Mal dropped the kindling I’d gathered into the firepit someone had made, and I plucked Oncat from Harshaw’s shoulder. She gave a brief hiss, but I didn’t care. Right now, I needed to cuddle something soft and furry.
They’d already cleaned and spitted the game Mal had caught, and soon, despite my sadness and worry, the smell of roasting meat had my mouth watering.
We sat around the fire, eating and passing around a flask of kvas, watching the flames play over the hull of the Bittern as the branches crackled and popped. We had a lot to talk about—who would go with us into the Sikurzoi and who would remain in the valley, whether or not people even wanted to stay. I rubbed my wrist. It helped to focus on the firebird, to think of that instead of the black sheen of Nikolai’s eyes, the dark crust of blood near his lips.
Abruptly, Zoya said, “I should have known Sergei couldn’t be trusted. He was always a weakling.” That seemed unfair, but I let it pass.
“Oncat never liked him,” Harshaw added.
Genya fed a branch to the fire. “Do you think he was planning it all along?”
“I’ve been wondering that,” I admitted. “I thought he’d be better once we got out of the White Cathedral and the tunnels, but he almost seemed worse, more anxious.”
“That could have been anything,” said Tamar. “Cave-in, militia attack, Tolya’s snoring.”
Tolya threw a pebble at her and said, “Nikolai’s men should have watched him more closely.”
Or I should never have let him go. Maybe my guilt over Marie had clouded my judgment. Maybe sorrow was clouding it now and there were more betrayals to come.
“Did the nichevo’ya really just … tear him apart?” asked Nadia.
I glanced over at Misha. At some point, he’d climbed down from the Bittern. Now he was fast asleep beside Mal, still clutching that wooden sword.
“It was horrible,” I said softly.
“What about Nikolai?” Zoya asked. “What did the Darkling do to him?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“Can it be undone?”
“I don’t know that either.” I looked to David.
“Maybe,” he offered. “I’d need to study him. It’s merzost. New territory. I wish I had Morozova’s journals.”
I almost laughed at that. All the time David had been lugging those journals around, I would have gladly thrown them onto a garbage heap. But now that there was a good reason to want them, they were out of my reach, left behind at the Spinning Wheel.
Capture Nikolai. Put him in a cage. See if we could pull him from the shadow’s grasp. The too-clever fox, finally caught. I blinked and looked away. I didn’t want to cry again.
Abruptly, Adrik snarled, “I’m glad Sergei’s dead. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to wring his neck myself.”
“You’d need two hands for that,” said Zoya.
There was a brief, terrible silence, then Adrik scowled and said, “Okay, stab him.”
Zoya grinned and passed him the flask. Nadia just shook her head. Sometimes I forgot they were really soldiers. I didn’t doubt that Adrik would mourn the loss of his arm. I wasn’t even sure how it might impact his ability to summon. But I remembered him standing in front of me at the Little Palace, demanding the right to stay and fight. He was tougher than I’d ever be.
I thought of Botkin, my old teacher, pushing me to run another mile, to take another punch. I remembered the words he’d spoken to me so long ago: Steel is earned. Adrik had that steel, and so did Nadia. She’d proven it again in our flight from the Elbjen. A part of me had wondered what Tamar saw in her. But Nadia had been in some of the worst fighting at the Little Palace. She’d lost her best friend and the life she’d always known. Yet she hadn’t fallen apart like Sergei or chosen life underground like Maxim. Through all of it, she’d stayed steady.
When Adrik handed the flask back, Zoya took a deep drink and said, “Do you know what Baghra told me at my first lesson with her?” She lowered her voice to imitate Baghra’s throaty rasp. “Pretty face. Too bad you have porridge for brains.”
Harshaw snorted. “I set fire to her hut in class.”
“Of course you did,” said Zoya.
“Accidentally! She refused to ever teach me again. Wouldn’t even speak to me. I saw her on the grounds once, and she walked right by. Didn’t say a word, just whacked me on the knee with her stick. I still have a lump.” He yanked up his trouser leg, and sure enough, there was a knob of bone visible beneath the skin.
“That’s nothing,” Nadia said, her cheeks pinking as we all turned our attention to her. “I had some kind of block where I couldn’t summon for a while. She put me in a room and released a hive of bees in it.”
