Mal can’t stop looking at her.
He never could, even before, when Alina was just Alina, but now—now that every prayer murmured in Ravka starts and ends with Sankta Alina, blessed is thy immortal light that will bring liberation to our children, now and ever, and unto the ages and ages, now that Alina could open her palm and harness the sun, it’s nearly impossible for Mal to peel his eyes away from her. Sometimes, when Mal sneaks a glance at her from the corner of his eye, her hair lit by the dying evening sun, eyelashes casting a perfect semi-circular shadow across her cheekbones, he feels his ribs collapsing in a single exhale, feels a cavernous pit of aching want and hunger opening up in his stomach. He knows it’s perverse at best to look at a saint—because that’s what Alina is now—and feel this way, but what other choice did he have? Ever since that day Mal stood frozen in front of the Darkling’s tent and watched that blinding beam of light, his entire body has felt like an open wound; Alina smiles at him, and he bleeds and bleeds and bleeds.
“You’re quiet,” Alina remarks, startling Mal out of his thoughts.
They’re in the woods again, snow crunching underfoot. The next village is still another five-day walk ahead, and the days are only getting shorter and colder. There isn’t much greenery left and the woods are eerily quiet, all the sweet-singing birds of the summer gone as winter creeps in, leaving behind just the crows and ravens. Overhead, a crow balances precariously on a branch, its beady eyes fixed on Alina; it doesn’t pay much attention to Mal, which is more or less the norm these days, birds and people alike.
“Just thinking,” Mal replies honestly.
Mal rolls his eyes, shoving Alina into a tree, and Alina laughs loud enough to scare away the crow in the tree.
“I’m full of thoughts,” Mal says.
“Oh, yeah? What are you thinking about then?”
Mal hesitates, then says, “Keramzin. Ana Kuya.”
Alina laughs again, her breath freezing into ice crystals. “You know, sometimes I can still hear her voice at the back of my head when I’m trying to sleep at night,” she says.
“I dream about Keramzin,” Mal admits, “all the time.”
Alina doesn’t reply, just slides a knowing look over at Mal and then slips her hand into his, and Mal knows what she’s trying to tell him. Keramzin was hostile and awful, but the orphanage taught them how to survive the cold and Ana Kuya taught them how to suffer the right way, and it’s the closest thing they both have left of home, after each other.
They’re three days out from the next village when they bump into a small group of migrants, heading south. Four men, all bundled-up in furs, only two rifles between them. The tallest man leads the group, and behind him, two of the other men are supporting a third who looks like he’s been knocking at death’s door for a while now, on the precipice of defeat.
Mal hears Alina inhale sharply when she catches sight of this third man, half-frozen and approaching the road’s end. She tries to rush forward to catch him when he trips over a fallen log and topples over, but Mal yanks her back before she can get to him.
“Mal,” she starts, protesting, but Mal shakes his head. The woods are not where you make friends.
“We’re not here to start trouble,” the tallest man says, his voice scratchy and gruff from disuse. He takes his hands off his rifle and holds his arms up, nodding at Mal. “We’re just passing through this neck of the woods, heading south to find family.”
Alina jerks her head at the frozen, half-dead man behind him, asks, “What happened to him?”
“Just about to freeze to death,” he says.
“We were crossing a lake,” one of the men behind him says. “The ice looked solid, but it gave way right under his feet when we were halfway across. Managed to fish him out, but he’s frozen right down to the bones now, and it’s too dangerous to start a fire—all that smoke attracts too much attention, especially out here.”
Mal looks at the frozen man, gives him an hour or two, maximum.
“Mal,” Alina repeats, plain and simple, but he understands.
They carry the frozen man into a cave on the other side of the ravine and lean him up against a boulder, its one side smoothed down by the ravine when it rushes over the banks in the summer, fed by the melting ice high up in the mountains.
