The carriage stops a few feet from the church's doors, careless of the respect due to hallowed ground. Some of the believers, who are kneeling in the snow outside the building in search of atonement for sins they've created themselves, raise their heads from their perpetual prayer just to frown upon them.
They had to paint over the Darkling's crest on the doors as soon as they left Os Alta, lest the people knew that they were coming days ahead, but the coach is still black and surrounded by marching oprichniki, and they kind of give it away. Leo tried to explain to Blaine the importance of being subtle, of blending in, but it's hard to tune down the flare of a person who decided to wear black when literally nobody else does.
The oprichniki surround the building, closing off every possible way out. They don't make a sound, despite being so utterly human, and they move in perfect unison, like a giant machine. That's the only joy Leo can take in watching their otherwise mundane appearance. Once they are in position, Blaine gets out out of the coach, expecting him to follow. This is protocol, more than strategy. Blaine is set on stressing his position whenever he goes, so he always makes some time to make an entrance whenever he can.
This is the twelfth church they're checking in, Leo kept count. Counting is one of his quirks. He mostly counts because he can't help it, but in this case he's doing it very deliberately to let Blaine know how many places they've raided so far and in how many of them they found something, which is none. They've been away from Os Alta for almost a month now and, aside from being quite uncomfortable to sleep in a tent instead of their giant bed, not being at the Little Palace for so long could be very detrimental to his power.
Blaine didn't listen, he rarely does, after all. He's convinced that a Sun Summoner is the key to his plan and after sending dozens of his oprichniki to roam Ravka following even the smallest clues and seeing them coming back empty handed, he decided to take the matter into his own hands, which is what he always does in the end when he wants something done. That is why now they're the ones roaming Ravka in search of a Grisha nobody has seen in centuries.
Sun Summoners are very rare Grisha. So rare, in fact, that many people don't believe in their existence. But that's not Blaine's case. Shadow Summoners are the same shade of rare, and yet here he is, looking at himself in the mirror every morning. It's hard to believe someone like you doesn't exist when you do.
So far, they've checked out a few people that were said to have the power – eight – and some of them – three – were not even Grisha. The other five were two Healers, two Squallers and an Alkemi. Blaine was especially disappointed with this last one. He took it personally that an entire region of the country had confused such a specific type of Grisha with a common Fabrikator. It was unacceptable. So unacceptable indeed that Blaine didn't even invite him to join the Second Army like he did with all the others. That's why they currently have only Durasts in the third order, which could be a problem if he'll ever need blasting powder.
After so many dead ends, though, Leo must admit that they could really be onto something this time. Someone in Poliznaya was talking about a young boy who was able to make light, which in the simple words of the commoners could have been the description of a Sun Summoner. But when they got there, the boy was gone, if he ever was really there.
They have followed his traces all over Ravka as he was moved around from church to church by a group of fanatics that call themselves the Soldat Sol, the Sun Soldiers, and treat him like a saint. This more than anything else has convinced Blaine that they could be on the right path. People who harbor false prophets are always eager to show them around and make money out of them – they've met dozens of men and women selling Sankta Lizabeta's quite obviously fake bones – but if they try to hide them from you, then chances are they are the real deals.
The church in front of them looks abandoned to the point that it would be easier to tear it down than repair it. Half of the roof is gone and most of the windows – four – have no stained glass anymore. Ivy is squeezing the bricks of the facade, which is crumbling, threatening a full collapse. It's not exactly a place that invites you in, or even in its near proximity to be honest.
As they approach the building, a priest comes out from the doors that are barely holding up. He's a tall, scruffy man with disheveled hair and a long black beard streaked with white. The very human embodiment of the church at his back. Leo can't figure out his age. He could be in his late forties or way much older than that. These priests all look the same to him; ragged and quite unpleasant individuals, more often than not lacking in personal hygiene. It's like their religious fervor prevented them to be proper members of a civil society. And they say Grisha are beasts! Leo has had enough of their mystic-induced stench.
