Ekaterina narrowed her eyes. “Don’t do it,” she said. “Have one of her bloodletters take care of him.” She gave me a jab in the back and steered us into the group with the others.
“Spy that collar?” Luchenko asked of the crowd. “We have the Sun Summoner!”
There were exclamations and a few whoops from the rest of the militia. “So start thinking about how you’re going to spend all of the Darkling’s money.”
“Why not ransom her to Nikolai Lantsov?” said a soldier from somewhere near the back of the circle. Now that I was in the middle of the clearing, there seemed to be even more of them.
“Lantsov?” Luchenko said. “If he has a brain in his head, he’s rusticating somewhere warm with a pretty girl on his knee. If he’s even alive.”
“He’s alive,” said someone.
Luchenko spat. “Makes no matter to me.”
“And your country?” I asked.
“What has my country ever done for me, little girl? No land, no life, just a uniform and a gun. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Darkling on the throne or some useless Lantsov.”
“I saw the prince when I was in Os Alta,” said Ekaterina. “He’s not bad looking.”
“Not bad looking?” said another voice. “He’s damnably handsome.”
Luchenko scowled. “Since when—”
“Brave in battle, smart as a whip.” Now the voice seemed to be coming from above us. Luchenko craned his neck, peering into the trees. “An excellent dancer,” said the voice. “Oh, and an even better shot.”
“Who—” Luchenko never got to finish. A blast rang out, and a tiny black hole appeared between his eyes.
I gasped. “Imposs—”
“Don’t say it,” muttered Mal.
Then chaos erupted.
GUNFIRE SHATTERED the air around us, and Mal knocked me from my feet. I landed with my face in the mulch of the forest floor and felt his body shielding mine.
“Stay down!” he yelled.
I twisted my head to the side and saw the Grisha forming a ring around us. Harshaw was on the ground, but Stigg had his flint in hand, and flames shot through the air. Tamar and Tolya had charged into the fray. Zoya, Nadia, and Adrik had their hands up, and leaves lifted in gusts from the forest floor, but it was hard to tell friend from foe in the tangle of armed men.
There was a sudden thump beside us as someone swung down from the treetops. “What are you two doing barefoot and half naked in the mud?” asked a familiar voice. “Looking for truffles, I hope?”
Nikolai slashed through the bonds on our wrists and yanked me to my feet. “Next time I’ll try getting captured. Just to keep things interesting.” He tossed Mal a rifle. “Shall we?”
“I can’t tell who’s who!” I protested.
“We’re the side that’s hopelessly outnumbered.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t think he was kidding. As the ranks shifted and I got my wits about me, it was easier to distinguish Nikolai’s men by their pale blue armbands. They’d cut a swath through Luchenko’s militia, but even without their leader, the enemy was rallying.
I heard a shout. Nikolai’s men moved forward, driving the Grisha ahead of them. We were being herded.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“This is the part where we run,” Nikolai said pleasantly, but I could see the strain on his dirt-smudged face.
We took off through the trees, trying to keep pace as Nikolai darted through the woods. I couldn’t tell where we were headed. Toward the creek? The road? I’d lost all sense of direction.
I looked behind me, counting the others, making sure we were together. The Squallers were summoning in tandem, knocking trees into the militia’s path. Stigg trailed them, sending up spurts of flame. David had somehow managed to retrieve his pack and staggered beneath its bulk as he ran beside Genya.
“Leave it!” I yelled, but if he heard, he ignored me.
Tolya had Harshaw thrown over his shoulder, and the weight of the big Inferni was slowing his stride. A soldier was gaining on him, saber drawn. Tamar vaulted onto a fallen trunk, took aim with her pistol, and fired. A second later, the militiaman clutched his chest and crumpled midstride. Oncat darted past the body, fast on Tolya’s heels.
“Where’s Sergei?” I shouted, just as I glimpsed him lagging behind, his expression dazed. Tamar backtracked, dodging falling trees and fire, and forcibly pulled him along. I couldn’t hear what she was yelling, but I didn’t think it was gentle encouragement.
