I hesitated. I couldn’t look at him when I whispered, “It felt good.” He didn’t say anything, so I plunged on. “It doesn’t matter why I’m using the Cut, what I’m doing with the power. It always feels good.”
I was afraid to look at him, afraid of the disgust I’d see on his face or, worse, the fear. But when I forced myself to glance up, Mal’s expression was thoughtful.
“You could have struck down the Apparat and all his Priestguards, but you didn’t.”
“I wanted to.”
“But you didn’t. You’ve had plenty of opportunities to be brutal, to be cruel. You’ve never taken them.”
“Not yet. The firebird—”
He shook his head. “The firebird won’t change who you are. You’ll still be the girl who took a beating for me when I was the one who broke Ana Kuya’s ormolu clock.”
I groaned, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “And you let me.”
He laughed. “Of course I did. That woman is terrifying.” Then his expression sobered. “You’ll still be the girl who was willing to sacrifice her life to save us at the Little Palace, the same girl I just saw back a servant over a king.”
“She’s not a servant. She’s—”
“A friend. I know.” He hesitated. “The thing is, Alina, Luchenko was right.”
It took me a moment to place the militia leader’s name. “About what?”
“There’s something wrong with this country. No land. No life. Just a uniform and a gun. That’s how I used to think too.”
He had. He’d been willing to walk away from Ravka without a second glance. “What changed?”
“You. I saw it that night in the chapel. If I hadn’t been so scared, I could have seen it before.”
I thought of the militiaman’s body falling in pieces. “Maybe you were right to be scared of me.”
“I wasn’t afraid of you, Alina. I was afraid of losing you. The girl you were becoming didn’t need me anymore, but she’s who you were always meant to be.”
“Power hungry? Ruthless?”
“Strong.” He looked away. “Luminous. And maybe a little ruthless too. That’s what it takes to rule. Ravka is broken, Alina. I think it always has been. The girl I saw in the chapel could change that.”
“Nikolai’s a born leader. He knows how to fight. Knows how to politic. But he doesn’t know what it is to live without hope. He’s never been nothing. Not like you or Genya. Not like me.”
“He’s a good man,” I protested.
“And he’ll be a good king. But he needs you to be a great one.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I pressed a finger to the window glass, then wiped the smudge away with my sleeve. “I’m going to ask him if I can bring the students here from Keramzin. The orphans too.”
“Take him with you when you go,” Mal said. “He should see where you come from.” He laughed. “You can introduce him to Ana Kuya.”
“I already unleashed Baghra on Nikolai. He’s going to think I stockpile vicious old women.” I made another fingerprint on the glass. Without looking at him, I said, “Mal, tell me about the tattoo.”
He was silent for a time. Finally, he scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck and said, “It’s an oath in old Ravkan.”
“But why take on that mark?”
This time he didn’t blush or turn away. “It’s a promise to be better than I was,” he said. “It’s a vow that if I can’t be anything else to you, at least I can be a weapon in your hand.” He shrugged. “And I guess it’s a reminder that wanting and deserving aren’t the same thing.”
“What do you want, Mal?” The room seemed very quiet.
“Don’t ask me that.”
“Because it can’t be.”
“I want to hear it anyway.”
He blew out a long breath. “Say goodnight. Tell me to leave, Alina.”
“You need an army. You need a crown.”
He laughed then. “I know I’m supposed to say something noble—I want a united Ravka free from the Fold. I want the Darkling in the ground, where he can never hurt you or anyone else again.” He gave a rueful shake of his head. “But I guess I’m the same selfish ass I’ve always been. For all my talk of vows and honor, what I really want is to put you up against that wall and kiss you until you forget you ever knew another man’s name. So tell me to go, Alina. Because I can’t give you a title or an army or any of the things you need.”
He was right. I knew that. Whatever fragile, lovely thing had existed between us belonged to two other people—people who weren’t bound by duty and responsibility—and I wasn’t sure what remained. And still I wanted him to put his arms around me, I wanted to hear him whisper my name in the dark, I wanted to ask him to stay.
He touched the space over his heart where he wore the golden sunburst I’d given him long ago in a darkened garden.
“Moi soverenyi,” he said softly. He bowed and was gone.
The door closed behind him. I doused the lanterns and lay down on the bed, pulling the blankets around me. The window wall was like a great round eye, and now that the room was dark, I could see the stars.
I brushed my thumb over the scar on my palm, made years ago by the edge of a broken blue cup, a reminder of the moment when my whole world had shifted, when I’d given up a part of my heart that I would never get back.
We’d made the wise choice, done the right thing. I had to believe that logic would bring comfort in time. Tonight, there was just this too-quiet room, the ache of loss, knowledge deep and final as the tolling of a bell: Something good has gone.
* * *
THE NEXT MORNING, I woke to Tolya at my bedside.
“I found Sergei,” he said.
“Was he missing?”
“All last night.”
I dressed in the clean clothes that had been left for me: tunic, trousers, new boots, and a thick wool kefta in Summoner blue, lined with red fox, its cuffs embroidered with gold. Nikolai always came prepared.
I let Tolya lead me down the stairs to the boiler level and to one of the darkened water rooms. Instantly, I regretted my choice of clothing; it was miserably hot. I cast a glow of light inside. Sergei was seated up against the wall near on
e of the big metal tanks, his knees pressed to his chest.
He squinted and turned his head away. Tolya and I exchanged a glance.
I patted his big arm. “Go find your breakfast,” I said, my own stomach growling. When Tolya had gone, I dimmed the light and went to sit beside Sergei. “What are you doing down here?”
“Too big up there,” he mumbled. “Too high.”
There was more to it than that, more to him letting Genya’s name slip, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. We’d never had a chance to talk about the disaster at the Little Palace. Or maybe there’d been opportunities and I’d avoided them. I wanted to apologize for Marie’s death, for putting her in danger, for not being there to save her. But what words were there for that kind of failure? What words could fill the hole where a living girl with chestnut curls and a lilting giggle had been?
“I miss Marie too,” I said finally. “And the others.”
He buried his face in his arms. “I was never afraid before, not really. Now I’m scared all the time. I can’t make it stop.”
I put my arm around him. “We’re all scared. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”
“I just want to feel safe again.”
His shoulders were shaking. I wished I had Nikolai’s gift for finding the right words. “Sergei,” I said, not sure if I was about to make matters better or worse, “Nikolai has camps on the ground, some in Tsibeya and a little farther south. There are way stations for the smugglers, away from most of the fighting. If he agrees to it, would you prefer to be assigned there? You could work as a Healer. Or maybe just rest for a while?”
He didn’t even hesitate. “Yes,” he gasped out.
I felt guilty for the rush of relief that came over me. Sergei had slowed us during our fight with the militia. He was unstable. I could apologize, offer useless words, but I didn’t know how to help him, and it didn’t change the fact that we were at war. Sergei had become a liability.
“I’ll see to the arrangements. If there’s anything else you need…” I trailed off, unsure of how to finish. Awkwardly, I patted his shoulder, then rose and turned to go.