“What is that?” Tolya asked, lowering himself down to get a closer view of the book in my lap. He was so huge that it was a bit like having a bear join me for a study session.
“I’m not sure. I saw the name Ilya in the index, so I picked it up, but I can’t make sense of it.”
“It’s a list of titles.”
“You can read it?” I asked in surprise.
“We were raised in the church,” he said, skimming the page.
I looked at him. Lots of children were raised in religious homes, but that didn’t mean they could read liturgical Ravkan. “What does it say?”
He ran a finger down the words beneath Ilya’s name. His huge hands were covered in scars. Beneath his roughspun sleeve, I could see the edge of a tattoo peeking out.
“Not much,” he said. “Saint Ilya the Beloved, Saint Ilya the Treasured. There are a few towns listed, though, places where he’s said to have performed miracles.
I sat up straighter. “That might be a place to start.”
“You should explore the chapel. I think there are some books in the vestry.”
I had walked past the royal chapel plenty of times, but I’d never been inside. I’d always thought of it as the Apparat’s domain, and even with him gone, I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit. “What’s it like?”
Tolya lifted his huge shoulders. “Like any chapel.”
“Tolya,” I asked, suddenly curious, “did you ever even consider joining the Second Army?”
He looked offended. “I wasn’t born to serve the Darkling.” I wanted to ask what he had been born for, but he tapped the page and said, “I can translate this for you, if you like.” He grinned. “Or maybe I’ll just make Tamar do it.”
“All right,” I said. “Thanks.”
He bent his head. It was just a bow, but he was still kneeling beside me, and there was something about his pose that sent a shiver up my spine.
I felt as if he were waiting for something. Tentatively, I reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. As soon as my fingers came to rest, he let out a breath. It was almost a sigh.
We stayed there for a moment, silent in the halo of lamplight. Then he rose and bowed again.
“I’ll be just outside the door,” he said, and slipped away into the dark.
* * *
MAL RETURNED FROM the hunt the next morning, and I was eager to tell him everything—what I’d learned from David, the plans for the new Hummingbird, my strange encounter with Tolya.
“He’s an odd one,” Mal agreed. “But it still couldn’t hurt to check out the chapel.”
We decided to walk over together, and on the way, I pressed him to tell me about the hunt.
“We spent more time every day playing cards and drinking kvas than doing anything else. And some duke got so drunk he passed out in the river. He almost drowned. His servants hauled him out by his boots, but he kept wading back in, slurring something about the best way to catch trout.”
“Was it terrible?” I asked, laughing.
“It was fine.” He kicked a pebble down the path with his boot. “There’s a lot of curiosity about you.”
“Why do I doubt I’m going to like any of this?”
“One of the royal trackers is sure your powers are fake.”
“And just how would I manage that?”
“I believe there’s an elaborate system of mirrors, pulleys, and possibly hypnotism involved. I got a little lost.”
I started to giggle.
“It wasn’t all funny, Alina. When they were in their cups, some of the nobles made it clear they think all of the Grisha should be rounded up and executed.”
“Saints,” I breathed.
“That’s no excuse,” I said, feeling my anger rise. “We’re Ravkans, too. It’s like they forget everything the Second Army has done for them.”
Mal raised his hands. “I didn’t say I agreed with them.”
I sighed and swatted at an innocent tree branch. “I know.”
“Anyway, I think I made a bit of progress.”
“How did you manage that?”
“Well, they liked that you served in the First Army, and that you saved their prince’s life.”
“After he risked his own life rescuing us?”
“I may have taken some liberties with the details.”
“Oh, Nikolai will love that. Is there more?”
“I told them you hate herring.”
“And that you love plum cake. And that Ana Kuya took a switch to you when you ruined your spring slippers jumping in puddles.”
I winced. “Why would you tell them all that?”
“I wanted to make you human,” he said. “All they see when they look at you is the Sun Summoner. They see a threat, another powerful Grisha like the Darkling. I want them to see a daughter or a sister or a friend. I want them to see Alina.”
I felt a lump rise in my throat. “Do you practice being wonderful?”
“Daily,” he said with a grin. Then he winked. “But I prefer ‘useful.’”
The chapel was the only remaining building of a monastery that had once stood atop Os Alta, and it was said to be where the first Kings of Ravka had been crowned. Compared to the other structures on the palace grounds, it was a humble building, with whitewashed walls and a single bright blue dome.
It was empty and looked like it could use a good cleaning. The pews were covered in dust, and there were pigeons roosting in the eaves. As we walked up the aisle, Mal took my hand, and my heart gave a funny little leap.
