The time Zoya saves Nikolai in the Fold. The time Nikolai asks her to be his general. And the times when they had win their battles and they can tell each other of those times.
This is dedicated to @tricewithaz because she specifically requested it and we came up with some nice hc. It’s so fun to explore how they met and how their relationship was built.
the times we made a choice - ao3
word count: 10.417
“Do you plan on keeping some order on this desk or do I have to incinerate your work with a gust of fire?”, Zoya grunted, eyeing the absolute mess he had left after working in her sitting room all evening as he waited for her to come back from a private state dinner. She slumped beside him, huffing a tired breath and shutting her eyes. Nikolai closed the novel he had stolen from her nightstand, turning to her with a grin.
“I’m very glad to have your goodnight spite reserved for me, Nazyalensky.”
She turned to him, eyelids fluttering open, and the corner of her mouth quirked up in a smile. A wave of aching affection washed over him at the sight of her. His darkened fingers disappeared in her silky hair, skimming on the skin of her neck. A shiver went through her.
Nazyalensky. The habit of using her name like this had turned from provoking her to scowl to getting himself an annoyed but affectionate look. It possessed a different power, now that he knew it was an identity she had chosen for herself so long ago. Nikolai had waited to see if she would desire to change it, but he had the sense she was attached to it. It was hers, it was the promise of a new life she had made to a little girl long ago, and this made her feel conflicted. She was slowly embracing the parts of her past that could finally complete her, wandering through what she had missed in denying a part of herself; yet, some ghosts were more haunting than others.
“Do you remember the first time I called you that?”, Nikolai asked, if only for the sake of distracting her from another tiresome and tedious day of meetings. Zoya peered at him under her lashes. That was the look she wore when she was pondering whether to indulge his nonsense or just let him ramble her into sleep, with the engulfing solace of his voice frantically telling her about his new invention of the moment or the last thing they made explode at the Fabrikator’s lab. Her hand came to adjust his collar in an unconscious gesture.
“I’m not sure”, she admitted. He traced the soft curve of her lips with his thumb, smirking.
“It was when you saved me. I mean, the first of the many times you did that.”
Zoya looked dubious. “Was it though?”
“You remember something else?”
He was positively sure. When it came to Zoya, his memory rarely failed him. Still, a part of him did want to hear what she remembered. Zoya being willing to talk was a treasured rare occurrence.
“I think it’s when you made me your General”, Zoya asserted, cushioning her head on his forearm.
He was flying, and then he was falling.
When the blade went through the Darkling heart and his blood soaked the Fold’s barren sands, Nikolai’s wings disappeared in an inconsistent smoke.
He was fighting, and then he was surrendering.
The world started drowning in darkness, the shadows curling around its outlines and growing like a monstrous tide that devoured every living being on its path. He remembered the clouded sky, the shrieks of the volcras, the stink of fire and gunpowder. If that was how the bastard prince’s fight was going to end, his mind thanked the Saints for giving him that one last moment as himself. The demon retracted, leaving Nikolai on his own as he dove toward his demise. Yet, it would be fine. They would win. And Nikolai would never see what could become of his country.
He was dying. And then, without warning, he was floating.
Or sort of. A sudden gust of wind slammed on his back, slowing his helpless fall on the ground. The prince had only a split moment of consciousness to be glad before crashing onto earth, the blow hard enough that he heard the sound of his ribs cracking, of the air forcefully snatched out his lungs. The world went dark.
He was breathing. A strike of ravaging pain splitted his chest in two. He thought he had opened his eyes, but his vision was blurred as he forced his eyelids not to fall shut. Inhaling felt like a burning flame scorching his throat. He wanted to move, to get up, to take his weapon and resume the fight. He wanted to rest. He wanted.
“Try and be still”, a distant voice murmured beside him.
His vision sharpened, bolts of pain running through his battered body. Nikolai did not know how long he had passed out, if it was hours or mere seconds. Was he seeing the sea again? Was he coming back to the restless waters he loved with woeful neediness? For a brief moment, there was peace. He was home.
Then, another breath tore his lungs, the searing ache canceling the blur. It wasn’t the sea; he found himself lost in a pair of impossible blue eyes, deep and dark as the oceans he had sailed with his wolf of the waves. He grasped at them.
“Don’t move'', the voice whispered, shuddering.
A girl, with raven-black hair and blood smeared on her cheek. Her fingers tightened around his wrist, checking his pulse, while she held the back of his neck with the other arm. Her hold was firm, comforting; yet, Nikolai felt a tremor coming from her, her tone desperate. He knew her, something inside him told him as his consciousness slowly slid back into place. He knew her; he remembered her laugh, in the brief excitement David’s dishes for Alina had brought them before being shattered by the nichevo’ya. He knew her from dimly lit hallways made of rock under a mountain, where they had thought they could hide from the monsters lurking in the shadows. His lashes blinked away the mist and he gripped her arm, steadying himself; the girl startled, shifting her gaze and locking those unearthly eyes back on his again. Were his still black? Was he still the demon, or was he himself again? Another remembrance rushed as his mind finally cleared of the last strands of darkness, restoring all his awareness, all of himself. The squaller, the stubborn one, with that insanely acid tongue. Zoya. The grip on her arm grew stronger, he wanted to part his lips, to speak. He wanted.
“Damn, stop moving. I need to make sure I saved you. No way I’m letting Ravka’s only hope die on me, are we clear?”
Anguish cut through the edge of her tone, cracking it. Zoya, the proud one. The one he had overheard standing up for the Etherealki in the face of every disdain she had earned from them. Zoya, who had fought her way through their reckless warfare strategies with the grace and precision of a hawk diving for a prey. With the snarky words she had sent his way whenever they had crossed paths, her piercing gaze studying everyone around her, always surprising him with a biting response. Zoya Nazyalensky, the impossibly beautiful and equally mysterious summoner who all the other Grisha gossiped about. Kneeling on the dirt beside him right now with an endless well in her sight, full of sorrow and terror. It was the aftermath of the battle, probably. Probably.
