“These are the two who claim they found the Stag?”
“No, sir. He did.”
“And you are?”
“Malyen Oretsev. Tracker with the 36th, sir.”
“Mal … What a surprise.”
Aleksander wanted to sneer.
Some people, it seemed, could not be so easily separated.
It would be simple enough to dispose of the boy so that Alina would never even know he had been in the Little Palace. Unfortunately, it seemed like Malyen Oretsev might yet have an important role to play in Aleksander’s plans, at least if he wanted to get to Morozova’s Stag quickly.
He dismissed the other man and began to interrogate the tracker about where he had spotted the Stag.
“Show me where,” he demanded.
“North of Chernast.”
A hint of insubordination in his voice. Enough that Aleksander itched to call his shadows and show Malyen Oretsev exactly who he was dealing with.
Patience. There would be time enough for that once he had the stag.
“No, precisely,” he clarified tightly, “mark it for me.”
“Not until I see Alina.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He had cut men in half for less. It was laughable. This absolute child, making demands of him.
“I know her,” the tracker continued, “we’re friends. You let me see her … I’ll tell you where the Stag is.”
The room darkened, the shadows rising up the walls.
He had to tread carefully here, though. He needed Alina, and she needed the stag.
Besides, he might as well try and get some immediate use from the boy.
“Do you know how many claim to know the Sun Summoner? Try to get a meeting with her just to be in her presence?”
He refused dozens of requests every day. From nobles and peasants alike, wanting blessings or favours or simply to see her in person.
“Ask her about me.”
As if he wanted to bring the tracker up with his Sun Summoner. Alina was far too attached to her otkazat’sya friend for his liking.
“Tell me something only few about her would know. Something … personal.”
The boy offered an answer easily, clearly unaware that some things should be guarded, that one should never give up an advantage.
Blue irises. Simple enough. He almost smirked.
He ordered an oprichnik to show the tracker to a room.
He was exact in his instructions. The tracker was not to leave the room and was to be guarded by four specific oprichniki, all of whom were totally loyal to him. His oprichniki were regularly infiltrated by his mother’s spies and he was constantly vigilant – there were three who were being watched at the moment and would be interrogated following the Fete, but he knew there might be more – and he wanted to ensure that, should Baghra hear about the tracker, she would be unable to get near him and ruin his plans for Morozova’s Stag.
Aleksander wasn’t taking chances, not with this.
He dismissed the tracker with a curt nod, a wave of dislike rising within him as he watched Oretsev leave.
But then his mind turned to pleasanter thoughts.
Aleksander had a Sun Summoner to woo.
Wanting made a person weak.
Still, Aleksander wanted Alina Starkov.
Young, naïve and a little too otkazat’sya in her mindset, he still found her unexpectedly charming.
The curve of her mouth, the spark in her eyes, the little outbursts of wit, the way her skin glowed when she used her power.
He pictured her in the black and gold kefta he had given her, remembered the surge of possessive desire he had felt on seeing her in his colour. If he had his way, she would wear only black and gold from now on.
She had been so prettily flushed at the end of her performance, radiant with her power. It made him wonder what she would look like in his bed, how brightly she might glow with pleasure and arousal.
Seduction had always been his strategy should the Sun Summoner be discovered as an adult.
Female or male. Brunette, blonde or red-head. From Ravka or further afield. Tall or short. Curvy or slim.
The plan was always the same.
Nevertheless, he had to admit he could not have planned for Alina, for the way she made his heart beat faster, coaxed smiles and laughter from him, comforted him with a hand on his arm.
She almost made him want to be a better man.
He was centuries old, however. He had seen dynasties and cities rise and fall. His capacity for sentiment was diminished.
Aleksander would find a way to control the Fold. He would bring peace to the Grisha and Ravka, would finally rid himself of the incompetent, lazy, frivolous Lantsov dynasty.
And he would have Alina right by his side throughout it all.
When Aleksander went in search of Alina, he found her with two oprichniki, as was right and proper.
Except, of course, that the two grey-clad figures either side of her were total strangers to him.
There were palace guards at the event and he admittedly didn’t know all their faces, but every one of his oprichniki had been hand-picked by him and he would recognise all of them.
