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We Meant to Tell You Sooner

Chapter Text

“You know, it is only because I love you both that I agree to pull myself from bed at this ghastly hour.” Genya yawned as she settled into an overstuffed chair near the fire in Zoya’s receiving room. She looked as though she might fall asleep again right there.

Tolya filled the other chair, picking up the immense volume of poetry he had left on the side table for just such occasions. In times of peace, he had little to say at these meetings.

Tamar perched on the hearth, drawing one knee to her chin, and grinned at Genya. “Dawn’s a lucky time of day,” she said. “I’d say we’re destined to win.”

“If we were fighting a war, I might be inclined to celebrate,” Genya said flatly.

Adrik and Leoni took the settee, looking like a wet blanket and a firework, respectively. “I love these meetings,” said Leoni brightly. “They’re the only time I get to see all of you these days!”

“My love,” Adrik said, his voice glum, “you know no one likes a cheery morning person.”

Leoni chuckled, her laugh like a bubbling stream. “That’s why we invited you, dear,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “You’re the cloud that covers the sun!”

“Right,” Nikolai said, smiling at their banter. He could sense Zoya growing impatient next to him. “Let’s get to business, shall we?”

Please ,” Zoya groaned. At least she was nothing like Leoni.

He took her hand to smooth her feathers, but she pulled away and scowled. “Genya,” he said, crossing one leg over the other, “what’s on the agenda today?”

She gave him a withering look and sighed, glancing at the schedule in her lap. “Tamar leaves in an hour to rendezvous with the Hringsa at the border—five new Grisha refugees coming over this week.”

Leoni nodded in satisfaction, having once worked with the Hringsa network of spies in Fjerda. Genya continued.

“Tolya’s on duty here this week, what with all the ambassadors arriving for treaty review, so he stays. Adrik and Leoni, you’ll give two presentations, one tomorrow and one at the end of the week—I assume your students are ready?” She paused, eyeing the couple.

Adrik sighed. “We’ve done our best,” he said bleakly.

“They’re perfect,” Leoni said with a radiant smile.

Genya gave one nod of her head. “Nikolai, you’re with ambassadors all week, obviously. Today, it’s the Kerch—Hiram Schenck, ever punctual.”

Zoya snorted into her tea. “That man won’t be punctual to his own death.” She looked up at Nikolai hopefully. “Unless of course you’d like to take him out for me.”

“I would, in fact,” he said. “But I think the Kerch would have some objections.”

“They must have someone at the ready,” Zoya said, dropping her chin into her hand. “Why Hiram Schenck is still representing is beyond me.”

“Which is, of course, why you send me to do the talking, while you…What is she up to today, Genya?”

The Tailor blinked as if to clear her vision, looking down at her paper. “Brunch with Novyi Zem, luncheon with the Wandering Isle, supper tonight with the Fjerdans—Nikolai, you’ll be there, too—oh, and tea this afternoon with a group of Suli entertainers we’re reviewing for the Winter Fete.” For the first time since she’d entered the room, Genya flashed a genuine smile. “I think you’ll like them.”

“The Ghafas?” Zoya asked.

Genya nodded.

A smile tugged the corner of Zoya’s lips. “I’ve worked with them before. Hopefully they haven’t lost their touch—I’ll be in need of something lively in the middle of all those politics.”

“Well, they’re known for the fact that they don’t use nets on the trapeze, so I doubt it will disappoint.”

“Might give you a heart attack,” Nikolai added cheerfully. “But at least you’ll be awake.”

Zoya shot him a look. “Anything else, Genya?”

Genya shook her head. “At some point, we need to go over plans for the Fete, but…”

“Not today,” Zoya declared, standing up to refill her cup at the samovar. “Too much to do already.”

“Agreed,” said Nikolai. “But pencil it in next week, Genya, we do want to hear what you’ve been up to.”

The Tailor smiled and made a note on her paper. “That’s it, then,” she said when she finished.

“Good,” Zoya breathed as she sat back down. “Nothing from me today, everyone go back to bed until breakfast.”

There was a collective sigh of relief and the team eagerly vacated the room. Nikolai and Zoya were left staring into the fire.

“We need to find another time for these meetings,” Zoya said wearily.

“There isn’t another time,” Nikolai answered, looking at her. “Flight practice tonight?”

Now she met his eyes, aghast. “With representatives here from every major country in the world? Have you lost your mind?”

“That’s up for debate,” he said with a wink and shrug. “But they won’t see. One lap around the lake is all it is.”

Zoya sighed. She could feel the dragon’s wings aching for a stretch; in fact, the itch was beginning to distract. “Fine,” she said. “One lap only.”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“I know you, Lantsov,” she said. “If I give you an inch, you’ll take the whole country away.”

“Now, now, Nazyalensky—let the record show that I have been quite generous with the country.”

“You mean giving it to me?” She got up and shrugged a prim shoulder. “That was common sense. Now are you coming to bed, or not?”

He followed her. “I was thinking,” he mused. “What if I take the girls?”

“To what?” She turned her back on him and slid out of her dress, throwing on a silk nightgown in its place. Zoya loathed to sleep in uncomfortable clothes.

“The meetings.” He shrugged out of his jacket and began to unbutton his shirt.

“With the ambassadors?” She turned toward him again, crossing her arms. “They’ll be frightfully bored.”

“No.” He shook his head, smiling. “They’ll be fascinated.”

She squinted at him. “I’m the queen, and I am never fascinated by that lot.”

“Fair point,” he said, “but you weren’t born knowing you’d need to be.”

Zoya arched one dark brow. “Very well,” she said, climbing into bed. He followed suit. “But I don’t want anyone getting ideas about an alliance. My daughters are not for sale.” She bared her teeth like an attack dog when she said this.

He put a hand on her cheek. “Zoya. I would never even think of it.”

“I know,” she said. “But Hiram Schenck would.”

The thought nauseated him. “Perhaps I’ll bring a shotgun to the meeting later.”

Zoya laughed, nestling against him. “Wouldn’t hurt,” she murmured, pulling a sleep mask over her eyes. “Goodnight.”

Within one minute, she was snoring lightly.

Nikolai smiled, tucking an arm around her. Sleep did not come for him. He lay there awake, turning over the particulars of a meeting with the Kerch. Relations with the Merchant Council were always tenuous, driven as they were by trade and, ultimately, greed. There was no such thing as a noble deal in Ketterdam. Negotiation with this particular country was an art form involving smooth words and copious amounts of fine wine.