Zoya the soldier. Alina’s soldier, Ravka’s soldier, the king’s soldier. His soldier, now.
“Nazyalensky”, he rasped out, mustering all the strength he could find. Relief flooded her face, making her lips quiver. Not too gently, she shook his hand from her arm, her look hardening. Nikolai felt the horrifying moist consistency of blood on his hands; he could not dwell on where it was coming from, either his own wounds, the ones of the girl beside him, or the ones coming from the lives he had snatched with his infernal claws.
“Good. The blow on your head did not shatter your brain.”
Cutting as a blade. As she scanned the ground around, he found her havoc-raging presence weirdly heartening. Nikolai was only dimly aware of the mayhem still breaking out. There was a muffled quiet around them; he realized that it was probably Zoya’s doing, hushing the sounds in the air. An unforgiving wind flowed, kicking up the grey sand; it seemed to reverberate directly from Zoya’s trembling body. The squaller ran a hand through her hair and her face, shoving dirt and red streams on her skin. She was shaken. It would take her a few more battles to get used to this. Maybe she never would. If he wasn’t lying half dead on the ground, he would have felt tempted to reach for her, to comfort her. The wind rose as she swore out, spreading her black mane around her, still frantically searching for help with her gaze. Saints, Nikolai thought, this girl is powerful. She snapped at him.
“For Saints sake are you capable of staying still? I have to fetch you a Healer”, Zoya barked.
Nikolai tried to get himself up, ignoring the excruciating ache in his chest, steadying himself on her shoulder with his right arm. “This would be a perfect moment to indulge in regicide”, he tried, another burst of pain running through him and causing him to cough violently.
“I might consider it if you don’t stop moving”, she murmured in response, scanning him for injuries other than his broken ribs and a likely dislocated shoulder, considering his other arm felt like it was catching on fire when he had tried to lift it. Nikolai caught a movement behind her, tried to gather the strength to get up, to follow the instinct to protect her. Zoya was faster, followed his eyes and threw her fist upward in that direction with a frustrated yell; a violent rush of air hit a soldier aiming at them, sending him toppling to the ground. “I’m trying to keep you alive, you idiot”, she raised her voice, and with it a thunder echoed in the field. Was it being called forth by her? Whatever she was doing, she did not seem aware of it. “You have a country to run. So don’t distract me.”
Someone else was rushing toward them, but this time she looked relieved, which meant whoever they were, they were on their side. That help was coming, that they were almost safe.
“Then you should handle me more gently”, Nikolai spoke again, voice unpleasantly screeching the walls of his throat like nails on a mirror.
What was happening around them? Blinding rays were coming from upward as Alina’s power rumbled into the Fold in whistling sounds, shredding every inch of it into light. He heard muffled voices, Zoya barking commands. Nikolai reached for her again, he clenched his fingers in the folds of her kefta; the hold on her tied him to earth, tied his mind to a world that still felt too unreal and too far away, as it had felt when he had been looking at it with demon eyes. This time, she did not shove him away. A young boy with a red dusted kefta kneeled before him, placing his hands on his chest. Zoya unceremoniously slipped her arm away from below him, lowering him to the ground to let the Healer work. Nikolai hissed when his back hit the sand, shooting her a glare. She shrugged her shoulders, raising her hands in fighting stance to keep them safe, scanning the area for other enemies.
“I hardly am gentle, prince”, Zoya spat out, alert.
"Did we win?"
Now she sent a swift gaze his way, drawing in an unsteady breath. "I think so", she answered with tentative hope. The Healer’s powers were doing their magic, a warmth flooding him and numbing his senses. He fought it, not wanting to lose consciousness again, to fall back into the unknown.
"Then I'm fairly sure I'm going to be crowned. You should go with Your Highness."
Wit was his. Humour, brilliance, the might to find words when voice was failing you, when air was rare, was his. Not the demon. It was Sturmhond’s cocky attitude he had kept when he had been shot and nearly bled out, it was Nikolai’s charming attire when he had rode with Dominik through village fairs and then military encampments, the optimism he had tried to feed since when he had been just a boy. It was what provoked that shadow of an exasperated smile on the squaller’s face, the twitch in her lips promptly straightened again in a thin, severe line.
"You’re a wretch”, she scolded him, turning her attention from their surroundings to the Healer that was sealing his wounds. “There’s little royalty in you right now.”
“Still a king.”
The Grisha boy cleared his throat and nodded to her. “I did the best I could, we need to get him to a tent and someone more trained”, he explained, his remark shaky. “But he is out of danger.”
Zoya exhaled, her eyelids falling shut for a mere instant. The wind slowed down; her hands were still trembling when she ran them again through her hair.
“Do you want me to take care of - “, the boy tried to ask, pointing to her. Her eyes flew open then, firm determination in them.
“We need to get going”, she cut him off. She got up with a swift movement; Nikolai caught the hand she extended to him, letting her help him to a standing position that made all of his muscles and bones howl in protest. He staggered, his knees failing to keep him up. Zoya looped an arm around his back and made him lean on her side; he gripped on her shoulders, hating himself for feeling so weak, for having to rely his weight on her. Her kefta was badly bloodied and ripped, she had a deep cut that ran over her hip and other bruises; it was difficult to assess how injured she was, yet there they were, her will tougher than the hell they had just been through.
“Then you’re a King wretch”, she mumbled from under him. She barely reached up to his chin. What a tiny ball of spite and power she was. They started to make their way toward the outlines where the Fold ended once, when it still existed. “Better? Now let me save you. You have work to do.”
With another pang of relief Nikolai recognized Tolya in the distance, the flash of white of Alina’s hair lifting up from the ground. They were alive. He could not think of much else right now, not until they reached them, until they were safe. And all properly healed, he thought, checking Zoya’s limp and how she pressed on the gash in her flank with the hand that was not supporting him.
“Are you hurt?”, he asked, winded from the effort of putting one foot in front of the other, unable to conceal his worry. Zoya startled and looked up to him, her blue irises wide and exhausted, vulnerable for the span of a flutter.
