The tent got very quiet. They were looking at me like I was mad. And, truth be told, I didn’t feel entirely sane. But I was done being shuffled across the True Sea and half of Ravka by people trying to use me and my power.
Nikolai gave a nervous laugh. “The people love you, Alina, but I was thinking of a more symbolic title—”
“I’m not a symbol,” I snapped. “And I’m tired of being a pawn.”
“No,” Mal said. “It’s too dangerous. It would be like painting a target on your back.”
“I already have a target on my back,” I said. “And neither of us will ever be safe until the Darkling is defeated.”
“Have you even held a command?” Nikolai asked.
I’d once led a seminar of junior mapmakers, but I didn’t think that was what he meant.
“No,” I admitted.
“You have no experience, no precedent, and no claim,” he said. “The Second Army has been led by Darklings since it was founded.”
By one Darkling. But this wasn’t the time to explain that.
“Age and birthright don’t matter to the Grisha. All they care about is power. I’m the only Grisha to ever wear two amplifiers. And I’m the only Grisha alive powerful enough to take on the Darkling or his shadow soldiers. No one else can do what I can.”
I tried to put confidence in my voice, even though I wasn’t sure what had come over me. I just knew I was tired of living in fear. I was tired of running. And if Mal and I were to have any hope of locating the firebird, we needed answers. The Little Palace might be the only place to find them.
For a long moment, the three of us just stood there.
“Well,” Nikolai said. “Well.”
He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, considering. Then he rose and offered me his hand.
“All right, Summoner,” he said. “Help me win the people, and the Grisha are yours.”
“Really?” I blurted.
Nikolai laughed. “If you plan to lead an army, you’d better learn to act the part. The proper response is, ‘I knew you’d see sense.’”
I took his hand. It was roughly calloused. The hand of a pirate, not a prince. We shook.
“As for my proposal,” he began.
“Don’t push your luck,” I said, snatching my hand back. “I said I’d go with you to Os Alta, and that’s it.”
“And where will I go?” Mal said quietly.
He stood with his arms crossed, watching us with steady blue eyes. There was blood on his brow from the crash of the Hummingbird. He looked tired and very, very far away.
“I … I thought you’d go with me,” I stammered.
“As what?” he asked. “The captain of your personal guard?”
Nikolai cleared his throat. “As much as I’d love to see how this plays out, I do have some arrangements to make. Unless, of course—”
“Get out,” Mal ordered.
“Right, then. I’ll leave you to it.” He hastened away, stopping only to retrieve his sword.
The silence in the tent seemed to stretch and expand.
“Where is all this going, Alina?” Mal asked. “We fought our way out of this saintsforsaken place, and now we’re sinking right back into the swamp.”
I lowered myself to the cot and rested my head in my hands. I was exhausted, and every bone in my body ached.
“What am I supposed to do?” I pleaded. “What’s happening here, what’s happening to Ravka—part of the blame belongs to me.”
“That isn’t true.”
I gave a hollow laugh. “Oh yes it is. If it weren’t for me, the Fold wouldn’t be growing. Novokribirsk would still be standing.”
“Alina,” Mal said, crouching down in front of me and laying his hands on my knees, “even with all the Grisha and a thousand of Sturmhond’s guns, you aren’t strong enough to stop him.”
“If we had the third amplifier—”
“But we don’t!”
I gripped his hands. “We will.”
He held my gaze. “Did it ever occur to you that I might say no?”
My stomach dropped. It hadn’t. It had never entered my mind that Mal might refuse, and I felt suddenly ashamed. He had given up everything to be with me, but that didn’t mean he was happy about it. Maybe he’d had enough of fighting and fear and uncertainty. Maybe he’d had enough of me.
“I thought … I thought we both wanted to help Ravka.”
“Is that what we both wanted?” he asked.
He stood up and turned his back on me. I swallowed hard, forcing down the sudden ache in my throat.
“Then you won’t go to Os Alta?”
He paused at the entrance of the tent. “You wanted to wear the second amplifier. You have it. You want to go to Os Alta? Fine, we’ll go. You say you need the firebird. I’ll find a way to get it for you. But when all this is over, Alina, I wonder if you’ll still want me.”
I shot to my feet. “Of course I will! Mal—”
Whatever I might have said, he didn’t wait to hear it. He stepped out into the sunlight and was gone.
I pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes, trying to push down the tears that threatened. What was I doing? I wasn’t a queen. I wasn’t a saint. And I certainly didn’t know how to lead an army.
I caught a glimpse of myself in a soldier’s shaving mirror that had been propped on the bedside table. I pulled my coat and shirt to the side, baring the wound at my shoulder. The puncture marks from the nichevo’ya stood out, puckered and black against my skin. The Darkling had said they would never heal completely.
What wound couldn’t be healed by Grisha power? One made by something that never should have existed in the first place.
I saw him. The Darkling’s face, pale and beautiful, the slash of the knife. It had been so real. What had happened on the Fold?