Alina peels off her gloves, places them to the side. She clasps her hands together, presses her mouth against her knuckles, and then slowly opens her hands to reveal a glowing sphere of sunlight in her palm, heat curling upwards into the cold and damp evening air. No matter how many times Mal has seen her do this, seen her create sunlight in the palm of her hand, he thinks the same thing every single time.
“Saints,” one of the men gasps.
“Sun Summoner,” another murmurs, transfixed.
Alina brings her hands close to the frozen man’s chest, holds all that miraculous heat close to his heart.
Behind Mal, he hears the tallest man mutter to himself, almost involuntarily, “Sankta Alina, blessed is thy immortal light that will bring liberation to our children, now and ever, and unto the ages and ages.”
They stay with the men for the night, Mal keeping watch as Sankta Alina brings the frozen man back to life.
By the time they reach the next village, winter has set in, cold and fast. The midday sun hangs low in the sky, and the light is thin and worn-through, as if the engine keeping the sun running is low on coal, relying on just fumes and dying embers now. Mal relishes what little warmth there is and thinks about the blistering, melting heat of the Ravkan summer.
“I’m going to sleep for a week,” Alina moans when they finally get to the clearing at the edge of the woods and start on the cobblestone roads meandering down a rocky hill to where the village sits at the bottom.
“We’re only going to be here for a week,” Mal says, amused. They can’t afford to stay in a single place for any longer; the Sun Summoner is bound to get noticed sooner or later.
“Yeah, and I’m going to sleep through the entire week.”
“Oh, sure, just leave me to do all the work.”
“Why else do you think I keep you around?” Alina teases, nudging Mal’s shoulder.
Well—that’s the question, isn’t it?
Mal knows Alina like he knows himself—you could blindfold him and he’d be able to find her by the weight of her hand in his—and he knows the teasing lilt of Alina’s voice when she says Why else do you think I keep you around? and back when Alina was just Alina, he wouldn’t have thought twice of it, but here, now, with the entire world shifting under his feet, his tongue suddenly feels heavy, lead-laden.
Who is he to her anyway? He’s just a man with no family and no army and no palace, an orphan boy who fell in love with a girl made out of sunlight, whose right hand still fits perfectly in his left, even after all these years. The curved scar, though, is gone, no longer part of a matched set, and most nights Mal doesn’t begrudge her, doesn’t think about it all actually, but some nights—some nights, when Mal is drunk and angry and he hears the Darkling’s voice in the back of his head taunting him, he is filled with a rage so incandescent, he thinks he could implode.
That night, in the woods, Alina called the Darkling Aleksander, and Mal didn’t know what to think.
He doesn’t tell her this, won’t ever tell her this. Like he said: who is he to her anyway?
Mal knows something shows on his face—he was never good at the restrain and control Ana Kuya tried and failed to teach him—and Alina catches sight of it. Her face softens, eyebrows knitting together.
“Mal, that’s not what I meant,” she says, catching up to him. The wind whips her hair into Mal’s face, and Mal is nearly bowled over by the familiar smell of her.
“I know,” Mal says, embarrassed, adjusting the strap of his shoulder pack and looking away.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Alina says.
“No, it’s not—” Mal sighs. “Alina, it’s fine. It’s not your fault. I’m just—you know.”
“You know what?”
“I’m just working through some shit,” Mal replies in what might be the oversimplification of the century.
Alina steps in front of him, blocking him from continuing any further down the path, and reaches out to wrap her fingers around his wrist. It’s been the same since they were kids: Alina touches him and he feels his spine ignite, that high tone he’s been hearing for years and years ringing in his ears. “Work through it quickly, then,” she says.
Mal smiles. “You in a rush to go somewhere?”
“I need you here, Mal,” she says, serious. “With me.”
“You have me,” Mal replies, just as serious.
Alina’s grip on his wrist tightens. Mal burns.
