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“If you have a sister and she dies, do you stop saying you have one? Or are you always a sister, even when the other half of the equation is gone?” - Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

 

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Little Ana has only just turned five when Baghra once again senses the bloom of new life in Alina, this girl that holds her son’s heart.

 

The Light to his Shadow

 

The Healers, in their ways, tell them it will be another girl child.  Alina smiles, in between retching, and her son beams, a sight that even warms Baghra’s hard heart.

 

Aleksander is a good father to daughters, and Baghra is glad of it.

 

Still, there is a part of her, long buried, that thinks, sisters.

 

And aches.

 

“Will I like having a sister?” Ana asks her later, on one of the girls many trips to Baghra’s caverns, with all the seriousness of a child.  She sits, the picture of Aleksander when he was young, biting her little lip as she colors with careful dedication a picture for her mother, to make her feel better.

 

Baghra loves her, fiercely.

 

“I did,” Baghra says, only.

 

It is all she can say.

 

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Baghra’s first memory is of shadows. 

 

She thinks, perhaps, she was about five years grown the first time she called the shadows.  Remembers that the sun was shining, dappling rays upon the water of the small pond by their house. That her mother had sat, darning clothes, and her father stood, chopping wood.

 

The power had sprung up in her, bloomed from her very core, erupted forth, this swirling mass of darkness, elegant and lithe, and Baghra had laughed, the innocent delight of a child.

 

That her father had looked at her with fascination, like a specimen upon his table, she had been too young to realize. 

 

That her mother had looked at her with fear, with disgust, she had not.

 

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Baghra’s memory spans centuries, and yet she has no remembrance of a time when her mother loved her.

 

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Baghra has loved all of three people in her many centuries. 

 

Her sister, her husband, and her son.

 

Her sister first. 

 

Not her mother, the fearful.  Not her father, the fascinated

 

Her sister always first.

 

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She never meant to hurt her. 

 

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What she remembers of that day is untainted by age, time. 

 

Her mother’s disgust, at her simple shadows, spun into play for her little sister, who had clapped happily in delight, asked for more, more.

 

“Monster,” her mother had hissed, dragging her sister away. 

 

It had not been a new insult, by far.  Monster was by far what her mother called her most, more so than her own name.  And yet, somehow, every time it stung evermore, and Baghra had stormed off into the woods, wiping angry tears from her eyes.

 

She’d meant no harm with her shadows, her darkness.  And yet still, her mother had never looked upon her with anything but fear, hate.

 

Baghra had been seventeen and had just wanted her mother to love her.

 

Then there had been a hand on her back, a weight, and Baghra had just reacted, animal instinct.  Had turned, not even seeing whom the hand had belonged to, and the shadows had burst from her, a Cut as deadly as any blade.

 

And then, and only then, had she seen her sister, hands held uselessly to her throat that had bled and bled and bled.

 

She had thought the hand was her mother’s.

 

The blood that rushed from her sisters’ neck was hideous, red, hot.

 

Lifeblood.

 

Then, there was only the screaming.

 

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The mervost her father used to bring life back into her sister was terrifying and horrible and hideous, this abominable thing.

 

And yet, it worked.  Her sister had breathed once more, her heart had beat once more.

 

She might have even thanked her father if he had not turned to her, for only a second, drunk on power and damnation, a monstrous thing.  Might have thanked him still if he had then not looked then at her sister, like a specimen to dissect and oh, Baghra had known fear.

 

When the townsfolk had come for him moments later, pulled him down in chains to the water, held him there until the breath had escaped his lungs, Baghra had watched, watched and never once looked away.

 

And been glad for it.

 

If that made her a monster, she could bear that. 

 

He’d been the monster, first.

 

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She is twelve, the first time she ventures to her father’s workshop. 

 

Father has always been protective of his space – his important work, his “world shaping work, Baghra!” – but she thinks she saw her father lead Mikhail to the shop after his delivery, and she wants to make sure he doesn’t leave without her saying hello.

 

She has few friends, the people of the town wary and watchful of her father, of her, but Mikhail has always been kind to her.  The baker’s son, who slips her small warm loaves sometimes, fresh from the oven with a smile and a wink

 

A handsome boy, all blond hair and brown eyes, and sometimes he makes Baghra’s heart flutter.

 

The shop furnace burns hot, a strange sickly smell, but the door is cracked open, and Baghra thinking only of the boy, walks in where she has never before tread.

 

And then stops, dead, and stares, horrified.

 

She has found Mikhail. 

 

What remains of him.

 

Stares at what was once a handsome boy with kind eyes, now glazed, dead, that stare unseeing forward.  Looks, as her gorge rises, at the blood that congeals, the very bone of him removed in parts, dissected, like some specimen, some thing.

