“Merzost,” Tolya whispered. “Power over life and death.”
I nodded. Magic. Abomination. The power of creation. That was why the journals were incomplete. In the end, there had been no reason for Morozova to hunt for a creature to make into the third amplifier. The cycle had already been completed. He’d endowed his daughter with the power he’d meant for the firebird. The circle had closed.
Morozova had achieved his grand design, but not the way he had expected. To dabble in merzost, well, the results are never quite what one would hope. When the Darkling had tampered with the making at the heart of the world, the punishment for his arrogance was the Fold, a place where his power was meaningless. Morozova had created three amplifiers that could never be brought together without his daughter forfeiting her life, without his descendants paying in flesh and blood.
“But the stag and the sea whip … they were ancient,” said Zoya.
“Morozova chose them deliberately. They were sacred creatures—rare, fierce. His child was just an ordinary otkazat’sya girl.” Was that why the Darkling and Baghra had discounted her so readily? They’d assumed she’d died that day, but the resurrection must have made her stronger—her fragile, mortal life, a life bound by the rules of this world, had been replaced by something else. But in the moment when Morozova gave his daughter a second life, a life that didn’t rightly belong to her, would he have cared if it was abomination that made it possible?
“She survived the plunge into the river,” I said. “And Morozova brought her south to the settlements.” To live and die in the shadow of the arch that would someday give Dva Stolba its name.
I looked at Mal. “She must have passed her power on to her descendants, built into their bones.” A bitter laugh escaped me. “I thought it was me,” I said. “I was so desperate to believe there was some great purpose to all this, that I didn’t just … happen. I thought I was the other branch of Morozova’s line. But it was you, Mal. It was always you.”
Mal watched me through the flames. He hadn’t said a word through the whole conversation, through all of a dinner that only Tolya and Oncat had managed to eat.
He said nothing now. Instead he rose and walked to me. He held out his hand. I hesitated the briefest moment, almost afraid to touch him, then placed my palm in his and let him pull me to my feet. Silently, he led me to one of the tents.
Behind me, I heard Zoya grumble, “Oh, Saints, now I have to listen to Tolya snore all night?”
“You snore too,” said Harshaw. “And it isn’t ladylike.”
“I do not…”
Their voices faded as we bent to enter the dim confines of the tent. Firelight filtered through the canvas walls and sent shadows swaying. Without a word, we lay down in the furs. Mal curled around me, his chest pressed to my back, his arms a tight circle, his breath soft against the crook of my neck. It was the way we’d slept with the insects buzzing around us by the shores of Trivka’s Pond, in the belly of a ship bound for Novyi Zem, on a narrow cot in the run-down boardinghouse in Cofton.
His hand slid down my forearm. Gently, he clasped the bare skin of my wrist, letting his fingers touch, testing. When they met, that jolting force moved through both of us, even that brief taste of power nearly unbearable in its force.
My throat constricted—with misery, with confusion, and with shameful, undeniable longing. To want this from him was too much, too cruel. It’s not fair. Stupid words, childish. Senseless.
“We’ll find another way,” I whispered.
Mal’s fingers separated, but he kept my wrist in a loose hold as he drew me closer. I felt as I always had in his arms—complete, like I was home. But now I had to question even that. Was what I felt real or some product of a destiny Morozova had set into motion hundreds of years ago?
Mal brushed the hair from my neck. He pressed a single brief kiss to the skin above the collar.
“No, Alina,” he said softly. “We won’t.”
* * *
THE RETURN JOURNEY to Dva Stolba seemed shorter. We kept to the high country, to the narrow spines of the hills, as distance and days faded beneath our feet. We moved more quickly because the terrain was familiar and Mal wasn’t seeking signs of the firebird, but I also just felt as if time were contracting. I dreaded the reality that awaited us back in the valley, the decisions we would have to make, the explanations I would have to give.
