He grinned. “Exactly.”
“Thank goodness we had the foresight to be captured.”
“Very quick thinking on your part. I commend you.”
“How are the King and Queen?”
He snorted and said, “Fine. Bored. There’s little for them to do.” He adjusted the cuff of his coat. “They took Vasily’s loss hard.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. In truth, I’d spared little thought for Nikolai’s older brother.
“He brought it on himself, but I’m surprised to say I’m sorry too.”
“I need to know—did you get Baghra out?”
“At great trouble and with little thanks. You might have warned me about her.”
“She’s a treat, isn’t she?”
“Like a fine plague.” He reached out and tugged on a lock of my white hair. “Bold choice.”
I pushed the loose strands behind my ear self-consciously. “It’s all the fashion underground.”
“It happened during the battle. I hoped it might turn back, but it seems to be permanent.”
“My cousin Ludovic woke up with a white streak in his hair after he almost died in a house fire. Claimed the ladies found it very dashing. Of course, he also claimed the house fire was set by ghosts, so who can say.”
“Poor cousin Ludovic.”
Nikolai leaned back on the railing and studied the balloon tethered above us. At first, I’d assumed it was canvas, but now I thought it might be silk coated with rubber. “Alina…,” he began. I was so unused to seeing Nikolai ill at ease that it took me a moment to realize he was struggling for words. “Alina, the night the palace was attacked, I did come back.”
Was that what was worrying him? That I thought he’d abandoned me? “I never doubted it. What did you see?”
“The grounds were dark when I flew over. Fires had broken out in a few places. I saw David’s dishes shattered on the roof and the lawn of the Little Palace. The chapel had collapsed. There were nichevo’ya crawling all over it. I thought we might be in trouble, but they didn’t spare the Kingfisher a second look.”
They wouldn’t, not with their master trapped and dying beneath a heap of rubble.
“I’d hoped there might be some way to retrieve Vasily’s body,” he said. “But it was no good. The whole place was overrun. What happened?”
“The nichevo’ya attacked the Little Palace. By the time I arrived, one of the dishes was already down.” I dug my nail into the rail of the ship, scratching a little half-moon. “We never had a chance.” I didn’t want to think about the main hall streaked with blood, the bodies strewn over the roof, the floor, the stairs—broken heaps of blue, red, and purple.
“And the Darkling?”
“I tried to kill him.”
“As one does.”
“By killing myself.”
“I brought the chapel down,” I said.
“Well, the nichevo’ya did, at my command.”
“You can command them?”
Already, I could see him calculating a possible advantage. Always the strategist.
“Don’t get excited,” I said. “I had to create my own nichevo’ya to do it. And I had to be in direct contact with the Darkling.”
“Oh,” he said glumly. “But once you’ve found the firebird?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted, “but…” I hesitated. I’d never spoken this thought aloud. Among Grisha it would be considered heresy. Still, I wanted to say the words, wanted Nikolai to hear them. I hoped he might understand the edge it would give us, even if he couldn’t grasp the hunger that drove me. “I think I may be able to build my own army.”
“Soldiers of light?”
“That’s the idea.”
Nikolai was watching me. I could tell he was choosing his words carefully. “You once told me that merzost isn’t like the Small Science, that it carries a high price.” I nodded. “How high, Alina?”
I thought of a girl’s body crushed beneath a mirrored dish, her goggles askew, of Marie torn open in Sergei’s arms, of Genya huddling in her shawl. I thought of church walls, like pieces of bloody parchment, crowded with the names of the dead. It wasn’t just righteous fury that guided me, though. It was my need for the firebird—banked, but always burning.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said firmly. “I’ll pay it.”
Nikolai considered this, then said, “Very well.”
“That’s it? No sage words? No dire warnings?”
“Saints, Alina. I hope you weren’t looking to me to be the voice of reason. I keep to a strict diet of ill-advised enthusiasm and heartfelt regret.” He paused, his grin fading. “But I’m truly sorry for the soldiers you lost and that I didn’t do more that night.”
Below us, I could see the beginnings of the white reaches of the permafrost and, far beyond, the shape of mountains in the distance. “What could you have done, Nikolai? You would have just gotten yourself killed. You still might.” It was harsh, but it was also the truth. Against the Darkling’s shadow soldiers, everyone—no matter how brilliant or resourceful—was close to helpless.
“You never know,” said Nikolai. “I’ve been busy. I might have some surprises in store for the Darkling yet.”
“Please tell me you plan to dress up as a volcra and jump out of a cake.”
“Well, now you’ve ruined the surprise.” He pushed off the railing. “I need to pilot us over the border.”
“We’re heading into Fjerda.”
“Oh, good. Enemy territory. And here I was starting to relax.”
“These are my skies,” Nikolai said with a wink. Then he strolled across the deck, whistling a familiar, off-key tune.
I’d missed him. The way he talked. The way he attacked a problem. The way he brought hope with him wherever he went. For the first time in months, I felt the knot in my chest ease.
Once we crossed the border, I’d thought we might head for the coast or even West Ravka, but soon we were tacking toward the mountain range I’d glimpsed. From my days as a mapmaker, I knew they were the northernmost peaks of the Sikurzoi, the range that stretched across most of Ravka’s eastern and southern border. The Fjerdans called them the Elbjen, the Elbows, though as we drew closer, it was hard to tell why. They were massive, snowcapped things, all white ice and gray rock. They would have dwarfed the Petrazoi. If those were elbows, I didn’t want to know what they were attached to.
We climbed higher. The air grew frigid as we drifted into the thick cloud cover that hid the steepest peaks. When we emerged above it, I released an awed gasp. Here, the few mountaintops tall enough to pierce the clouds seemed to float like islands in a white sea. The tallest looked like it was clutched by huge fingers of frost, and as we arced around it, I thought I saw shapes in the ice. A narrow stone staircase zigzagged up the cliff face. What lunatic would make that climb? And for what possible purpose?
We rounded the mountain, drawing closer and closer to the rock. Just as I was about to call out in panic, we rolled hard to the right. Suddenly, we were between two frozen walls. The Pelican swerved and we entered an echoing stone hangar.
Nikolai really had been busy. We crowded at the railing, gaping at the hectic bustle around us. Three other crafts were docked in the hangar: a second cargo barge like the Pelican, the sleek Kingfisher, and a similar vessel that bore the name Bittern.
“It’s a kind of heron,” said Mal, pulling on a pair of borrowed boots. “They’re smaller. Sneaky.” Like the Kingfisher, the Bittern had double hulls, though they were flatter and wider at the base, and equipped with what looked like sled runners.
Nikolai’s crew threw lines over the Pelican’s rail, and workers ran forward to catch them, stretching them taut and tying them to steel hooks secured in the hangar’s walls and floor. We touched down with a thud and a deafening screech as hull scraped against stone.
David frowned disappr
ovingly. “Too much weight.”
“Don’t look at me,” said Tolya.
As soon as we came to a halt, Tolya and Tamar leapt from the railings, already calling out greetings to crewmen and workers they must have recognized from their time aboard the Volkvolny. The rest of us waited for the gangway to be lowered, then shuffled off the barge.
“Impressive,” Mal said.
I shook my head in wonder. “How does he do it?”
“Want to know my secret?” Nikolai asked from behind us. We both jumped. He leaned in, looked from left to right, and whispered loudly, “I have a lot of money.”
I rolled my eyes.