A sudden silence descended over the room. With the arch in the foreground and the mountains in the distance, the ruins looked exactly like the view behind Sankt Ilya in the Istorii Sankt’ya. The only thing missing was the firebird.
Nikolai pulled the atlas toward him. “Are we just seeing what we want to see?”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But it’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence.”
“We’ll send scouts,” he suggested.
“No,” I said. “I want to go.”
“If you leave now, everything you’ve accomplished with the Second Army will be undone. I’ll go. If Vasily can run off to Caryeva to buy ponies, then no one will mind if I take a little hunting trip.”
I shook my head. “I have to be the one to kill the firebird.”
“We don’t even know it’s there.”
“Why are we even discussing it?” asked Mal. “We all know it’s going to be me.”
Tamar and Tolya exchanged an uneasy glance.
Nikolai cleared his throat. “With all due respect, Oretsev, you don’t quite seem at your best.”
“Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
“I think you do that enough for the both of us,” Mal shot back. Then he scrubbed a hand over his face, looking more weary than ever. “I’m too tired and too hungover to argue this. I’m the only one who can find the firebird. It has to be me.”
“I’m going with you,” I said.
“No,” he said with surprising force. “I’ll hunt it. I’ll capture it. I’ll bring it back to you. But you’re not coming with me.”
“It’s too risky,” I protested. “Even if you caught it, how would you get it back here?”
“Get one of your Fabrikators to rig something up for me,” he said. “This is best for everyone. You get the firebird, and I get free of this saintsforsaken place.”
“You can’t travel by yourself. You—”
“Then give me Tolya or Tamar. We’ll travel faster and draw less attention on our own.” Mal pushed his chair back and stood. “You figure it out. Make whatever arrangements you want.” He didn’t look at me when he said, “Just tell me when I can leave.”
Before I could raise another objection, he was gone.
I turned away, fighting to hold back the tears that threatened. Behind me, I heard Nikolai murmuring instructions to the twins as they departed.
I studied the map. Poliznaya, where we’d done our military service. Ryevost, where we’d begun our journey into the Petrazoi. Tsibeya, where he’d kissed me for the first time.
Nikolai laid his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t know whether I wanted to swat it away or turn and fall into his arms. What would he do if I did? Pat my back? Kiss me? Propose?
“It’s for the best, Alina.”
I laughed bitterly. “Have you ever noticed people only say that when it isn’t true?”
He dropped his hand. “He doesn’t belong here.”
He belongs with me, I wanted to shout. But I knew it wasn’t true. I thought of Mal’s bruised face, of him pacing back and forth like a caged animal, of him spitting blood and beckoning to Eskil for more. Go on. I thought of him holding me in his arms as we crossed the True Sea. The map blurred as my eyes filled with tears.
“Let him go,” said Nikolai.
“Go where? Chasing after some mythical creature that may not even exist? On some impossible quest into mountains crawling with Shu?”
“Alina,” Nikolai said softly, “that’s what heroes do.”
“I don’t want him to be a hero!”
“He can’t change who he is any more than you can stop being Grisha.”
It was an echo of what I’d said only hours ago, but I didn’t want to hear it.“You don’t care what happens to Mal,” I said angrily. “You just want to get rid of him.”“If I wanted you to fall out of love with Mal, I’d make him stay here. I’d let him keep soaking his troubles in kvas and acting like a wounded ass. But is this really the life you want for him?”I took a shaky breath. It wasn’t. I knew that. Mal was miserable here. He’d been suffering since the moment we arrived, but I had refused to see it. I’d railed at him for wanting me to be something I couldn’t, and all the while, I’d demanded the same thing from him. I brushed the tears from my cheeks. There was no point to arguing with Nikolai. Mal had been a soldier. He wanted purpose. Here it was, if I would just let him take it.And why not admit it? Even as I protested, there was another voice inside me, a greedy, shameful hunger that demanded completion, that clamored for Mal to go out and find the firebird, that insisted he bring it back to me, no matter the cost. I’d told Mal that the girl he knew was gone. Better for him to leave before he saw just how true that was.I let my fingers drift over the illustration of Dva Stolba. Two mills, or something more? Who could say when there was nothing left but ruins?