I grabbed the lapels of his coat, tears filling my eyes. “Don’t tell me this is all happening for a reason,” I said fiercely. “Or that it’s going to be okay. Don’t tell me you’re ready to die.”
We stood in the tall grass, wind singing through the reeds. He met my gaze, his blue eyes steady. “It’s not going to be okay.” He brushed the hair back from my cheeks and cupped my face in his rough hands. “None of this is happening for a reason.” He skimmed his lips over mine. “And Saints help me, Alina, I want to live forever.”
He kissed me again, and this time, he didn’t stop—not until my cheeks were flushed and my heart was racing, not until I could barely remember my own name, let alone anyone else’s, not until we heard Harshaw singing, and Tolya grumbling, and Zoya cheerfully promising to murder us all.
* * *
THAT NIGHT, I slept in Mal’s arms, wrapped in furs beneath the stars. We whispered in the dark, stealing kisses, conscious of the others lying only a few feet away. Some part of me wished that a Shu raiding party would come and put a bullet through both of our hearts, leave us there forever, two bodies that would turn to dust and be forgotten. I thought about just leaving, abandoning the others, abandoning Ravka as we’d once intended, striking out through the mountains and making our way to the coast.
I thought of all these things. But I rose the next morning, and the morning after that. I ate dry biscuits, drank bitter tea. Too soon, the mountains faded, and we began our final descent into Dva Stolba. We’d arrived back sooner than expected, in time to retrieve the Bittern and still meet any forces the Apparat might send to Caryeva. When I saw the two stone spindles of the ruins, I wanted to level them, let the Cut do what time and weather had failed to, and turn them to rubble.
It took a little while to locate the boardinghouse where Tamar and the others had found lodging. It was two stories high and painted a cheerful blue, its porch hung with prayer bells, its pointed roof covered in Shu inscriptions that glittered with gold pigment.
We found Tamar and Nadia seated at a low table in one of the public rooms, Adrik beside them, his empty coat sleeve neatly pinned, a book perched awkwardly on his knees. They sprang to their feet when they saw us.
Tolya enveloped his sister in an enormous hug, while Zoya gave Nadia and Adrik a grudging embrace. Tamar hugged me close as Oncat sprang from Harshaw’s shoulders to forage through the leavings of their meal.
“What happened?” she asked, taking in my troubled expression.
Misha came pelting down the stairs and hurled himself at Mal. “You came back!” he shouted.
“Of course we did,” said Mal, sweeping him into a hug. “Did you keep to your duties?”
Misha nodded solemnly.
“Good. I expect a full report later.”
“Come on,” Adrik said eagerly. “Did you find it? David’s upstairs with Genya. Should I go get him?”
“Adrik,” chastised Nadia, “they’re exhausted and probably starving.”
“Is there tea?” asked Tolya.
Adrik nodded and went off to order.
“We have news,” said Tamar, “and it isn’t good.”
I didn’t think it could possibly be worse than our news, so I waved her on. “Tell me.”
“The Darkling attacked West Ravka.”
I sat down hard. “When?”
“Almost immediately after you left.”
I nodded. It was some comfort in knowing there was nothing I could have done. “How bad?”
“He used the Fold to take a big chunk out of the south, but from what we’ve heard, most of the people had already evacuated.”
“Any word of Nikolai’s forces?”
“There are rumors of cells cropping up fighting under the Lantsov banner, but without Nikolai to lead them, I’m not sure how long they’ll hold out.”
“All right.” At least now I knew what we were dealing with.
I glanced at Tamar questioningly, and the look on her face sent a chill slithering over my skin.
“The Darkling marched on Keramzin.”
MY STOMACH LURCHED. “What?”
“There are … there are rumors that he put it to the torch.”
“Alina—” Mal said.
“The students,” I said, panic creeping in on me. “What happened to the students?”
“We don’t know,” said Tamar.
I pressed my hands to my eyes, trying to think. “Your key,” I said, my breath coming in harsh gasps.
“There’s no reason to believe—”
“The key,” I repeated, hearing the quaking edge in my voice.
