If anyone happened to be standing in a field, peering straight up, they might see something off, a blur or a flash of light, but they wouldn’t see a winged ship moving through the afternoon sky. At least that was the hope. It reminded me of something I’d once seen the Darkling do when he’d pulled me through a candlelit ballroom, using his power to render us nearly invisible. Yet another trick he’d mastered long before I had.
Genya dug through the provisions and found a stash of jurda, the Zemeni stimulant that soldiers sometimes used on long watches. It made me feel jittery and a little nauseated, but there was no other way to keep us on our feet and focused.
It had to be chewed, and soon we were all spitting the rust-colored juice over the side.
“If this stains my teeth orange—” said Zoya.
“It will,” interrupted Genya, “but I promise to put your teeth back whiter than they were before. I may even fix those weird incisors of yours.”
“There is nothing wrong with my teeth.”
“Not at all,” said Genya soothingly. “You’re the prettiest walrus I know. I’m just amazed you haven’t sawed through your lower lip.”
“Keep your hands off me, Tailor,” Zoya grumbled, “or I’ll poke your other eye out.”
By the time dusk came, Zoya didn’t have the energy to bicker. She and Nadia were entirely focused on keeping us aloft.
David was able to take over the wheel for brief periods of time so Tamar could see to the wound on Mal’s leg. Harshaw, Tolya, and Mal alternated on the lines to give each other a chance to stretch.
Only Nadia and Zoya had no relief as they toiled beneath a crescent moon, though we tried to find ways to help. Genya stood with her back to Nadia’s, bracing her so she could rest her knees and feet a bit. Now that the sun had set, we had no need for cover, so for the better part of an hour, I buttressed Zoya’s arms while she summoned.
“This is ridiculous,” she growled, her muscles shaking beneath my palms.
“Do you want me to let go?”
“If you do, I’ll cover you in jurda juice.”
I was eager to have something to do. The ship was too quiet, and I could feel the day’s nightmares waiting to crowd in on me.
Misha hadn’t budged from his spot curled into the hull. He was clutching the wooden practice sword that Mal had found for him. My throat tightened as I realized he’d brought it with him on the terrace when Baghra made him escort her to the nichevo’ya. I fished a piece of hardtack out of the provisions and took it to him.
“Hungry?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Will you try to eat something anyway?”
Another head shake.
I sat beside him, unsure of what to say. I remembered sitting like this with Sergei in the tank room, searching for words of comfort and failing. Had he been scheming then, manipulating me? His fear had certainly seemed real.
But Misha didn’t just remind me of Sergei. He was every child whose parents went to war. He was every boy and girl at Keramzin. He was Baghra begging for her father’s attention. He was the Darkling learning loneliness at his mother’s knee. This was what Ravka did. It made orphans. It made misery. No land, no life, just a uniform and a gun. Nikolai had believed in something better.
I took a shaky breath. I had to find a way to shut down my mind. If I thought of Nikolai, I would fall apart. Or Baghra. Or the broken pieces of Sergei’s body. Or Stigg, left behind. Or even the Darkling, the look on his face as his mother had disappeared beneath the clouds. How could he be so cruel and still so human?
The night wore on as a sleeping Ravka passed beneath us. I counted stars. I watched over Adrik. I dozed. I moved among the crew, offering sips of water and tufts of dried jurda blossoms. When anyone asked about Nikolai or Baghra, I gave them the facts of the battle in the briefest possible terms.
I willed my mind to silence, tried to make it a blank field, white with snow, unmarred by tracks. Sometime around sunrise, I took my place at the railing and began shifting the light to camouflage the ship.
That was when Adrik muttered in his sleep.
Nadia’s head whipped around. The Bittern bobbled.
“Focus!” snapped Zoya.
But she was smiling. We all were, ready to cling to the barest scrap of hope.
* * *
WE FLEW THROUGH the rest of the day and long into the next night. It was dawn on the second morning when we finally glimpsed the Sikurzoi. At midday, we spotted the deep, jagged crater that marked the abandoned copper mine where Nikolai had suggested we stash the Bittern, a murky turquoise pool at its center.