"You can't be here," the priest thunders, waving his long, knobby finger at them. As far as first words coming out of his mouth go, these are not the best ones. Rudeness is never a good choice in these kind of predicaments.
Leo pinches his vocal chords with a flick of his fingers, reducing his voice to nothing more than a whisper. Some people in his same position tend to use their power only as a last resort, but he doesn't like to wait and he hates to explain things, especially when they should be common knowledge. "It's moi soverennyi, show some respect."
He doesn't let go of the man's vocal chords until a satisfying nod of understanding comes from him. Moi soverennyi, the priest starts again, bringing his hand to his throat as if to cuddle his offended chords. "You can't be here, this is hallowed ground."
"I can be wherever I want, priest, that's the whole point of my Army," Blaine informs him. "But I have no intention of staying more than I need to. I know you're hiding a boy in your church. Deliver him to me and I'll be out of your way."
The priest straightens up. He loses nothing of his shabbiness, but he seems to grow in height and to gain determination. "There are no boys here, moi soverennyi, you have been misguided."
Leo can hear Blaine's annoyed sigh even if the man doesn't let out one. "I don't like to waste my time, so I will tell you this. I will enter this church whether you want me or not. If you keep living after I've left that's entirely up to you."
The priest seems to consider Blaine's words. Despite the remote location he's currently living in and the months he must have spent on the run with a little faithful army of his own - this is something he'll have to discuss with Blaine, isn't it? He doesn't like the number of those believers at all – the priest must know what they did in Keramzin, about the fire in Novokribirsk, about the wake of deaths they had to leave behind. And he must know what Leo's red kefta means, that what he experienced on his vocal chords is nothing but a fraction of what Leo could really do to him. So the priest decides to be a smart man.
“The boy is no Grisha,” he says, gravely. “He would be of no use to you. Leave him be, sir. Leave him here with us where he'll be adored and cared for as it should be.”
Leo raises an eyebrow, but it's Blaine who talks. “Adored? What do you think he is? A saint?”
The priest stiffs. “That is exactly what he is, sir,” he confirms. “A living saint, walking among us.”
That's when Blaine has enough. His perfectly controlled body doesn't show it, but Leo has known him long enough to recognize the smallest sign of dissatisfaction. All it takes is the slightest flick of his eyes and Leo knows he has to make himself scarce. “I'm willing to bet that boy is no more saint than I am, old man,” Blaine snaps, marching past him and towards the door, Leo right next to him. The priest tries to follow but he doesn't get a chance. “Hold him,” Blaine orders before disappearing inside the church, and two oprichniki grab the man by his arms. They can hear him scream curses at them, but the wind catches the words before they can make sense of them.
Inside, the church is in no better conditions that it is outside, but the light coming in colored fragments through the broken glass somehow manages to make the place more pleasant. There's an echo of what the church used to be in the raw wood of the pews and in the massive stone altar – the only thing still perfectly preserved – but it's just that, a vague impression that disappears the first time you blink.
There are believers inside too. They were kneeling in prayer, of course, but they stand up the moment Leo and Blaine reach the center of the aisle. They look hostile and Leo doesn't like that at all.
“Come out,” Blaine calls the boy, looking around, ready to catch the slightest movement. “We mean you no harm.”
They wait, listening to Blaine's voice reverberating against the walls. “I know what it feels like to have a power like yours,” Blaine goes on. “I'm like you, I can help you.”
Leo feels him, before seeing him. It's like a ripple in the air, something vibrating deep down his body, the same way Blaine's power does. It's different, though. He would say warmer if that made any sense. The boy is hiding behind one of the few columns still standing a few feet away from them. He looks tired and scared, and he seems to disappear inside the baggy robe they made him wear.
“There you are,” Blaine offers him a smile. “We've been looking for you for a month.”
The boy takes a step from behind the column. “Why?”