We traveled in near silence, Harshaw humming occasionally or murmuring to Oncat, the rest of us locked in our own thoughts. After that first night, Mal kept his distance. I hadn’t approached him. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say. His mood had changed—that calm was still there, but now I had the eerie sense that he was drinking in the world, memorizing it. He would turn his face up to the sun and let his eyes close, or break a stalk of bur marigold and press it to his nose. He hunted for us every night that we had enough cover for a fire. He pointed out larks’ nests and wild geranium, and caught a field mouse for Oncat, who seemed too spoiled to do any hunting of her own.
“For a doomed man,” said Zoya, “you’re remarkably chipper.”
“He isn’t doomed,” I snapped.
Mal nocked an arrow, drew back, and released. It twanged into what looked like a cloudless and empty sky, but a second later, we heard a distant caw and a shape plummeted to the earth nearly a mile ahead of us. He shouldered his bow. “We all die,” he said as he jogged off to retrieve his kill. “Not everyone dies for a reason.”
“Are we philosophizing?” asked Harshaw. “Or were those song lyrics?”
As Harshaw started humming, I ran to catch up with Mal.
“Don’t say that,” I said as I came level with him. “Don’t talk that way.”
“And don’t think that way either.”
He actually grinned.
“Mal, please,” I said desperately, not even sure what I was asking for. I grabbed his hand. He turned to me, and I didn’t stop to think. I went up on my toes and kissed him. It took him the barest second to react, then he dropped his bow and kissed me back, arms winding tight around me, the hard planes of his body pressed against mine.
“Alina—” he began.
I grabbed the lapels of his coat, tears filling my eyes. “Don’t tell me this is all happening for a reason,” I said fiercely. “Or that it’s going to be okay. Don’t tell me you’re ready to die.”
We stood in the tall grass, wind singing through the reeds. He met my gaze, his blue eyes steady. “It’s not going to be okay.” He brushed the hair back from my cheeks and cupped my face in his rough hands. “None of this is happening for a reason.” He skimmed his lips over mine. “And Saints help me, Alina, I want to live forever.”
He kissed me again, and this time, he didn’t stop—not until my cheeks were flushed and my heart was racing, not until I could barely remember my own name, let alone anyone else’s, not until we heard Harshaw singing, and Tolya grumbling, and Zoya cheerfully promising to murder us all.
* * *
THAT NIGHT, I slept in Mal’s arms, wrapped in furs beneath the stars. We whispered in the dark, stealing kisses, conscious of the others lying only a few feet away. Some part of me wished that a Shu raiding party would come and put a bullet through both of our hearts, leave us there forever, two bodies that would turn to dust and be forgotten. I thought about just leaving, abandoning the others, abandoning Ravka as we’d once intended, striking out through the mountains and making our way to the coast.
I thought of all these things. But I rose the next morning, and the morning after that. I ate dry biscuits, drank bitter tea. Too soon, the mountains faded, and we began our final descent into Dva Stolba. We’d arrived back sooner than expected, in time to retrieve the Bittern and still meet any forces the Apparat might send to Caryeva. When I saw the two stone spindles of the ruins, I wanted to level them, let the Cut do what time and weather had failed to, and turn them to rubble.
It took a little while to locate the boardinghouse where Tamar and the others had found lodging. It was two stories high and painted a cheerful blue, its porch hung with prayer bells, its pointed roof covered in Shu inscriptions that glittered with gold pigment.
We found Tamar and Nadia seated at a low table in one of the public rooms, Adrik beside them, his empty coat sleeve neatly pinned, a book perched awkwardly on his knees. They sprang to their feet when they saw us.
Tolya enveloped his sister in an enormous hug, while Zoya gave Nadia and Adrik a grudging embrace. Tamar hugged me close as Oncat sprang from Harshaw’s shoulders to forage through the leavings of their meal.
“What happened?” she asked, taking in my troubled expression.
Misha came pelting down the stairs and hurled himself at Mal. “You came back!” he shouted.