The walls surrounding the town have two sets of wrought iron gates, one west-facing and one east-facing. They enter through the easterly gate, which opens up to a grey and dismal courtyard. It might have been beautiful in the summer—azalea flowers in bloom, entire garden beds teeming with golden root, the mistle thrushes back for the season—but a layer of snow now blankets the ground, flowers long gone, leaving behind winter-hardened branches that function only as perching spots for the flocks of ravens and crows that remain.
In the center of the courtyard is a stone fountain and in the center of the stone fountain is a stone statue that stands six feet tall. It cuts an imposing figure. She cuts an imposing figure: the billowing hair, the clean and sharp lines of her kefta, the carefully chiselled slant of her cheekbones. Her hands are raised, and the noon sun hangs right in the center of her hands; she looks like she’s carrying the sun.
“They got your nose wrong,” Mal says, staring up at the stone statue of Sankta Alina. Alina’s nose is slanted to the left, just a bit, but Sankta Alina’s nose is perfectly straight down her face.
Mal knows who Alina is, knows her on a fundamental, cellular level, but Sankta Alina is as unknowable to him as she is to anyone, and as he looks up at Sankta Alina holding up the sun, it has never been clearer to Mal that Alina may be made out of flesh and bones and blood now, but she won’t always be. Later, Mal knows, many centuries later, she'll be made out of stories. Stories about light triumphing over darkness, about shadows that encircled the entire world and the light that banished it, about an antler-bone collar that choked and controlled and decimated, stories about grief and loss, and stories about miracles.
The Darkling was right: when Mal is long dead, rotted away in the ground, Sankta Alina will continue living, now and ever, and unto the ages and ages, illuminating the darkness for eternity.
“Got my eyes wrong too,” Alina says, dry. She digs around her pocket and comes up with a coin. She flicks it into the fountain, her face twisted into an expression Mal doesn’t even want to try to decipher. The water ripples outwards in concentric circles until eventually the coin sinks and the water smooths itself out again.
They spend a portion of their remaining coin on an upstairs room at the village inn. That evening, they share a bowl of root vegetable stew and half a loaf of black bread, and the stew sits warm and comforting in Mal’s stomach. It’s better than anything they’ve eaten for weeks.
There’s just one bed in their room, but it’s a clear upgrade from the forest floor they’ve been sleeping on, and they sleep curled up against each other. After Alina falls asleep, Mal watches the steady up-and-down of Alina’s chest over the sound of the inn door clanging open and shut as people come and go, and tries to match his breaths to hers. He curls his fingers around Alina’s and he feels like he’s eight years old again, heart rattling noisily in his chest.
In another life, Mal thinks as he drifts off to sleep, they could’ve stayed in that meadow forever, dried-down stalks of wildrye trampled underneath their feet, the cold and biting wind against their cheeks, clouds drifting lazily overhead, Alina’s hand in his.
Mal wakes before Alina the next morning, and he slips out quietly out the door before she wakes. Down the road and across the corner, the market vendors are setting up for the day. Mal spies a bright pink fruit in one vendor’s basket and when he goes over to ask the lady how much they are, he sees that she’s wearing a cheap steel chain around her neck, but the pendant she has looped through it is a glimmering gold and in the shape of two hands cupped together to hold the sun.
“Your necklace,” Mal starts, the fruit in his hands temporarily forgotten.
The lady wraps her hand around the pendant immediately, protective, and her gray eyes narrow suspiciously at Mal.
Mal smiles and tries to look as friendly as he can. “I’ve never seen that pendant before,” he explains. “I used to travel with the army, we’d march through dozens of villages, but I’ve never seen anyone else wear that pendant anywhere.”
She glares at Mal for a minute longer before asking, “What business do you have here?”
“Resting,” Mal says, “for a long journey ahead.”
