what it is to be a thin crescent moon
“I don’t see how you expect me to teach you to ride from here,” Aleksander said as Alina took a step back. She’d brought one of the chairs out of the cottage and settled it across from where the stallion was still tethered, holding Aleksander’s arm as he walked the short distance from the door and sat down, his kefta draped around his shoulders.
“You didn’t see the state of your back,” she replied. The two lower wounds were healing slowly, so slowly, and she wished she understood how to make her summoned light into healing. She had let her hands linger on him as long as she dared, hoping something would happen, but Aleksander only breathed a little more quickly and let his head fall forward, his lashes dark against his cheeks. She’d moved away and mumbled an apology he stopped by taking her hand in his and running his thumb across her knuckles.
“Besides, you taught me to cast sfera from your bed,” Alina said.
“My bed?” Aleksander said and she blushed.
“The bed. Now you’re in the chair and you can tell me what to do just as well as standing next to me,” she said, walking over to Opasnost and running a hand lightly along his neck. “Isn’t that right, Opasnost?”
“He’s a war-horse, a General’s stallion, Alina,” Aleksander said. “You speak to him as if he is a pet. Your first pony.”
“I suppose he is my first pony,” Alina smiled. “And we are friends of a sort, he and I.”
“He responds to your power,” Aleksander said. “He’s familiar with it.”
“I bring his water. And I let him have one of your apricots,” Alina replied.
“Nevertheless,” Aleksander said, crossing his long legs at the ankle with an elegant economy of movement Alina should not have noticed at all but she did and he did too.
“If I unfasten the tether, will he stay?” she asked.
“If I tell him to,” he said.
“You don’t have to do anything else?”
“Independent of my abilities as a Grisha, my voice is the one he was trained to follow. In battle, in peace, he need only hear my briefest command,” Aleksander said.
“So, can you say, ‘Opasnost, don’t throw Alina off your back?’” she replied.
“I don’t have to. He doesn’t want to do that. And you don’t need to worry about it anyway, we’ll be riding together,” Aleksander said. “When we get to Os Alta, I’ll find you a horse better suited to you. A mare, more biddable than Opasnost, but with spirit.”
Alina tried to imagine such a horse and imagine herself upon it, voluntarily. Her failure must have been evident on her face because Aleksander chuckled.
“You will enjoy it. It won’t be the way it has been, riding for our lives,” he said. “Opasnost may be a sort of friend of yours, but your mare will belong to you, eager to please you. There are beautiful places we can explore without any fear.”
“We’ll have to get there first. And that means I need to be able to get on your horse. Without you dragging me up there,” Alina said.
“I didn’t realize you were concerned with how it looked,” he said.
“I’m not. I’m not counting on you being strong enough to do it when we leave,” she said, waiting to see if he’d be offended or defensive.
“I appreciate your caution,” he said. “If not your confidence in me.”
“Anyone else would have died with your injuries, Aleksander. You came far too close,” she said. “And we both have our reasons for wanting to get to the Little Palace. We can’t stay here much longer, I know that.”
“Then untie Opasnost’s tether. And when he is free, see if you can reach the pommel of the saddle,” Aleksander said. “Put your foot in the stirrup and pull yourself up.”
Alina reached up and managed to grab the pommel, shoved her foot in the stirrup and tried to launch herself up onto the saddle; unlike being a cartographer, partially completing the steps yielded absolutely nothing expect for Aleksander’s cough as he choked back laughter. She felt like she’d nearly pulled her arm out of its socket and could only congratulate herself on not falling down in a heap beside the stallion.
“I appreciate your confidence in me, if not your caution,” Alina said. “I think the reality is I’m going to need to climb up. Using one of those chairs—we’ll have to sacrifice it to the elements.”
“You’re giving up too soon,” Aleksander said. “And I think the stirrup length is wrong for you but that can’t be changed if we’re riding together. Try again, though. You were close.”
