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Page 11

You will fail, usurper.

The jinn. But their grove is miles away. How are they projecting their voices this far?

Filth. Your world will fall. Our king has already thwarted you. This is just the beginning.

"Piss off," I snarl. I think of the whispers I heard just before the Nightbringer disappeared. He was giving these fiery monsters orders, no doubt. The jinn laugh.

Our kind are powerful, mortal. You cannot replace a jinn. You cannot hope to succeed as Soul Catcher.

I ignore them, hoping they'll shut the hells up. Did they ever do this to Shaeva? Were they always bellowing in her head, and she just never told me?

My chest aches when I think of the Soul Catcher--and of so many others. Tristas. Demetrius. Leander. The Blood Shrike. My grandfather. Are all those who get close to me fated to suffer?

Darin shivers, gritting his teeth against the onslaught of the ghosts. Laia's skin is gray, though she walks on without a word of complaint.

In the end, they will fade. You will endure. Love cannot live here.

Laia's hand is cool and small in mine. Her pulse flutters against my fingers, a tenuous reminder of her mortality. Even if she survives to be an old woman, her years are nothing against the life of a Soul Catcher. She will die and I will abide, becoming less and less human as time passes.

"There." Laia points ahead. The trees thin, and through them I spot the cottage where Darin recovered from his injuries at Kauf, months ago now.

When we reach the tree line, I release the siblings. Darin grabs me and pulls me into a rough hug. "I don't know how to thank you--" he begins, but I stop him.

"Stay alive," I say. "That'll be thanks enough. I'll have enough problems here without your ghost showing up." Darin offers a flash of a smile before glancing at his sister and prudently heading for the cottage.

Laia twists her hands together, not looking at me. Her hair has come free from its braid as it always does, in fat, unruly curls. I reach for one, unable to help myself.

"I . . . have something for you." I rummage around in a pocket and pull out a piece of wood. It is unfinished, the carvings on it rough. "You reach for your old armlet sometimes." I feel ridiculous all of a sudden. Why would I give her this hideous thing? It looks like a six-year-old made it. "It's not finished. But . . . ah . . . I thought--"

"It's perfect." Her fingers brush mine as she takes it. That touch. Ten hells. I steady my breath and crush the desire that thrums in my veins. She slides the armlet on, and seeing her in that familiar pose, one hand resting on the cuff--it feels right. "Thank you."

"Watch your back in Adisa." I turn to practicalities. They are easier to speak of than this feeling in my chest, like my heart is being carved out of me and lit on fire. "The Mariners will know your face, and if they know what Darin can do--"

I catch her smile and realize that, like a fool, I'm telling her things she already knows.

"I thought we would have more time," she says. "I thought we'd find a way out for you. That Shaeva would release you from your vow or . . ."

She looks like I feel: broken. I need to let her go. Fight the Nightbringer, I should say. Win. Find joy. Remember me. For why should she come back here? Her future is in the world of the living.

Say it, Elias, my logic screams. Make it easier for both of you. Don't be pathetic.

"Laia, you should--"

"I don't want to let you go. Not yet." She traces my jaw with a light hand, her fingers lingering on my mouth. She wants me--I can see it, feel it--and it makes me desire her even more desperately. "Not so soon."

"Neither do I." I pull her into my arms, reveling in the warmth of her body against mine, the curve of her hip beneath my hand. She tucks her head beneath my chin and I breathe her in.

Mauth tugs at me, harsh and sudden. Against my will, I sway back toward the Forest.

No. No. Ghosts be damned. Mauth be damned. Waiting Place be damned.

I grab her hand and pull her toward me, and as if she was waiting for it, she closes her eyes and rises up on her toes. Her hands tangle in my hair, drawing me tightly toward her. Her lips are soft and lush, and when she presses every curve into me, I nearly lose my feet. I hear nothing but Laia, see nothing but Laia, feel nothing but Laia.

My mind races forward to me laying her down on the Forest floor, spending hours exploring every inch of her body. For a moment I see what we could have had: Laia and her books and patients, and me and a school that taught more than death and duty. A little one with gold eyes and glowing brown skin. The white in Laia's hair one day, and the way her eyes will mellow and deepen and grow wiser.

"You are cruel, Elias," she whispers against my mouth. "To give a girl all she desires only to tear it away."

