“Those are computers. My mother is alive, back home, and she really is your teacher. Your adviser at college. Oh, my God, you remember.”
“I also dream of a friend—or a brother, I’m never sure—always making trouble but always meaning well.” His eyes narrow as he prepares to test me. “Tell me his name.”
“Theo. His name is Theo.”
Paul takes a deep breath. “Then what you say is true.”
I laugh out loud. “You actually believe me. Most people would think I had gone insane.”
“If you ever went mad, you would do so in a more melodramatic manner.”
His bluntness catches me off guard.
He notices my reaction. “I only meant—you have a passionate spirit. You crave excitement and create it where you can. If you were unsettled in your mind, your impulses would govern you. Instead you are putting forth a very unorthodox explanation in an entirely reasonable manner. Therefore, you are telling the truth.”
Is he right, about my creating excitement where I can? Even being melodramatic?
You went on a half-baked vengeance quest against Paul using a totally untested experimental device, I think. He might possibly have a point.
Paul studies my face intently, as if he were the painter, the one who had to know every shadow, every line. Quietly he adds, “I think I would believe you anyway.”
Nobody’s ever given me that kind of faith. I feel that twist in my heart again, the one that makes me feel peeled open and exposed and yet somehow happier than I’ve ever been. “You have to help me find the Firebird locket, the one Colonel Azarenko took from you.”
“I don’t remember it. Then again, according to your description, I wouldn’t.”
The Firebird has that quality of an object from a foreign dimension—not intangibility, nor invisibility, but the ability to be easily overlooked. I run my hands through my disheveled hair. “The last we heard, Azarenko was in Moscow. Which side of this fight do you think he’s on?”
“He’s loyal to Tsar Alexander, to the point of zealotry. He will have led troops from Moscow directly to the fight. I have no doubt he’s already on the front lines.”
“So, we go to the front lines.”
“You should go to Moscow.” His eyes meet mine, calm and certain. “You must understand the danger.”
“By now you understand that there’s more at risk than my life.”
“No,” he says shortly. “For the Grand Duchess Marguerite this is the only risk, the only real danger.”
The wind howls outside, thrashing the windowpanes and tree branches as if in revenge for being locked on the other side of our door.
As a soldier, he might have obeyed my orders despite his protests. Our relationship will never be that simple again. His love for me means he will protect me, even if it means I lose my chance to get back home.
I begin, “For all we know, the Grand Duke Sergei has already been forced to stand down.”
Grudgingly, Paul nods. “He would be a fool to rebel with so little support—but I believe him to be a fool.”
“Then we should at least look for the encampment. We should find out what’s happening before making any other decisions, don’t you think?”
“You’ll fight me the whole way to Moscow, won’t you?”
He says it like he’s about to swing me over his shoulder and carry me there himself, even if I kick and scream. Oh, God, he really might. “I have to find out whether my—whether my brothers and sister and Professor Caine survived. Whether the Firebird is still in one piece. If it’s been destroyed, and we can’t find Colonel Azarenko or he’s lost your locket, then I’m trapped here forever.”
“And the Grand Duchess Marguerite would be trapped within you forever.”
It stops me short—the idea that Paul is still thinking of protecting her first, beyond all things, even beyond me. But would I expect anything else from him?
More gently, Paul adds, “I want freedom for you both.”
“That makes me the jail cell.” It comes out like a joke, which I instantly regret, because it’s so, so not. I whisper, “How can you not hate me?”
“You are not my Marguerite. And yet—you are. This essential thing you share—your soul—that is what I love.” Paul’s smile is sadder and more beautiful than I have ever seen before. “I would love you in any shape, in any world, with any past. Never doubt that.”
I can hardly bear to look at him; it’s like staring into the brightness and the warmth of the sun, knowing that it’s burning you while understanding that it makes your whole life possible.
Paul asks, “What will you do if the worst comes to pass? If we cannot retrieve and repair the Firebirds?”
“Then I guess I have to live out this Marguerite’s life. Forever.” It’s enough to make me feel seasick.
“Would it be so terrible?”
“How can you ask me that now?”
His hand closes over mine. “No matter what happens, no matter what becomes of you, if you are here, I’ll always be with you.”
I capture his fingers in mine. He brings my hand to his lips and kisses it, and we sit there in silence for a few moments.
Finally I say, “I don’t want to think about what happens if we fail. Okay? Because we’re not going to. We’re going to find or repair one of the Firebirds, no matter what it takes. No matter what.”