Thankfully, he had an abundance of both.

Two hours later, he was fresh and fed, striding from the dining room to the study where his children would be hard at work. At least, he hoped they would be, though nothing was ever promised in that area.

The children’s quarters were a safe distance down the hall from his, where he could hear them only if they were at their maximum volume. When they’d been babies, they had slept first in Zoya’s chambers and then with a nursemaid nearby, but one by one they had graduated to this apartment. He and Zoya had agreed to keep the four of them together, believing it would help them to know they had allies within their own family. That plan had actually worked: The siblings were thick as thieves—and often three times as disruptive.

He arrived to find Tolya seated outside the apartment, the enormous volume from earlier in his hands. Of course, with him it looked like a normal-sized book.

Behind the door, Nikolai could hear screaming and what might have been the thumping of pillows.

“Good morning again, Tolya,” Nikolai said.

The big man looked up and stood to attention. “Good morning, moi tsar.”

“What are you doing out here?”

“Guarding the door,” Tolya answered. “From a safe distance.”

Nikolai raised a brow. “That bad?”

Tolya shrugged. “No one’s been hurt yet.”

“Yet.” Nikolai sighed and pushed open the door. He was greeted by a flurry of goose down that filled the air in such profusion it might have been snowing. At his entrance, his sons drew up short and blinked brown eyes at him. “Good morning, my hooligans,” he said with a smile. “Is this a study in the creation of weather patterns?”

Moi tsar! ” Nadia hurried from the study into the entryway, breezing the feathers into a neat pile as she went. “I can explain.”

He chuckled and shook his head. “No need, Nadia, I know what they’re like.” He eyed the little boys. “Giving your tutor a run for her money, are you? You know we’ve talked about this.”

Isaak hid behind Dominik, peeping out from his brother’s shoulders. “We made it snow,” Dominik mustered, looking slightly afraid.

“Yes, I can see that.” Nikolai bent close to them. “Now, the question is, can you make it spring?”

“Well, the feathers won’t melt, Papa…”

“Alas not,” he said. “But they will fit quite nicely back into those pillow cases.” He winked, and left the two of them looking between the empty linens and the downy pile.

In the study, he found his girls working a bit harder. Liliyana was at the window making real frost; it crept up in intricate patterns on the glass. He stood back so as not to break her concentration.

“Good,” said Nadia. “Remember, patience is key. You’ll shatter the glass if you go too fast.”

Lili’s brows creased into a deeper furrow, and for a moment, she was the exact image of Zoya in her younger years. She raised her fingers, pushing the frost over the top of the window frame and then sat back and sighed relief. “Can I do something bigger now?” she asked Nadia.

“I have an idea about that,” Nikolai said, stepping forward.

“Papa!” In an instant, Lili was in his arms.

He kissed her cheek. “Morning, chickadee.”

Lada remained seated at the table, the tip of her tongue poking between her lips as she puzzled through what looked like a complex equation. She appeared not to have noticed him.

“Hello, little one,” he said, coming to plant a kiss on her golden head.

She tilted her head back and gazed up at him, her blue eyes bright behind her spectacles. She was the only one of his children who took after him. A grin lit her face. “Hi, Papa.”

“What’s this?” He pointed to the page in front of her and she blushed.

“General relativity,” she said, as if he’d just caught her stealing dessert.

“Aha.” His second daughter’s intelligence was staggering. He was grateful for people like Nadia who were smart enough to keep up with her fast-moving brain. “Have you solved it yet?”

“No,” she said, scowling, but Nadia’s eyes sparkled.

“She’ll have it done by the end of the day,” she said. “She always does.”

Lada crossed her arms. “They keep getting harder.”

“Because you keep getting smarter!” He tousled her hair. “Nadia, how would you feel if I took your best pupils away for part of the day?”

“Do I get to practice outside?” Liliyana asked.

“Even more exciting than that,” he said.

“Are we going to Count Kirigan’s?” Lada guessed.

Liliyana frowned at her sister. “That is not more exciting.”

“More exciting than watching you show off.” Lada was also the only one of his children who was otkazat’sya, a fact which he knew she resented. By all accounts, it shouldn’t have happened that way, but Zoya’s genes were as strong as the rest of her, and Lada alone had evaded them.

He pulled out a chair and draped his arm over the back of Lada’s. Liliyana came to stand beside him. “You’re coming with me to meet the Kerch ambassador,” he said eagerly.

Both girls looked back at him in dismay.

“Okay, but after that, can I please go practice?” Lili pleaded.

“I think I’d rather stay here,” Lada said, pushing her glasses up her nose.

“Oh, come on, it’ll be a grand old time!” Nikolai squeezed them both in. “Hiram Schenck is quite funny.”

“Will we think he’s funny?” Lili asked suspiciously.

Before Nikolai could think of an answer, Tolya entered the apartment. “Is the coast clear?” he asked, ducking in and looking around.

“Tolya!” Nikolai untangled himself from the girls and stood. “I’m going to have you stay with the boys today.”

Tolya blinked. “Why me?”

“Because you’re the only one strong enough to keep them out of trouble,” Nikolai said quietly, putting his arm as best he could around Tolya’s shoulders.

The boys were now standing in the study, grinning up at the big man. “We have a new game for you, Tolya!” Dominik said.

“Does it involve felling a very large tree?” asked the soldier, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.

“No, that game’s boring,” Isaak said with disdain.

“It was highly entertaining last week,” Tolya replied.

“We have a better one,” continued Dominik. “This time, I’m Captain Ghafa, Isaak’s my first mate, and you are on a slaver’s ship we’re about to capture.”

“You made me a slaver?” Tolya looked aghast.

“No, silly,” Dominik said with a giggle. “You’re the mast.”

Tolya grumbled something indistinguishable, but Nikolai grinned. “Sounds like a marvelous adventure! I’m sorry I can’t join,” he said. “But I am taking your sisters on an adventure of their own.”

The girls groaned once again.

“Follow me, my loves,” he said, beckoning them toward the door. “You have no idea how much fun we’re about to have.”

Chapter Text

Liliyana longed to drop her chin into her hand, but that would mean putting her elbow on the table and elbows-on-the-table was bad etiquette. Bad etiquette did not behoove a future queen.

She glanced at Lada, who was seated closer to their father, her back straight, her blue eyes rapt and now devoid of spectacles. With some surprise, she realized that her sister was actually enjoying this. For her part, Lili hadn’t known a man could be so old and so fat and still talk so much.

