Nikolai handed out gold coins and sacks of sugar. He accepted handshakes from merchants and kisses on the cheek from wrinkled matrons who called him Sobachka, and charmed anyone who came within two feet of him. He never seemed to tire, never seemed to flag. No matter how many miles we’d ridden or people we’d met, he was ready to meet another.
He always seemed to know what people wanted from him, when to be the laughing boy, the golden prince, the weary soldier. I supposed it was the training that came with being born a royal and raised at court, but it was still unnerving to watch.
He hadn’t been kidding about spectacle. He always tried to time our arrivals at dawn or dusk, or he’d stop our procession in the deep shadows of a church or town square—all the better to show off the Sun Summoner.
When he caught me rolling my eyes, he just winked and said, “Everyone thinks you’re dead, lovely. It’s important to make a good showing.”
So I held up my end of the bargain and acted my part. I smiled graciously and called the light to shine over rooftops and steeples and bathe every awestruck face in warmth. People wept. Mothers brought me their babies to kiss, and old men bowed over my hand, their cheeks damp with tears. I felt like a complete fraud, and I said as much to Nikolai.
“What do you mean?” he asked, genuinely puzzled. “The people love you.”
“You mean they love your prize goat,” I grumbled as we rode out of one town.
“Have you actually won any prizes?”
“This isn’t funny,” I whispered angrily. “You’ve seen what the Darkling can do. These people will be sending their sons and daughters off to fight nichevo’ya, and I won’t be able to save them. You’re feeding them a lie.”
“We’re giving them hope. That’s better than nothing.”
“Spoken like a man who’s never had nothing,” I said, and wheeled my horse away.
* * *
RAVKA IN SUMMER was at its most lovely, its fields thick with gold and green, the air balmy and sweet with the scent of warm hay. Despite Nikolai’s protests, I insisted on forgoing the comforts of the coach. My bottom was sore, and my thighs complained loudly when I eased from the saddle every night, but sitting my own horse meant fresh air and the chance to seek out Mal on each day’s ride. He didn’t talk much, but he seemed to be thawing a bit.
Nikolai had circulated the story of how the Darkling had tried to execute Mal on the Fold. It had earned Mal instant trust among the soldiers, even a small measure of celebrity. Occasionally, he scouted with the trackers in the unit, and he was trying to teach Tolya how to hunt, though the big Grisha wasn’t much for stalking silently through the woods.
On the road out of Sala, we were passing through a stand of white elms when Mal cleared his throat and said, “I was thinking.…”
I sat up straight and gave him my full attention. It was the first time he’d initiated a conversation since we’d left Kribirsk.
He shifted in his saddle, not meeting my eye. “I was thinking of who we could get to round out the guard.”
I frowned. “The guard?”
He cleared his throat. “For you. A few of Nikolai’s men seem all right, and I think Tolya and Tamar should be considered. They’re Shu, but they’re Grisha, so it shouldn’t be a problem. And there’s … well, me.”
I didn’t think I’d ever actually seen Mal blush.
I grinned. “Are you saying you want to be the captain of my personal guard?”
Mal glanced at me, his lips quirking in a smile. “Do I get to wear a fancy hat?”
“The fanciest,” I said. “And possibly a cape.”
“Will there be plumes?”
“Oh, yes. Several.”
“Then I’m in.”
I wanted to leave it at that, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. “I thought … I thought you might want to go back to your unit, to be a tracker again.”
Mal studied the knot in his reins. “I can’t go back. Hopefully, Nikolai can keep me from being hanged—”
“Hopefully?” I squeaked.
“I deserted my post, Alina. Not even the King can make me a tracker again.”
Mal’s voice was steady, untroubled.
He adapts, I thought. But I knew some part of him would always grieve for the life he’d been meant to have, the life he would have had without me.
He nodded up ahead to where Nikolai’s back was barely visible in the column of riders. “And there’s no way I’m leaving you alone with Prince Perfect.”
“So you don’t trust me to resist his charms?”
