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Ruin and Rising

Ruin and Rising

Page 17

He didn’t even hesitate. “Yes,” he gasped out.

I felt guilty for the rush of relief that came over me. Sergei had slowed us during our fight with the militia. He was unstable. I could apologize, offer useless words, but I didn’t know how to help him, and it didn’t change the fact that we were at war. Sergei had become a liability.

“I’ll see to the arrangements. If there’s anything else you need…” I trailed off, unsure of how to finish. Awkwardly, I patted his shoulder, then rose and turned to go.

“Alina?”

I paused in the doorway. I could just make him out in the dark, the light from the hallway glinting off his damp cheeks. “I’m sorry about Genya. About everything.”

I remembered the way Marie and Sergei used to jab at each other, thought of them sitting arm in arm, laughing over a shared cup of tea. “Me too,” I whispered.

When I emerged into the hall, I was startled to see Baghra waiting with Misha.

“What are you doing out here?”

“We came to find you. What’s the matter with that boy?”

“He’s had a hard time of it,” I said, leading them away from the tank room.

“Who hasn’t?”

“He saw the girl he loved gutted by your son and held her while she died.”

“Suffering is cheap as clay and twice as common. What matters is what each man makes of it. Now,” she said with a rap of her stick, “lessons.”

I was so stunned that it took me a moment to understand her meaning. Lessons? Baghra had refused to teach me since I’d returned to the Little Palace with the second amplifier. I gathered my wits and followed her down the hall. I was probably a fool for asking, but I couldn’t stop myself. “What changed your mind?”

“I had a chat with our new King.”

“Nikolai?”

She grunted.

My steps slowed when I saw where Misha was leading her. “You ride in the iron box?”

“Of course,” she snapped. “I should drag my body up all those stairs?”

I glanced at Misha, who looked placidly back at me, hand resting on the wooden practice sword at his hip. I edged into the horrible contraption.

Misha slammed the grate closed and pulled the lever. I shut my eyes as we hurtled upward, then jolted to a stop.

“What did Nikolai say?” I asked shakily as we stepped out into the Spinning Wheel.

Baghra gave a wave of her hand. “I warned him that once you had the power of the amplifiers, you might be as dangerous as my son.”

“Thanks,” I said drily. She was right and I knew it, but it didn’t mean I wanted Nikolai worrying about it.

“I made him swear that if that happened, he’d put a bullet in you.”

“And?” I asked, even as I dreaded hearing it.

“He gave me his word. Whatever that’s worth.”

I happened to know Nikolai’s word was good. He might mourn me. He might never forgive himself. But Nikolai’s first love was Ravka. He would never tolerate a threat to his country.

“Why don’t you do it now and save him the trouble?” I muttered.

“I think about it daily,” she snapped back. “Especially when you run your mouth.”

Baghra murmured instructions to Misha, and he led us to the southern terrace. The door was hidden in the hem of the Shorn Maiden’s brass skirts, and there were coats and hats hung on hooks along her boot. Baghra was already so bundled up I could barely see her face, but I grabbed a fur hat for myself and buttoned Misha into a thick wool coat before we stepped out into the biting cold.

The end of the long terrace ended in a point, almost like the prow of a ship, and the cloud bank lay like a frozen sea before us. Occasionally the mist parted, offering glimpses of the snow-covered peaks and gray rock far below. I shuddered. Too big. Too high. Sergei wasn’t wrong. Only the tallest peaks of the Elbjen were visible above the clouds, and again I was reminded of an island chain stretching south.

“Tell me what you see,” said Baghra.

“Mostly clouds,” I said, “sky, a few mountain peaks.”

“How far to the closest one?”

I tried to gauge the distance. “At least a mile, maybe two?”

“Good,” she said. “Take its head off.”

“What?”

“You’ve used the Cut before.”

“It’s a mountain,” I said. “A really big mountain.”

“And you’re the first Grisha to wear two amplifiers. Do it.”

“It’s miles away!”

“Are you hoping I’ll grow old and die while you complain?”

