“Keep them strong in their faith,” I told Ruby and the other soldiers. I hoped that three days would give us plenty of time to get well away from the White Cathedral. But knowing the Apparat, he’d probably talk his way out before dinner.
“I knew you,” Rub
y said, clutching my fingers as I turned to go. “I was in your regiment. Do you remember?”
Her eyes were wet, and the tattoo on her cheek was so black it seemed to float on top of her skin.
“Of course I do,” I said kindly. We hadn’t been friends. Back then, Ruby had been more interested in Mal than religion. I’d been nearly invisible to her.
Now she released a sob and pressed a kiss to my knuckles. “Sankta,” she whispered fervently. Whenever I thought my life couldn’t get any stranger, it did.
Once I’d disentangled myself from Ruby, I took a final moment to speak to the Apparat in private.
“You know what I’m going after, priest, and you know the power I’ll wield when I return. Nothing happens to the Soldat Sol or to Maxim.” I didn’t like leaving the Healer on his own here, but I wouldn’t command him to join us, not knowing the dangers we might face on the surface.
“We are not enemies, Sankta Alina,” the Apparat said gently. “You must know that all I’ve ever wanted was to see you on Ravka’s throne.”
I almost smiled at that. “I know, priest. On the throne and under your thumb.”
He tilted his head to one side, contemplating me. The fanatical glint was gone from his eyes. He simply looked shrewd.
“You are not what I expected,” he admitted.
“Not quite the Saint you bargained for?”
“A lesser Saint,” he said. “But perhaps a better queen. I will pray for you, Alina Starkov.”
The strange thing was I believed him.
* * *
MAL AND I MET the others at Chetya’s Well, a natural fountain at the crossroads of four of the major tunnels. If the Apparat did decide to send a party after us, we’d be harder to track from there. At least that was the idea, but we hadn’t bargained on so many of the pilgrims turning out to see us off. They’d followed the Grisha from their quarters and crowded around the fountain.
We were all in ordinary travel clothes, our kefta stowed in our packs. I’d exchanged my gold robes for a heavy coat, a fur hat, and the comforting weight of a gun belt at my hip. If it hadn’t been for my white hair, I doubted any of the pilgrims would have recognized me.
Now they reached out to touch my sleeve or my hand. Some pressed little gifts on us, the only offerings they had: hoarded bread rolls gone tooth-breakingly hard, polished stones, bits of lace, a clutch of salt lilies. They murmured prayers for our health with tears in their eyes.
I saw Genya’s surprise when a woman placed a dark green prayer shawl around her shoulders. “Not black,” she said. “For you, not black.”
An ache began in my throat. It wasn’t just the Apparat who had kept me isolated from these people. I’d distanced myself from them as well. I distrusted their faith, but mostly I feared their hope. The love and care in these tiny gestures was a burden I didn’t want.
I kissed cheeks, shook hands, made promises I wasn’t sure I could keep, and then we were on our way. I’d been carried into the White Cathedral on a stretcher. At least I was leaving on my feet.
Mal took the lead. Tolya and Tamar brought up the rear, scouting behind us to make sure that no one followed.
Through David’s access to the archives and Mal’s innate sense of direction, they’d managed to construct a rough map of the tunnel network. They had started plotting a course to Ryevost, but there were gaps in their information. No matter how accurate they’d been, we couldn’t be sure of what we might be walking into.
After my escape from Os Alta, the Darkling’s men had tried to penetrate the network of tunnels beneath Ravka’s churches and holy sites. When their searches turned up empty, they’d begun bombing: closing off exit routes, trying to drive anyone seeking shelter to the surface. The Darkling’s Alkemi had created new explosives that collapsed buildings and forced combustible gases belowground. All it took was a single Inferni spark, and whole sections of the ancient network of tunnels collapsed. It was one of the reasons the Apparat had insisted I remain at the White Cathedral.
There were rumors of cave-ins to the west of us, so Mal led us north. It wasn’t the most direct route, but we hoped it would be stable.
It was a relief to be moving through the tunnels, to finally be doing something after so many weeks of confinement. My body was still weak, but I felt stronger than I had in months, and I pushed onward without complaint.
I tried not to think too hard about what it would mean if the smuggling station at Ryevost wasn’t active. How were we supposed to find a prince who didn’t want to be found, and do it while remaining hidden ourselves? If Nikolai was alive, he might be looking for me, or he might have sought alliance elsewhere. For all he knew, I had died in the battle at the Little Palace.
The tunnels grew darker as we moved farther from the White Cathedral and its strange alabaster glow. Soon our way was lit by nothing but the swaying light of our lanterns. In some places, the caverns were so narrow that we had to remove our packs and wriggle along between the press of walls. Then, without warning, we’d find ourselves in a giant cave wide enough to pasture horses.