“Of course we did,” said Mal, sweeping him into a hug. “Did you keep to your duties?”
Misha nodded solemnly.
“Good. I expect a full report later.”
“Come on,” Adrik said eagerly. “Did you find it? David’s upstairs with Genya. Should I go get him?”
“Adrik,” chastised Nadia, “they’re exhausted and probably starving.”
“Is there tea?” asked Tolya.
Adrik nodded and went off to order.
“We have news,” said Tamar, “and it isn’t good.”
I didn’t think it could possibly be worse than our news, so I waved her on. “Tell me.”
“The Darkling attacked West Ravka.”
I sat down hard. “When?”
“Almost immediately after you left.”
I nodded. It was some comfort in knowing there was nothing I could have done. “How bad?”
“He used the Fold to take a big chunk out of the south, but from what we’ve heard, most of the people had already evacuated.”
“Any word of Nikolai’s forces?”
“There are rumors of cells cropping up fighting under the Lantsov banner, but without Nikolai to lead them, I’m not sure how long they’ll hold out.”
“All right.” At least now I knew what we were dealing with.
I glanced at Tamar questioningly, and the look on her face sent a chill slithering over my skin.
“The Darkling marched on Keramzin.”
MY STOMACH LURCHED. “What?”
“There are … there are rumors that he put it to the torch.”
“Alina—” Mal said.
“The students,” I said, panic creeping in on me. “What happened to the students?”
“We don’t know,” said Tamar.
I pressed my hands to my eyes, trying to think. “Your key,” I said, my breath coming in harsh gasps.
“There’s no reason to believe—”
“The key,” I repeated, hearing the quaking edge in my voice.
Tamar handed it to me. “Third on the right,” she said softly.
I took the stairs two at a time. Near the top, I slipped and banged my knee hard on one of the steps. I barely felt it. I stumbled down the hall, counting the doors. My hands were shaking so badly, it took me two tries to fit the key in the lock and get it to turn.
The room was painted in reds and blues, just as cheerful as the rest of the place. I saw Tamar’s jacket thrown over a chair by the tin basin, the two narrow beds pushed together, the rumpled wool blankets. The window was open, and autumn sunlight flooded through. A cool breeze lifted the curtains.
I slammed the door behind me and walked to the window. I gripped the sill, vaguely registering the rickety houses at the edge of the settlement, the spindles in the distance, the mountains beyond. I felt the pull of the wound in my shoulder, the creep of darkness inside me. I launched myself across the tether, seeking him, the only thought in my mind: What have you done?
With my next breath, I was standing before him, the room a blur around me.
“At last,” the Darkling said. He turned to me, his beautiful face coming into focus. He was leaning against a scorched mantel. Its outline was sickeningly familiar.
His gray eyes were empty, haunted. Was it Baghra’s death that had left him this way or some horrific crime he’d committed here?
“Come,” the Darkling said softly. “I want you to see.”
I was trembling, but I let him take my hand and place it in the crook of his arm. As he did, the blurriness of the vision cleared and the room came to life around me.
We were in what had been the sitting room at Keramzin. The shabby sofas were stained black with soot. Ana Kuya’s treasured samovar lay on its side, a tarnished hulk. Nothing remained of the walls but a charred and jagged skeleton, the ghosts of doorways. The curving metal staircase that had once led to the music room had buckled from the heat, its steps fusing together. The ceiling was gone. I could see straight through the wreck of the second story. Where the attic should have been, there was only gray sky.
Strange, I thought stupidly. The sun is shining in Dva Stolba.
“I’ve been here for days,” he said, leading me through the wreckage, over the piles of debris, through what had once been the entry hall, “waiting for you.”
The stone steps that led to the front door were smeared with ash but intact. I saw the long, straight gravel drive, the white pillars of the gate, the road that led to town. It had been nearly two years since I’d seen this view, but it was just as I remembered.
The Darkling placed his hands on my shoulders and turned me slightly.