The lady searches Mal’s face and seemingly finds what she’s looking for because she relaxes, unclenching her first. She exhales and says, “Two months ago, my third baby—Dima—was ill with a high fever and a cough like I’ve never seen. He wasn’t even a year old. I thought he was going to die—” she sucks in a breath— “I was sure he was going to die. One morning I wake up and Dima is sicker than ever. Fever refuses to break. He looks like death. That day, a merchant comes into town and he tells me that they’ve found the Sun Summoner, that she lit up the Fold like a fire, that she’s going to change the world. That she’s going to bring light to all of us. He sells me this pendant, says it’s a Sun Summoner pendant. Now, what do I know of Grisha magic? Nothing, but my baby is about to die and I’m desperate, so I sell the rest of my fruit and buy the pendant anyway.” She looks up and meets Mal’s eyes. “Next day, Dima’s fever is gone, and the cough has completely disappeared. He hasn’t been sick since.”
“Sankta Alina,” Mal murmurs.
“Blessed is thy immortal light that will bring liberation to our children, now and ever, and unto the ages and ages,” the lady finishes, and then says: “It was a miracle. Do you understand now?”
Yes, Mal understands.
Sunlight pours out of Alina, and if Mal doesn’t watch his step, he’s going to walk into that light and catch fire. When Mal watches her cradle light in between her palms, he understands what people mean when they talk about miracles. Alina is a miracle, carefully and lovingly hand-spun from sunlight, and maybe Mal did subconsciously know this when they were kids, running away to the meadow together, but he doesn’t think he really understood what it meant.
Now, though, Mal looks at Alina and he understands—understands what makes this world a glorious place to live in, despite the nights that stayed dark no matter how many candles you lit, despite the cold that seeped so deep inside of you until you could feel it in your teeth, despite the army-issued boots with missing soles and the moth-eaten uniforms that lasted a month at most, despite all of it.
Mal pays for the fruit and watches as the fruit vendor tucks her pendant under her shirt.
Afterwards, he wanders through the back alleyways and uneven staircases worn down by daily traffic until finds himself standing in front of the six-foot-tall Sankta Alina statue in the courtyard. The eyes are wrong, Mal realizes. Most of the face is wrong. She doesn’t look much like Alina at all, really.
Mal brushes away some of the snow, clears a neat square in front of the fountain. Then, he kneels down in front of Sankta Alina and he prays.
Sankta Alina, blessed is thy immortal light that will bring liberation to our children, now and ever, and unto the ages and ages. Sankta Alina, I think about the calluses on your hands every time I watch the sunrise, and I think about the jut of the knuckles on your left hand every time I watch the sunset. I am a man with nothing, who is nothing, but I’ve got two hands and two feet and a beating heart and they are yours for however long you wish to keep them. Please, keep me by your side; don’t leave, don’t leave, but if you do tire of me one and wish to leave, I humbly ask you to please do so silently on horseback in the dead of night to spare me the broken heart. I only ask that you think of me from time to time when you can, when you remember. Sankta Alina, blessed is thy immortal light that will bring liberation to our children, now and ever, and unto the ages and ages.
Mal was telling the truth when he told the fruit vendor they were just here for a week of rest and then they were off until the next village—they received a letter a few weeks ago from Zoya, and Alina is certain she’ll be at the next town over. They spend the next few days stocking up on supplies and eating fruits that are a few weeks past ripe but still bursting with colour.
Out in the courtyard, Alina sits on the stone ledge around the fountain and peels an orange, the entire courtyard filling with the sharp, acidic smell of it.
“At the Little Palace, there was this cake they made,” Alina says, handing Mal an orange slice. “This orange cake, with almonds and cinnamon syrup and candied orange segments. It just melted in your mouth. Saints, I can still taste it.”
Mal chews on his orange slice. He raises an eyebrow, says, “We should go back sometime. I didn’t get orange cake when I was there. Almost got stabbed to death, though.”
“When this is all over, I’ll find an orange cake for you,” Alina promises. “Maybe not from the Little Palace, though. I’m probably not allowed back there.”
Mal laughs. “I’ve been eating army gruel for so long, I don’t think my taste buds could handle cake.”
