* * *
GENYA WAS WAITING for me in the Kettle, the vast, almost perfectly round cavern that provided food for all those in the White Cathedral. Its curved walls were studded with stone hearths, reminders of Ravka’s ancient past that the kitchen staff liked to complain weren’t nearly as convenient as the cookstoves and tile ovens above. The giant spits had been made for large game, but the cooks rarely had access to fresh meat. So instead they served salt pork, root vegetable stews, and a strange bread made from coarse gray flour that tasted vaguely of cherries.
The cooks had nearly gotten used to Genya, or at least they didn’t cringe and start praying when they saw her anymore. I found her keeping warm at a hearth on the Kettle’s far wall. This had become our spot, and the cooks left a small pot of porridge or soup there for us every day. As I approached with my armed escort, Genya let her shawl drop away, and the guards flanking me stopped short. She rolled her remaining eye and gave a catlike hiss. They dropped back, hovering by the entrance.
“Too much?” she asked.
“Just enough,” I replied, marveling at the changes in her. If she could laugh at the way those oafs reacted to her, it was a very good sign. Though the salve David had created for her scars had helped, I was pretty sure most of the credit belonged to Tamar.
For weeks after we’d arrived at the White Cathedral, Genya had refused to leave her chambers. She simply lay there, in the dark, unwilling to move. Under the supervision of the guards, I’d talked to her, cajoled her, tried to make her laugh. Nothing had worked. In the end, it had been Tamar who lured her out into the open, demanding that she at least learn to defend herself.
“Why do you even care?” Genya had muttered to her, pulling the blankets up.
“I don’t. But if you can’t fight, you’re a liability.”
“I don’t care if I get hurt.”
“I do,” I’d protested.
“Alina needs to watch her own back,” Tamar said. “She can’t be looking after you.”
“I never asked her to.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we only got what we asked for?” Tamar said. Then she’d pinched and prodded and generally harassed, until finally Genya had thrown off her covers and agreed to a single combat lesson—in private, away from the others, with only the Priestguards as audience.
“I’m going to flatten her,” she’d grumbled to me. My skepticism must have been evident, because she’d blown a red curl off her scarred forehead and said, “Fine, then I’ll wait for her to fall asleep and give her a pig nose.”
But she’d gone to that lesson and the next one, and as far as I knew, Tamar hadn’t woken up with a pig nose or with her eyelids sealed shut.
Genya continued to keep her face covered and spent most of her time in her chamber, but she no longer hunched, and she didn’t shy away from people in the tunnels. She’d made herself a black silk eye patch from the lining of an old coat, and her hair was looking distinctly redder. If Genya was using her power to alter her hair color, then maybe some of her vanity had returned, and that could only mean more progress.
“Let’s get started,” she said.
Genya turned her back to the room, facing the fire, then drew her shawl over her head, keeping the fringed sides spread wide to create a screen that would hide us from prying eyes. The first time we’d tried this, the guards had been on us in seconds. But as soon as they’d seen me applying the salve to Genya’s scars, they’d given us distance. They considered the wounds she bore from the Darkling’s nichevo’ya some kind of divine judgment. For what, I wasn’t sure. If Genya’s crime was siding with the Darkling, then most of us had been guilty of it at one time or another. And what would they say to the bite marks on my shoulder? Or the way I could make shadows curl?
I took the tin from my pocket and began applying salve to her wounds. It had a sharp green scent that made my eyes water.
“I never realized what a pain it is to sit still this long,” she complained.
“You’re not sitting still. You’re wriggling around.”
“How about I jab you with a tack? Will that distract you from the itching?”
“Just tell me when you’re done, you dreadful girl.” She was watching my hands closely. “No luck today?” she whispered.
“Not so far. There are only two hearths going, and the flames are low.” I wiped my hand on a grubby kitchen towel. “There,” I said. “Done.”
“Your turn,” she said. “You look—”
“Terrible. I know.”
“It’s a relative term.” The sadness in her voice was unmistakable. I could have kicked myself.
I touched my hand to her cheek. The skin between the scars was smooth and white as the alabaster walls. “I’m an ass.”
The corner of her lip pulled crookedly. Almost a smile. “On occasion,” she said. “But I’m the one who brought it up. Now be quiet and let me work.”
“Just enough so that the Apparat lets us keep coming here. I don’t want to give him a pretty little Saint to show off.”
She sighed theatrically. “This is a violation of my most core beliefs, and you will make it up to me later.”
She cocked her head to one side. “I think you should let me make you a redhead.”
I rolled my eyes. “Not in this lifetime, Genya.”
As she began the slow work of altering my face, I fiddled with the tin in my fingers. I tried to fit the lid back on, but some part of it had come loose from beneath the salve. I lifted it with the tips of my fingernails—a thin, waxy disc of paper. Genya saw it at the same time I did.
Written on the back, in David’s nearly illegible scrawl, was a single word: today.
Genya snatched it from my fingers. “Oh, Saints. Alina—”
That was when we heard the stomp of heavy-booted feet and a scuffle outside. A pot hit the ground with a loud clang, and a shriek went up from one of the cooks as the room flooded with Priestguards, rifles drawn, eyes seeming to blaze holy fire.
The Apparat swept in behind them in a swirl of brown robes. “Clear the room,” he bellowed.
Genya and I shot to our feet as the Priestguards roughly herded the cooks from the kitchen in a confusion of protests and frightened exclamations.
“What is this?” I demanded.
“Alina Starkov,” said the Apparat, “you are in danger.”
My heart was hammering, but I kept my voice calm. “Danger from what?” I asked, glancing at the pots boiling in the hearths. “Lunch?”
“Conspiracy,” he proclaimed, pointing at Genya. “Those who would claim your friendship seek to destroy you.”
More of the Apparat’s bearded henchmen marched through the door behind him. When they parted ranks, I saw David, his eyes wide and frightened.
Genya gasped and I laid a hand on her arm to keep her from charging forward.
Nadia and Zoya were next, both with wrists bound to prevent them from summoning. A trickle of blood leaked from the corner of Nadia’s mouth, and her skin was white beneath her freckles. Mal was with them, his face badly bloodied. He was clutching his side as if cradling a broken rib, his shoulders hunched against the pain. But worse was the sight of the guards who flanked him—Tolya and Tamar. Tamar had her axes back. In fact, they were both armed as thoroughly as the Priestguards. They would not meet my eyes.
“Lock the doors,” the Apparat commanded. “We will have this sad business done in private.”
THE KETTLE’S MASSIVE DOORS slammed shut, and I heard the lock turn. I tried to put aside the sick twist in my gut and make sense of what I was seeing. Nadia and Zoya—two Squallers—Mal, and David, a harmless Fabrikator. Today, the note had said. What had it meant?
“I’ll ask you again, priest. What is this? Why are my friends in custody? Why are they bleeding?”
“These are not your friends. A plot has been discovered to bring the White Cathedral down aroun
d our very ears.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You saw the boy’s insolence today—”
“Is that the problem? He doesn’t tremble properly in your presence?”
“The issue here is treason!” He drew a small canvas pouch from his robes and held it out, letting it dangle from his fingers. I frowned. I’d seen pouches like that in the Fabrikator workshops. They were used for—
“Blasting powders,” the Apparat said. “Made by this Fabrikator filth with materials gathered by your supposed friends.”
“So David made blasting powders. There could be a hundred reasons for that.”
“Weapons are forbidden within the White Cathedral.”
I arched a brow at the rifles currently pointed at Mal and my Grisha. “And what are those? Ladles? If you’re going to make accusations—”