthless ones—the ones that would follow orders without ever questioning them. You knew the ones I used as my guards—people I trusted with my life, and yours,” he adds, almost tenderly. “But there were others that you’ve never met. The others were the true oprichniki. Soldiers of death.”

She watches his relaxed profile. She has heard about Ravkan death squads that were sent into occupied territories to “appease” whomever the government found disobliging. She dismissed them as a piece of revolutionary propaganda—too ruthless to be believable, but she was naïve then. She did not know the true nature of evil and it’s overbearing triviality if executed in great numbers.  

“I sent them do many things. Ruthless killings. They were the ones who slaughtered the noblemen and their wives in the Little Palace the night of the Solstice. I would have never trusted anyone else with that task.”

“Why?” she asks him bluntly, knowing the effect he could have on people—the way he could make people love him in a blink of an eye if he wished them to.

“Because I knew they knew what I was capable of,” he replies, finally opening his quartz eyes as he tilts his head in her direction. “They knew that if they betrayed me, there would be no escape. They knew they would suffer in such a way, death would come to them as liberation.”

Her body stirs. It is not as much caused by what he says but how he says it. His voice is lethargic—resigned, as if none of it really mattered. As it was they were in a salon, rather than in a cell, as if they were talking about weather rather than human suffering.  

“What did they want him to say then?”

“They wanted him to tell the court about the reason why I became a general—they wanted him to tell everyone that I let Ravkans be slaughtered for a higher cause.”

She swallows, her eyes searching his grey eyes as his bloodshot face slowly melts into the shadows of the night. “What have you done?”

He turns away from her, his eyes quivering between the sapphire walls and the liquid darkness. “I let them poison the underground streams. Streams we share with Fjerda,” he tells her then, his voice matter of fact. “Their army was camping on the border, waiting for the first opportunity to invade. They had more men, more riffles, more horses. We did not stand a chance. I needed them to withdraw so we could regain our strength. I needed them dead. It was the only way—only way with minimal professional causalities. I let the oprichniki poison the underground lakes. In several days, they died as one man, it was clean and fast—but they weren’t the only ones. Our people died too. People living in the villages on the border, depended on the very same underground water. Ravkan lives going to waste for no reason,” he shakes his head, but his voice remains that of a cold calculation. He might regret the lives, but he does not regret the sacrifice. “I sent my oprichniki there in advance. I made sure it looked like Fjerda’s raid—an invasion. I ordered them to kill everyone, just the way Fjerda always does—women, children, elderly. Everyone.”

Alina’s eyes widen in horror. She has seen it coming. She even thinks that somehow she knew all along and yet, hearing him admit it, she feels uneasy. They killed his own people, their people.  “But, why…?”

“Because they would have died anyway,” he replies simply. “Either by poison or by Fjerdan rifles a week later—they would have been dead either way and if I have done nothing, if I let the Fjerdan’s come and take their land, they would have been tortured and the women raped before they would have been killed. Their grain would go to Fjerda and Ravka would be poorer than before. This way it was quick and painless. They were shot quickly, their grain confiscated for our own army and we used their deaths as an example of Fjerda’s inhuman brutality. Many of my oprichniki defied my orders back then. They said they would not kill Ravkans. They all died the following week—all of them slow, painful deaths. Sergei was one of the selected few, whom I chose for the task. I made him kill the men and women he worked with every day—his friends. It broke him and I let him go, knowing he would never speak up. Not against me.”

Alina swallows, her throat dry and sore, her breath imprisoned in her chest.   “How many? How many innocent lives did you sacrifice for this scheme of yours to work?”

“Two hundred seventy four,” he tells her as if the number never left his mind.

She shakes her head, tears rolling down her face in suffocating silence. “They will find someone, you know?” she laughs in resignation as if any of it actually mattered, as if anything that has been said in the courtroom had any consequence over their fate. “They will find someone who will fear them more than you.”

“They won’t,” he says simply and the coldness in his voice tells her he might be right.

 

 

x.


