But neither of these creatures held our attention. Mountains crowded the background behind the Saint’s left shoulder, and there, barely visible in the distance, a bird circled a towering stone arch.
Mal’s finger traced its long tailfeathers, rendered in white and the same pale gold that illuminated Sankt Ilya’s halo. “It can’t be,” he said.
“The stag was real. So was the sea whip.”
“But this is … different.”
He was right. The firebird didn’t belong to one story, but to a thousand. It was at the heart of every Ravkan myth, the inspiration for countless plays and ballads, novels and operas. Ravka’s borders were said to have been sketched by the firebird’s flight. Its rivers ran with the firebird’s tears. Its capital was said to have been founded where a firebird’s feather fell to earth. A young warrior had picked up that feather and carried it into battle. No army had been able to stand against him, and he became the first king of Ravka. Or so the legend went.
The firebird was Ravka. It was not meant to be brought down by a tracker’s arrow, its bones worn for the greater glory of some upstart orphan.
“Sankt Ilya,” Mal said.
“A Grisha Saint?”
I touched the tip of my finger to the page, to the collar, to the two fetters on Morozova’s wrists. “Three amplifiers. Three creatures. And we have two of them.”
Mal gave his head a firm shake, probably trying to clear away the haze of wine. Abruptly, he shut the book. For a second, I thought he might throw it into the sea, but then he handed it back to me.
“What are we supposed to do with this?” he said. He sounded almost angry.
I’d thought about that all afternoon, all evening, throughout that interminable dinner, my fingers straying to the sea whip’s scales again and again, as if anxious for the feel of them.
“Mal, Sturmhond has Fabrikators in his crew. He thinks I should use the scales … and I think he might be right.”
Mal’s head snapped around. “What?”
I swallowed nervously and plunged ahead. “The stag’s power isn’t enough. Not to fight the Darkling. Not to destroy the Fold.”
“And your answer is a second amplifier?”
“For now?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Saints,” he swore. “You want all three. You want to hunt the firebird.”
I felt suddenly foolish, greedy, even a little ridiculous. “The illustration—”
“It’s just a picture, Alina,” he whispered furiously. “It’s a drawing by some dead monk.”
“But what if it’s more? The Darkling said Morozova’s amplifiers were different, that they were meant to be used together.”
“So now you’re taking advice from murderers?”
“Did you make any other plans with the Darkling while you were holed up together belowdecks?”
“We weren’t holed up together,” I said sharply. “He was just trying to get under your skin.”
“Well, it worked.” He gripped the ship’s railing, his knuckles flexing white. “Someday I’m going to put an arrow through that bastard’s neck.”
I heard the echo of the Darkling’s voice. There are no others like us. I pushed it aside and reached out to lay my hand on Mal’s arm. “You found the stag, and you found the sea whip. Maybe you were meant to find the firebird, too.”
He laughed outright, a rueful sound, but I was relieved to hear the bitter edge was gone. “I’m a good tracker, Alina, but I’m not that good. We need someplace to start. The firebird could be anywhere in the world.”
“You can do it. I know you can.”
Finally, he sighed and covered my hand with his own. “I don’t remember anything about Sankt Ilya.”
That was no surprise. There were hundreds of Saints, one for every tiny village and backwater in Ravka. Besides, at Keramzin, religion was considered a peasant preoccupation. We’d gone to church only once or twice a year. My thoughts strayed to the Apparat. He had given me the Istorii Sankt’ya, but I had no way of knowing what he intended by it, or if he even knew the secret it contained.
“Me neither,” I said. “But that arch must mean something.”
“Do you recognize it?”
When I’d first glanced at the illustration, the arch had seemed almost familiar. But I’d looked at countless books of maps during my training as a cartographer. My memory was a blur of valleys and monuments from Ravka and beyond. I shook my head. “No.”
“Of course not. That would be too easy.” He released a long breath, then drew me closer, studying my face in the moonlight. He touched the collar at my neck. “Alina,” he said, “how do we know what these things will do to you?”
“We don’t,” I admitted.
“But you want them anyway. The stag. The sea whip. The firebird.”
I thought of the surge of exultation that had come from using my power in the battle against the Darkling’s horde, the way my body fizzed and thrummed when I wielded the Cut. What might it feel like to have that power doubled? Trebled? The thought made me dizzy.
I looked up at the star-filled sky. The night was velvety black and strewn with jewels. The hunger struck me suddenly. I want them, I thought. All that light, all that power. I want it all.
A restless shiver moved over me. I ran my thumb down the spine of the Istorii Sankt’ya. Was my greed making me see what I wanted to see? Maybe it was the same greed that had driven the Darkling so many years ago, the greed that had turned him into the Black Heretic and torn Ravka in two. But I couldn’t escape the truth that without the amplifiers, I was no match for him. Mal and I were low on options.
