“No, really,” he protested. “A lot of money.”
Nikolai gave orders to the waiting dockworkers for repairs and then led our ragged, wide-eyed band to a doorway in the rock.
“Everybody in,” he said. Confused, we crowded into the little rectangular room. The walls looked like they were made of iron. Nikolai pulled a gate closed across the entry.
“You’re on my foot,” Zoya complained grumpily, but we were all wedged in so tightly it was hard to tell who she was angry at.
“What is this?” I asked.
Nikolai dropped a lever, and we let loose a collective scream as the room shot upward, taking my stomach with it.
We jolted to a halt. My gut slammed back down to my shoes, and the gate slid open. Nikolai stepped out, doubled over with laughter. “I never tire of that.”
We piled out of the box as fast as we could—all except for David, who lingered to fiddle with the lever mechanism.
“Careful there,” Nikolai called. “The trip down is bumpier than the trip up.”
Genya took David’s arm and yanked him clear.
“Saints,” I swore. “I forgot how often I want to stab you.”
“So I haven’t lost my touch.” He glanced at Genya and said quietly, “What happened to that girl?”
“Long story,” I hedged. “Please tell me there are stairs. I’d rather set up permanent house here than ever get back in that thing.”
“Of course there are stairs, but they’re less entertaining. And once you’ve dragged yourself up and down four flights of them enough, you’ll find you’re far more open-minded.”
I was about to argue, but as I took a good look around, the words died on my tongue. If the hangar had been impressive, then this was simply miraculous.
It was the biggest room I’d ever been in—twice, maybe three times as wide and as tall as the domed hall in the Little Palace. It wasn’t even a room, I realized. We were standing at the top of a hollowed-out mountain.
Now I understood what I had seen as we approached aboard the Pelican. The frost fingers were actually enormous bronze columns cast in the shapes of people and creatures. They towered above us, bracketing huge panels of glass that looked out on the ocean of cloud below. The glass was so clear that it gave the space an eerie sense of openness, as if a wind might blow through and send me tumbling into the nothingness beyond. My heart started to hammer.
“Deep breaths,” Nikolai said. “It can be overwhelming at first.”
The room was teeming with people. Some bunched in groups where drafting tables and bits of machinery had been set up. Others were marking crates of supplies in a kind of makeshift warehouse. Another area had been set aside for training; soldiers sparred with dulled swords while others summoned Squaller winds or cast Inferni flame. Through the glass, I saw terraces protruding in four directions, giant spikes like compass points—north, south, east, west. Two had been set aside for target practice. It was hard not to compare it to the damp, cloistered caverns of the White Cathedral. Everything here was bursting with life and hope. It all bore Nikolai’s stamp.
“What is this place?” I asked as we slowly made our way through.
“It was originally a pilgrimage site, back when Ravka’s borders extended farther north,” Nikolai replied. “The Monastery of Sankt Demyan.”
Sankt Demyan of the Rime. At least that explained the winding staircase we’d glimpsed. Only faith or fear could get anyone to make that climb. I remembered Demyan’s page from the Istorii Sankt’ya. He’d performed some kind of miracle near the northern border. I was pretty sure he’d been stoned to death.
“A few hundred years ago, it was turned into an observatory,” Nikolai continued. He pointed to a hulking brass telescope tucked into one of the glass niches. “It’s been abandoned for over a century. I heard about it during the Halmhend campaign, but it took some finding. Now we just call it the Spinning Wheel.”
Then it struck me: the bronze columns were constellations—the Hunter with his drawn bow, the Scholar bent in study, the Three Foolish Sons, huddled together, trying to share a single coat. The Bursar, the Bear, the Beggar. The Shorn Maiden wielding her bone needle. Twelve in all: the spokes of the Spinning Wheel.
I had to crane my neck all the way back to get a view of the glass dome high above us. The sun was setting and through it, I could see the sky turning a lush, deep blue. If I squinted, I could just make out a twelve-pointed star at the dome’s center.
“So much glass,” I whispered, my head reeling.
“But no frost,” Mal noted.
“Heated pipes,” David said. “They’re in the floor. Probably embedded in the columns too.”
It was hotter in this room. Still cold enough that I wouldn’t want to part with my coat or my hat, but my feet were warm through my boots.
