We left early the next morning and crossed back through Dva Stolba to retrieve the Bittern from the quarry. It was strange to see it sitting where we’d left it, tucked safely away like a pigeon in the eaves.
“Saints,” said Adrik as we clambered into the hulls. “Is that my blood?”
The stain was nearly as big as he was. We’d all been so tired and beaten after our long escape from the Spinning Wheel that no one had even thought to deal with it.
“You made the mess,” said Zoya. “You clean it up.”
“Need two hands to swab,” Adrik retorted, taking a place at the sails instead.
Adrik seemed to relish Zoya’s taunts over Nadia’s constant fussing. I’d been relieved to learn that he could still summon, though it would take some time for him to be able to control strong currents with just one arm. Baghra could teach him. The thought came at me before I remembered that was no longer possible. I could almost hear her voice in my head: Should I cut off your other arm? Then you’d have something to whine about. Do it again and do it better. What would she have made of all of this? What would she have made of Mal? I pushed the thought away. We’d never know, and there was no time for mourning.
Once we were in the air, the Squallers set a gentle pace and I used the time to practice bending the light as I camouflaged the ship from below.
The journey took only a few hours, and we landed in a marshy pasture west of Caryeva. The town was the site of the summer horse sales every year. It wasn’t known for anything but its racing track and its breeding stables, and even without the war, this late in the year, it would have been all but deserted.
The missive to the Apparat had proposed that we meet at the racecourse. Tamar and Harshaw would scout the track on foot to make sure we weren’t walking into a trap. If anything felt wrong, they’d circle back to meet us, and we’d decide what to do from there. I didn’t think the Apparat would turn us over to the Darkling, but there was also the possibility that he’d struck some kind of new bargain with the Shu Han or Fjerda.
We were a day early, and the pasture was the perfect place to practice cloaking moving targets. Misha insisted on being first.
“I’m smaller,” he said. “That will make it easier.”
He ran out into the center of the field.
I raised my hands, gave a twist of my wrists, and Misha disappeared. Harshaw gave an appreciative whistle.
“Can you see me?” Misha shouted. As soon as he started waving, the light around him rippled and his skinny forearms appeared as if suspended in space.
Focus. They vanished.
“Misha,” instructed Mal, “run toward us.”
He appeared, then disappeared again as I adjusted the light.
“I can see him from the side,” Tolya called from across the pasture.
I blew out a breath. I had to think about this more carefully. Disguising the ship had been easier because I’d only been altering the reflection of the light from below. Now I had to think about every angle.
“Better!” said Tolya.
Zoya yelped. “That little brat just kicked me.”
“Smart kid,” said Mal.
I lifted a brow. “Smarter than some.”
He had the good grace to blush.
I spent the rest of the afternoon vanishing one, then two, then five Grisha at a time in the field.
It was a different kind of work, but Baghra’s lessons still applied. If I concentrated too hard on projecting my power, variables overwhelmed me. But if I thought about the light being everywhere, if I didn’t try to prod it and just let it bend, it got much easier.
I thought of the times I’d seen the Darkling use his power to blind soldiers in a battle, taking on multiple enemies at once. It was easy for him, natural. I know things about power that you can barely guess at.
I practiced that night, then started up again the next morning after Tamar and Harshaw set out, but my concentration kept faltering. With more marksmen, our attack on the Darkling’s skiff might actually stand a chance. What would be waiting at the racecourse? The priest himself? No one at all? I’d imagined a serf army, protected by three amplifiers, marching beneath the banner of the firebird. That wasn’t the war we were waging anymore.
“I can see him!” Zoya singsonged at me. And sure enough, Tolya’s big shape was flickering in and out as he jogged to my right.
I dropped my hands. “Let’s break for a bit,” I suggested.
Nadia and Adrik unfurled one of the sails so she could help him learn to manage updraft, and Zoya sprawled lazily on the deck to offer less than helpful critique.
