“Then what?” asked Harshaw.
“It has to be me,” I said. “If we can separate him from his shadow soldiers, I can use the Cut.” The Darkling was powerful, but I doubted even he could bounce back from being torn in half. And though I had no claim to Morozova’s name, I was the Sun Summoner. I’d hoped for a grand destiny, but I would settle for a clean kill.
Zoya released a brief, giddy laugh. “This actually might work.”
“It’s worth thinking about,” I said to Mal. “The Darkling will expect an attack, but he won’t expect this.”
Mal was silent for a long moment. “All right,” he said. “But if it does go wrong … we all agree what has to happen.”
He looked around the table. One by one they nodded. Tolya’s face was stoic. Genya dropped her gaze. Finally, only I remained.
“I want your word, Alina.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I’ll do it.” The words tasted like iron on my tongue.
“Good,” he said. He grabbed my hand. “Now, let’s show Misha how bad dancing’s done.”
“Kill you, dance with you. Any other requests?”
“Not at the moment,” he said, pulling me close. “But I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
I tucked my head against Mal’s shoulder and breathed in his scent. I knew I shouldn’t let myself believe in this possibility. We didn’t have an army. We didn’t have the resources of a king. We only had this ragged crew. I will strip away all that you know, all that you love. If he could, I knew the Darkling would use these people against me, but it had never occurred to him that they might be more than liabilities. Maybe he’d underestimated them, and maybe he’d underestimated me too.
It was stupid. It was dangerous. But Ana Kuya used to tell me that hope was tricky like water. Somehow it always found a way in.
* * *
WE STAYED UP LATE that night, talking through the logistics of the plan. The realities of the Fold complicated everything—where and how we would enter, whether or not it was even possible for me to cloak myself, let alone the others, how to isolate the Darkling and get the students clear. We had no blasting powders, so we’d have to make our own. I also wanted to ensure that the others had some way out of the Fold if anything happened to me.
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.”