No wonder Mama tried to avoid these meetings.

The reality was that, to Liliyana, being the queen sounded like the dullest job on earth. When she was very small, she had thought it glamorous, the stuff of fairytales, and then when she got a little older, she just relished the idea of being able to order everyone around. Now, though, she understand it meant that delicate dance of diplomacy that her father knew by instinct and her mother had learned. It meant everything always hanging in the balance between what you wanted and what was best for the country. It meant hard calls, careful calculations, and a life that would never be her own.

It meant boredom such as this for the rest of her life.

She was quite certain it would kill her.

“Ambassador Schenck,” her father was saying. “Would you like to take a tour of the grounds? I’ve been told you’ve never had a good look at the Grand Palace in autumn.”

Nikolai spoke Kerch with only a slight accent, which had always impressed her. Though she and her siblings were schooled in every one of the major trade languages, she had never mastered any of them, and Kerch was harsh, sounding perpetually terse to her ears. The only language she enjoyed, other than her native Ravkan, was Suli. Though her mother was not fluent—Zoya had learned the language of her father late in life—she had sung them Suli lullabies when they were very young, and to this day, the lilting syllables soothed her.

But she doubted Hiram Schenck knew anything of the Suli. “Indeed I have not,” he answered Nikolai, his ample mustache bobbing as he spoke. “But I’m not as spry as I used to be. You don’t really want to usher an old codger around your gilded gardens, do you?”

At this, Liliyana looked up. Every once and a while during the meal, Schenck had made a remark that smacked of insult. She glanced at her father to see how he would respond.

He smiled warmly. “Nonsense, Ambassador, that is precisely why I’m here! Why else would the Queen have me in her employ?”

“I can think of a few reasons,” said the old man, huffing as he struggled to his feet.

Quickly, Nikolai was at his side, looping his arm underneath Hiram’s shoulder. “Easy does it,” he said. “We’ve all the time in the world.” As he led the old man out, he nodded for Lili and Lada to follow.

She pushed herself up and fell into step beside Lada, a far enough distance behind the two men that they wouldn’t hear her whisper, “Why do you think they picked this guy?”

Lada’s brow furrowed as it did when she was solving a complicated math problem. “I was trying to figure that out. He’s not very good at it, is he?”

“Unless he’s trying to start a war,” Lili muttered. She rather liked the idea. As it was, she was at her best in the training yard with Tamar and Tolya, but they had no need for her to fight. She would never be the legend her mother had been.

Lada did not feel the same way. “Oh, I hope not. That would mean they’d make Nadia go back to inventing weapons and then where would I be?”

“Probably right there with her, sprite,” she said, putting her arm around her sister. “You’re a genius, remember? Pretty sure you’re smarter than Nadia already.”

“Don’t say that.” But a flush of pleasure crept into Lada’s cheeks.

They walked the grounds for what felt like hours, until Liliyana was sure there were blisters on her feet. She was just glad they weren’t called upon to speak; the idea of stumbling over unpracticed Kerch words made her feel sick. She listened with what she hoped was an interested expression, all the while counting the minutes until it would all be over.

They were standing on the lawn between the Grand Palace and the Little Palace, a knot of Kerch gentlemen and the king’s guard, when Hiram Schenck said suddenly, “These are the young princesses, are they not?”

Nikolai glanced at them, his face wary. “They are, sir. My eldest two, Liliyana and Lada.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Lada said, in flawless Kerch, as she dipped into a little curtsy.

Lili curtsied but did not speak.

Schenck nodded toward her. “This one takes after the Queen.” There was a hunger in his old eyes that Liliyana already recognized, even at fifteen years old. It was one of the downsides of looking like her mother.

“That she does,” said Nikolai with a smile, stepping over a bit so that he was nearly between Liliyana and the Ambassador. “Now. Shall we head down to the lake? I’ve heard the Grisha Triumvirate has a spectacular demonstration for—“

At that exact moment, they all heard the scream: “Dominik!” It was Isaak’s voice. And it was coming from the Palace roof.

Afterward, Liliyana would wonder if what she saw was only a figment of her imagination due to shock. It all happened in the blink of an eye. One moment, she was watching her brother dangle from the eaves, certain of his demise, and the next, a large black creature was snatching him up and setting him on solid ground. Dominik ran to her, wailing, and she sheltered him in her arms, eyes still on the sky as the creature circled back to bring Isaak down. She ducked as it swooped over her, soaring over the Palaces once more. “Now now!” her father said, as if he was scolding one of them. But he was looking at the creature.

What happened next was most frightening of all.

Before her very eyes, the creature hovered over her father—and then seemed to merge with him, until she could not tell what was the creature and what was her father.

And then it was gone.

Nikolai shook his head a few times, as if disoriented, and then seemed to realize the number of eyes staring at him. “Ah…” he said. It was the first time she had ever seen her father at a loss for words.

Zoya came tearing up to them, her skirt hiked over her knees, her eyes blazing. “What were you thinking?” she demanded of Nikolai, pulling Dominik and Isaak away from Lili and covering them with what seemed her whole body. “Are you hurt?” she asked, inspecting each of them frantically.

“No,” they each said tearfully.

“What was that thing, Mama?” Dominik asked.

Zoya looked up at Nikolai, presumably to defer to him, but the expression on her face turned from anger to concern as she looked.

It was then that Lili realized the Ambassador had swooned.

Chapter Text

“Welcome, moya tsaritsa,” said Karem Ghafa, sweeping into the luxurious tent that now stood on the palace grounds. He held the silk flap open for Zoya and Genya, beaming.

His wife, Sanya, hurried over on soundless feet to greet them. “Moya tsaritsa,”  she said, taking Zoya’s hand. “Moi soverenyi.” She took Genya’s hand as well. “It’s an honor to have you both.”

“Saints,” Genya said with a smile. “I believe we’re meant to be the ones welcoming you.”

“Indeed.” Zoya nodded, maintaining her composure. The Ghafas’ warmth was disarming to say the least. “ Ama, otac , the honor is ours.”

“Oh my.” Sanya grinned in surprise at Zoya’s use of the Suli words for mother and father. “That is quite the welcome, zheji.”

Daughter. Zoya wondered when that word would stop sending pangs through her heart. She shook it off. “We’ve been told you put on quite the show,” she said, affixing a warm smile to her face. “But first, we’d be delighted if you’d join us for tea in the garden.”

“It would be our pleasure,” said Karem. “There are quite a lot of us, though.” His eyes swept the tent where other performers--family members, Zoya knew--were looking on.