“You know the problem with heroes and saints, Nikolai?” I asked as I closed the book’s cover and headed for the door. “They always end up dead.”Chapter 22MAL AVOIDED ME all afternoon, so I was surprised when he showed up with Tamar to escort me to Nikolai’s birthday dinner. I’d assumed he’d get Tolya to take his place. Maybe he was making amends for missing his previous shift.I’d given serious thought to not attending the dinner myself, but there didn’t seem to be much point. I couldn’t think of a likely excuse, and my absence would just offend the King and Queen.I’d dressed in a light kefta made of shimmering panels of sheer gold silk. The bodice was set with sapphires of deep Summoner’s blue that matched the jewels in my hair.Mal’s eyes flickered over me as I entered the common room, and it occurred to me that the colors would have suited Zoya better. Then I had to wonder at myself. Gorgeous as she might be, Zoya wasn’t the problem. Mal was leaving. I was letting him go. There was no one else to blame for the rift between us.Dinner was held in one of the sumptuous dining rooms of the Grand Palace, a chamber known as the Eagle’s Nest for the massive frieze on its ceiling depicting the crowned double eagle, a scepter in one talon and a cluster of black arrows bound by red, blue, and purple ribbons in the other. Its feathers had been wrought in real gold, and I couldn’t help but think of the firebird.The table was crowded with the highest-ranking generals of the First Army and their wives, as well as all the most prominent Lantsov uncles, aunts, and cousins. The Queen sat at one end of the table looking like a crumpled flower in pale rose silk. At the opposite end, Vasily sat next to the King, pretending not to notice as his father ogled an officer’s young wife. Nikolai held court at center table, with me beside him, his charm sparkling as always.He’d asked that no ball be thrown in his honor. It didn’t seem fitting with so many refugees going hungry outside the city walls. But it was Belyanoch, and the King and Queen didn’t seem able to restrain themselves. The meal consisted of thirteen courses, including a whole suckling pig and a life-size gelatin mold cast in the shape of a fawn.When the time came for gifts, Nikolai’s father presented him with an enormous egg glazed in pale blue. It opened to reveal an exquisite miniature ship set on a lapis sea. Sturmhond’s red dog banner flew from the ship’s mast, and its little cannon fired with a pop that released the tiniest puff of white smoke.Throughout the meal, I listened to the conversation with one ear while I studied Mal. The King’s guards were placed at intervals along each wall. I knew Tamar stood somewhere behind me, but Mal was directly across from me, standing at rigid attention, hands behind his back, eyes straight ahead in the blank focus of all anonymous servants. It was like some kind of torture, watching him this way. We were just a few feet apart, but it felt like miles. And hadn’t that been the way of it since we’d come to Os Alta? There was a knot in my chest that seemed to grow tighter every time I glanced at him. He’d shaved and had his hair trimmed. His uniform was neatly pressed. He looked weary and distant, but he looked like Mal again.The nobles raised toasts to Nikolai’s health. The generals praised his military leadership and courage. I expected to see Vasily sneer at all the praise being heaped onto his brother, but he looked positively cheery. His face was rosy with wine, and there was what could only be described as a smug smile on his lips. His trip to Caryeva seemed to have left him in a good mood.My eyes flitted back to Mal. I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or stand up and start hurling dishes against the wall. The room felt too warm, and the wound at my shoulder had started to itch and pull again. I had to resist the urge to reach up and scratch it.Great, I thought dismally. Maybe I’ll have another hallucination in the middle of the dining room, and the Darkling will climb out of the soup tureen.Nikolai bent his head and whispered, “I know my company doesn’t count for much, but could you at least try? You look like you’re about to burst into tears.”“Sorry,” I murmured. “I’m just…”“I know,” he said, and gave my hand a squeeze beneath the table. “But that gelatin deer gave its life for your entertainment.”I tried to smile, and I did make an effort. I laughed and chatted with the round, red-faced general on my right and pretended to care as the freckled Lantsov boy across from me rambled on about repairs to the dacha he’d inherited.When the flavored ices had been served, Vasily rose to his feet and lifted a glass of champagne.“Brother,” he said, “it is good to be able to toast your birth this day and to celebrate with you when you have spent so long on other shores. I salute you and drink to your honor. To your health, little brother!”“Ne zalost!” chorused the guests, drinking deeply from their glasses and resuming their conversations.But Vasily wasn’t finished. He tapped the side of his glass with his fork, producing a loud clink clink clink that regained the party’s attention.“Today,” he said, “we have more to celebrate than my brother’s noble birth.”If the emphasis weren’t enough, Vasily’s smirk would have been. Nikolai continued to smile pleasantly.“As you all know,” Vasily continued, “I have been traveling these last weeks.”“And no doubt spending,” chortled the red-faced general. “Have to build yourself a new stable soon, I suspect.”Vasily’s glare was icy. “I did not go to Caryeva. Instead, I journeyed north on a mission sanctioned by our dear father.”Beside me, Nikolai went very still.“After long and arduous negotiations, I am pleased to announce that Fjerda has agreed to join us in our fight against the Darkling. They have pledged both troops and resources to our cause.”“Can this be?” asked one of the noblemen.Vasily’s chest swelled with pride. “It can. At long last and through no small effort, our fiercest enemy has become our most powerful ally.”