The boy’s name is Kazimir when he first encounters the book.
It isn’t a special book. Oh, it’s special enough to Kazimir, who buys it himself out of the money he earned from writing letters for a local carpenter, but it’s only two and a half kopeks and there are three copies of it on the bookseller’s stall alone. It’s not even a nice edition: the pages are thin to the point of translucence and the ink of the illustrations blurs under his sweaty fingers.
Still, it’s his. He carries it faithfully from hideout to hideout, wasting his precious oilskin on protecting it from the elements. His mother scoffed when she saw the title, but it’s small and light and when he’s reading he doesn’t bother her, so she never tries to get rid of it.
Kazimir loves it.
The pages detail lovingly the lives of the saints: the draining of Sankta Anastasia’s blood, Sankt Grigori and the bear, and Sankt Feliks’s coolness in the face of fire. Each saint’s death has its own illustration, a dense woodcut drawing of someone being mauled or roasted, or their corpse disintegrating into sea foam. Much attention is given to the agony of Sankta Lizabeta, lying spreadeagled on the ground in the moment before the butcher’s axe comes down, and to the travails of Sankt Nikolai. The author transparently has his favourites. So does Kazimir.
Sankta Alina, the Sun-Scorched Saint, is the last story in the book, and the longest. Elsewhere, the author hems his characters in with frequent invocations of their purity and selflessness, clearly aware that anyone who finds their best-loved saint’s portrayal lacking will write him an angry letter. But only Grisha worship Sankta Alina.
There are no protestations of righteousness in her story. The author mentions her early career of bringing light to dark places almost as an apology: it must be said, she did do all that, though of course it doesn’t mean anything in the end; it doesn’t balance the scales. Sankta Alina carried light in her hands to guide Prince Yevgeni through the mountain caves of the Sikurzoi; Sankta Alina was a beacon for ships lost at sea. Sankta Alina’s lover died, and she filled his body with so much light that his soul reawakened.
But then Sankta Alina became so greedy that she wanted to swallow the sun. She walked out into the plains of central Ravka and declared that she meant to tear down the stars and take their power for her own, and she was so great and terrible that when she commanded them the sun and stars answered. They fell down from the sky and became her servants, and their light scorched the earth, shrivelling crops and blistering human skin. In the end, Sankta Alina in her madness refused to give up the sun and her own lover, the lover she had resurrected, slew her. The grieving sun punished the land, promising that nothing would ever grow there again.
It is the only time in his life that Kazimir has felt kinship with the sun.
The book is not perfect, even to Kazimir. The illustration for Sankta Alina at the height of her power is disappointing, as if the artist chickened out at the last minute: it shows her suspended in midair, rays of light splitting her hands and feet, her ankle-length golden hair streaming down, gently buffeted by a breeze. The expression on her face is exalted. Peaceful. It’s insipid.
Nevertheless, he takes the book with him when he leaves his mother behind. Their last argument is vicious, and he says more than he means, carried away by the fire of youth. His mother takes it with an indifference bordering on disdain: she didn’t raise him to be so stupid, she says. If he’s going to behave like this then she washes her hands of him.
He has only a half-formed plan when he leaves, more of an idle daydream than a strategy. But half a mile down the road it occurs to him: why shouldn’t he join the army? He’s seventeen and healthy — he’ll have to be careful about using his powers, but a too-dark tent at night shouldn’t attract much suspicion.
Kazimir finds a recruiting sergeant in the pub two villages over and hands himself over to the temporary service of the king. It comes as a shock to the sergeant, who was planning to get him drunk and press-gang him, but that’s of no moment. When he’s asked for his name, he calls himself Ilya Kaverin.
Ilya Kaverin keeps himself to himself in camp. His squadmates complain about his coldness, about his modesty, about how he shies away even from a slap on the back. It turns out he has a talent for sharpshooting, so he gets the best rifle, and his squadmates complain about that, too. The captain starts sending him off on longer and longer patrols, until eventually Ilya’s orders are boiled down to brief descriptions of people to look for, and he sits in a hunting blind in the forest for three months until they come by.
This suits him enormously. He’s able to use the shadows to envelop his hiding place and, on his rare misses with the rifle, he simply commands the darkness to choke the enemy to death. The Fjerdans soon begin to believe the forest is haunted.