That is the first thing that comes out of his mouth – Leo's pretty obsessed with those too, apparently – and Leo thinks it says a lot of the month he must have spent with these people who dragged him from one side of Ravka to the other. He should know why they are here, so either they didn't tell him or he's putting them to the test. Whatever answer Blaine wanted to give him, though, he can't because the believers – four of them on each side, six men and two women – decide this is the right time to aim for martyrdom.
Three of them throw themselves at Blaine but don't get too close as their lungs stop working properly, cutting their breath short. As they convulse on the floor, Leo stops two more from walking towards them by snapping the bones in their legs. They fall on the ground like broken dolls, howling in pain. The last three come at him growling like animals and, as Leo stops two of them by bursting vessels in their heads, the third has got time to swing a crowbar at him. Furious, Leo closes his fist and crashes his heart. He can almost feel the dank, soft organ contracting irregularly against his palm as the man slumps on the floor, clutching at his chest.
In all this, Blaine hasn't even moved. That's how much he trusts Leo's abilities. He could have used the Cut and kill them all himself with the swipe of his hand, but he tends to use it only when it's strictly necessary as there is no turning back from it and he likes to give his enemy options when he can. Leo is his negotiator, so to speak.
“How is your faith now?” Leo snarls, stepping over him and looking down at him with disgust. “Can you see your saints already?”
The man whimpers, trying to roll away from him and his power, but he can't. Leo can feel every single particle his body is made of and he can do with them whatever he pleases. He could stop every single one of this man's organs and still keep him alive to feel it.
The other believers are silent now. Those with their legs broken are not moving anymore and the ones he keeps gasping with his left hand have gone pale, their body barely taking in enough air to stay conscious. A flick of their fingers and they would be all gone.
“Please, don't hurt them!” The boy takes a few steps on the aisle. “They mean no harm.”
“I'd like to disagree” Leo frowns.
“I am what you're looking for and I will come with you willingly,” the boy goes on, showing them a perfect sphere of light between his hands, confirming the suspect both Blaine and Leo already had at this point. As weird as it is, he is a Sun Summoner. “Just don't kill them.”
A nod from Blaine and Leo releases his grip on the believers' bodies. He can hear a collective breath of relief on his right and, at this feet, the man finally rolls on his side and folds in half, whimpering again as his heart stops contracting and slowly returns to normality.
“Leo, if you don't mind,” Blaine gestures towards the boy.
Leo takes a few quick steps towards him and, before the boy can understand what's going on, Leo tunes him down. He slows the beat of his heart and his breathing, forcing him to lose his senses. Then he's ready to catch him in his arms when he falls, all in one swift motion.
“You're so dramatic,” Blaine chuckles, shaking his head. Leo loves how he's the only one who can coerce a genuine laugh out of him.
“It must be the theater in my genes,” Leo grins back at him. His parents were traveling actors, after all. He must have taken after them in some way or another if not in his being Grisha. In fact, he was the first in the family to be like this – the first in the whole troupe, to be precise – and they celebrated it by casually forgetting him at the Little Palace after performing there one night. He was two. He doesn't really blame them, though; it must have been hard to care for a child who can stop your heart if he's having a tantrum. Besides, he likes to think of himself as hard to handle, in all the possible meanings of the phrase.
When they leave the church – Leo holding the unconscious boy in his arms like a freshly rescued princess – the priest is still swearing at them and, the moment he notices the seemingly lifeless body of the boy, he just starts screaming even more.
“You have no respect for the Saints!”
“And you disobeyed the King's direct orders not giving me the boy when I asked you,” Blaine informs him as they proceeds towards the carriage. “We both did things we were not supposed to do, with the only difference that you could be hanged.”
They're not here under the king's orders – in fact, he thinks they're somewhere near Os Kervo, rallying some troops or other, he's not really good at this stuff – but priests like this one have the habit of ignoring the court and whatever is happening in it. They like to think they live in a different country, under different laws.