I stumbled. Mal caught my elbow and shoved me forward, turning to squeeze off two shots from his rifle. Then we were pouring into a barley field.
Despite the heat of the late afternoon sun, the field was shrouded in mist. We pelted over the marshy soil until Nikolai shouted, “Here!”
We skidded to a halt, sending up sprays of dirt. Here? We were in the middle of an empty field with nothing but fog for cover and a throng of militiamen hungry for revenge and fortune on our heels.
I heard two shrill whistle blasts. The ground rocked beneath me.
“Hold on tight!” Nikolai said.
“To what?” I yelped.
And then we were rising. Cables snapped into place beside us as the field itself seemed to lift. I looked up—the mist was parting, and a massive craft hovered directly over our heads, its cargo hold open. It was some kind of shallow barge, equipped with sails at one end and suspended beneath a huge, oblong bladder.
“What the hell is that?” Mal said.
“The Pelican,” said Nikolai. “Well, a prototype of the Pelican. Trick seems to be getting the balloon not to collapse.”
“And did you solve that little problem?”
“For the most part.”
The soil beneath us fell away, and I saw we were standing on a swaying platform made of some kind of metal mesh. We rose higher—ten, then fifteen feet above the ground. A bullet pinged against the metal.
We took up spots at the edge of the platform, clutching the cables while trying to take aim at the mob firing up at us.
“Let’s go!” I shouted. “Why aren’t we getting out of range?”
Nikolai and Mal exchanged a glance.
“They know we have the Sun Saint,” Nikolai said. Mal nodded, snatched up a pistol, and gave Tolya and Tamar a swift nudge.
“What are you doing?” I asked, suddenly panicked.
“We can’t leave survivors,” Mal said. Then he dove from the edge. I screamed, but he tucked into a roll and came up firing.
Tolya and Tamar followed, cutting through the remaining ranks of militia while Nikolai and his crew tried to lend cover from above. I saw one of the militiamen break free and run for the woods. Tolya put a bullet through his victim’s back, and before the body had even hit the ground, the giant was turning, his hand forming a fist as he crushed the heart of another knife-wielding soldier looming up behind him.
Tamar charged directly into Ekaterina. Her axes flashed twice, and the militiawoman fell, her topknot drifting down beside her lifeless form, attached to a piece of scalp. Another man lifted his pistol, taking aim at Tamar, but Mal was on him, knife slicing mercilessly across his throat. I am become a blade. And then there was no one left, only bodies in a field.
“Come on!” Nikolai called as the platform drifted higher. He tossed down a cable. Mal braced his feet against the ground, holding the rope taut so Tamar and Tolya could shinny up. As soon as the twins were on the platform, Mal hooked his ankle and wrist in the cable and they bent to haul him in.
That was when I saw movement behind him. A man had risen from the dirt, covered in mud and blood, saber held out before him.
“Mal!” I cried. But it was too late, his limbs were tangled in the rope.
The soldier released a roar and slashed out. Mal put up a useless hand to defend himself.
Light flashed off the soldier’s blade. His arm stopped midswing, and the saber dropped from his fingertips. Then his body came apart, splitting down the middle as if someone had drawn a near perfect line from the top of his head all the way to his groin, a line that gleamed bright as he fell in pieces.
Mal looked up. I stood at the edge of the platform, my hands still glowing with the power of the Cut. I swayed. Nikolai yanked me back before I could tip over the edge. I broke free of him, scooting to the far end of the platform and vomiting off the other side.
I clung to the cool metal, feeling like a coward. Mal and the twins had leapt into that battle to make sure the Darkling wouldn’t learn our location. They hadn’t hesitated. They’d killed with ruthless efficiency. I’d taken one life, and I was curled up like a child, wiping sick from my lip.
Stigg sent fire licking over the bodies in the field. I hadn’t stopped to think that a body sliced in half would give away my presence just as surely as an informant.