These two were not only imposters, but they were also imposters in close proximity to his Sun Summoner.
He approached them as if there was nothing wrong, presenting Alina with the bouquet of blue irises, “for you.”
She smiled shyly, just as expected, and when he offered his arm she took it without hesitation, leaning into him as she admired the flowers.
“You two, follow us,” he ordered the imposters, inwardly pleased at the look of panic that flashed briefly across their faces before they quickly rearranged their expressions into something more neutral.
As they left the room, Aleksander caught Ivan’s eye and gestured subtly to the two imposters. His most formidable Heartrender nodded, message clearly received. He and Fedyor extricated themselves from their conversation and shadowed them at a distance.
Alina didn’t seem to notice that they weren’t heading towards the Dining Room. It was only when they reached the door of his War Room that she realised they had made a detour.
Still, she didn’t protest. It had become clear to him during her time at the Little Palace that she was not the sort to enjoy being paraded in front of all the Winter Fete guests, so he imagined she was probably glad to avoid a long dinner with the self-important, tiresome guests the King so often entertained.
As Aleksander shut the door firmly, he nodded once at Ivan. His second in command would know what to do.
He heard a slight scuffle as he lit one of the lamps in the room, a muffled cry and the sound of someone hitting the floor.
It sounded like the pair of fake oprichniki were being sufficiently subdued by his two best Heartrenders.
He turned to light another lamp in order to hide his brief smirk.
When he turned back to Alina, she was leaning against the table, clearly unaware of what had just gone on outside the room.
“I don’t recall this being part of the schedule,” she said, avoiding his eyes with a slight blush.
“It isn’t,” he watched her with dark eyes, letting her hear all the subtle implications in his voice.
“Perhaps you’d prefer the dinner,” he added.
She’d never be able to say he hadn’t given her an out. She wouldn’t take it, but she would remember he had offered it.
“Marie can manage,” she shot him a small smile.
“By herself?” he asked, eager to have her continue to confirm out loud her desire to remain where she was.
“She has Genya.”
“Ahh,” he kept his voice low and soothing, “well then, I suppose she’ll probably be alright. Don’t you think?”
She nodded, seeming a little dazed as she looked up at him.
And then his lips were crashing onto hers.
Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.
Aleksander had lived for centuries, had kissed more women than he could remember. Alina was young and relatively unpracticed, but her power bloomed under his touch and her eagerness made up for any lack in technique.
Besides, this was his Sun Summoner. She would be as eternal as he was and there would be plenty of time to teach her everything he wanted her to know.
He had a feeling she would prove herself to be an apt pupil.
Aleksander lifted her up onto the table and his hands brushed her kefta aside, ran up and down her legs. He could feel her warmth, wanted to peel away the layers and touch her until she was a pliant, whimpering mess.
“Are you sure?”
His question was soft. Look, he was saying, look how considerate I am, how I want to be absolutely sure you’re comfortable here.
As if there was ever going to be another answer except for the “yes, yes, yes,” that was her breathy reply.
She leant forward to meet his kiss, hungry in a way that made him smile against her lips.
Alina Starkov was made for him and she clearly sensed their connection, even if she wasn’t entirely aware of it yet.
And then there was a loud knock against the door.
Alina fell back, giggling slightly. Aleksander was less amused by the interruption.
He waited a moment to see if whoever was on the other side of the door would leave, but another knock sounded and he knew it must be urgent.
He sighed, let Alina see just how frustrated he was to have to leave her, even if just for a moment.
“Go,” she smiled as she nudged him away.
He ran his fingers across one of her cheeks, let his thumb brush over her lips. She sighed happily, pouting a little as he moved towards the door, even though she had encouraged him to answer it.
Aleksander wrenched the door open, glaring, to see Dimitri, the captain of his oprichniki, stood there looking sombre.
“What is it?” he asked irritably.
“Moi soverennyi, there was an attack in the fitting room – we have ascertained that Miss Starkov was the target. Miss Safin was injured and Miss Petrova was killed. We have a suspect in custody.”
