“I want only the best for you, Alina Starkov. For you and your friends. So few remain. If anything were to happen to them—”
“You leave them be,” I snarled, forgetting to be sweet, to be gentle.
The Apparat’s look was too keen for my liking. “I simply meant that accidents happen underground. I know you would feel each loss deeply, and you are so very weak.” On the last word, his lips stretched back over his gums. They were black like a wolf’s.
Again, rage coursed through me. From my first day in the White Cathedral, threat had hung heavy in the air, suffocating me with the steady press of fear. The Apparat never missed an opportunity to remind me of my vulnerability. Almost without thinking, I twitched my fingers in my sleeves. Shadows leapt up the walls of the chamber.
The Apparat reared back in his chair. I frowned at him, feigning confusion. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
He cleared his throat, eyes darting right and left. “It’s … it’s nothing,” he stammered.
I let the shadows fall. His reaction was well worth the wave of dizziness that came when I used this trick. And that’s all it was. I could make the shadows jump and dance but nothing more. It was a sad little echo of the Darkling’s power, some remnant left behind in the wake of the confrontation that had nearly killed us both. I’d discovered it when trying to summon light, and I’d struggled to hone it to something greater, something I could fight with. I’d had no success. The shadows felt like a punishment, ghosts of greater power that served only to taunt me, the Saint of shams and mirrors.
The Apparat rose, attempting to regain his composure. “You will go to the archives,” he said decisively. “Time in quiet study and contemplation will help to ease your mind.”
I stifled a groan. This really was punishment—hours spent fruitlessly perusing old religious texts for information on Morozova. Not to mention that the archives were damp, miserable, and crawling with Priestguards. “I will escort you,” he added. Even better.
“And the Kettle?” I asked, trying to hide the desperation in my voice.
“Later. Razru— Genya will wait,” he said as I followed him into the passage. “You needn’t scurry off to the Kettle, you know. You could meet with her here. In privacy.”
I glanced at the guards, who had fallen into step behind us. Privacy. That was laughable. But the idea of being kept from the kitchens was not. Maybe today the master flue would open for more than a few seconds. It was a slim hope, but it was all the hope I had.
“I prefer the Kettle,” I said. “It’s warm there.” I gave him my meekest smile, let my lip tremble slightly, and added, “It reminds me of home.”
He loved that—the image of a humble girl, huddling by a cookstove, hem trailing in ash. Another illusion, one more chapter in his book of Saints.
“Very well,” he said at last.
It took a long while to wend our way down from the balcony. The White Cathedral took its name from the alabaster of its walls and the massive main cavern where we held services every morning and evening. But it was much more than that—a sprawling network of tunnels and caves, a city underground. I hated every inch of it. The moisture that seeped through the walls, dripped from the ceilings, clustered in beads on my skin. The chill that couldn’t be dispelled. The toadstools and night flowers that bloomed in cracks and crevices. I hated the way we marked time: morning services, afternoon prayer, evening services, Saints’ days, days for fasting and half fasting. But mostly I hated the feeling that I really was a little rat, pale and red-eyed, scrabbling at the walls of my maze with feeble pink-tinged claws.
The Apparat led me through the caverns north of the main basin, where the Soldat Sol trained. People backed against the rock or reached out to touch my golden sleeve as we passed. We set a slow pace, dignified—necessary. I couldn’t move any faster without getting winded. The Apparat’s flock knew I was sick and said prayers for my health, but he feared there would be a panic if they discovered just how fragile—how very human—I was.
The Soldat Sol had already begun their training by the time we arrived. These were the Apparat’s holy warriors, sun soldiers who bore my symbol tattooed on their arms and faces. Most of them were First Army deserters, though others were simply young, fierce, and willing to die. They’d helped to rescue me from the Little Palace, and the casualties had been brutal. Holy or not, they were no match for the Darkling’s nichevo’ya. Still, the Darkling had human soldiers and Grisha in his service too, so the Soldat Sol trained.