“There are boilers beneath us,” Nikolai said. “The whole place runs on melted snow and steam heat. The problem is fuel, but I’ve been stockpiling coal.”
“For how long?”
“Two years. We started repairs when I had the lower caverns turned into hangars. It’s not an ideal vacation spot, but sometimes you just want to get away.”
I was impressed, but also unnerved. Being around Nikolai was always like this, watching him shift and change, revealing secrets as he went. He reminded me of the wooden nesting dolls I’d played with as a child. Except instead of getting smaller, he just kept getting grander and more mysterious. Tomorrow, he’d probably tell me he’d built a pleasure palace on the moon. Tough to get to, but quite a view.
“Have a look around,” Nikolai said to us. “Get a feel for the place. Nevsky’s unloading cargo in the hangar, and I need to take care of repairs to the hull.” I remembered Nevsky. He’d been a soldier in Nikolai’s old regiment, the Twenty-Second, and not particularly fond of Grisha.
“I’d like to see Baghra,” I said.
“You’re sure about that?”
“I’ll take you to her. Good practice should I ever need to walk someone to the gallows. And after you’ve had your fill of punishment, you and Oretsev can join me for dinner.”
“Thank you,” Mal said, “but I should look into outfitting our expedition to retrieve the firebird.”
There’d been a time, not so long ago, that Mal would have bristled at the thought of leaving me alone with Prince Perfect, but Nikolai had the grace not to register surprise. “Of course. I’ll send Nevsky to you when he’s done. He can help arrange your accommodations as well.” He clapped a hand on Mal’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you, Oretsev.”
The smile Mal returned was genuine. “You too. Thanks for the rescue.”
“Everyone needs a hobby.”
“I thought yours was preening.”
They clasped hands briefly, then Mal bowed and moved off with the group.
“Should I be offended that he doesn’t want to dine with us?” Nikolai asked. “I set an excellent table, and I rarely drool.”
I didn’t want to discuss it. “Baghra,” I prodded.
“He was impressive in that barley field,” Nikolai continued, taking my elbow to steer me back the way we’d come. “Better with a sword and gun than I’ve ever seen him.”
I remembered what the Apparat had said: Men fight for Ravka because the King com
mands it. Mal had always been a gifted tracker, but he’d been a soldier because we were all soldiers, because we had no choice. What was he fighting for now? I thought of him diving from the mesh platform, his knife moving across the militiaman’s throat. I am become a blade.
I shrugged, eager to change the subject. “There’s not much to do underground besides train.”
“I can think of a few more interesting ways to spend one’s time.”
“Is that supposed to be innuendo?”
“What a filthy mind you have. I was referring to puzzles and the perusal of edifying texts.”
“I’m not getting back in that iron box,” I said as we approached the door in the rock. “So you better be taking me to the stairs.”
“Why does everyone always say that?”
I heaved a sigh of relief as we descended a broad, delightfully stationary set of stone steps. Nikolai led me through a curving passage, and I shrugged off my coat, beginning to sweat. The floor directly below the observatory was considerably warmer, and as we passed a wide doorway, I spotted a maze of steaming boilers that glowed and hissed in the dark. Even the ever-polished Nikolai had a fine mist of perspiration on his elegant features.
We were most definitely headed to Baghra’s lair. The woman never seemed to be able to keep warm. I wondered if it was because she so rarely used her power. I’d certainly never been able to shake the chill of the White Cathedral.
Nikolai stopped at an iron door. “Last chance to run.”
“Go on,” I said. “Save yourself.”
He sighed. “Remember me as a hero.” He knocked lightly on the door, and we entered.
I had the disconcerting sense that we’d stepped right back into Baghra’s hut at the Little Palace. There she sat, huddled by a tile oven, dressed in the same faded kefta, her hand resting on the cane she’d taken such pleasure in whacking me with. The same servant boy was reading to her, and I felt a burst of shame when I realized I hadn’t even thought to ask if he’d made it out of Os Alta. The boy left off as Nikolai cleared his throat.
“Baghra,” Nikolai said, “how are you this evening?”
“Still old and blind,” she snarled.
“And charming,” Nikolai drawled. “Never forget charming.”