“On three,” Mal said.
A burble of laughter escaped me. Everyone turned.
I flushed. “Well, we’re probably in a graveyard, and we’re about to come charging out of a tomb.”
Genya giggled. “If anyone’s out there, we’re going to scare the sneeze out of him.”
With the barest hint of a grin, Mal said, “Good point. Let’s lead with ooooooo.” Then the grin disappeared. He nodded at Tolya. “Stay low.”
He counted down, and they shoved. The bolts shrieked, and the tomb doors flew open. We waited, but there were no sounds of alarm to greet us.
Slowly, we filed out into the deserted cemetery. This close to the river, people buried their dead aboveground in case of flooding. The tombs, arrayed in tidy rows like stone houses, gave the whole place the feel of an abandoned city. A wind blew through, shaking leaves free from the trees and stirring the grasses that grew up around the smaller grave sites. It was eerie, but I didn’t care. The air was almost warm after the chill of the caves. We were outside at last.
I tilted my head back, breathing deeply. It was a clear, moonless night, and after those long months underground, the sight of all that sky was dizzying. And so many stars—a glittering, tangled mass that seemed close enough to touch. I let their light fall over me like a balm, grateful for the air in my lungs, the night all around me.
“Alina,” Mal said softly.
I opened my eyes. The Grisha were staring. “What?”
He took my hands and held them out in front of me, as if we were about to start a dance. “You’re glowing.”
“Oh,” I breathed. My skin was silver, cocooned in starlight. I hadn’t even realized I was summoning. “Oops.”
He ran a finger down my forearm where the sleeve had ridden up, watching the play of light over my skin, a smile curling his lips. Abruptly, he stepped back. He dropped my hands as if they were hot.
“Be more careful,” he said tightly. He gestured to Adrik to help Tolya reseal the crypt, then spoke to the group. “Stay close and keep quiet. We need to find cover before dawn.”
The others fell into step behind him, letting him lead yet again. I hung back, actively brushing the light from my skin. It clung to me, as if my body was thirsty for it.
When Zoya drew level with me, she said, “You know, Starkov, I’m beginning to think you turned your hair white on purpose.”
I flicked a speck of starlight from my wrist, watching it fade. “Yes, Zoya, courting death is an integral part of my beauty regimen.”
She shrugged and cast a glance at Mal. “Well, it’s a little obvious for my taste, but I’d say the whole moon maiden look is working.”
The last person I wanted to talk to about Mal was Zoya, but that had sounded suspiciously like a compliment. I remembered her gripping my hand during the cave-in and how strong she’d stayed throughout it all.
“Thanks,” I said. “For keeping us safe down there. For helping save Sergei and Stigg.”
Even if I hadn’t meant a word of it, the look of shock on her face would have been worth it.
“You’re welcome,” she managed. Then she stuck her perfect nose in the air and added, “But I won’t always be around to save your ass, Sun Summoner.”
I grinned and followed her down the aisle of graves. At least she was predictable.
* * *
IT TOOK US far too long to get out of the cemetery. The rows of crypts stretched on and on, cold testimony to the generations Ravka had been at war. The paths were raked clean, the graves marked with flowers, painted icons, gifts of candy, little piles of precious ammunition—small kindnesses, even for the dead. I thought of the men and women bidding us goodbye at the White Cathedral, pressing their offerings into our hands. I was grateful when we finally cleared the gates.
The terror of the cave-in and long hours on our feet had taken their toll, but Mal was determined to get us as close to Ryevost as he could before dawn. We trudged onward, marching parallel to the main road, keeping to the starlit fields. Occasionally we glimpsed a lone house, a lantern glowing in the window. It was a relief, somehow, to see these signs of life, to think of a farmer rising in the night to fill his cup with water, his head turning briefly to the window and the darkness beyond.
The sky had just started to lighten when we heard the sounds of someone approaching on the road. We barely had time to scurry into the woods and take shelter in the brush before we glimpsed the first wagon.
There were about fifteen people in the convoy, mostly men, a few women, all bristling with weapons. I glimpsed bits and pieces of First Army uniforms—standard-issue trousers shoved into decidedly nonregulation cowhide boots, an infantry coat shorn of its brass buttons.
It was impossible to tell what they were transporting. Their cargo had been covered by horse blankets and tightly secured to the wagon beds with rope.
“Militia?” Tamar whispered.
“Could be,” said Mal. “Not sure where a militia would get repeating rifles.”
“If they’re smugglers, I don’t know any of them.”
“I could follow,” said Tolya.
“Why don’t I just go do a waltz in the middle of the road?” Tamar taunted. Tolya was hardly quiet on his feet.