“Heretic!” The priest barks, spitting saliva on the oprichniki that are holding him back. “An Aberration, that's what you are! But you will be punished! You will pay for what you have done”.
Leo winces and then he hears it, the metaphorical click inside Blaine's head. The switch that goes off when he's being patient too long and got only shit in return. “Burn everything to the ground,” he orders to his soldiers. “Leave nobody behind.”
As they get back in the carriage, people start to scream.
It takes them about a week to come back to Os Alta. Blaine orders Leo to keep the Sun Summoner unconscious for the entire journey, barely waking him up once or twice a day to give him water and broth. It's easier to transport him that way since they don't know anything about him or the control he has on his power. Besides, the reduced space of the carriage would make for an horribly awkward trip if he was awake, since they've basically just kidnapped him.
They arrive at the palace at dawn, barely in time to take advantage of the changing of the guard. Blaine tells Leo to put the boy in one of the rooms near their bedroom and then he leaves him there to babysit him while he goes to report to the king, taking great pleasure in waking him up so early just to tell him bullshits he must have invented a few minutes before entering the Little Palace, no doubt.
Leo doesn't mind to stay behind and watch the new arrival, partially because he's lazy and he doesn't like any kind of official matter, but mostly because the Sun Summoner is cute and he likes to look at him. He's got pale skin, like a Fjerdan, but his hair is black like Leo's, except his is short and super straight. He's so dainty that he looks like a Tailor had put his hands on him several times and gave him the most beautiful face Leo has ever seen in his life. That alone gives away that he is Grisha, otkazat’sya are never this good looking.
Leo is supposed to guard him, make sure nobody enters the room and sees him, nothing else. But waiting is boring and he knows for experience that when Blaine leaves to speak of military stuff he can be away for hours. He tries to resist, really – he even grabs a book and stars reading to pass the time – but after a while boredom and curiosity team up against him and he decides it's time to wake their rescued princess up. He does it slowly, not to give his body a shock; he progressively increases his heartbeat and turns his breathing back to normal. Then he lets him go, waiting for him to pick up the pace and wake up normally as he would do any other morning.
The boy opens his eyes a few moment later and despite being welcomed by Leo's best smile, he still crawls backward on the bed. “Where am I?” He asks, confused.
“The Little Palace, or as we like to call it, the doghouse the king saw fit to put us all in,” Leo answers him, sitting cross-legged on the bed, totally oblivious to the concept of total stranger's personal space.
“We're in Os Alta?” The other boy blinks several times. “But it's miles away from the church!”
“The church was a week ago, sweetness. I had to keep you asleep for the journey.”
“I've slept for a week?” Those big baby blues become so huge that they seem to eat up his whole face.
“And a few hours,” Leo nods as he retrieves a tray from the nightstand. He sent for breakfast and had it delivered outside the door a few minutes before waking him up. “Here, eat something. I imagine you're famished, we fed you broth for seven days straight.”
The boy seems to consider the tray for a moment, but his hunger turns out to be stronger than his fear. He grabs a pastry and puts half of it in his mouth. “So it wasn't a dream, then,” he munches. “I thought I was sleeping. I mean, I suppose I was but...”
“It was a necessary precaution, but I don't see that happening again,” Leo muses. “Unless you force me.”
Leo looks at him, amused. “You don't look so shocked.”
“I've been abducted before.”
“Alright, mister professional abductee, why don't you tell me your name, then? I'm not gonna keep calling you Sun Summoner forever.”
The boy winces at the title. “My name is Cody. And you are the right hand of the Darkling.”
“Leo for short,” he chuckles. “So, how long were you with the Soldat Sol? Where are you from?”
Cody takes his time to take a sip of his chocolate. Leo thought it was going to be hard to gain information from him, but he doesn't even look bothered. “I know I am from somewhere outside Ravka because I remember being in somebody's arms as we crossed the mountains, but I was too young to remember who was holding me and were I was before. I grew up in Poliznaya in an orphanage first and then a working house, until the congregation came to take me away. That was a few months ago.”
