“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
“Actually, it’s completely plausible, and it makes for a very satisfying story. Needless to say, my father is not pleased. He flew into quite a rage last night, and he’s doubled the price on the Apparat’s head.”
I groaned. “This is bad.”
“It is,” Nikolai admitted. “You can see why it might be wise for the captain of your personal guard to start forging alliances within the Grand Palace.” He turned his keen gaze on Mal. “And that, Oretsev, is how you can be of use. As I recall, you rather charmed my crew, so perhaps you could pick up your bow and play the diplomat instead of the jealous lover.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Good boy,” said Nikolai.
Oh, for Saints’ sake. He just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could he?
“Watch yourself, Nikolai,” Mal said softly. “Princes bleed just like other men.”
Nikolai plucked an invisible piece of dust from his sleeve. “Yes,” he said. “They just do it in better clothes.”
Mal stood, his chair scraping the floor. “I need some air.”
He strode out the door, all pretense of bowing and titles forgotten.
I threw down my napkin. “Why do you do that?” I asked Nikolai angrily. “Why do you provoke him that way?”
“Did I?” Nikolai said, reaching for another roll. I thought about sticking a fork through his hand.
“Don’t keep pushing him, Nikolai. Lose Mal, and you’ll lose me, too.”
“He needs to learn what the rules are here. If he can’t, then he becomes a liability. The stakes are too high for half measures.”
I shivered and rubbed my hands over my arms. “I hate it when you talk like that. You sound just like the Darkling.”
“If you ever have trouble telling us apart, look for the person who isn’t torturing you or trying to kill Mal. That will be me.”
“Are you so sure you wouldn’t?” I shot back. “If it got you closer to what you want, to the throne and your big chance to save Ravka, are you sure you wouldn’t walk me up the gallows steps yourself?”
I expected another of Nikolai’s flip replies, but he looked like I’d punched him in the gut. He started to speak, stopped, then shook his head.
“Saints,” he said, his tone somewhere between bewilderment and disgust. “I really don’t know.”
I slumped back in my chair. His admission should have made me furious, but instead I felt the anger drain out of me. Maybe it was his honesty. Or maybe it was because I’d begun to worry what I might be capable of myself.
We sat there in silence for a long minute. He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and slowly got to his feet. At the doorway, he paused.
“I’m ambitious, Alina. I’m driven. But I hope … I hope I still know the difference between right and wrong.” He hesitated. “I offered you freedom, and I meant it. If tomorrow you decided to run back to Novyi Zem with Mal, I’d put you on a ship and let the sea take you.” He held my gaze, his hazel eyes steady. “But I’d be sorry to see you go.”
He vanished into the hall, his footsteps echoing over the stone floors.
I sat there for a while, picking at my breakfast, mulling over Nikolai’s parting words. Then I gave myself a little shake. I didn’t have time to dissect his motives. In just a few hours, the war council would meet to talk strategy and how best to raise a defense against the Darkling. I had plenty to do to prepare, but first I had a visit to pay.
* * *
AS I FASTENED the sun-shaped buttons of my gold and blue kefta, I gave a rueful shake of my head. Baghra would waste no time mocking my new pretensions. I combed my hair, then slipped out of the Little Palace through the Darkling’s entrance and crossed the grounds to the lake.
The servant I’d spoken to said that Baghra had taken ill shortly after the winter fete and that, since then, she’d stopped accepting students. Of course, I knew the truth. The night of the party, Baghra had revealed the Darkling’s plans and helped me flee the Little Palace. Then she’d sought to buy me time by concealing my absence. The thought of his rage when he’d discovered her deception sat like a stone in my stomach.
When I’d tried to press the jittery maid for details, she’d bobbed a clumsy curtsy and gone scurrying from the room. Still, Baghra was alive, and she was here. The Darkling could destroy an entire town, but it seemed even he drew the line at murdering his own mother.
The path to Baghra’s hut was overgrown with brambles, the summer wood tangled and pungent with the smell of leaves and damp earth. I hastened my steps, surprised at how eager I was to see her. She’d been a hard teacher and an unpleasant woman on her best days, but she’d tried to help me when no one else had, and I knew she was my best chance of solving the riddle of Morozova’s third amplifier.
I climbed the three steps at the front of the hut and knocked. No one answered. I knocked again and then pushed the door open, wincing at the familiar blast of heat. Baghra always seemed to be cold, and entering her hut was like being stuffed into a cookstove.
