Ruin and Rising
By Leigh Bardugo
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2014 Leigh Bardugo
All rights reserved.
I STOOD ON a carved stone balcony, arms spread, shivering in my cheap robes, and tried to put on a good show. My kefta was a patchwork, sewn together from scraps of the gown I was wearing the night we fled the palace and garish curtains that I'd been told came from a defunct theater somewhere near Sala. Beads from the lobby chandeliers made up the trim. The embroidery at the cuffs was already coming undone. David and Genya had done their best, but there were limited resources underground.
From a distance, it did the trick, sparkling gold in the light that seemed to emanate from my palms, sending bright glimmers over the ecstatic faces of my followers far below. Up close, it was all loose threads and false shine. Just like me. The threadbare Saint.
The Apparat's voice boomed through the White Cathedral, and the crowd swayed, eyes closed, hands raised, a field of poppies, arms like pale stalks shaken by some wind I couldn't feel. I followed a choreographed series of gestures, moving deliberately so that David and whichever Inferni was helping him this morning could track my movements from their position in the chamber hidden just above the balcony. I dreaded morning prayers, but according to the priest, these false displays were a necessity.
"It is a gift you give your people, Sankta Alina," he said. "It is hope."
Actually, it was an illusion, a pale suggestion of the light I'd once commanded. The golden haze was really Inferni fire, reflected off a beaten mirror dish that David had fashioned from salvaged glass. It was something like the dishes we'd used in our failed attempt to stave off the Darkling's horde during the battle in Os Alta. We'd been taken by surprise; and my power, our planning, all of David's ingenuity, and Nikolai's resourcefulness hadn't been enough to stop the slaughter. Since then, I'd been unable to summon so much as a sunbeam. But most of the Apparat's flock had never seen what their Saint could really do, and for now, this deception was enough.
The Apparat finished his sermon. That was the signal to end. The Inferni let the light flare bright around me. It jumped and wavered erratically, then finally faded as I dropped my arms. Well, now I knew who was on fire duty with David. I cast a scowl up at the cave. Harshaw. He was always getting carried away. Three Inferni had made it out of the battle at the Little Palace, but one had died just days later from her wounds. Of the two that remained, Harshaw was the most powerful and the most unpredictable.
I stepped down from the platform, eager to be out of the Apparat's presence, but my foot faltered and I stumbled. The priest grasped my arm, steadying me.
"Have a care, Alina Starkov. You are incautious with your safety."
"Thanks," I said. I wanted to pull away from him, from the turned- soil and incense stench he brought with him everywhere.
"You're feeling poorly today."
"Just clumsy." We both knew that was a lie. I was stronger than when I'd come to the White Cathedral — my bones had mended, I'd managed to keep down meals — but I was still frail, my body plagued by aches and constant fatigue.
"Perhaps a day of rest, then."
I gritted my teeth. Another day confined to my chamber. I swallowed my frustration and smiled weakly. I knew what he wanted to see.
"I'm so cold," I said. "Some time in the Kettle would do me good." Strictly speaking, it was true. The kitchens were the one place in the White Cathedral where the damp could be held at bay. By this time, at least one of the breakfast fires would be lit. The big round cavern would be full of the smells of baking bread and the sweet porridge the cooks made from stores of dried peas and powdered milk provided by allies on the surface and stockpiled by the pilgrims.
I added a shiver for good measure, but the priest's only reply was a noncommittal "hmm."
Movement at the base of the cavern caught my attention: pilgrims, newly arrived. I couldn't help but look at them with a strategic eye. Some wore uniforms that marked them as First Army deserters. All were young and able-bodied.
"No veterans?" I asked. "No widows?"
"It's a hard journey underground," the Apparat replied. "Many are too old or weak to move. They prefer to stay in the comfort of their homes."
Unlikely. The pilgrims came on crutches and canes, no matter how old or sick. Even dying, they came to see the Sun Saint in their last days. I cast a wary glance over my shoulder. I could just glimpse the Priestguards, bearded and heavily armed, standing sentinel in the archway. They were monks, scholar priests like the Apparat, and belowground they were the only people allowed to carry weapons. Above, they were the gatekeepers, ferreting out spies and unbelievers, granting sanctuary to those they deemed worthy. Lately, the pilgrims' numbers had been dwindling, and those who did join our ranks seemed more hearty than pious. The Apparat wanted potential soldiers, not just mouths to feed.
"I could go to the sick and elderly," I said. I knew the argument was futile, but I made it anyway. It was almost expected. "A Saint should walk amongst her people, not hide like a rat in a warren."
The Apparat smiled — the benevolent, indulgent smile that the pilgrims adored and that made me want to scream. "In times of trouble, many animals go to ground. That's how they survive," he said. "After fools wage their battles, it is the rats that rule the fields and towns."
