“What is this?” I demanded.
“Alina Starkov,” said the Apparat, “you are in danger.”
My heart was hammering, but I kept my voice calm. “Danger from what?” I asked, glancing at the pots boiling in the hearths. “Lunch?”
“Conspiracy,” he proclaimed, pointing at Genya. “Those who would claim your friendship seek to destroy you.”
More of the Apparat’s bearded henchmen marched through the door behind him. When they parted ranks, I saw David, his eyes wide and frightened.
Genya gasped and I laid a hand on her arm to keep her from charging forward.
Nadia and Zoya were next, both with wrists bound to prevent them from summoning. A trickle of blood leaked from the corner of Nadia’s mouth, and her skin was white beneath her freckles. Mal was with them, his face badly bloodied. He was clutching his side as if cradling a broken rib, his shoulders hunched against the pain. But worse was the sight of the guards who flanked him—Tolya and Tamar. Tamar had her axes back. In fact, they were both armed as thoroughly as the Priestguards. They would not meet my eyes.
“Lock the doors,” the Apparat commanded. “We will have this sad business done in private.”
THE KETTLE’S MASSIVE DOORS slammed shut, and I heard the lock turn. I tried to put aside the sick twist in my gut and make sense of what I was seeing. Nadia and Zoya—two Squallers—Mal, and David, a harmless Fabrikator. Today, the note had said. What had it meant?
“I’ll ask you again, priest. What is this? Why are my friends in custody? Why are they bleeding?”
“These are not your friends. A plot has been discovered to bring the White Cathedral down around our very ears.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You saw the boy’s insolence today—”
“Is that the problem? He doesn’t tremble properly in your presence?”
“The issue here is treason!” He drew a small canvas pouch from his robes and held it out, letting it dangle from his fingers. I frowned. I’d seen pouches like that in the Fabrikator workshops. They were used for—
“Blasting powders,” the Apparat said. “Made by this Fabrikator filth with materials gathered by your supposed friends.”
“So David made blasting powders. There could be a hundred reasons for that.”
“Weapons are forbidden within the White Cathedral.”
I arched a brow at the rifles currently pointed at Mal and my Grisha. “And what are those? Ladles? If you’re going to make accusations—”
“Their plans were overheard. Stand forward, Tamar Kir-Bataar. Speak the truth you’ve discovered.”
Tamar bowed deeply. “The Grisha and the tracker planned to drug you and take you to the surface.”
“I want to return to the surface.”
“The blasting powders would have been used to ensure that no one followed,” she continued, “to bring down the caverns on the Apparat and your flock.”
“Hundreds of innocent people? Mal would never do that. None of them would.” Not even Zoya, that wretch. “And it doesn’t make any sense. Just how were they supposed to drug me?”
Tamar nodded to Genya and the tea that sat beside us.
“I drink that tea myself,” Genya snapped. “It isn’t laced with anything.”
“She is an accomplished poisoner and liar,” Tamar replied coldly. “She has betrayed you to the Darkling before.”
Genya’s fingers clenched around her shawl. We both knew there was truth in the charge. I felt an unwelcome prickle of suspicion.
“You trust her,” Tamar said. There was something strange in her voice. She sounded less like she was issuing an accusation than a command.
“They were only waiting to stockpile enough blasting powder,” said the Apparat. “Then they intended to strike, to take you aboveground and give you up to the Darkling.”
I shook my head. “You really expect me to believe that Mal would hand me over to the Darkling?”
“He was a dupe,” said Tolya quietly. “He was so desperate to free you that he became their pawn.”
I glanced at Mal. I couldn’t read his expression. The first real sliver of doubt entered me. I’d never trusted Zoya, and how well did I really know Nadia? Genya—Genya had suffered so much at the Darkling’s hand, but their ties ran deep. Cold sweat broke out on my neck, and I felt panic pull at me, fraying my thoughts.
“Plots within plots,” hissed the Apparat. “You have a soft heart, and it has betrayed you.”
“No,” I said. “None of this makes sense.”
