Her words sent a spike of fear through me.
“I didn’t mean it,” I said weakly.
“You cannot violate the rules of this world without a price. Those amplifiers were never meant to be. No Grisha should have such power. Already you are changing. Seek the third, use it, and you will lose yourself completely, piece by piece. You want my help? You want to know what to do? Forget the firebird. Forget Morozova and his madness.”
I shook my head. “I can’t do that. I won’t.”
She turned back to the fire. “Then do what you like, girl. I’m done with this life, and I’m done with you.”
What had I expected? That she would greet me as a daughter? Welcome me as a friend? She’d lost her son’s love and sacrificed her sight, and in the end, I’d failed her. I wanted to dig in my heels and demand her help. I wanted to threaten her, cajole her, fall to my knees and beg forgiveness for everything she’d lost and every mistake I’d made. Instead, I did what she’d wanted me to do all along. I turned and ran.
I nearly lost my footing on the stairs as I stumbled from the hut, but the servant boy was waiting at the bottom of the steps. He reached out to steady me before I could fall.
I took grateful gulps of fresh air, feeling the sweat cool on my skin.
“Is it true?” he asked. “Are you really the Sun Summoner?”
I glanced at his hopeful face and felt the ache of tears in my throat. I nodded and tried to smile.
“My mother says you’re a Saint.”
What other fairy tales does she believe? I thought bitterly.
Before I could embarrass myself by breaking down in tears on his scrawny shoulder, I pushed past him and hurried down the narrow path.
When I reached the lakeshore, I made my way to one of the white stone Summoners’ pavilions. They weren’t really buildings, just domed shells where young Summoners could practice using their gifts without fear of blowing the roof off the school or setting fire to the Little Palace. I sat down in the shade of the pavilion’s steps and buried my head in my hands, willing my tears away, trying to catch my breath. I’d been so sure that Baghra would know something about the firebird and so positive that she’d be willing to help. I hadn’t realized just how much hope I’d invested in her until it was gone.
I smoothed the glittering folds of my kefta over my lap and had to choke back a sob. I’d thought Baghra would laugh at me, mock the little Saint all dressed up in her finery. Why had I ever believed the Darkling might show his mother mercy?
And why had I acted that way? How could I have threatened to take away her few comforts? The ugliness of it made me feel ill. I could blame my desperation, but it didn’t ease my shame. Or change the reality that some part of me wanted to march back to her hut and make good on those threats, haul her out into the sunlight and wrest answers from her sour, sunken mouth. What was wrong with me?
I took my copy of the Istorii Sankt’ya out of my pocket and ran my hands over the worn red leather cover. I’d looked at it so many times that it fell right open to the illustration of Sankt Ilya, though now the pages were waterlogged from the crash of the Hummingbird.
A Grisha Saint? Or another greedy fool who couldn’t resist the temptation of power? A greedy fool like me. Forget Morozova and his madness. I ran my finger along the curve of the arch. It might be meaningless. It might be some reference to Ilya’s past that had nothing to do with amplifiers, or just an artist’s flourish. Even if we were right and it was some kind of signpost, it could be anywhere. Nikolai had traveled most of Ravka, and he’d never seen it. For all we knew, it had fallen into rubble hundreds of years ago.
A bell rang at the school across the lake, and a gaggle of Grisha children rushed from its doors, shouting, laughing, eager to be out in the summer sunshine. The school had continued to run, despite the disasters of the last months. But if the Darkling was coming, I’d have to evacuate it. I didn’t want children in the path of the nichevo’ya.
The ox feels the yoke, but does the bird feel the weight of its wings?
Had Baghra ever really spoken those words to me? Or had I only heard them in a dream?
I stood up and brushed the dust from my kefta. I wasn’t sure what had shaken me more, Baghra’s refusal to help or how broken she seemed. She wasn’t just an old woman. She was a woman without hope, and I’d helped to take it from her.
DESPITE ITS NAME, I loved the war room. The cartographer in me couldn’t resist the old maps wrought in animal hide and embellished in whimsical detail: the gilded lighthouse at Os Kervo, the mountain temples of the Shu, the mermaids that swam at the edges of the seas.
I looked around the table at the faces of the Grisha, some familiar, some new. Any one of them could be a spy for the Darkling, the King, the Apparat. Any one of them could be looking for the chance to get me out of the way and assume power.
Tolya and Tamar stood outside, just a shout away in case of trouble, but it was Mal’s presence that gave me comfort. He sat at my right in his roughspun clothes, the sunburst pinned above his heart. I hated to think of him leaving so soon for the hunt, but I had to admit a distraction might be a good thing. Mal had taken pride in being a soldier and, though he tried to hide it, I knew the King’s ruling weighed heavily on him. That he’d guessed I was keeping something from him didn’t help either.
