Siege and Storm (Page 51)
I sighed. Some holy warrior.
“Do you serve me?”
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“Not the priest?”
“We serve you,” said Tolya, his voice a fierce rumble.
“We’ll see,” I murmured, and waved them away. They rose to go, but I called them back. “Some of the pilgrims have taken to calling Genya Razrusha’ya. Warn them once. If they speak that word again, cut out their tongues.”
They didn’t blink, didn’t flinch. They made their bows and were gone.
* * *
THE WHITE CATHEDRAL was a cavern of alabaster quartz, so vast it might have held a city in its glowing ivory depths. Its walls were damp and bloomed with mushrooms, salt lilies, toadstools shaped like stars. It was buried deep beneath Ravka, somewhere north of the capital.
I wanted to meet the priest standing, so I held tight to Mal’s arm as we were brought before him, trying to hide the effort it took just to stay upright and the way my body shook.
“Sankta Alina,” the Apparat said, “you are come to us at last.”
Then he fell to his knees in his tattered brown robes. He kissed my hand, my hem. He called out to the faithful, thousands of them gathered in the belly of the cavern. When he spoke, the very air seemed to tremble. “We will rise to make a new Ravka,” he roared. “A country free from tyrants and kings! We will spill from the earth and drive the shadows back in a tide of righteousness!”
Below us, the pilgrims chanted. Sankta Alina.
There were rooms carved into the rock, chambers that glowed ivory and glittered with thin veins of silver. Mal helped me to my quarters, made me eat a few bites of sweet pea porridge, and brought me a pitcher of fresh water to fill the basin. A mirror had been set directly into the stone, and when I glimpsed myself, I let out a little cry. The heavy pitcher shattered on the floor. My skin was pale, stretched tight over jutting bones. My eyes were bruised hollows. My hair had gone completely white, a fall of brittle snow.
I touched my fingertips to the glass. Mal’s gaze met mine in the reflection.
“I should have warned you,” he said.
“I look like a monster.”
“More like a khitka.”
“Woodsprites eat children.”
“Only when they’re hungry,” he said.
I tried to smile, to hold tight to this glimmer of warmth between us. But I noticed how far from me he stood, arms at his back, like a guard at attention. He mistook the sheen of tears in my eyes.
“It will get better,” he said. “Once you use your power.”
“Of course,” I replied, turning away from the mirror, feeling exhaustion and pain settle into my bones.
Instead, I spoke low, barely moving my lips. “I’ve tried,” I whispered. “Something’s wrong.”
He frowned. “You can’t summon?” he asked hesitantly. Was there fear in his voice? Hope? Concern? I couldn’t tell. All I could sense in him was caution.
“I’m too weak. We’re too far belowground. I don’t know.”
I watched his face, remembering the argument we’d had in the birchwood grove, when he’d asked if I would give up being Grisha. Never, I’d said. Never.
Hopelessness crowded in on me, dense and black, heavy like the press of soil. I didn’t want to say the words, didn’t want to give voice to the fear I’d carried with me through the long, dark miles beneath the earth, but I forced myself to speak it. “The light won’t come, Mal. My power is gone.”
AGAIN, THE GIRL dreamed of ships, but this time, they flew. They had white wings made of canvas, and a clever-eyed fox stood behind the wheel. Sometimes the fox became a prince who kissed her lips and offered her a jeweled crown. Sometimes he was a red hellhound, foam on his muzzle, snapping at her heels as she ran.
Every so often, she dreamed of the firebird. It caught her up in wings of flame and held her as she burned.
Long before word came, she knew the Darkling had survived and that she had failed once more. He had been rescued by his Grisha and now ruled Ravka from a throne wreathed in shadows, surrounded by his monstrous horde. Whether he’d been weakened by what she’d done in the chapel, she didn’t know. He was ancient, and power was familiar to him as it had never been to her.
His oprichniki guards marched into monasteries and churches, tore up tiles and dug down through floors, seeking the Sun Summoner. Rewards were offered, threats were made, and once again the girl was hunted.
The priest swore that she was safe in the sprawling web of passages that crisscrossed Ravka like a secret map. There were those who claimed the tunnels had been made by armies of the faithful, that it had taken hundreds of years with picks and axes to carve them. Others said they were the work of a monster, a great worm who swallowed soil, rock, root, and gravel, who hollowed out the underground roads that led to the old holy places, where half-remembered prayers were still said. The girl only knew that no place would keep them safe for long.
She looked into the faces of her followers: old men, young women, children, soldiers, farmers, convicts. All she saw were corpses, more bodies for the Darkling to lay at her feet.
The Apparat wept, shouting his gratitude that the Sun Saint still lived, that she had once again been spared. In his wild black gaze, the girl saw a different truth: A dead martyr was less trouble than a living Saint.
The prayers of the faithful rose around the boy and the girl, echoing and multiplying beneath the earth, bouncing off the soaring stone walls of the White Cathedral. The Apparat said it was a holy place, their haven, their sanctuary, their home.
The boy shook his head. He knew a cell when he saw one.
He was wrong, of course. The girl could tell from the way the Apparat watched her struggle to her feet. She heard it in each fragile thump of her heart. This place was no prison. It was a tomb.
But the girl had spent long years being invisible. She’d already had a ghost’s life, hidden from the world and from herself. Better than anyone, she knew the power of things long buried.
At night, she heard the boy pacing outside her room, keeping watch with the golden-eyed twins. She lay quiet in her bed, counting her breaths, stretching toward the surface, seeking the light. She thought of the broken skiff, of Novokribirsk, of red names crowding a crooked church wall. She remembered little human heaps slumped beneath the golden dome; Marie’s butchered body; Fedyor, who had once saved her life. She heard the pilgrims’ songs and exhortations. She thought of the volcra and of Genya huddled in the dark.
The girl touched the collar at her neck, the fetter at her wrist. So many men had tried to make her a queen. Now she understood that she was meant for something more.
The Darkling had told her he was destined to rule. He had claimed his throne, and a part of her too. He was welcome to it. For the living and the dead, she would make herself a reckoning.
She would rise.