“So you didn't live off the grid like we thought, but you lived most of your life with the otkazat’sya.”
“Don't say that like it's something bad.”
“But it usually is. They don't like Grisha at all,” Leo shrugs. “There must be a lot of things you don't know about us.”
“I know what everybody else does.”
“So nothing, which is fine because Blaine likes blank slates,” Leo goes on. “He has his own way of doing things.
“I'm not a blank slate. I know what you are, for example. You're a Heartrender, a Corporalki.”
Leo looks at him, totally unimpressed. “That's textbook Grisha, Cody. Even the last of the peasants knows that.”
“You kill people.”
Leo rolls his eyes. He lost count – yes, he sees the irony – of all the times someone pointed a finger at him and told him that. To him that's possibly the most boring definition of his power. “Now, that is such a dull way to describe what I do. You don't have much poetry in you, do you?” He snorts. “I can manipulate body cells, that is what I do. I can calm your breath when you're anxious or I can make you feel happy when you're sad, I can change the very chemistry of your body. There is such craft in what I do! A Tidemaker can drown you, but you would never say the first thing he does is kill.”
“Everybody knows you're the ones who really kill in the battlefield.”
“That's necessity, not nature. The same way a butcher can chop your fingers off. But you do like a good steak, don't you?” Leo realizes that he feels incredibly at ease with Cody, which is probably why they're discerning over the nature of Grisha power instead of going through the usual mess of Who are you? What do you want? I'm not supposed to be here! Last time they brought someone over was a disaster. It turned out well in the end, but still. This is refreshing. “Anyway, you're talking like you're not one of us.”
“You're a Squaller, like him. A summoner, just a very, very, very rare type of it.”
Cody seems confused on this particular point, but that doesn't prevent him from wolfing down the rest of the pastry on the tray. The kid is tiny but he's got an appetite. “How can you say that? You haven't even seen what I can do.”
“I actually did. That sphere of light you showed is enough. Besides, I felt your power. It works a little bit differently than mine or the others', but it works like Blaine's does. I'm not just supposing you're the Sun Summoner, I know you are.”
“What if that sphere is all I can do? Will you take me back, then?”
“Meredith, one of the Inferni, had so little control over her power when we found her that she could barely light a match without setting fire to herself and everyone around her. Now she can move walls of fire like it's nothing. It's not about what you can do, it's about the training you received and you received none. But we're going to change that, don't worry. This is not magic, it's called Little Science for a reason.”
“That is not what the Soldat Sol told me,” Cody frowns in confusion. “They called me a Saint and went on and on about the nature of my abilities. They called it a blessing, something I supposedly have to help humankind, even if I can't do much to help, except light up a room if it's too dark.”
“Well, he wasn't entirely wrong. It is a blessing. It's a joy, really. And you certainly are a Saint,” Leo chuckles, that's the funniest part to him. “What do you think the Saints were, if they ever existed? Sankt Grigori? He was a Healer, and people were so scared of the fact that he could cure them just with his bare hands that they stoned him to death. Great show of appreciation, right? Sankta Anastasia? Another Healer. Drawn and quartered. Sankt Ilya, possibly a Fabrikator, maybe yet another Healer, at best. At worst, he used merzost. He was thrown into a river. You see? It's not that you specifically are a saint. It's that Saints were and are all Grisha.”
“It's not Divine Intervention, it's Small Science?” Cody says it as if it was a slogan.
Leo laughs. “Exactly!”
Cody smiles and he has the cutest smile Leo has ever seen in his entire life. He really looks like a porcelain doll, one of those you dress up all pretty and then you put on a shelf for everybody to see. “Grisha or Saint, I'm still useless. They didn't even let me do what little I could. It was mostly them praying and me blessing them during Mass.”
“That's the reason why you look so exhausted,” Leo explains. “The more you use your power, the better you look and feel. That is how we work.”
