“Can and will.”
“You’re being a brat.”
“And you’re being noble and self-sacrificing, and it makes me want to throttle you.”
“Well, that’s a start.”
“That’s not funny.”
“How am I supposed to deal with this?” he asked. “I don’t feel noble or self-sacrificing. I’m just…”
He threw up his hands. “Hungry.”
“Yes,” he snapped. “I’m hungry and I’m tired and I’m pretty sure that Tolya’s going to eat all the grouse.”
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing. “Zoya warned me about this. She gets cranky when she’s hungry too.”
“I’m not cra
“Sulky,” I amended graciously.
“I am not sulking.”
“You’re right,” I said, trying to restrain my giggles. “Definitely more of a pout than a sulk.”
He snagged my hand and pulled me in for a kiss. He nipped my ear once, hard.
“I told you I was hungry.”
“You’re the second person to try to bite me today.”
“Oh, it gets worse. When we get back to camp, I’m requesting the Third Tale of Kregi.”
“I’m telling Harshaw you’re a dog person.”
“I’m telling Zoya you don’t like her hair.”
We kept it up all the way back to the Bittern, shoving and taunting each other, feeling a little bit of the strain of the last weeks ease. But as the sun set and I looked over my shoulder into the Fold, I wondered what human things might remain beyond its shores, and if they could hear our laughter.
* * *
THE SOLDAT SOL ARRIVED late that night and got only a few hours of sleep before we set out the next day. They were wary as we entered the Fold, but I’d expected them to be far worse, clutching icons and chanting prayers. When we took our first steps into the darkness and I let the light burst forth in a flood around us, I understood: they didn’t need to plead with their Saints. They had me.
The Bittern drifted high above us, well within the roof of the bright bubble I’d created, but I’d chosen to travel on the sands so that I could practice bending light within the confines of the Fold. To the Soldat Sol, this new display of power was one more miracle, further proof that I was a living Saint. I remembered the Apparat’s claim: There is no greater power than faith, and there will be no greater army than one driven by it. I prayed that he was right, that I wasn’t just another leader taking their loyalty and repaying them with useless, honorable deaths.
It took us the better part of that day and night to cross the Fold and escort all of the Soldat Sol up the western shore. By the time we arrived back at Tomikyana, David and Genya had completely taken over. The kitchen looked like a storm had blown through. Bubbling pots covered the cookstove, and a huge kettle had been brought in from the cider press to serve as a cooling tub. David perched on a stool at the big wooden table where the servants had probably rolled dough only weeks before. Now it was littered with glass and metal, smears of some tarlike substance, and countless little bottles of foul-smelling yellow sludge.
“Is this entirely safe?” I asked him.
“Nothing is entirely safe.”
He smiled. “I’m glad.”
In the dining room, Genya had set up her own work space, where she was helping to construct canisters for the lumiya and slings that would carry them. The others could activate them as late as they dared during the attack, and if something happened to me on the Fold, they might still have enough light to get out. All of the farm owner’s glassware had been conscripted—goblets, snifters, wine and liqueur glasses, an elaborate collection of vases, and a chafing dish in the shape of a fish.
The tea set had been filled with screws and grommets, and Misha sat cross-legged on a silk-cushioned chair, gleefully deconstructing saddles and organizing the strips and bits of leather into careful piles.
Harshaw was dispatched to steal whatever food he could find from nearby estates, work he seemed disturbingly adept at.
I labored beside Genya and Misha for most of the day. Out in the gardens, the Squallers practiced creating an acoustic blanket. It was a variation on the trick Zoya had performed after the cave-in, and we hoped it would allow us to enter the Fold and take up our positions in darkness without attracting the attention of the volcra. It would be a temporary measure at best, but we just needed it to last long enough to enable the ambush. Periodically, my ears would crackle, and all sound would seem to dampen, then I’d hear Nadia as clearly as if she were standing in the room with me, or Adrik’s voice booming in my ear.
The pop of gunfire floated back to us from the orchard where Mal and the twins were choosing the best marksmen from the Soldat Sol. We had to be cautious with our ammunition, so they used their bullets sparingly. Later I heard them in the parlor, sorting through weapons and supplies.
We pieced together a dinner of apples, hard cheese, and stale black bread that Harshaw had found in some abandoned larder. The dining room and kitchen were a wreck, so we built a big fire in the grate of the grand receiving room and set out a makeshift picnic, sprawled on the floor and the watered silk couches, toasting bits of bread skewered on the gnarled branches of apple trees.
“If I survive this,” I said, wiggling my toes near the fire, “I’m going to have to find some way to compensate these poor people for the damages.”
Zoya snorted. “They’ll be forced to redecorate. We’re doing them a favor.”
“And if we don’t survive,” observed David, “this whole place will be enveloped in darkness.”
Tolya pushed aside a flowered cushion. “Might be for the best.”
