“Ten coins says she doesn’t make it,” called one of Nikolai’s rogue Grisha.
“Twenty says she does,” shouted Adrik loyally.
I could have hugged him, though I knew for a fact he didn’t have the money.
“Thirty says she can hit the one behind it.”
I whirled. Mal was leaning against the archway, his arms crossed.
“That peak is over five miles away,” I protested.
“More like six,” he said breezily, a challenge in his eyes. It was as if we were back at Keramzin, and he was daring me to steal a bag of sweet almonds or luring me out onto Trivka’s pond before the ice had set. I can’t, I’d say. Of course you can, he’d reply, gliding away from me on borrowed skates, the toes stuffed with paper, never turning his back, making sure I would follow.
As the crowd hooted and placed wagers, Baghra spoke to me in a low voice. “We say like calls to like, girl. But if the science is small enough, then we are like all things. The light lives in the spaces between. It is there in the soil of that mountain, in the rock and in the snow. The Cut is already made.”
I stared at her. She’d as good as quoted Morozova’s journals that time. She’d said the Darkling had been obsessed with them. Was she telling me something more now?
I pushed up my sleeves and raised my hands. The crowd went silent. I focused on the peak in the distance, so far away I couldn’t make out its details.
I called the light to me and then released it, letting myself go with it. I was in the clouds, above them, and for a brief moment, I was in the dark of the mountain, feeling myself compressed and breathless. I was the spaces between, where light lived even if it could not be seen. When I brought my arm down, the arc I made was infinite, a shining sword that existed in a moment and in every moment beyond it.
There was an echoing crack, like thunder from a distance. The sky seemed to vibrate.
Silently, slowly, the top of the far mountain began to move. It didn’t tip, just slid inexorably to the side, snow and rock cascading down its face, leaving a perfect diagonal line where a peak had once been, a ledge of exposed gray rock, jutting just above the cloud bank.
Behind me, I heard shrieking and whooping. Misha was jumping up and down, crowing, “She did it! She did it!”
I glanced over my shoulder. Mal gave me the barest nod, then started rounding everyone up and back into the Spinning Wheel. I saw him point to one of the rogues and mouth, “Pay up.”
I turned back to the broken mountain, my blood fizzing with power, my mind reeling from the reality, the permanence of what I’d just done. Again, clamored a voice inside me, hungry for more. First a man, then a mountain. There and gone. Easy. I shivered in my kefta, comforted by the soft brush of the fox fur.
“Took your time,” grumbled Baghra. “At this rate, I’ll lose both my feet to frostbite before you make any progress at all.”
SERGEI LEFT THAT NIGHT on the Ibis, the cargo barge that had been pressed into service while the Pelican was being repaired. Nikolai had offered him a place at a quiet way station near Duva where he could recuperate and be of some help to the smugglers passing through. He’d even offered to let Sergei wait and take shelter in West Ravka, but Sergei had simply been too anxious to leave.
The next morning, Nikolai and I met with Mal and the twins to figure out the logistics of pursuing the firebird in the southern Sikurzoi. The rest of the Grisha didn’t know the location of the third amplifier, and we intended to keep it that way as long as we could.
Nikolai had spent the better part of two nights studying Morozova’s journals, and he was just as concerned as I was, convinced that there must be books missing or in the Darkling’s possession. He wanted me to pressure Baghra, but I had to be careful how I approached the subject. If I provoked her, we’d have no new information and she’d stop my lessons.
“It’s not just that the books are unfinished,” Nikolai said. “Does Morozova strike anyone as a little … eccentric?”
“If by eccentric you mean insane, then yes,” I admitted. “I’m hoping he can be crazy and right.”
Nikolai contemplated the map tacked to the wall. “And this is still our only clue?” He tapped a nondescript valley on the southern border. “That’s a lot riding on two skinny pieces of rock.”
The unmarked valley was Dva Stolba, home to the settlements where Mal and I had been born, and named for the ruins that stood at its southern entrance—slender, wind-eroded spires that someone had decided were the remnants of two mills. But we believed they were actually the ruins of an ancient arch, a signpost to the firebird, the last of Ilya Morozova’s amplifiers.
“There’s an abandoned copper mine located at Murin,” said Nikolai. “You can land the Bittern there and enter the valley on foot.”
“Why not fly right into the Sikurzoi?” Mal asked.
Tamar shook her head. “Could be tricky maneuvering. There are fewer landing sites, and the terrain is a lot more dangerous.”
“All right,” agreed Mal. “Then we set down in Murin and come over the Jidkova Pass.”
“We should have good cover,” Tolya said. “Nevsky claims a lot of people are traveling through the border cities, trying to get out of Ravka before winter arrives and the mountains become impossible to cross.”
“How long will it take you to find the firebird?” Nikolai asked.
Everyone turned to Mal.
“No way of knowing,” he said. “It took me months to find the stag. Hunting the sea whip took less than a week.” He kept his eyes on the map, but I could feel the memory of those days rising up between us. We’d spent them in the icy waters of the Bone Road with the threat of torture hanging over us. “The Sikurzoi cover a lot of territory. We need to get moving as quickly as possible.”