On one of his infrequent trips back to camp, Ilya is called in by the captain to give his report. There isn’t much to it: the soldiers he was told to look out for are dead, along with any drüskelle trying to use the forest as cover to get across the border.
The captain, as he always does, seems somewhat ill at ease.
“You don’t have to do that,” he says, shifting awkwardly in his seat. “Drüskelle are hardly a threat.”
“Sir,” says Ilya.
“It’s as well you came in today,” says the captain, changing the subject quickly. “We’ve received orders to break camp and head down to Kribirsk, so you and the rest of the unit will have some time for walking out in the town. Not expected back until late, given the circumstances.”
“After that we’ll be moving across to West Ravka.” Ilya lifts his head, suddenly interested, but the captain won’t look him in the eye. “Remind them who they belong to, and all that. It’s an honour for the unit, being the first on the new locomotive. After that, it’ll be back up to the frozen wastes. Closer to Djerholm this time, you’ll like that.”
Ilya isn’t sure why he’s supposed to like that. The captain coughs and shuffles his papers unnecessarily before dismissing him.
Once free, Ilya takes the opportunity to bathe in the river before the rest of his unit finishes drill, stripping off and scrubbing himself red. It’s better to avoid the squad where he can; while they don’t try horseplay on him any more, it’s a risk he isn’t willing to take. He’s still not sure if any of them are Grisha, and he has no intention of being the one to draw out their power if so.
West Ravka. Only the desperate cross the Unholy Wastes. It’s a death sentence even for those who have water for the heat and artillery for the monsters — they’re eaten alive from the inside over the course of the next months or years, as if a curse had been placed on the land by Sankta Alina. Ravka fought a war with Shu Han centuries ago just to reclaim a southern pass that would allow one side of the country to meet the other. The then Sun Priestess had levelled mountains to turn it into a road. Then they’d killed her, just in case.
Not wholly immune to fear, he attends dinner in the canteen for the first time in months. The cacophony of voices and the clinking of cutlery in tins is almost overwhelming, and he hesitates in the tent opening.
Luda, the only member of the unit he hasn’t succeeded in alienating, waves him over as soon as she spots him.
“You’re back!” she says delightedly. Her friend next to her flattens her mouth to hide a grin; a shared secret Ilya isn’t privy to.
“I’m back,” he agrees. His eyes drop to her shoulder. “Congratulations on the stripes.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll still go easy on you,” she says. “How was your patrol?”
“Very quiet.” Before she can take it as a rebuff, he adds, “It’s good to see a familiar face.”
She smiles wider than the compliment warrants, but then in a low voice asks: “Did the captain talk to you?”
Luda sighs. “I’m not looking forward to the crossing.”
“There’s still the last night out in Kribirsk,” says her friend practically.
She laughs, shooting Ilya a veiled look, which he ignores. If he could be sure she wasn’t Grisha, he might — but there’s only one way to be sure and he’d be the one out on the ice.
But it’s a pleasant evening. On the march down to Kribirsk, Ilya keeps his mouth shut for four days, but Luda isn’t deterred, calling out encouragement as they stride along. Two members of the squad desert in the night; from the captain’s indifference, Ilya divines that he was hoping this would happen. The captain doesn’t think of himself as a bad man.
Luda and her friend invite him out on the town, but Ilya says no without an excuse, retiring early to his tent to read by candlelight instead. His bunkmates think he’s a religious maniac.
He knows the chapter on Sankta Alina by heart, but he flips to it anyway, hardly reading the words on the page. This close to the Unholy Wastes it’s too hot to sleep and it keeps his brain occupied; he has no desire to think about what might await them in the desert. The description of Sankta Alina weeping over her lover catches his attention instead. Each tear like a diamond.
The night draws on and he puts the book down, lying on his back on top of the scratchy standard-issue blanket. Luda was writing a letter to her mother earlier, her lip almost bitten through. Ilya hasn’t written to his mother in two years, not since his first letter was returned unopened. He no longer even has a direction for her.
He sleeps eventually. Gathering the shadows close to him cools the tent down considerably; even his incurious squadmates realise it when they return from carousing and wake him with their cursing. In the darkness he traces patterns they can’t see.
