I thought of Botkin, my old teacher, pushing me to run another mile, to take another punch. I remembered the words he’d spoken to me so long ago: Steel is earned. Adrik had that steel, and so did Nadia. She’d proven it again in our flight from the Elbjen. A part of me had wondered what Tamar saw in her. But Nadia had been in some of the worst fighting at the Little Palace. She’d lost her best friend and the life she’d always known. Yet she hadn’t fallen apart like Sergei or chosen life underground like Maxim. Through all of it, she’d stayed steady.
When Adrik handed the flask back, Zoya took a deep drink and said, “Do you know what Baghra told me at my first lesson with her?” She lowered her voice to imitate Baghra’s throaty rasp. “Pretty face. Too bad you have porridge for brains.”
Harshaw snorted. “I set fire to her hut in class.”
“Of course you did,” said Zoya.
“Accidentally! She refused to ever teach me again. Wouldn’t even speak to me. I saw her on the grounds once, and she walked right by. Didn’t say a word, just whacked me on the knee with her stick. I still have a lump.” He yanked up his trouser leg, and sure enough, there was a knob of bone visible beneath the skin.
“That’s nothing,” Nadia said, her cheeks pinking as we all turned our attention to her. “I had some kind of block where I couldn’t summon for a while. She put me in a room and released a hive of bees in it.”
“What?” I squeaked. It wasn’t just the bees that had shocked me. I’d struggled to summon for months at the Little Palace, and Baghra had never mentioned that other Grisha got blocks.
“What did you do?” Tamar asked incredulously.
“I managed to summon a current to send them up the chimney, but I got stung so many times, I looked like I had firepox.”
“I have never been more glad I’m not Grisha,” Mal said with a shake of his head.
Zoya lifted her flask. “Let’s hear it for the lone otkazat’sya.”
“Baghra hated me,” David said quietly.
Zoya waved dismissively. “We all felt that way.”
“No, she really hated me. She taught me once with the rest of the Fabrikators my age, then she refused to ever meet with me again. I used to just stay in the workshops when everyone else had her classes.”
“Why?” Harshaw asked, scratching Oncat under the chin.
David shrugged. “No idea.”
“I know why,” said Genya. I waited, wondering if she really did. “Animal magnetism,” she continued. “One more minute in that hut with you, and she would have torn off all your clothes.”
David considered this. “That seems improbable.”
“Impossible,” Mal and I said at the same time.
“Well, not impossible,” David said, looking vaguely insulted.
Genya laughed and planted a firm kiss on his mouth.
I picked up a stick and gave the fire a poke, sending sparks shooting upward. I knew why Baghra had refused to teach David. He’d reminded her too much of Morozova, so obsessed with knowledge that he’d been blind to his child’s suffering, to his wife’s neglect. And sure enough, David had created lumiya just “for fun,” essentially handing the Darkling the means to enter the Fold. But David wasn’t like Morozova. He’d been there for Genya when she’d needed him. He was no warrior, but he’d still found a way to fight for her.
I looked around at our strange, battered little group, at Adrik with his missing arm, gazing moon-eyed at Zoya; at Harshaw and Tolya, watching as Mal sketched our route in the dirt. I saw Genya grin, her scars pulling taut as David gestured wildly, trying to explain his idea for a brass arm to Nadia, while Nadia ignored him, running her fingers through the dark waves of Tamar’s hair.
None of them were easy or soft or simple. They were like me, nursing hurts and hidden wounds, all broken in different ways. We didn’t quite fit together. We had edges so jagged we cut each other sometimes, but as I curled up on my side, the warmth of the fire at my back, I felt a rush of gratitude so sweet it made my throat ache. Fear came with it. Keeping them close was a luxury I would pay for. Now I had more to lose.
IN THE END, everyone stayed. Even Zoya, though she kept up a steady stream of complaints all the way to Dva Stolba.