Sergei sat to Mal’s right, his arms crossed sullenly over his chest. He wasn’t happy to be sitting next to an otkazat’sya guard, and he was even less pleased that I’d insisted on seating a Fabrikator directly to my left, in what was considered a position of honor. She was a Suli girl named Paja whom I’d never met before. She had dark hair and nearly black eyes, and the red embroidery at the cuffs of her purple kefta indicated that she was one of the Alkemi, Fabrikators who specialized in chemicals like blasting powders and poisons.
David sat further down the table, his cuffs emblazoned in gray. He worked in glass, steel, wood, stone—anything solid. David was a Durast, and I knew he was the best of them because the Darkling had chosen him to forge my collar. Then there was Fedyor, and Zoya beside him, gorgeous as always in Etherealki blue.
Across from Zoya sat Pavel, the dark-skinned Inferni who’d spoken so angrily against me the previous day. He had narrow features and a chipped tooth that whistled slightly when he talked.
The first part of the meeting was spent discussing the numbers of Grisha at the various outposts around Ravka and those who might be in hiding. Zoya suggested sending messengers to spread the news of my return and offer full and free pardon to those who swore their allegiance to the Sun Summoner. We spent close to an hour debating the terms and wording of the pardon. I knew I would have to take it to Nikolai for the King’s approval, and I wanted to step carefully. Finally, we agreed on “loyalty to the Ravkan throne and the Second Army.” No one seemed happy with it, so I was pretty sure we’d gotten it right.
It was Fedyor who raised the issue of the Apparat. “It’s troubling that he’s evaded capture this long.”
“Has he tried to contact you?” Pavel asked me.
“No,” I said. I saw the skepticism in his face.
“He’s been spotted in Kerskii and Ryevost,” said Fedyor. “He shows up out of nowhere to preach, then disappears before the King’s soldiers can close in.”
“We should think about an assassination,” said Sergei. “He’s growing too powerful, and he could still be colluding with the Darkling.”
“We’d have to find him first,” observed Paja.
Zoya gave a graceful wave of her hand. “What would be the point? He seems bent on spreading word of the Sun Summoner and claiming she’s a Saint. It’s about time the people had some appreciation for the Grisha.”
“Not the Grisha,” said Pavel, jutting his chin truculently in my direction. “Her.”
Zoya lifted one elegant shoulder. “It’s better than them reviling us all as witches and traitors.”
“Let the King do the dirty work,” said Fedyor. “Let him find the Apparat and execute him and let him suffer the people’s wrath.”
I couldn’t believe we were calmly debating a man’s murder. And I wasn’t sure I wanted the Apparat dead. The priest had plenty to answer for, but I wasn’t convinced he was still working with the Darkling. Besides, he’d given me the Istorii Sankt’ya, and that meant he was a possible source of information. If he was captured, I could only hope the King would keep him alive long enough for questioning.
“Do you think he believes it?” asked Zoya, studying me. “That you’re a Saint risen and back from the dead?”
“I’m not sure it makes a difference.”
“It would help to know just how crazy he is.”
“I’d rather fight a traitor than a zealot,” Mal said quietly. It was the first time he’d spoken. “I may have some old contacts in the First Army who will still talk to me. There are rumors of soldiers defecting to join him, and if that’s the case, they must know where he is.”
I stole a glance at Zoya. She was gazing at Mal with those impossibly blue eyes. It seemed like she’d spent half the meeting batting her lashes at him. Or maybe I was imagining things. She was a powerful Squaller and, potentially, a powerful ally. But she’d also been one of the Darkling’s favorites, and that certainly made her difficult to trust.
I almost laughed out loud. Who was I kidding? I hated even sitting in the same room with her. She looked like a Saint. Delicate bones, glossy black hair, perfect skin. All she needed was a halo. Mal paid her no attention, but a twisting feeling in my gut made me think he was ignoring her a little too deliberately. I knew I had more important things to worry about than Zoya. I had an army to run and enemies on every side, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.
I took a breath and tried to focus. The hardest part of the meeting was still to come. As much as I just wanted to curl up somewhere quiet and dark, there were things that needed to be addressed.
I looked around the table and said, “You need to know what we’re up against.”
The room fell silent. It was as if a bell had rung, as if everything that had come before was mere playacting, and now the real meeting had begun.
Piece by piece, I laid out what I knew about the nichevo’ya, their strength and size, their near invulnerability to bullet and blade, and most important, the fact that they did not fear sunlight.
“But you escaped,” Paja said tentatively, “so they must be mortal.”
“My power can destroy them. It’s the one thing they don’t seem able to recover from. But it isn’t easy. It requires the Cut, and I’m not sure how many I can handle at once.” I didn’t mention the second amplifier. Even with it, I knew I couldn’t withstand the onslaught of a fully formed shadow army, and the fetter was a secret I intended to keep, at least for now. “We only escaped because Prince Nikolai got us outside the Darkling’s range,” I continued. “They seem to need to be close to their master.”