Hours later, reveille breaks the stillness of the dawn. Ilya retrieves the shadows and goes outside, where Luda is dousing her face under the pump. The cold water splashes into her hair, pulling wet tendrils free and sticking to her cheeks.
She opens her eyes and promptly goes bright red.
“Good morning,” he says.
“Morning!” she blurts, pushing her hair back off her face hastily. “Is it just you?”
“Just me,” he says.
“I’d better go and pull on the guy ropes,” she says. “If we’re late today it’ll be my head on the chopping block. The Sun Priestess is coming to bless the locomotive.”
Ilya’s eyebrows go up, but it makes sense. It’s the locomotive’s maiden voyage across Sankta Alina’s Folly, and it’s not as if the king would come himself to the deathtrap of Kribirsk. Five thousand navvies died laying the track, from attacks by arrakhis or from the sickness that plagues any town lying along the wasteland’s edge. If this journey fails, it’ll all have been for nothing.
The sun is high in the sky by the time his unit files on board the enormous lead-lined behemoth that’s supposed to be taking them across. It beats down on them ruthlessly, heating the heavy tabard Ilya is wearing and cooking him alive. His squadmates are already looking faint. It’ll be a miracle if they make it across without sunstroke.
There’s a handful of dignitaries joining them, none of whom look thrilled by the prospect of being the first people to successfully cross the wastes unharmed in four hundred years. The Mayor of Kribirsk has already started day-drinking. They disappear down into the belly of the beast, where the lead in the walls is as thick as Ilya’s thigh.
The only person who lingers on deck is the Sun Priestess. Ilya takes the opportunity to observe her. For the most powerful woman in the Church, she looks young — no more than thirty-five, if that. Her eyes are wide and dark, set in an oval face; her eyebrows straight and black. She seems to eschew most forms of ostentation: her only ornamentation is her golden tiara, wound into her white hair so that from the front she appears always to be crowned by the sun.
When she speaks, her voice is as calm and clear as a bell.
“O mighty Sankt’ya, be pleased to receive into your gracious protection all those who journey in this ship of the sands. Sankt Egmond, we give you thanks for those who built this locomotive, for the inspiration you gave to those who drew the blueprints and to those who cast the parts. Sankt Nikolai, we beg of you to open your hand over these land sailors, and shield them from the light. Sankt Vladimir, patron of unlikely achievements, bless this maiden voyage of the Malyen Oretsev, and preserve from harm all those who journey in her.”
“O Sankta Alina, it’s been four hundred years, let us have this one,” Luda mutters to Ilya. He doesn’t laugh.
The tracker for their unit hisses, “Why’s a Ravkan saint got a Shu priestess?”
The Sun Priestess hears him and her mouth tightens. She strides forward to the prow and brings her arm down in a slash, alerting the stokers.
With a groan, the locomotive begins to chug forward.
Ahead of them, the Unholy Wastes glimmer, an uneasy haze visible on the air. The sands are bone white, bleached from centuries in the sun. In the Istorii Sankt’ya, the author makes a lengthy point about how it used to be all greenery, verdant and lush. True or not, as Ilya looks out over the track, it’s clear that it follows a predetermined path, long and winding, a natural depression in the earth. The River Vy, all dried up.
Smoke from the coal fires fills the air, bringing unwanted tears to his eyes. He blinks them away and refocuses his gaze on the Sun Priestess. He’s never seen another Grisha like her; most of them look as ordinary as otkazat’sya. But she has an unearthliness to her that draws the eye, clad in flowing white that almost glows in the unbearable sun, her dark eyes unreadable. Perhaps all Grisha become like her, once hidden away in the Priory. He’s not sure he enjoys the idea.
The locomotive shudders on. The smoke makes it difficult to see what’s happening more than five feet from your face, but the ripple of excitement that runs around his unit when they reach the first marker is impossible to miss.
Luda nudges him with the butt of her rifle. “Looking good, Ilya.”
He gives her a tiny smile, and glances out over the sands. The locomotive jolts beneath them, and for a moment he thinks it’s just that: a trick of his sore eyes as he stumbles. But then it comes again, a half-visible shiver in the sand, and he shoulders his rifle without hesitation, aiming straight at it.
The crack of the bullet startles everyone except the Sun Priestess, and Luda turns on him sharply. “What the hell are you — ”
The arrakhis rears up out of the sand.