“They are spies and deceivers!”
I pressed my fingers to my temples. “Where are my other Grisha?”
“They have been contained until they can be properly questioned.”
“Tell me they are unharmed.”
“See this concern for those who would wrong her?” he asked of the Priestguards. He’s enjoying this, I realized. He’s been waiting for it. “This is what marks her kindness, her generosity.” His gaze locked on mine. “There are some injuries, but the traitors will have the best of care. You need only say the word.”
The warning was clear, and finally I understood. Whether the Grisha plot was real or some subterfuge invented by the priest, this was the moment he had been hoping for, the chance to make my isolation complete. No more visits to the Kettle with Genya, no more stolen conversation with David. The priest would use this chance to separate me from anyone whose loyalties were tied more tightly to me than his cause. And I was too weak to stop him.
But was Tamar telling the truth? Were these allies really enemies? Nadia hung her head. Zoya kept her chin lifted, her blue eyes bright with challenge. It was easy to believe that either or both of them might turn against me, might seek the Darkling out and offer me as a gift with some hope of clemency. And David had helped to place the collar around my neck.
Could Mal have been tricked into helping them betray me? He didn’t look frightened or concerned—he looked the way he had at Keramzin when he was about to do something that got us both in trouble. His face was bruised, but I noticed he was standing straighter. And then he glanced up, almost as if he were casting his eyes heavenward, as if he were praying. I knew better. Mal had never been the religious sort. He was looking at the master flue.
Plots within plots. David’s nervousness. Tamar’s words. You trust her.
“Release them,” I commanded.
The Apparat shook his head, his expression full of sorrow. “Our Saint is being weakened by those who claim to love her. See how frail she is, how sickly. This is the corruption of their influence.” A few of the Priestguards nodded, and I saw that strange fanatical light in their eyes. “She is a Saint, but also a young girl governed by emotion. She does not understand the forces at work here.”
“I understand that you have lost your way, priest.”
The Apparat gave me that pitying, indulgent smile. “You are ill, Sankta Alina. Not in your right mind. You do not know friend from foe.”
Goes with the territory, I thought bleakly. I took a deep breath. This was the moment to choose. I had to believe in someone, and it wasn’t the Apparat, a man who had betrayed his King, then betrayed the Darkling, who I knew would gladly orchestrate my martyrdom if it served his purpose.
“You will release them,” I repeated. “I will not warn you again.”
A smirk flickered over his lips. Behind the pity, there was arrogance. He was perfectly aware of how weak I was. I had to hope the others knew what they were doing.
“You will be escorted to your chambers so that you may spend the day in solitude,” he said. “You will think on what has happened, and good sense will return. Tonight we will pray together. For guidance.”
Why did I suspect that “guidance” meant the location of the firebird and possibly any information I had on Nikolai Lantsov?
“And if I refuse?” I asked, scanning the Priestguards. “Will your soldiers take up arms against their Saint?”
“You will remain untouched and protected, Sankta Alina,” said the Apparat. “I cannot extend the same courtesy to those you would call friends.”
More threats. I looked into the guards’ faces, their fervent eyes. They would murder Mal, kill Genya, lock me in my chambers, and feel righteous in the act.
I took a small step back. I knew the Apparat would read it as a sign of weakness. “Do you know why I come here, priest?”
He gave a dismissive wave, his impatience showing through. “It reminds you of home.”
My eyes met Mal’s briefly. “You should know by now,” I said, “an orphan has no home.”
I twitched my fingers in my sleeves. Shadows surged up the Kettle walls. It wasn’t much of a distraction, but it was enough. The Priestguards startled, rifles swinging wildly, as their Grisha captives recoiled in shock. Mal didn’t hesitate.
“Now!” he shouted. He shot forward, snatching the blasting powder from the Apparat’s hand.
Tolya threw out his fists. Two of the Priestguards crumpled, clutching their chests. Nadia and Zoya held up their hands, and Tamar spun, her axes slicing through their bonds. Both Squallers raised their arms, and wind rushed through the room, lifting the sawdust on the floor.
