“Well, I don’t,” I muttered.
“Is it that bad?”
To my embarrassment, I felt a lump well up in my throat. I swallowed it down. “Baghra must have told you I can’t summon a single sunbeam on my own.”
“It will happen, Alina. I’m not worried.”
“No. And even if I were, once we have the stag, it won’t matter.”
I felt a surge of frustration. If an amplifier could make it possible for me to be a real Grisha, then I didn’t want to wait for some mythical antler. I wanted a real one. Now.
“If no one’s found Morozova’s herd in all this time, what makes you think you’ll find it now?” I asked.
“Because this was meant to be. The stag was meant for you, Alina. I can feel it.” He looked at me. His hair was still a mess, and in the bright morning sunlight, he looked more handsome and more human than I’d ever seen him. “I guess I’m asking you to trust me,” he said.
What was I supposed to say? I didn’t really have a choice. If the Darkling wanted me to be patient, I would have to be patient. “Okay,” I said finally. “But hurry it up.”
He laughed again, and I felt a pleased flush creep up my cheeks. Then his expression became serious. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time, Alina,” he said. “You and I are going to change the world.”
I laughed nervously. “I’m not the world-changing type.”
“Just wait,” he said softly, and when he looked at me with those gray quartz eyes, my heart gave a little thump. I thought he was going to say something more, but abruptly he stepped back, a troubled look on his face. “Good luck with your lessons,” he said. He gave me a short bow and turned on his heel to walk up the path to the lakeshore. But he’d only gone a few steps before he turned back to me. “Alina,” he said. “About the stag?”
“Please keep it to yourself. Most people think it’s just a children’s story, and I’d hate to look a fool.”
“I won’t say anything,” I promised.
He nodded once and, without another word, strode away. I stared after him. I felt a little dazed, and I wasn’t sure why.
When I looked up, Baghra was standing on the porch of her cottage, watching me. For no reason at all, I blushed.
“Hmph,” she snorted, and then she turned her back on me, too.
AFTER MY CONVERSATION with the Darkling, I took my first opportunity to visit the library. There was no mention of the stag in any of my theory books, but I did find a reference to Ilya Morozova, one of the first and most powerful Grisha.
There was also plenty about amplifiers. The books were very clear on the fact that a Grisha could have only one amplifier in his or her lifetime and that once a Grisha owned an amplifier, it could be possessed by no one else: “The Grisha claims the amplifier, but the amplifier claims the Grisha, as well. Once it is done, there can be no other. Like calls to like, and the bond is made.”
The reason for this wasn’t entirely clear to me, but it seemed to have something to do with a check on Grisha power.
“The horse has speed. The bear has strength. The bird has wings. No creature has all of these gifts, and so the world is held in balance. Amplifiers are part of this balance, not a means of subverting it, and each Grisha would do well to remember this or risk the consequences.”
Another philosopher wrote, “Why can a Grisha possess but one amplifier? I will answer this question instead: What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men.”
Sitting beneath the library’s glass dome, I thought of the Black Heretic. The Darkling had said that the Shadow Fold was the result of his ancestor’s greed. Was that what the philosophers meant by consequences? For the first time, it occurred to me that the Fold was the one place where the Darkling was helpless, where his powers meant nothing. The Black Heretic’s descendants had suffered for his ambition. Still, I couldn’t help but think that it was Ravka that had been made to pay in blood.
FALL TURNED TO WINTER, and cold winds stripped the branches in the palace gardens bare. Our table was still laden with fresh fruit and flowers furnished from the Grisha hothouses, where they made their own weather. But even juicy plums and purple grapes did little to improve my appetite.
Somehow I’d thought that my conversation with the Darkling might change something in me. I wanted to believe the things he’d said, and standing by the lakeshore, I almost had. But nothing changed. I still couldn’t summon without Baghra’s help. I still wasn’t truly a Grisha.
All the same, I felt a bit less miserable about it. The Darkling had asked me to trust him, and if he believed that the stag was the answer, then all I could do was hope he was right. I still avoided practicing with the other Summoners, but I let Marie and Nadia drag me to the banya a couple of times and to one of the ballets at the Grand Palace. I even let Genya put a little color in my cheeks.
My new attitude infuriated Baghra.
“You’re not even trying anymore!” she shouted. “You’re waiting for some magical deer to come save you? For your pretty necklace? You might as well wait for a unicorn to put its head in your lap, you stupid thing.”
When she started railing at me, I just shrugged. She was right. I was tired of trying and failing. I wasn’t like the other Grisha, and it was time I accepted that. Besides, some rebellious part of me enjoyed driving her into a tizzy.
I didn’t know what punishment Zoya had received, but she continued to ignore me. She’d been barred from the training rooms, and I’d heard she would be returning to Kribirsk after the winter fete. Occasionally, I caught her glaring at me or giggling behind her hand with her little group of Summoner friends, but I tried not to let it get to me.
