Her rasping chuckle snaked through the room, lifting the hair on my arms. “If they’d been wise, they would have thrown me in the river too. Instead they drove my mother and me out of town and left us to the mercy of the woods. My mother was useless. She tore at her hair and wept until she made herself sick. Finally, she just lay down and wouldn’t get up, no matter how I cried and called her name. I stayed with her as long as I could. I tried to make a fire to keep her warm, but I didn’t know how.” She shrugged. “I was so hungry. Eventually, I left her and wandered, delirious and filthy, until I came to a farm. They took me in and put together a search party, but I couldn’t find the way back to her. For all I know, she starved to death on the forest floor.”
I stayed quiet, waiting. That kvas was beginning to look very good.
“Ravka was different then. Grisha had no sanctuary. Power like ours ended in fates like my father’s. I kept mine hidden. I followed tales of witches and Saints and found the secret enclaves where Grisha studied their science. I learned everything I could. And when the time came, I taught my son.”
“But what about his father?”
Baghra gave another harsh laugh. “You want a love story too? There’s none to be had. I wanted a child, so I sought out the most powerful Grisha I could find. He was a Heartrender. I don’t even remember his name.”
For a brief moment, I glimpsed the ferocious girl she had been, fearless and wild, a Grisha of extraordinary ability. Then she sighed and shifted in her chair, and the illusion was gone, replaced by a tired old woman huddling by a fire.
“My son was not … He began so well. We moved from place to place, we saw the way our people lived, the way they were mistrusted, the lives they were forced to eke out in secrecy and fear. He vowed that we would someday have a safe place, that Grisha power would be something to be valued and coveted, something our country would treasure. We would be Ravkans, not just Grisha. That dream was the seed of the Second Army. A good dream. If I’d known…”
She shook her head. “I gave him his pride. I burdened him with ambition, but the worst thing I did was try to protect him. You must understand, even our own kind shunned us, feared the strangeness of our power.”
There are no others like us.
“I never wanted him to feel the way I had as a child,” said Baghra. “So I taught him that he had no equal, that he was destined to bow to no man. I wanted him to be hard, to be strong. I taught him the lesson my mother and father taught me: to rely on no one. That love—fragile and fickle and raw—was nothing compared to power. He was a brilliant boy. He learned too well.”
Baghra’s hand shot out. With surprising accuracy, she seized my wrist. “Put your hunger aside, Alina. Do what Morozova and my son could not and give this up.”
My cheeks were wet with tears. I hurt for her. I hurt for her son. But even so, I knew what my answer would be.
“What is infinite?” she recited.
I knew that text well. “The universe and the greed of men,” I quoted back to her.
“You may not be able to survive the sacrifice that merzost requires. You’ve tasted that power once, and it almost killed you.”
“I have to try.”
Baghra shook her head. “Stupid girl,” she said, but her voice was sad, as if she were chastising another girl, from long ago, lost and unwanted, driven by pain and fear.
“Years later, I returned to the village of my birth. I wasn’t sure what I would find. My father’s workshop was long gone, but his journals were there, tucked away in the same hidden niche in the old cellar.” She released a disbelieving snort. “They’d built a church over it.”
I hesitated, then said, “If Morozova survived, what became of him?”
“He probably took his own life. It’s the way most Grisha of great power die.”
I sat back, stunned. “Why?”
“Do you think I never contemplated it? That my son didn’t? Lovers age. Children die. Kingdoms rise and fall, and we go on. Maybe Morozova is still wandering the earth, older and more bitter than I am. Or maybe he used his power on himself and ended it all. It’s simple enough. Like calls to like. Otherwise…” She chuckled again, that dry, rattling laugh. “You should warn your prince. If he really thinks a bullet will stop a Grisha with three amplifiers, he is much mistaken.”
I shuddered. Would I have the courage to take my own life if it came down to that? If I brought the amplifiers together, I might destroy the Fold, but I might well make something worse in its place. And when I faced the Darkling, even if I dared to use merzost to create an army of light, would it be enough to end him?