Tamar handed it to me. “Third on the right,” she said softly.
I took the stairs two at a time. Near the top, I slipped and banged my knee hard on one of the steps. I barely felt it. I stumbled down the hall, counting the doors. My hands were shaking so badly, it took me two tries to fit the key in the lock and get it to turn.
The room was painted in reds and blues, just as cheerful as the rest of the place. I saw Tamar’s jacket thrown over a chair by the tin basin, the two narrow beds pushed together, the rumpled wool blankets. The window was open, and autumn sunlight flooded through. A cool breeze lifted the curtains.
I slammed the door behind me and walked to the window. I gripped the sill, vaguely registering the rickety houses at the edge of the settlement, the spindles in the distance, the mountains beyond. I felt the pull of the wound in my shoulder, the creep of darkness inside me. I launched myself across the tether, seeking him, the only thought in my mind: What have you done?
With my next breath, I was standing before him, the room a blur around me.
“At last,” the Darkling said. He turned to me, his beautiful face coming into focus. He was leaning against a scorched mantel. Its outline was sickeningly familiar.
His gray eyes were empty, haunted. Was it Baghra’s death that had left him this way or some horrific crime he’d committed here?
“Come,” the Darkling said softly. “I want you to see.”
I was trembling, but I let him take my hand and place it in the crook of his arm. As he did, the blurriness of the vision cleared and the room came to life around me.
We were in what had been the sitting room at Keramzin. The shabby sofas were stained black with soot. Ana Kuya’s treasured samovar lay on its side, a tarnished hulk. Nothing remained of the walls but a charred and jagged skeleton, the ghosts of doorways. The curving metal staircase that had once led to the music room had buckled from the heat, its steps fusing together. The ceiling was gone. I could see straight through the wreck of the second story. Where the attic should have been, there was only gray sky.
Strange, I thought stupidly. The sun is shining in Dva Stolba.
“I’ve been here for days,” he said, leading me through the wreckage, over the piles of debris, through what had once been the entry hall, “waiting for you.”
The stone steps that led to the front door were smeared with ash but intact. I saw the long, straight gravel drive, the white pillars of the gate, the road that led to town. It had been nearly two years since I’d seen this view, but it was just as I remembered.
The Darkling placed his hands on my shoulders and turned me slightly.
My legs gave way. I fell to my knees, my hands clasped over my mouth. A sound tore from me, too broken to be called a scream.
The oak I’d once climbed on a dare still stood, untouched by the fire that had taken Keramzin. Now its branches were full of bodies. The three Grisha instructors hung from the same thick limb, their kefta fluttering slightly in the wind—purple, red, and blue. Beside them, Botkin’s face was nearly black above the rope that had dug into his neck. He was covered in wounds. He’d died fighting before they’d strung him up. Next to him, Ana Kuya swayed in her black dress, her heavy key ring at her waist, the toes of her button boots nearly scraping the ground.
“She was, I think, the closest thing you had to a mother,” murmured the Darkling.
The sobs that shook me were like the lashes of a whip. I flinched with each one, bent double, collapsing into myself. The Darkling knelt before me. He took me by the wrists, pulling my hands free from my face, as if he wanted to watch me weep.
“Alina,” he said. I kept my eyes on the steps, my tears clouding my vision. I would not look at him. “Alina,” he repeated.
“Why?” The word was a wail, a child’s cry. “Why would you do this? How can you do this? Don’t you feel any of it?”
“I have lived a long life, rich in grief. My tears are long since spent. If I still felt as you do, if I ached as you do, I could not have borne this eternity.”
“I hope Botkin killed twenty of your Grisha,” I spat at him, “a hundred.”
“He was an extraordinary man.”
“Where are the students?” I made myself ask, though I wasn’t sure I could bear the answer. “What have you done?”
“Where are you, Alina? I felt sure you would come to me when I moved against West Ravka. I thought your conscience would demand it. I could only hope that this would draw you out.”
“Where are they?” I screamed.
“They are safe. For now. They will be on my skiff when I enter the Fold again.”
“As hostages,” I said dully.