The pop of gunfire floated back to us from the orchard where Mal and the twins were choosing the best marksmen from the Soldat Sol. We had to be cautious with our ammunition, so they used their bullets sparingly. Later I heard them in the parlor, sorting through weapons and supplies.
We pieced together a dinner of apples, hard cheese, and stale black bread that Harshaw had found in some abandoned larder. The dining room and kitchen were a wreck, so we built a big fire in the grate of the grand receiving room and set out a makeshift picnic, sprawled on the floor and the watered silk couches, toasting bits of bread skewered on the gnarled branches of apple trees.
“If I survive this,” I said, wiggling my toes near the fire, “I’m going to have to find some way to compensate these poor people for the damages.”
Zoya snorted. “They’ll be forced to redecorate. We’re doing them a favor.”
“And if we don’t survive,” observed David, “this whole place will be enveloped in darkness.”
Tolya pushed aside a flowered cushion. “Might be for the best.”
Harshaw took a swig of cider from the jug Tamar had brought in from the press. “If I live, the first thing I’m doing is coming back here and swimming around in a tank of this stuff.”
“Go easy, Harshaw,” said Tamar. “We need you awake tomorrow.”
He groaned. “Why do battles always have to be so early?” Grudgingly, he gave up the jug to one of the Soldat Sol.
We’d gone over the plan until all of us were sure we knew exactly where to be and when. We’d enter the Fold at dawn. The Squallers would go in first to lay down the acoustic blanket and hide our movements from the volcra. I’d heard Nadia whispering with Tamar about not wanting Adrik with them, but Tamar had argued hard in favor of including him. “He’s a warrior,” she’d said. “If you make him believe he’s less now, he’ll never know he can be more.” I would be with the Squallers, in case anything went wrong. The marksmen and the other Grisha would follow.
We’d planned the ambush at the center of the Fold, almost directly between Kribirsk and Novokribirsk. Once we spotted the Darkling’s skiff, I would illuminate the Unsea, bending the light to keep us invisible. If that didn’t bring him to a halt, our marksmen would. They would thin his ranks, and then it was up to Harshaw and the Squallers to create enough chaos that the twins and I could board the skiff, locate the students, and get them to safety. Once they were clear, I would deal with the Darkling. Hopefully, he would never see me coming.
Genya and David would remain at Tomikyana with Misha. I knew Misha would insist on going with us, so Genya had slipped a sleeping draft into his dinner. He was already yawning, curled up near the grate, and I hoped he would sleep through our departure in the morning.
The night wore on. We knew we needed to sleep, but no one much felt like it. Some people decided to bed down by the fire in the receiving room while others trickled out into the house in pairs. Nobody wanted to be alone tonight. Genya and David had work to do in the kitchens. Tamar and Nadia had disappeared early. I thought Zoya might take her pick of the Soldat Sol, but as I slipped out the door, she was still watching the fire, Oncat purring in her lap.
I made my way down the dark hall to the parlor, where Mal was making a final check of the weapons and gear. It was a strange sight, to see the piles of guns and ammunition stacked on a marble tabletop next to the framed miniatures of the lady of the house and a pretty collection of snuffboxes.
“We’ve been here before,” he said.
“When we came out of the Fold the first time. We stopped in the orchard, not very far from the house. I recognized it earlier when we were out shooting.”
I remembered. It seemed like a lifetime ago. The fruit on the trees had been too small and sour to eat.
“How did the Soldat Sol do today?”
“Not bad. Only a few of them have much range. But if we’re lucky, that’s all we’ll need. A lot of them saw action in the First Army, so at least there’s a chance they’ll keep their heads.”
Laughter drifted back to us from the receiving room. Someone—Harshaw, I suspected—had started singing. But in the parlor, it was quiet and I could hear that it had begun to rain.
“Mal,” I said. “Do you think … do you think it’s the amplifiers?”
