Misha nodded once.
“You know what that means, don’t you? You’re a soldier. Soldiers don’t get to go where they want to. They go where they’re needed.”
“You just don’t want me with you.”
“No, we need you here to take care of the others. You know David is hopeless, and Adrik is going to need help too, even if he doesn’t want to admit it. You’ll have to be careful with that one, help him without letting him know you’re helping. Can you manage that?”
“We need you to take care of them the way you took care of Baghra.”
“But I didn’t take care of her.”
“Yes you did. You watched over her, and you made her comfortable, and you let her go when she needed you to. You did what had to be done, even though it hurt you. That’s what soldiers do.”
Misha looked at him sharply, as if considering this. “I should have stopped her,” he said, his voice breaking.
“If you had, none of us would be here. We’re grateful that you did the hard thing.”
Misha frowned. “David is kind of a mess.”
“True,” Mal agreed. “So can we trust you?”
Misha looked away. His expression was still troubled, but he shrugged again.
“Thank you,” Mal said. “You can start by getting water boiling for breakfast.”
Misha nodded once, then jogged back through the gravel to get the water on.
Mal glanced at me as he rose and shouldered his pack. “What?”
“Nothing. That was just … really well done.”
“Same way Ana Kuya got me to stop begging her to keep a lantern lit at night.”
“Yes,” he said starting the climb. “Told me I had to be brave for you, that if I was scared, you’d be scared.”
“Well, she told me I had to eat my parsnips to set a good example for you, but I still refused to do it.”
“And you wonder why you were always getting the switch.”
“I have principles.”
“That means, ‘If I can be difficult, I will.’”
“Hey!” Zoya shouted over the edge of the crater above. “If you’re not up here before I count to ten, I’m going back to sleep and you can carry me to Dva Stolba.”
“Mal,” I sighed. “If I murder her in the Sikurzoi, will you hold me accountable?”
“Yes,” he said. Then added, “That means, ‘Let’s make it look like an accident.’”
* * *
DVA STOLBA TOOK ME by surprise. I’d somehow expected that the little valley would be like a graveyard, a grim wasteland of phantoms and abandoned places. Instead, the settlements were bustling. The landscape was dotted with burned-out hulks and empty fields of ash, but new homes and businesses had sprung up right beside them.
There were taverns and hostelries, a storefront advertising watch repair, and what looked like a shop that lent books by the week. Everything felt oddly impermanent. Broken windows had simply been boarded over. Many of the houses had canvas roofs or holes in the walls that had been covered with wool blankets or woven mats. Who knows how long we’ll be here? they seemed to say. Let’s make do with what we have.
Had it always been this way? The settlements were constantly being destroyed and rebuilt, governed by the Shu Han or Ravka, depending on how the borders had been drawn at the end of a particular war. Was this how my parents had lived? It was strange to picture them this way, but I didn’t mind the idea. They might have been soldiers or merchants. They might have been happy here. And maybe one of them had been harboring a power, the latent legacy of Morozova’s youngest daughter. There were legends of Sun Summoners before me. Most people thought they were hoaxes or empty stories, wishful thinking born of the misery wrought by the Fold. But there might be more to it than that. Or maybe I was clinging to some dream of a heritage I had no real claim to.
We passed through a market square crowded with people, their wares displayed on makeshift tables: tin pans, hunting knives, furs for the trek over the mountains. We saw jars of goose fat, dried figs sold in bunches, fine saddles, and flimsy-looking guns. Strings of freshly plucked ducks, their skin pink and dimpled, hung above one stall. Mal kept his bow and repeating rifle bundled in his pack. The weapons were too finely made not to draw attention.
Children played in the dirt. A squat man in a sleeveless vest was smoking some kind of meat in a big metal drum. I watched him toss a juniper branch inside it, sending up a fragrant, bluish cloud. Zoya scrunched up her nose, but Tolya and Harshaw couldn’t dig out their coins fast enough.
This was where Mal’s family and mine had met death. Somehow the wild, cheerful atmosphere seemed almost unfair. It certainly didn’t match my mood.
I was relieved when Mal said, “I thought it would be more grim.”
“Did you see how small the graveyard was?” I asked under my breath. He nodded. In most of Ravka, the cemeteries were bigger than the towns, but when the Shu had burned these settlements, there had been no one left to mourn the dead.
Though we’d been well provisioned from the stocks at the Spinning Wheel, Mal wanted to buy a map made by a local. We needed to know which trails might be blocked by landslides or where the bridges had been washed out.
A woman with white braids peeking from beneath her orange wool hat sat on a low, painted stool, humming to herself and beating a cowbell to catch the attention of passersby. She hadn’t bothered with a table, but had laid a rug displaying her stock—canteens, saddlebags, maps, and stacks of metal prayer rings—directly on the ground. A mule stood behind her, its long ears twitching off flies, and occasionally, she would reach back and offer it a pat on the nose.
“Snow’s coming soon,” she said, squinting up at the sky as we poked through the maps. “Need blankets for the journey?”
“We’re set,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Lot of people headed over the border.”
“But not you?”
“Too old to go now. Shu, Fjerdans, Fold…” She shrugged. “You sit still, trouble passes you by.”
Or it smacks right into you, then comes back for seconds, I thought bleakly.
Mal held up one of the maps. “I’m not seeing the eastern mountains, only the west.”
“Better off keeping west,” she said. “You trying for the coast?”
“Yes,” Mal lied smoothly, “then on to Novyi Zem. But—”
“Stay west. People don’t come back from the east.”
“Ju weh,” said Tolya. “Ey ye bat e’yuan.”
The woman answered back, and they looked over a map together, conversing in Shu while we waited patiently.
Finally, Tolya handed a different map to Mal. “East,” he said.
The woman jabbed her cowbell at Tolya and asked me, “What are you going to feed that one in the hills? Better make sure he doesn’t put you on a spit.”
Tolya frowned, but the woman laughed so hard she nearly fell off her stool.
Mal added some prayer rings to the maps and gave over his coins.
“Had a brother who went to Novyi Zem,” the woman said, still chuckling as she returned Mal’s change. “Probably rich now. It’s a good place to start a new life.”
Zoya snorted. “Compared to what?”
“It’s really not bad,” said Tolya.
“Dirt and more dirt.”
“There are cities,” Tolya grumbled as we walked away.