We’d agreed to split into two groups. Tamar, Nadia, and Adrik would travel with David, Genya, and Misha. They’d secure lodgings in one of the settlements at the southeast edge of the valley. Genya would have to keep her face hidden, but she didn’t seem to mind. She’d wrapped her shawl around her head and declared, “I shall be a woman of mystery.” I reminded her not to be too intriguing.
Mal and I would travel into the Sikurzoi with Zoya, Harshaw, and Tolya. Because we were so close to the border, we knew we might be facing an increased military presence, but we hoped we could blend in with the refugees trying to get through the Sikurzoi before the first snows came.
If we weren’t back from the mountains in two weeks, Tamar would meet with any forces the Apparat might send to Caryeva. I didn’t like the idea of sending her and Nadia alone, but Mal and I couldn’t cut our group down any further. Shu raiders were known to pick off Ravkan travelers near the border, and we wanted to be prepared for trouble. Tamar at least knew the Soldat Sol, and I tried to reassure myself that she and Nadia were both experienced fighters.
I also wasn’t sure what I’d do with any soldiers who did show up, but the message had been sent, and I had to believe that we’d figure out something. Maybe by then I’d have the firebird and the beginnings of a plan. I couldn’t think too far ahead. Every time I did, I felt panic tugging at me. It was like being underground again, no air to breathe, waiting for the world to come down around me.
Our team left at sunrise, leaving the others sleeping in the shade of the overhang. Only Misha was awake, watching us with accusatory eyes as he pelted the side of the Bittern with pebbles.
“Come here,” Mal said, waving him over. I thought Misha might not budge, but then he shuffled to us, his chin jutting out in a sulk. “Do you have the pin Alina gave you?”
Misha nodded once.
“You know what that means, don’t you? You’re a soldier. Soldiers don’t get to go where they want to. They go where they’re needed.”
“You just don’t want me with you.”
“No, we need you here to take care of the others. You know David is hopeless, and Adrik is going to need help too, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. You’ll have to be careful with that one, help him without letting him know you’re helping. Can you manage that?”
“We need you to take care of them the way you took care of Baghra.”
“But I didn’t take care of her.”
“Yes you did. You watched over her, and you made her comfortable, and you let her go when she needed you to. You did what had to be done, even though it hurt you. That’s what soldiers do.”
Misha looked at him sharply, as if considering this. “I should have stopped her,” he said, his voice breaking.
“If you had, none of us would be here. We’re grateful that you did the hard thing.”
Misha frowned. “David is kind of a mess.”
“True,” Mal agreed. “So can we trust you?”
Misha looked away. His expression was still troubled, but he shrugged again.
“Thank you,” Mal said. “You can start by getting water boiling for breakfast.”
Misha nodded once, then jogged back through the gravel to get the water on.
Mal glanced at me as he rose and shouldered his pack. “What?”
“Nothing. That was just … really well done.”
“Same way Ana Kuya got me to stop begging her to keep a lantern lit at night.”
“Yes,” he said starting the climb. “Told me I had to be brave for you, that if I was scared, you’d be scared.”
“Well, she told me I had to eat my parsnips to set a good example for you, but I still refused to do it.”
“And you wonder why you were always getting the switch.”
“I have principles.”
“That means, ‘If I can be difficult, I will.’”
“Hey!” Zoya shouted over the edge of the crater above. “If you’re not up here before I count to ten, I’m going back to sleep and you can carry me to Dva Stolba.”
“Mal,” I sighed. “If I murder her in the Sikurzoi, will you hold me accountable?”
“Yes,” he said. Then added, “That means, ‘Let’s make it look like an accident.’”
* * *
DVA STOLBA TOOK ME by surprise. I’d somehow expected that the little valley would be like a graveyard, a grim wasteland of phantoms and abandoned places. Instead, the settlements were bustling. The landscape was dotted with burned-out hulks and empty fields of ash, but new homes and businesses had sprung up right beside them.
