I was glad they were crying out for me and not the Apparat. I dropped my hands, letting the light recede. I didn’t want to let it go. I looked at the bodies of the fallen guards. One of them had sawdust in his beard. I had almost been the person to end his life.
I drew a little light and kept it burning in a warm halo around me. I had to be cautious. The power was feeding me, but I’d been too long without it. My weakened body was having trouble keeping up, and I wasn’t sure of my limits. Still, I’d been under the Apparat’s control for months, and I wouldn’t have an opportunity like this again.
Men lay dead and bleeding, and a crowd was waiting outside the Kettle doors. I could hear Nikolai’s voice in my head: The people like spectacle. The show wasn’t over yet.
I walked forward, stepping carefully around the trench I’d opened, and stood before one of the kneeling guards.
He was younger than the others—his beard just coming in; his gaze fastened on the ground as he mumbled prayers. I caught not just my name, but the names of real Saints, strung together as if in a single word. I touched my hand to his shoulder, and his eyes slid shut, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Forgive me.”
“Look at me,” I said gently.
He forced himself to look up. I cupped his face in my hand, gentle, like a mother, though he was barely older than I was. “What’s your name?”
“Vladim … Vladim Ozwal.”
“It’s good to doubt Saints, Vladim. And men.”
He gave a shaky nod as another tear spilled over.
“My soldiers bear my mark,” I said, referring to the tattoos borne by the Soldat Sol. “Until this day you have put yourself apart from them, buried yourself in books and prayer instead of hearing the people. Will you wear my mark now?”
“Yes,” he said, fervently.
“Will you swear loyalty to me and only me?”
“Gladly!” he cried. “Sol Koroleva!” Sun Queen.
My stomach turned. Part of me hated what I was about to do. Can’t I just make him sign something? Give a blood oath? Make me a really firm promise? But I had to be stronger than that. This boy and his comrades had taken up arms against me. I couldn’t let that happen again, and this was the language of Saints and suffering, the language they understood.
“Open your shirt,” I commanded. Not a loving mother now, but a different kind of Saint, a warrior wielding holy fire.
His fingers fumbled with his buttons, but he didn’t hesitate. He pulled the fabric apart, baring the skin of his chest. I was tired, still weak. I had to concentrate. I wanted to make a point, not kill him.
I felt the light in my hand. I pressed my palm to the smooth skin over his heart and let the power pulse. Vladim flinched when it connected, scorching his flesh, but he did not cry out. His eyes were wide and unblinking, his expression rapt. When I pulled my hand back, my palm print remained, the brand throbbing red and angry on his chest.
Not bad, I thought grimly, for your first time mutilating a man.
I let the power go, grateful to be finished.
“It is done.”
Vladim looked down at his chest, and his face broke into a beatific grin. He has dimples, I realized with a lurch. Dimples and a hideous scar he’ll bear for the rest of his life.
“Thank you, Sol Koroleva.”
“Rise,” I commanded.
He stood, beaming down at me, tears still running from his eyes.
The Apparat moved as if to stand. “Stay where you are,” I snapped, my rage returning. He was the reason I’d just had to brand a young man. He was the reason two men lay dead, their blood pooling over discarded onion skins and carrot shavings.
I looked down at him. I could feel the temptation to take his life, to be rid of him forever. It would be deeply stupid. I’d awed a few soldiers, but if I murdered the Apparat, who knew what chaos I might unleash? You want to, though, said a voice in my head. For the months underground, for the fear and intimidation, for every day sacrificed below the surface when I could have been hunting the firebird and seeking revenge on the Darkling.
He must have read the intent in my eyes.
“Sankta Alina, I only wanted for you to be safe, for you to be whole and well again,” he said shakily.
“Then consider your prayers answered.” That was a lie if I’d ever told one. The last words I would have chosen to describe myself were whole or well. “Priest,” I said. “You will offer sanctuary to all those who seek it, not just those who worship the Sun Saint.”
He shook his head. “The security of the White Cathedral—”
“If not here, then elsewhere. Figure it out.”
He took a breath. “Of course.”
“And there will be no more child soldiers.”
“If the faithful wish to fight—”
“You are on your knees,” I said. “We are not negotiating.”
His lips thinned, but after a moment, he dipped his chin in assent.
I looked around. “You are all witness to these decrees.” Then I turned to one of the guards. “Give me your gun.”
He handed it over without a second’s pause. With some satisfaction, I saw the Apparat’s eyes widen in dismay, but I simply passed the weapon to Genya, then demanded a saber for David, though I knew he wouldn’t be much good with it. Zoya and Nadia stood ready to summon, and Mal and the twins were already well armed.
“Up,” I said to the Apparat. “Let us have peace. We have seen miracles this day.”
He rose, and as I embraced him, I whispered in his ear. “You will lend your blessing to our mission, and you will follow the orders I’ve laid out for you. Or I will carve you in half and throw the pieces into the Fold. Understood?”
He swallowed and nodded.
I needed time to think, but I didn’t have it. We had to open those doors, to offer the people an explanation for the fallen guards and for the explosion.
“See to your dead,” I said to one of the Priestguards. “We’ll bear them with us. Do they … do they have family?”
“We are their family,” said Vladim.
I addressed the others. “Gather the faithful from all over the White Cathedral and bring them to the main cavern. I will speak to them in one hour’s time. Vladim, once we’re out of the Kettle, free the other Grisha and get them to my quarters.”
He touched the brand at his chest in a kind of salute. “Sankta Alina.”
I glanced at Mal’s bruised face. “Genya, clean him up. Nadia—”
“I’ve got it,” Tamar said, already dabbing the blood on Nadia’s lip with a towel she’d dunked into a cookpot full of hot water. “Sorry about that,” I heard her say.
