He took my hand and pressed the ring into it. “Take it and build something new.”
I turned the ring over in my hand. “I’ll think about it.”
He rolled his eyes. “What is your aversion to the word yes?”
I felt tears rising and had to blink them away. “Thank you.”
He leaned back. “We were friends, weren’t we? Not just allies?”
“Don’t be an ass, Nikolai. We are friends.” I gave him a hard tap on the knee. “Now, you and I are going to settle some things about the Second Army. And then we’re going to watch me burn.”
* * *
ON OUR WAY to the drydocks, I slipped away and found Genya. She and David were cloistered in a Fabrikator tent on the east side of the camp. When I handed her the sealed letter marked with the Ravkan double eagle, she paused, holding it gingerly, as if the heavy paper were dangerous to the touch.
She ran her thumb over the wax seal, fingers quaking slightly. “Is it…?”
“It’s a pardon.”
She tore it open and then clutched it to her.
David didn’t look up from his worktable when he said, “Are we going to jail?”
“Not just yet,” she said. She brushed away a tear. “Thank you.” Then she frowned as I handed her the second letter. “What is this?”
“A job offer.” It had taken some convincing, but in the end Nikolai had seen the sense in my suggestions. I cleared my throat. “Ravka still needs its Grisha, and Grisha still need a safe haven in the world. I want you to lead the Second Army, along with David. And Zoya.”
“Zoya? Are you punishing me?”
“She’s powerful, and I think she has it in her to be a good leader. Or she’ll make your life a nightmare. Possibly both.”
“Why us? The Darkling—”
“The Darkling is gone, and so is the Sun Summoner. Now the Grisha can lead themselves, and I want all the orders represented: Etherealki, Materialki, and you—Corporalki.”
“I’m not really a Corporalnik, Alina.”
“When you had the chance, you chose red. And I hope that those divisions won’t matter so much if the Grisha are led by their own. All of you are strong. All of you know what it is to be seduced by power or status or knowledge. Besides, you’re all heroes.”
“They’ll follow Zoya, maybe even David—”
“Hmm?” he asked distractedly.
“Nothing. You’re going to have to go to more meetings.”
“I hate meetings,” he grumbled.
“Alina,” she said, “I’m not so sure they’ll follow me.”
“You make them follow you.” I touched her shoulder. “Brave and unbreakable.”
A slow smile spread over her face. Then she winked. “And marvelous.”
I grinned. “So you accept?”
I hugged her tight. She laughed, then tugged at a lock of hair that had slipped free from my kerchief.
“Already fading,” she said. “Should we freshen you up?”
“Tomorrow,” she agreed.
I embraced her once more, then slipped outside into the last scraps of daylight.
* * *
I WENDED MY WAY back through camp, following the crowd past the drydocks and into the sands of what had been the Unsea. The sun had almost set and dusk was falling, but it was impossible to miss the pyre, a massive mound of birches, their branches tangled like white limbs.
A shiver passed through me as I saw the girl laid to rest atop it. Her hair spread around her head in a white halo. She wore a kefta of blue and gold, and Morozova’s collar curled around her throat, the stag’s antlers a silvery gray against her skin. Whatever wire or Fabrikator craft held the pieces together had been hidden from view.
My eyes roved over her face—my face. Genya had done an extraordinary job. The shape was just right, the tilt of the nose, the angle of the jaw. The tattoo on her cheek was gone. There was almost nothing left of Ruby, the Soldat Sol who would have lived to be a Summoner if she hadn’t perished on the Fold. She’d died an ordinary girl.
I’d balked at the idea of using her body this way, troubled that her family would have nothing to bury. It had been Tolya who convinced me. “She believed, Alina. Even if you don’t, let this be her final act of faith.”
Beside Ruby, the Darkling lay in his black kefta.
Who had tended him? I wondered, feeling an ache rise in my throat. Who had combed his dark hair back so neatly from his forehead? Who had folded his graceful hands on his chest?
Some in the crowd were complaining that the Darkling had no business sharing a pyre with a Saint. But this felt right to me, and the people needed to see an end to it.
The remaining Soldat Sol had gathered around the pyre, their bare backs and chests emblazoned with tattoos. Vladim was there too, head bowed, the raised flesh of his brand outlined by firelight. Around them, people wept. Nikolai stood at the periphery, immaculate in his First Army uniform, the Apparat at his side. I pulled my shawl up.
Nikolai’s gaze touched mine briefly from across the circle. He gave the signal. The Apparat raised his hands. The Inferni struck their flints. Flame leapt in bright arcs, circling and diving between the birches like darting birds, licking at the tinder until it smoldered and caught.
The fire grew, flames shimmering, the shaking leaves of a great golden tree. Around me, the moans and weeping of the crowd grew louder.
Sankta, they cried. Sankta Alina.
My eyes burned with the smoke. The smell was sickly sweet.
No one knew his name to curse or extol, so I spoke it softly, beneath my breath.
“Aleksander,” I whispered. A boy’s name, given up. Almost forgotten.