“Last count I had was seventeen,” answered Genya. “Is that right?”

Karem’s smile widened. “Indeed it is, Miss Safin.”

Zoya glanced at Genya to see how she would respond to the use of her maiden name, but she seemed not to have noticed. She tucked her hand into the crook of Karem’s proffered arm and began chatting away. No matter what anyone else said, Zoya knew that Genya would always be the stronger of the two of them.

They were making their way to the garden, trailed by an entourage of Suli performers, when Zoya heard Isaak’s first cry. A gasp sounded behind her and she looked across the lawn to see her son hanging from the roof.

Genya covered her mouth. “Zoya, that’s—“

“Dominik.” She didn’t think, she just ran, sending a gust of wind before her to cushion the little boy’s fall. Before it could reach him, though, she saw the demon swoop overhead. Abruptly, she drew the wind up short, her heart in her throat. The rescue seemed to take an agonizing amount of time. As soon as both of her boys were on the ground, she resumed her sprint, furious. This time, she really would kill Nikolai.

What were you thinking?” she roared, nearly tripping over her feet as she swept Isaak and Dominik into her arms. Her shoes were long gone. “Are you hurt?” she asked, turning each of them this way and that, looking for claw marks, tears in their clothing, anything that might be wounded.

They clung to her, shocked but uninjured. “What was that thing, Mama?” Dominik sobbed.

She brought her gaze up, ready for a fight, not caring that she felt the fierceness of the dragon in her eyes, but her anger quelled slightly when she saw Nikolai kneeling on the ground beside the Ambassador.

“Is he alright?” asked one of the Kerch, still looking warily at Nikolai.

“He will be,” said the King, standing and dusting himself off. “But we’ll take him to the Infirmary to recover.” Nikolai nodded to a servant standing at the wall and the man hurried off to fetch a Healer.

“Are you alright?” Nikolai knelt in front of his sons, his eyes soft, but when he reached for them, they cowered.

“Are you a monster, Papa?” Isaak asked, his brown eyes wide.

“Uh…” Nikolai looked up at Zoya, but she shook her head. She had no idea how to explain this to her frightened children. Looking up, she saw that Liliyana and Lada had gone pale, the boys’ panicked expressions mirrored in their faces. Beyond them, the Kerch and even some of their own guards had the same questions in their eyes. Nikolai stood, regaining some of his noble bearing, and addressed those outside of their family first. “If you’d excuse us, ladies and gentlemen, I can explain everything to you this afternoon over tea, but first, I need to see to my family. Tolya?” He looked around for the soldier, who had arrived out of breath and panicked. Now, the immense raised his hand, reluctantly. As if he needed identification. “Take these people for some refreshment.” Tolya nodded, and, as he passed, Nikolai caught him by his arm, saying in a low voice, “And you and I are going to have words later.”

"Moi tsar," Tolya murmured, and Zoya saw the shame in his eyes.

When the others had gone and the Ambassador had been carried off on a stretcher, Nikolai faced Zoya and the children once more. “We meant to tell you sooner,” he said, rubbing a hand on his neck. “But it never came up.”

“It’s come up now,” said Lili, her eyes flashing, and Zoya put a hand on her shoulder.

“We’ll explain everything,” she found herself repeating, though she had no idea how she would make good on this promise. And then it occurred to her. “Tonight. Meet us tonight by the lake.”

Nikolai’s brows went up. “Really?” he asked, surprised.

She leveled her gaze. “Do you have a better idea?”

“What’s going on?” Liliyana asked.

“You’ll see,” Zoya said with a wobbly smile. It was not enough, not nearly enough, but it would have to do for now.

Her children were in for an even bigger shock tonight. She prayed they could handle it.

When they had sent the four of them inside with Genya and the promise of tea cakes and the Ghafas’ show, Zoya buried her face in her hands. “We’re going to ruin them,” she said.

“Probably,” said Nikolai, putting his arms around her. “But we knew that already.”

“I’m still mad at you,” she said, leaning against him.

“Oh, I have no doubt.”

She looked up at him. “What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t. Our son was hanging from the palace roof over certain doom, would you rather I had let him fall?”

“No,” she huffed. “I would rather you had let me handle it.”

“You were all the way across the grounds! How was I to know you’d even see him?” He backed up an inch now, reproachful.

“He’s my son, Nikolai, how would I miss him?”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this, Zoya. You are not infinite. You cannot be everywhere at once. I was here, and this is what happened.” He looked at her pleadingly. “He’s alive. At least give me some credit.”

“I do,” she said, drawing close to him again. “It’s just…”

“I know,” he murmured against her hair. “Bad timing.”

“Extraordinarily.”

“Can you forgive me?”

She looked at him through her eyelashes. “Fine. But only because I need you to keep kissing up to these diplomats all week.” She pulled away from him and strode toward the Palace, barefoot.

“Oh, come on!” he said, jogging after her. “It’s at least a little bit because you love me.”

“Don’t push your luck!” she called without turning around.

But she could hear the grin in his voice when he said, “I knew it.”

Chapter Text

The four of them tramped across the Palace lawn, huddled close, and every shadow on the marble walls made Lada feel quite small indeed. Still, at least where the shadows were, there was light. When they stepped beyond the reach of the torches, she felt more than small—she felt swallowed. Indoors, there was always a light to reach for, a cheerful companion to guide her as she read, or sketched, or studied. Out here, there was nothing but her sister’s hand.

Lili took hold of the boys instead.

Lada’s fear of the dark was her greatest shame. Even her brothers had outgrown it. Most things, she could rationalize and talk herself out of, but this one, she could not. At thirteen years old, she still kept a candle and a matchbox in the drawer by her bed, so that she could sleep with a light even after her door was closed. She wished she had that candle now.

Soon enough, though, they reached the edge of the lake and she caught a comforting glimpse of her parents. Or perhaps not so comforting. The images of this afternoon came flooding back on her consciousness and she felt her heart pick up its pace.

Darkness, she knew she was foolish to fear. But the shadow that lived inside her father? She could be sure of nothing, and Lada liked sureness very much.

When they reached her parents, it was her mother on whom she leaned.

Lada had never understood her mother, and she suspected Zoya felt the same way about her. The Queen was all power and confidence; her daughter was delicacy and critical thinking. They could not be more opposite. Lada would never come to her mother for help with one of Nadia’s math problems, nor would Zoya lead Lada triumphantly into battle. That bond could never be theirs.

