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Choose, Me or Ravka

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        The sunlight dances across the sparkling water in the pond Mal had dug out last year. The sunbeams through the window overlooking the pond are warm. They soothe Alina, reminding her or the power she lost years ago. Losing it didn’t seem to be ageing her. Mal had a few faint lines on his forehead and his hair had started to thin, but Alina hadn’t changed. She didn’t feel as healthy as when she was Grisha, but her body hadn’t worn away either.

        The sun on Alina’s skin called her tauntingly, and not for the first time since the battle on the Fold, Alina raised her arms and hoped. Nothing. Just as it had been nothing every day for the past few years.

        As they often do, Alina’s thoughts flickered to him. The one who had hurt so many, hurt her and her friends countless times. But a part of her loved him. It killed her inside that he was dead, by her hand no less. Alina would do it all again, for Ravka, for the Grisha, for everyone she cared about. But Alina still wished he was here. Aleksander. She was the only one who knew his name, she was the only one who had mourned him. Her balance, her equal, the darkness to her light. And he was gone. His absence haunted Alina nearly as much as the empty hole once filled with sunshine and heat.

        Nikolai periodically sent news from Os Alta. When parem had appeared, Alina would be lying if she said she hadn’t considered it. She spent a few weeks wondering if a dose of parem would bring back her powers. If it did, would she have been strong enough to resist addiction? Or would the parem have killed her because she was an otkazat’sya now? In the end, Alina had decided against the risk. Mal needed her, and they were happy. Or they had been happy. Finally being with Mal had given Alina perspective. Mal loved her, but he only loved parts of her, he didn’t love Alina completely, and it wasn’t enough. It had started as a small niggling of want, but now Alina craved being loved for who she was. Someone who would understand every part of her, see every part of her and still smile. Alina wanted him.

        It seemed she wasn’t the only one either. Nikolai had warned her that a cult had sprung up around him, worshipping him as a Saint. Alina’s had immediately wanted to ride to Os Alta, to walk cloaked and hidden among those who didn’t see him for only the bad, but Alina had restrained herself. What would Mal think? What would Nikolai, or Genya, or Zoya, or any of her friends think if they knew? What would Ravka think? So Alina stayed at Keramzin, ignoring the whim to run to her Starless Saint.

        It could have painted a pretty picture, one Alina was sure the Apparat would love spinning into his own creation. Sol Koroleva, the Sun Saint pining for her dark prince, the Black Heretic, the Starless Saint. But Alina left the fairy tales and fantasies to her daydreams while she played with the sunbeams and her dreams after rolling out of Mal’s arms.

        A few weeks later, a panicked message came from Genya, saying that Nikolai, Zoya, and a cultist had vanished more than a week ago while investigating the Fold. Alina tried to run straight to the palace, but Mal had stopped her, telling her it didn’t concern them anymore, and it wasn’t their place. Alina was no longer Grisha and Mal was no longer one of Morozova’s amplifiers. But it was hard to enjoy life at Keramzin with the children when her friends could be in danger.

        Then it happened. It was the middle of the night and Alina bolted out of bed, nauseous and feverish. She stumbled outside and knelt in the cool grass as she lost the contents of her stomach. Alina still burned; it felt like she was being consumed from the inside as heat shot through her veins. Alina opened her mouth to scream, but light came spilling out instead. It spilled from every pore in her body, and Alina felt alive again for the first time in years. She was a sun summoner once more.

        Alina felt complete, so complete that she wanted to cry, nothing was missing, everything was back. Alina fell to the ground in shock. Everything was back, including the tether. It was faint and barely there, but she could feel it strumming through her. He was alive. Alina started sobbing, she didn’t know how or why or when, but he was alive. Aleksander, her Aleksander was among the living once more.

        Alina snuck back in the house, a tendril of light twining through her fingers to light her way. She wrote a note to Mal and left it on his bedside table, telling him she was safe but there was something she had to do. Alina took a white stallion from the stables, his coat only slightly darker than Alina’s hair. She rode hard, fleeing Keramzin before Mal could try to change her mind and stop her and because she wanted to get to Os Alta as soon as possible. She had to see him.

        The next day a child would claim he had seen Sankta Alina riding past, ablaze with light on a white horse. Mal heard this and flew into a rage. He snapped at the staff and spoke harshly to the children. He had discovered Alina’s note and had been sad, but hearing about Sanka Alina riding by was infuriating. She had her powers back and hadn’t bothered to tell him in person. Mal knew she was headed for Os Alta. He placed control of Keramzin with one of the more capable teachers and stormed to the stables, grabbing a horse of his own.

        Alina rode without stopping. She rode until her stallion could ride no more. They stopped for a short rest, and Alina fed and watered her stallion, who she had named Ivan, and slept for a few hours beneath a tree. As soon as Alina awoke she continued onwards. When she finally reached Os Alta, it was bustling and thriving. It seemed busier than usual, and there were many non-Ravkans milling about. Alina figured that there must be a party going on. They must have found Nikolai!