Ilya is thrown back as it hurls its huge body at the side of the locomotive. It’s too heavy to overturn, but the impact leaves a dent the size of a door in the metal. He skids back on his knees, fingers clenched around his rifle, and scrambles behind a post for cover. Around him, the rest of the unit are firing, emptying their magazines into the sandworm, while he snaps open the breech and reloads.
The Sun Priestess leaps onto the rail, forming a sigil with her hands. A beam of light bursts from her, blinding the sandworm; Ilya takes advantage of its screaming maw and fires directly down its throat. The arrakhis shrieks again, this time lashing its vast tail around the locomotive, but it doesn’t seem especially hurt, beating its head against the deck rail until it gives way. Two of his squadmates stumble away from the damage, but the long, purple tongue of the arrakhis wraps around one’s waist and drags him into the black hole of its mouth. The one who survived slips in the monster’s wet saliva and howls, the skin on his palms bubbling where he hit the deck.
Ilya aims again, but Luda is sprinting across the deck, ignoring the way the acid eats into the soles of her boots, and dragging their comrade to safety. She covers his hands with her own and their squadmate’s sobs slowly dissipate.
He says, wondering, “How did you…?”
The Sun Priestess puts her hands together again: praying, but with an immediate answer. Light bends away from them, a manipulation so subtle in the overwhelming sunlight that Ilya thinks he might be the only person who realises. Slowly, the agitated arrakhis begins to sway its head from side to side as if in bewilderment.
It can ’t see us.
Ilya rolls to his feet, shouldering his rifle again. With the danger momentarily abating, he lines up a shot at where the arrakhis’s brain might be, and looks at the Sun Priestess.
She shakes her head, almost invisibly.
The crack of his squadmate’s rifle comes suddenly and Ilya jerks his head around. The tracker for their unit, his face pale as milk, has his rifle trained on the Sun Priestess. He’s breathing too fast.
“She did this,” he says. “The Grisha bitch. She summoned that fucking worm.”
Coldness settles in around Ilya’s heart.
The Sun Priestess holds out her hands. The bullet did nothing to her; the little bit of lead lies squashed on the deck, gleaming white in the sun. “I am not your enemy.”
His squadmate’s hands are sweaty on the gun. Ilya can tell from the uneasy slide of his thumb over the trigger that he’s already coming down from the adrenaline spike of shooting the Sun Priestess; it makes him more dangerous, not less.
“You’re a monster,” says his squadmate, licking his lips nervously. “Just like her.”
He jerks the muzzle upwards to aim for her head.
Ilya brings his hands together.
The Sun Priestess orders the locomotive to reverse itself immediately. Her face is glowing. She takes Ilya’s hands in hers and kisses them, running her thumbs over his knuckles.
“A Shadow Summoner,” she says, her voice full of emotion. “I didn’t know there were any.”
The spotlight makes him cringe as nothing else ever has. He feels naked beneath it, utterly exposed to her bottomless gaze. He opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes out. All he can do is look at her, and let her look at him.
She must be able to feel the way his power calls to her own, trying to awaken it from the cradle of light within her, but she doesn’t mention it. Ilya finds himself grateful for that much. If he must be known as Grisha, at least no one need try and kill him for his bones.
“He’s not Grisha,” says Luda from behind him. There’s a hopelessness to it. She knows it’s no use.
They arrive back at the docks in less than an hour, much faster going back than they were going out; there’s no need to conserve their coal. There’s a crowd waiting for them. They must have seen the locomotive coming back from miles away.
Leading Ilya by the hand, the Sun Priestess steps daintily onto the dock.
“What happened?” someone shouts from the crowd.
“A miracle,” she says.
The crowd falls silent as she draws Ilya in front of her. With a sense of real startlement, he realises how much taller he is; he almost eclipses her.
Her voice is low and sweet in his ear. “Show them.”
For a strained moment, he considers pretending to fail. His mother never trusted the Priory; she swore it was too good to be true. Embarrassing the Sun Priestess would destroy the hopes of Ilya Kaverin, but Ilya Kaverin’s already lived too long.
Her hands on his shoulders are as cool as twilight.
He takes a deep breath. Every person in the mob casts a shadow; each of them slowly begins to lengthen and pool around their feet. Gradually they climb, until all are bathed in darkness. Then he reaches higher, listening to the soft gasps of the crowd, until he blots out the sun.