The descent was slow and tricky, and as soon as the hulls scraped the crater floor, both Nadia and Zoya crumpled to the deck. They had pushed the limits of their power, and though their skin was flushed and glowing, they were completely exhausted.
Tugging on the ropes, the rest of us managed to get the Bittern out of sight beneath a ledge of rock. Anyone who climbed down into the mine would find it easily enough, but it was hard to imagine who would bother. The crater floor was littered with rusty machinery. An unpleasant smell came from the stagnant pool, and David said the water’s opaque turquoise color came from minerals leaching out of the rock. There were no signs of squatters.
While Mal and Harshaw secured the sails, Tolya carried Adrik from the Bittern. There was blood seeping from the stump where his arm had been, but he was fairly lucid and even drank a few sips of water.
Misha refused to budge from the hull. I tucked a blanket over his shoulders and left him with a piece of hardtack and a slice of dried apple, hoping he would eat.
We helped Zoya and Nadia off the ship, dragged our bedrolls into a nest beneath the shade of the overhang, and without another word, fell into troubled sleep. We posted no watch. If we’d been followed, we had no fight left to give.
As my eyes slid shut, I glimpsed Tolya sneaking back onto the Bittern and forced myself to sit up again. He emerged a moment later with a tightly wrapped bundle. His gaze darted to Adrik, and my stomach dropped as I realized what he was carrying. I let my weary eyes close. I didn’t want to know where Tolya planned to bury Adrik’s arm.
When I woke, it was late afternoon. Most of the others were still sleeping soundly. Genya was pinning up Adrik’s sleeve.
I found Mal coming down the road that led around the side of the crater, carrying a bag full of grouse.
“I thought we’d stay tonight,” he said, “make a fire. We can leave for Dva Stolba in the morning.”
“All right,” I said, though I was eager to get moving.
He must have sensed it because he said, “Adrik could use the rest. We all could. I’m afraid if we keep pushing, one of them will break.”
I nodded. He was right. We were all grieving and frightened and tired. “I’ll bring some kindling down.”
He touched my arm. “Alina—”
“I won’t be long.” I pushed past him. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want words of comfort. I wanted the firebird. I wanted to turn my pain into anger and bring it to the Darkling’s door.
I made my way up to the woods that surrounded the mine. This far south, the trees were different, taller and more sparse, their bark red and porous. I was on my way back to the mine, my arms full of the driest branches I could find, when I got the eerie feeling I was being watched. I stopped, the hair rising on the back of my neck.
I peered between the sunlit trunks, waiting. The silence was dense, as if every small creature were holding its breath. Then I heard it—a soft rustling. My head jerked up, following the sound into the trees. My eyes fastened on a flicker of movement, the silent beat of a shadowy wing.
Nikolai was perched in the branches of a tree, his dark gaze fastened on me.
His chest was bare and lined in black as if darkness had shattered beneath his skin. He’d lost his boots somewhere, and his bare feet gripped the bark. His toes had become black talons.
He had dried blood on his hands. And near his mouth.
“Nikolai?” I whispered.
He flinched back.
But he leapt into the air, dark wings shaking the branches as he broke through them to the blue sky beyond.
I wanted to scream, so I did. I tossed my kindling to the ground, pressed my fist to my mouth, and screamed until my throat was raw. I couldn’t stop. I’d managed not to weep on the Bittern or at the mine, but now I sank to the forest floor, my screams turning to sobs, silent, racking gasps. They hurt, as if they might crack my ribs open, but emerged soundless from my lips. I kept thinking of Nikolai’s torn trousers and had the foolish thought that he’d be mortified to see his clothes in such a state. He’d followed us all the way from the Spinning Wheel. Could he tell the Darkling of our whereabouts? Would he? How much of him was left inside that tortured body?
I felt it then, the vibration along that invisible tether. I pushed away from it. I would not go to the Darkling now. I wouldn’t go to him ever again. But still, I knew wherever he was, he was grieving.