Another week goes by. The prosecution makes its claims, demanding their lives. Why am I being murdered? She thinks as she listens to the accusations, but has to smile at her naivety. He has told her once that with him dead, she would no longer exist. He has told her they were bound together in life and death. He made her into a symbol, an idol, and now she has to burn for everyone to see.

When the trial first started they told him he was not allowed to speak. He said he would speak when he pleases but remained silent ever since. She thought it was a demonstration of resistance—reckless in its own way. She could not have been more wrong. When he stirs besides her, she cannot hide her smile. When was the last time she has seen him do something reckless, after all?

He stands up, the iron of his shackles filling the room with metallic noise. The guard storms towards him and for the first time she sees the soldier behind the general. In an effortless he swirl the chain holding his hands are around the guard's head, while his foot crushes the man’s calf to the ground. There is a groan of pain followed by a collective gasp.

“Let me speak and you’ll have one less body to clean,” he says in a perfectly calm voice as he looks up at Nikolai. There is a small smile playing along his lips. She stands up, to appear on his side. The people in the courtroom turn silent.  

Clenching his jaw, Nikolai stares into the man’s eyes.

He has told her about this. What he was planning, his last stand—last speech. “I won’t be slaughtered without resistance,” he has told her. “I won’t let them kill us as if we were nothing.” He has offered her to take an active part. He has told her she should speak her mind for the world to hear. “You chose me for my quill,” she has told him in the dazzling darkness of their cell. “Not for the art of my speech. Let me do what I do best.” Narrowing his eyes he nodded.

“Let him speak,” Nikolai proclaims, now, steadying his voice. “His guilt has been proved.”

Nodding, Aleksander releases the guard in his grasp. “My apologies,” he says calmly, as the man falls on the ground gasping of air. Straightening his posture, he turns to her, planting a hungry kiss on her lips. She smiles, her eyes purposely tender.

“People of Ravka!” he begins, his eyes not leaving hers as he starts working magic no shackles can restrain. “My fellow citizens. Tovarishi!” The crowd settles into utter silence. “Your rightful Tsar has told you the trial is over; he lets me speak for one reason only! He lets me speak since I have been proven guilty long before this trial ever began. They call me and my wife usurpers. They say we have slaughtered the rightful heirs and killed innocents in order to fight a war already lost. They accuse us of starving you to death, they accuse us of caring only for power and wealth and yet! Look out of the window and tell me, whose banners are you seeing?” The mass, as if hypnotized looks outside the window where the distastefully colourful Shu Han flags flatter in the wind. “Did we take the lives of the royal family? Yes. I let them be slaughtered in their beds. Yes, I let them rot in the garden for the world to see and if I had the chance to do so again I would because while the former Tsar hunted stags in the royal gardens, you and I were fighting at the northern border. While the Tsar enjoyed indulged in warm streams and obscene feasts, safe in the walls of the Grand Palace, we were freezing and starving in order to defend the homeland we love. Why? Because it is ours,” he breathes, and she sees some of the people in the crowd nod their heads. “Because we would sacrifice our lives in order to guard it—to preserve it.” She diverts her eyes then in order to look at Nikolai. He looks younger—smaller, somehow. Less majestic in comparison to the darkly clothed man in front of her, who makes the iron chains look like pieces of jewellery. Why did you allow him to speak, boy, she thinks as she scans the man’s troubled face. What did you expect? But she knows why. Because after going through so much trouble, he has to maintain the illusion of justice—of a fair trial. If he says a word, he is just as doomed as they are. As if feeling the weight of her stare, his chocolate eyes meet hers. There is no anger in his eyes, only defeat and fear. You fall just as we did, she thinks as she raises her chin. I hope the Shu will slit your throat without warning. But while her eyes trace the hard lines on the king's face, her ears are captivated by her husbands thundering voice.