And feast on the dead, I thought with a shudder. As if he could read my thoughts, he pressed a hand to my shoulder. His fingers were long and white, splaying over my arm like a waxen spider. If the gesture was meant to comfort me, it failed.
"Patience, Alina Starkov. We rise when the time is right and not before."
Patience. That was always his prescription. I resisted the urge to touch my bare wrist, the empty place where the firebird's bones were meant to reside. I had claimed the sea whip's scales and the stag's antlers, but the final piece in Morozova's puzzle was missing. We might have had the third amplifier by now if the Apparat had lent his support to the hunt or just let us return to the surface. But that permission would only come at a price.
"I'm cold," I repeated, burying my irritation. "I want to go to the Kettle."
He frowned. "I don't like you huddling down there with that girl —"
Behind us, the guards muttered restlessly, and a word floated back to me. Razrusha'ya. I batted the Apparat's hand away and marched into the passage. The Priestguards came to attention. Like all their brothers, they were dressed in brown and wore the golden sunburst, the same symbol that marked the Apparat's robes. My symbol. But they never looked directly at me, never spoke to me or the other Grisha refugees. Instead, they stood silently at the edges of rooms and trailed me everywhere like bearded, rifle-wielding specters.
"That name is forbidden," I said. They stared straight ahead, as if I were invisible. "Her name is Genya Safin, and I'd still be the Darkling's prisoner if it weren't for her." No reaction. But I saw them tense at even the sound of her name. Grown men with guns, afraid of a scarred girl. Superstitious idiots.
"Peace, Sankta Alina," said the Apparat, taking my elbow to shepherd me across the passage and into his audience chamber. The silver-veined stone of the ceiling was carved into a rose, and the walls were painted with Saints in their golden halos. It must have been Fabrikator craft because no ordinary pigment could withstand the cold and damp of the White Cathedral. The priest settled himself in a low wooden chair and gestured for me to take another. I tried to hide my relief as I sank down into it. Even standing for too long left me winded.
He peered at me, taking in my sallow skin, the dark smudges beneath my eyes. "Surely Genya can do more for you."
It had been over two months since my battle with the Darkling, and I hadn't fully recovered. My cheekbones cut the hollows of my face like angry exclamations, and the white fall of my hair was so brittle it seemed to float like cobwebs. I'd finally talked the Apparat into letting Genya attend me in the kitchens with the promise that she might work her craft and make me more presentable. It was the only real contact I'd had with the other Grisha in weeks. I'd savored every moment, every bit of news.
"She's doing her best," I said.
The priest sighed. "I suppose we must all be patient. You will heal in time. Through faith. Through prayer."
A surge of rage took hold of me. He knew damn well that the only thing that would heal me was using my power, but to do that, I needed to return to the surface.
"If you would just let me venture aboveground —"
"You are too precious to us, Sankta Alina, and the risk is far too great." He shrugged apologetically. "You will not have a care for your safety, so I must."
I stayed silent. This was the game we played, that we'd been playing since I'd been brought here. The Apparat had done a lot for me. He was the only reason any of my Grisha had made it out of the battle with the Darkling's monsters. He'd given us safe haven underground. But every day the White Cathedral felt more like a prison than a refuge.
He steepled his fingers. "Months gone by, and still you do not trust me."
"I do," I lied. "Of course I do."
"And yet, you will not let me help you. With the firebird in our possession, all this might change."
"David is working his way through Morozova's journals. I'm sure the answer is there."
The Apparat's flat black gaze burrowed into me. He suspected I knew the location of the firebird — Morozova's third amplifier and the key to unlocking the only power that might defeat the Darkling and destroy the Fold. And he was right. At least, I hoped he was. The only clue we had to its location was buried in my scant childhood memories and the hope that the dusty ruins of Dva Stolba were more than they seemed. But right or wrong, the firebird's possible location was a secret I intended to keep. I was isolated underground, close to powerless, spied upon by the Priestguards. I wasn't about to give up the one bit of leverage I had.
"I want only the best for you, Alina Starkov. For you and your friends. So few remain. If anything were to happen to them —"
"You leave them be," I snarled, forgetting to be sweet, to be gentle.
The Apparat's look was too keen for my liking. "I simply meant that accidents happen underground. I know you would feel each loss deeply, and you are so very weak." On the last word, his lips stretched back over his gums. They were black like a wolf's.
Again, rage coursed through me. From my first day in the White Cathedral, threat had hung heavy in the air, suffocating me with the steady press of fear. The Apparat never missed an opportunity to remind me of my vulnerability. Almost without thinking, I twitched my fingers in my sleeves. Shadows leapt up the walls of the chamber.