For the first time ever, night falls at midday in Kribirsk.
Matters move quickly after that. Ilya is bundled into a carriage, his green army jacket swapped for the calf-length kefta of a Priory disciple. He looks like a priest. His mother would strangle him if she saw him now.
A moment later the carriage door opens and two more Grisha pile in, one male, one female. These two weren’t on the locomotive: does that make them dispensable to the Sun Priestess, or too important to lose?
The woman smiles and says, “Could you move up a little? David likes his space.”
So does Ilya. He moves up without a word.
She continues: “I’m Genya. With all that fuss, I don’t think we caught your name?”
Ilya is silent. Then, showing her his reluctance, he says, “My enlistment papers…they aren’t quite right.”
“No?” she says sympathetically. “Don’t worry, that’s not unusual. We all know what’s it’s like to have to conceal oneself. Many of us take new names when we enter the Priory.”
A little colour comes into her cheeks. “Sol Koroleva bestowed this name upon me herself.”
Ilya is used to having names given to him. If everyone at the Priory calls him Dmitri, or what-have-you, it can only make it that much easier to hide after he escapes.
He asks, “Sol Koroleva?”
It’s David who answers, quite natural and unembarrassed. “That’s what we all call her.”
They’re delighted to tell him all about life in the Priory. It’s technically on the grounds of the Grand Palace, but otherwise — Genya assures him — the Grisha there live quite simply, blissful in their seclusion. They grow their own food and brew their own alcohol, unencumbered by the stresses of ordinary life. They must have special permission to go beyond the high walls, of course, but so few even ask. A Grisha at the Priory may spend years in contemplation, decades, or else devote themselves to some pastime or other. It sounds idyllic. To Genya, perhaps it is.
There are two gates in the Priory, Ilya notes. One is impressive, so large a king’s retinue could pass through, and the other much smaller and for everyday use. It must have more than one key, if that’s the case. The Sun Priestess must have one, who else might? He listens intently.
The attack comes without warning.
One minute the carriage is rattling along; the next, David has thrown him to the ground and the shutter on the carriage window is reforming into steel before his eyes. Genya goes out the door and David follows, welding it shut behind him. Ilya forms the Cut in his hands, waiting for someone to try breaking in. Outside he can hear screams and shouts — some of them in Fjerdan, which as good as tells him what’s going on.
There’s a thud right outside the welded door. Ilya flattens himself against the opposite wall, the Cut still vibrating between his palms. The blast that comes knocks him right off his feet, sending him twenty feet across the grass. His ears ring with it.
He forces himself up onto his knees, trying to reform the shadows with his hands, but before he can his Fjerdan attacker is bisected in a blinding flash of light.
The Sun Priestess bears down upon him, her Zemeni grey swerving at the last moment to avoid him. “Are you hurt?” she calls.
“No,” he says. Her white hair dances as she whirls in the saddle, a little sun burning in her hands. She lets it loose, and the Fjerdans cry out. The Priory disciples don’t seem to see it, or perhaps they’re used to it: Genya takes advantage of the pause to rearrange a man’s bones. His comrade brings up his rifle, but it jams and when he tries again it backfires. When Ilya looks to the culprit, David is crouched on the ground, looking miserable about it all, so Ilya finishes the drüskelle off.
“Back in the carriage, David,” orders the Sun Priestess. The last of the Fjerdans are all dead before he makes it there. “Continue on without us. The Shadow Summoner and I will ride alone.”
Ilya isn’t used to horses, but Genya gives him a boost. She’s careful to only touch the sole of his boot. A kindness, but one which recalls the Sun Priestess’s eyes on him. Seeing him.
He reaches carefully around the Sun Priestess to place a steadying hand on the pommel against her right thigh. She rides sidesaddle, the long white train of her gown falling almost to the horse’s belly. This close, he can see the intricate pattern of the brocade, a series of white-hot sunbursts almost invisible to the naked eye.
She trots a little to the side, giving way to the procession of Grisha carriages on the road; the two of them will be riding cross-country instead. Once they’re moving off, she says quietly: “You’d better put your hand on my waist.”
“Sol Koroleva,” he says, wary.