Still, as Zoya’s hand covered Lada’s shoulder, the younger princess breathed in her Mama’s familiar scent and felt steadiness return. If nothing else, her mother could be trusted.

For a moment, they all stood there in silence, awkward, not knowing what to say. This morning, there had been nothing between them. Now, Lada felt that she didn’t even know the man who had raised her.

It was Lili who broke the silence. “So, are you going to tell us, or are we all just going to stand here looking scared of each other?”

“Liliyana…” their mother warned in a low voice. Even now, disrespect would not be tolerated. Something about it caused Lada’s shoulders to relax.

Her sister did not seem to feel the same. “Look, it’s not my fault we didn’t know our father was…was…possessed.” She looked as surprised as Zoya did when the word came out of her mouth, but she plunged ahead. “Korol Rezni? I thought it meant battle scars, not—not—“

“Not these.” Nikolai withdrew his gloves and Lada gasped. At the end of each of her father’s beautiful fingers was a sleek black claw. His veins, too, coursed with black, as if the creature’s blood was one with his own. She could see now that these shadows found their way up his sleeves, up his neck…at the moment, they were even creeping into his face.

But she had seen her father’s hands. They had taught her to play the piano.

“Most of the time, it’s under control,” he said, and even as the words left his lips, the claws receded and the black veins turned human blue once more. “I hadn’t counted on what would happen if one of you was in trouble.” He winked at Dominik, who eyes were barely visible behind Liliyana’s skirt. The little boy seemed to retreat further.

“Where did it come from?” Anger flashed in Liliyana’s eyes, and Lada knew it was because she was afraid. Her sister always got testy when she was scared.

Nikolai sat down on a rock near the lapping edge of the lake. “We’ve told you how your mother and I became friends, yes?”

Lada nodded. “You were fighting the Darkling. It was love at first sight.”

Zoya’s eyes came up. “Who told you that?”

“Tamar,” all four of them said in unison.

Their mother rolled her eyes.

Nikolai chuckled. “Yes, well, in any case—while we were fighting, he…infected me, with one of his monsters.”

“But he’s dead!” Dominik cried, emerging a bit from behind Liliyana.

“Not exactly,” Zoya said.

“Where is he then?” Liliyana crossed her arms. For her part, Lada trembled.

“Hell,” her mother said darkly.

“A very long timeout,” Nikolai amended, glancing  at the boys.

“Either way, he can’t get out unless I say so.” Zoya lifted her chin. Somehow this statement wasn’t as reassuring as it should have been.

“So…” Lada ventured. “That…thing, won’t come out of Papa as long as the Darkling is alive?”

“Right,” said Zoya, looking at Nikolai.

“But you can control it?” Lili asked warily.

“Yes,” said her father firmly. Then he shrugged. “Most of the time.”

“Alright,” said Lili. “So no more roof climbing for the boys. Anything else we should know?”

“Actually yes,” said Zoya with a sigh. “But it’ll be easier to show you than to tell you.”

Nikolai rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Now comes the fun part.”

“This,” said the Queen, wading up to her knees into the water, “had nothing to do with the Darkling.”

Lada had been certain that she could not see anything stranger than what she had seen that afternoon. She had been wrong. Her mother’s body began to swell and change in ways Lada had never dreamed possible. Her skin became dark and then gradually covered with—Lada squinted—yes, they really were scales. She, too, sprouted claws, and seemed to double, then quadruple in size. Water splashed around her as her frame filled the inlet she was standing in. Her neck grew long, her muscles shifted, and when she finally looked back at them, Lada could barely make out her mother’s expression in the silver, slitted eyes.

But it was there.

“The Dragon Queen,” Liliyana groaned softly. “I thought it meant—“

“Her personality?” Their father was beaming, as if he had never seen his wife look more lovely. “Sometimes, I think it still does.”

The dragon turned herself and lowered one wing to the ground, gazing at them expectantly.

“Go on,” said Nikolai. “Climb aboard.”

“What?” Liliyana’s expression was arrested, darting back and forth between her mother and her father. “No! Absolutely not, I will not—ride my—my mother like some wild beast! I refuse!”

The boys clung to her legs in agreement.

The dragon shrugged as if to say Suit yourself.

“I’ll go,” Lada found herself saying. She had no idea how her mother was capable of such transformation, but she was curious, even as she stood there shaking.

“That’s my girl,” said Nikolai. He held out his hand and helped her onto the dragon’s slippery back. Once seated, she clung for dear life.

“Hang on!” her father called, and then her breath was stolen as they lurched into the sky.

For a minute, she squeezed her eyes shut, afraid to look down—but slowly, she opened one, then the other. She breathed deep of the misty midnight air, her knuckles white against the dragon’s black scales. “Mama?” she whispered. She saw the dragon’s ear twitch toward her. “Mama, where are we going?”

She felt a rumble deep within the dragon’s chest, not quite words, but the suggestion of them. Hold on, she seemed to say. You’ll see.

Lada tightened her grip as they shot up above the clouds. Her lips parted in a gasp as she beheld the largest, most wondrous view of the moon she had ever seen, not to mention stars in such profusion as she never could have imagined. “Oh, Mama,” she breathed, sitting up, her hands still on Zoya’s back.

And in that moment, she realized she was no longer afraid. Because, though her mother was a dragon, she was still her mother.

She could still be trusted.

They sailed along over the clouds for what might have been minutes or hours—time had no meaning this high up. Lada could have spent the rest of her life in the sky, drunk on the sheer freedom this kind of flying brought to her soul. Her father’s aircraft, she knew by memory; the ins and out of each one were familiar to her, from the names of them to the very blueprints. Her head knew. This, though, this was something entirely different: It belonged to the very fiber of her being, the bone and muscle and marrow. It transcended her head, as few things ever did. The only thing better would have been to acquire her own pair of wings.

They were high enough now that she could see the city sparkling beneath them. Os Alta, the Dream City. Her heart pulled with how much she loved it. Already, there was talk of her going to the University of Ketterdam, but she knew she would spend every waking second there longing for this place, for home.

For this view.

“Mama, can we do this every night?”

She felt Zoya’s rumbling chuckle beneath her. Maybe not every night. But again. We’ll do it again. This time she knew it was the dragon’s voice in her head, but she was surprised to find she didn’t mind. It was her mother’s voice, the voice that had soothed her since before she was born, and she had not felt this close to her in years. She spread her arms wide across the scaly shoulders and laid her head just between the dragon’s wings, closing her eyes. As they soared through the darkness of midnight, she couldn't help thinking that this was the most wonderful, magical surprise she’d ever been given.

