The Squaller lunged. Mal blocked the first punch, but the next caught him beneath the kidneys. He grunted, dropped his elbow, and swung hard at the Squaller’s jaw.
Eskil bobbed out of Mal’s range and scooped his arm through the air in a swooping arc. With a stab of panic, I realized he was summoning. The gust rustled my hair, and in the next second, Mal was blown off his feet by Etherealki wind. Eskil threw out his other arm, and Mal’s body shot upward, slamming into the roof of the barn. He hung there for a moment, pinned to the wooden beams by the Grisha’s power. Then Eskil let him drop. He crashed to the dirt floor with bone-rattling force.
I screamed, but the sound was lost in the roar of the crowd. One of the Corporalki bellowed encouragement at Eskil while another was shouting at Mal to get up.
I pushed forward, light already blooming from my hands. Tamar grabbed my sleeve.
“He doesn’t want your help,” she said.
“I don’t care,” I yelled. “This isn’t a fair fight. That isn’t allowed!” Grisha were never permitted to use their powers in the training rooms.
“Botkin’s rules don’t apply after dark. Mal’s in the middle of a fight, not a lesson.”
I yanked away from her. Better Mal angry than Mal dead.
He was on his hands and knees, trying to get to his feet. I was amazed he could even move after the Squaller’s attack. Eskil raised his hands again. The air billowed up in a flurry of dust. I called the light to me, not caring what Tamar or Mal had to say about it. But this time, Mal rolled, dodging the current and launching to his feet with surprising speed.
Eskil scowled and scanned the perimeter, considering his options. I knew what he was weighing. He couldn’t just let loose without risking knocking us all down, and maybe part of the stables too. I waited, keeping a tenuous grasp on the light, unsure of what to do.
Mal was breathing hard, bent at the waist, hands resting on his thighs. He’d probably cracked at least one rib. He was lucky he hadn’t broken his spine. I willed him to get back down and stay there. Instead, he forced himself upright, hissing at the pain. He rolled his shoulders, cursed, spat blood. Then, to my horror, he curled his fingers and beckoned the Squaller forward. A cheer went up from the crowd.
“What is he doing?” I moaned. “He’s going to get himself killed.”
“He’ll be fine,” Tamar said. “I’ve seen him take worse.”
“He fights here almost every night when he’s sober enough. Sometimes when he’s not.”
“He fights Grisha?”
Tamar shrugged. “He’s actually pretty good.”
This was what Mal did with his nights? I remembered all the mornings he’d appeared with bruises and scrapes. What was he trying to prove? I thought of my careless words as we’d returned from the fortune-telling party. I don’t want the burden of an army of helpless otkazat’sya.
I wished I could take them back.
The Squaller feinted left, then raised his hands for another attack. Wind blew through the circle, and I saw Mal’s feet lose contact with the floor. I gritted my teeth, sure I was about to see him tossed against the nearest wall. But at the last second, he spun, wrenching away from the blast of air and charging the startled Squaller.
Eskil let out a loud oof as Mal clamped his arms around him, keeping the Grisha’s limbs pinned so that he couldn’t summon his power. The big Fjerdan snarled, muscles straining, teeth bared as he tried to break Mal’s hold.
I knew it must have cost him, but Mal tightened his grip. He shifted, then drove his forehead into his opponent’s nose with a nauseating crunch. Before I could blink, he’d released Eskil and hammered a flurry of punches into the Squaller’s gut and sides.
Eskil hunched over, trying to protect himself, struggling for breath as blood gushed over his open mouth. Mal pivoted and delivered a brutal kick to the back of the Squaller’s legs. Eskil fell to his knees, swaying, but still somehow upright.
Mal backed away, surveying his work. The crowd was whooping and stomping, their screams rising to a frenzy, but Mal’s wary eyes were trained on the kneeling Squaller.
He studied his opponent, then dropped his fists. “Go on,” he said to the Grisha. The look on his face sent a chill through me. There was challenge there and a kind of grim satisfaction. What was he seeing when he looked at Eskil on his knees?
Eskil’s eyes were glassy. With an effort, the Grisha lifted his palms. The barest breeze fluttered toward Mal. A chorus of boos rose from the crowd.
Mal let it wash over him, then stepped forward. Eskil’s weak gust faltered. Mal planted his hand in the center of the Squaller’s chest and gave a single, disdainful shove.
Eskil toppled. His big body hit the ground, and he curled in on himself, moaning.
Jeers and elated shrieks erupted all around us. A gleeful soldier grabbed Mal’s wrist and lifted it over his head in triumph as money began to change hands.
The crowd surged toward Mal, carrying me with them. Everybody was talking at once. People slapped him on the back, jamming money into his palms. Then Zoya appeared in front of him. She flung her arms around his neck and pressed her lips against his. I saw him go rigid.