The Apparat reared back in his chair. I frowned at him, feigning confusion. "What's wrong?" I asked.
He cleared his throat, eyes darting right and left. "It's ... it's nothing," he stammered.
I let the shadows fall. His reaction was well worth the wave of dizziness that came when I used this trick. And that's all it was. I could make the shadows jump and dance but nothing more. It was a sad little echo of the Darkling's power, some remnant left behind in the wake of the confrontation that had nearly killed us both. I'd discovered it when trying to summon light, and I'd struggled to hone it to something greater, something I could fight with. I'd had no success. The shadows felt like a punishment, ghosts of greater power that served only to taunt me, the Saint of shams and mirrors.
The Apparat rose, attempting to regain his composure. "You will go to the archives," he said decisively. "Time in quiet study and contemplation will help to ease your mind."
I stifled a groan. This really was punishment — hours spent fruitlessly perusing old religious texts for information on Morozova. Not to mention that the archives were damp, miserable, and crawling with Priestguards. "I will escort you," he added. Even better.
"And the Kettle?" I asked, trying to hide the desperation in my voice.
"Later. Razru — Genya will wait," he said as I followed him into the passage. "You needn't scurry off to the Kettle, you know. You could meet with her here. In privacy."
I glanced at the guards, who had fallen into step behind us. Privacy. That was laughable. But the idea of being kept from the kitchens was not. Maybe today the master flue would open for more than a few seconds. It was a slim hope, but it was all the hope I had.
"I prefer the Kettle," I said. "It's warm there." I gave him my meekest smile, let my lip tremble slightly, and added, "It reminds me of home."
He loved that — the image of a humble girl, huddling by a cookstove, hem trailing in ash. Another illusion, one more chapter in his book of Saints.
"Very well," he said at last.
It took a long while to wend our way down from the balcony. The White Cathedral took its name from the alabaster of its walls and the massive main cavern where we held services every morning and evening. But it was much more than that — a sprawling network of tunnels and caves, a city underground. I hated every inch of it. The moisture that seeped through the walls, dripped from the ceilings, clustered in beads on my skin. The chill that couldn't be dispelled. The toadstools and night flowers that bloomed in cracks and crevices. I hated the way we marked time: morning services, afternoon prayer, evening services, Saints' days, days for fasting and half fasting. But mostly I hated the feeling that I really was a little rat, pale and red-eyed, scrabbling at the walls of my maze with feeble pink-tinged claws.
The Apparat led me through the caverns north of the main basin, where the Soldat Sol trained. People backed against the rock or reached out to touch my golden sleeve as we passed. We set a slow pace, dignified — necessary. I couldn't move any faster without getting winded. The Apparat's flock knew I was sick and said prayers for my health, but he feared there would be a panic if they discovered just how fragile — how very human — I was.
The Soldat Sol had already begun their training by the time we arrived. These were the Apparat's holy warriors, sun soldiers who bore my symbol tattooed on their arms and faces. Most of them were First Army deserters, though others were simply young, fierce, and willing to die. They'd helped to rescue me from the Little Palace, and the casualties had been brutal. Holy or not, they were no match for the Darkling's nichevo'ya. Still, the Darkling had human soldiers and Grisha in his service too, so the Soldat Sol trained.
But now they did it without real weapons, with dummy swords and rifles loaded with wax pellets. The Soldat Sol were a different kind of pilgrim, brought to the cult of the Sun Saint by the promise of change, many of them young and ambivalent about the Apparat and the old ways of the church. Since my arrival underground, the Apparat had kept them on a far tighter leash. He needed them, but he didn't wholly trust them. I knew the feeling.
Priestguards lined the walls, maintaining a close eye on the proceedings. Their bullets were real, and so were the blades of their sabers.
As we entered the training area, I saw that a group had gathered to watch Mal spar with Stigg, one of our two surviving Inferni. He was thick-necked, blond, and utterly humorless — Fjerdan to the core.
Mal on his shirt. The onlookers gasped. I thought he might draw back, but instead he charged. He dove into a roll, dousing the flames on the ground and knocking Stigg's feet from beneath him. In a flash, he had the Inferni pinned facedown. He secured Stigg's wrists, preventing another attack.
The watching sun soldiers broke into appreciative applause and whistles.
Zoya tossed her glossy black hair over one shoulder. "Well done, Stigg. You're trussed and ready for basting."
Mal silenced her with a look. "Distract, disarm, disable," he said. "The trick is not to panic." He rose and helped Stigg to his feet. "You all right?"
Stigg scowled, annoyed, but nodded and moved to spar with a pretty young soldier.
"Come on, Stigg," the girl said with a wide grin. "I won't go too rough on you." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo. Copyright © 2014 Leigh Bardugo. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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