“I don’t even trust myself. I’ve never seen anyone work a crowd the way he does. I’m pretty sure the rocks and trees are getting ready to swear fealty to him.”I laughed and leaned back, felt the sun warming my skin through the dappled shade of the tree boughs overhead. I touched my fingers to the sea whip’s fetter, safely hidden by my sleeve. For now, I wanted to keep the second amplifier a secret. Nikolai’s Grisha had been sworn to silence, and I could only hope they’d hold their tongues.My thoughts strayed to the firebird. Some part of me still couldn’t quite believe it was real. Would it look the way it had in the pages of the red book, its feathers wrought in white and gold? Or would its wings be tipped with fire? And what kind of monster would nock an arrow and bring it down?I had refused to take the stag’s life, and countless people had died because of it—the citizens of Novokribirsk, the Grisha and soldiers I’d abandoned on the Darkling’s skiff. I thought of those high church walls covered in the names of the dead.Morozova’s stag. Rusalye. The firebird. Legends come to life before my eyes, just to die in front of me. I remembered the sea whip’s heaving sides, the thready whistle of its last breaths. It had been on the brink of death, and still I’d hesitated.I don’t want to be a killer. But mercy might not be a gift the Sun Summoner could afford. I gave myself a shake. First we had to find the firebird. Until then, all our hopes rested on the shoulders of one untrustworthy prince.* * *THE NEXT DAY, the first pilgrims appeared. They looked like any other townspeople, waiting by the road to see the royal procession roll past, but they wore armbands and carried banners emblazoned with a rising sun. Dirty from long days of travel, they hefted satchels and sacks stuffed with their few belongings, and when they caught sight of me in my blue kefta, the stag’s collar around my neck, they swarmed toward my horse, murmuring Sankta, Sankta, and trying to grab my sleeve or my hem. Sometimes they fell to their knees, and I had to be careful or risk my horse trampling one of them.I thought I’d grown used to all the attention, even being pawed at by strangers, but this felt different. I didn’t like being called “Saint,” and there was something hungry in their faces that set my nerves on edge.As we pushed deeper into Ravka’s interior, the crowds grew. They came from every direction, from cities, towns, and ports. They clustered in village squares and by the side of the Vy, men and women, old and young, some on foot, some astride donkeys or crowded into haycarts. Wherever we went, they cried out to me.Sometimes I was Sankta Alina, sometimes Alina the Just or the Bright or the Merciful. Daughter of Keramzin, they shouted, Daughter of Ravka. Daughter of the Fold. Rebe Dva Stolba, they called me, Daughter of Two Mills, after the valley that was home to the nameless settlement of my birth. I had the vaguest memory of the ruins the valley was named after, two rocky spindles by the side of a dusty road. The Apparat had been busy breaking open my past, sifting through the rubble to build the story of a Saint.The pilgrims’ expectations terrified me. As far as they were concerned, I’d come to liberate Ravka from its enemies, from the Shadow Fold, from the Darkling, from poverty, from hunger, from sore feet and mosquitos and anything else that might trouble them. They begged for me to bless them, to cure them, but I could only summon light, wave, let them touch my hand. It was all part of Nikolai’s show.The pilgrims had come not just to see me but to follow me. They attached themselves to the royal processional, and their ragged band swelled with every passing day. They trailed us from town to town, camping in fallow fields, holding dawn vigils to pray for my safety and the salvation of Ravka. They were close to outnumbering Nikolai’s soldiers.“This is the Apparat’s doing,” I complained to Tamar one night at dinner.We were lodged at a roadhouse for the evening. Through the windows I could see the lights of the pilgrims’ cookfires, hear them singing peasant songs.“These people should be home, working their fields and caring for their children, not following some false Saint.”Tamar pushed a piece of overcooked potato around on her plate and said, “My mother told me that Grisha power is a divine gift.”“And you believed her?”“I don’t have a better explanation.”I set my fork down. “Tamar, we don’t have a divine gift. Grisha power is just something you’re born with, like having big feet or a good singing voice.”“That’s what the Shu believe. That it’s something physical, buried in your heart or your spleen, something that can be isolated and dissected.” She glanced out the window to the pilgrims’ camp. “I don’t think those people would agree.”“Please don’t tell me you think I’m a Saint.”“It doesn’t matter what you are. It matters what you can do.”“Tamar—”“Those people think you can save Ravka,” she said. “Obviously you do, too, or you wouldn’t be going to Os Alta.”“I’m going to Os Alta to rebuild the Second Army.”“And find the third amplifier?”I nearly dropped my fork. “Keep your voice down,” I sputtered.“We saw the Istorii Sankt’ya.”So Sturmhond hadn’t kept the book a secret. “Who else knows?” I asked, trying to regain my composure.“We’re not going to tell anyone, Alina. We know what’s at risk.” Tamar’s glass had left a damp circle on the table. She traced it with her finger and said, “You know, some people believe that all the first Saints were Grisha.”I frowned. “Which people?”Tamar shrugged. “Enough that their leaders were excommunicated. Some were even burned at the stake.”“I’ve never heard that.”“It was a long time ago. I don’t understand why that idea makes people so angry. Even if the Saints were Grisha, that doesn’t make what they did any less miraculous.”I squirmed in my chair. “I don’t want to be a Saint, Tamar. I’m not trying to save the world. I just want to find a way to defeat the Darkling.”“Rebuild the Second Army. Defeat the Darkling. Destroy the Fold. Free Ravka. Call it what you like, but that all sounds suspiciously like saving the world.”Well, when she put it that way, it did seem a little ambitious. I took a sip of wine. It was sour stuff compared with the vintages aboard the Volkvolny.