The dark little room was just as I remembered it: sparsely furnished with only the barest necessities, a fire roaring in the tile oven, and Baghra huddled by it in her faded kefta. I was surprised to see that she wasn’t alone. A servant sat beside her, a young boy dressed in gray. He got to his feet as I entered, peering at me through the gloom.
“No visitors,” he said.
“By whose command?”
At the sound of my voice, Baghra looked up sharply.
She smacked her stick on the ground. “Leave, boy,” she commanded.
“Go!” she snarled.
Just as pleasant as ever, I thought warily.
The boy scurried across the room and out of the hut without another word.
The door had barely shut when Baghra said, “I wondered when you’d make your way back here, little Saint.”
Trust Baghra to call me the one name I didn’t want to hear.
I was already sweating and had no desire to step closer to the fire, but I did it anyway, and crossed the room to sit in the chair the servant had vacated.
She turned toward the flames as I approached, showing me her back. She was in rare form today. I ignored the insult.
I sat silent for a moment, unsure of where to begin. “I was told you’d taken ill after I left.”
I didn’t want to know, but I made myself ask. “What did he do to you?”
She gave a dry laugh. “Less than he might have. More than he should.”
“You were meant to go to Novyi Zem. You were meant to disappear.”
“No, you went hunting,” she sneered with a smack of her stick on the ground. “And what did you find? A pretty necklace to wear for the rest of your life? Come closer,” she said. “I want to know what I bought for my trouble.”
Obligingly, I leaned in. When she turned to me, I gasped.
Baghra had aged a lifetime since I’d seen her last. Her black hair was sparse and graying. Her sharp features had blurred. The taut slash of her mouth looked sunken and soft.
But that was not why I recoiled. Baghra’s eyes were gone. Where they should have been were two black pits, shadows writhing in their fathomless depths.
“Baghra,” I choked out. I reached for her hand, but she flinched away from my touch.
“Spare me your pity, girl.”
“What … what did he do to you?” My voice was little more than a whisper.
She gave another harsh laugh. “He left me in the dark.”
Her voice was strong, but sitting by the fire, I realized it was the only part of her that had remained unchanged. She’d been lean and hard, with the knife-sharp posture of an acrobat. Now, there was a slight tremor in her ancient hands, and her formerly wiry body just looked gaunt and frail.
“Show me,” she said, reaching out. I held still and let her run her hands over my face. The gnarled fingers moved like two white spiders, passing over my tears without interest, crawling down my jaw to the base of my throat, where they came to rest on the collar.
“Ah,” she breathed, her fingertips tracing the rough pieces of antler at my neck, her voice soft, almost wistful. “I would have liked to see his stag.”
I wanted to turn my head, to look away from the teeming black pools of her eyes. Instead, I pushed up my sleeve and grasped one of her hands. She tried to pull away, but I tightened my grip and laid her fingers over the fetter at my wrist. She went still.
“No,” she said. “It cannot be.”
She felt along the ridges of the sea whip’s scales.
“Rusalye,” she whispered. “What have you done, girl?”
Her words gave me hope. “You know about the other amplifiers.”
I winced as her fingers dug into my wrist. “Is it true?” she asked abruptly. “What they say he can do, that he can give life to shadow?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
Her hunched shoulders sagged even further. Then she cast my arm away as if it were something filthy. “Get out.”
“Baghra, I need your help.”
“I said, get out.”
“Please. I need to know where to find the firebird.”
Her sunken mouth trembled slightly. “I betrayed my son once, little Saint. What makes you think I would do it again?”
“You wanted to stop him,” I said hesitantly. “You—”
Baghra pounded the floor with her stick. “I wanted to keep him from becoming a monster! But it’s too late for that, isn’t it? Thanks to you, he is farther from human than he’s ever been. He’s long past any redemption.”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But Ravka isn’t beyond saving.”
“What do I care what happens to this wretched country? Is the world so very fine that you think it worth saving?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I know you do too.”
“You couldn’t make a meat pie from what you know, girl.”
“Fine!” I said, my desperation overwhelming my guilt. “I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. I’m hopeless. That’s why I need your help.”
“You cannot be helped. Your only hope was to run.”
“Tell me what you know about Morozova,” I begged. “Help me find the third amplifier.”
“I couldn’t begin to guess where to find the firebird, and I wouldn’t tell you if I could. All I want now is a warm room and to be left alone to die.”
“I could take away this room,” I said angrily. “Your fire, your obedient servant. You might feel more like talking then.”
The second the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back. A sick wave of shame washed over me. Had I really just threatened a blind old woman?
Baghra laughed that rattling, vicious chuckle. “You’re taking to power well, I see. As it grows, it will hunger for more. Like calls to like, girl.”