Mal had been right: so many people traveling together were noisy and unwieldy. We made frustratingly slow progress, marching in a long column with Zoya, Nadia, and Adrik spread out along the line; in case of a cave-in, the air our Squallers could summon might provide valuable breathing time for anyone trapped.
David and Genya kept falling behind, but he seemed to be the one responsible for the lag. Finally, Tolya hefted the huge pack from David’s narrow shoulders.
He groaned. “What do you have in this thing?”
“Three pairs of socks, one pair of trousers, an extra shirt. One canteen. A tin cup and plate. A cylindrical slide rule, a chrondometer, a jar of spruce sap, my collection of anticorrosives—”
“You were only supposed to pack what you need.”
David gave an emphatic nod. “Exactly.”
“Please tell me you didn’t bring all of Morozova’s journals,” I said.
“Of course I did.”
I rolled my eyes. There had to be at least fifteen leather-bound books. “Maybe they’ll make good kindling.”
“Is she kidding?” David asked, looking concerned. “I can never tell if she’s kidding.”
I was. Mostly. I’d hoped the journals would give me insight into the firebird and maybe even into how the amplifiers could help me destroy the Fold. But they’d been a dead end, and if I was honest, they’d frightened me a little too. Baghra had warned me of Morozova’s madness, and yet somehow I’d expected to find wisdom in his work. Instead, his journals had provided me with a study in obsession, all of it documented in nearly indecipherable scrawl. Apparently genius didn’t require good penmanship.
His early journals chronicled his experiments: the blacked-out formula for liquid fire, a means of preventing organic decay, the trials that had led to the creation of Grisha steel, a method for restoring oxygen to the blood, the endless year he’d spent finding a way to create unbreakable glass. His skills extended beyond those of an ordinary Fabrikator, and he was well aware of it. One of the essential tenets of Grisha theory was “like calls to like,” but Morozova seemed to believe that if the world could be broken down to the same small parts, each Grisha should be able to manipulate them. Are we not all things? he demanded, underlining the words for emphasis. He was arrogant, audacious—but still sane.
Then his work on the amplifiers had begun, and even I could see the change. The text got denser, messier. The margins were full of diagrams and crazed arrows that referred back to earlier passages. Worse were the descriptions of experiments he’d performed on animals, the illustrations of his dissections. They turned my stomach and made me think Morozova had deserved whatever early martyrdom he’d received. He’d killed animals and then brought them back to life, sometimes repeatedly, delving deeper into merzost, creation, the power of life over death, trying to find a way to create amplifiers that might be used together. It was forbidden power, but I knew its temptation, a
nd I shuddered to think that pursuing it might have driven him mad.
If he was led by some noble purpose, I didn’t see it in his pages. But I sensed something more in his fevered writings, in his insistence that power was everywhere for the taking. He had lived long before the creation of the Second Army. He was the most powerful Grisha the world had ever known—and that power had isolated him. I remembered the Darkling’s words to me: There are no others like us, Alina. And there never will be. Maybe Morozova wanted to believe that if there were no others like him, there could be, that he might create Grisha of greater power. Or maybe I was just imagining things, seeing my own loneliness and greed in Morozova’s pages. The mess of what I knew and what I wanted, my desire for the firebird, my own sense of difference had all gotten too hard to untangle.
I was pulled from my thoughts by the sound of rushing water. We were approaching an underground river. Mal slowed our pace and had me walk directly behind him, casting light over the path. It was a good thing too, because the drop came fast, so steep and sudden that I slammed right into his back, nearly knocking him over the edge and into the water below. Here, the roar was deafening, the river rushing past at uncertain depth, plumes of mist rising from the rapids.
We tied a rope around Tolya’s waist, and he waded across, then secured it on the other side so we could follow one by one, attached to the line. The water was ice cold and came all the way up to my chest, the force of it pulling me nearly off my feet as I held on to the rope. Harshaw was the last to cross. I had a moment of terror when he lost his footing and the tether nearly snapped free. Then he was up, gasping for breath, Oncat soaked to the skin and spitting mad. By the time Harshaw reached us, his face and neck were a patchwork of tiny scratches.
After that, we were all eager to stop, but Mal insisted we keep going.
“I’m drenched,” Zoya groused. “Why can’t we stop in this dank cave instead of the next dank cave?”
Mal didn’t break stride, but hooked a thumb back at the river. “Because of that,” he shouted over the din of rushing water. “If we’ve been followed, it will be too easy for someone to sneak up on us with that noise as cover.”