“Mal is the third amplifier.” The words came out in a rasp, but solid, so much more even and strong than I ever would have anticipated.
“What are you talking about?” Zoya’s fists were clenched, and there were hectic spots of color on her cheeks.
“We should find cover,” said Tolya.
We limped across the plateau and followed the others a short distance up the next hill to the camp they’d made near a tall poplar.
Mal dropped his rifle and unslung his bow. “I’m going to go catch dinner,” he said, and melted into the woods before I could think to form a protest.
I slumped down on the ground. Harshaw started the fire, and I sat before it, staring at the flames, barely feeling their warmth. Tolya handed me a flask, then dropped into a crouch, and after waiting for a nod from me, slammed my shoulder back into its socket. The pain wasn’t enough to stop the images pouring through my head, the connections my mind wouldn’t stop making.
A girl in a field, standing over her slain sister, the black wisps of the Cut rising from her body, a father kneeling beside her.
He was a great Healer. Baghra had gotten it wrong. It had taken more than the Small Science to save Morozova’s other daughter. It had taken merzost, resurrection. I’d been wrong too. Baghra’s sister hadn’t been Grisha. She’d been otkazat’sya after all.
“You must have known,” said Zoya, sitting down on the other side of the fire. Her gaze was accusatory.
Had I? The jolt that night by the banya, I’d assumed it was something in me.
And yet, when I looked back, the pattern seemed clear. The first time I’d used my power had been when Mal lay dying in my arms. We’d searched for the stag for weeks, but we’d found it after our first kiss. When the sea whip had revealed itself, I’d been standing in the circle of his arms, close to him for the first time since we’d been forced aboard the Darkling’s ship. The amplifiers wanted to be brought together.
And hadn’t our lives been bound from the first? By war. By abandonment. Maybe by something more. It couldn’t be chance that we’d been born into neighboring villages, that we’d survived the war that had taken both of our families, that we’d both ended up at Keramzin.
Was this the truth behind Mal’s gift for tracking, that he was somehow tied to everything, to the making at the heart of the world? Not a Grisha, and no ordinary amplifier, but something else entirely?
I am become a blade. A weapon to be used. How right he’d been.
I covered my face with my hands. I wanted to blot out this knowledge, carve it from my skull. Because I hungered for the power that lay beyond that golden door, desired it with a kind of pure and aching fever that made me want to tear at my skin. The price for that power would be Mal’s life.
What had Baghra said? You may not be able to survive the sacrifice that merzost requires.
Mal returned a little while later. He’d brought back two fat rabbits. I heard the sounds of him and Tolya working as they cleaned and spitted the animals, and soon I smelled cooking meat. I had no appetite.
We sat there, listening to the branches pop and hiss in the heat of the flame, until finally Harshaw spoke. “If someone doesn’t talk soon, I’m going to set fire to the woods.”
So I took a sip from Zoya’s flask, and I talked. The words came more easily than I expected. I told them Baghra’s story, the horrible tale of a man obsessed, of the daughter he neglected, of the other daughter who had nearly died because of it.
“No,” I corrected myself. “She did die that day. Baghra killed her. And Morozova brought her back.”
“No one can—”
“He could. It wasn’t healing. It was resurrection, the same process he used to create the other amplifiers. It’s all in his journals.” The means of keeping oxygen in the blood, the method for preventing decay. The power of the Healer and the Fabrikator pushed to their limits and well beyond, taken to a place they were never meant to go.
“Merzost,” Tolya whispered. “Power over life and death.”
I nodded. Magic. Abomination. The power of creation. That was why the journals were incomplete. In the end, there had been no reason for Morozova to hunt for a creature to make into the third amplifier. The cycle had already been completed. He’d endowed his daughter with the power he’d meant for the firebird. The circle had closed.
Morozova had achieved his grand design, but not the way he had expected. To dabble in merzost, well, the results are never quite what one would hope. When the Darkling had tampered with the making at the heart of the world, the punishment for his arrogance was the Fold, a place where his power was meaningless. Morozova had created three amplifiers that could never be brought together without his daughter forfeiting her life, without his descendants paying in flesh and blood.
“But the stag and the sea whip … they were ancient,” said Zoya.
“Morozova chose them deliberately. They were sacred creatures—rare, fierce. His child was just an ordinary otkazat’sya girl.” Was that why the Darkling and Baghra had discounted her so readily? They’d assumed she’d died that day, but the resurrection must have made her stronger—her fragile, mortal life, a life bound by the rules of this world, had been replaced by something else. But in the moment when Morozova gave his daughter a second life, a life that didn’t rightly belong to her, would he have cared if it was abomination that made it possible?
