She held up her hands, warding us off. “I don’t want your pity,” she said ferociously. Her voice was raw, wild. We stood there helplessly. “You don’t understand.” She covered her face with her hands. “None of you do.”
“Genya—” David tried.
“Don’t you dare,” she said roughly, tears welling up again. “You never looked at me twice before I was like this, before I was broken. Now I’m just something for you to fix.”
I was desperate for words to soothe her, but before I could find any, David bunched up his shoulders and said, “I know metal.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Genya cried.
David furrowed his brow. “I … I don’t understand half of what goes on around me. I don’t get jokes or sunsets or poetry, but I know metal.” His fingers flexed unconsciously as if he were physically grasping for words. “Beauty was your armor. Fragile stuff, all show. But what’s inside you? That’s steel. It’s brave and unbreakable. And it doesn’t need fixing.” He drew in a deep breath then awkwardly stepped forward. He took her face in his hands and kissed her.
Genya went rigid. I thought she’d push him away. But then she threw her arms around him and kissed him back. Emphatically.
Mal cleared his throat, and Tamar gave a low whistle. I had to bite my lip to stifle a nervous laugh.
They broke apart. David was blushing furiously. Genya’s grin was so dazzling it made my heart twist in my chest. “We should get you out of the workshop more often,” she said.
This time I did laugh. I stopped short when Nikolai said, “Do not think to rest easy, Genya Safin.” His voice was cold and deeply weary. “When this war is over, you will face charges, and I will decide whether or not you are to be pardoned.”
Genya bowed gracefully. “I don’t fear your justice, moi tsar.”
“I’m not the King yet.”
“Moi tsarevich,” she amended.
“Go,” he said, waving us away. When I hesitated, he simply said, “All of you.”
As the doors closed, I saw him slump at his drafting table, his head in his hands.
I trailed the others back down the hall. David was murmuring to Genya about the properties of vegetable alkaloids and beryllium dust. I wasn’t sure how wise it was for them to be colluding over poisons, but I supposed this was their version of a romantic moment.
My feet dragged at the prospect of returning to the Spinning Wheel. It had been one of the longest days of my life, and though I’d held exhaustion at bay, now it settled over my shoulders like a sodden coat. I decided that Genya or Tamar could update the rest of the Grisha on what had happened, and I would deal with Sergei tomorrow. But before I could find my bed and sink into it, there was something I needed to know.
At the stairs, I grabbed Genya’s hand. “What did you whisper?” I asked quietly. “To the King.”
She watched the others move up the steps, then said, “Na razrusha’ya. E’ya razrushost.” I am not ruined. I am ruination.
My brows rose. “Remind me to stay on your good side.”
“Darling,” she said, turning one scarred cheek to me, then the other, “I don’t have a good side anymore.” Her tone was merry, but I heard sadness there too. She winked at me with her remaining eye and disappeared up the stairs.
* * *
MAL HAD WORKED with Nevsky to see to our sleeping arrangements, so he was left to show me to my quarters, a set of rooms on the eastern side of the mountain. The door frame was formed by the clasped hands of two bronze maidens I thought might be meant to embody the Morning and Evening Stars. Inside, the far wall was entirely taken up by a round window, ringed in riveted brass like a sidescuttle on a ship. The lanterns were lit, and though the view would most likely be spectacular in the daytime, right now, there was nothing to see but darkness and my own tired face looking back at me.
“The twins and I will be right next door,” Mal said. “And one of us will be posted while you sleep.”
A pitcher of hot water was waiting for me by the basin, and I rinsed my face as Mal reported on the accommodations he’d secured for the rest of the Grisha, how long it would take to outfit our expedition into the Sikurzoi, and how he wanted to divide the group. I tried to listen, but at some point, my mind shut down.
I sat on the stone bench of the window seat. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t.”
He stood there, and I could almost see him wrestling with whether or not to sit down beside me. In the end, he stayed where he was.
“You saved my life today,” he said.
I shrugged. “And you saved mine. It’s kind of what we do.”
“I know it isn’t easy, making your first kill.”
“I’ve been responsible for a lot of deaths. This shouldn’t be any different.”
“But it is.”
“He was a soldier like us. He probably has a family somewhere, a girl he loves, maybe even a child. He was there and then he was just … gone.” I knew I should leave it at that, but I needed to let the words out. “And you know the really scary part? It was easy.”
Mal was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “I’m not sure who my first kill was. We were hunting the stag when we ran into a Fjerdan patrol on the northern border. I don’t think the fight lasted more than a few minutes, but I killed three men. They were doing a job, same as I was, trying to get through one day to the next, then they were bleeding in the snow. No way to tell who was the first to fall, and I’m not sure it matters. You keep them at a distance. The faces start to blur.”
I hesitated. I couldn’t look at him when I whispered, “It felt good.” He didn’t say anything, so I plunged on. “It doesn’t matter why I’m using the Cut, what I’m doing with the power. It always feels good.”
I was afraid to look at him, afraid of the disgust I’d see on his face or, worse, the fear. But when I forced myself to glance up, Mal’s expression was thoughtful.
“You could have struck down the Apparat and all his Priestguards, but you didn’t.”
“I wanted to.”
“But you didn’t. You’ve had plenty of opportunities to be brutal, to be cruel. You’ve never taken them.”
“Not yet. The firebird—”
He shook his head. “The firebird won’t change who you are. You’ll still be the girl who took a beating for me when I was the one who broke Ana Kuya’s ormolu clock.”
I groaned, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “And you let me.”
He laughed. “Of course I did. That woman is terrifying.” Then his expression sobered. “You’ll still be the girl who was willing to sacrifice her life to save us at the Little Palace, the same girl I just saw back a servant over a king.”
