“You may not be able to survive the sacrifice that merzost requires. You’ve tasted that power once, and it almost killed you.”
“I have to try.”
Baghra shook her head. “Stupid girl,” she said, but her voice was sad, as if she were chastising another girl, from long ago, lost and unwanted, driven by pain and fear.
“Years later, I returned to the village of my birth. I wasn’t sure what I would find. My father’s workshop was long gone, but his journals were there, tucked away in the same hidden niche in the old cellar.” She released a disbelieving snort. “They’d built a church over it.”
I hesitated, then said, “If Morozova survived, what became of him?”
“He probably took his own life. It’s the way most Grisha of great power die.”
I sat back, stunned. “Why?”
“Do you think I never contemplated it? That my son didn’t? Lovers age. Children die. Kingdoms rise and fall, and we go on. Maybe Morozova is still wandering the earth, older and more bitter than I am. Or maybe he used his power on himself and ended it all. It’s simple enough. Like calls to like. Otherwise…” She chuckled again, that dry, rattling laugh. “You should warn your prince. If he really thinks a bullet will stop a Grisha with three amplifiers, he is much mistaken.”
I shuddered. Would I have the courage to take my own life if it came down to that? If I brought the amplifiers together, I might destroy the Fold, but I might well make something worse in its place. And when I faced the Darkling, even if I dared to use merzost to create an army of light, would it be enough to end him?
“Baghra,” I asked cautiously, “what would it take to kill a Grisha with that kind of power?”
Baghra tapped the bare skin of my wrist, the naked spot where the third amplifier might rest in a matter of days. “Little Saint,” she whispered. “Little martyr. I expect we’ll find out.”
* * *
I SPENT THE REST of the afternoon wording a plea for aid to the Apparat. The missive would be left beneath the altar at the Church of Sankt Lukin in Vernost and, hopefully, would make its way to the White Cathedral through the network of the faithful. We’d used a code that Tolya and Tamar knew from their time with the Soldat Sol, so if the message fell into the Darkling’s hands, he wouldn’t realize that in just over two weeks’ time, Mal and I would be waiting for the Apparat’s forces in Caryeva. The racing city was all but abandoned after the summer, and it was close to the southern border. Either we would have the firebird or we wouldn’t, but we’d be able to march whatever forces we had north under the cover of the Fold and meet with Nikolai’s troops south of Kribirsk.
I had two very different sets of luggage. One was nothing but a simple soldier’s pack that would be put aboard the Bittern. It was stocked with roughspun trousers, an olive drab coat treated to resist the rain, heavy boots, a small reserve of coin for any bribes or purchases I might need to make in Dva Stolba, a fur hat, and a scarf to cover Morozova’s collar. The other set was stowed on the Kingfisher—a collection of three matching trunks emblazoned with my golden sunburst and stuffed with silks and furs.
When evening came, I descended to the boiler level to say my goodbyes to Baghra and Misha. After her dire warning, I was hardly surprised that Baghra waved me off with a scowl. But I’d really come to see Misha. I reassured him that I had found someone to continue his lessons while we were gone, and I gifted him with one of the golden sunburst pins worn by my personal guard. Mal wouldn’t be able to wear it in the south, and the delight on Misha’s face was worth all of Baghra’s sneering.
I took my time wending my way back through the dark passages. It was quiet down here, and I’d barely had a moment to think since Baghra had told me her story. I knew she’d intended it as a cautionary tale, and yet my thoughts kept returning to the little girl who’d been thrown into the river with Ilya Morozova. Baghra thought she’d died. She’d dismissed her sister as otkazat’sya—but what if she simply hadn’t shown her power yet? She was Morozova’s child too. What if her gift was unique, like Baghra’s? If she had survived, her father might have taken her with him in pursuit of the firebird. She might have lived near the Sikurzoi, her power passed down from generation to generation, over hundreds of years. It might have finally shown itself in me.
It was presumption, I knew. Terrible arrogance. And yet, if we found the firebird near Dva Stolba, so close to the place of my birth, could it really be coincidence?
I stopped short. If I was related to Morozova, that meant I was related to the Darkling. And that meant I’d almost … the thought made my skin crawl. No matter how many years and generations might have passed, I still felt like I needed a scalding bath.
My thoughts were interrupted by Nikolai striding down the hall toward me.
“There’s something you should see,” he said.
“Is everything all right?”
“Rather spectacular, actually.” He peered at me. “What did the hag do to you? You look like you ate a particularly slimy bug.”
Or possibly exchanged kisses and a bit more than that with my cousin. I shuddered.
Nikolai offered me his arm. “Well, whatever it is, you’ll have to cringe about it later. There’s a miracle upstairs, and it won’t wait.”
I looped my arm through his. “Never one to oversell it, are you, Lantsov?”
“It’s not overselling if you deliver.”
We’d just started up the stairs when Mal came bounding down in the opposite direction. He was beaming, his face alight with excitement. That smile was like a bomb going off in my chest. It belonged to a Mal I’d thought had disappeared beneath the scars of this war.
He caught sight of me and Nikolai, arms entwined. It took the briefest second for his face to shutter. He bowed and stepped aside for us to pass.
“Headed the wrong way,” said Nikolai. “You’re going to miss it.”
“Be up in a minute,” Mal replied. His voice sounded so normal, so pleasant, I almost believed I’d imagined that smile.
Still, it took everything in me to keep climbing those stairs, to keep my hand on Nikolai’s arm. Despise your heart, I told myself. Do what needs to be done.
When we reached the top of the stairs and entered the Spinning Wheel, my jaw dropped. The lanterns had been extinguished so that the room was dark, but all around us, stars were falling. The windows were lit with streaks of light cascading over the mountaintop, like bright fish in a river.