The shadows around him began to writhe angrily, but Aleksander quickly regained control of himself. Alina was close enough that she might spot the shadows and he didn’t want to concern her, not right now.
“Put the Little Palace under extra guard, the siege protocols,” he ordered, “where are Ivan and Fedyor?”
“Interrogating the imposter oprichniki,” Dimitri reported, “we believe they may have been working with the assassin in some capacity, and that there could be another intruder still inside the Little Palace.”
“Sweep the grounds,” Aleksander growled, “find anyone who doesn’t belong and put them in the dungeons. The assassin can go in there too. Ivan and Fedyor know the usual interrogation techniques, so ensure they get what assistance they need.”
“What level of interrogation, moi soverennyi?”
“Anything,” Aleksander confirmed, “as long as they are still alive and mostly sane when I join them in the morning.”
“Not tonight?” asked Dimitri.
Anyone else might have been subjected to asphyxiation by shadows for insubordination, but Dimitri had served Aleksander for almost three decades and knew better than that. His captain simply wished to confirm his instructions.
“I have important plans for tonight,” he said simply, thinking of Alina’s soft skin, the delightful noises he had coaxed from her when they kissed, all the ways he could make her moan and cry out.
“Of course, moi soverennyi,” Dimitri nodded his head respectfully, “I will relay your instructions.”
“What is it?” asked Alina curiously as he closed and locked the door before walking back to her.
“Nothing to worry about,” he told her, hand moving to cup her cheek, bringing her power to the surface and distracting her with her own glowing skin and a feeling of calm contentment.
Marie’s death was an unfortunate tragedy and her life would be avenged, but there was nothing Alina could do for her friend now and no sense in upsetting her tonight. He would tell her in the morning, perhaps see if she wished to impose her own punishment on Marie’s killer.
Now, he leaned down to kiss her slowly, relishing the way her power sparked at his touch.
Her lips, cheeks, jawline, his mouth trailed across them all. He nipped lightly at her neck, pleased when he heard her sigh.
After a few minutes he pulled back to admire the picture she made, flushed and smiling, her hair mussed and her kefta half off.
Aleksander saw her eyes drift over to the doorway that led to his bedroom with a mix of excitement and nervousness.
He didn’t think he would be her first (although he’d certainly make sure he was her last), but he imagined her experience had probably been tiny bedrolls and the hidden corners of drafty tents, not the luxurious bedroom of the General of the Second Army. She certainly wouldn’t remember anyone who had come before him once he was done with her.
His slid one hand up her leg as the other helped her tug off her kefta, leaving her in just her thin, black shift. Just a little more and she’d probably be the one to suggest they make their way to his bed, entirely convinced it was all her own idea.
Aleksander shrugged off his own kefta and stepped in between her slightly parted legs to tug the pins out of her dark hair, running his hands through it as it rippled down her back.
In his mind, he pictured the gold and pearl kokoshnik he would soon enough present her with and how well it would look on her, a Sun Queen to match her Shadow King.
“Are you sure?” he repeated his earlier question, determined that she would never be able to say she hadn’t wanted this, hadn’t wanted him.
“Please,” she begged him so prettily, “please, Aleksander.”
He saw her look again at the open doorway to his bedroom, specifically at the bed in the centre of the room.
It would be easy enough to have her here on the table, but a bed was better, a bed was somewhere she could fall asleep, where she would wake in the morning surrounded by reminders of him and what they had done together.
He lifted her from the table, smiling slightly to himself as she automatically wrapped her legs around him, pressing herself close to him and causing her to moan at the friction.
It was a short walk and she was still a tiny thing, really, despite the improved diet and exercise of the last few months.
Aleksander deposited her gently onto his bed, enjoying how she looked sprawled across his sheets.
He crossed his hands behind his back, summoning shadow tendrils that pushed the door shut behind them with a firm click.
His men knew he was not to be disturbed. He would have the whole night to enjoy sweet, eager Alina.
By morning his Sun Summoner would know that she needed nothing else but him, that they were two sides of an eternal coin, created for each other in the making of the world.
Together, they would ensure the future of the Grisha, and of Ravka. And the only bed Alina would occupy from now on would be his own.
Aleksander would make sure of it.