Meanwhile, David and Genya bent their heads over one of his notebooks, trying to figure out where they could extract the components for a batch of lumiya. It turned out Genya didn’t just have a gift for poisons. Her talents had always lain somewhere between Corporalnik and Materialnik, but I wondered what she might have become, what path she might have chosen, if not for the Darkling’s influence. Mal and Misha headed to the far side of the field with arms full of pinecones and set them along the fence as targets so Misha could learn to shoot.
That left me and Tolya with nothing to do but worry and wait. He sat down beside me on one of the hulls, legs dangling over.
“Do you want to practice some more?” he asked.
“I probably should.”
A long moment passed and then he said, “Can you do it? When the time comes?”
I was eerily reminded of Mal asking me if I could bring down the firebird. “You don’t think the plan will work.”
“I don’t think it matters.”
“If you defeat the Darkling, the Fold will remain.”
I kicked my heels against the hull. “I can deal with the Fold,” I said. “My power will make crossings possible. We can eliminate the volcra.” I didn’t like to think about that. As monstrous as they were, the volcra had once been human. I leaned back and studied Tolya’s face. “You’re not convinced.”
“You asked me once why I didn’t let you die in the chapel, why I let Mal go to you. Maybe there was a reason you both lived. Maybe this is it.”
“It was a supposed Saint who started all of this, Tolya.”
“And a Saint will end it.”
He slid from the hull to the ground and looked up at me. “I know you don’t believe as Tamar and I do,” he said, “but no matter how this ends, I’m glad our faith brought us to you.”
He headed off across the field to join Mal and Misha.
Whether it was coincidence or providence that had made Tolya and Tamar my friends, I was grateful for them. And if I was honest with myself, I envied their faith. If I could believe I had been blessed by some divine purpose, it might make the hard choices easier.
I didn’t know if our plan would work, and if it did, there were still too many unknowns. If we bested the Darkling, what would become of his shadow soldiers? And what about Nikolai? What if killing the Darkling caused his death? Should we be trying to capture the Darkling instead? If we survived, Mal would have to go into hiding. His life would be forfeit if anyone learned what he was.
I heard the sound of hoofbeats. Nadia and I climbed up on the captain’s platform to get a better look, and as the party came into view, my heart sank.
“Maybe there are more, back at the racecourse,” said Nadia.
“Maybe,” I said. But I didn’t believe it.
I made a quick count. Twelve soldiers. As they drew closer, I saw they were all young and most bore the sun tattoo on their faces. Ruby was there, with her pretty green eyes and blond braid, and I saw Vladim among them with two other bearded men I thought I recognized from the Priestguards.
I hopped down from the platform and went to greet them. When the party spotted me, they slipped from their horses and each dropped to one knee, heads bowed.
“Ugh,” said Zoya. “This again.”
I cast her a warning look, though I’d had the exact same thought. I’d nearly forgotten how much I dreaded the burden of Sainthood. But I took on the mantle, playing my part.
“Rise,” I said, and when they did, I gestured Vladim forward. “Is this all of you?”
“And what excuse does the Apparat send?”
He swallowed. “None. The pilgrims say daily prayers for your safety and for the destruction of the Fold. He claims that your last command was for him to watch over your flock.”
“And my plea for aid?”
Ruby shook her head. “The only reason we knew that you and Nikolai Lantsov had requested help was because a monk loyal to you retrieved the message from the Church of Sankt Lukin.”
“So how do you come to be here?”
Vladim smiled and those absurd dimples appeared in his cheeks again. He exchanged a glance with Ruby.
“We escaped,” she said.
I’d known the Apparat wasn’t to be trusted, and yet some part of me had hoped he might offer me more than prayers. But I’d told him to tend to my followers, to keep them from harm, and they were certainly safer in the White Cathedral than marching into the Fold. The Apparat would do what he did best: wait. When the dust cleared, either I would have defeated the Darkling or found my martyrdom. Either way, men would still take up arms in my name. The Apparat’s empire of the faithful would rise.