“Meteor shower,” said Nikolai as he led me carefully through the room. People had laid blankets and pillows on the heated floor and were sitting in clusters or lying on their backs, watching the night sky.
All at once, the pain in my chest was so bad it nearly bent me double. Because this was what Mal had been coming to show me. Because that look—that open, eager, happy look—had been for me. Because I would always be the first person he turned to when he saw something lovely, and I would do the same. Whether I was a Saint or a queen or the most powerful Grisha who ever lived, I would always turn to him.
“Beautiful,” I managed.
“I told you I had a lot of money.”
“So you arrange celestial events now?”
“As a sideline.”
We stood at the center of the room, gazing up at the glass dome.
“I could promise to make you forget him,” Nikolai offered.
“I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“You do realize you’re playing havoc with my pride.”
“Your confidence seems perfectly intact.”
“Think about it,” he said, leading me through the crowd to a quiet nook near the western terrace. “I’m used to being the center of attention wherever I go. I’ve been told I could charm the shoes off a racehorse midstride, and yet you seem impervious.”
I laughed. “You know damn well I like you, Nikolai.”
“Such a tepid sentiment.”
“I don’t hear you making declarations of love.”
“Would they help?”
“Flattery? Flowers? A hundred head of cattle?”
I gave him a shove. “No.”
Even now I knew that bringing me up here was less a romantic gesture than it was a display. The mess hall was deserted, and we had this little pocket of the Spinning Wheel to ourselves, but he’d made sure we’d taken the long way through the crowd. He’d wanted us to be seen together: the future King and Queen of Ravka.
Nikolai cleared his throat. “Alina, on the very slim chance that we survive the next few weeks, I’m going to ask you to be my wife.”
My mouth went dry. I’d known this was where we were headed, but it was still strange to hear him say those words.
“Even if Mal wants to stay on,” Nikolai continued, “I’m going to have him reassigned.”
Say goodnight. Tell me to leave, Alina.
“I understand,” I said quietly.
“Do you? I know I said that we could have a marriage in name only, but if we … if we had a child, I wouldn’t want him to have to endure the rumors and the jokes.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “One royal bastard is enough.”
Children. With Nikolai.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was talking to him or myself. “I could lead the Second Army, and you could have pretty much any girl you want.”
“A Shu princess? A Kerch banker’s daughter?”
“Or a Ravkan heiress or a Grisha like Zoya.”
“Zoya? I make it a policy never to seduce anyone prettier than I am.”
I laughed. “I think that was an insult.”
“Alina, this is the alliance I want: the First and Second Armies brought together. As for the rest, I’ve always known that whatever marriage I made would be political. It would be about power, not love. But we might get lucky. In time, we might have both.”
“Or the third amplifier will turn me into a power-mad dictator and you’ll have to kill me.”
“Yes, that would make for an awkward honeymoon.” He took my hand, circling my bare wrist with his fingers. I tensed, and realized I was waiting for the rush of surety that came with the Darkling’s touch, or a jolt like the one I’d felt that night at the Little Palace when Mal and I had argued by the banya. Nothing happened. Nikolai’s skin was warm, his grip gentle. I’d wondered if I would ever feel something so simple again or if the power in me would just keep jumping and crackling, seeking connection the way lightning seeks high ground.
“Collar,” Nikolai said. “Fetters. I won’t have to spend much on jewelry.”
“I have expensive taste in tiaras.”
“But only one head.”
“Thus far.” I glanced down at my wrist. “I should warn you, based on the conversation I had today with Baghra, if things do go wrong with the amplifiers, getting rid of me may require more than your usual firepower.”
“Possibly another Sun Summoner.” It’s simple enough. Like calls to like.
“I’m sure there’s a spare around somewhere.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“See?” he said. “If we’re not dead in a month, we might be very happy together.”
“Stop that,” I said, still grinning.
“Saying the right thing.”
“I’ll try to wean myself of the habit.” His smile faltered. He reached out and brushed the hair back from my face. I froze. He rested his hand in the space where the collar met the curve of my neck, and when I didn’t bolt, he slid his palm up to cup my cheek.
I wasn’t sure I wanted this. “You said … you said you wouldn’t kiss me until—”
“Until you were thinking of me instead of trying to forget him?” He moved closer, the light from the meteor shower playing over his features. He leaned in, giving me time to pull away. I could feel his breath when he said, “I love it when you quote me.”
He brushed his lips over mine once, briefly, then again. It was less a kiss than the promise of one.
“When you’re ready,” he said. Then he tucked my hand in his and we stood together, watching the spill of stars streaking the sky.
We might be happy in time. People fell in love every day. Genya and David. Tamar and Nadia. But were they happy? Would they stay that way? Maybe love was superstition, a prayer we said to keep the truth of loneliness at bay. I tilted my head back. The stars looked like they were close together, when really they were millions of miles apart. In the end, maybe love just meant longing for something impossibly bright and forever out of reach.
THE NEXT MORNING, I found Nikolai on the eastern terrace taking weather readings. Mal’s team was set to depart within the hour and was only waiting for the all clear. I pulled up my hood. It wasn’t quite snowing, but a few flakes had settled on my cheeks and hair.
“How does everything look?” I asked, handing Nikolai a glass of tea.
“Not bad,” he replied. “Gusts are mild, and the pressure’s holding steady. They may have it rough through the mountains, but it shouldn’t be anything the Bittern can’t handle.”
I heard the door open behind me, and Mal and Tamar stepped out onto the terrace. They were dressed in peasant clothes, fur hats, and sturdy wool coats.
“Are we a go?” Tamar asked. She was trying to seem calm, but I could hear the barely leashed excitement in her voice. Behind her, I saw Nadia with her face pressed against the glass, awaiting the verdict.