A CHAPEL STOOD on the coast of West Ravka, south of Os Kervo, on the shores of the True Sea. It was a quiet place, where the waves came nearly to the door. The whitewashed walls were laden with shells, and the dome that floated above the altar looked less like the heavens than the deep blue well of the sea.
There was no grand betrothal, no contract or false ransom. The girl and the boy had no families to fuss over them, to parade them through the nearby town or honor them with feasts. The bride wore no kokochnik, no dress of gold. Their only witnesses were an orange cat that slunk between the pews and a child, motherless now too, who carried a wooden sword. He had to stand on a chair to hold the driftwood crowns above their heads as the blessings were said. The names they gave were false ones, though the vows they made were true.
* * *
THERE WERE STILL WARS, and there were still orphans, but the building that rose over the ruin that had been Keramzin was nothing like the one before. It was not a Duke’s home, full of things that shouldn’t be touched. It was a place for children. The piano in the music room was left uncovered. The larder door was never locked. A lantern was always lit in the dormitories to keep away the dark.
The staff did not approve.
The students were too boisterous. Too much money was wasted on sugar for tea, on coal in the winter, on books that contained nothing but fairy stories. And why did each child require a new pair of skates?
Young. Rich. Possibly mad. These were the words whispered about the couple who ran the orphanage. But they paid well, and the boy was so charming that it was hard to stay mad at him, even when he refused to take the switch to some hellion who had tracked mud across the entryway floor.
He was said to be a distant relation of the Duke’s, and though his table manners were fine enough, he had a soldier’s way about him. He taught the students how to hunt and trap, and the new ways of farming so favored by Ravka’s King. The Duke himself had taken up residence at his winter house in Os Alta. The last few years of the war had been hard on him.
The girl was different, small and strange, with white hair that she wore loose down her back like an unmarried woman, seemingly oblivious to the glares and disapproving clucking of the teachers and the staff. She told the students peculiar stories of flying ships and underground castles, of monsters who ate earth, and birds that rose on wings of flame. Often, she went barefoot in the halls, and the smell of fresh paint never seemed to fade, as she was always starting on some new project or other, drawing a map over one of the classroom walls or covering the ceiling of the girls’ dormitory with irises.
“Not much of an artist,” sniffed one of the teachers.
“Certainly has an imagination, though,” the other replied, peering skeptically at the white dragon that curled around the banister of the stairs.
The students learned math and geography, science and art. Tradesmen were brought in from local towns and villages to offer apprenticeships. The new King hoped to abolish the draft in a few years’ time, and if he succeeded, every Ravkan would need some kind of trade. When the children were tested for Grisha powers, they were allowed to choose whether or not to go to the Little Palace, and they were always welcome back at Keramzin. At night, they were told to keep the young King in their prayers—Korol Rezni who would keep Ravka strong.
* * *
EVEN IF THE BOY and the girl weren’t quite nobility, they certainly had friends in high places. Presents arrived frequently, sometimes marked with the royal seal: a set of atlases for the library, sturdy wool blankets, a new sleigh and a pair of matched white horses to pull it. Once a man arrived with a fleet of toy boats that the children launched on the creek in a miniature regatta. The teachers noted that the stranger was young and handsome, with golden hair and hazel eyes, but most definitely odd. He stayed late to dinner and never once removed his gloves.
Every winter, during the feast of Sankt Nikolai, a troika would make its way up the snowy road and three Grisha would emerge dressed in furs and thick wool kefta—red, purple, and blue—their sledge weighted down with presents: figs and apricots soaked in honey, piles of walnut candies, mink-lined gloves, and boots of butter-soft leather. They stayed up late, long after the children had gone to bed, talking and laughing, telling stories, eating pickled plums and roasting lamb sausages over the fire.
That first winter, when it was time for her friends to leave, the girl ventured out into the snow to say goodbye, and the stunning raven-haired Squaller handed her another gift.
“A blue kefta,” said the math teacher, shaking her head. “What would she do with that?”
“Maybe she knew a Grisha who died,” replied the cook, taking note of the tears that filled the girl’s eyes. They did not see the note that read, You will always be one of us.
The boy and the girl had both known loss, and their grief did not leave them. Sometimes he would find her standing by a window, fingers playing in the beams of sunlight that streamed through the glass, or sitting on the front steps of the orphanage, staring at the stump of the oak next to the drive. Then he would go to her, draw her close, and lead her to the shores of Trivka’s pond, where the insects buzzed and the grass grew high and sweet, where old wounds might be forgotten.
She saw sadness in the boy too. Though the woods still welcomed him, he was separate from them now, the bond born into his bones burned away in the same moment that he’d given up his life for her.
But then the hour would pass, and the teachers would catch them giggling in a dim hallway or kissing by the stairs. Besides, most days were too full for mourning. There were classes to teach, meals to prepare, letters to write. When evening fell, the boy would bring the girl a glass of tea, a slice of lemon cake, an apple blossom floating in a blue cup. He would kiss her neck and whisper new names in her ear: beauty, beloved, cherished, my heart.
They had an ordinary life, full of ordinary things—if love can ever be called that.