He frowned, checking the sight on a rifle. “What do you mean?”
“Is that what’s between us? My power and yours? Is that why we became friends, why…” I trailed off.
He picked up another gun, sighted down the barrel. “Maybe that brought us together, but it didn’t make us who we are. It didn’t make you the girl who could get me to laugh when I had nothing. It sure as hell didn’t make me the idiot who took that for granted. Whatever there is between us, we forged it. It belongs to us.” Then he set down the rifle and wiped his hands on a rag.
“Come with me,” he said, taking my hand and pulling me behind him.
We moved through the darkened house. I heard voices singing something bawdy down the hall, footsteps overhead as someone ran from one room to the next. I thought Mal might lead me up the stairs to the bedrooms; I guess I hoped he would, but instead he took me through the east wing of the house, past a silent sewing room, a library, all the way to a windowless vestibule lined with trowels, spades, and dried cuttings.
“Um … delightful?”
“Wait here.” He opened a door I hadn’t seen, tucked into the wall.
In the dim light, I saw it led to some kind of long, narrow conservatory. The rain beat a steady rhythm against the vaulted roof and glazed glass walls. Mal moved deeper into the room, lighting lanterns that rested on the edge of a slender reflecting pool. Apple trees lined the walls, their boughs dense with clusters of white flowers. Their petals lay like a smattering of snow on the red tile floor and floated on the surface of the water.
I trailed Mal down the length of the pool. The air inside was balmy, sweet with apple blossoms and loamy with the rich scent of soil. Outside, the wind rose and howled with the storm, but in here it was as if the seasons had been suspended. I had the strangest sense that we could be anywhere, that the rest of the house had simply fallen away, and we were completely alone.
At the far end of the room, a desk was tucked into the corner. A shawl had been thrown over the back of a scrollwork chair. There was a basket of sewing things resting on a rug patterned with apple blossoms. The lady of the house must have come here to do her needlework, to sip her morning tea. In the daytime, she would have had a perfect view of the orchards through the big arched windows. A book was open on the desk. I peered at the pages.
“It’s a diary,” Mal said. “Statistics on the spring crop, the progress of hybrid trees.”
“Her glasses,” I said, picking up the gold wire frames. “I wonder if she’s missing them.”
Mal leaned against the stone rim of the pool. “Do you ever wonder what it might have been like if the Grisha Examiners had discovered your power back at Keramzin?”
“Ravka would be different.”
“Maybe not. My power was useless before we found the stag. Without you, we might never have located any of Morozova’s amplifiers.”
“You’d be different,” he said.
I put the delicate frames aside and flipped through the columns of numbers and tidy handwriting. What kind of person might I have been? Would I have become friends with Genya or simply seen her as a servant? Would I have had Zoya’s confidence? Her easy arrogance? What would the Darkling have been to me?
“I can tell you what would have happened,” I said.
I closed the diary and turned back to Mal, perching on the edge of the desk. “I would have gone to the Little Palace and been spoiled and pampered. I would have dined off of golden plates, and I never would have struggled to use my power. It would have been like breathing, the way it always should have been. And in time, I would have forgotten Keramzin.”
He raised a brow.
“Possibly you,” I admitted. He laughed. “The Darkling would have sought Morozova’s amplifiers, fruitlessly, hopelessly, until one day a tracker, a no one, an otkazat’sya orphan, traveled into the ice of Tsibeya.”
“You’re assuming I didn’t die on the Fold.”
“In my version, you were never sent into the Fold. When you tell the story, you can die tragically.”
“In that case, carry on.”
“This nobody, this nothing, this pathetic orphan—”
“I get it.”
“He would be the first to spot the stag after centuries of searching. So of course the Darkling and I would have to travel to Tsibeya in his great black coach.”
“In the snow?”
“His great black sleigh,” I amended. “And when we arrived at Chernast, your unit would be led into our exalted presence—”
“Are we allowed to walk, or do we wriggle in on our bellies like the lowly worms we are?”