        It was too busy for Alina to easily make her way to the palace gates and she was frustrated and tired. She did something she would likely regret; Alina threw off her coat and glowed. People ducked and screamed, scattering, while there was the occasional “Sankta Alina!” or “Sol Koroleva!” shouted from behind her. Alina galloped to the gate that separated the palace from the city proper and dimmed her glow so the guards could see her properly.

        “I have business with the King,” Alina boomed, trying to hide how antsy and fidgety she was. For the first time in a long while, she ran her hand along her neck, where her collar once sat. The guards stared at her with awe and fear. They recognized Alina, they had seen her when she was just the Sun Summoner. They also knew she was supposed to be dead. They hastily opened the gates and Alina galloped to the stables in the Little Palace. Now that she was close, the tether felt so much stronger. She followed it, ghosting through the familiar halls, but no whispers followed her. There were no Grisha here. Alina didn’t know if she was disappointed or not.

        She was led to the observatory and Alina threw the doors open, glowing like a midnight sun. Everyone in the room panickedly whirled around, except for him. He stood there, smiling like he knew exactly what was about to happen. Alina supposed he did, the tether was a two-way street.

        “What happened?” Genya demanded shakily, still woozy from the shock of the Darkling.

        “I woke up and the light poured out of me. Then I felt… him,” Alina settled with. “Our tether is back too.”

        The room was filled with murmurs, but he kept grinning. He smirked at Alina, looking triumphant and smug, and Alina wanted to slap him. Alina had forgotten how insufferable and infuriating he could be sometimes. But she also wanted to hug him and stroke his cheek, make sure he was real. As it became more apparent that she wasn’t ageing, Alina had become worried she’d end up like the Darkling. Alone and bitter, using those around her as pawns. But if he was here… there would be someone to share eternity with.

        Aleksander, Alina called through the tether. His grin widened and Alina couldn’t help but smile back. The chatter around her ceased and everyone stared at Alina strangely. Alina quickly covered her mistake, “I can’t stop smiling. I’m Grisha again.”

        The others accepted her explanation and continued arguing. After all, Alina had lost the most because of the Darkling, why would she be happy to see him? She drifted over to him and he pulled at a strand of Alina’s long white hair.

        “It’s good to see you, Sankta,” he murmured. Alina choked back a laugh.

        “I stabbed you,” Alina whispered incredulously. She cringed, she hadn’t expected him to be so calm and collected.

        “Being dead gives a person time to think, Alina. What is an eternity of power worth if there’s no one to share it with,” he shrugged. Alina’s heart soared. She tried to tamp down the joy, but she knew he would feel it. “It appears I’m not alone with my sentiment,” he smirked. Alina gave him a warning glare and glided out of the room. She could wait to make her move.

        Alina went to her old room in the Little Palace. Not the Darkling’s old rooms, but the one she had lived in before the Winter Fete. Alina was touched when she saw that her room was exactly as she had left it. No one had been given the room. Her old friends and comrades talked late into the night, but Alina felt it when he was moved to a cell. She scribbled a note and bent the light around her to avoid detection. Alina snuck through the prison and down to his cell. She quickly knocked out the two guards and used the Cut to slash through the bars. She stepped gracefully into the cell, the only light coming from a ball hovering in her hand, casting strange shadows on both of their faces.

        “I need you to make a choice,” Alina said softly. “Me, or Ravka.”

        He took a deep breath, he knew the question had been coming, and he’d meant what he had said earlier. “I choose you, my Alina,” Aleksander vowed.

        “Thank you, Aleksander,” Alina whispered. She stretched up on her tiptoes and pressed a brief kiss against his lips. He tried to hold onto her and stumbled back in shock when she moved away. Alina shook her head and freed him from his bonds. “Not now, Aleksander, we don’t have much time.”

        Alina bent the light around them and they left the damp prison. They ran for the stables, and Alina dropped their cover so they wouldn’t frighten the horses. She grabbed her white stallion, and Aleksander grabbed his black stallion who was miraculously still here. Alina bent the light again, but only around Aleksander. They rode up to the gate and Alina demanded she be let through. The city proper was still too crowded for Aleksander to ride through safely while cloaked with her light, so Alina tossed him a black cloak. He raised the hood and Alina dropped the light. She wasn’t quite ready to stop summoning so soon after regaining her abilities, so as they rode through Os Alta, Alina glowed. Drawn to her light, tendrils of darkness escaped from Aleksander. The cultists and the pilgrims would later bond over the sight, claiming that Sol Koroleva and the Starless Saint were riding into the afterlife together once more, forever intertwined.

        The next day, Mal rode into Os Alta. He stormed into the Little Palace and demanded the Grisha Triumvirate tell him where Alina was. They looked at him with pity and sorrow and led him to the prison. They walked down and down, to the musty bottom. They showed him a cell, the bars sliced clean through. They had been Cut. Inside the cell, was a small card with two words scrawled in Alina’s handwriting. I’m sorry. They told Mal there had been reports of Sankta Alina riding out of the city beside a man in a dark cloak with darkness spilling from. No one knew where they had gone. Mal crumpled to the floor and howled. It seemed the Darkling had won after all.