“What if someone sees—”

“The range is uninhabited this far north. Stop making excuses.”

I heaved a frustrated sigh. I’d worn the amplifiers for months. I had a good sense of the limits of my power.

I held up my gloved hands, and the light came to me in a welcome rush, shimmering over the cloud bank. I focused it, narrowing it to a blade. Then, feeling like an idiot, I struck out in the direction of the nearest peak.

Not even close. The light burned through the clouds at least a few hundred yards short of the mountain, briefly revealing the peaks below and leaving shreds of mist in its wake.

“How did she do?” Baghra asked Misha.

“Badly.”

I scowled at him. Little traitor. Someone snickered behind me.

I turned. We’d drawn a crowd of soldiers and Grisha. It was easy to pick out the red crest of Harshaw’s hair. He had Oncat curled round his neck like an orange scarf, and Zoya was smirking beside him. Perfect. Nothing like a little humiliation on an empty stomach.

“Again,” said Baghra.

“It’s too far,” I grumbled. “And it’s huge.” Couldn’t we have started smaller? Say, with a house?

“It is not too far,” she sneered. “You are as much there as you are here. The same things that make the mountain make you. It has no lungs, so let it breathe with you. It has no pulse, so give it your heartbeat. That is the essence of the Small Science.” She thumped me with her stick. “Stop huffing like a wild boar. Breathe the way I taught you—contained, even.”

I felt my cheeks redden, and I slowed my breathing.

Snippets of Grisha theory filled my head. Odinakovost. Thisness. Etovost. Thatness. It was all a muddle. But the words that came back to me most strongly were Morozova’s fevered scrawl: Are we not all things?

I closed my eyes. This time, instead of drawing the light to me, I went to it. I felt myself scatter, reflecting off the terrace, the snow, the glass behind me.

I lashed out with the Cut. It struck the side of the mountain, sending a sheet of ice and rock tumbling with a dull roar.

A cheer went up from the crowd at my back.

“Hmph,” said Baghra. “They’d clap for a dancing monkey.”

“All depends on the monkey,” said Nikolai from the edge of the terrace. “And the dance.”

Great. More company.

“Better?” Baghra asked Misha.

“A little,” he said grudgingly.

“A lot!” I protested. “I hit it, didn’t I?”

“I didn’t ask you to hit it,” said Baghra. “I told you to take its head off. Again.”

“Ten coins says she doesn’t make it,” called one of Nikolai’s rogue Grisha.

“Twenty says she does,” shouted Adrik loyally.

I could have hugged him, though I knew for a fact he didn’t have the money.

“Thirty says she can hit the one behind it.”

I whirled. Mal was leaning against the archway, his arms crossed.

“That peak is over five miles away,” I protested.

“More like six,” he said breezily, a challenge in his eyes. It was as if we were back at Keramzin, and he was daring me to steal a bag of sweet almonds or luring me out onto Trivka’s pond before the ice had set. I can’t, I’d say. Of course you can, he’d reply, gliding away from me on borrowed skates, the toes stuffed with paper, never turning his back, making sure I would follow.

As the crowd hooted and placed wagers, Baghra spoke to me in a low voice. “We say like calls to like, girl. But if the science is small enough, then we are like all things. The light lives in the spaces between. It is there in the soil of that mountain, in the rock and in the snow. The Cut is already made.”

I stared at her. She’d as good as quoted Morozova’s journals that time. She’d said the Darkling had been obsessed with them. Was she telling me something more now?

I pushed up my sleeves and raised my hands. The crowd went silent. I focused on the peak in the distance, so far away I couldn’t make out its details.

I called the light to me and then released it, letting myself go with it. I was in the clouds, above them, and for a brief moment, I was in the dark of the mountain, feeling myself compressed and breathless. I was the spaces between, where light lived even if it could not be seen. When I brought my arm down, the arc I made was infinite, a shining sword that existed in a moment and in every moment beyond it.

There was an echoing crack, like thunder from a distance. The sky seemed to vibrate.

