“What do you want, pest?”
“I’ve brought someone to visit,” Nikolai said, giving me a push.
Why was I so nervous?
“Hello, Baghra,” I managed.
She paused, motionless. “The little Saint,” she murmured, “returned to save us all.”
“Well, she did almost die trying to rid us of your cursed spawn,” Nikolai said lightly. I blinked. So Nikolai knew Baghra was the Darkling’s mother.
“Couldn’t even manage martyrdom right, could you?” Baghra waved me in. “Come in and shut the door, girl. You’re letting the heat out.” I grinned at this familiar refrain. “And you,” she spat in Nikolai’s direction. “Go somewhere you’re wanted.”
“That’s hardly limiting,” he said. “Alina, I’ll be back to fetch you for dinner, but should you grow restless, do feel free to run screaming from the room or take a dagger to her. Whatever seems most fitting at the time.”
“Are you still here?” snapped Baghra.
“I go but hope to remain in your heart,” he said solemnly. Then he winked and disappeared.
“You like him,” I said in disbelief.
Baghra scowled. “Greedy. Arrogant. Takes too many risks.”
“You almost sound concerned.”
“You like him too, little Saint,” she said with a leer in her voice.
“I do,” I admitted. “He’s been kind when he might have been cruel. It’s refreshing.”
“He laughs too much.”
“There are worse traits.”
“Like arguing with your elders?” she growled. Then she thumped her stick on the floor. “Boy, go fetch me something sweet.”
The servant hopped to his feet and set down his book. I caught him as he raced past me for the door. “Just a moment,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Misha,” he replied. He was in desperate need of a haircut, but otherwise looked well enough.
“How old are you?”
“Seven,” snapped Baghra.
“Almost eight,” he conceded.
He was small for his age. “Do you remember me?”
With a tentative hand he reached out and touched the antlers at my neck, then nodded solemnly. “Sankta Alina,” he breathed. His mother had taught him that I was a Saint, and apparently Baghra’s contempt hadn’t convinced him otherwise. “Do you know where my mother is?” he asked.
“I don’t. I’m sorry.” He didn’t even look surprised. Maybe that was the answer he’d come to expect. “How are you finding it here?”
His eyes slid to Baghra, then back to me.
“It’s all right,” I said. “Be honest.”
“There’s no one to play with.”
I felt a little pang, remembering the lonely days at Keramzin before Mal had arrived, the older orphans who’d had little interest in another scrawny refugee. “That may change soon. Until then, would you like to learn to fight?”
“Servants aren’t allowed to fight,” he said, but I could see he liked the idea.
“I’m the Sun Summoner, and you have my permission.” I ignored Baghra’s snort. “If you go find Malyen Oretsev, he’ll see about getting you a practice sword.”
Before I could blink, the boy was tearing out of the room, practically tripping over his own feet in his excitement.
When he was gone, I said, “His mother?”
“A servant at the Little Palace.” Baghra gathered her shawl closer around her. “It’s possible she survived. There’s no way of knowing.”
“How is he taking it?”
“How do you think? Nikolai had to drag him screaming onto that accursed craft. Though that may just have been good sense. At least he cries less now.”
As I moved the book to sit beside her, I glanced at the title. Religious parables. Poor kid. Then I turned my attention to Baghra. She’d put on a bit of weight, sat straighter in her chair. Getting out of the Little Palace had done her good, even if she’d just found another hot cave to hide in.
“You look well.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said sourly. “Did you mean what you said to Misha? Are you thinking of bringing the students here?” The children from the Grisha school at Os Alta had been evacuated to Keramzin, along with their teachers and Botkin, my old combat instructor. Their safety had been nagging at me for months, and now I was in a position to do something about it.
“If Nikolai agrees to house them at the Spinning Wheel, would you consider teaching them?”
“Hmph,” she said with a scowl. “Someone has to. Who knows what garbage they’ve been learning with that bunch.”
I smiled. Progress, indeed. But my smile vanished when Baghra rapped me on the knee with her stick. “Ow!” I yelped. The woman’s aim was uncanny.
“Give me your wrists.”
“I don’t have the firebird.”
She lifted her stick again, but I flinched out of the way. “All right, all right.” I took her hand and laid it on my bare wrist. As she groped nearly up to my elbow, I asked, “How does Nikolai know you’re the Darkling’s mother?”
“He asked. He’s more observant than the rest of you fools.” She must have been satisfied that I wasn’t somehow hiding the third amplifier, because she dropped my wrist with a grunt.
“And you just told him?”
Baghra sighed. “These are my son’s secrets,” she said wearily. “It’s not my job to keep them any longer.” Then she leaned back. “So you failed to kill him once more.”
“I cannot say I’m sorry. In the end, I’m even weaker than you, little Saint.”
I hesitated, then blurted, “I used merzost.”
Her shadow eyes flew open. “You what?”
“I … I didn’t do it myself. I used the connection between us, the one created by the collar, to control the Darkling’s power. I created nichevo’ya.”
Baghra’s hands scrambled for mine. She seized my wrists in a painful grip. “You must not do this, girl. You must not trifle with this kind of power. This is what created the Fold. Only misery can come of it.”
“I may not have a choice, Baghra. We know the location of the firebird, or at least we think we do. Once we find it—”
“You’ll sacrifice another ancient life for the sake of your own power.”
“Maybe not,” I protested weakly. “I showed the stag mercy. Maybe the firebird doesn’t have to die.”
“Listen to you. This is not some children’s story. The stag had to die for you to claim its power. The firebird is no different, and this time the blood will be on your hands.” Then she laughed her low, mirthless chuckle. “The thought doesn’t bother you as much as it should, does it, girl?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Have you no care for what there is to lose? For the damage you may cause?”
“I do,” I said miserably. “I do. But I’m out of options, and even if I weren’t—”
She dropped my hands. “You would seek it just the same.”
“I won’t deny it. I want the firebird. I want the amplifiers’ combined power. But it doesn’t change the fact that no human army can stand against the Darkling’s shadow soldiers.”
“Abomination against abomination.”
If that was what it took. Too much had been lost for me to turn away from any weapon that might make me strong enough to win this fight. With or without Baghra’s help, I would have to find a way to wield merzost.
I hesitated. “Baghra, I’ve read Morozova’s journals.”
“Have you, now? Did you find them stimulating reading?”
“No, I found them infuriating.”
To my surprise, she laughed. “My son pored over those pages as if they were holy writ. He must have read through them a thousand times, questioning every word. He began to think there were codes hidden in the text. He held the pages over flame s
earching for invisible ink. In the end, he cursed Morozova’s name.”
As had I. Only David’s obsession persisted. It had nearly gotten him killed today when he’d insisted on dragging that pack with him.
I hated to ask it, hated to even put the possibility into words, but I forced myself to. “Is there … is there any chance Morozova left the cycle unfinished? Is there a chance he never created the third amplifier?”
For a while, she was silent, her expression distant, her blind gaze locked on something I couldn’t see. “Morozova never could have left that undone,” she said softly. “It wasn’t his way.”
Something in her words lifted the hairs on my arms. A memory came to me: Baghra putting her hands to the collar on my neck at the Little Palace. I would have liked to see his stag.
A voice came from the doorway: “Moi soverenyi.” I looked up at Mal, annoyed at being interrupted.
“What is it?” I asked, recognizing the edge that came into my voice whenever the firebird was concerned.