Going back to Os Alta, taking control of the Second Army, was as good as a declaration of war. The Darkling would know where to find me, and when he was strong enough, he’d come looking. Ready or not, we’d have no choice but to make a stand. It was a terrifying thought, but I was surprised to find that it also brought me some relief.
I would face him. And one way or another, this would end.
WE DIDN’T LEAVE for Os Alta right away, but spent the next three days transporting shipments of goods across the Fold. We operated out of what was left of the military encampment at Kribirsk. Most of the troops had been pulled back when the Fold started expanding. A new watchtower had been erected to monitor the black shores of the Unsea, and only a skeleton crew stayed on to operate the drydocks.
Not a single Grisha remained at the encampment. After the Darkling’s attempted coup and the destruction of Novokribirsk, a wave of anti-Grisha sentiment had swept through Ravka and the ranks of the First Army. I wasn’t surprised. An entire town was gone, its people food for monsters. Ravka wouldn’t soon forget. Neither could I.
Some Grisha had fled to Os Alta to seek the protection of the King. Others had gone into hiding. Nikolai suspected that most of them had sought out the Darkling and defected to his side. But with the help of Nikolai’s rogue Squallers, we managed two trips across the Fold on the first day, three on the second, and four on the last. Sandskiffs journeyed to West Ravka empty and returned with huge cargos of Zemeni rifles, crates full of ammunition, parts for repeating guns similar to those Nikolai had used aboard the Hummingbird, and a few tons of sugar and jurda—all courtesy of Sturmhond’s smuggling.
“Bribes,” Mal said as we watched giddy soldiers tear into a shipment being unloaded on the dock, hooting and marveling over the glittering array of weaponry.
“Gifts,” Nikolai corrected. “You’ll find the bullets work, regardless of my motives.” He turned to me. “I think we can fit in one more trip today. Game?”
I wasn’t, but I nodded.
He smiled and clapped me on the back. “I’ll give the orders.”
I could feel Mal watching me as I turned to look into the shifting darkness of the Fold. There hadn’t been a recurrence of the incident aboard the Hummingbird. Whatever I’d seen that day—vision, hallucination, I couldn’t name it—it hadn’t happened again. Still, I spent each moment on the Unsea alert and wary, trying to hide just how frightened I really was.
Nikolai wanted to use the crossings to hunt volcra, but I refused. I told him that I still felt weak and that I wasn’t sure enough about my power to guarantee our safety. My fear was real, but the rest was a lie. My power was stronger than ever. It flowed from me in pure and vibrant waves, radiant with the strength of the stag and the scales. But I couldn’t bear the thought of hearing those screams again. I kept the light in a wide, glowing dome around the skiffs, and though the volcra shrieked and beat their wings, they kept their distance.
Mal accompanied us on all the crossings, staying close by my side, rifle at the ready. I knew he sensed my anxiousness, but he didn’t press me for an explanation. In fact, he hadn’t said much at all since our argument in the tent. I was afraid that when he did start talking, I wouldn’t like what he had to say. I hadn’t changed my mind about returning to Os Alta, but I was worried that he might.
The morning we decamped for the capital, I searched the crowd for him, terrified that he might just decide not to show up. I said a little prayer of thanks when I glimpsed him, straight-backed and silent in his saddle, waiting to join the column of riders.
We set out before dawn, a twisting procession of horses and wagons that wended its way out of camp on the broad road known as the Vy. Nikolai had obtained a plain blue kefta for me, but it was tucked away in the luggage. Until he had more of his own men in place to guard me, I was just another soldier in the prince’s retinue.
As the sun crested the horizon, I felt a small flutter of hope. The idea of trying to take the Darkling’s place, of attempting to reassemble the Grisha and command the Second Army, still felt impossibly daunting. But at least I was doing something instead of just fleeing from the Darkling or waiting for him to snatch me up. I had two of Morozova’s amplifiers, and I was headed to a place where I might find answers that would lead me to the third. Mal was unhappy, but watching the morning light break over the treetops, I felt sure I could bring him around.
My mood didn’t survive the journey through Kribirsk. We’d passed through the ramshackle port town after the crash on the lake, but I’d been too shaken and distracted to really take note of the way the place had changed. This time, it was unavoidable.
Though Kribirsk had never had much beauty to recommend it, its sidewalks had teemed with travelers and merchants, King’s men and dockworkers. Its bustling streets had been lined with busy stores ready to outfit expeditions into the Fold, along with bars and brothels that catered to the soldiers at the encampment. But these streets were quiet and nearly empty. Most of the inns and shops had been boarded up.
The real revelation came when we reached the church. I remembered it as a tidy building capped by bright blue domes. Now the whitewashed walls were covered in writing, row after row of names written in red paint that had dried to the color of blood. The steps were littered with heaps of withered flowers, small painted icons, the melted stubs of prayer candles. I saw bottles of kvas, piles of candy, the abandoned body of a child’s doll. Gifts for the dead.