I laid my hands on Vladim’s and Ruby’s shoulders. “Thank you for your loyalty. I hope you won’t be sorry for it.”
They bowed their heads and murmured, “Sankta Alina.”
“Let’s move,” I said. “You’re a big enough group that you may have attracted attention, and those tattoos can’t have helped.”
“Where are we going?” asked Ruby, pulling up her scarf to hide her tattoo.
“Into the Fold.”
I saw the new soldiers shift uneasily. “To fight?” she asked.
“To travel,” Mal replied.
No army. No allies. We had only three more days until we were to face the Darkling. We would take our chances, and if we failed, there would be no more options. I would murder the only person I’d ever loved and who had ever loved me. I’d dive back into battle wearing his bones.
IT WOULDN’T BE SAFE to approach Kribirsk on this side of the Fold, so we’d decided to stage our attack from West Ravka, and that meant dealing with the logistics of a crossing. Because Nadia and Zoya couldn’t keep the Bittern aloft with too many additional passengers, we agreed that Tolya would escort the Soldat Sol to the eastern shore of the Fold and wait for us there. It would take them a full day on horseback, and that would give the rest of us time to enter West Ravka and locate a suitable base camp. Then we’d loop back to lead the others across the Fold under the protection of my power.
We boarded the Bittern, and mere hours later, we were speeding toward the strange black fog of the Shadow Fold. This time, when we entered the darkness, I was prepared for the sense of familiarity that gripped me, that feeling of likeness. It was even stronger now that I’d dabbled in merzost, the very power that had created this place. I understood it better too, the need that had driven the Darkling to try to re-create Morozova’s experiments, a legacy he felt was his.
The volcra came at us, and I glimpsed the dim shapes of their wings, heard their cries as they tore at the circle of light I summoned. If the Darkling had his way, they’d soon be well fed. I was grateful when we burst into the sky above West Ravka.
The territory west of the Fold had been evacuated. We flew over abandoned villages and houses, all without seeing a soul. In the end, we decided to set up in an apple farm just southwest of what was left of Novokribirsk, less than a mile from the dark reach of the Fold. It was called Tomikyana, the name written across the side of the cannery and the barn full of cider presses. Its orchards were thick with fruit that would never be harvested.
The owner’s house was lavish, a perfect little cake of a building, lovingly maintained, and topped with a white cupola. I felt almost guilty as Harshaw broke a window and climbed inside to unlock the doors.
“New money,” sniffed Zoya as we made our way through the overdecorated rooms, each shelf and mantel brimming with porcelain figurines and curios.
Genya picked up a ceramic pig. “Vile.”
“I like it here,” protested Adrik. “It’s nice.”
Zoya made a retching sound. “Maybe taste will come with age.”
“I’m only three years younger than you.”
“Then maybe you’re just doomed to be tacky.”
The furniture had been covered with sheets. Misha yanked one free and ran from room to room trailing it behind him like a cape. Most of the cupboards had been emptied, but Harshaw found a tin of sardines that he opened and shared with Oncat. We’d have to send people out to the neighboring farms to scout for food.
Once we’d made sure there were no other squatters, we left David, Genya, and Misha to get started procuring materials for the production of lumiya and blasting powders. Then the rest of us reboarded the Bittern to cross back to Ravka.
We’d planned to reunite with the Soldat Sol at the monument to Sankta Anastasia that stood on a low hill overlooking what had once been Tsemna. Thanks to Anastasia, Tsemna had survived the wasting plague that had claimed half the population of the surrounding villages. But Tsemna hadn’t survived the Fold. It had been swallowed up when the Black Heretic’s disastrous experiments first created the Unsea.
The monument was an eerie sight, a giant stone woman rising out of the earth, arms spread wide, her benevolent gaze fixed on the nothingness of the Fold. Anastasia was rumored to have rid countless towns of sickness. Had she worked miracles, or was she simply a talented Healer? Was there any difference?