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Should Have, Could Have - Wouldn't Have

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The Soldat Sol were cheering, letting light blaze around them in glorious arcs as they burned the Fold away. Some of them had climbed up on the Darkling’s glass skiffs. Others had formed a line, bringing the beams of light together, sending a cascade of sunlight speeding through the thinning scraps of darkness, unraveling the Fold in a rippling wave.

They were crying, laughing, joyous in their triumph, so loud that I almost didn’t hear it—a soft rasp, fragile, impossible. I tried to keep it out, but hope came at me hard, a longing so acute I knew its end would break me.

Tamar swore, and her brother cursed in such foul language I almost covered my ears and howled at them to stop. But if I had, I wouldn’t have heard that sound in the midst of it – that slow, thready sound. The sound of a breath that clung to life, not yet ready to leave it.

Hope sang in my heart as I knelt to Mal, but he wasn’t breathing. He was really and truly dead; skin cooling, limbs and muscles stiffening. Joy turned to disappointment turned to bone-crushing sorrow, and as our world—Mal’s and mine—crashed and burned, I buried my face in Mal’s chest and wept, blind to everything but my own grief.

For just one moment.

A familiar voice rent my self-erected shield of sadness. “Alina.”

It was the Darkling.

I looked up, broken and angry, and there he was, the same as ever: pale and flawless except for the faint scar lines on his face. Something was missing, though, something that didn’t include his physical features.

I realized it in the same moment he cried again for help – he had lost his authoritative voice. The Darkling had leeched away, and in his place, pleading for my mercy, knelt Aleksander. His voice was weak, as though one whisper could shatter the sound, and he was even paler than he should be. I could tell it was all he could do to keep himself conscious, let alone upright. The bloody, shadow-wrapped knife was clutched by clammy fingers.

The twins stood above, their weapons shining in the new light. Tolya raised his, and I shouted, instinctively, “Stop!”

They looked at me as if I was mad. I probably was.

“Alina,” the Darkling pleaded. I noticed that the blood still stained his lips, his chin.

“What happened to you?” I demanded. “Can’t you summon your shadows and defend yourself?”

He shook his head and looked at me. I realized that the whirlwind of anguish, shock, and fury that had seized him in his last minutes had still not let him go, and he was moments away from a complete breakdown. “I tried,” he said, weakly. The black-robed arms opened wide, then slammed together like I’d seen so many times before.

Nothing happened.

It was strange, to see no shadows leaping to his command. “I’m powerless.” Something about the forlorn quality in his voice reminded me just how alone I was. Tamar and Tolya exchanged shocked glances, and I, sensing their wariness and anger, suggested, “Go tend to the wounded.”

They obeyed without a noise.

“Mal is dead,” I rapped out, dully. If I could summon, I would, and cut him in half while he was helpless, but I was just as powerless as he was, and too empty—without Mal, without my power—to do it. It was a numb sort of rage, and it burned in my blood like poison. “You killed him. You should have died instead. Not him.” I was aware of the tears rolling down my cheeks, and I shoved my arm to my eyes to cool the stinging.

He was silent, and I hated him for that silence. Finally he said, “I don’t regret living.”

“Promise me one thing,” I snarled. “No matter how much longer you live, whether you have power or not, you will try your hardest to prevent anything like this”—I  gestured all around us, pointedly not looking at Mal’s broken body—”ever happening again. You will never take a life again, whatever your goal may be.”

He was silent.

“Promise me!”

The Darkling gazed at me with an awful quiet, his bleak gray eyes intensely focused on me and me alone. “I promise,” he whispered at last, though I strained to hear it.

“Swear it on your life.” The raw steel edge in my voice threatened to slice him open if he didn’t.

“I swear it on my life,” he said, and I recognized the tone. I remembered it in Mal, in the tight way he conducted himself around Nikolai. I remembered it in Sergei, in the Spinning Wheel before he betrayed us, as he mourned Marie. I remembered it in Misha, when I invited him to eat and he refused to just after his mistress had plunged herself over the mountain, taking her son’s monsters with her. The Darkling was holding himself together, but one touch and he would fly apart.