“I’ll be fine”, she said, somehow softer than before. “Just keep walking.”
Nikolai put all of his remaining energy into subtly pulling away, relieving her from some of the weight. If she noticed his effort, she did not tell. His head emptied of anything but their cautious steps, Zoya’s ragged breathing beside him, her wind running with them, shielding them from harm.
“King wretch. I like it”, he muttered back.
Kings better not take themselves too seriously, after all. It was nice to have someone remind him of that.
Nikolai did not mind the paperwork that came with being a ruler. It felt almost comforting to see the slow improvements his country was making under his watch written on paper, sealed with ink and brought to life. He had decided to dedicate himself to the good news today, that maybe he had earned an afternoon of peace inside the quiet of his study. The wheels kept restlessly turning inside his brain, relieving the images of the tour they had taken across torn cities and miserable villages after his coronation, and for a couple of hours he just wanted to forget about them. Contrary to every concern he had held, the people travelling with him had made the grueling trip all the more bearable; they had run against time itself, wearing their horses down and getting little to no sleep at all, resting not more than one night at every stop to be back in Os Alta as soon as possible. He had felt even hopeful, at times. The same kind of jittery expectancy that made him check his time piece for the tenth time in a row and try to stop the rhythmic beating of his foot on the floor, without dwelling too much on the knot of eagerness in his stomach. When the pointer clicked on the chime of the hour, a knock resounded in the room. She was always almost eerily on time.
“Come in”, called Nikolai to the door, folding the letter he was skimming through. A valet entered and cleared his throat.
“Your Highness”, he bowed deeply, “Miss Nazyalensky is here as you requested. Shall I let - “
The squaller marched in the room, surpassing the poor valet as if he was an inconsistent blur of annoyance.
“Miss Nazyalensky”, she hissed under her breath, flicking her hair over her shoulder, ”I am no Miss, and I am perfectly able to let myself in.”
Nikolai arched an amused brow at her, kindly dismissing the servant. A disdainful glare was cast in the direction of the valet’s deferent curtsy as she strode in front of the king’s seat. Zoya never bowed. For anyone. He lounged in his chair, turning all of his focus on the gorgeous harpy that now stood before him, spine straight, chin high and defiant eyes pinned on him. She clasped her hand behind her back with her usual military countenance.
“You called for me, Your Highness?”
“I did”, he confirmed, straightening his legs before him and crossing them at the ankle. There constantly seemed to be a slight mockery in the way she indulged in his title. He folded his hands, still studying her. The vague nuisance with which she was eyeing him was clear enough to make him smirk at her.
“I hear the Triumvirate has done some grand process in these first few weeks”, Nikolai stated, gesturing to the documents on his desk. “I’ve been informed that many Grisha are seeking refuge in the Little Palace. And I also hear you’ve been reconstructing. I do have hope we will be able to put the Second Army back into shape.”
Zoya did not answer, merely kept looking at him with the barest nod of her chin. The king was not used to people being so untouched by his presence, or to be that annoyingly silent around him. He would not admit he had spent part of the last weeks trying to catch her off guard with an astounding lack of results.
“Would you agree with the reports?”
His question seemed to ignite a spark of interest through her immovability. He had noticed that while she had no issue in voicing her opinions strongly, she seemed not equally accustomed to people directly consulting her with a true interest in her point of view. Maybe he was reading too much into things, but he had guessed Zoya liked how he had started to value her input.
“We are indeed making progress”, Zoya said, “but there is a lot of work to be done. We’re only starting.” She paused, seemingly pondering her words. “We need - “
“Before we start making requests”, his interruption earned himself an irritated glare, “I called you in because I have something to ask. To the whole three of you, actually; I asked Genya and David too.” Yet, somehow, her answer was the one he was most curious about. “Alina gave you the Triumvirate. You know what to expect from it now. And you’ve got just a mere taste; what’s to come will be tougher, tiresome. While I assume you have the motivation to keep your position, I do prefer to give people a choice when it comes to demanding tasks. So I’m asking: do you still want it?”
“I do.” There was no hesitation, only urge in the way the answer rolled out of her. She took a step in his direction and cleared her throat. “Not just the Triumvirate. I want to train the new Grisha. And we need to speed up the process on the royal order stating Grisha’s rights. If we are to rally them, they need to feel truly safe here.”
Nikolai kept his expression neutral, although he was pleasantly impressed. He knew she had taken it upon herself to start working with the Grisha finding shelter in the Little Palace, and the kids being taken there. He would not have made her out to be someone who loved teaching; then again, it was hard to make her out for anything. As far as her initiative went, he had quickly understood how his status meant little to her. After all, they were kids themselves. She was a year younger than him, and she had seen him shift between his roles of privateer, prince and what someone might call usurper. Never failing to point the last one out to him, if one had to be precise; Saints forbid he could ever possibly forget he needed to earn a respect that was not freely given. Surely not by Zoya Nazyalensky. He would not expect from her the humble demeanor of a subject in front of a king. Thank the Saints for that, he found himself thinking. Her bracing self was almost soothing, after weeks of dealing with people smarming at his feet, and hers was the company he had found himself searching for more often than others, as wicked as she might be. Zoya never overstepped without a reason, apart from a common snarky energy that was profoundly her. What she did was to call him out on every dumb decision he leaned toward, and constantly remind him how to be worthy of his position and the love of his people.
“We can arrange that”, he decided to answer, satisfied by how her pupils widened at his prompt concession. He got up and opened a bottle of brandy, pouring himself a glass. He glanced back at her, still planted in the middle of the room.
“You were loyal to the Darkling.” Nikolai was sure he had not imagined the flash of anger that darkened the blue of her eyes, nor how her jaw clenched and her posture seemed to tense. “Pardon me for being so forthright, but I do feel like it’s better to deal with the tedious matter first.” Or rather the interesting ones you seem to keep an aura of secrecy around.
When she spoke, her voice was not as firm as before. “We’ve worked together for weeks and known each other for longer. I wonder if you have a suicidal strike or you are really questioning my loyalty now.”