But now they did it without real weapons, with dummy swords and rifles loaded with wax pellets. The Soldat Sol were a different kind of pilgrim, brought to the cult of the Sun Saint by the promise of change, many of them young and ambivalent about the Apparat and the old ways of the church. Since my arrival underground, the Apparat had kept them on a far tighter leash. He needed them, but he didn’t wholly trust them. I knew the feeling.
Priestguards lined the walls, maintaining a close eye on the proceedings. Their bullets were real, and so were the blades of their sabers.
As we entered the training area, I saw that a group had gathered to watch Mal spar with Stigg, one of our two surviving Inferni. He was thick-necked, blond, and utterly humorless—Fjerdan to the core.
Mal dodged an arc of fire, but the second spurt of flame caught on his shirt. The onlookers gasped. I thought he might draw back, but instead he charged. He dove into a roll, dousing the flames on the ground and knocking Stigg’s feet from beneath him. In a flash, he had the Inferni pinned facedown. He secured Stigg’s wrists, preventing another attack.
The watching sun soldiers broke into appreciative applause and whistles.
Zoya tossed her glossy black hair over one shoulder. “Well done, Stigg. You’re trussed and ready for basting.”
Mal silenced her with a look. “Distract, disarm, disable,” he said. “The trick is not to panic.” He rose and helped Stigg to his feet. “You all right?”
Stigg scowled, annoyed, but nodded and moved to spar with a pretty young soldier.
“Come on, Stigg,” the girl said with a wide grin. “I won’t go too rough on you.”
The girl’s face was familiar, but it took me a long moment to place her—Ruby. Mal and I had trained with her at Poliznaya. She’d been in our regiment. I remembered her as giggling, cheerful, the kind of happy, flirtatious girl who made me feel awkward and hopeless in my skin. She still had the same ready smile, the same long blond braid. But even from a distance, I could see the watchfulness in her, the wariness that came with war. There was a black sun tattooed over the right side of her face. Strange to think that a girl who had once sat across from me in the mess hall now thought I was divine.
It was rare that the Apparat or his guards took me this way to the archives. What was different today? Had he brought me here so I could look over the shreds of my army and remember the price of my mistakes? To show me how few allies I had left?
I watched Mal pair sun soldiers with Grisha. There were the Squallers: Zoya, Nadia, and her brother Adrik. With Stigg and Harshaw, they made up the last of my Etherealki. But Harshaw was nowhere to be seen. He’d probably rolled back into bed after summoning flame for me during morning prayers.
As for the Corporalki, the only Heartrenders on the training floor were Tamar and her massive twin, Tolya. I owed them my life, but the debt didn’t rest easy with me. They were close to the Apparat, charged with the instruction of the Soldat Sol, and they’d lied to me for months at the Little Palace. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. Trust was a luxury I could ill afford.
The remaining soldiers would have to wait for a turn to fight. There were simply too few Grisha. Genya and David kept to themselves, and weren’t much for combat, anyway. Maxim was a Healer and preferred to practice his craft in the infirmary, though few of the Apparat’s flock trusted Grisha enough to take advantage of his services. Sergei was a powerful Heartrender, but I’d been told he was too unstable to be considered safe around students. He’d been in the thick of the fighting when the Darkling launched his surprise attack, had seen the girl he loved torn open by monsters. We’d lost our only other Heartrender to the nichevo’ya somewhere between the Little Palace and the chapel.
Because of you, said a voice in my head. Because you failed them.
I was drawn from my bleak thoughts by the Apparat’s voice. “The boy oversteps.”
I followed his gaze to where Mal was moving between the soldiers, speaking to one or correcting another. “He’s helping them train,” I said.
“He’s giving orders. Oretsev,” the priest called, beckoning him over. I tensed, watching Mal approach. I’d barely seen him since he’d been banned from my chamber. Aside from my carefully rationed interactions with Genya, the Apparat kept me isolated from potential allies.