Harshaw took a swig of cider from the jug Tamar had brought in from the press. “If I live, the first thing I’m doing is coming back here and swimming around in a tank of this stuff.”
“Go easy, Harshaw,” said Tamar. “We need you awake tomorrow.”
He groaned. “Why do battles always have to be so early?” Grudgingly, he gave up the jug to one of the Soldat Sol.
We’d gone over the plan until all of us were sure we knew exactly where to be and when. We’d enter the Fold at dawn. The Squallers would go in first to lay down the acoustic blanket and hide our movements from the volcra. I’d heard Nadia whispering with Tamar about not wanting Adrik with them, but Tamar had argued hard in favor of including him. “He’s a warrior,” she’d said. “If you make him believe he’s less now, he’ll never know he can be more.” I would be with the Squallers, in case anything went wrong. The marksmen and the other Grisha would follow.
We’d planned the ambush at the center of the Fold, almost directly between Kribirsk and Novokribirsk. Once we spotted the Darkling’s skiff, I would illuminate the Unsea, bending the light to keep us invisible. If that didn’t bring him to a halt, our marksmen would. They would thin his ranks, and then it was up to Harshaw and the Squallers to create enough chaos that the twins and I could board the skiff, locate the students, and get them to safety. Once they were clear, I would deal with the Darkling. Hopefully, he would never see me coming.
Genya and David would remain at Tomikyana with Misha. I knew Misha would insist on going with us, so Genya had slipped a sleeping draft into his dinner. He was already yawning, curled up near the grate, and I hoped he would sleep through our departure in the morning.
The night wore on. We knew we needed to sleep, but no one much felt like it. Some people decided to bed down by the fire in the receiving room while others trickled out into the house in pairs. Nobody wanted to be alone tonight. Genya and David had work to do in the kitchens. Tamar and Nadia had disappeared early. I thought Zoya might take her pick of the Soldat Sol, but as I slipped out the door, she was still watching the fire, Oncat purring in her lap.
I made my way down the dark hall to the parlor, where Mal was making a final check of the weapons and gear. It was a strange sight, to see the piles of guns and ammunition stacked on a marble tabletop next to the framed miniatures of the lady of the house and a pretty collection of snuffboxes.
“We’ve been here before,” he said.
“When we came out of the Fold the first time. We stopped in the orchard, not very far from the house. I recognized it earlier when we were out shooting.”
I remembered. It seemed like a lifetime ago. The fruit on the trees had been too small and sour to eat.
“How did the Soldat Sol do today?”
“Not bad. Only a few of them have much range. But if we’re lucky, that’s all we’ll need. A lot of them saw action in the First Army, so at least there’s a chance they
’ll keep their heads.”
Laughter drifted back to us from the receiving room. Someone—Harshaw, I suspected—had started singing. But in the parlor, it was quiet and I could hear that it had begun to rain.
“Mal,” I said. “Do you think … do you think it’s the amplifiers?”
He frowned, checking the sight on a rifle. “What do you mean?”
“Is that what’s between us? My power and yours? Is that why we became friends, why…” I trailed off.
He picked up another gun, sighted down the barrel. “Maybe that brought us together, but it didn’t make us who we are. It didn’t make you the girl who could get me to laugh when I had nothing. It sure as hell didn’t make me the idiot who took that for granted. Whatever there is between us, we forged it. It belongs to us.” Then he set down the rifle and wiped his hands on a rag.
“Come with me,” he said, taking my hand and pulling me behind him.
We moved through the darkened house. I heard voices singing something bawdy down the hall, footsteps overhead as someone ran from one room to the next. I thought Mal might lead me up the stairs to the bedrooms; I guess I hoped he would, but instead he took me through the east wing of the house, past a silent sewing room, a library, all the way to a windowless vestibule lined with trowels, spades, and dried cuttings.
“Um … delightful?”
“Wait here.” He opened a door I hadn’t seen, tucked into the wall.
In the dim light, I saw it led to some kind of long, narrow conservatory. The rain beat a steady rhythm against the vaulted roof and glazed glass walls. Mal moved deeper into the room, lighting lanterns that rested on the edge of a slender reflecting pool. Apple trees lined the walls, their boughs dense with clusters of white flowers. Their petals lay like a smattering of snow on the red tile floor and floated on the surface of the water.
I trailed Mal down the length of the pool. The air inside was balmy, sweet with apple blossoms and loamy with the rich scent of soil. Outside, the wind rose and howled with the storm, but in here it was as if the seasons had been suspended. I had the strangest sense that we could be anywhere, that the rest of the house had simply fallen away, and we were completely alone.
At the far end of the room, a desk was tucked into the corner. A shawl had been thrown over the back of a scrollwork chair. There was a basket of sewing things resting on a rug patterned with apple blossoms. The lady of the house must have come here to do her needlework, to sip her morning tea. In the daytime, she would have had a perfect view of the orchards through the big arched windows. A book was open on the desk. I peered at the pages.