“No suicidal strike, and I’m not questioning anything.” The heartfelt honesty in him seemed to reassure her. Her shoulders eased ever so slightly, yet her features remained strained. “As you dutifully pointed out, the time for that has long passed. However, since we’re getting to know each other, I guess you’ll find I like stories. This seems like a good one.”
“Stories are earned”, Zoya asserted, slitting eyes and matter of factly tone.
“Fine point. You were, though”, Nikolai pressed. Her look never wavered from his. Unconsciously he leaned toward her, rolling his glass between his fingers.
Silence stretched on. Nikolai decided he could wait a while, if it meant gaining some other insight. He did know part of the story, the part that was ushered by people when she strode beside them. Stories might need to be earned, but they also needed to be told by the ones who had lived them. Nikolai was not one to listen to gossip anyway. Sure enough, she resumed speaking, catching that he was not going to drop the subject.
“It got personal. I was loyal to him because I craved power, then because I believed he could provide a home for us. Instead, he stripped from me the only one I had and slaughtered my friends. Enough of a reason?”
Zoya proudly lifted her chin even higher, her words back to being stinging as an icy wind, the anger burning in her seeping through the tremor in her hands. She moved closer. A slight breeze swept through the room, rustling the papers, called forth by her emotions in turmoil. He remembered when it happened in the Fold, when her despair had raised the wind around them and a thunder had boomed.
They were no more than two steps apart, now; the gust she summoned carried a scent Nikolai struggled to place as her hair lifted up. It reminded him of the heat of a sunny day, of the field near Dominick's house when spring came, when his little sisters would run back into the kitchen with crowns made of daisies and golden ears of wheat. Was it the pressed corn caught in the evening mist? Was it flowers?
“I won’t beg for trust. Words are empty vessels, actions carry meaning. The choice is yours: either you let me prove myself, or you discard me now.”
She kept her fierce piercing eyes to his, every inch the warrior. Nikolai held her gaze, hazel melting into blue, a small smile tugging at his lips, struck by the force of her nature and her fuming reaction.
“Here I thought I was the dramatic one”, he chuckled, ignoring her scowl and pulling his hands up in surrender. He slipped inside a reassuring attitude. “I was really not questioning you. Alina trusted you, she chose you. You fought for all of us. I’ve seen the way you stood up for your people, I’ve always agreed with Alina. This is your home; you already proved yourself, more than enough.”
The wind ceased to flow; Zoya flexed her fingers, a rage made of guilt and regret still paining her look. Nikolai knew the place from where those feelings came. Maybe picking at that was not a sensible idea after all. He would need to stop outright testing both her patience and his luck like this; the temptation she was brewing of roasting him alive right now was evident. He was still measuring his steps around her, how she seemed to dive into arguments that would make anyone on earth feel at least uncomfortable, or close right off when someone touched seemingly irrelevant nerves.
“Besides”, Nikolai let the smile spread in her direction, “I am in dire need of allies.”
And friends, he thought sourly, yet a king can rarely ask for those.
“Unnerving them sure seems a smart way to ensure your supposed allies’ support”, she clipped out, shaking her cuffs.
“I like to test my chances.” His words were accompanied by a shrug. The urge to take another step toward her pressed in the back of his brain. “You haven’t unleashed a storm on me yet, so I’d say we’re halfway through a steady relationship of trust and mutual forbearance.”
Nikolai tapped his finger on the desk. It seemed he could not stay still. “You’ll need to work together”, he advised, “with Genya and David.”
“I do well on my own.”
Like she has not made that abundantly clear in the last couple of months.
“Oh, I have no issue in believing that. Still, it wasn’t a suggestion, I’m afraid.”
Zoya’s mouth curved in an honey smile; she fluttered her lashes, tilting her head in his direction, the dark waves of her hair falling on her shoulders. It could have been an almost convincing smile, if it had reached her eyes. Instead, it stood cold on her face, firm as a statue, a pretense of complacency with the clear intent to taunt. Nikolai had no doubt whatsoever that entire crowds of people had fallen on their knees for that feigned sweetness. To be completely truthful, she did throw him off balance. Now it would surely be a reasonable call to put a bit of distance between them. Not that he resorted to reason that often when making decisions.
“I am well aware kings are not in the habit of making requests, Your Highness.” Her voice rippled like silk, delicate and musing, dripping sarcasm. “I was merely informing you.”
“You’re not particularly easy, are you?”, he asked with a grin, leaning back on the desk and folding his arms. An apparently casual movement meant to regain the use of his lungs. The smile vanished as she adjusted her hair.
“I am not easy, nor kind. And I lack the interest to make people search for these qualities in me.”
Nikolai had begun to understand in these weeks the stories around her, more than he had ever understood them before. He had also begun to nurture a sheer curiosity in her regard, for the complex mind she hid and the way she seemed careless to other people's thoughts on her. He tried not to let himself be distracted now, which always proved to be a strenuous task with this particular girl, when she waved that look at him and played the card of the ridiculously attractive and positively enchanting Grisha summoner she undoubtedly was. He did really need to get a grip, though. If they were to work together as closely as he had his mind set to, he had to find a way to make himself immune to her flair, constructed or natural that it was.
Never seduce anyone prettier than I am, right? Or never even conceive to seduce anyone you’re attracted to if you had planned to offer that specific anyone one of the highest-ranking positions in the whole country. An equally wise rule to live by. If only her look was the only appeal he had found in her. Her edgy personality, which people tended to be almost scared of, had captivated him a great deal more; whatever beauty withered in the face of how capable and strong-spirited she was. Qualities that made her all the more desirable. The privateer in him had screamed at the top of his lungs to take on the improbable quest of conquering someone who seemed impervious to him as she did, someone that out of reach, that captivating. Shameful instinct, to say the least. And leaning on the worst-idea-ever side of things.
Besides, he had a country to take care of now; he was no longer a privateer who could make reckless choices and chase after impossible girls. Nikolai Lantsov was a king, the king of a war-torn, desperate place. The challenge of earning her trust and admiration might turn out to be just as endearing; he could embark on that one, letting her bitter tongue put him back into place.
