“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.
as 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.