Games are the most elevated form of investigation
“This is a stupid game, Fedya,” Ivan said, taking a long swallow of the ale left in his tankard, setting it back down on the table lightly, which startled David more than if he’d let it land with a thump. Or maybe David had been startled by Genya’s bright smile, her unabashed greed as she reached for the dish of lamb-filled buuz. It was hard to say and Fedyor, deliciously tipsy on his third glass of ale, didn’t care.
“You think all games are stupid, Vanyushka, so it doesn’t matter,” Fedyor said. Zoya, the darling girl, poured him a fourth glass, properly, without any foam. Ivan did something with his face that was supposed to indicate disapproval but it didn’t make a difference, because he was still adorable.
“Then this is the stupidest one,” Ivan said.
“Is that even a word, stupidest? Isn’t it most stupid?” Zoya said.
“It is most stupid,” Ivan agreed, as if Zoya had been supporting him. She’d rather just gossip, they all knew that, even if it had to do with the General, who was generally considered off-limits when it came to rumors and innuendo.
“I’m not listening to you, either of you, tra la la,” Fedyor said, ending with a trill. “What if—”
“What if we stopped playing this most stupid game?” Ivan interrupted.
“What if—” Fedyor tried again, undaunted and now frankly drunk. Ivan gave him a long, slow smile and Fedyor thought, fleetingly, that the game was stupid and Vanyushka, in their bed, in nothing but a sheet and the shadows and that entrancing smile, was the farthest thing from stupid, but there were principles to uphold, Fedyor was fairly certain he’d thought that around the second glass of ale and David looked puzzled and intent, as if the game were a problem to be solved, and Genya was still reaching for dumplings.
“What if what?” Genya asked through a mouthful of buuz.
“What if there had been two Sun Summoners for the General to choose between?” Fedyor said.
There was a unanimous groan as if he’d said what if Baghra were your mother, a degree of unity he hadn’t anticipated.
“That’s not a good what-if,” David (David!) declared. “Because there’s no tension when you try to come up with a response. It’s too easily resolved.”
“I don’t see how—” Fedyor said, but Genya talked over him, gesticulating dramatically. She didn’t seem to notice David sidling closer to her, within striking distance of her slender white hand.
“The General would have made sure to train them equally well and accommodate any discrepancies in their abilities. He’d have seen to it they were both completely loyal to the rest of the Grisha. He would have readied the Gaisma suite along with the Vezda, presented them at court at the same time, had identical keftas commissioned.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Fedyor said.
“He would have looked for more,” Zoya said. “Two means three, four, seven. It means being a Sun Summoner is simply rare and not unique.”
“He would have asked me whether they could Summon in tandem without an external equipment and then he would have asked me to build a device to multiply their power,” David said. “It’s an intriguing question, if you consider whether paired power amplification can ever match merzost and don’t only rely on Sankt Ilya’s writings…”
“I mean, about the General and Alina—” Fedyor tried again.
“Nothing would be different,” Ivan said. “He’d still, Saints help me, be in love with her—”
“Oh, Vanya’s right,” Genya said, David confident enough to nod along, his shoulder touching hers, just barely. “There’s no what-if that changes that, how he feels about Alina.”
“That’s crazy,” Fedyor said.
“No, it’s not,” Ivan said and now Zoya nodded along. “He doesn’t love her because she can Summon the light. Or the Sun, they’ve never made that part clear—”
“Because she said no to him, when every other Grisha has said yes for as long as anyone can remember,” Zoya said, a little bitterly. It suited her, a little bitterness, but no one called her out for it. It wasn’t shameful to play to one’s strengths and she played so very beautifully and she had been the General’s favorite before that fateful crossing of the Fold.
“Because she is an artist, because she looks around her and draws what she sees. Because she sees what she draws,” Genya offered.
“Because she was willing to sacrifice everything for someone she cared about, even when they didn’t care for her the same way,” David said, shockingly au courant on Alina’s personal history for someone who barely left his workroom. “Because she was ready to go into the dark for her friend, when she had no idea she had any light within her.”
“Because she listens to him and sometimes, after he’s spoken, she laughs. At him,” Ivan said. “That’s why, Fedya. That’s why there’s no what-if to consider. There could be a thousand Sun Summoners. Alina has no rival for the General’s affections. Not in this world or any other.”
“Well, then, if you’re all so convinced you’re right, how about this? What if Baghra knew the General loved Alina with all his heart?” Fedyor said. Zoya and Genya grimaced and David closed his eyes for a moment, bowed his head as if in prayer. Ivan grunted, then pushed Fedyor’s glass away.
“This is supposed to be a fun game, miliyy,” Ivan said.
“What—" Fedyor said.
“Stupid can be fun. Nothing about Dame Baghra could ever be fun,” Ivan said. “Nor, for better or worse, could she ever be said to be stupid. If she knew how he felt—”
“If Baghra knew—” Genya echoed.
“It is not that incredible a scenario,” David said. “In fact, it’s one we should consider likely. And prepare for accordingly.”
“How can you prepare for the end of the world?” Ivan asked. David shrugged.
“That’s what I thought,” Ivan said. “But sealing that secret door to the General’s War Room would be a start.”