Resorting to his decision, he got a small box out of a drawer, placing it on the desk beside him.
“There’s something else I mean to offer you.”
Zoya eyed the box, while Nikolai bobbed his chin at it, encouraging her to take it. She stood still, her look shifting back to observe him. Truly exasperating the lack of gratifications she offered.
“Contrary to what you believe, I am no fool.” He decided to dive right into it, pushing through her silence. “As much as I hate to admit it, the Darkling was fairly good at reading people. You rose high in his favour because he considered you extremely resourceful and trustworthy, and valued you as a soldier.” Nikolai unfolded his arms and rested his hands on the wooden brink of the desk, pushing himself to her; he lowered his voice with a smirk. “And I know for a fact the reason for that has nothing to do with your very pleasant appearance, which I have no doubt is another weapon you know how to use.”
He backed up again. Life on the sea had taught him to turn weakness into brass. Thankfully, he had spent years practicing the art of acting. Zoya pursed her lips, biting a comeback and momentarily avoiding his gaze. Not that impervious after all. One had to catch on the details.
“I am not blind. Nor do I have reasons to pretend to be. Still, I’m afraid I am far more interested in your wide arsenal of warfare talents.” He took a sip from his glass and hummed teatrichally, cocking his head to the side to assess her. “I do share the burden of being handsome, though. We can whine together about our fatigues.”
That mocking smile was back on her mouth, sparkling with mischief. She spoke with a casual tone, smoothing her kefta. “As much as you brag about it, your charm seems to fail you. Our Sun Saint did not look particularly impressed by it.”
Ah, clever one. Nikolai mustered his composure to flash another grin at her, thoroughly impressed both by her boldness and by the precision of her strike. All right, that stung. Which to her credit only meant she had no fear to bite people where it hurt and a certain ability to find that spot. Useful skills for a General.
“Luckily for me, she was one of a very few number of exceptions.”
“Charm our way through peace, then.” Zoya cast her eyes heavenward, crossing her arms.
“Can I come back to praise you? I wasn’t finished.”
“By all means, do”, she gestured.
“As I was saying. Sadly for our favorite herald of darkness, he was also a prick. Not to mention manipulator and mass murderer, amongst other remarkable successes. He wholly under-estimated you: you are trustworthy and resourceful, along with a lot of other virtues he did not remotely understand nor properly paid attention to.”
Nikolai paused. He put his glass down, yielding to the temptation at last and letting his feet stride toward her. Had she moved more near too? Now they were definitely closer than needed. He could see the darker slivers in her irises, the curls falling inside the fur collar of her uniform.
The smell in the Grand Palace garden after a rainstorm, he thought of that scent. When he had laid in the grass and soaked his clothes in mud, just for the sake of feeling the earth below him and the water on his skin.
“I’ve watched you, these weeks. You are good. Not just at fighting, I believe that is a given. You are good at leading. Your mind is way sharper than your tongue. I’ve studied you with your Etherealki and the other Grisha, with the First Army representatives.``
He made a show of plucking a peck of invisible dust from his coat. Zoya did not move, keeping her attention on him. A sceptical frown appeared on her face.
“You do love to hear yourself talk.”
“I’ve watched you do that, too. You’re bold, in a good way. You tend to deliver neat blows.”
“Are you in the habit of examining all the people that come to work for you?”
“Just the powerful ones”, he admitted.
She might have looked nothing but unimpressed by the string of praises he had just given, as if they were common known truths, nothing of importance to linger on. Her eyes had grown troubled though, then curious, they had softened in the glowing sunset light. They were assessing him with strong intent now, and Nikolai could only think they held the ocean inside. The ocean he had seen when he had thought he would never be back on the waves again, the one that had felt like hope gained with blood and shattered bones in those grey sands.
“You saved me, in the Fold”, Nikolai abruptly said. The twitch in her breath made him understand just how much his demeanor had changed unconsciously, how much the mask of the ruler had slipped away and his unguarded voice betrayed him.
“I haven’t had the occasion to thank you properly.”
“It’s my job”, she briskly answered, almost annoyed. “You’re my king.”
You’re my king. Best to ignore the bolt of confidence and pleasure that spiked through his spine.
“Apart from my gratitude, I kind of had in mind to make it your actual job”, the king considered.
Zoya Nazyalensky. Not kind, and not easy. Zoya shot him a suspicious look, but she held her ground.
“It just so happens that both me and the Second Army are in need of a General”, he declared, never shifting his focus from her face. “Would you care to consider taking the position?”
He caught the box in his hand, opening the lid and extending it to her. A medal was shining in it, the golden Ravka double eagle, wrought in in a pale blue sash. Zoya briefly lowered her gaze to it, turning to look at Nikolai with an intensity that was almost impossible to bear. Her look was unreadable, yet the tension in her stiff muscles unmistakable. Nikolai could hardly hide the painful want for her to accept, the thrill he felt at the chance of having someone to rely on, in time, to share some of the burden with. Someone who was not his father’s advisors, someone he could choose. Someone he felt a strange pull toward, a sort of twisted hidden affinity.
Alina chose you, he had told her. The choice is yours, she had told him.
I made the choice. I am the one choosing you now.
The thumping heart in his chest ached at the possibility of making things right for this cursed country with a person he could trust at his side. To ease the loneliness, even if it had to be a game of pretend to some degree. The moments dripped away, her eyes alight with a flame hard to understand. Nikolai restrained his own will to jump into that blazing chaos, knowing how easily he would have lost himself in it.
“You’re making me your General?”, she said finally. The annoyance had disappeared, replaced with a hesitant falter, something that sounded both like disbelief and a flicker of cautious excitement.
“I’m asking you to be my General, if you wish so. I would not force anything on you. The position comes with a lot of heavy responsibilities and long sleepless nights.” Zoya was still frozen in place. Slowly, her arms uncrossed, coming to rest at her sides. “On the brighter side, you’ll get to enjoy endless hours of my company.”
