My legs gave way. I fell to my knees, my hands clasped over my mouth. A sound tore from me, too broken to be called a scream.
The oak I’d once climbed on a dare still stood, untouched by the fire that had taken Keramzin. Now its branches were full of bodies. The three Grisha instructors hung from the same thick limb, their kefta fluttering slightly in the wind—purple, red, and blue. Beside them, Botkin’s face was nearly black above the rope that had dug into his neck. He was covered in wounds. He’d died fighting before they’d strung him up. Next to him, Ana Kuya swayed in her black dress, her heavy key ring at her waist, the toes of her button boots nearly scraping the ground.
“She was, I think, the closest thing you had to a mother,” murmured the Darkling.
The sobs that shook me were like the lashes of a whip. I flinched with each one, bent double, collapsing into myself. The Darkling knelt before me. He took me by the wrists, pulling my hands free from my face, as if he wanted to watch me weep.
“Alina,” he said. I kept my eyes on the steps, my tears clouding my vision. I would not look at him. “Alina,” he repeated.
“Why?” The word was a wail, a child’s cry. “Why would you do this? How can you do this? Don’t you feel any of it?”
“I have lived a long life, rich in grief. My tears are long since spent. If I still felt as you do, if I ached as you do, I could not have borne this eternity.”
“I hope Botkin killed twenty of your Grisha,” I spat at him, “a hundred.”
“He was an extraordinary man.”
“Where are the students?” I made myself ask, though I wasn’t sure I could bear the answer. “What have you done?”
“Where are you, Alina? I felt sure you would come to me when I moved against West Ravka. I thought your conscience would demand it. I could only hope that this would draw you out.”
“Where are they?” I screamed.
“They are safe. For now. They will be on my skiff when I enter the Fold again.”
“As hostages,” I said dully.
He nodded. “In case you get any thoughts of attack rather than surrender. In five days, I will return to the Unsea, and you will come to me—you and the tracker—or I will drive the Fold all the way to West Ravka’s coast, and I will march those children, one by one, to the mercy of the volcra.”
“This place … these people, they were innocent.”
“I have waited hundreds of years for this moment, for your power, for this chance. I have earned it with loss and with struggle. I will have it, Alina. Whatever the cost.”
I wanted to claw at him, to tell him I’d see him torn apart by his own monsters. I wanted to tell him I would bring all the power of Morozova’s amplifiers down on him, an army of light, born of merzost, perfect in its vengeance. I might be able to do it, too. If Mal gave up his life.
“There will be nothing left,” I whispered.
“No,” he said gently as he folded me in his arms. He pressed a kiss to the top of my hair. “I will strip away all that you know, all that you love, until you have no shelter but me.”
In grief, in horror, I let myself break apart.
* * *
I WAS STILL ON MY KNEES, my hands clutching the windowsill, my forehead pressed against the wooden slats of the boardinghouse wall. Outside, I could hear the faint jingle of prayer bells. Inside, there was no sound but the hitch of my breath, the rasp of my sobs as the whip continued to fall, as I bent my back and wept. That was where they found me.
I didn’t hear the door open, or their steps as they approached. I just felt gentle hands take hold of me. Zoya sat me down on the edge of the bed, and Tamar settled beside me. Nadia took a comb to my hair, carefully working through the tangles. Genya washed first my face, then my hands with a cool cloth she’d wetted in the basin. It smelled faintly of mint.
We sat there, saying nothing, all of them clustered around me.
“He has the students,” I said flatly. “Twenty-three children. He killed the teachers. And Botkin.” And Ana Kuya, a woman they’d never known. The woman who had raised me. “Mal—”
“He told us,” said Nadia softly.
I think some part of me expected blame, recrimination. Instead, Genya rested her head on my shoulder. Tamar squeezed my hand.
This wasn’t just comfort, I realized. They were leaning on me—as I was leaning on them—for strength.
I have lived a long life, rich in grief.
Had the Darkling had friends like this? People whom he’d loved, who had fought for him, and cared for him, and made him laugh? People who had become little more than sacrifices to a dream that outlived them?
“How long do we have?” Tamar asked.
A knock came at the door. It was Mal. Tamar made room for him beside me.
“Bad?” he asked.
I nodded. I couldn’t yet stand to tell him what I’d seen. “I have five days to surrender, or he’ll use the Fold again.”
“He’ll do it anyway,” said Mal. “You said so yourself. He’ll find a reason.”
“I might buy us some time—”
“At what cost? You were willing to give up your life,” he said quietly. “Why won’t you let me do the same?”
“Because I can’t bear it.”
His face went hard. He seized my wrist and again I felt that jolt. Light cascaded behind my eyes, as if my whole body were ready to crack open with it. Unspeakable power lay behind that door, and Mal’s death would open it.
“You will bear it,” he said. “Or all of these deaths, all we’ve given up, will be for nothing.”
Genya cleared her throat. “Um. The thing is, you may not have to. David has an idea.”
* * *
“ACTUALLY, IT WAS Genya’s idea,” David said.
We were crowded around a table beneath an awning, a little way down the street from our boardinghouse. There were no real restaurants in this part of the settlement, but a kind of makeshift tavern had been set up in a burned-out lot. There were lanterns strung over the rickety tables, a wooden keg of sweet fermented milk, and meat roasting in two metal drums like the one we’d seen that first day at the market. The air was thick with the smell of juniper smoke.
Two men were shooting dice at a table near the keg while another plucked his way through a shapeless tune on a battered guitar. There was no discernible melody, but Misha seemed satisfied. He’d taken up an elaborate dance that apparently required clapping and a great deal of concentration.
“We’ll make sure to put Genya’s name on the plaque,” said Zoya. “Just get on with it.”