Still, I couldn’t shake the sense of my own failure. When the first snow came, I woke to find a new kefta waiting for me on my door. It was made of heavy midnight blue wool and had a hood lined in thick golden fur. I put it on, but it was hard not to feel like a fraud.
After picking at my breakfast, I made the familiar walk to Baghra’s cottage. The gravel paths, cleared of snow by Inferni, sparkled beneath the weak winter sun. I was almost all the way to the lake when a servant caught up with me.
She handed me a folded piece of paper and bobbed a curtsy before scurrying back up the path. I recognized Genya’s handwriting.
Malyen Oretsev’s unit has been stationed at the Chernast outpost in northern Tsibeya for six weeks. He is listed as healthy. You can write to him care of his regiment.
The Kerch ambassadors are showering the Queen with gifts. Oysters and sandpipers packed in dry ice (vile) and almond candies! I’ll bring some by tonight.—G
Mal was in Tsibeya. He was safe, alive, far from the fighting, probably hunting winter game.
I should be grateful. I should be glad.
You can write to him care of his regiment. I’d been writing to him care of his regiment for months.
I thought of the last letter I’d sent.
Dear Mal, I’d written. I haven’t heard from you, so I assume you’ve met and married a volcra and that you’re living comfortably on the Shadow Fold, where you have neither light nor paper with which to write. Or, possibly, your new bride ate both your hands.
I’d filled the letter with descriptions of Botkin, the Queen’s snuffling dog, and the Grisha’s curious fascination with peasant customs. I’d told him about beautiful Genya and the pavilions by the lake and the marvelous glass dome in the library. I’d told him about mysterious Baghra and the orchids in the hothouse and the birds painted above my bed. But I hadn’t told him about Morozova’s stag or the fact that I was such a disaster as a Grisha or that I still missed him every single day.
When I was done, I’d hesitated and then hastily scrawled at the bottom, I don’t know if you got my other letters. This place is more beautiful than I can describe, but I would trade it all to spend an afternoon skipping stones with you at Trivka’s pond. Please write.
But he had gotten my letters. What had he done with all of them? Had he even bothered to open them? Had he sighed with embarrassment when the fifth and the sixth and the seventh arrived?
I cringed. Please write, Mal. Please don’t forget me, Mal.
Pathetic, I thought, brushing angry tears away.
I stared out at the lake. It was starting to freeze. I thought of the creek that ran through Duke Keramsov’s estate. Every winter, Mal and I had waited for that creek to freeze so we could skate on it.
I crumpled Genya’s note in my fist. I didn’t want to think about Mal anymore. I wished I could blot out every memory of Keramzin. Mostly I wished I could run back to my room and have a good cry. But I couldn’t. I had to spend another pointless, miserable morning with Baghra.
I took my time making my way down the lake path, then stomped up the steps to Baghra’s hut and banged open the door.
As usual, she was sitting by the fire, warming her bony body by the flames. I plunked myself down in the chair opposite her and waited.
Baghra let out a short bark of laughter. “So you’re angry today, girl? What do you have to be angry about? Are you sick of waiting for your magical white deer?”
I crossed my arms and said nothing.
“Speak up, girl.”
On any other day, I would have lied, told her I was fine, said that I was tired. But I guess I’d reached my breaking point, because I snapped. “I’m sick of all of this,” I said angrily. “I’m sick of eating rye and herring for breakfast. I’m sick of wearing this stupid kefta. I’m sick of being pummeled by Botkin, and I’m sick of you.”
I thought she would be furious, but instead she just peered at me. With her head cocked to one side and her eyes glittering black in the firelight, she looked like a very mean sparrow.
“No,” she said slowly. “No. It’s not that. There’s something else. What is it? Is the poor little girl homesick?”
I snorted. “Homesick for what?”
“You tell me, girl. What’s so bad about your life here? New clothes, a soft bed, hot food at every meal, the chance to be the Darkling’s pet.”
“I’m not his pet.”
“But you want to be,” she jeered. “Don’t bother lying to me. You’re like all the rest. I saw the way you looked at him.”
My cheeks burned, and I thought about hitting Bahgra over the head with her own stick.
“A thousand girls would sell their own mothers to be in your shoes, and yet here you are, miserable and sulking like a child. So tell me, girl. What is your sad little heart pining for?”
She was right, of course. I knew very well that I was homesick for my best friend. But I wasn’t about to tell her that.
I stood up, knocking my chair back with a clatter. “This is a waste of time.”
“Is it? What else do you have to do with your days? Make maps? Fetch inks for some old cartographer?”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a mapmaker.”
“Of course not. And there’s nothing wrong with being a lizard either. Unless you were born to be a hawk.”