“Baghra,” I asked cautiously, “what would it take to kill a Grisha with that kind of power?”
Baghra tapped the bare skin of my wrist, the naked spot where the third amplifier might rest in a matter of days. “Little Saint,” she whispered. “Little martyr. I expect we’ll find out.”
* * *
I SPENT THE REST of the afternoon wording a plea for aid to the Apparat. The missive would be left beneath the altar at the Church of Sankt Lukin in Vernost and, hopefully, would make its way to the White Cathedral through the network of the faithful. We’d used a code that Tolya and Tamar knew from their time with the Soldat Sol, so if the message fell into the Darkling’s hands, he wouldn’t realize that in just over two weeks’ time, Mal and I would be waiting for the Apparat’s forces in Caryeva. The racing city was all but abandoned after the summer, and it was close to the southern border. Either we would have the firebird or we wouldn’t, but we’d be able to march whatever forces we had north under the cover of the Fold and meet with Nikolai’s troops south of Kribirsk.
I had two very different sets of luggage. One was nothing but a simple soldier’s pack that would be put aboard the Bittern. It was stocked with roughspun trousers, an olive drab coat treated to resist the rain, heavy boots, a small reserve of coin for any bribes or purchases I might need to make in Dva Stolba, a fur hat, and a scarf to cover Morozova’s collar. The other set was stowed on the Kingfisher—a collection of three matching trunks emblazoned with my golden sunburst and stuffed with silks and furs.
When evening came, I descended to the boiler level to say my goodbyes to Baghra and Misha. After her dire warning, I was hardly surprised that Baghra waved me off with a scowl. But I’d really come to see Misha. I reassured him that I had found someone to continue his lessons while we were gone, and I gifted him with one of the golden sunburst pins worn by my personal guard. Mal wouldn’t be able to wear it in the south, and the delight on Misha’s face was worth all of Baghra’s sneering.
I took my time wending my way back through the dark passages. It was quiet down here, and I’d barely had a moment to think since Ba
ghra had told me her story. I knew she’d intended it as a cautionary tale, and yet my thoughts kept returning to the little girl who’d been thrown into the river with Ilya Morozova. Baghra thought she’d died. She’d dismissed her sister as otkazat’sya—but what if she simply hadn’t shown her power yet? She was Morozova’s child too. What if her gift was unique, like Baghra’s? If she had survived, her father might have taken her with him in pursuit of the firebird. She might have lived near the Sikurzoi, her power passed down from generation to generation, over hundreds of years. It might have finally shown itself in me.
It was presumption, I knew. Terrible arrogance. And yet, if we found the firebird near Dva Stolba, so close to the place of my birth, could it really be coincidence?
I stopped short. If I was related to Morozova, that meant I was related to the Darkling. And that meant I’d almost … the thought made my skin crawl. No matter how many years and generations might have passed, I still felt like I needed a scalding bath.
My thoughts were interrupted by Nikolai striding down the hall toward me.
“There’s something you should see,” he said.
“Is everything all right?”
“Rather spectacular, actually.” He peered at me. “What did the hag do to you? You look like you ate a particularly slimy bug.”
Or possibly exchanged kisses and a bit more than that with my cousin. I shuddered.
Nikolai offered me his arm. “Well, whatever it is, you’ll have to cringe about it later. There’s a miracle upstairs, and it won’t wait.”
I looped my arm through his. “Never one to oversell it, are you, Lantsov?”
“It’s not overselling if you deliver.”
We’d just started up the stairs when Mal came bounding down in the opposite direction. He was beaming, his face alight with excitement. That smile was like a bomb going off in my chest. It belonged to a Mal I’d thought had disappeared beneath the scars of this war.
He caught sight of me and Nikolai, arms entwined. It took the briefest second for his face to shutter. He bowed and stepped aside for us to pass.