“It’s a diary,” Mal said. “Statistics on the spring crop, the progress of hybrid trees.”
“Her glasses,” I said, picking up the gold wire frames. “I wonder if she’s missing them.”
Mal leaned against the stone rim of the pool. “Do you ever wonder what it might have been like if the Grisha Examiners had discovered your power back at Keramzin?”
“Ravka would be different.”
“Maybe not. My power was useless before we found the stag. Without you, we might never have located any of Morozova’s amplifiers.”
“You’d be different,” he said.
I put the delicate frames aside and flipped through the columns of numbers and tidy handwriting. What kind of person might I have been? Would I have become friends with Genya or simply seen her as a servant? Would I have had Zoya’s confidence? Her easy arrogance? What would the Darkling have been to me?
“I can tell you what would have happened,” I said.
I closed the diary and turned back to Mal, perching on the edge of the desk. “I would have gone to the Little Palace and been spoiled and pampered. I would have dined off of golden plates, and I never would have struggled to use my power. It would have been like breathing, the way it always should have been. And in time, I would have forgotten Keramzin.”
He raised a brow.
“Possibly you,” I admitted. He laughed. “The Darkling would have sought Morozova’s amplifiers, fruitlessly, hopelessly, until one day a tracker, a no one, an otkazat’sya orphan, traveled into the ice of Tsibeya.”
“You’re assuming I didn’t die on the Fold.”
“In my version, you were never sent into the Fold. When you tell the story, you can die tragically.”
“In that case, carry on.”
“This nobody, this nothing, this pathetic orphan—”
“I get it.”
“He would be the first to spot the stag after centuries of searching. So of course the Darkling and I would have to travel to Tsibeya in his great black coach.”
“In the snow?”
“His great black sleigh,” I amended. “And when we arrived at Chernast, your unit would be led into our exalted presence—”
“Are we allowed to walk, or do we wriggle in on our bellies like the lowly worms we are?”
“You walk, but you do it with a lot of deference. I would be seated on a raised dais, and I would wear jewels in my hair and a golden kefta.”
I paused. “Maybe black.”
“It wouldn’t matter,” Mal said. “I still wouldn’t be able to stop looking at you.”
I laughed. “No, you would be making eyes at Zoya.”
“Isn’t she always?”
He smiled. “I would have noticed you.”
“Of course you would. I’m the Sun Summoner, after all.”
“You know what I mean.”
I looked down, brushing petals off of the desk. “Did you ever notice me at Keramzin?”
He was silent for a long moment, and when I glanced at him, he was looking up at the glass ceiling. He’d gone red as a beet.
He cleared his throat, crossed his arms. “As a matter of fact, I did. I had some very … distracting thoughts about you.”
“You did?” I sputtered.
“And I felt guilty for every one of them. You were supposed to be my best friend, not…” He shrugged and turned even redder.
“That fact is well established and adds nothing to the plot.”
“Well,” I said, taking another swipe at the petals, “it wouldn’t matter if you noticed me, because I would have noticed you.”
“A lowly otkazat’sya?”
“That’s right,” I said quietly. I didn’t feel like teasing him anymore.
“And what would you have seen?”
“A soldier—cocky, scarred, extraordinary. And that would have been our beginning.”
He rose and closed the distance between us. “And this still would have been our end.” He was right. Even in dreams, we had no future. If we somehow both survived tomorrow, I would have to seek an alliance and a crown. Mal would have to find a way to keep his heritage a secret.
Gently, he took my face in his hands. “I would have been different too, without you. Weaker, reckless.” He smiled slightly. “Afraid of the dark.” He brushed the tears from my cheeks. I wasn’t sure when they’d started. “But no matter who or what I was, I would have been yours.”
I kissed him then—with grief and need and years of longing, with the desperate hope that I could keep him here in my arms, with the damning knowledge that I could not. I leaned into him, the press of his chest, the breadth of his shoulders.
“Going to miss this,” he said as he kissed my cheeks, my jaw, my eyelids. “The way you taste.” He set his lips to the hollow beneath my ear. “The way you smell.” His hands slid up my back. “The way you feel.” My breath hitched as his hips settled against mine.
Then he drew back, searching my eyes. “I wanted more for you,” he said. “A white veil in your hair. Vows we could keep.”
“A proper wedding night? Just tell me this isn’t goodbye. That’s the only vow I need.”
“I love you, Alina.”
He kissed me again. He hadn’t answered, but I didn’t care, because his mouth was on mine, and in this moment, I could pretend I wasn’t a savior or a Saint, that I could simply choose him, have a life, be in love. That we wouldn’t have one night, we would have thousands. I pulled him down with me, easing his body over mine, feeling the cold floor at my back. He had a soldier’s hands, rough and calloused, heating my skin, sending hungry sparks through my body that made me lift my hips to try and bring him closer.
I pulled his shirt over his head, letting my fingers trail over the smooth ridges of his muscled back, feeling the lightly raised lines of the words that marked him. But when he slid the fabric of my blouse from my arms, I stiffened, feeling suddenly, painfully aware of every wrong thing about me. Jutting bones, too-small breasts, skin pale and dry as an onion. Then he cupped my cheek, his thumb tracing my lip.
“You are all I’ve ever wanted,” he said. “You are the whole of my heart.”
I saw myself then—sour, silly, difficult, lovely in his eyes. I drew him to me, felt him shudder as our bodies came together, skin against skin, felt the heat of his lips, his tongue, hands moving until the need between us drew taut and anxious as a bowstring waiting for release.
He clasped his hand to my wrist and my mind filled with light. All I saw was Mal’s face, all I felt was his body—above me, around me, an awkward rhythm at first, then slow and steady as the beat of the rain. It was all we needed. It was all we would ever have.