“And a Saint will end it.”
He slid from the hull to the ground and looked up at me. “I know you don’t believe as Tamar and I do,” he said, “but no matter how this ends, I’m glad our faith brought us to you.”
He headed off across the field to join Mal and Misha.
Whether it was coincidence or providence that had made Tolya and Tamar my friends, I was grateful for them. And if I was honest with myself, I envied their faith. If I could believe I had been blessed by some divine purpose, it might make the hard choices easier.
I didn’t know if our plan would work, and if it did, there were still too many unknowns. If we bested the Darkling, what would become of his shadow soldiers? And what about Nikolai? What if killing the Darkling caused his death? Should we be trying to capture the Darkling instead? If we survived, Mal would have to go into hiding. His life would be forfeit if anyone learned what he was.
I heard the sound of hoofbeats. Nadia and I climbed up on the captain’s platform to get a better look, and as the party came into view, my heart sank.
“Maybe there are more, back at the racecourse,” said Nadia.
“Maybe,” I said. But I didn’t believe it.
I made a quick count. Twelve soldiers. As they drew closer, I saw they were all young and most bore the sun tattoo on their faces. Ruby was there, with her pretty green eyes and blond braid, and I saw Vladim among them with two other bearded men I thought I recognized from the Priestguards.
I hopped down from the platform and went to greet them. When the party spotted me, they slipped from their horses and each dropped to one knee, heads bowed.
“Ugh,” said Zoya. “This again.”
I cast her a warning look, though I’d had the exact same thought. I’d nearly forgotten how much I dreaded the burden of Sainthood. But I took on the mantle, playing my part.
“Rise,” I said, and when they did, I gestured Vladim forward. “Is this all of you?”
“And what excuse does the Apparat send?”
He swallowed. “None. The pilgrims say daily prayers for your safety and for the destruction of the Fold. He claims that your last command was for him to watch over your flock.”
“And my plea for aid?”
Ruby shook her head. “The only reason we knew that you and Nikolai Lantsov had requested help was because a monk loyal to you retrieved the message from the Church of Sankt Lukin.”
“So how do you come to be here?”
Vladim smiled and those absurd dimples appeared in his cheeks again. He exchanged a glance with Ruby.
“We escaped,” she said.
I’d known the Apparat wasn’t to be trusted, and yet some part of me had hoped he might offer me more than prayers. But I’d told him to tend to my followers, to keep them from harm, and they were certainly safer in the White Cathedral than marching into the Fold. The Apparat would do what he did best: wait. When the dust cleared, either I would have defeated the Darkling or found my martyrdom. Either way, men would still take up arms in my name. The Apparat’s empire of the faithful would rise.
I laid my hands on Vladim’s and Ruby’s shoulders. “Thank you for your loyalty. I hope you won’t be sorry for it.”
They bowed their heads and murmured, “Sankta Alina.”
“Let’s move,” I said. “You’re a big enough group that you may have attracted attention, and those tattoos can’t have helped.”
“Where are we going?” asked Ruby, pulling up her scarf to hide her tattoo.
“Into the Fold.”
I saw the new soldiers shift uneasily. “To fight?” she asked.
“To travel,” Mal replied.
No army. No allies. We had only three more days until we were to face the Darkling. We would take our chances, and if we failed, there would be no more options. I would murder the only person I’d ever loved and who had ever loved me. I’d dive back into battle wearing his bones.
IT WOULDN’T BE SAFE to approach Kribirsk on this side of the Fold, so we’d decided to stage our attack from West Ravka, and that meant dealing with the logistics of a crossing. Because Nadia and Zoya couldn’t keep the Bittern aloft with too many additional passengers, we agreed that Tolya would escort the Soldat Sol to the eastern shore of the Fold and wait for us there. It would take them a full day on horseback, and that would give the rest of us time to enter West Ravka and locate a suitable base camp. Then we’d loop back to lead the others across the Fold under the protection of my power.
We boarded the Bittern, and mere hours later, we were speeding toward the strange black fog of the Shadow Fold. This time, when we entered the darkness, I was prepared for the sense of familiarity that gripped me, that feeling of likeness. It was even stronger now that I’d dabbled in merzost, the very power that had created this place. I understood it better too, the need that had driven the Darkling to try to re-create Morozova’s experiments, a legacy he felt was his.
