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!”
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 Cathedra
l 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.”