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There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time
“If your shoes pinch, I can send for Genya. She’ll have another pair ready in a few minutes,” Ivan said, after watching Alina fidget, fuss and finally raise herself on tip-toe, one foot behind the other in what was an unacceptably precarious posture, though the marble railing of the gallery was high enough to keep her from plummeting to her death in the ballroom below. She might only have been maimed by such a fall, landing on one of the elaborately gowned ladies of the Imperial court; a silk skirt with a number of taffeta petticoats would soften the impact enough to allow Alina to escape with a broken hip if she twisted the right way mid-air. If he mentioned any of this to Fedyor, his husband would shake his head at Ivan’s allegedly morbid catastrophizing, which Ivan would insist was simply part of the position as the General’s chief of security. He was not seriously worried about Alina tripping and catapulting herself, but something about the angle of her neck, the way her hand had repeatedly touched the gold fillet at the back of her head, that slender little ankle hooked behind the other stirred something in him. Not pity, not fondness, but there was something of both in the nameless feeling that had led him to speak.
“Oh, the shoes are fine. Lovely. Please don’t bother Genya, she’s done so much to get me ready for tonight. I expect it’s rather a waste, but there’s no use throwing slops to a sick sow as they say,” Alina said, revealing quite a lot. Ivan allowed himself to smile slightly at her choice of idiom, one popular in the rural farmlands of the south.
“They say good kopeks after bad here in Os Alta, because they don’t know the value of a pig. Or the hard work of farming. The otkazat’sya here are all merchants and guildsmen, given to gambling and usury,” Ivan said. “Not much like Keramzin, I imagine.”
“No,” Alina said quickly, then paused. “I suppose not anyway. I don’t know much about Keramzin besides the orphanage. It might have just been something the woman who ran the place said, Ana Kuya. She had a saying for every situation, I used to joke to Mal that she’d written them down in a great big book but Mal said—”
“He was your friend, the one on the skiff,” Ivan said when Alina broke off and made no attempt to resume speaking.
“He was. He’s in the First Army. A tracker. He’d laugh to see me here tonight, like this,” she said.
“Like what?” He suspected he knew what she meant but it was better to let her talk.
“Like a fool, trying to pass herself off as an elegant lady, Tailored and gussied up. Plain, scrawny Alina parading around in a silk kefta and gold slippers, acting like she belongs at the Imperial court,” she said, all in a rush as he’d anticipated. She was even glowing a little around her fingertips as she gesticulated.
“You are Grisha, not one of those silly otkazat’sya women. Sheep, the lot of them,” Ivan said.
“But they are nobles, the Tsar’s nobles, the daughters and wives of the best families,” Alina said. Was she genuinely scandalized? Ivan shrugged to keep from laughing; that he would do later, when he told Fedya about this before they went to sleep.
“And the Tsar is only an otkazat’sya with the most money, who’s fooled them into bowing down to him. He cannot command the wind or the rain, the tides or the flames on a hearth, nor heal the smallest wound,” Ivan said. “They are not worth any adulation, not from a Grisha and certainly not from the Sun Summoner.”
“It’s not just that,” Alina muttered.
“No? What it is then?” Ivan asked.
“They are all so beautiful, so splendid and grand and graceful—all their silks and lace and velvet ribbons, their jewels and combs, they all look completely at ease, natural, like flowers, roses and lilies and orchids. And I look like a Shu drab who’s stolen her mistress’s castoffs, no matter how long and hard Genya worked on me and it was hours, Ivan, hours!”
He had to smile then. She’d never called him by his first name before.
“Genya is a perfectionist. The length of time is not a reflection on your features or complexion,” Ivan said. Alina raised an eyebrow, her expression skeptical and for once, he could see her charm.
“I wouldn’t mind so much for myself but I’ll going to embarrass him,” Alina said.
“You mean General Kirigan,” Ivan said. “That you will shame him in front of the Imperial court.”
She nodded, the misery in her eyes, her pinched lips, the slump of her narrow shoulders in the black silk kefta, the weight of the Corecloth lining visible as it hadn’t been before. He felt her heart beating in her chest, the quickened pace of being found out.
“He would never be ashamed of you, to be seen with you,” Ivan said. “Not even if you looked as wan and plain as you seem to imagine and not like a fresh little wildflower amongst all these forced hothouse blooms.” If Fedya heard him now, Ivan would never hear the end of it…
“You’re just saying that.”
“I prefer to tell the truth,” he said. “It’s easier to keep track of than lies. Lies are tools. Telling you a lie would serve no purpose.”
“But I’m nothing like those women,” she said.
“You’re nothing like anyone. You’re the Sun Summoner and you’re the only Grisha to survive to adulthood outside the Little Palace with their power suppressed in at least a generation. You’re an orphan who made a family for herself and a mapmaker who found her way home,” Ivan explained. “You must know how he looks at you. How he feels about you, how deeply he cares—”
“How deeply?” she asked, bold then, as she often was, but he knew what she risked to ask him the question.
“Without measure,” he said, unwilling to say anything more, to speak before the General had told her for himself.
“He hasn’t said—”
“He won’t see anyone but you when you enter the ballroom,” Ivan said. “I am not exaggerating for effect, I’ve had to plan for an extra security detail because of it.”
“You’re joking, you’re laughing at me,” Alina protested.
“He signed off on the additional oprichniki himself,” Ivan said.
“He’s General of the Second Army and the head of the Little Palace because he is most astute about risk and vulnerability. He would not allow his pride to endanger either of you,” Ivan said. The General had given him a long look when Ivan put the paper in front of him but he hadn’t argued.
“Thank you, Ivan,” she said. She straightened up and lifted her chin which meant he’d finally convinced her.
“You don’t need to thank me for telling you the truth,” he said.
“That’s your opinion,” she said, with some of the smartness she used with those she was closest to. He did not dislike it. “And that’s not why I thanked you.”
“No. I thanked you for being kind when you didn’t need to be,” she said.
“I’m not often accused of being kind, especially not when I don’t need to be,” he replied.
“Who in their right mind would dare?” Alina said, finally, merrily, laughing.
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