We didn’t waste much time in the vestry. The few books on its shelves were a disappointment, just a bunch of old hymnals with crumbling, yellowed pages. The only thing of real interest in the chapel was the massive triptych behind the altar. A riot of color, its three huge panels showed thirteen saints with benevolent faces. I recognized some of them from the Istorii Sankt’ya: Lizabeta with her bloody roses, Petyr with his still-burning arrows. And there was Sankt Ilya with his collar and fetters and broken chains.
“No animals,” Mal observed.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s never pictured with the amplifiers, just with the chains. Except in the Istorii Sankt’ya.” I just didn’t know why.
Most of the triptych was in fairly good condition, but Ilya’s panel had sustained bad water damage. The Saints’ faces were barely visible under the mold, and the damp smell of mildew was nearly overpowering. I pressed my nose to my sleeve.
“There must be a leak somewhere,” said Mal. “This place is a mess.”
My eyes traced the shape of Ilya’s face beneath the grime. Another dead end. I didn’t like to admit it, but I’d gotten my hopes up. Again, I sensed that pull, that emptiness at my wrist. Where was the firebird?
“We can stand here all day,” Mal said, “but he’s not going to start talking.”
I knew he was teasing, but I felt a prickle of anger, though I wasn’t sure if it was at him or myself.
We turned to go back down the aisle and I stopped short. The Darkling was waiting in the gloom by the entrance, seated in a shadowy pew.
“What is it?” Mal asked, following my gaze.
I waited, perfectly still. See him, I begged silently. Please see him.
“Alina? Is something wrong?”
I dug my fingers into my palm. “No,” I said. “Do you think we should check the vestry again?”
“It didn’t seem very promising.”
I made myself smile and walk. “You’re probably right. Wishful thinking.”
As we passed by the Darkling, he turned his head to watch us. He pressed a finger to his lips, then bent his head in a mocking imitation of prayer.
I felt better when we were out in the fresh air, away from the moldy smell of the chapel, but my mind was racing. It had happened again.
The Darkling’s face had been unscarred. Mal hadn’t seen him. That must mean it wasn’t real, just some kind of vision.
But he’d touched me that night in his rooms. I’d felt his fingers on my cheek. What kind of hallucination could do that?
I shivered as we passed into the woods. Was this some manifestation of the Darkling’s new powers? I was terrified by the prospect that he might have somehow found a way into my thoughts, but the other possibility was far worse.
You cannot violate the rules of this world without a price. I pressed my arm to my side, feeling the sea whip’s scales chafe against my skin. Forget Morozova and his madness. Maybe this had nothing to do with the Darkling at all. Maybe I was just losing my mind.
“Mal,” I began, not certain what I intended to say, “the third amp—”
He put a finger to his lips, and the gesture was so like the Darkling’s that I nearly stumbled, but in the next second, I heard rustling and Vasily emerged from the trees.
I wasn’t used to seeing the prince anywhere except the Grand Palace, and for a moment, I just stood there. Then I recovered from my surprise and bowed.
Vasily acknowledged me with a nod, ignoring Mal completely.
“Moi tsarevich,” I said in greeting.
“Alina Starkov,” the prince replied with a smile. “I hope you will grant me a moment of your time.”
“Of course,” I replied.
“I’ll be right down the path,” Mal said, shooting Vasily a suspicious glare.
The prince watched him go. “The deserter hasn’t quite learned his place, has he?”
I bit down on my anger. “What can I do for you, moi tsarevich?”
“Please,” he said, “I would prefer you call me Vasily, at least when we are in private.”
I blinked. I’d never been alone with the prince before, and I didn’t want to be now.
“How are you settling in at the Little Palace?” he asked.
“Very well, thank you, moi tsarevich.”
“I don’t know that it’s appropriate to speak to you so informally,” I said primly.
“You call my brother by his given name.”
“I met him under … unique circumstances.”
“I know he can be very charming,” Vasily said. “But you should know that he’s also very deceptive, and very clever.”
That’s certainly true, I thought, but all I said was, “He has an unusual mind.”
Vasily chortled. “What a diplomat you’ve become! You’ve a most refreshing way about you. Given time, I have no doubt that, despite your humble antecedents, you will learn to conduct yourself with the restraint and elegance of a noblewoman.”
“You mean I’ll learn to shut up?”
Vasily gave a disapproving sniff. I needed to get out of this conversation before I really offended him. Vasily might seem a fool, but he was still a prince.
“Indeed no,” he said with a stilted laugh. “You have a delightful candor.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled. “If you’ll excuse me, your highness—”
Vasily stepped into my path. “I don’t know what arrangement you’ve made with my brother, but you must realize that he’s a second son. Whatever his ambitions, that’s all he ever will be. Only I can make you Queen.”