 

And then stares at her father, holding the knife, his hands still stained red.

 

“Baghra,” her father says, pleasantly, when he sees her, waves her over with an eager hand, and the light in his eyes is hideous, proud, “come look what I have made.”

 

Baghra looks upon a great stag with antlers that twist and turn, bone of the deer and bone of her friend melded, horrifying, and wants to grab her sister and run and run and run.

 

But Baghra knows he’d catch them. 

 

So, he steps towards him, lets him see the smile of her lips, and not the disgust, the darkness of her eyes.  Swallows down her bile, that wants to rush forward, stares upon this monster wearing her father’s face and does not cower.

 

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When Petyr and little Irina too go missing, and the smoke from her father’s workshop furnace smells sickly of blood and bone, Baghra only holds her sister tighter, bites her lip to trap in her screams, until she can taste blood.

 

Survives.

 

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Sankt, history calls her father, in tomes written by those who idolize power and the making of it.

 

Martyr.

 

Baghra laughs so hard the first time she hears that, she cries.

 

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Aleksander is thirteen, when he asks her of Morozova’s Amplifiers. 

 

He has just called forth the Cut for the first time, ended the life of the boys who tried to drown him, hungry and hateful for his power.

 

She holds her son close, tells him she does not blame him, for she does not. 

 

She knows he had called one of them friend.

 

He is her son; he is a survivor.

 

He promises, with all the dedication and fervor of a man – for he is no longer a child, that innocence lost in the frozen water – that he will protect all Grisha from those that would harm them, and asks, about the amplifiers.

 

He is her son; she will never let him wear one of her father’s creations.

 

“Amplifiers,” Baghra tells him, venom in her tone, thinks of power not earned but taken, forged of bone and death, “are for the weak.”

 

He never asks again.

 

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The cost of power was the most impactful lesson The Bonesmith ever taught her.

 

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The worst thing of all?

 

He sister had never even blamed her for it.

 

Her mother never looked upon her eldest daughter again, had cast her from her sight and her hearth and home.

 

But her sister, her sweet little sister?

 

“Please do not blame yourself,” her sister had told her, grabbed her hands – the very hands that had called forth the shadows that had killed her – and not let go, “I love you.”

 

“I will never hurt you again,” Baghra had vowed, and she had kept that vow until her sister’s dying day.

 

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Baghra never stopped loving her sister.

 

Not even when she had lived, loved, aged and died, as otkazat’sya are wont to do.

 

“I am glad of this life I have lived,” her sister says, upon her death bed, her face lined with age, hair snow white.  She holds Baghra’s hands between her own, young flesh between paper-thin aged skin, and entreats, “please, try to be happy in yours.”

 

Her little sister is an old woman.

 

Baghra is not.

 

But oh, is she weary.

 

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Centuries later, Baghra is trying still.

 

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“You love me, and I love you,” her husband asks her one night when Aleksander is but four, tucked securely into bed, “why does it pain you so, to know it?”

 

He sounds so sweetly puzzled, this man who loves her, and Baghra aches with the weight of an age he will never know, years he will never see. 

He is a powerful Heartrender, to be sure. But only mortal.

 

Yesterday, Aleksander sat on his father’s lap and summoned shadows for the first time, and feeling his power, Baghra had been struck with waves of both relief and pity.

 

Her little boy is so strong, she will not outlive him.  But Baghra too knows this; peace does not come to that kind of power easily.

 

“The last person who loved me, I watched them die of nothing more than old age,” Baghra says, loves him enough to gift him the truth, tries to explain to him a pain he will never know, “I would not survive watching you do the same.”

 

He holds her tight, this man who loves her, tells her not to fear.  That he has her, and he won’t let go.

 

And he does not.  He holds her close, drifts into a peaceful sleep and Baghra loves him, and aches.

 

It was always going to be her, that did the letting go.

 

She and Aleksander are gone long before he wakes.

 

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She does not love Ulla’s father.  But she is lonely, and the Sildroher is there, and then so too is the child.

 

She feels more than a moment’s regret in leaving the girl with her father and her people, but she belongs to the sea, for however long her life may be.

 

It is weak, but she cannot watch her child die.

 

When she hears tales of the half-Sildroher girl betrayed by the King and his Queen, and the storm she summoned to destroy part of Fjerda, she tips up a glass to the monster of the tale.

 

A survivor, just like her mother.

 

When she hears the whispers that say she inhabits the North Islands of Fjerda, waiting for ambitious cravens to come for deals, she hopes the girl makes them pay.

 

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Baghra loves her son.

 

She stands in front of The Fold, this slash of death and pain he has created with her father’s poison, the volcra – made from Grisha and Otkazat’sya alike – screaming within, and for the first time, she fears for him.