The volcra came at us, and I glimpsed the dim shapes of their wings, heard their cries as they tore at the circle of light I summoned. If the Darkling had his way, they’d soon be well fed. I was grateful when we burst into the sky above West Ravka.
The territory west of the Fold had been evacuated. We flew over abandoned villages and houses, all without seeing a soul. In the end, we decided to set up in an apple farm just southwest of what was left of Novokribirsk, less than a mile from the dark reach of the Fold. It was called Tomikyana, the name written across the side of the cannery and the barn full of cider presses. Its orchards were thick with fruit that would never be harvested.
The owner’s house was lavish, a perfect little cake of a building, lovingly maintained, and topped with a white cupola. I felt almost guilty as Harshaw broke a window and climbed inside to unlock the doors.
“New money,” sniffed Zoya as we made our way through the overdecorated rooms, each shelf and mantel brimming with porcelain figurines and curios.
Genya picked up a ceramic pig. “Vile.”
“I like it here,” protested Adrik. “It’s nice.”
Zoya made a retching sound. “Maybe taste will come with age.”
“I’m only three years younger than you.”
“Then maybe you’re just doomed to be tacky.”
The furniture had been covered with sheets. Misha yanked one free and ran from room to room trailing it behind him like a cape. Most of the cupboards had been emptied, but Harshaw found a tin of sardines that he opened and shared with Oncat. We’d have to send people out to the neighboring farms to scout for food.
Once we’d made sure there were no other squatters, we left David, Genya, and Misha to get started procuring materials for the production of lumiya and blasting powders. Then the rest of us reboarded the Bittern to cross back to Ravka.
We’d planned to reunite with the Soldat Sol at the monument to Sankta Anastasia that stood on a low hill overlooking what had once been Tsemna. Thanks to Anastasia, Tsemna had survived the wasting plague that had claimed half the population of the surrounding villages. But Tsemna hadn’t survived the Fold. It had been swallowed up when the Black Heretic’s disastrous experiments first created the Unsea.
The monument was an eerie sight, a giant stone woman rising out of the earth, arms spread wide, her benevolent gaze fixed on the nothingness of the Fold. Anastasia was rumored to have rid countless towns of sickness. Had she worked miracles, or was she simply a talented Heale
r? Was there any difference?
We’d arrived before the Soldat Sol, so we landed and made camp for the night. The air was still warm enough that we didn’t need tents, and we laid our bedrolls next to the foot of the statue near a patchy field studded with red boulders. Mal took Harshaw with him to try to find game for dinner. It was scarce down here, as if the animals were just as wary of the Unsea as we were.
I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and walked down the hill to the edge of the black shore. Two days, I thought as I looked into the seething black mists. I knew better than to think I understood what lay ahead of me. Every time I’d tried to predict my fate, my life had been upended.
I heard a soft scraping sound behind me. I turned and froze. Nikolai was perched atop a high rock. He was cleaner than he had been, but he wore the same ragged trousers. His taloned feet gripped the ridge of the rock, and his shadow wings beat gently at the air, his gaze black and unreadable.
I’d been hoping he would show himself again, but now I wasn’t sure what to do. Had he been watching us? What had he seen? How much had he understood?
Carefully, I reached into my pocket, afraid any sudden movement might make him bolt.
I held out my hand, the Lantsov emerald resting on my palm. He frowned, a line appearing between his brows, then folded his wings and leapt soundlessly from the rock. It was hard not to back away. I didn’t want to be afraid, but the way he moved was so inhuman. He stalked toward me slowly, eyes focused on the ring. When he was less than a foot away, he cocked his head to one side.
Despite the black eyes and the inky lines that coursed up his neck, he still had an elegant face—his mother’s fine cheekbones, the strong jaw that must have come from his ambassador father. His frown deepened. Then he reached out and plucked the emerald up in his claws.
“It’s—” The words died on my lips. Nikolai turned my palm over and slid the ring onto my finger.
My breath caught between a laugh and a sob. He knew me. I couldn’t stop the tears that welled in my eyes.