“Fellow Ravkans. I have come from among your midst. I have grown up in the eternal frost and fought my way up to the top. I have advised your former king. Despite popular belief, I have for years tried to represent your voice but my suggestions has been laughed at and walked upon. I was losing hope. Hope that this country, beautiful and rich in culture would ever prosper again until I met the women who made me believe again.” He takes her hand, kissing her lightly. “When I read her words, when I saw the defiance in her eyes I knew that even if the price will be that of our lives, we will have to try to lead this country to prosperity, that we have to aim at peace, not by concessions but strength. Because we are strong, we always have been—it is true. We have killed and tortured. We have liberated you only to lead you into yet another hardship. We have taken what was not by ours by ancient right and we—” He glances at her, his eyes on fire.  “We would do it again, because despite traditions and despite what is generally believed, I believe that this country does not belong to God, the Saints or the man who is simply born to rule. I believe this country belongs to its people, to Ravkans. It is us, and only us who should govern it—together.”

The crowd cheers in ecstasy. The judge pounds his little hammer on the massive desk in front of him. She entwines her fingers with his and looks up at him with a small smile and tenderness in her eyes.

“I bid you farewell,” he announces finally, his deep velvet voice resounding through the hall. “For fifteen years I have constantly accompanied you on the road to honour and glory. In these latter times, as in the days of our prosperity, you have invariably been models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause could not be lost; but the war that might have come would have been interminable; it would have been civil war, and that would have entailed deeper misfortunes on Ravka. I have sacrificed all of my interests to those of the country.”

Raising her chin, she remembers the picture he has made of her once. The one that made her look like an idol. She told him she was no saint; little did she know she would become a martyr.

“We go,” he says as he scans the quiet crowd. “But you, my friends, will continue to serve Ravka. Her happiness will be our only thought and until the moment our heads will be severed from our bodies it will be the sole object of my wishes. Do not regret our fate; it is to serve your glory. It is to serve Ravka.”

The crowd is stunned, silent, the prosecution still in their seats.

Svoboda!” a male voice cries from the crowd.

Her husband gives her hand a squeeze so tight that she feels the sweat distill inside her palm.

“Ravenstvo!” calls another. She smiles.

“Bratstvo!” says a third. The words are repeated, again and again until the crowd finds a rhythm and starts to chant in unity. “Svoboda! Ravenstvo! Bratstvo! Svoboda! Ravenstvo! Bratstvo!” She hears Nikolai shout something in the language of the Shu. She and Morozova join the chants. The guards are on the move. They grab them from behind and usher them towards the door. The chanting continues while other slogans are thrown in.

Sol Koroleva! Svoboda buda!”

“Tsar Morozova! Tsar Morozova!”

The iron doors slam shut, the words echoing in the silence as the guards march them into their sapphire prison.

Svoboda!” she hears, and laughs in her desperate madness. “Ravenstvo! Bratstvo!”

 

 

          

xi.


They lie next to each other on their joined cots, their bodies covered in cold sweat. Immediately after the iron door clicked shut, their bodies collide with the opposite wall. His mouth on hers, they had devoured each other in a way similar to that when he took her against the elegantly carved bookshelf. Only this time, she screams his name for everyone to hear.

Her breasts ache from the numerous scratches left by the cold sapphire. She welcomes the pain, just as she welcomes the sight of the slowly forming bruises on her body—bruises that will have no time to alter their shade. They have not slept together since their imprisonment and she wonders why. She wonders why they had not fucked each other again and again. Why she has not pushed him. Why until now, they were content in their performance of futile muteness.

“I wanted us to feel alive tonight,” he tells her when she asks him.

“We could have felt alive every night—every day. We could have enjoyed the simplicity of physical pleasure.”

“No,” he whispers, as his fingers trace the curve of her side. “You never enjoy water as much as when you are dying of thirst.”

“We are not dying of thirst.”

“No, but we are dying nevertheless,” he breaths into her skin. “And this is life.”  

“I do not want to die,” she tells him then, in an unsteady voice. Her cheeks are suddenly wet with silent tears.

He lets out a menacing chuckle.  

“I only hope he shows my head to the people. It’s worth seeing.”

 

 

 

after.


The man goes first.

The Tsar’s orders they say.

The girl holds his quartz eyes. She holds them even when they are no longer holding hers back.

There is a swishing sound of the blade, a dull sound of the severed head falling in the wicker bucket.

The crowd is silent. Stunned.

 

                   The girl does not cry. She faces her fate with her head held high.

         She looks at the square; she lives.

She closes her eyes; she dies.