“I’m getting better,” Tolya said defensively. “Besides—”
Mal silenced them with a look. “Do not pursue, do not engage.”
As Mal led us deeper into the trees, Tolya grumbled, “You don’t even know how to waltz.”
* * *
WE MADE CAMP in a clearing close to a slender tributary of the Sokol, the river fed by the glaciers in the Petrazoi and the heart of commerce in the port cities. We hoped we were far enough from town and the main roads that we wouldn’t have to worry about anyone stumbling upon us.
According to the twins, the smugglers’ meeting place was in a busy square that overlooked the river in Ryevost. Tamar already had a compass and map in hand. Though she must have been as tired as the rest of us, she would have to leave immediately to make it to town before noon.
I hated letting her walk into what might be a trap, but we’d agreed that she would have to be the one to go. Tolya’s size made him far too conspicuous and none of the rest of us knew the way the smugglers worked or how to recognize them. Still, my nerves were jangling. I had never understood the twins’ faith and what they were willing to risk for it. But when the time had come to choose between me and the Apparat, they’d shown their loyalty in no uncertain terms.
I gave Tamar’s hand a quick squeeze. “Don’t do anything reckless.”
Nadia had been hovering nearby. Now she cleared her throat and kissed Tamar once on each cheek. “Be safe,” she said.
Tamar flashed her Heartrender’s grin. “If anyone wants trouble,” she said, flicking back her coat to reveal the handles of her axes, “I’ve a fresh supply.”
I glanced at Nadia. I had the distinct impression Tamar was showing off.
She pulled up her hood and set out at a jog through the trees.
“Yuyeh sesh,” Tolya called after her in Shu.
“Ni weh sesh,” she shouted over her shoulder. And then she was gone.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s something our father taught us,” Tolya replied. “Yuyeh sesh: ‘despise your heart.’ But that’s the direct translation. The real meaning is more like ‘do what needs to be done—be cruel if you have to.’”
“What’s the other part?”
“Ni weh sesh? ‘I have no heart.’”
Mal raised a brow. “Your dad sounds like fun.”
Tolya smiled the slightly mad grin that made him look just like his sister. “He was.”
I looked back the way Tamar had gone. Somewhere beyond the trees and the fields beyond that lay Ryevost. I sent my own prayers with her: Bring back news of a prince, Tamar. I don’t think I can do this alone.
* * *
WE LAID OUT BEDROLLS and divvied up food. Adrik and Nadia started raising a tent whi
le Tolya and Mal scouted the perimeter, setting up stands where guards would be posted. I saw Stigg trying to get Sergei to eat. I’d hoped that being aboveground might bring him around, but though Sergei seemed less panicked, I could still feel tension coming off him in waves.
In truth, we were all jumpy. As lovely as it was to lie beneath the trees and see the sky again, it was also overwhelming. Life in the White Cathedral had been miserable, but manageable. Up here, things felt wilder, beyond my control. Militias and the Darkling’s men roamed these lands. Whether we found Nikolai or not, we were back in this war, and that meant more battles, more lives lost. The world seemed suddenly large again. I wasn’t sure I liked it.
I looked at our camp: Harshaw already curled up and snoozing with Oncat on his chest; Sergei, pale and watchful; David, back propped against a tree, a book in his hands as Genya fell asleep with her head in his lap; Nadia and Adrik struggling with poles and canvas while Zoya looked on and didn’t bother to help.
Despise your heart. I wanted to. I didn’t want to grieve anymore, to feel loss or guilt, or worry. I wanted to be hard, calculating. I wanted to be fearless. Underground, that had seemed possible. Here, in this wood, with these people, I was less sure.
Eventually, I must have dozed, because when I woke, it was late afternoon and the sun was slanting through the trees. Tolya was beside me.
“Tamar’s back,” he said.
I sat upright, fully awake. But the look on Tolya’s face was grim.
“No one approached her?”
He shook his head. I straightened my shoulders. I didn’t want anyone to see my disappointment. I should be grateful Tamar had made it in and out of the city safely.
“Does Mal know?”
“No,” said Tolya. “He’s filling canteens at the creek. Harshaw and Stigg are on watch. Should I get them?”
“It can wait.”
Tamar was leaning against a tree, gulping down water from a tin cup as the others gathered around to hear her report.
“Any trouble?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“And you’re sure you were in the right place?” Tolya said.
“West side of the market square. I got there early, stayed late, checked in with the shopkeeper, watched the same damn puppet show four times. If the post is active, someone should have spoken to me.”
“We could try again tomorrow,” suggested Adrik.
“I should go,” said Tolya. “You were there a long time. If you show up again, people may notice.”