Somehow, through some miracle, she managed it the second time and suddenly found herself looking down on Aleksander from a great height. It occurred to her that no one else had ever been in this situation perhaps, superior to him, for all that she was barely hanging onto the saddle; the look in his eyes told her so and also that he did not dislike it, though there was no smile on his parted lips.
“See, Alya, see what you are capable of,” he said softly.
The alteration in his tone, the sense she had of his shadows and how warm they could be, pushed her beyond her tenuous balance. She let out a little cry as she started to fall off Opasnost, going silent when Aleksander sprang up from his chair and caught her, one arm around her waist, keeping her upright, pressing her against him.
“No,” she gasped and he stiffened, dropping his arm. Withdrew, his eyes darkness like the Fold’s.
“I beg your forgiveness, dvoryanka” he said, all formality, as if they were before the entire Imperial court. She shook her head at him and he tilted his in inquiry.
“No,” she repeated. “You’ll hurt yourself—”
“You weigh hardly anything,” he argued. “Far too little in fact.”
“I’m very well as I am,” she said, aware it was a lie, that she’d only begun to enjoy the taste of anything since they arrived at the cottage, knowing she was small and plain, someone most people paid little heed to.
“I know how it is with you, Alya. How it was,” he said. “It will be better. As you use your power, you will find everything more satisfying.”
“Everything is a lot,” she replied.
“I know,” he said. “But it’s what you are capable of. Made for. It won’t feel overwhelming, it will feel right. Natural.”
“You think you know me so well?” she asked, more curious than argumentative.
“I know enough,” he said. “I know you have surpassed my every hope. My every hopeless wish.” He lifted her hand, the one with the scar, to his lips and brushed the lightest kiss against the crescent on her palm. He held her gaze as she closed her hand around the caress. “I know you don’t believe me and I know you’re very stubborn. But I like a challenge.”
“That sounds like could be a promise,” she said.
“I’d like it to be,” he said.
“All right. But now you have to go lie down,” she said.
“You will not be able to end every discussion by sending me to bed for much longer, Alya,” he said, walking back towards the cottage.
“Then I’ll revel in it for now,” she replied.
While he slept, she washed her face and hands, daring to strip down to her small-clothes and scrubbed herself hurriedly. She’d said all she looked forward to was the work of the Little Palace’s kitchens, but she hadn’t mentioned her longing for a proper bath, even if all she had was a wooden tub and a few inches of cold water. The cottage had not been meant for longer term habitation, was clearly a refuge; it had served its purpose well but despite her concern that they’d leave too soon, she could sense their need to depart approaching. When he woke, his eyes were bright and he asked for something to eat “anything at all” before she had a chance to offer him the bowl of rice she’d prepared.
“Tell me about the Little Palace,” she said.
“What do you want to know?” he asked. “Where shall I begin?”
“Where will I stay?” she asked, thinking how far away will you be? “Who will I meet?” she went on, thinking who should I trust?
“As the Sun Summoner, you will occupy the Vezda suite, befitting your unique abilities and status,” he said. “It’s down the hallway from my own quarters, should you find you need anything from me.”
“But there, you’re General Kirigan, the Darkling. I can’t just knock on your door whenever I feel like it,” she said.
“That’s right. You don’t have to knock. The door will always be open for you, Alina,” he said.
“And your guards will like that?”
“They follow my orders,” he said. “They don’t have to like anything.”
“Still, you said people will think I’m a Shu spy. If I’m seen slipping into your rooms—”
“You are not a spy. You are the Sun Summoner. We will make sure everyone knows that and no one will think twice about our meetings,” he said. Alina nodded though she did not entirely agree. He had been so powerful for so long, he might not fully imagine how those who answered to him would feel about someone like her. A nobody with no connections, nothing but her poorly understood light to justify her presence.
“I told you, you are not alone. I will be there at the Little Palace, but I won’t be the only person you can turn to,” he said. “I will make sure Genya Safin attends you and you may always depend on Ivan, my personal guard.”