“She survived the plunge into the river,” I said. “And Morozova brought her south to the settlements.” To live and die in the shadow of the arch that would someday give Dva Stolba its name.
I looked at Mal. “She must have passed her power on to her descendants, built into their bones.” A bitter laugh escaped me. “I thought it was me,” I said. “I was so desperate to believe there was some great purpose to all this, that I didn’t just … happen. I thought I was the other branch of Morozova’s line. But it was you, Mal. It was always you.”
Mal watched me through the flames. He hadn’t said a word through the whole conversation, through all of a dinner that only Tolya and Oncat had managed to eat.
He said nothing now. Instead he rose and walked to me. He held out his hand. I hesitated the briefest moment, almost afraid to touch him, then placed my palm in his and let him pull me to my feet. Silently, he led me to one of the tents.
Behind me, I heard Zoya grumble, “Oh, Saints, now I have to listen to Tolya snore all night?”
“You snore too,” said Harshaw. “And it isn’t ladylike.”
“I do not…”
Their voices faded as we bent to enter the dim confines of the tent. Firelight filtered through the canvas walls and sent shadows swaying. Without a word, we lay down in the furs. Mal curled around me, his chest pressed to my back, his arms a tight circle, his breath soft against the crook of my neck. It was the way we’d slept with the insects buzzing around us by the shores of Trivka’s Pond, in the belly of a ship bound for Novyi Zem, on a narrow cot in the run-down boardinghouse in Cofton.
His hand slid down my forearm. Gently, he clasped the bare skin of my wrist, letting his fingers touch, testing. When they met, that jolting force moved through both of us, even that brief taste of power nearly unbearable in its force.
My throat constricted—with misery, with confusion, and with shameful, undeniable longing. To want this from him was too much, too cruel. It’s not fair. Stupid words, childish. Senseless.
“We’ll find another way,” I whispered.
Mal’s fingers separated, but he kept my wrist in a loose hold as he drew me closer. I felt as I always had in his arms—complete, like I was home. But now I had to question even that. Was what I felt real or some product of a destiny Morozova had set into motion hundreds of years ago?
Mal brushed the hair from my neck. He pressed a single brief kiss to the skin above the collar.
“No, Alina,” he said softly. “We won’t.”
* * *
THE RETURN JOURNEY to Dva Stolba seemed shorter. We kept to the hig
h country, to the narrow spines of the hills, as distance and days faded beneath our feet. We moved more quickly because the terrain was familiar and Mal wasn’t seeking signs of the firebird, but I also just felt as if time were contracting. I dreaded the reality that awaited us back in the valley, the decisions we would have to make, the explanations I would have to give.
We traveled in near silence, Harshaw humming occasionally or murmuring to Oncat, the rest of us locked in our own thoughts. After that first night, Mal kept his distance. I hadn’t approached him. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to say. His mood had changed—that calm was still there, but now I had the eerie sense that he was drinking in the world, memorizing it. He would turn his face up to the sun and let his eyes close, or break a stalk of bur marigold and press it to his nose. He hunted for us every night that we had enough cover for a fire. He pointed out larks’ nests and wild geranium, and caught a field mouse for Oncat, who seemed too spoiled to do any hunting of her own.
“For a doomed man,” said Zoya, “you’re remarkably chipper.”
“He isn’t doomed,” I snapped.
Mal nocked an arrow, drew back, and released. It twanged into what looked like a cloudless and empty sky, but a second later, we heard a distant caw and a shape plummeted to the earth nearly a mile ahead of us. He shouldered his bow. “We all die,” he said as he jogged off to retrieve his kill. “Not everyone dies for a reason.”
“Are we philosophizing?” asked Harshaw. “Or were those song lyrics?”
As Harshaw started humming, I ran to catch up with Mal.
“Don’t say that,” I said as I came level with him. “Don’t talk that way.”
“And don’t think that way either.”
He actually grinned.
“Mal, please,” I said desperately, not even sure what I was asking for. I grabbed his hand. He turned to me, and I didn’t stop to think. I went up on my toes and kissed him. It took him the barest second to react, then he dropped his bow and kissed me back, arms winding tight around me, the hard planes of his body pressed against mine.
“Alina—” he began.