She hands him another orange segment, their fingers brushing. “I’ll open an entire cake shop for you. So many types of cakes. We’ll try them all.”
“Alina Starkov, Sun Summoner and cake shop owner,” Mal says, smiling.
Alina smiles too, but Mal can see the way the corners of her mouth tightens when Mal says Sun Summoner. She glances behind her at the stone statue of Sankta Alina and her thumb digs into the orange in her hands a little too roughly, juice bursting out, bright and tangy. Mal reaches over and gently takes the half-peeled orange out from Alina’s hands and finishes peeling it himself.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go, is what Mal is thinking as his thumb slides underneath the rough peel of the orange, separating flesh from peel. If it were up to Mal, they would’ve run away together by now, back to the meadow by the orphanage, and stayed there forever until their skin and muscles and flesh rotted away and decomposed back into the Earth, and maybe a few hundred years from now, somebody will come along and find their skeletons lying side-by-side, finger bones still curled around each other.
But that isn’t how things are.
Mal finishes peeling the orange and hands the rest of it back to Alina.
“We could go back,” Alina says as she regards Mal, her eyes soft.
“Go back where?”
“No, we couldn’t,” Mal says, “and that’s not home anyway.”
“We could make it home.”
“When all of this is over,” Mal says, “we’ll make it home.”
Alina chews on the inside of her cheek. When Mal turns to look at her, she’s smiling again, but this time it reaches her eyes. “No way out but through,” she says.
“No way out but through,” Mal agrees. It’s always been the two of them, and it’s still going to be the two of them. Sankta Alina watches over the sun and Mal watches over Sankta Alina.
The truth—the bare bones, the razed and burned to the ground version of the truth—is that Mal is scared shitless.
In his dreams, he can still see Alina’s face pressed desperately against the carriage window, and he’s running and running and running towards her, always towards her, but there’s a shadow creeping in behind him, and it wraps itself around his ankles, pulling him down. He falls, and the shadows descend on him.
Mal knows he doesn’t have much of anything to give Alina besides himself, but if that’s all he got, then that belongs to her, too. Between the two of them, Alina has always been the braver one, and the least Mal can do is follow her: to the end of the world, into the shadows of the Fold, into the gaping jaws of hell.
Just as the sun is setting, and they’re getting ready to head back to the inn, two kids wander into the courtyard. A boy and a girl clutched to each other so tightly that nobody would dare separate them. Orphans. It’s easy for Mal to recognize one of his own—there’s that wild, desperate look in their eyes, the same look he sees when he looks in the mirror. The two children watch him and Alina with wide eyes, and Mal suddenly wants to know how many children in orphanages all over Ravka had hiding spots they escaped to when the Grisha testers came to visit.
Beside him, Alina shifts in her seat. She smiles and then gestures at the children to come closer. The boy steps forward, but the girl yanks him back by the sleeve, her eyes narrowing suspiciously at Alina.
Mal bites down a smile, and Alina snorts, slanting a look over at Mal: remind you of anyone? She unfolds her arms and pulls the sleeves of her coat up, cupping her hands together.
Mal hears it before he sees it: that high tone he’s come to associate with Alina, and then, a second later, sunlight appears in her palm. She holds her hands towards the two children, palms up, and the sphere of warm, golden light floats over to where the boy is standing.
Mal can’t even describe the look in his eyes. Terror and wonder all wrapped in one, as if he just found out that magic was real, that the saints were real, that there truly was something extraordinary and miraculous about this world, and he was staring at it right now. Alina unfurls her other hand and a second sphere of light appears, crossing the courtyard until it floats in front of where the girl stands, stock-still, her nails digging into the boy’s arm. Slowly, so slowly, she releases her grip and reaches out to hold the ball of light in her own hands.
Sankta Alina: commander of the sun, saint of sunlight, bringer of light.
