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.”
I held open the door to his chamber. “We’ll pray together soon,” I said. “But I think you could use a head start.”
* * *
MAL AND I LEFT the Apparat secured in his chambers and guarded by Tolya—with strict orders to make sure that the door stayed closed and that no one disturbed the priest’s prayers.
I suspected that the Apparat would soon have the Priestguards, maybe even Vladim, back under his control. But all we needed were a few hours’ start. He was lucky I didn’t cram him into a damp corner of the archives.
When we finally arrived at my chamber, I found the narrow white room packed with Grisha and Vladim waiting at the
door. My sleeping quarters were among the largest in the White Cathedral, but it was still a challenge to accommodate a group of twelve. No one looked too badly off. Nadia’s lip was swollen, and Maxim was tending to a cut over Stigg’s eye. It was the first time we’d been allowed to gather underground, and there was something comforting about seeing Grisha crowded together and sprawled over the meager furniture.
Mal didn’t seem to agree. “We might as well travel with a marching band,” he grumbled under his breath.
“What the hell is going on?” Sergei asked as soon as I’d dismissed Vladim. “One minute I’m in the infirmary with Maxim, the next I’m in a cell.” He paced back and forth. There was a clammy sheen to his skin, and he had dark circles beneath his eyes.
“Calm down,” said Tamar. “You’re not behind bars now.”
“I might as well be. We’re all trapped down here. And that bastard is just looking for a chance to get rid of us.”
“If you want out of the caves, then this is your opportunity,” I said. “We’re leaving. Tonight.”
“How?” Stigg asked.
By way of answer, I let sunlight flare for a brief, brilliant moment in my palm—proof that my power had ignited in me once more, even if that small gesture took more effort than it should.
The room erupted into whistles and cheers.
“Yes, yes,” said Zoya. “The Sun Summoner can summon. And all it took was a few deaths and a minor explosion.”
“You blew something up?” said Harshaw plaintively. “Without me?”
He was wedged up against the wall next to Stigg. Our two Inferni couldn’t have looked more different. Stigg was short and stocky with nearly white blond hair. He had the solid, stubby appearance of a prayer candle. Harshaw was tall and rangy, his hair redder than Genya’s, nearly the color of blood. A scrawny orange tabby had somehow made her way down to the bowels of the White Cathedral and taken a liking to him. She followed him everywhere, slinking between his legs or clinging to his shoulder.
“Where did those blasting powders come from?” I asked, perching next to Nadia and her brother on the edge of my bed.