“What?” I squeaked. It wasn’t just the bees that had shocked me. I’d struggled to summon for months at the Little Palace, and Baghra had never mentioned that other Grisha got blocks.
“What did you do?” Tamar asked incredulously.
“I managed to summon a current to send them up the chimney, but I got stung so many times, I looked like I had firepox.”
“I have never been more glad I’m not Grisha,” Mal said with a shake of his head.
Zoya lifted her flask. “Let’s hear it for the lone otkazat’sya.”
“Baghra hated me,” David said quietly.
Zoya waved dismissively. “We all felt that way.”
“No, she really hated me. She taught me once with the rest of the Fabrikators my age, then she refused to ever meet with me again. I used to just stay in the workshops when everyone else had her classes.”
“Why?” Harshaw asked, scratching Oncat under the chin.
David shrugged. “No idea.”
“I know why,” said Genya. I waited, wondering if she really did. “Animal magnetism,” she continued. “One more minute in that hut with you, and she would have torn off all your clothes.”
David considered this. “That seems improbable.”
“Impossible,” Mal and I said at the same time.
“Well, not impossible,” David said, looking vaguely insulted.
Genya laughed and planted a firm kiss on his mouth.
I picked up a stick and gave the fire a poke, sending sparks shooting upward. I knew why Baghra had refused to teach David. He’d reminded her too much of Morozova, so obsessed with knowledge that he’d been blind to his child’s suffering, to his wife’s neglect. And sure enough, David had created lumiya just “for fun,” essentially handing the Darkling the means to enter the Fold. But David wasn’t like Morozova. He’d been there for Genya when she’d needed him. He was no warrior, but he’d still found a way to fight for her.
I looked around at our strange, battered little group, at Adrik with his missing arm, gazing moon-eyed at Zoya; at Harshaw and Tolya, watching as Mal sketched our route in the dirt. I saw Genya grin, her scars pulling taut as David gestured wildly, trying to explain his idea for a brass arm to Nadia, while Nadia ignored him, running her fingers through the dark waves of Tamar’s hair.
None of them were easy or soft or simple. They were like me, nursing hurts and hidden wounds, all broken in different ways. We didn’t quite fit together. We had edges so jagged we cut each other sometimes, but as I curled up on my
side, the warmth of the fire at my back, I felt a rush of gratitude so sweet it made my throat ache. Fear came with it. Keeping them close was a luxury I would pay for. Now I had more to lose.
IN THE END, everyone stayed. Even Zoya, though she kept up a steady stream of complaints all the way to Dva Stolba.
We’d agreed to split into two groups. Tamar, Nadia, and Adrik would travel with David, Genya, and Misha. They’d secure lodgings in one of the settlements at the southeast edge of the valley. Genya would have to keep her face hidden, but she didn’t seem to mind. She’d wrapped her shawl around her head and declared, “I shall be a woman of mystery.” I reminded her not to be too intriguing.
Mal and I would travel into the Sikurzoi with Zoya, Harshaw, and Tolya. Because we were so close to the border, we knew we might be facing an increased military presence, but we hoped we could blend in with the refugees trying to get through the Sikurzoi before the first snows came.
If we weren’t back from the mountains in two weeks, Tamar would meet with any forces the Apparat might send to Caryeva. I didn’t like the idea of sending her and Nadia alone, but Mal and I couldn’t cut our group down any further. Shu raiders were known to pick off Ravkan travelers near the border, and we wanted to be prepared for trouble. Tamar at least knew the Soldat Sol, and I tried to reassure myself that she and Nadia were both experienced fighters.
I also wasn’t sure what I’d do with any soldiers who did show up, but the message had been sent, and I had to believe that we’d figure out something. Maybe by then I’d have the firebird and the beginnings of a plan. I couldn’t think too far ahead. Every time I did, I felt panic tugging at me. It was like being underground again, no air to breathe, waiting for the world to come down around me.
Our team left at sunrise, leaving the others sleeping in the shade of the overhang. Only Misha was awake, watching us with accusatory eyes as he pelted the side of the Bittern with pebbles.
“Come here,” Mal said, waving him over. I thought Misha might not budge, but then he shuffled to us, his chin jutting out in a sulk. “Do you have the pin Alina gave you?”