“Seize them!” yelled the Apparat. The guards sprang into action.
Mal hurled the pouch of powder into the air. Nadia and Zoya lobbed it higher, up into the master flue.
Mal slammed into one of the guards. The broken ribs must have been an act, because there was nothing tentative in his movements now. A fist, a thrown elbow. The Priestguard went down. Mal grabbed his pistol and aimed high, up into the flue, into darkness.
This was the plan? No one could make that shot.
Another guard threw himself at Mal. Mal pivoted from his grasp and fired.
For a moment, there was a hush, suspended silence, and then high above us, I heard it: a dampened boom.
A roaring sound rushed toward us. A cloud of soot and rubble billowed from the flue above.
“Nadia!” cried Zoya, who was grappling with a guard.
Nadia arced her arms and the cloud hovered, twisted, siphoned into the shape of a whirling column. It spun away and collapsed to the floor in a harmless clatter of pebbles and dirt.
I took all of this in dimly—the fighting, the Apparat’s shouts of rage, the grease fire that had broken out against the far wall.
Genya and I had come to the kitchens for one reason alone: the hearths. Not for the heat or for any sense of comfort, but because each of those ancient hearths led to the master flue. And that flue was the only place in the White Cathedral with direct access to the surface. Direct access to the sun.
“Strike them down!” the Apparat shouted at his Priestguards. “They’re trying to kill our Saint! They’re trying to kill us all!”
I’d come here every day, hoping the cooks might use more than a few fires so that the flue would open all the way. I’d tried to summon, hidden from the Priestguards by Genya’s thick shawl and their superstitious fear of her. I’d tried and failed. Now Mal had blown the flue wide open. I could only call and pray that the light would answer.
I felt it, miles above me—so tentative, barely a whisper. Panic gripped me. The distance was too great. I’d been foolish to hope.
Then it was as if something within me rose and stretched, like a creature that had lain idle for too long. Its muscles had gone soft from disuse, but it was still there, waiting. I called and the light answered with the strength of the antlers at my throat, the scales at my wrist. It came to me in a rush, triumphant and eager.
I grinned at the Apparat, letting exultation fill me. “A man so obsessed with holy fire should pay more attention to the smoke.”
The light slammed through me and burst over the room in a blinding cascade that illuminated the almost comical expression of shock on the Apparat’s face. The Priestguards threw up their hands, eyes squeezed shut against the glare.
Relief came with the light, a sense of being right and whole for the first time in months. Some part of me had truly feared I might never be restored completely, that by using merzost in my fight with the Darkling, by daring to create shadow soldiers and trespass in the making at the heart of the world, I had somehow forfeited this gift. But now it was as if I could feel my body coming to life, my cells reviving. Power rippled through my blood, reverberated in my bones.
The Apparat recovered quickly. “Save her!” he bellowed. “Save her from the traitors!”
Some of the guards looked confused, some frightened, but two jumped forward to do his bidding, sabers raised to attack Nadia and Zoya.
I honed my power to a gleaming scythe, felt the strength of the Cut in my hands.
Then Mal lunged in front of me. I barely had time to draw back. The jolt of unused power recoiled through me, making my heart stutter.
Mal had gotten hold of a sword, and his blade flashed as he cut through one guard, then the other. They toppled like trees.
Two more advanced, but Tolya and Tamar were there to stop them. David ran to Genya’s side. Nadia and Zoya flipped another guard in the air. I saw Priestguards on the periphery raising their rifles to open fire.
Rage coursed through me, and I fought to rein it in. No more, I told myself. No more deaths today. I hurled the Cut in a fiery arc. It crashed through a long table and tore into the earth before the Priestguards, opening a dark, yawning trench in the kitchen floor. There was no way of knowing how deep it went.
Terror was written on the Apparat’s face—terror and what might well have been awe. The guards fell to their knees, and a moment later, the priest followed. Some wept, chanting prayers. Beyond the kitchen doors, I heard fists pounding, voices wailing, “Sankta! Sankta!”