“I’d say the brighter side is the responsibilities one.”
None of the previous snark was contained in her words. He could see how hard she was trying to keep her attitude on her, her own mask.
“You can decide whether to direct your scowls at me or at people annoying you then.”
“You’re assuming you won’t be among the people annoying me. Bold take.”
“I’d wager that’s what I’m mostly going to do”, Nikolai conceded. Zoya was trying to buy time, to ward off his attention. He just wasn’t sure if she needed it to regain her confident self or if she was considering how to refuse the offer. Nikolai did not like the last option, and it was better to rip the band aid off quickly.
“With the prospect of this gain, would you accept?” She peered at him again. He could not hold back a grin. “Did I just surprise you?”
“Please”, she spat out, but it was a little too marked to not be forced. Nikolai fought the impulse to smile wider. “Who else would you choose? Genya, so she can tailor the enemies away? David, to bore them to death with science talks? I’m the most qualified for the job. It’s reasonable of you to ask me.”
“I am not asking you because it’s reasonable.”
Again, reason was not the prime source fueling his judgment. For Saints sake, would you take this damn medal? Nerve racking girl that she was. It was making him fancy her even more.
“I am asking you because you deserved it. I believe you are the right person for this task, in many different ways.”
The weariness in her was still there; he hoped she could see that was not empty flattery anymore, that he had meant it. Finally, finally Zoya reached for the medal. He heard her draw in a sharp breath, a crease appearing between her brows. Nikolai wondered how it would feel to make it disappear, to see her features smooth down. Zoya moved through the world like a soldier with an armor in place, one she kept up with the pure will of her steel spirit and hardened heart. Despite her stillness, power was radiating off of her, the wind once again carrying that distinctive scent.
That small fishermen port they had docked in when the Volkvolny had arrived on the Wandering Isle, the one that was surrounded by pastures and a wide meadow in which an ocean of colourful wildflowers had just sprouted. Wildflowers.
For once in life, Nikolai had hardly an idea of who the person standing in front of him was. The enigmatic, beautiful, fierce squaller. Was she happy? Excited for this chance to serve her country? Terrified by the prospect of what they still had to face? Considering smacking him for being out of his mind? There was something that lurked inside of her under that armor, something in those blue eyes that seemed too painful to be looked at, too intimate to know. It came in shadows, disappearing, as if she was fighting it to stay down, to get it under control. The same bottomless abyss he had seen when she had saved him.
Nikolai knew what it meant, to lose something, to fight for an ideal and see it broken, to finally have the power in your hands to fix what others had crushed. It felt terrifying and exhilarating, and maybe that was what was running in that head of hers now. Zoya brushed her fingers on the golden pin, pulling it up and wrapping it under her hand. She closed her fist, raising her gaze to him, locking their eyes together. The shadows had gone, replaced by a fearless light.
“I’ll need to meet with the First Army generals”, the tone of a leader. “They won’t like this, and since I am fairly sure you don’t care one bit about it, I’ll need to handle them. And I’ll need that document drafted.”
He nodded, pushing down the towering joy that was flooding his chest. Practical. Ruthless, facing the issues head on, not shying away. He twisted and reached for another glass from the cabinet, turning inside his mind the fact that she had accepted, that he was looking at his General now.
“To a long and fruitful partnership, then”, Nikolai offered her the brandy, “or rather to save this broken country and not getting killed in the meanwhile.”
Zoya gave him a stern look. “I don’t drink on the job.”
Why does that not surprise me? He grinned excitedly and raised the glass to her, downing his drink.
“In time, I may teach you to have a little fun, too.”
Unscathed, she just tossed her hair. “Believe me, Your Highness, I am perfectly able to revel in fun. I am just highly selective of the people I allow to share it with me.”
The seducing part really would never be necessary, after all. He had a hunch they were immensely going to enjoy working together and drive each other crazy. I undoubtedly am.
“You’ll teach me how you select those blessed souls, then.”
Before she could resume their banter, another call at the king’s chambers’ entrance interrupted them, bursting the quiet of this comfortable room. The sound seemed to snap Zoya back to herself, making her realize how close they were standing. Nikolai had already been all too aware of it. She quickly moved away from him, not leaving his eyes. Pride back in her expression, shoulders squared. In her silver threaded kefta, she already appeared like the able respected General she would soon grow into. Her medal was closed in her fist, the knuckles white from the force of the grip.
“I will not fail Ravka”, she said, marking every word. I will not fail you, was the rest of the sentence, the part that hung unspoken between them. “I promise you that.”
Nikolai trusted her, without reservations. The king knew he had made the right choice. Both for the country, and, he selfishly thought, for himself. There was a hidden gratitude in her oath, the emotion she would not speak outright but nevertheless felt.
“Brace yourself, Nazyalensky.” He felt positively giddy and already itching for the challenges that fate would throw their way. “It’s going to be one hell of a ride. Take the rest of the evening for yourself, I’m afraid it’s the last moment of peace you’ll have for a while.”
She exhaled, her eyes moving to the window and Os Alta’s pointed domes in the distance.
“Ravka doesn’t consider rest as possible, that much I know.”
She rang for the servant, ignoring they were in Nikolai’s study and he was the one probably supposed to do that. Already moving like she owned the place, deciding the conversation was over. Zoya gave him a long, deep look.
“Goodnight, Your Highness.”
Nikolai fell back on his chair, watching her go as one of the old king’s advisors was accompanied inside the study. Surely a less pleasurable company for the evening. Both for the eyes and for the soul, he thought, forcing himself to wave a welcoming expression to the white-bearded man and his ridiculously long mustaches.
“Miss Nazyalensky”, the advisor greeted her with a half bow as she passed beside him on her way to the hallway. Zoya simply rolled her eyes, strolling toward the door with a last nod at Nikolai. He was sorry to see her go. Before she got out, Nikolai took the impulse and called to the man before him.
“General”, he corrected him, ignoring his shocked expression, “it’s General Nazyalensky now.”