Chapter Text

Dominik was always being told to think through the consequences of his actions. Watching his mother soar off with Lada on her back, he couldn’t help feeling it was sort of rubbish advice. How could he possibly have thought through this? Falling from the roof had two possible outcomes: breaking your bones, or dying. Being rescued by a monster was nowhere on the list.

Finding out your mother could turn into a dragon was even less likely—though he had to admit, it did make sense. His mother was undoubtably the most frightening person he had ever met, even if he did love her. Maybe this was the real reason soldiers cowered when she was around.

In any case, Dominik’s brain and body were having trouble holding all of the day’s revelations. As he gripped Liliyana’s hand, he realized, much to his humiliation, that he had wet himself. He had no idea when this had happened and leaned even closer into her side, hoping no one would notice.

Liliyana had her eyes trained on the sky, where their mother was heading toward the clouds at a rapid speed. Suddenly, she turned on their father. “It never came up?” she said. Dominik heard the anger in her voice; he took Isaak’s hand.

Papa sighed. “Liliyana…”

“Don’t ‘Liliyana’ me! We deserved to know!”

“And we were going to tell you.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, and Dominik could tell he was trying to stay calm. “It’s not exactly the easiest family secret to reveal.”

Lili’s eyes flashed. “So you left it until we found out by happenstance? The boys are going to have nightmares for weeks! Lada, too!”

Isaak huddled tighter to Dominik. None of them had ever openly challenged their father before, and Dominik wasn’t entirely sure what would happen next.

But Nikolai didn’t get angry. Instead, he looked at the boys and smiled sadly, kneeling down. “Do you think so, boys? Have I given you nightmares?”

Dominik considered this. He did not want to say yes; he knew that would make his father quite sad. But he also knew that the bad dreams would probably come. Slowly, he nodded.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Papa said with another sigh. “Do you think perhaps you could come here a moment?”

He held out just one hand. It looked entirely normal now, with the exception of a few faded scars. There was not a single claw visible. Still, Dominik hesitated.

It was Isaak who crept forward first. The fear was huge in his eyes, but he braved it anyway and closed the small distance between them. He put his little hand in their father’s big one.

“Thank you,” said Papa, a small smile on his face. “Dominik?”

Dominik took a deep breath and came forward. He took Papa’s other hand.

Their father looked each of them in the eye. “Do you know how I learned to control the monster in the first place?”

They shook their heads.

“Someone put your mother in danger. Over and over again. And I learned to call it to save her.” He was making the same face Dominik made when he broke something on accident and really didn’t want to get in trouble. “After that, it was completely under my control. Can you guess the only other time, besides today, when it came out without permission?”

Again, they indicated “No.”

“It was when Mama and I went on a trip to the mountains. There was a rockslide and she didn’t see a boulder coming. The monster came out and carried her out of the way.”

“It saved her?” Isaak asked.

Papa nodded. “It did.” He moved his hands to each of their shoulders. “Do you see? It only comes out to save the ones I love. Not to hurt them.”

Dominik considered this. It seemed reasonable. The monster hadn’t hurt him in the slightest. In fact, if he hadn’t been so surprised, he might have enjoyed the ride. The monster was a friend to him.

It was a funny, thought, and he giggled just a bit.

“Okay, Papa,” he said, putting his arms around his father’s neck.

Nikolai drew back, surprised. “Friends again?” he asked, to make sure.

Dominik smiled and nodded.

“Oh good,” said his father, and when he hugged him again, Dominik felt a whoosh of relief leave both of their lungs.

Chapter Text

In the end, it was Liliyana who had the nightmare.

She had swept away from her father and brothers, furious. Let them walk with him back to the palace if they trusted him so much. She would not be so easily won over.

When she came back to her quarters, she went straight to bed, tossing a disappointed glance at Tolya and his stupid book of poetry as she passed. She enjoyed the way his eyes slid away. By the time her family returned, laughing together once more, her door was closed and her light turned out. But she was not asleep.

She was crying.

“Zoya,” she heard her father say after the noise had died down and the younger children had been put to bed. “Give her time.”

Her mother’s sigh came from just outside her door. “I told you this would happen,” she said. Their footsteps receded.

“Come back,” Lili whispered in the darkness. “I’m scared.”

Eventually, she fell asleep, waking again a few hours later in a cold sweat to Lada saying her name.

She rolled over, her body shaking.

“You were screaming,” said her sister. “I could hear you from my room.”

“I’m sorry,” Liliyana murmured. “I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”

“It was the dragon again, wasn’t it? The one you used to dream about when we were little?”

Liliyana sat up. She didn’t want to think of the dream again. “La, I said I’m—“

“You need to go for a ride.”

“What?”

“You need to have her take you for a ride.” Lada looked at her steadily, her face illuminated by the candle she had brought.

She rolled her eyes and lay back down, turning her back to Lada. “I need to go back to sleep.”

“You’ll be scared until you do it.”

“I’m not scared.”

“Yes, you are.”

Lili sat back up. “Okay, sure. But that’s exactly the reason I am not going to ask her for a ride.”

Lada was undeterred. “She’s up.”

“It’s not even dawn.”

“You know she’s up.” Lada arched an eyebrow. “She’s worried about you.”

“Mama doesn’t have time to worry.”

Her sister’s eyes narrowed. “She’s an excellent multitasker.”

“Gah! Fine!” Lili flung the covers off of her and onto Lada’s head. “But only to get you to shut up.”

Lada said nothing, only pulled down the comforter and dimpled triumphantly.

Lili had no intention of actually finding her mother. She took her time dressing and made a great show of tying her boots in the sitting room as the night watchman looked on. She was glad Tolya wasn’t on duty tonight. He knew her better than most and his suspicion was easily aroused.

Finally, she crept down the corridor in the low light and made her way down to the dining room.

It was softly lit by an army of candles, as if to be gentle on early risers. No one was around, save for Leoni Hilli, who seemed to need no sleep and was diligently poring over a stack of documents on the table before her. Lili yawned and went to the samovar, pouring herself a cup of tea.

“Good morning, your highness,” Leoni said quietly as Lili sat down. She was smiling, but concern showed in her eyes.

“Good morning, moi soverenyi. ” Lili dipped her head slightly, then took a sip of her tea, dropping her eyes. Breakfast had been set out, but her stomach wasn’t accustomed to rising this early and she had no appetite. There was nothing to do.