“We need them,” I said. “All three. If we ever want to stop running. If we ever want to be free.”
Mal traced the line of my throat, the curve of my cheek, and all the while, he held my gaze. I felt like he was looking for an answer there, but when he finally spoke, he just said, “All right.”
He kissed me once, gently, and though I tried to ignore it, there was something mournful in the brush of his lips.
* * *
I DIDN’T KNOW if I was eager or simply afraid I’d lose my nerve, but we ignored the late hour and went to Sturmhond that night. The privateer greeted our request with his usual good cheer, and Mal and I returned to the deck to wait beneath the mizzenmast. A few minutes later, the captain appeared, a Materialnik in tow. With her hair in braids and yawning like a sleepy child, she didn’t look very impressive, but if Sturmhond said she was his best Fabrikator, I had to take him at his word. Tolya and Tamar trailed behind, carrying lanterns to help the Fabrikator at her work. If we survived whatever came next, everyone aboard the Volkvolny would know about the second amplifier. I didn’t like it, but there was nothing to be done about it.
“Evening, all,” said Sturmhond, slapping his hands together, seemingly oblivious to our somber mood. “Perfect night for tearing a hole in the universe, no?”
I scowled at him and slipped the scales from my pocket. I’d rinsed them in a bucket of seawater, and they gleamed golden in the lamplight.
“Do you know what to do?” I asked the Fabrikator.
She had me turn and show her the back of the collar. I’d only ever glimpsed it in mirrors, but I knew the surface must be near perfect. Certainly my fingers had never been able to detect any seam where David had joined the two pieces of antler together.
I handed the scales to Mal, who held one out to the Fabrikator.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she asked. She was gnawing on her lip so agressively, I thought she might draw blood.
“Of course not,” said Sturmhond. “Anything worth doing always starts as a bad idea.”
The Fabrikator plucked the scale from Mal’s fingers and rested it against my wrist, then held out her hand for another. She bent to her work.
I felt the heat first, radiating from the scales as their edges began to come apart and then re-form. One after another, they melded together, fusing into an overlapping row as the fetter grew around my wrist. The Fabrikator worked in silence, her hands moving infinitesimal degrees. Tolya and Tamar kept the lamps steady, their faces so still and solemn they might have been icons themselves. Even Sturmhond had gone quiet.
Finally, the two ends of the cuff were nearly touching and only one scale remained. Mal stared down at it, cupped in his palm.
“Mal?” I said.
He didn’t look at me, but touched one finger to the bare skin of my wrist, the place where my pulse beat, where the fetter would close. Then he handed the last scale to the Fabrikator.
In moments, it was done.
Sturmhond peered at the glittering cuff of scales. “Huh,” he murmured. “I thought the end of the world would be more exciting.”
“Stand back,” I said.
The group shuffled over to the rail.
“You too,” I told Mal. Reluctantly, he complied. I saw Privyet peering at us from his place by the wheel. Above, the ropes creaked as the men on watch craned their necks to get a better view.
I took a deep breath. I had to be careful. No heat. Just light. I wiped my damp palms on my coat and spread my arms. Almost before I’d formed the call, the light was rushing toward me.
It came from every direction, from a million stars, from a sun still hidden below the horizon. It came with relentless speed and furious intent.
“Oh, Saints,” I had time to whisper. Then the light was blazing through me and the night came apart. The sky exploded into brilliant gold. The surface of the water glittered like a massive diamond, reflecting piercing white shards of sunlight. Despite my best intentions, the air shimmered with heat.
I closed my eyes against the brightness, trying to focus, to regain control. I heard Baghra’s harsh voice in my head, demanding that I trust my power: It isn’t an animal that shies away from you or chooses whether or not to come when you call it. But this was like nothing I’d felt before. It was an animal, a creature of infinite fire that breathed with the stag’s strength and the sea whip’s wrath. It coursed through me, stealing my breath, breaking me up, dissolving my edges, until all I knew was light.
Too much, I thought in desperation. And at the same time, all I could think was, More.
From somewhere far away, I heard voices shouting. I felt the heat billowing around me, lifting my coat, singeing the hair on my arms. I didn’t care.
I felt the ship rocking as the sea began to crackle and hiss.
“Alina!” Suddenly Mal’s arms were around me, pulling me back. He held me in a crushing grip, his eyes shut tight against the blaze around us. I smelled sea salt and sweat and, beneath it, his familiar scent—Keramzin, meadow grass, the dark green heart of the woods.
I remembered my arms, my legs, the press of my ribs, as he held me tighter, piecing me back together. I recognized my lips, my teeth, my tongue, my heart, and these new things that were a part of me: collar and fetter. They were bone and breath, muscle and flesh. They were mine.