Nikolai did not miss the slight misstep Zoya took at his words. Her kefta wirled as her gaze snapped to his. A beat passed. Without a sign of acknowledgment, Zoya looked away, that scent he had finally placed disappearing with her. Nikolai thought it best not to tell her that she hadn’t been quick enough to hide; he had seen her lashes lowering as she sighed, a smile tugging at her lips, one that was not feigned neither mocking, one that made her eyes sparkle with delight and was not meant to be noticed. If there was hope to make Zoya Nazyalensky brighten up like that, maybe Nikolai had it in himself to steer this country to safety after all.
“I thought we were past these poor attempts at wooing me”, she scoffed, playfully pushing him away. Nikolai chuckled, drawing her back to rest on his chest, circling her in his arms. He rested his chin on her head, listening to the warm huff of her breath on the cotton of his shirt. Deadly Zoya, who let herself curl in his hold almost easily. If someone had told him he would live to the feel of her lashes shutting on his heart, Nikolai would have probably sent the man to get his head checked by a Healer. Or paid him another drink.
“I am positively serious”, Nikolai assured her. Zoya blew a distrustful grunt.
“Nikolai, you do realize you don’t need to flatter me to get me into your bed anymore?”
“I do like you in my bed. Or anywhere else, for that matter”, he considered, humming against her hair. Zoya leaned on his shoulder to prompt herself up, looking him straight in the eyes. He tried to keep a smooth expression.
“So you’re saying I garnered your attention that soon? To me, you seemed a bit - “
She tilted her head to the side, shrugged her shoulders.
“Distracted”, she pointed out, an overly amused grin perking her lips.
Nikolai knew she was referring both to Alina and to the apparently unscathed attitude he had kept around her in the years they had worked together. No doubt clueless to how quickly other forbidden images had replaced the Sun Summoner’s ones in his dreams or just how much commitment he had been forced to put into appearing unaffected by her presence. He had been distracted, at first, though even in distraction Zoya snatched the attention like a lightning. Then a quake in the ground had struck; Zoya had then made her way into his life like a ferociously fast tidal wave, rippling foam at first, raging and rumbling waters then.
“You distracted me a lot, Zoya. Working with you has been equally comforting and tiring. You distract me even more now”, he leaned closer, sliding one hand on her neck, preventing her from backing away, “that I get to do this”. Nikolai caught her lips with his, kissing away the disbelieving frown from her mouth. When the kiss broke, she looked halfway convinced of his candor.
“You can’t possibly imagine how many dull meetings I have tuned out with you haunting my thoughts. The overactive mind I happen to be cursed with did not help my concentration.”
Zoya rolled her eyes, even though they both knew how truthful the statement was.
“You are diverting.”
“Is it working?”
“A bit”, she casually dismissed, tucking a strand of black curls on her finger. Nikolai sighed happily, slipping away in his thoughts. He wanted to tell her everything, he wanted her to take a stroll right into his mind to see it all. They had so much time now, and he had the constant urge of stocking it without letting a single instant slip, making up for all the years it had taken them to have each other.
“Anyway, it’s nothing special. People are commonly struck by my beauty.”
“I’ll admit you are kind of a breath-taking vision”, he snatched her hand away from her hair to press a kiss on her knuckles. “That’s not what really caught my attention, though.”
Of course he had noticed her. Then again, who did not? The vexing creature was hard not to notice, with dark waves framing a perfect figure, hiding an intricate enigma to solve. Since he was a boy, the prince had loved to unravel the puzzle of a person, he had proud himself of being able to do so with nearly everyone he had encountered. Zoya was another kind of riddle, one that had given him more headaches than victories. She made a point to hide; and Nikolai, well, he had always been an explorer at heart, hadn’t he? So he had noticed, and embarked on the journey drawn by the thrill of adventure. Every bitter word had been a wave to crash, every harsh reply a storm to weather to look under the surface. Every gust of wind, barked command and brisk political comment a sudden turn inside her convoluted mind.
“I’m torn between accusing you of sweet-talking me as usual or just outright lying.”
Nikolai clenched his heart in a mock gesture, and a small laugh bubbled in his chest. Judging from the bright gleam in her eyes and the lightness with which she was messing with him, she had believed him.
“Enough about you then. Am I to truly believe I did not impress you at first sight?”
Zoya glared daggers at him, but did not answer right away, considering his question. He got lucky this evening.
“You did impress me, albeit saying at first sight would be a huge overstatement”, she admitted, then exhaled a long breath and let herself fall on the cushion. “I was so happy when you asked me to be your General”, her eyes were distant, as if she was talking to herself more than him, seeing the rageful and determined girl she had been. “I went back to my room and could not stop smiling. My heart was so full, for the first time since what felt like forever. It never felt like a responsibility, it felt like an opportunity you gave me.”
“Tell me you waltzed alone in your room, please”, he teased, being the one who wanted to improvise a victory dance on the spot.
“I will not.”
“You will not tell me because it did not happen, or just to deprive me of the satisfaction?”
“Your ego does not need more encouragement”, she rested her chin on her hand, forcing her lips to stay pursed and fighting back a smile. So that was a yes, then. Zoya bursting with happiness was a sight he would have probably sold his soul to see, three years ago.
“That was the first time I believed you may not be the overly chatty catastrophe I would have made you out to be.”
“You know, I’m not so sure”, Nikolai grinned at her, beaming with pride. “You were stunned when I shot the Darkling.”
“You remember that?”, she gave him a surprised glance from her place on the cushion. They barely knew each other back then, but he had not forgotten. He pulled her back to him, brushed his mouth on her forehead.
“I paid attention in these years, Zoya. To every inch of you.”