Silently, slowly, the top of the far mountain began to move. It didn’t tip, just slid inexorably to the side, snow and rock cascading down its face, leaving a perfect diagonal line where a peak had once been, a ledge of exposed gray rock, jutting just above the cloud bank.

Behind me, I heard shrieking and whooping. Misha was jumping up and down, crowing, “She did it! She did it!”

I glanced over my shoulder. Mal gave me the barest nod, then started rounding everyone up and back into the Spinning Wheel. I saw him point to one of the rogues and mouth, “Pay up.”

I turned back to the broken mountain, my blood fizzing with power, my mind reeling from the reality, the permanence of what I’d just done. Again, clamored a voice inside me, hungry for more. First a man, then a mountain. There and gone. Easy. I shivered in my kefta, comforted by the soft brush of the fox fur.

“Took your time,” grumbled Baghra. “At this rate, I’ll lose both my feet to frostbite before you make any progress at all.”

Chapter 8

SERGEI LEFT THAT NIGHT on the Ibis, the cargo barge that had been pressed into service while the Pelican was being repaired. Nikolai had offered him a place at a quiet way station near Duva where he could recuperate and be of some help to the smugglers passing through. He’d even offered to let Sergei wait and take shelter in West Ravka, but Sergei had simply been too anxious to leave.

The next morning, Nikolai and I met with Mal and the twins to figure out the logistics of pursuing the firebird in the southern Sikurzoi. The rest of the Grisha didn’t know the location of the third amplifier, and we intended to keep it that way as long as we could.

Nikolai had spent the better part of two nights studying Morozova’s journals, and he was just as concerned as I was, convinced that there must be books missing or in the Darkling’s possession. He wanted me to pressure Baghra, but I had to be careful how I approached the subject. If I provoked her, we’d have no new information and she’d stop my lessons.

“It’s not just that the books are unfinished,” Nikolai said. “Does Morozova strike anyone as a little … eccentric?”

“If by eccentric you mean insane, then yes,” I admitted. “I’m hoping he can be crazy and right.”

Nikolai contemplated the map tacked to the wall. “And this is still our only clue?” He tapped a nondescript valley on the southern border. “That’s a lot riding on two skinny pieces of rock.”

The unmarked valley was Dva Stolba, home to the settlements where Mal and I had been born, and named for the ruins that stood at its southern entrance—slender, wind-eroded spires that someone had decided were the remnants of two mills. But we believed they were actually the ruins of an ancient arch, a signpost to the firebird, the last of Ilya Morozova’s amplifiers.

“There’s an abandoned copper mine located at Murin,” said Nikolai. “You can land the Bittern there and enter the valley on foot.”

“Why not fly right into the Sikurzoi?” Mal asked.

Tamar shook her head. “Could be tricky maneuvering. There are fewer landing sites, and the terrain is a lot more dangerous.”

“All right,” agreed Mal. “Then we set down in Murin and come over the Jidkova Pass.”

“We should have good cover,” Tolya said. “Nevsky claims a lot of people are traveling through the border cities, trying to get out of Ravka before winter arrives and the mountains become impossible to cross.”

“How long will it take you to find the firebird?” Nikolai asked.

Everyone turned to Mal.

“No way of knowing,” he said. “It took me months to find the stag. Hunting the sea whip took less than a week.” He kept his eyes on the map, but I could feel the memory of those days rising up between us. We’d spent them in the icy waters of the Bone Road with the threat of torture hanging over us. “The Sikurzoi cover a lot of territory. We need to get moving as quickly as possible.”

“Have you chosen your crew?” Nikolai asked Tamar.

She had practically broken into a dance when he suggested that she captain the Bittern and had immediately set about getting familiar with the ship and its requirements.

“Zoya isn’t great at working in a team,” Tamar replied, “but we need Squallers, and she and Nadia are our best options. Stigg’s not bad with the lines, and it can’t hurt to have at least one Inferni on board. We should be able to do a test run tomorrow.”

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