Mal hopes they make her the saint of orphans, of children witnessing the miracle of light for the first time, of the way sunlight streams in through the gaps in the tree canopy on a bright summer day, of meadows, of boys like him without homes to return to, of every single good and warm thing that exists in this world. The statue of Sankta Alina behind Mal makes him nervous, but if Alina asked, he’d build every single statue in Ravka with his bare hands.
They spend their last evening before they continue further west downstairs, cramped into a corner of the inn, drinking spiced hot cider and dunking the last of the innkeeper’s bread into a shared bowl of split pea soup. The fireplace behind Alina crackles as the innkeeper’s son feeds more wood into it; Alina’s face is flushed pink from the combination of fireplace warmth and hot cider.
Mal takes a sip of his cider and regards Alina over the rim of his cup. She looks good, healthy, and Mal wonders if the reason that Alina had looked so frail and so sickly back at the orphanage was because of all that light inside of her she kept buried and hidden so she could stay with Mal, if Alina had been drowning in all that light after swallowing too much of it.
“I’m going to miss this,” Alina sighs. “We’ll be back to stale bread and cold meats by tomorrow night.”
Mal grins and knocks their knees together underneath the table. “Hey, cheer up,” he says. “At least it’s not shitty First Army breakfast porridge.”
Alina groans. “Saints, don’t remind me. They’d fill your bowl with cloudy water and call it porridge. Unbelievable.”
“Porridge for breakfast, lunch and supper, every single day,” Mal says, shuddering. “Escaping the endless porridge alone was worth leaving the army for.” He pauses for a moment and then adds, “Well. And for you.”
Alina looks up from her soup, her mouth twitching. “You left the army just to freeze your toes off in the woods with me.”
Mal shrugs a shoulder and replies, honestly, “If that’s where you are, that’s where I’ll be.”
Mal remembers what it felt like after the Darkling dragged Alina off to the Little Palace, the heavy feeling of guilt that pressed against his chest not even five minutes after the carriage left the army campgrounds. He had volunteered to keep watch every night because he couldn’t fall asleep no matter how tired he was, and he’d sit in front of the tent in the skin-biting cold, drafting letter after letter after letter in the dark with shaking hands, just the dim flame of an oil lamp and the howling wind to keep him company. For a while, he didn’t even know if he would ever see Alina again, didn’t know if maybe that was it—if that was all there was to this life.
Alina reaches across the table and places her hand on top of Mal’s larger one, her thumb drawing circles on his wrist. “They can’t separate two best friends apart for too long, huh?”
Mal flips his hand over and intertwines his fingers with Alina’s, letting the familiar warmth of Alina’s hand flood into him.
That night, Mal sits on the bed beside Alina and undoes her braids, carefully running his fingers through the tangled knots. Alina’s forehead drops to rest against Mal’s shoulder and they stay like that for a long, long time, breathing in sync and bodies curving into each other.
The people of this land found a place of reverence at the feet of Sankta Alina, found faith in the prayers they whispered at night, found holiness in pendants of Sankta Alina harnessing the sun that they were wore around the necks, but Mal—Mal found every single iteration of faith and holiness and reverence in the form of a scrawny seven-year-old girl wearing a torn-up dress and scuffed-up shoes and blood on her teeth, dragging Mal away from any bit of trouble he found himself in.
Sankta Alina is a miracle like the world has never seen, but Alina is Alina, and Mal should’ve known what he knows now.
There isn’t anything in this stupid, stupid, stupid world that Mal knows better than Alina, and there isn’t anything in this world that feels like home to him than Alina does. Mal would’ve turned the world upside down looking for her, but he didn’t want a fight, had never wanted a fight—he just wanted to go home. He wanted to go home and fall asleep and wake up beside Alina, to teach her the card game Dubrov and Mikhael invented before they were killed, to kiss her in all the places that he’s ever loved her, to tell her about the nights he sat in the dark praying to saints he didn’t even believe for a path back to her, to spend the rest of his days eating orange cake with her, their hands sticky with syrup and the air filled with that sharp, citrus tang.