“Morning, Leoni.” Zoya came breezing in, impeccably dressed and imperious as always. She beelined for tea.

Lili tried to disappear into the wallpaper.

Leoni looked between them. “Am I intruding, moya tsaritsa ?” she asked.

“What? No, of course n—“ Zoya turned and her eyes fell on Liliyana. Lili couldn’t read her expression. “You’re up early,” Zoya said softly.

Lili nodded.

Leoni’s smile grew, if that was possible. “I’ll leave you two alone,” she said, moving to leave.

“No,” said Lili, standing reluctantly. “It’s okay. I was going to ask the Queen for a walk.”

Leoni gave one nod, her eyes dancing, and then settled back to her work.

Liliyana went to her mother. “Could we…go outside?”

Something like sympathy showed in Zoya’s eyes. “It’s chilly.”

Lili fingered her woolen kefta , her brows knit with anxiety. She hardly understood where the words were coming from when she whispered, “Do dragons get cold?”

Zoya’s brows came up. “I thought you said a walk.”

“I wasn’t sure the other option was available in daylight.” Lili didn’t raise her eyes.

“Well…” Zoya glanced out the window, where morning light was just barely starting to glow. “We have a bit yet.”

Idiot , Lili thought to herself as she followed her mother out to the lake. What were you thinking? Everything about this was wrong. For one thing, she hated heights and always had. For another, her mother was about to turn into a dragon . Because she had requested it.

She was suddenly convinced that she had lost her mind.

They found a sheltered cove on the edge of the lake, out of view of the palace, and Zoya handed Liliyana the torch she was carrying. “Wait here,” she instructed, pointing out over the water. “I’ll go over there, and when it’s time to climb on—well, you’ll know.” She placed a firm hand on Lili’s shoulder and pulled her close enough to kiss her forehead before she strode down toward the water.

Watching the transformation for a second time did not make it easier or less shocking. In fact, with the aid of a torch this time, Liliyana found the sight even more frightening, almost horrific. Before her eyes, her beautiful mother, her hero, changed into the creature her nightmares. Perhaps it had been her Lili had been dreaming about all these years. She backed away until her back touched damp rock and she could go no further.

At last, the dragon was ready.

Climb on.

“Ah!” Lili grabbed her head and looked at the dragon in terror. The voice had not been audible, yet she had heard it clear as day. “How did you do that?”

The dragon seemed to shrug. An unfortunate side effect of this form , came the voice again. We don’t have to talk.

“Might be best not to,” Lili murmured, setting down the torch and inching closer. “Here goes nothing.” She gripped the dragon’s smooth wing in her left hand and stepped onto it like she would have into a stirrup. Her right leg swung over—though, really, the broad back was too wide for her to settle onto comfortably—and then they were off.

Liliyana felt her head spin as they climbed into the sky. It was exactly the feeling she hated most when she rode in one of her father’s aircraft. She clung for dear life and buried her face against the dragon’s scales.

They ascended for an age. Liliyana was certain it would never end. Eventually, though, she felt the dragon’s back grow straight and level, and the rush of wind didn’t feel so harsh anymore. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes.

Around them, she could see a blanket of shimmering mist, which she realized was probably her mother’s doing. How Zoya could fly and summon at the same time was beyond her, but she had never claimed to understand her mother. The sun was coming clearly over the far mountain range now and it sparkled through the moisture in the air, making the light feel like a tangible force. Tentatively, Liliyana sat up.

“Saints,” she whispered, looking around.

It doesn’t get old , the dragon said.

“I thought we weren’t talking.”

You talked first.

Liliyana set her mouth in a hard line, deciding. “Fine. You said this had nothing to do with the Darkling. So where did it come from? Were you born like this?” She had a sudden, terrifying thought. “Can I do this?”

A rumbling laugh reverberated through the dragon’s chest. No, zheji, I earned this form. Sankt Juris gave it to me.

“Juris?” Liliyana frowned. “He’s been dead for hundreds of years.”

Not exactly.

“Does anyone you know actually get to die?”

Oh, he’s dead. I… The dragon trailed off.

“You killed him? He’s a saint! He was martyred! I’ve been reading this story for years— you read it to me!” Liliyana was furious. Nothing made any sense anymore.

The story never said he was martyred.

Well, that much she supposed was true. But how else did people become saints? “He killed the dragon. He didn’t give it to you.”

Sometimes the stories are rough on the details.

“Yeah, funny how that happens.”

Liliyana…

“Mama, I should have known by now. You should have told me.”

It was her mother’s turn to be silent. Liliyana was struck once again by the strangeness of it all; then again, they might not have been having this conversation had she been looking into her Zoya’s imperious, human eyes.

You’re right , the dragon finally said. We should have.

She wheeled around, heading back toward the palace, black scales glinting in the sunrise. Everything around them was awash in light. Lili suddenly wondered how they would get back without being seen, but her mother did not seem concerned. The strong wings beat in a steady rhythm as they circled a field well away from the palace.

Count Kirigan’s estate, Liliyana realized. Zoya had summoned enough cloud cover to hide them thus far, and the perpetual mist that hid the Nolniki experiments would guard them the rest of the way. Lili had never liked this place, or Count Kirigan, much, but she found herself grateful now.

The landing was graceful, but still jarring for her fragile human body. She half-slid, half-rolled to the ground and backed away as the dragon’s form gradually receded. When her mother stood before her as a woman once again, she was wearing a shift in the finest chainmail Liliyana had ever seen. It was delicate enough that it moved like fabric. Her eyes shown and her hair had come loose from it’s usual tidy mass of braids and curls. She looked wild and yet somehow even more beautiful than she had been before.

“Mama…” Lili breathed.

“I know,” Zoya said, rolling her eyes and reaching to tie her hair back with a blue ribbon. “I look like something the cat drug in. Don’t worry, it’s not permanent.”

Liliyana could only shake her head. No words would be able to sort out the roil of emotions vying for prominence in her heart. She fell in behind her mother, dumbstruck, and they walked in silence for a long time.

Years before Liliyana’s birth, her father had commissioned the digging of a tunnel between this estate and the Grand Palace. It was long, and Lili was certain they would miss breakfast, but she needed time to sort through her thoughts. She was grateful for the miles.

“Any chance you’d want a waffle?” Zoya asked suddenly.

Lili looked up and frowned. “What?”

“Well, we’re under the city now and I can smell them.”

“You’ll be late.”

