His beak-nosed companion burst out laughing. “Then you’ll know they aren’t yours!” he bellowed.
I thought the other nobleman would take offense, but instead he just guffawed, his red face turning even redder.
“Have to congratulate the footman!” he roared.
“I hear all the best families have bastards,” chortled his friend.
“We all have dogs, too. But we don’t let them sit at the table!”
I grimaced beneath my mask. I had a sneaking suspicion they were talking about Nikolai.
“Oh dear,” I said, yanking the cup from Mal’s hand. “Oh dear, so sad.”
“What’s that?” said the nobleman, still laughing.
“You weeel go bald,” I said. “Very bald.”
He stopped laughing, and his meaty hand strayed to his already thinning red hair.
“And you,” I said, pointing at his friend. Mal gave my foot a warning nudge, but I ignored him. “You weeel catch the korpa.”
“The korpa!” I declared in dire tones. “Your private parts weeel shrink to nothink!”
He paled. His throat worked. “But—”
At that moment there was shouting from inside the ballroom and a loud crash as someone upended a table. I saw two men shoving each other.
“I think it’s time to leave,” said Tamar, edging us away from the commotion.
I was about to protest when the fight broke out in earnest. People started pushing and shoving, crowding the doors to the terrace. The music had stopped, and it looked like some of the fortune-tellers had gotten into the scramble too. Over the crowd, I saw one of the silken wagons collapse. Someone came hurtling toward us and crashed into the noblemen. The coffee urn toppled off the table, and the little blue cups followed.
“Let’s go,” said Mal, reaching for his pistol. “Out the back.”
Tamar led the way, axes already in hand. I followed her down the stairs, but as we stepped off the terrace, I heard another horrible crash and a woman screaming. She was pinned beneath the banquet table.
Mal holstered his pistol. “Get her to the carriage,” he shouted to Tamar. “I’ll catch up.”
“Go! I’ll be right behind you.” He pushed into the crowd, toward the trapped woman.
Tamar tugged me down the garden stairs and up a path that led back along the side of the mansion, to the street. It was dark away from the glowing lanterns of the party. I let a soft light blossom to guide our steps.
“Don’t,” said Tamar. “This could be a distraction. You’ll give away our location.”
I let the light fade, and a second later, I heard a scuffle, a loud oof, and then—silence.
I looked back toward the party, hoping I would hear Mal’s approach.
My heart started to pound. I raised my hands. Forget giving away our location, I wasn’t going to just stand around in the dark. Then I heard a gate creak, and strong hands took hold of me. I was yanked through the hedge.
I sent light searing out in a hot flare. I was in a stone courtyard off the main garden, bordered on all sides by yew hedges, and I was not alone.
I smelled him before I saw him—turned earth, incense, mildew. The smell of a grave. I raised my hands as the Apparat stepped out of the shadows. The priest was just as I remembered him, the same wiry black beard and relentless gaze. He still wore the brown robes of his station, but the King’s double eagle was gone from his chest, replaced by a sunburst wrought in gold thread.
“Stay where you are,” I warned.
He bowed low. “Alina Starkov, Sol Koroleva. I mean you no harm.”
“Where’s Tamar? If she’s been hurt—”
“Your guards will not be harmed, but I beg you to listen.”
“What do you want? How did you know I would be here?”
“The faithful are everywhere, Sol Koroleva.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Every day your holy army grows, drawn by the promise of your light. They wait only for you to lead them.”
“My army? I’ve seen the pilgrims camped outside the city walls—poor, weak, hungry, all desperate for the scraps of hope you feed them.”
“There are others. Soldiers.”
“More people who think I’m a Saint because you’ve sold them a lie?”
“It is no lie, Alina Starkov. You are Daughter of Keramzin, Reborn of the Fold.”
“I didn’t die!” I said furiously. “I survived because I escaped the Darkling, and I murdered an entire skiff of soldiers and Grisha to do it. Do you tell your followers that?”
“Your people are suffering. Only you can bring about the dawn of a new age, an age consecrated in holy fire.”
His eyes were wild, the black so deep I couldn’t see his pupils. But was his madness real or part of some elaborate act?
“Just who will rule this new age?”
“You, of course. Sol Koroleva, Sankta Alina.”
“With you at my right hand? I read the book you gave me. Saints don’t live long lives.”
“Come with me, Alina Starkov.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“You are not yet strong enough to face the Darkling. I can change that.”
I stilled. “Tell me what you know.”
“Join me, and all will be revealed.”