“That’s all?” Alina asked. She had not made many close friends in the First Army, but there was a reliable camaraderie among the cartographers and any orphan of Keramzin was consider family once they left. And there was Mal. Even if she was not assigned to his unit or division, she had the chance to catch a glimpse of him or send a message.
“You will make your own friends, Alya,” Aleksander said. “Just make sure they earn your trust. If they break it, there will be no second chance.”
“You’d have them killed?” Alina exclaimed, aghast.
“What? No, of course not!”
“But what did you mean—”
“They would be sent from the Little Palace as long as you are in residence. Places would be found for them in noble houses or on the frontiers. They would still be my Grisha, under my protection,” he explained. “They would simply not be able to pose any threat to you. Ever again.”
“I imagine I’ll be extremely popular once the word gets out,” she said wryly.
“If anything, you will have to decide who truly merits your interest, your kindness. Your laughter,” he said. “To them, you are a being nearly divine, the Sun Summoner, the one who will unmake the Fold. Only some of them will be able to appreciate Alina and try to talk to her.”
“You mentioned I will unmake the Fold. How exactly?” He’d finished the bowl of rice and she slid the little tin of comfits towards him, watched the small smile on his lips as he ate a few of them.
“The Little Palace is a place of learning. You will have full access to the Library and lessons in combat, in Grisha lore and history, in philosophy and the Small Science. Summoning,” he said.
“You will teach me Summoning?”
“That remains to be seen,” he said.
“But why?” Alina asked. “Who else could teach me?”
“Baghra,” Aleksander said, pausing, clearly caught up in a memory. “But I hesitate to send you to her alone. Her methods are her own, she is almost a relic of another age—”
“She hits her students, doesn’t she?” Alina said.
“With a birch branch. But I would not let her hit you, Alina,” he said. “I will not.”
“How else will I learn what I need to know?” Alina said.
“You and I will have to figure that out together,” he said. “And quickly. The court must see what you can do, what no one else has ever been able to do.”
“And then I’ll unmake the Fold,” she said.
“And then, you’ll decide. We’ll decide,” he said.
“But why in the world wouldn’t I want to destroy the Fold? After everyone who has been killed, lost—”
“Those people cannot be brought back. The question is whether the existence of the Fold prevents more deaths than it causes, what Ravka would be without it. Whether the solution is safe passage for the Grisha and their allies,” he said.
“How can I decide that?” she asked.
“Didn’t you tell me you read the Duke’s ethical treatises? We have many more in the Library. And I have a shatranj board,” he said. “I have found a game or two can bring tremendous clarity—"
“People are not pawns,” she said flatly.
“But the child learns through play and the adult may do the same,” he said, pushing the comfits back to her. “Have a sweet. We needn’t resolve everything tonight, Alya. We’ll have plenty of time once we’re safe in the Little Palace.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she said. “I don’t want anyone hurt because of me.”
“I know, solnyskha. But I also know you understand that when you make maps, there are places you cannot imagine before you find them and yet, you would not stop drawing, trying to find a safe way through for the people who are relying on you,” he said, sounding tired, careworn, and impossibly tender. She took a comfit from the tin and let the sugar dissolve on her tongue, tasting what he wanted to take away bitterness. She thought of Alexei and the others who’d died, of Mal on the deck of the skiff and Aleksander after the last arrow had struck him, how he’d held her closer for just a moment before he killed the Fjerdans. She took a second comfit and bit down, feeling her light rise, like the water that quenched a terrible thirst.
“Let’s save the rest for the journey to Os Alta,” she said. “How long will it take?”
“Two days, maybe three,” he said.
“Not so very far then,” she said.
“Not very far—and yet a world away,” he said. “Tomorrow?”
“If your fever doesn’t spike,” she said. “If you sleep easily tonight.”
“I expect I will,” he said. “You will be there.”
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