Cody gently pushes the tray away. There's nothing on it anymore, except for the empty mug. “Do you think the king will want to see me soon?”
“I highly doubt it since he doesn't even know you're here.”
Leo and Cody turn towards the door where Blaine is leaning against the door frame, his arms crossed to his chest. He's still wearing his black kefta, but he ditched the coat somewhere and he unbuttoned the first two buttons of the undershirt. No more meetings for tonight, then.
“Moi soverennyi,” Cody bows his head a little. “Why doesn't he know?”
“Because you're the key to a plan he is not privy to,” Blaine answers. He wants to be as open as possible – that's what he told Leo when they talked about it before leaving – as he needs the Sun Summoner's willing collaboration. He can't be coerced.
“What plan? Why did you bring me here?” Cody shakes his head, confused. “I can't fight nor summon that much light. I'll pretty much be only another mouth to feed. I honestly think you confused me with someone else.”
“Oh, I have not,” Blaine walks past Leo, stroking his head affectionately. Leo leans into his touch, shamelessly purring. “I've been looking for a very, very long time for you and, trust me, I know you are the Sun Summoner. Now, to answer your question, I wanted to have this conversation later today, when I would have had a few hours of sleep, but since Leo thought you could use some breakfast earlier than expected—“
“I'm sorry, I couldn't resist,” Leo smiles, looking anything but sorry. “I needed to know his name, which is Cody, by the way.”
“Cody,” Blaine lets it roll around in his mouth for a moment. “It's a pretty name, not Ravkian, though.”
“I don't think I'm Ravkian, Moi soverennyi. But I don't remember where I'm from.”
“Neither do I,” Blaine admits. “But that doesn't matter at all because there's one thing that we all have in common, we are Grisha. There are no borders and no origins, there's just us and them. And they are not being kind to us.”
“I thought you were respected at the Palace.”
“We,” Leo corrects him.
“Alright, we,” Cody corrects himself. “Nobody stones us to death here. At least that is what people say.”
“We're not respected, we're useful,” Blaine explains to him, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees. The King uses us to threaten his enemies the way you would with a wild animal that you somehow managed to keep on a leash. But he thinks we're less worthy than his soldiers in the First Army, when in fact if there's still a First Army it's because we behaved and decided to value their lives.”
“So you think we are better.”
“I think we're different,” Cody answers, with a little shrug. “I don't know if that makes us better. But I do believe we shouldn't be tortured neither adored.”
Cody looks down for a moment and Leo can finally get lost in the perfect lines of his face, which are even softer now that he's so pensive. He can feel Blaine's power tagging at the edge of his thoughts a moment before he hears his voice in his mind. If they had been in two different places, he would have showed up in the room – possibly scaring the living shit out of him – but that would have been a little redundant now that he's sitting right next to him.
“You're shameless,” His voice says.
“I don't know what you're talking about.” It took a while to get used to this kind of conversations, to learn how to speak in his mind without opening his mouth.
“You haven't taken your eyes off him once,” Blaine chuckles. “I assume you approve at least of his face.”
“Perhaps,” Leo says vaguely and he hurries up to move the conversation along. “Do you think he's going to help us?”
“I think he can be made to help.”
Leo feels his lips on his own before Blaine's power retreats. “I just want a better life for all the Grisha,” Blaine says aloud this time, smiling nicely at Cody, who quite predictably blushes. “Starting from those who live inside the Little Palace.”
“And how can you make this possible? How can I help you?”
“I have some ideas,” he says. Then he looks intently at him. “Give me a few months and I can show you what you can do for me and what we can do together. All I ask of you for is a little trust.”
Blaine offers him his hand and for a moment Leo holds his breath because it could go either way and he doesn't know what Blaine will do if Cody chooses poorly. But in the end, his tiny fingers close around Blaine's and he nods. Leo sighs in relief.
The King's days are counted.