* * *
MAL FOUND ME THERE, head buried in my arms, coat covered in green needles. He offered me his hand, but I ignored it.
“I’m all right,” I said, though nothing could have been less true.
“It’s getting dark. You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“I’m the Sun Summoner. It gets dark when I say it does.”
He crouched down in front of me and waited for me to meet his eyes. “Don’t shut them out, Alina. They need to grieve with you.”
“I don’t have anything to say.”
“Then let them talk.”
I had no solace or encouragement to offer. I didn’t want to share this hurt. I didn’t want them to see how frightened I was. But I made myself get up and brush the needles from my coat. I let Mal lead me back to the mine.
By the time we got all the way down to the crater floor, it was full dark and the others had lit lanterns beneath the overhang.
“Took your time, didn’t you?” said Zoya. “Did we have to freeze while you two frolicked around in the woods?”
There was no point to hiding my tearstained face so I just said, “Turned out I needed a good cry.”
I braced myself for an insult, but all she said was, “Next time invite me. I could use one too.”
Mal dropped the kindling I’d gathered into the firepit someone had made, and I plucked Oncat from Harshaw’s shoulder. She gave a brief hiss, but I didn’t care. Right now, I needed to cuddle something soft and furry.
They’d already cleaned and spitted the game Mal had caught, and soon, despite my sadness and worry, the smell of roasting meat had my mouth watering.
We sat around the fire, eating and passing around a flask of kvas, watching the flames play over the hull of the Bittern as the branches crackled and popped. We had a lot to talk about—who would go with us into the Sikurzoi and who would remain in the valley, whether or not people even wanted to stay. I rubbed my wrist. It helped to focus on the firebird, to think of that instead of the black sheen of Nikolai’s eyes, the dark crust of blood near his lips.
Abruptly, Zoya said, “I should have known Sergei couldn’t be trusted. He was always a weakling.” That seemed unfair, but I let it pass.
“Oncat never liked him,” Harshaw added.
Genya fed a branch to the fire. “Do you think he was planning it all along?”
“I’ve been wondering that,” I admitted. “I thought he’d be better once we got out of the White Cathedral and the tunnels, but he almost seemed worse, more anxious.”
“That could have been anything,” said Tamar. “Cave-in, militia attack, Tolya’s snoring.”
Tolya threw a pebble at her and said, “Nikolai’s men should have watched him more closely.”
Or I should never have let him go. Maybe my guilt over Marie had clouded my judgment. Maybe sorrow was clouding it now and there were more betrayals to come.
“Did the nichevo’ya really just … tear him apart?” asked Nadia.
I glanced over at Misha. At some point, he’d climbed down from the Bittern. Now he was fast asleep beside Mal, still clutching that wooden sword.
“It was horrible,” I said softly.
“What about Nikolai?” Zoya asked. “What did the Darkling do to him?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“Can it be undone?”
“I don’t know that either.” I looked to David.
“Maybe,” he offered. “I’d need to study him. It’s merzost. New territory. I wish I had Morozova’s journals.”
I almost laughed at that. All the time David had been lugging those journals around, I would have gladly thrown them onto a garbage heap. But now that there was a good reason to want them, they were out of my reach, left behind at the Spinning Wheel.
Capture Nikolai. Put him in a cage. See if we could pull him from the shadow’s grasp. The too-clever fox, finally caught. I blinked and looked away. I didn’t want to cry again.
Abruptly, Adrik snarled, “I’m glad Sergei’s dead. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to wring his neck myself.”
“You’d need two hands for that,” said Zoya.
There was a brief, terrible silence, then Adrik scowled and said, “Okay, stab him.”
Zoya grinned and passed him the flask. Nadia just shook her head. Sometimes I forgot they were really soldiers. I didn’t doubt that Adrik would mourn the loss of his arm. I wasn’t even sure how it might impact his ability to summon. But I remembered him standing in front of me at the Little Palace, demanding the right to stay and fight. He was tougher than I’d ever be.