My entire body still feels like it’s buzzing from General Kirigan’s kiss. I touch my fingers to my lips, in awe that she would really want me. Soulmates aren’t supposed to both be female, and given how powerful she was, I just expected she would ignore it and be professional with me, even if it killed her.
A door in the back of the room opens, and I see Baghra standing in the frame. “Come here, girl,” she tells me.
I look back at the door that The Darkling has exited from, pulling my kefta around me. “But she said to wait for her…” I protest.
Baghra rolls her eyes. “It’s fine. I can watch you just fine, I train young Grisha for a reason. I have something to show you.”
Aside from the time I saw them argue, Kirigan does seem to genuinely respect Baghra. Fine. I follow her into the darkness.
She takes me down a dark passageway, and I begin to worry that perhaps she wants to hurt me. Until she unveils a portrait with the words The Black Heretic inscribed in the frame and starts speaking to me faster than I’ve ever heard anyone speak Ravkan.
I can understand what she’s saying, but I feel my head spinning out as she tells me that the man in the painting is the same person as my Darkling. That he created the Shadow Fold, that the General doesn’t want to destroy it but wants to use my powers to expand it, and that’s what “he” wants the stag for.
“But… how does she look so different now?” I protest. The man in the painting really does look like he could be an ancestor of the woman I’m… no, don’t call it love, I tell myself. I can’t love her without an explanation.
Shadows curl around Baghra’s hands, and I wince. “Merzost, child. The same way he created the Shadow Fold. It is a stronger way of changing appearance than with a Tailor. Genya’s work on you fades, after all. Merzost requires sacrifice, corruption, but it is a convenient way to pose as one’s descendant. After all, who would expect a woman as The Black Heretic?”
My hands are shaking. “You’re saying nothing about her that she told me is true?”
Baghra nods, sadly. “You must leave. She is intent on turning you into her slave.”
“But she loves me,” My voice is quiet as I itch the writing on my forearm, forever marking me as hers, the first full sentence she said to me. Is it true? I never wanted any of this, and now I’ve become entangled in something much bigger than myself.
Baghra scoffs. “The Black Heretic does not love, child, and I do not know how you could come to that conclusion.”
I pull up my sleeve. “We’re soulmates. Maybe you lost yours long ago or never had one, but she is mine, and I trust her.” After all, if she wasn’t truly a woman, why would someone like her voluntarily give up power by pretending to be one? It makes no sense with the kind of person Baghra is claiming she is.
I take advantage of Baghra’s shock at the idea of two women being soulmates to blind her with my light, and turn and run back up the passageway.
I can hear Kirigan yelling my name in anger and fear back in the study. I square my shoulders and walk back up the stairs. “I’m here,” I tell her.
“Saints, Alina. You scared me. A strange time to go exploring, isn’t it?” she asks, smiling at me, but I can tell she’s scared.
I run to her, burying my face in her chest. “Baghra told me. Are you really - did you really create the Fold?”
She looks down at me. “That’s your first question?”
I scoff. “I’m apparently a living Saint. I don’t care what you used to look like,” She’s not denying it. “I just want to know why.”
She kisses my forehead. “It’s a long story. I was only trying to protect my people. Back when I didn’t look like this yet, but was a young woman already going by Aleksandra Morozova…”