 

She is terrified it will not be enough.

 

She is long gone before he wakes.

 

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She comes back to him, of course.

 

He is her son.

 

She will always come back.

 

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When the word spreads back to Os Alta about the girl, the girl who brought forth the Light, Baghra looks upon her son, watches.

 

He has waited centuries for the Sun to his Shadow, and she wonders if she is all he was waiting for.

 

She takes her own measure of the girl, of course.  The girl is untrained, afraid of her own power, but there is a spark of strength, of fire, Baghra sees.

 

Alina watches her son, and he watches her back.  And here too, Baghra seeks a spark.

 

Yes, Baghra decides, this she can work with.

 

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“You care about her,” she tells her son, watches him struggle, not with the caring, but with the cost of it, the weight of that burden.

 

“You will have to tell her the truth,” she tells him only, and leaves the rest to him.

 

He stands, at the precipice of a choice, and she hopes he picks that which he can live with, that which he cannot live without.

 

He tells her, the girl with the Light, and does not lose her.

 

Does not lose himself.

 

Baghra sleeps the sleep of the dreamless for the first time in centuries, that night.

 

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“One day I will not wake,” she tells the girl who calls the Light, the girl who calls to her son, “I do not fear it,” and it is not a lie.

 

Baghra has lived a very long time, but even she knows not what lies beyond this mortal coil.

 

Perhaps, if there are truly Saints, she might even see her sister once more.

 

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When they wed, Alina Starkov takes her son’s hand and Light swells between them, inferior still to the warmth in his eyes when he looks at the girl.

 

Shadows come to meet the Light, twine within it, and the girl looks back; looks and does not look away.

 

Light calling Shadow, like calling like

 

After the ceremony, Baghra sinks into her shadows, ignores the ache in her very soul.

 

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Alina’s pregnancy with her second babe is easier than with Ana’s, her labor shorter, as it so often is.  Baghra takes Ana to her caverns while her parents are otherwise occupied, brings the little girl up to her lap to curl there, reads her stories that always end happily.

 

Her love for Ana is a stunningly uncomplicated thing, this little sunbeam who always greets Baghra with a smile, never runs out of hugs she wants to give to her babushka.

 

Baghra will never have to stand over Ana’s grave, never have to worry about outliving the little girl.

 

The relief is a most potent thing.

 

When the word has come that Alina’s labor has ended, Baghra brings little Ana to their rooms, holds her little hand in her own, walks her forward to complete this little family, beautiful and lovely.

 

Solnishka, come meet your new sister,” her son, radiantly happy, entreats gently to the little girl, their little sun, “Her name is Maria.”

 

And Ana does, lets her hand slip from Baghra’s, and slots into the space left for her by her father, a perfect fit.

 

Ana’s little hand meets the even tinier one of Maria, and Shadows slide from the babe, meet and twine with Ana’s sparking Light.

 

Light calling Shadow, like calling like.

 

Alina laughs, delightedly, at the poleaxed look on Aleksander’s face and Ana smiles, bright as the sun and presses the tiniest, gentlest kiss to her new little sisters’ cheek.

 

And Baghra watches, an aching shadow.

 

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Remembers.

 

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“Baghra, come meet your new sister,” her father tells her, gestures her to him and her mother.

 

The baby is pink and squirming in her mother’s arms, making a sound half coo, half cry.  She quiets when Baghra approaches though, turns huge brown eyes to meet her own.

 

She cannot say she’s been overly impressed by this whole sibling ordeal up until now - it has seemed wholly messy and loud thus far – but the little person in her mother’s arms calls to her, and so she makes her way over, reaches a finger out to the waving fists, that grasp.

 

Light sparks between them, twines with her own Shadow, where her new sister’s tiny fingers have grasped her own, shines like the very Sun and Baghra finds she cannot look away.

 

My little sister, Baghra thinks, and this wave of love that hits her is huge, foreign, frightening.

 

Light calling Shadow.

 

Like calling like.

 

“Her name,” her father says, a delight in his voice Baghra does not yet know to be wary of, “is Aleksandra.”

 

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Here is the wound only Baghra will ever remember.

 

The Sun in her sister had died with her that day, and not even the mervost had been enough to return it.

 

Her Shadow had never again felt the call of Light, of like calling like.

 

She’d found her first silver hair the day her sister had died.

 

And been glad for it.

 

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And yet, she looks upon Aleksander and Alina, Anastasia and Maria - souls calling to souls, romantic, platonic - looks at Light that calls to Shadow, like that calls like, Baghra does not despair.

 

There are things here and now that were never so with Aleksandra and herself.  There is safety here, understanding, acceptance.

 

There is family here.

 

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This time, she thinks, perhaps it will be enough.

 

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FIN

 

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