“She’s not a servant. She’s—”
“A friend. I know.” He hesitated. “The thing is, Alina, Luchenko was right.”
It took me a moment to place the militia leader’s name. “About what?”
“There’s something wrong with this country. No land. No life. Just a uniform and a gun. That’s how I used to think too.”
He had. He’d been willing to walk away from Ravka without a second glance. “What changed?”
“You. I saw it that night in the chapel. If I hadn’t been so scared, I could have seen it before.”
I thought of the militiaman’s body falling in pieces. “Maybe you were right to be scared of me.”
“I wasn’t afraid of you, Alina. I was afraid of losing you. The girl you were becoming didn’t need me anymore, but she’s who you were always meant to be.”
“Power hungry? Ruthless?”
“Strong.” He looked away. “Luminous. And maybe a little ruthless too. That’s what it takes to rule. Ravka is broken, Alina. I think it always has been. The girl I saw in the chapel could change that.”
“Nikolai’s a born leader. He knows how to fight. Knows how to politic. But he doesn’t know what it is to live without hope. He’s never been nothing. Not like you or Genya. Not like me.”
“He’s a good man,” I protested.
“And he’ll be a good king. But he needs you to be a great one.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I pressed a finger to the window glass, then wiped the smudge away with my sleeve. “I’m going to ask him if I can bring the students here from Keramzin. The orphans too.”
“Take him with you when you go,” Mal said. “He should see where you come from.” He laughed. “You can introduce him to Ana Kuya.”
“I already unleashed Baghra on Nikolai. He’s going to think I stockpile vicious old women.” I made another fingerprint on the glass. Without looking at him, I said, “Mal, tell me about the tattoo.”
He was silent for a time. Finally, he scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck and said, “It’s an oath in old Ravkan.”
“But why take on that mark?”
This time he didn’t blush or turn away. “It’s a promise to be better than I was,” he said. “It’s a vow that if I can’t be anything else to you, at least I can be a weapon in your hand.” He shrugged. “And I guess it’s a reminder that wanting and deserving aren’t the same thing.”
“What do you want, Mal?” The room seemed very quiet.
“Don’t ask me that.”
“Because it can’t be.”
“I want to hear it anyway.”
He blew out a long breath. “Say goodnight. Tell me to leave, Alina.”
“You need an army. You need a crown.”
He laughed then. “I know I’m supposed to say something noble—I want a united Ravka free from the Fold. I want the Darkling in the ground, where he can never hurt you or anyone else again.” He gave a rueful shake of his head. “But I guess I’m the same selfish ass I’ve always been. For all my talk of vows and honor, what I really want is to put you up against that wall and kiss you until you forget you ever knew another man’s name. So tell me to go, Alina. Because I can’t give you a title or an army or any of the things you need.”
He was right. I knew that. Whatever fragile, lovely thing had existed between us belonged to two other people—people who weren’t bound by duty and responsibility—and I wasn’t sure what remained. And still I wanted him to put his arms around me, I wanted to hear him whisper my name in the dark, I wanted to ask him to stay.
He touched the space over his heart where he wore the golden sunburst I’d given him long ago in a darkened garden.
“Moi soverenyi,” he said softly. He bowed and was gone.
The door closed behind him. I doused the lanterns and lay down on the bed, pulling the blankets around me. The window wall was like a great round eye, and now that the room was dark, I could see the stars.
I brushed my thumb over the scar on my palm, made years ago by the edge of a broken blue cup, a reminder of the moment when my whole world had shifted, when I’d given up a part of my heart that I would never get back.
We’d made the wise choice, done the right thing. I had to believe that logic would bring comfort in time. Tonight, there was just this too-quiet room, the ache of loss, knowledge deep and final as the tolling of a bell: Something good has gone.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING, I woke to Tolya at my bedside.
“I found Sergei,” he said.
“Was he missing?”
“All last night.”
I dressed in the clean clothes that had been left for me: tunic, trousers, new boots, and a thick wool kefta in Summoner blue, lined with red fox, its cuffs embroidered with gold. Nikolai always came prepared.
I let Tolya lead me down the stairs to the boiler level and to one of the darkened water rooms. Instantly, I regretted my choice of clothing; it was miserably hot. I cast a glow of light inside. Sergei was seated up against the wall near one of the big metal tanks, his knees pressed to his chest.
He squinted and turned his head away. Tolya and I exchanged a glance.
I patted his big arm. “Go find your breakfast,” I said, my own stomach growling. When Tolya had gone, I dimmed the light and went to sit beside Sergei. “What are you doing down here?”
“Too big up there,” he mumbled. “Too high.”
There was more to it than that, more to him letting Genya’s name slip, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. We’d never had a chance to talk about the disaster at the Little Palace. Or maybe there’d been opportunities and I’d avoided them. I wanted to apologize for Marie’s death, for putting her in danger, for not being there to save her. But what words were there for that kind of failure? What words could fill the hole where a living girl with chestnut curls and a lilting giggle had been?
“I miss Marie too,” I said finally. “And the others.”
He buried his face in his arms. “I was never afraid before, not really. Now I’m scared all the time. I can’t make it stop.”
I put my arm around him. “We’re all scared. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”
“I just want to feel safe again.”
His shoulders were shaking. I wished I had Nikolai’s gift for finding the right words. “Sergei,” I said, not sure if I was about to make matters better or worse, “Nikolai has camps on the ground, some in Tsibeya and a little farther south. There are way stations for the smugglers, away from most of the fighting. If he agrees to it, would you prefer to be assigned there? You could work as a Healer. Or maybe just rest for a while?”