“Have you chosen your crew?” Nikolai asked Tamar.
She had practically broken into a dance when he suggested that she captain the Bittern and had immediately set about getting familiar with the ship and its requirements.
“Zoya isn’t great at working in a team,” Tamar replied, “but we need Squallers, and she and Nadia are our best options. Stigg’s not bad with the lines, and it can’t hurt to have at least one Inferni on board. We should be able to do a test run tomorrow.”
“You’d move faster with an experienced crew.”
“I added one of your Tidemakers and a Fabrikator to the roster,” she said. “I’d feel better using our people for the rest.”
“The rogues are loyal.”
“Maybe so,” Tamar replied. “But we work well together.”
With a start, I realized she was right. Our people. When had that happened? In the journey from the White Cathedral? The cave-in? The moment when we’d faced down Nikolai’s guards and then a king?
Our little group was splitting up, and I didn’t like it. Adrik was furious at being left behind, and I was going to miss him. I’d even miss Harshaw and Oncat. But the hardest part would be saying goodbye to Genya. Between crew and supplies, the Bittern was already weighted down, and there was no reason for her to come with us into the Sikurzoi. And though we needed a Materialnik with us to form the second fetter, Nikolai felt David’s best use was here, putting his mind to the war effort. Instead, we’d take Irina, the rogue Fabrikator who had forged the cuff of scales around my wrist back on the Volkvolny. David was happy with the decision, and Genya had taken the news better than I had.
“You mean I don’t get to go tromping through a dusty mountain range with Zoya complaining all the way and Tolya regaling me with the Second Tale of Kregi?” She’d laughed. “I’m crushed.”
“Will you be all right here?” I’d asked.
“I think so. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Nikolai is growing on me. He’s nothing like his father. And the man can dress.”
She was certainly right about that. Even on a mountaintop, Nikolai’s boots were always polished, his uniform immaculate.
“If everything goes well,” said Tamar, “we should be ready to leave by week’s end.”
I felt a surge of satisfaction and had to resist the urge to rub the bare spot on my wrist. But then Nikolai cleared his throat. “About that … Alina, I wonder if you might consider a slight detour.”
I frowned. “What kind of a detour?”
“The alliance with West Ravka is still new. They’re going to be feeling pressure from Fjerda to open the Fold to the Darkling. It would mean a great deal for them to see what a Sun Summoner can do. While the others start scouting the Sikurzoi, I thought we might attend a few state dinners, shear off the top of a mountain range, put their minds at ease. I can take you to join the others in the mountains on the way back from Os Kervo. Like Mal said, they have a lot of territory to cover, and the delay would be negligible.”
For a moment, I thought Mal might speak up about the need to get in and out of the Sikurzoi before the first snowfalls came, about the danger of any delay at all. Instead, he rolled up the map on the desk and said, “Seems wise. Tolya can go as Alina’s guard. I need practice on the lines.”
I ignored the twist my heart gave. This was what I wanted. “Of course,” I said.
If Nikolai had been anticipating an argument, he hid it well. “Excel
lent,” he replied, slapping his hands together. “Let’s talk about your wardrobe.”
* * *
AS IT TURNED OUT, we had more than a few other issues to handle before Nikolai could bury me in silks. He had agreed to send the Pelican to Keramzin once it returned, but that was just the first item on the agenda. By the time we were done talking about munitions and storm patterns and wet weather gear, it was well past noon and everyone was ready for a break.
Most of the troops ate together in a makeshift mess hall that had been set up on the western side of the Spinning Wheel, beneath the looming watch of the Three Foolish Sons and the Bear. I didn’t feel much like company, so I grabbed a roll doused in caraway seeds and some hot tea brimming with sugar and walked out to the southern terrace.
It was bitterly cold. The sky was bright blue, and the afternoon sun made deep shadows in the cloud bank. I sipped my tea, listening to the sound of the wind rushing in my ears as it ruffled the fur around my face. To my right and left, I could see the spikes of the eastern and western terraces. In the distance, the stump of the mountaintop I’d severed was already covered in snow.
Given time, I was sure Baghra could teach me to push my power further, but she would never help me master merzost, and on my own, I had no idea where to begin. I remembered the feeling I’d had in the chapel, the sense of connection and disintegration, the horror of feeling my life torn from me, the thrill of seeing my creatures come into being. But without the Darkling, I couldn’t find my way into that power, and I couldn’t be sure the firebird would change that. Maybe it was simply easier for him. He’d once told me he had far more practice with eternity. How many lives had the Darkling taken? How many lives had he lived? Maybe after all this time, life and death looked different to him—small and unmysterious, something to be used.
With one hand, I called the light, letting it slide over my fingers in lazy rays. It burned through the clouds, revealing more of the jagged, ruthless cliffs of the mountain range below. I set my glass down and leaned over the wall to look at the stone steps carved into the side of the mountain beneath us. Tamar claimed that in ancient times, pilgrims had made the climb on their knees.