“Remember how you disguised the Bittern?” David asked. “The way you bent the light around the ship instead of letting it bounce off of it?”
“I was thinking,” said Genya. “What if you did that with us?”
I frowned. “You mean—”
“It’s the exact same principle,” said David. “It’s a greater challenge because there are more variables than just blue sky, but curving light around a soldier is no different than curving light around an object.”
“Wait a minute,” said Harshaw. “You mean we’d be invisible?”
“Exactly,” said Genya.
Adrik leaned forward. “The Darkling will launch from the drydocks in Kribirsk. We could sneak into his camp. Get the students out that way.” His fist was clenched, his eyes alight. He knew those children better than any of us. Some of them were probably his friends.
Tolya frowned. “There’s no way we’d get into camp and free them without being noticed. Some of those kids are younger than Misha.”
“Kribirsk will be too complicated,” said David. “Lots of people, interrupted sight lines. If Alina had more time to practice—”
“We have five days,” I repeated.
“So we attack on the Fold,” said Genya. “Alina’s light will keep the volcra at bay—”
I shook my head. “We’d still have to fight the Darkling’s nichevo’ya.”
“Not if they can’t see us,” said Genya.
Nadia grinned. “We’d be hiding in plain sight.”
“He’ll have oprichniki and Grisha too,” said Tolya. “They won’t be short on ammunition like we will. Even if they can’t see their targets, they may just open fire and hope they get lucky.”
“So we stay out of range.” Tamar moved her plate to the center of the table. “This is the glass skiff,” she said. “We place marksmen around the perimeter and use them to thin the Darkling’s ranks. Then we get close enough to sneak onto the skiff, and once we get the kids to safety—”
“We blow it to bits,” said Harshaw. He was practically salivating at the prospect of the explosion.
“And the Darkling with it,” Genya finished.
I gave Tamar’s plate a turn, considering what the others were suggesting. Without the third amplifier, my power was no match for the Darkling’s in a head-on confrontation. He’d proved that in no uncertain terms. But what if I came at him unseen, using light for cover the way others used darkness? It was sneaky, even cowardly, but the Darkling and I had left honor behind long ago. He’d been in my head, waged war on my heart. I wasn’t interested in a fair fight, not if there was a chance I could save Mal’s life.
As if he could read my mind, Mal said, “I don’t like it. Too many things can go wrong.”
“This isn’t just your choice,” said Nadia. “You’ve been fighting beside us and bleeding with us for months now. We deserve the chance to try and save your life.”
“Even if you’re a useless otkazat’sya,” added Zoya.
“Careful,” said Harshaw. “You’re talking to the Darkling’s … wait, what are you? His cousin? His nephew?”
Mal shuddered. “I have no idea.”
“Are you going to start wearing black now?”
Mal gave a very firm “No.”
“You’re one of us,” said Genya, “whether you like it or not. Besides, if Alina has to kill you, she may go completely crazy and she’ll have the three amplifiers. Then it will be up to Misha to stop her with the power of awful dancing.”
“She is pretty moody,” said Harshaw. He tapped his temple. “Not totally there, if you know what I mean.”
They were kidding, but they might also have been right. You were meant to be my balance. What I felt for Mal was messy and stubborn and might leave me heartbroken in the end, but it was also human.
Nadia reached out and nudged Mal’s hand. “At least consider the plan. And if it all goes wrong—”
“Alina gets a new bracelet,” finished Zoya.
I scowled. “How about I slice you open and see how your bones fit?”
Zoya fluffed her hair. “I bet they’re just as gorgeous as the rest of me.”
I gave Tamar’s plate another turn, trying to imagine what this kind of maneuver might require. I wished I had Nikolai’s mind for strategy. One thing I was sure of. “It will take more than an explosion to kill the Darkling. He survived the Fold and the destruction of the chapel.”
“Then what?” asked Harshaw.
“It has to be me,” I said. “If we can separate him from his shadow soldiers, I can use the Cut.” The Darkling was powerful, but I doubted even he could bounce back from being torn in half. And though I had no claim to Morozova’s name, I was the Sun Summoner. I’d hoped for a grand destiny, but I would settle for a clean kill.
Zoya released a brief, giddy laugh. “This actually might work.”
“It’s worth thinking about,” I said to Mal. “The Darkling will expect an attack, but he won’t expect this.”
Mal was silent for a long moment. “All right,” he said. “But if it does go wrong … we all agree what has to happen.”
He looked around the table. One by one they nodded. Tolya’s face was stoic. Genya dropped her gaze. Finally, only I remained.
“I want your word, Alina.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I’ll do it.” The words tasted like iron on my tongue.
“Good,” he said. He grabbed my hand. “Now, let’s show Misha how bad dancing’s done.”
“Kill you, dance with you. Any other requests?”
“Not at the moment,” he said, pulling me close. “But I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
I tucked my head against Mal’s shoulder and breathed in his scent. I knew I shouldn’t let myself believe in this possibility. We didn’t have an army. We didn’t have the resources of a king. We only had this ragged crew. I will strip away all that you know, all that you love. If he could, I knew the Darkling would use these people against me, but it had never occurred to him that they might be more than liabilities. Maybe he’d underestimated them, and maybe he’d underestimated me too.
It was stupid. It was dangerous. But Ana Kuya used to tell me that hope was tricky like water. Somehow it always found a way in.
* * *
WE STAYED UP LATE that night, talking through the logistics of the plan. The realities of the Fold complicated everything—where and how we would enter, whether or not it was even possible for me to cloak myself, let alone the others, how to isolate the Darkling and get the students clear. We had no blasting powders, so we’d have to make our own. I also wanted to ensure that the others had some way out of the Fold if anything happened to me.