“You walk, but you do it with a lot of deference. I would be seated on a raised dais, and I would wear jewels in my hair and a golden kefta.”
I paused. “Maybe black.”
“It wouldn’t matter,” Mal said. “I still wouldn’t be able to stop looking at you.”
I laughed. “No, you would be making eyes at Zoya.”
“Isn’t she always?”
He smiled. “I would have noticed you.”
“Of course you would. I’m the Sun Summoner, after all.”
“You know what I mean.”
I looked down, brushing petals off of the desk. “Did you ever notice me at Keramzin?”
He was silent for a long moment, and when I glanced at him, he was looking up at the glass ceiling. He’d gone red as a beet.
He cleared his throat, crossed his arms. “As a matter of fact, I did. I had some very … distracting thoughts about you.”
“You did?” I sputtered.
“And I felt guilty for every one of them. You were supposed to be my best friend, not…” He shrugged and turned even redder.
“That fact is well established and adds nothing to the plot.”
“Well,” I said, taking another swipe at the petals, “it wouldn’t matter if you noticed me, because I would have noticed you.”
“A lowly otkazat’sya?”
“That’s right,” I said quietly. I didn’t feel like teasing him anymore.
“And what would you have seen?”
“A soldier—cocky, scarred, extraordinary. And that would have been our beginning.”
He rose and closed the distance between us. “And this still would have been our end.” He was right. Even in dreams, we had no future. If we somehow both survived tomorrow, I would have to seek an alliance and a crown. Mal would have to find a way to keep his heritage a secret.
Gently, he took my face in his hands. “I would have been different too, without you. Weaker, reckless.” He smiled slightly. “Afraid of the dark.” He brushed the tears from my cheeks. I wasn’t sure when they’d started. “But no matter who or what I was, I would have been yours.”
I kissed him then—with grief and need and years of longing, with the desperate hope that I could keep him here in my arms, with the damning knowledge that I could not. I leaned into him, the press of his chest, the breadth of his shoulders.
“Going to miss this,” he said as he kissed my cheeks, my jaw, my eyelids. “The way you taste.” He set his lips to the hollow beneath my ear. “The way you smell.” His hands slid up my back. “The way you feel.” My breath hitched as his hips settled against mine.
Then he drew back, searching my eyes. “I wanted more for you,” he said. “A white veil in your hair. Vows we could keep.”
“A proper wedding night? Just tell me this isn’t goodbye. That’s the only vow I need.”
“I love you, Alina.”
He kissed me again. He hadn’t answered, but I didn’t care, because his mouth was on mine, and in this moment, I could pretend I wasn’t a savior or a Saint, that I could simply choose him, have a life, be in love. That we wouldn’t have one night, we would have thousands. I pulled him down with me, easing his body over mine, feeling the cold floor at my back. He had a soldier’s hands, rough and calloused, heating my skin, sending hungry sparks through my body that made me lift my hips to try and bring him closer.
I pulled his shirt over his head, letting my fingers trail over the smooth ridges of his muscled back, feeling the lightly raised lines of the words that marked him. But when he slid the fabric of my blouse from my arms, I stiffened, feeling suddenly, painfully aware of every wrong thing about me. Jutting bones, too-small breasts, skin pale and dry as an onion. Then he cupped my cheek, his thumb tracing my lip.
“You are all I’ve ever wanted,” he said. “You are the whole of my heart.”
I saw myself then—sour, silly, difficult, lovely in his eyes. I drew him to me, felt him shudder as our bodies came together, skin against skin, felt the heat of his lips, his tongue, hands moving until the need between us drew taut and anxious as a bowstring waiting for release.
He clasped his hand to my wrist and my mind filled with light. All I saw was Mal’s face, all I felt was his body—above me, around me, an awkward rhythm at first, then slow and steady as the beat of the rain. It was all we needed. It was all we would ever have.