I advanced on him, surprised by the throb of hunger and rage that shot through me. “Where is the firebird?” I thought he might respond with confusion, that he might pretend ignorance. Instead, he smiled, his gums black, his teeth a crooked jumble. “Tell me, priest,” I ordered, “or I’ll cut you open right here, and your followers can try to pray you back together.” With a start, I realized that I meant it.
For the first time, he looked nervous. Good. Had he expected a tame Saint?
He held up his hands placatingly.
“I do not know,” he said. “I swear it. But when the Darkling left the Little Palace, he did not realize it would be for the last time. He left many precious things behind, things others believed long since destroyed.”
Another surge of hunger crackled through me. “Morozova’s journals? You have them?”
“Come with me, Alina Starkov. There are secrets buried deep.”
Could he possibly be telling the truth? Or would he just hand me over to the Darkling?
“Alina!” Mal’s voice sounded from somewhere on the other side of the hedge.
“I’m here!” I called.
Mal burst into the courtyard, pistol drawn. Tamar was right behind him. She’d lost one of her axes, and there was blood smeared over the front of her cloak.
The Apparat turned in a musty whirl of cloth and slipped between the bushes.
“Wait!” I cried, already moving to follow. Tamar bolted past me with a furious roar, diving into the hedges to give chase.
“I need him alive!” I shouted at her disappearing back.
“Are you all right?” Mal panted as he came level with me.
I took hold of his sleeve. “Mal, I think he has Morozova’s journals.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“I can handle an old priest,” I said impatiently. “Did you hear what I said?”
He drew back. “Yes, I heard you. I thought you were in danger.”
“I wasn’t. I—”
But Tamar was already striding back to us, her face a mask of frustration. “I don’t understand it,” she said, shaking her head. “He was there and then he was just gone.”
“Saints,” I swore.
She hung her head. “Forgive me.”
I’d never seen her look so downcast. “It’s all right,” I said, my mind still churning. Part of me wanted to go back down that alley and shout for the Apparat, demand that he show himself, hunt him through the city streets until I found him and pried the truth from his lying mouth. I peered down the row of hedges. I could still hear shouting from the party far behind me, and somewhere in the dark, the bells of the convent began to ring. I sighed. “Let’s get out of here.”
We found our driver waiting on the narrow sidestreet where we’d left him. The ride back to the palace was tense.
“That brawl was no coincidence,” said Mal.
“No,” agreed Tamar, dabbing at the ugly cut on her chin. “He knew we would be there.”
“How?” Mal demanded. “No one else knew we were going. Did you tell Nikolai?”
“Nikolai had nothing to do with this,” I said.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because he has nothing to gain.” I pressed my fingers to my temples. “Maybe someone saw us leaving the palace.”
“How did the Apparat get into Os Alta without being seen? How did he even know we would be at that party?”
“I don’t know,” I replied wearily. “He said the faithful are everywhere. Maybe one of the servants overheard.”
“We got lucky tonight,” said Tamar. “This could have been much worse.”
“I was never in any real danger,” I insisted. “He just wanted to talk.”
“What did he say?”
I gave her the barest description, but I didn’t mention Morozova’s journals. I hadn’t talked to anyone except Mal about them, and Tamar knew too much about the amplifiers already.
“He’s raising some kind of army,” I finished. “People who believe that I’ve risen from the dead, who think I have some kind of holy power.”
“How many?” Mal asked.
“I don’t know. And I don’t know what he intends to do with them. March them against the King? Send them to fight the Darkling’s horde? I’m already responsible for the Grisha. I don’t want the burden of an army of helpless otkazat’sya.”
“We’re not all quite so feeble,” said Mal, an edge to his voice.
“I didn’t … I just meant he’s using these people. He’s exploiting their hope.”
“Is it any different than Nikolai parading you from village to village?”
“Nikolai isn’t telling people that I’m immortal or can perform miracles.”
“No,” Mal said. “He’s just letting them believe it.”
“Why are you so ready to attack him?”
“Why are you so quick to defend him?”
I turned away, tired, exasperated, unable to think past the whir of thoughts in my head. The lamplit streets of the upper town slid by the coach’s window. We passed the rest of the ride in silence.
* * *
BACK AT THE LITTLE PALACE, I changed clothes while Mal and Tamar filled Tolya in on what had happened.
I was sitting on the bed when Mal knocked. He shut the door behind him and leaned against it, looking around.
“This room is so depressing. I thought you were going to redecorate.”
I shrugged. I had too many other things to worry about, and I’d almost gotten used to the room’s quiet gloom.
“Do you believe he has the journals?” Mal asked.