There were taverns and hostelries, a storefront advertising watch repair, and what looked like a shop that lent books by the week. Everything felt oddly impermanent. Broken windows had simply been boarded over. Many of the houses had canvas roofs or holes in the walls that had been covered with wool blankets or woven mats. Who knows how long we’ll be here? they seemed to say. Let’s make do with what we have.
Had it always been this way? The settlements were constantly being destroyed and rebuilt, governed by the Shu Han or Ravka, depending on how the borders had been drawn at the end of a particular war. Was this how my parents had lived? It was strange to picture them this way, but I didn’t mind the idea. They might have been soldiers or merchants. They might have been happy here. And maybe one of them had been harboring a power, the latent legacy of Morozova’s youngest daughter. There were legends of Sun Summoners before me. Most people thought they were hoaxes or empty stories, wishful thinking born of the misery wrought by the Fold. But there might be more to it than that. Or maybe I was clinging to some dream of a heritage I had no real claim to.
We passed through a market square crowded with people, their wares displayed on makeshift tables: tin pans, hunting knives, furs for the trek over the mountains. We saw jars of goose fat, dried figs sold in bunches, fine saddles, and flimsy-looking guns. Strings of freshly plucked ducks, their skin pink and dimpled, hung above one stall. Mal kept his bow and repeating rifle bundled in his pack. The weapons were too finely made not to draw attention.
Children played in the dirt. A squat man in a sleeveless vest was smoking some kind of meat in a big metal drum. I watched him toss a juniper branch inside it, sending up a fragrant, bluish cloud. Zoya scrunched up her nose, but Tolya and Harshaw couldn’t dig out their coins fast enough.
This was where Mal’s family and mine had met death. Somehow the wild, cheerful atmosphere seemed almost unfair. It certainly didn’t match my mood.
I was relieved when Mal said, “I thought it would be more grim.”
“Did you see how small the graveyard was?” I asked under my breath. He nodded. In most of Ravka, the cemeteries were bigger than the towns, but when the Shu had burned these settlements, there had been no one left to mourn the dead.
Though we’d been well provisioned from the stocks at the Spinning Wheel, Mal wanted to buy a map made by a local. We needed to know which trails might be blocked by landslides or where the bridges had been washed out.
A woman with white braids peeking from beneath her orange wool hat sat on a low, painted stool, humming to herself and beating a cowbell to catch the attention of passersby. She hadn’t bothered with a table, but had laid a rug displaying her stock—canteens, saddlebags, maps, and stacks of metal prayer rings—directly on the ground. A mule stood behind her, its long ears twitching off flies, and occasionally, she would reach back and offer it a pat on the nose.
“Snow’s coming soon,” she said, squinting up at the sky as we poked through the maps. “Need blankets for the journey?”
“We’re set,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Lot of people headed over the border.”
“But not you?”
“Too old to go now. Shu, Fjerdans, Fold…” She shrugged. “You sit still, trouble passes you by.”
Or it smacks right into you, then comes back for seconds, I thought bleakly.
Mal held up one of the maps. “I’m not seeing the eastern mountains, only the west.”
“Better off keeping west,” she said. “You trying for the coast?”
“Yes,” Mal lied smoothly, “then on to Novyi Zem. But—”
“Stay west. People don’t come back from the east.”
“Ju weh,” said Tolya. “Ey ye bat e’yuan.”
The woman answered back, and they looked over a map together, conversing in Shu while we waited patiently.
Finally, Tolya handed a different map to Mal. “East,” he said.
The woman jabbed her cowbell at Tolya and asked me, “What are you going to feed that one in the hills? Better make sure he doesn’t put you on a spit.”
Tolya frowned, but the woman laughed so hard she nearly fell off her stool.
Mal added some prayer rings to the maps and gave over his coins.
“Had a brother who went to Novyi Zem,” the woman said, still chuckling as she returned Mal’s change. “Probably rich now. It’s a good place to start a new life.”
Zoya snorted. “Compared to what?”
“It’s really not bad,” said Tolya.