Moments later, the platform was hauled up into the Pelican’s cargo hold, and we were under way. When we emerged above deck, the sun was shining off the port side as we climbed into the clouds. Nikolai shouted commands. One team of Squallers manned the giant lozenge of a balloon, while another filled the sails with wind. Tidemakers shrouded the base of the craft in mist to keep us from being spotted by anyone on the ground. I recognized some of the rogue Grisha from the days when Nikolai had masqueraded as Sturmhond and Mal and I had been prisoners aboard his ship.
This craft was larger and less graceful than the Hummingbird or the Kingfisher. I soon learned that it had been built to transport cargo—shipments of Zemeni weapons that Nikolai was smuggling over the northern and southern borders and occasionally through the Fold. It wasn’t constructed of wood but some lightweight Fabrikator-made substance that sent David into a tizzy. He actually lay down on the deck to get a better view, tapping here and there. “It’s some kind of cured resin, but it’s been reinforced with … carbon fibers?”
“Glass,” said Nikolai, looking thoroughly pleased by David’s enthusiasm.
“More flexible!” David said in near ecstasy.
“What can I say?” asked Genya drily. “He’s a passionate man.”
Genya’s presence worried me a little, but Nikolai had never seen her scarred, and he didn’t seem to recognize her. I circulated with Nadia, whispering a few reminders to our Grisha about not using her real name.
A crewman offered me a cup of fresh water so that I could rinse out my mouth and wash my face and hands. I accepted it with cheeks burning, embarrassed over my display back on the platform.
When I was done, I leaned my elbows on the railing and peered through the mist at the landscape below—fields painted in the red and gold of autumn, the blue-gray glitter of the river cities and their bustling ports. Such was the mad power of Nikolai that I barely thought twice about the fact that we were flying. I’d been aboard his smaller crafts, and I definitely preferred the feel of the Pelican. There was something stately about it. It might not get you anywhere quickly, but it wouldn’t capsize on a whim either.
From miles beneath the earth to miles above. I could scarcely believe any of it, that Nikolai had found us, that he was safe, that we were all here. A tide of relief washed over me, making my eyes fill.
“First vomit, then tears,” Nikolai said, coming up beside me. “Don’t tell me I’ve lost my touch.”
“I’m just happy you’re alive,” I said, hastily blinking my eyes clear. “Though I’m sure you can talk me out of it.”
“Glad to see you too. Word was you’d gone underground, but it was more like you’d vanished completely.”
“It did feel like being buried alive.”
“Is the rest of your party there?”
“This is it.”
“You can’t mean—”
“This is all that remains of the Second Army. The Darkling has his Grisha, and you have yours, but…” I trailed off.
Nikolai surveyed the deck. Mal and Tolya were deep in conversation with a member of Nikolai’s crew, helping to tie down ropes and maneuver a sail. Someone had found Mal a jacket, but he was still short a pair of boots. David was running his hands over the deck as if he were trying to disappear into it. The others were clustered into little groups: Genya was huddled with Nadia and the other Etherealki. Stigg had gotten stuck with Sergei, who slumped on the deck, his head buried in his hands. Tamar was seeing to Harshaw’s wounds as Oncat dug her claws into his leg, her fur standing on end. The tabby obviously didn’t enjoy flying.
“All that remains,” Nikolai repeated.
“One Healer chose to stay underground.” After a long minute, I asked, “How did you find us?”
“I didn’t, really. Militias have been preying on our smuggling routes. We couldn’t afford to lose another shipment, so I came after Luchenko. Then Tamar was spotted in the square, and when we realized the camp they were moving on was yours, I thought why not get the girl—”
“And the guns?”
He grinned. “Exactly.”
“Thank goodness we had the foresight to be captured.”
“Very quick thinking on your part. I commend you.”
“How are the King and Queen?”
He snorted and said, “Fine. Bored. There’s little for them to do.” He adjusted the cuff of his coat. “They took Vasily’s loss hard.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. In truth, I’d spared little thought for Nikolai’s older brother.
“He brought it on himself, but I’m surprised to say I’m sorry too.”