Nadia smiled. “Had to make it look good. Besides, I’ll get you back.”
“We’ll see,” Tamar replied.
I looked over the other Grisha in their bedraggled kefta. We didn’t make for a very impressive parade. “Tolya, Tamar, Mal, you’ll walk beside me with the Apparat.” I lowered my voice. “Try to look confident and … regal.”
“I have a question—” Zoya began.
“I have about a hundred, but they’ll have to wait. I don’t want the crowd out there turning into a mob.” I looked at the Apparat. I felt the dark urge to humble him, to make him crawl in front of me for these long weeks of subjugation underground. Ugly, foolish thoughts. It might gain me petty satisfaction, but what would it cost? I took a deep breath and said, “I want everyone else interspersed with the Priestguards. This is a show of alliance.”
We arranged ourselves in front of the doors. The Apparat and I took the lead, the Priestguards and Grisha arrayed behind us, the corpses of the fallen borne aloft by their brothers.
“Vladim,” I said, “open the doors.”
As Vladim moved to turn the locks, Mal took his place beside me.
“How did you know I’d be able to summon?” I asked under my breath.
He glanced at me, and a faint grin touched his lips. “Faith.”
THE DOORS FLEW OPEN. I threw out my hands and let light blast into the passageway. A cry went up from the people lining the tunnel. Those who weren’t already kneeling fell to their knees, and a chorus of prayer washed over me.
“Speak,” I muttered to the Apparat as I bathed the supplicants in glowing sunlight. “And make it good.”
“We have faced a great trial this day,” he declared hurriedly. “Our Saint has emerged from it stronger than before. Darkness came to this hallowed place—”
“I saw it!” cried one of the Priestguards. “Shadows climbed the walls—”
“About that…,” murmured Mal.
“But they were vanquished,” continued the Apparat, “as they will always be vanquished. By faith!”
I stepped forward. “And by power.”
Again, I let light sweep through the passage, a blinding cascade. Most of these people had never seen what my power could truly do. Someone was weeping, and I heard my name, buried in the cries of “Sankta! Sankta!”
As I led the Apparat and the Priestguards through the White Cathedral, my mind was working, turning over options. Vladim went ahead of us, to see my orders done.
We finally had a chance to get free of this place. But what would it mean to leave the White Cathedral behind? I’d be abandoning an army and leaving them in the Apparat’s care. And yet, there weren’t many options open to us. I needed to get aboveground. I needed the firebird.
Mal dispatched Tamar to rally the rest of the Soldat Sol and search out more working firearms. My control of the Priestguards was tenuous at best. In case of trouble, we wanted guns at the ready, and I hoped I could rely on the sun soldiers to stay loyal to me.
I escorted the Apparat to his quarters myself, Mal and Tolya trailing us.
At his door, I said, “In one hour, we’ll lead services together. Tonight, I leave with my Grisha and you’ll sanction our departure.”
“Sol Koroleva,” the Apparat whispered, “I urge you not to return to the surface so soon. The Darkling’s position is not a strong one. The Lantsov boy has few allies—”
“I’m his ally.”
“He abandoned you at the Little Palace.”
“He survived, priest. That’s something you should understand.” Nikolai had intended to get his family and Baghra to safety, then return to the fight. I could only hope he’d succeeded and that the rumors of him wreaking havoc on the northern border were true.
“Let them weaken each other, see which way the wind blows—”
“I owe Nikolai Lantsov more than that.”
“Is it loyalty that drives you? Or greed?” pressed the Apparat. “The amplifiers have waited countless years to be brought together, and you cannot wait a few more months?”
My jaw clenched at the thought. I wasn’t sure what was driving me, if it was my need for vengeance or something higher, if it was hunger for the firebird or friendship with Nikolai. But it didn’t much matter. “This is my war too,” I said. “I won’t hide like a lizard under a rock.”
“I beg you to heed my words. I have done nothing but serve you faithfully.”
“The way you served the King? The way you served the Darkling?”
“I am the voice of the people. They did not choose the Lantsov Kings or the Darkling. They chose you as their Saint, and they will love you as their Queen.”
Even the sound of those words made me weary.
I glanced over my shoulder to where Mal and Tolya waited a respectful distance away. “Do you believe it?” I asked the priest. The question had plagued me since I’d first heard word of him gathering this cult. “Do you really think I’m a Saint?”
“What I believe doesn’t matter,” he replied. “That’s what you’ve never understood. Do you know they’ve started building altars to you in Fjerda? In Fjerda, where they burn Grisha at the stake. There is a fine line between fear and veneration, Alina Starkov. I can move that line. That is the prize I offer you.”
“I don’t want it.”
“But you will have it. Men fight for Ravka because the King commands it, because their pay keeps their families from starving, because they have no choice. They will fight for you because to them you are salvation. They will starve for you, lay down their lives and their children’s lives for you. They will make war without fear and die rejoicing. There is no greater power than faith, and there will be no greater army than one driven by it.”
“Faith didn’t protect your soldiers from the nichevo’ya. No amount of fanaticism will.”
“You see only war, but I see the peace that will come. Faith knows no border and no nationality. Love for you has taken root in Fjerda. The Shu will follow, then the Kerch. Our people will go forward and spread the word, not just through Ravka but through the world. This is the way to peace, Sankta Alina. Through you.”
“The cost is too high.”
“War is the price of change.”
“And it’s ordinary people who pay it, peasants like me. Never men like you.”
I silenced him with a hand. I thought of the Darkling laying waste to an entire town, of Nikolai’s brother Vasily commanding that the draft age be lowered. The Apparat claimed to speak for the people, but he was no different than the rest.
“Keep them safe, priest—this flock, this army. Keep them fed. Keep marks off of the children’s faces and rifles out of their hands. You leave the rest to me.”