It had taken him a while to notice the other things. The stubborn tilt of her chin when she was being challenged and needed to hold her ground. How she shook the cuffs of her kefta before announcing something, or how it meant the argument was done on her part. The way she marked the first words of a sentence with a harder tone than usual when she was in distress, as if the very fact of lacing a syllable with spite could hold herself together. Her resting her head to the side when she was at ease, narrowing her eyes to the sunlight, allowing herself a surrender. The grief and hurt that peered through only when she was trying too hard to conceal it, only when the exhaustion was overwhelming and keeping this country together too tiring. The gleam she possessed when she was teaching the kids, how her gaze softened with care as soon as they turned their backs on her and she watched them laugh and toss each other around. Her laughter with Genya or Tamar when they had a glass too much in the evening and they gossiped around, basking in the illusion of being normal people with no weight on their shoulders.
Zoya had been a story for Nikolai, one he had wanted to unfold, to slowly walk through the pages of it and discover her mysteries, her secrets, her wants. She had been the puzzle of his lifetime, and he knew he would never stop sorting through it. Whenever he thought he had put some sense in it, she uncovered a dark alley he had brushed past without noticing; her Suli heritage, her family’s past, her garden of sorrows. And then came the agony of sorting her feelings out, a line he had walked balancing his hopeless wishes and the reality of her gestures. Trying to piece together how deliberate or innocent had been the way she kept locking their gazes together through the opposite corner of a room, wondering how carefree when she lingered with her fingers on his skin a moment too long as they brushed their hands. If she was toying with him as he had heard in the stories about her, or if her restraint wavered under a desire he had not known he was hoping for. All the times the inevitable had almost happened, and they had strode past these occurrences with the shared silent pact of not voicing it out loud. Zoya’s look growing calm in the dim light of the countless rooms they had worked in, a warmth they had both longed for.
Nikolai tightened his hold on her. He buried his nose in her hair.
The heat of a sunny day, the spring that came in Dominik’s fields, the crushed daisies under his sisters’ sticky fingers. The Grand Palace garden brought alive by rain around him, droplets running through his golden hair. A meadow near the sea in a foreign magical place where he would take her one day, the marvels he would show her. That damn wildflowers scent he had never been able to carve out of the bottom of his soul.
She had revealed herself in front of him, in irrelevant moments carrying with them a significance he had never been aware of.
“I thought I knew myself”, Zoya started, barely audible over the crackling of the fire, “the rotten parts of me. My strengths.” She paused. “Seeing me through your eyes - you shattered everything I knew and built it back. I did not understand how soon you had started doing that.”
"Soulmates stuff, I guess”, he murmured in a wanton tone, ignoring the prick behind his eyes, startled by the sudden shift in her mood and the heartfelt openness she was displaying.
“I don’t believe in that nonsense”, Zoya huffed dismissively. Nikolai laughed.
“I share your disbelief, actually. Destiny has done nothing but put obstacles in our path, after all. If anything, we have defied it. I believe it’s more a matter of choices”, he said, pensive. Once again, he rested his cheek on her carefully brushed curls, inhaling deeply. “We did not happen to stumble upon each other and miraculously fall in love. We chose each other.”
The choice is yours.
I made the choice. I am the one choosing you now.
I would choose you, Zoya. As my general, as my friend, as my bride.
The first one had gone unbelievably smoothly. The second, it had taken patience and effort and a certain resistance to disappointments. The third one, well - he was working on that. A ring did stand wrapped around her finger. Halfway there.
Zoya must had been thinking of that, too. She seemed to ponder his statement before replying. “You did tell me you would choose me. When I thought no one would.”
“I think I chose you long before I knew I did. Then I hoped against all odds that when you’d make your own choice, you’d choose me in return. That you’d choose to stay.”
Zoya fell silent. He could not see her, but he imagined just as well her biting her lower lip, his words sinking into her heart. With Zoya, the quiet was comfortable, warm as the press of her body on his. The quiet was needed.
“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long”, a whisper at last, as she turned back up to look at him. Nikolai shook his head decisively.
“You have waited for me.” There was just a knowing safety in her tone. It had mattered, for Nikolai, to let her choose. To let her know, and then let her decide. To give her a chance at love and stand by for her to take it, his trust in her never faltering. He gently took her face between his calloused hands, worn by battles and tight salty ropes.
“You were worth every second. Besides, time means nothing for demons and saints, right? We have a lot of it in our hands.”
This time she whole-heartedly smiled, adjusting his perfectly fine collar in that affectionate unaware gesture again.
Being the unsuccessful poet he could have been in another lifetime, sometimes he wondered if the story they had lived would ever go on in ballad and poems, as he had once joked with her. If someone would tell of an open sky split by lightning in which a dragon had spread his wings and roared his heartache, never to be left alone to live in darkness again. If someone would hear of a wayward privateer finding the ocean in a person, tricking fate into conquering everything his battered heart had ever searched for. If there would ever be written the tale of a love waiting on the other side of a door, of the people brave enough to cross it.
He had thought they would have just kept telling that tale to each other, through open mouthed kisses left on bare skin, tangled sheets and hushed confessions traded in the night. Then one day, he had heard the kids play in the Little Palace forest, a girl with golden brown skin splashing water on the others from the lake, calling herself the Suli queen who could turn into a legendary beast. He had seen a Fabrikator in the library draft sketches of pirates and mystical creatures fighting each other on a flying ship. To his amusement, he had watched and eavesdropped as one of his personal guards, a handsome young boy coming from Udova, had tried to woo a noble girl into walking with him to the garden, promising her to tell her the fable of how a king with a demon inside had won the attentions of a beautiful unattainable witch who commanded the storms.
Nikolai liked that. The idea that their struggles might turn into hope. One thing he loved, though, were the details that remained theirs.
Zoya brushed a hand through his golden hair with a yearning look in her eyes, soft as a feather she kissed his jaw, adjusted herself in the space between his arms, played with the ring on her finger as she laced her hand with his. She still called him King wretch at times, he still called her his General. She had still eaten all of his herring that morning, they had still made time to work silently through papers together before dinner. At the end, there had never been a hierarchy between them, swept away in the matter of heartbeats since she had held a broken prince in the safety of her wind and he had given her a medal to cradle in her fingers: they had always fought alongside each other, as they were doing now. These details.
That was the part of their story no one would ever earn to hear. The part they would keep writing in secret.
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