Zoya waved a dismissive hand in the air. “I’m a monarch, I can’t be late.”

“You’ll be recognized.”

Zoya smiled mischievously. “So much we have to teach you, zheji.” She went to a notch in the wall and pulled out two swaths of colorful linen, nodding for Liliyana to come closer. Lili obeyed and found herself wrapped several times around in the fabric, until at last her mother tucked it into place. Zoya did the same for herself and threw a scarf over her head. “There,” she said. “Now we’re simply a Suli mother and daughter exploring the town. To će biti zabavno .

It’ll be fun . Zoya’s accent was thick around the Suli words. Lili very much doubted the outcome of this excursion would be fun; still, she followed her mother out onto the street.

Chapter Text

Zoya felt her daughter’s apprehension like a knife wound in her gut. Taking on the dragon’s form hadn’t helped; she could always feel more in that body. She knew Lili’s distrust and hurt as if it were her own.

And indeed, it was her doing.

Always, they had meant to tell her first. Zoya recognized the same spirit in her daughter that she knew in herself—fierce and resilient beyond her experience. Liliyana yearned for a battle to fight and she would take whatever was thrown at her in stride. Of this much, Zoya was certain, because she had always been the same.

The difference was that by the time Zoya was Liliyana’s age, she had already been broken many times over. Her innocence was gone by then; the cruelty of the world had trained her, hardened her into a soldier whose armor was glued to her skin. It had taken her years to pry it off, to know that there was more to life than striving. She had no wish for her daughter to know such suffering.

So, she had protected her, shielded her from the secrets and the dark truths that came with them. The dragon and the demon would not have come to them had their lives not first been torn to bits by evil. They had vowed that such destruction would not come to their children.

In preserving her daughter’s innocence, though, Zoya had betrayed her trust. And that was wound not easily healed.

They followed the tunnel’s narrow exit in silence. She had taken a chance that Nikolai would find them, and she was not disappointed. As they emerged from the tunnel into the bright light of morning, she spotted him pacing outside of the bakery. He, too, was dressed in Suli garb, but she would have recognized his noble bearing anywhere. No matter what character he played, the set of his shoulders and the lightness of his step would forever be familiar to her. And, of course, she could always pick out his hands.

He had chosen not to wear gloves today, but his arms were crossed and his fingers buried self-consciously behind them.

Odjeća vam dobro stoji, ” she said in low tones as they came up to him under the awning, a smirk on her face.

He glanced down at the getup and grinned at her. “Of course it looks good. I make everything look good.” His eyes darted to one side of them and then the other, and then whispered, “But not as good as you.” He leaned in for a kiss.

She frowned and pulled away, but not fast enough. Rolling her eyes, she gave in. Trust Nikolai to always make a scene.

Behind her, she heard Liliyana clear her throat.

Nikolai pulled back. “Right. Sorry, love.” He put his arm around Lili’s shoulders and placed a kiss on her head. “Shall we?”

Lili wrinkled her nose as she leaned away from him.

Zoya frowned at him, sniffing. “Is that…coffee?”

He touched his face, and Zoya could see him blush. “I don’t look Suli. Genya was busy. This is what I had.”

“No one will believe it,” she said, giggling and rubbing away at the stains with her thumb. “But points for creativity.”

“Is there a prize?” he asked, holding the door for them.

“Of course,” she murmured. “I am the prize.”

They found a table and settled in. After an order had been placed, Liliyana watched them warily but said nothing. Zoya took Nikolai’s hand under the table, feeling her heart pound in her chest. This is what love does . One way or another, she would be paying the price as long as she lived.

“You were right, my girl,” Nikolai said, his gaze steady. “We should have told you sooner.”

Liliyana waited.

“It wasn’t right that you found out this way,” he continued, “and I’m sorry.”

We are sorry,” Zoya put in, though the words felt pinched as she said them. Forgiveness was a the ultimate challenge, one of the most vulnerable actions one could take, and it had taken her years to even consider it as an option. She could hardly bear to ask it of anyone, much less her own daughter.

Nikolai went on. “We could give you reasons for why we did what we did, but I doubt they would satisfy you.”

Liliyana shook her head. “They wouldn’t.”

“So…I suppose we ought to go straight into asking forgiveness bit then?” He extended his feee hand across the table toward her and cocked his head, inquiring. “What do you think?”

Zoya watched Liliyana’s face carefully. The girl dropped her eyes, sitting in silence for a long moment. A tear slipped from her eye. At last, she spoke, and the words were so quiet she had to lean forward to hear them: “I’m scared.”

Tears pricked the backs of Zoya’s eyes now, too. She despised the feeling. Ignoring it, she groped for words of reassurance. “We’re the same, you know,” she spoke, stopping to clear her throat. “We are still the same parents who would do anything to keep you safe. Sometimes to a fault.” A tear escaped down her cheek and she flicked it away, doing her best to smile instead.

Liliyana stayed rigid, eyes fixed on the table, but Zoya could sense she was considering their words.

“We love you, chickadee,” Nikolai said, his hand still open. “As demons or dragons or whatever we are, we love you.”

Liliyana burst into tears. “I love you,” she sobbed, getting up and falling into Zoya’s arms. “I forgive you. I don’t ever want anything between us again.”

Zoya blinked, surprised by the sudden outpouring of emotions. Slowly, she began to stroke Liliyana’s hair.

“We can’t promise that,” Nikolai said, reaching around Zoya to take Lili’s fingers. “But we can promise to work through it every time.”

“We’re a family of fighters,” Zoya murmured. “And we fight for each other. Not against.”

Liliyana’s crying seemed to slow and she sniffed, her gaze coming up at last. “No more secrets?”

Zoya glanced back at Nikolai, who grinned. “We’ve always got something up our sleeves. But nothing else to haunt your nightmares.”

Lili nodded. She returned to her seat and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin just as three plates of waffles arrived at their table.

Zoya breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the saints,” she said, tucking in eagerly. “I was going to murder someone.”

“That’s how I knew to find you,” Nikolai said, taking a bite. “You’d never last through negotiations without breakfast.”

“Wrong,” she said, swallowing. “ They would never last.”

Abruptly, Liliyana put her fork down. “Papa,” she said with a frown. “I have one more question.”

“Ask away, my dear,” said Nikolai.

“It’s probably nonsense,” Liliyana continued. “But…some people say that you’re a pirate.”

Zoya burst out laughing as Nikolai buried his face in his palm.

“That is nonsense,” he said, his mouth forming a line. “Let me tell you why…”