I knew all the stories by now. The firebird wept diamond tears, its feathers could heal mortal wounds, the future might be seen in the flap of its wings. I’d scoured book after book of folklore, epic poetry, and collections of peasant tales, searching for some pattern or clue. The sea whip’s legends centered around the icy waters of the Bone Road, but stories of the firebird came from every part of Ravka and beyond, and none of them connected the creature to a Saint.
Worse, the visions were getting clearer and more frequent. The Darkling appeared to me almost every day, usually in his chambers or the aisles of the library, sometimes in the war room during council meetings or as I walked back from the Grand Palace at dusk.
“Why won’t you leave me alone?” I whispered one night as he hovered behind me while I tried to work at my desk.
Long minutes passed. I didn’t think he would answer. I even had time to hope he might have gone, until I felt his hand on my shoulder.
“Then I’d be alone, too,” he said, and he stayed the whole night through, till the lamps burned down to nothing.
I got used to seeing him waiting for me at the end of corridors, or sitting at the edge of my bed when I fell asleep at night. When he didn’t appear, I sometimes found myself looking for him or wondering why he hadn’t come, and that frightened me most of all.
The one bright spot was Vasily’s decision to abandon Os Alta for the yearling auctions in Caryeva. I nearly crowed with delight when Nikolai gave me the news on one of our walks.
“Packed up in the middle of the night,” Nikolai said. “He says he’ll be back in time for my birthday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds some excuse to stay away.”
“You should try not to look so smug,” I said. “It’s not very regal.”
“Surely I’m allowed some small dispensation for gloating,” he said with a laugh. He whistled that same off-key tune I remembered from the Volkvolny as we walked along. Then he cleared his throat. “Alina, not that you aren’t always the picture of loveliness, but … are you sleeping?”
“Not much,” I admitted.
I did still dream of the broken skiff, of people running from the darkness of the Fold, but that wasn’t what kept me up at night. “Not exactly.”
“Ah,” said Nikolai. He clasped his hands behind his back. “I notice your friend has been throwing himself into his work lately. He’s much in demand.”
“Well,” I said, keeping my voice light, “that’s Mal.”
“Where did he learn to track? No one seems to be able to decide if it’s luck or skill.”
“He didn’t learn. He’s just always been able to do it.”
“How nice for him,” said Nikolai. “I’ve never been a natural at anything.”
“You’re a spectacular actor,” I said drily.
“Do you think so?” he asked. Then he leaned in and whispered, “I’m doing ‘humble’ right now.”
I shook my head in exasperation, but I was grateful for Nikolai’s cheery babble, and even more thankful when he let the subject drop.
* * *
IT TOOK DAVID almost two more weeks to get his dishes operational, but when he was finally ready, I had the Grisha gather on the Little Palace roof to watch the demonstration. Tolya and Tamar were there, alert as always, scanning the crowd. Mal was nowhere to be seen. I’d stayed up the previous night in the common room, hoping to catch him and ask him personally to attend. It was long past midnight when I gave up and went to bed.
The two huge dishes were positioned on opposite sides of the roof, on the flat lip that extended between the domes of the eastern and western wings. They could be rotated through a system of pulleys, and each was manned by a Materialnik and a Squaller, outfitted in goggles to protect against the glare. I saw that Zoya and Paja had been teamed together, and Nadia had been paired with a Durast on the second dish.
Even if this is a total failure, I thought anxiously, at least they’re working together. Nothing like a fiery explosion to build camaraderie.
I took my place at the center of the roof, directly between the dishes.
With a jolt of nervousness, I saw that Nikolai had invited the captain of the palace guard to observe, along with two generals and several of the King’s advisers. I hoped they weren’t expecting anything too dramatic. My power tended to show best in full darkness, and the long Belyanoch days made that impossible. I’d asked David if we should schedule the demonstration for later in the evening, but he’d just shaken his head.
“If it works, it will be plenty dramatic. And I suppose that if it doesn’t work, it will be even more dramatic, what with the blast.”
“David, I think you just made a joke.”
He frowned, utterly perplexed. “Did I?”