I could do nothing but stare as his call echoed in the empty shell that used to be Alina Starkov. I did nothing but stare as his eyes swept the gray sands of what had once been the Shadow Fold. Dead and dying lay everywhere, clogging the air with the scent of stagnation. The wounded were being placed carefully on stretchers by medics whose boots were stained red with blood and streaked gray with dirt. The cheering of the Soldat Sol had faded into murmurs as they saw to the injured and the deceased.

The Darkling curled up on himself, his black kefta engulfing him. He suddenly looked small, and the thought nearly made me smile. The Darkling was intimidating, menacing, and merciless. The boy I now faced was defeated, lost, and broken. It was ridiculous to think they were one and the same—except they were. The man who stared out at what remained of the Fold with haunted eyes was the same one who taught me about steel and power and ruin.

“Where are the Grisha?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I answered hollowly. I laughed, and it was not a happy sound. “I was a bit busy killing a terrifying tyrant who didn’t know how to stay dead.”

“Are they all that are left?”

He wasn’t just asking. He was begging. Please don’t let them be the only ones left. Please don’t tell me that what I’ve done is this bad.

For he loved Ravka too, didn’t he? Though his crimes were many and bloody, they existed because he looked at a Ravka that was spilling out of the seams and he wanted to fix it. He loved his country and ultimately wanted the best for those who lived in it.

The Darkling, I now understood, must once have been like Nikolai—hopeful, determined, charismatic; one-minded in his pursuit of a united, peaceful Ravka.

“Yes. I think they are.” After a short pause, I added, mockingly, “Moi soverenyi.

As we looked out at what remained of the Fold, I answered myself: merzost.

Magic. Abomination.

Mal was dead because of it.

The Darkling’s voice startled me out of my haze.

“Use my name,” he requested softly, never meeting my eyes. “I am no Darkling. Call me by my true name.” I was almost surprised. I’d thought he hated the name, what with it being so common, but although I could acknowledge that using a common name prevented recognition, I didn’t know why that name in particular.

At last, I sighed. “All right, Aleksander.”

I surveyed the lifeless plains again. They were as empty as I felt. No power, no Mal. Nothing. I’d just murdered the one man in the world who’d ever truly loved me, and the only one I had ever loved, losing my power in the process.

Something in me shivered and trembled, and beside me I heard a sniff. I turned to see the Darkling—Aleksander, he was Aleksander—gripping handfuls of sand and shudder as another sob wracked his body. “I never meant—”

I cut him off brusquely. “Of course you didn’t. But you did it anyway. Merzost always has a price, and Ravka has paid yours.” I’d paid very heavily for mine. I hoped to all the Saints that the Darkling—Aleksander—knew how much of a mistake tampering with creation was. I hoped it twisted like a knife in his nonexistent heart.

“I did this.” He pushed himself to his feet and looked all around, his eyes melting like orbs of metal. With a sudden cry, he collapsed to his knees and sucked in a sharp breath. “I did this.

I couldn’t even come up with a caustic remark for the occasion.

I could recognize a breakdown when I saw one. He wasn’t trembling or screaming or even properly weeping, but he was breaking like I was broken. Something primal inside me whispered, Fix it.

I wished I could hate him again, push him away and leave him to die at the hands of the twins or the soldiers I’d brought with me, but I was long past hating him. Loathing him, despising him, I could do, if only in my most anguished moments; however, after seeing him like this I almost pitied him.

There was anger in the way he clenched his fists full of sand. There was fear in the way he curled up. Then he stood, his face clear and calm. “Leave me.”

The girl I had once been would have wondered what was wrong because of the careful control in his tone. The girl I’d become recoiled, surprised at how much the Darkling sounded like a wounded toddler, saying, Go away. He was angry. He was afraid. He was devastated. 

“I won’t,” I found myself saying, too tired to wrap it up in wit.

“Leave.”

“Are you always this much like a bad-tempered child, or do you just like me very much?”

The Darkling began to march away, but I tugged him back. “You’re not leaving now,” I said steadily, surprising even myself. “I don’t know how or why you’re still alive, but I want to know.”

Another bitter chuckle escaped him. “As if I know.” But his eyes flickered to Mal.

I looked.

My first love and my only. His expression was peaceful, but—how’d I never notice? His eyes were fixed on the spot where the Darkling—Aleksander, I needed to remember he was Aleksander—had lain dying. I had a prickling suspicion about why it was Aleksander who lived when it was Mal I ordered the twins to save.