Mal looked different. He wore the peasant roughspun that had served as his uniform at the Little Palace, but he was leaner, paler from time spent belowground. The narrow scar on his jaw stood out in sharp relief.
He stopped before us and bowed. It was the closest we’d been allowed to each other in months.
“You are not the captain here,” said the Apparat. “Tolya and Tamar outrank you.”
Mal nodded. “They do.”
“So why are you leading the exercises?”
“I wasn’t leading anything,” he said. “I have something to teach. They have something to learn.”
True enough, I thought bitterly. Mal had gotten very good at fighting Grisha. I remembered him bruised and bleeding, standing over a Squaller in the stables of the Little Palace, a look of challenge and contempt in his eyes. Another memory I could do without.
“Why haven’t those recruits been marked?” the Apparat asked, gesturing toward a group sparring with wooden swords near the far wall. None of them could have been more than twelve years old.
“Because they’re children,” Mal replied, ice in his voice.
“It’s their choice. Would you deny them the chance to show fealty to our cause?”
“I’d deny them regret.”
“No one has that power.”
A muscle ticked in Mal’s jaw. “If we lose, those tattoos will brand them as sun soldiers. They might as well sign up to face the firing squad now.”
“Is that why your own features bear no mark? Because you have so little faith in our victory?”
Mal glanced at me, then back at the Apparat. “I save my faith for Saints,” he said evenly. “Not men who send children to die.”
The priest’s eyes narrowed.
“Mal’s right,” I interjected. “Let them remain unmarked.” The Apparat scrutinized me with that flat black gaze. “Please,” I said softly, “as a kindness to me.”
I knew how much he liked that voice—gentle, warm, a lullaby voice.
“Such a tender heart,” he said, clucking his tongue. But I could tell he was pleased. Though I’d spoken against his wishes, this was the Saint he wanted me to be, a loving mother, a comfort to her people. I dug my fingernails into my palm.
“That’s Ruby, isn’t it?” I asked, eager to change the subject and divert the Apparat’s attention.
“She got here a few weeks back,” Mal said. “She’s good—came from the infantry.” Despite myself, I felt the tiniest twinge of envy.
“Stigg doesn’t look happy,” I said, bobbing my head toward where the Inferni seemed to be taking out his loss on Ruby. The girl was doing her best to hold her own, but she was clearly outmatched.
“He doesn’t like getting beaten.”
“I don’t think you even broke a sweat.”
“No,” he said. “It’s a problem.”
“Why is that?” asked the Apparat.
Mal’s eyes darted to me for the briefest second. “You learn more by losing.” He shrugged. “At least Tolya’s around to keep kicking my ass.”
“Mind your tongue,” the Apparat snapped.
Mal ignored him. Abruptly, he put two fingers to his lips and gave a sharp whistle. “Ruby, you’re leaving yourself open!”
Too late. Her braid was on fire. Another young soldier ran at her with a bucket of water and tossed it over her head.
I winced. “Try not to get them too crispy.”
Mal bowed. “Moi soverenyi.” He jogged back to the troops.
That title. He said it without any of the rancor he had seemed to carry at Os Alta, but it still hit me like a punch to the gut.
“He should not address you so,” complained the Apparat.
“It was the Darkling’s title and is unfitting for a Saint.”
“Then what should he call me?”
“He should not address you directly at all.”
I sighed. “Next time he has something to say, I’ll have him write me a letter.”
The Apparat pursed his lips. “You’re restless today. I think an extra hour in the solace of the archives will do you good.”
His tone was chiding, as if I were a cranky child who had stayed up past her bedtime. I made myself think of the promise of the Kettle and forced a smile. “I’m sure you’re right.” Distract, disarm, disable.
As we turned down the passage that would take us to the archives, I looked over my shoulder. Zoya had flipped a soldier on his back and was spinning him like a turtle, her hand making lazy circles in the air. Ruby was talking to Mal, her smile broad, her expression avid. But Mal was watching me. In the ghostly light of the cavern, his eyes were a deep and steady blue, the color at the center of a flame.