A rushing sound filled my ears, drowning out the noise of the crowd.
Push her away, I begged silently. Push her away.
And for a moment, I thought he might. But then his arms closed around her, and he kissed her back as the crowd hooted and cheered.
The bottom fell out of my stomach. It was like putting a foot wrong on a frozen creek, the crack of ice, the sudden drop, the knowledge that there was nothing beneath but dark water.
He pulled away from her, grinning, his cheek still bloodied, and that was when his eyes met mine. His face went white.
Zoya followed his gaze and lifted a defiant brow when she saw me.
I turned and began forcing my way back through the crowd. Tamar fell into step beside me.
“Alina,” she said.
“Leave me alone.”
I broke away from her. I had to get outside, had to get away from everyone. Tears were beginning to blur my vision. I wasn’t sure if they were for the kiss or what had gone before it, but I couldn’t let them see. The Sun Summoner didn’t cry, especially over one of her otkazat’sya guards.
And what right did I have? Hadn’t I almost kissed Nikolai? Maybe I could find him now, convince him to kiss me no matter who I was thinking of.
I burst from the stables and into the half-light. The air was warm and thick. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I strode away from the well-lit path by the paddocks and made for the shelter of the birchwood grove.
Someone tugged at my arm.
“Alina,” Mal said.
I shook him off and hurried my steps, practically running now.
“Alina, stop,” he said, easily keeping pace with me, despite the injuries he’d received.
I ignored him and plunged into the woods. I could smell the hot springs that fed the banya, the sharp scent of birch leaves beneath my feet. My throat ached. All I wanted was to be left alone to cry or be sick, maybe both.
“Damn it, Alina, would you please stop?”
I couldn’t give in to my hurt, so I gave in to my anger.
“You’re the captain of my guard,” I said, blundering through the trees. “You shouldn’t be brawling like some kind of commoner!”
Mal caught hold of my arm and yanked me around. “I am a commoner,” he growled. “Not one of your pilgrims or your Grisha or some pampered watchdog who sits outside your door all night on the off chance that you might need me.”
“Of course not,” I seethed. “You have much better things to do with your time. Like getting drunk and shoving your tongue down Zoya’s throat.”
“At least she doesn’t flinch when I touch her,” he spat. “You don’t want me, so why do you care if she does?”
“I don’t,” I said, but the words came out as a sob.
Mal released me so suddenly that I almost fell backward. He paced away from me, shoving his hands through his hair. The movement made him wince. His fingers tested the flesh at his side. I wanted to yell at him to go find a Healer. I wanted to smash my fist into the break and make it hurt worse.
“Saints,” he swore. “I wish we’d never come here.”
“Then let’s leave,” I said wildly. I knew I wasn’t making any sense, but I didn’t much care. “Let’s run away, tonight, and forget we ever saw this place.”
He let out a bitter bark of laughter. “Do you know how much I want that? To be with you without rank or walls or anything between us? Just to be common again together?” He shook his head. “But you won’t do it, Alina.”
“I will,” I said, tears spilling over my cheeks.
“Don’t kid yourself. You’d just find a way back.”
“I don’t know how to fix this,” I said desperately.
“You can’t fix it!” he shouted. “This is the way it is. Did it ever occur to you that maybe you were meant to be a queen and I’m not meant to be anything at all?”
“That isn’t true.”
He stalked toward me, the boughs of the trees making strange shifting shadows across his face in the twilight.
“I’m not a soldier anymore,” he said. “I’m not a prince, and I’m sure as hell not a Saint. So what am I, Alina?”
“What am I?” he whispered.
He was close to me now. The scent I knew so well, that dark green scent of the meadow, was lost beneath the smell of sweat and blood.
“Am I your guardian?” he asked.
He ran his hand slowly down my arm, from shoulder to fingertips.
His left hand skimmed down my other arm.
I could feel his breath on my lips. My heart thundered in my ears.
“Tell me what I am.” He pulled me against his body, his hand circling my wrist.
When his fingers closed, a sharp jolt rocked through me, buckling my knees. The world tilted, and I gasped. Mal dropped my hand as if he’d been burned.
He backed away from me, stunned. “What was that?”
I tried to blink away the dizziness.
“What the hell was that?” he said again.
“I don’t know.” My fingers still tingled.
A humorless smile twisted his lips. “It’s never easy with us, is it?”
I shoved to my feet, suddenly angry. “No, Mal, it isn’t. It’s never going to be easy or sweet or comfortable with me. I can’t just leave the Little Palace. I can’t run away or pretend that this isn’t who I am, because if I do, more people will die. I can’t ever just be Alina again. That girl is gone.”
“I want her back,” he said roughly.
“I can’t go back!” I screamed, not caring who heard me. “Even if you take away this collar and the sea whip’s scales, you can’t carve this power out of me.”
“And what if I could? Would you let it go? Would you give it up?”