“We’ll need to ride fast over rough terrain,” she says. “Your delicacy does not go unappreciated, I assure you, but it would be silly of us to stand on ceremony.”
Cautiously, he allows both his hands to settle around her firm waist, making sure to remain a generous inch above her hips. She kicks the horse into a gallop and his grip tightens.
“Sorry,” he says, releasing her immediately.
Her laughter is kind. “Evil minds will think evil thoughts, but you and I are above such things. No one worthwhile would believe anything had happened.”
After a pause, he says, “Of course not.”
At least he’s sitting behind her. His face burns.
They ride at full gallop for what feels like miles, the countryside thundering past. Whenever they spot another human, however far away, the Sun Priestess has Ilya take the reins, holding them steady while she bends light around them. It forces him to lean forward over her shoulder, her hair tousling against his nose and cheek. If someone had asked — but why would they ask? — Ilya would have imagined her hair to smell of wild chamomile, growing thickly on the hillside. In fact, it smells of blood and sweat and, beneath that, the faint acrid scent of coal smoke from this morning. The reality of it grounds him: a real person, after all.
It isn’t until they’ve passed through the next village that she takes the reins again, thanking him in that calm voice. They splash through the burn without stopping, the horse kicking up spray onto Ilya’s uniform. When he hisses in annoyance, she slows the horse to a canter and then a stop, helping him down from its back.
“We’d best eat,” she says.
His chest tightens. “I can go on.”
She looks him over thoughtfully; Ilya straightens, slipping easily into parade ground rest. Her gaze roves over his shoulders and down to his thighs, encased in the unflattering cut of standard-issue trousers. “I believe you can,” she says, returning her attention to his face. “Let us say, therefore, that it would be better to eat now, before it gets dark.”
At her nod, he retrieves the saddlebag, which proves to have a half-loaf and a small wheel of yellow-white cheese, both of which she breaks in half. The biscuits are of good quality, not a weevil in sight. He eats too fast, but the Sun Priestess says nothing about it, only offering the canteen to wash out his mouth.
“You knew how to use the Cut,” she observes, not looking directly at him.
The water suddenly tastes polluted. He lowers the canteen slowly.
“If you knew you were Grisha, why not come to the Priory?”
He runs his thumb over the rim of the canteen. “I was badly brought up,” he offers.
“Are you not religious?”
The question is too complex to answer quickly. Finally, he says: “I’ve never been given to worship.”
There is something searing in her eyes when she turns her head, the glowing red of the blacksmith’s forge. “You will not be asked to worship.”
His mouth is dry; his fingers clench on the canteen’s neck. “No?”
“There hasn’t been a Shadow Summoner in four hundred years,” she says, every word laden with powerful emotion. “The Order has searched endlessly for you, and now I find that for nineteen years we could have found you, if only we had worked harder, if we had paid more attention. Where were you?”
In hunting blinds, he thinks, in caves and in cellars. Roving from place to place, never sticking to a hideout for more than a few months. His mother had kept him deliberately secret, he could see that now. And why? So that this unhappy woman couldn’t get hold of him? So that he might eke out years and years in a shadowy half-life, unable to touch friends and lovers, in constant fear that they would cut him open for his bones?
He sets down the canteen with a sharp clack on the rock, holding out his hand for her wrist. She gives it to him freely, letting him turn it over so that her pulse point is facing upwards. He draws his fingertip over it, feeling the hard throb of her blood beneath the thin skin.
Then he calls her light.
She responds immediately, her power blooming around them like the cupped petals of a tulip, glimmering in the twilight. His amplification pushes the light out further and further, until the riverbank is lit up clear as day. The luminescence of her summoning gives every leaf an eerie glow, every petal a moonflower.
All that, and she’s given him no more than a drop.
She looks up at him, her face full of compassion. Her dark eyes seem to reflect a thousand points of light. “It must have been very lonely, wherever you were.”
It no longer seems to matter whether or not it’s true. “Yes,” he says, his voice hoarse.
She doesn’t move, her wrist lying still in his grasp. They are connected only there, for a single moment. A shiver could break it.
“I don’t even know your name,” she says.
“Aleksander,” he says.
He’s never even said it aloud before. His voice seems to tear itself in half over the word.
“Aleksander,” she repeats. “You don’t have to be alone any more.”