At Nikolai’s suggestion, David had chosen to take his cue from the Volkvolny and use a whistle to signal us. He gave a shrill blast, and the onlookers backed up against the domes, leaving us plenty of room. I raised my hands. David blew on the whistle again. I called the light.It entered me in a golden torrent and burst from my hands in two steady beams. They struck the dishes, reflecting off them in a blinding glare. It was impressive, but nothing spectacular.Then David whistled again, and the dishes rotated slightly. The light bounced off their mirrored surfaces, multiplying upon itself and focusing into two blazing white shafts that pierced the early twilight.An ahhhh went up from the crowd as they shielded their eyes. I guess I didn’t have to worry about drama.The beams sliced through the air, sending off waves of cascading brilliance and radiant heat, as if they were burning through the sky itself. David gave another short blast on the whistle, and the beams fused into a single molten blade of light. It was impossible to look directly at it. If the Cut was a knife in my hand, then this was a broadsword.The dishes tilted, and the beam descended. The crowd gasped in astonishment as the light slashed through the edge of the woods below, leveling the treetops.The dishes tilted further. The beam seared into the lakeshore and then into the lake itself. A wave of steam billowed into the air with an audible hiss, and for a moment, the entire surface of the lake seemed to boil.David gave a panicked blast on the whistle. Hastily, I dropped my hands, and the light vanished.We ran to the edge of the roof and gaped at the sight before us.It was as if someone had taken a razor and lopped off the top of the woods in a clean diagonal cut from the tip of the tree line to the shore. Where the beam had touched down, the ground was marked by a glowing trench that ran all the way to the waterline.“It worked,” David said in a dazed voice. “It actually worked.”There was a pause and then Zoya burst out laughing. Sergei joined her, then Marie and Nadia. Suddenly, we were all laughing and cheering, even moody Tolya, who swept a befuddled David up on his enormous shoulders. Soldiers were hugging Grisha, the King’s advisers were hugging the generals, Nikolai was dancing a begoggled Paja around the roof, and the captain of the guard caught me up in a giddy embrace.We whooped and screamed and bounced up and down, so that the whole palace seemed to shake. When the Darkling decided to march, the nichevo’ya would have quite a surprise waiting for them.“Let’s go see it!” someone shouted, and we raced down the stairs like children at the sound of the school bell, giggling and careening off the walls.We charged through the Hall of the Golden Dome and flung open the doors, tumbling down the steps and outside. As everyone sprinted down to the lake, I skidded to a halt.Mal was coming up the path from the wooded tunnel.“Go on,” I said to Nikolai. “I’ll catch up.”Mal watched the path as he approached, not meeting my gaze. As he drew closer, I saw that his eyes were bloodshot and there was an ugly bruise on his cheekbone.“What happened?” I asked, lifting a hand toward his face. He ducked away, darting a glance at the servants who stood by the Little Palace doors.“Ran into a bottle of kvas,” he said. “Is there something you need?”“You missed the demonstration.”“I wasn’t on duty.”I ignored the painful jab in my chest and pushed on. “We’re going down to the lake. Would you like to come?”For a moment, he seemed to hesitate, then he shook his head. “I just came back to get some coin. There’s a card game going at the Grand Palace.”The shard twisted. “You may want to change,” I said. “You look like you slept in your clothes.” I was instantly sorry I’d said it, but Mal didn’t seem to care.“Maybe because I did,” he said. “Is there anything else?”“No.”“Moi soverenyi.” He executed a sharp bow and vaulted up the steps as if he couldn’t wait to be away from me.I took my time walking down to the lake, hoping that somehow the ache in my heart would ease. My joy at the success on the roof had drained away, leaving me hollow, like a well someone could shout down and hear nothing back but echoes.By the shore, a group of Grisha were walking the length of the trench, calling out measurements in growing triumph and elation. It was nearly two feet wide and just as deep, a furrow of charred earth that stretched to the water’s edge. In the woods, felled treetops lay in a clutter of branches and bark. I reached out and ran my hand over one of the severed trunks. The wood was smooth, sliced cleanly across, and still warm to the touch. Two small fires had started, but the Tidemakers had quickly put them out.Nikolai ordered food and champagne brought down to the lake, and we all spent the rest of the evening on the shore. The generals and advisers retired early, but the captain and some of his guard remained. They stripped off their jackets and shoes and waded into the lake, and it wasn’t long before everyone decided they didn’t care about wet clothes and plunged into the water, splashing and dunking each other, then organizing swim races to the little island. To no one’s surprise, a Tidemaker always won, borne aloft by lucky waves.Nikolai and his Squallers offered to take people up in the recently completed craft he’d dubbed the Kingfisher. At first they were wary, but after the first brave group came back flapping their arms and babbling about actually flying, everyone wanted a turn. I’d sworn my feet would never leave the ground again, but finally I gave in and joined them.Maybe it was the champagne or just that I knew what to expect, but the Kingfisher seemed lighter and more graceful than the Hummingbird. Though I still gripped the cockpit with both hands, I felt my spirits lift as we rose smoothly into the air.I gathered my courage and looked down. The rolling grounds of the Grand Palace stretched out below us, crosscut by white gravel paths. I saw the roof of the Grisha greenhouse, the perfect circle of the double eagle fountain, the golden glint of the palace gates. Then we were soaring over the mansions and long, straight boulevards of the upper town. The streets were full of people celebrating Belyanoch. I saw jugglers and stiltwalkers on Gersky Prospect, dancers twirling on a lit stage in one of the parks. Music floated up from the boats on the canal.