“I think I know why,” I said, grimly.

Zoya came our way. “Starkov! We’re ready.” She stopped when she saw Mal’s dead body, and her eyes narrowed when they landed on the Darkling. He lifted his chin, staying stubbornly upright.

The Squaller whirled on me. “What is he doing, alive?” she hissed.

I shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. He just pulled my knife out of his chest.” It wasn’t a lie. He must have, somehow.

Before I could blink, Aleksander had snatched something out of the air and slung it back at Zoya, contempt twisting his face. She slowed it down and took it, shock tinting her expression. Two heartbeats passed before I realized what had just happened.

Zoya Nazyalensky had just tried to kill the Darkling.

Said Darkling caught the knife and tossed it back at her. Trembling from loss of blood and only half-lucid.

His eyes flickered to me, and I ordered, in my most commanding Sun-Summoner voice, “Zoya, stop. He’s not the same person.”

“Says who? A Darkling is a Darkling!”

“It was only ever me,” Aleksander said boldly. “I was every Darkling that has ever existed—the only Darkling that has ever existed.” Now why had he done that? Maybe he liked to see Zoya’s jaw drop as much as I did. It just about hit the sand, and I thought I saw a shadow of amusement in the sharp, scarred face.  

“It’s true,” I chimed in, feeling a little bit lighter for the burr in her sock.

Zoya threw her hands up. “Tamar and Tolya are coming back this way,” she told me. “You had better decide what to do with that one”—she jerked her head at her former master—“before they come.”

“It seems easy enough,” Aleksander murmured. “Aleksander is such a common name.” In one swift movement he shed his black kefta, took a cloak from one of the fallen, and put the hood up. “Sankta Alina,” he echoed, hollowly, and then laughed.

Somehow it was different; it wasn’t the Darkling’s detached, dark laughter. It was a lovely, youthful sound, the sound of a boy who found something funny. I didn’t know what to think, though I was pleased that Zoya didn’t either.

Aleksander swayed again. His eyes widened as he stared at Mal’s open eyes, which were still gazing at what might have been his death-place also. His lips formed a silent O as the gray orbs took in the scene. Seeing the Darkling so vulnerably shocked—seeing the Darkling grieve and halt, for even just a second—was even more shocking that seeing him laugh.

He picked his way over, and closed Mal’s eyes. He said something, though I couldn’t make out what. Finally, he pushed himself to his feet, planting them firmly on the sands. “I know how he did it.”

“Did what?” I had a sneaking suspicion what he meant.

The Darkling sounding dazed was yet another surprise I wasn’t prepared for, and yet he did. “His life was returning, and somehow, for some reason, he gave me some of it, unaware that the breath he shared with me was his last. What is the connection?”

“What?”

“How were you able to nearly—actually—kill me with just a knife coated in a tracker’s blood, even if it was Grisha steel?”

A laugh bubbled from my lips unbidden. He didn’t know! “Your mother had a sister once,” I murmured. “An otkazat’sya sister. She killed her with the Cut, but Morozova brought her back to life¾merzost. That was how she became the third Morozova amplifier. Mal is her descendant.”

His features writhed in confusion. Even in his reduced state he struggled to grasp what Mal was, completely. “So the tracker—Oretsev—is my cousin?”

“I suppose that’s it,” I said, wryly, and it hit me again that this was a dead Mal we were talking about. The grief struck me hard in the face, and it stung. And Aleksander! Couldn’t I blame him for Mal’s death? Was he truly the Darkling? Or was he a different man entirely? I stuffed my face in my sleeve, willing the tears not to fall.

“Alina?”

I sniffled harder. A trembling hand touched my shoulder, and my hands parted to reveal Aleksander: confused, lost, unsure how to proceed in this new turn of events.

Then he collapsed, his body thudding heavily against the ground.

I rushed over to him, fearing that Mal’s enormous sacrifice hadn’t been enough. But Aleksander was alive, if just barely. His eyes cracked open a slit; his breathing was brittle but his skin was warm.

I looked back at Mal, and I gave him a vow in place of one I’d never gotten to make. “I’ll take care of him, Mal,” I promised. “You must have really wanted him to live—or at least fix his stupid mistakes.” I laughed, an empty chuckle. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t waste this chance.”