"This isn't the end for us, Laia of Serra." I cannot give up what we could have. I don't care what bleeding vow I made. "Do you hear me? This is not our end."

"You've never been a liar." She dashes her hands against the wetness in her eyes. "Don't start now."

Her back is straight as she walks away, and when she reaches the cottage, Darin, waiting outside, rises. She goes past him quickly, and he follows.

I watch her until she is just a shadow on the horizon. Turn around, I think. Just once. Turn around.

She doesn't. And perhaps it's just as well.

X: The Blood Shrike

I spend the rest of the day in the Black Guard barracks, reading through spy reports. Most are mundane: a prisoner transfer that could guarantee the loyalty of a Mercator house; an investigation into the death of two Illustrian Paters.

I pay closest attention to the reports out of Tiborum. With the approach of spring, the Karkaun clans are expected to come pouring out of the mountains, raiding and reaving.

But my spies say the Karkauns are quiet. Perhaps their leader, this Grimarr, committed too many forces to the attack on Navium. Perhaps Tiborum is uncommonly lucky.

Or perhaps those blue-faced bastards are up to something.

I request reports from all the northern garrisons. By the time the midnight bells ring, I am exhausted and my desk is only half-clear. But I stop anyway, forgoing a meal despite the rumbling in my belly, and pulling on my boots and a cloak. Sleep will not come. Not when the crack of Livia's bones still rings through my head. Not when I'm wondering what ambush the Commandant will have waiting for me in Navium.

The hallway outside my quarters is silent and dark. Most of the Black Guard should be asleep, but there's always at least a half dozen men on watch. I don't want to be followed--I suspect the Commandant has spies among my men. I head for the armory, where a hidden passage leads into the heart of the city.

"Shrike." The whisper is soft, but I jump anyway, cursing at the sight of the green eyes shining like a cat's from across the hall.

"Avitas," I hiss. "Why are you lurking out here?"

"Don't take the armory tunnel," he says. "Pater Sissellius has a man watching the route. I'll have him taken care of, but there wasn't time tonight."

"Are you spying on me?"

"You're predictable, Shrike. Any time Marcus hurts her, you take a walk. Captain Dex reminded me that it's against regulations for the Shrike to be unaccompanied, so here I am."

I know Harper is simply carrying out his duties. I have been irresponsible, wandering the city at night without any guar

ds. Still, I'm vexed. Harper serenely ignores my discontent and nods to the laundry closet. There must be another passageway there.

Once we're inside the narrow space, my armor clanks against his, and I grimace, hoping no one hears us. Skies know what they would say at finding us pressed together in a dark closet.

My face heats thinking of it. Thank the skies for my mask. "Where's the bleeding entrance?"

"It's just--" He reaches around me and up, rummaging through uniforms. I lean back, catching a V-shaped glimpse of the smooth brown skin at his throat. His scent is light--barely there--but warm, like cinnamon and cedar. I take a deeper sniff, glancing up at him as I do.

To find him staring at me, eyebrows raised.

"You smell . . . not unpleasant," I say stiffly. "I was simply noticing."

"Of course, Shrike." His mouth quirks a little. Is that a bleeding smile?

"Shall we?" As if sensing my annoyance, Harper pushes open a section of the closet behind me and moves through quickly. We do not speak again as we wend our way through the secret passageways of the Black Guard barracks and out into the chill spring night.

Harper drops back when we are aboveground, and I soon forget he is near. Hood pulled low, I ghost through Antium's lower level, through the crowded Scholar sector, past inns and bustling taprooms, barracks and Plebeian-heavy neighborhoods. The guards at the upper gate do not see me as I pass into the city's second tier--a trick I play to keep my edge.

I find myself toying with my father's ring as I walk, the ring of Gens Aquilla. Sometimes, when I look at it, I still see the blood that coated it, the blood that spattered my face and armor when Marcus cut Father's throat.

Don't think about that. I spin it round, trying to take comfort from its presence. Give me the wisdom of all the Aquillas, I find myself thinking. Help me defeat my foe.

I soon reach my destination, a wooded park outside the Hall of Records. At this hour, I expected the hall to be dark, but a dozen lamps are lit, and the archivists are still hard at work. The long, pillared building is spectacular for its size and simplicity, but I take comfort from it because of what is within: records of lineages, births, deaths, dispatches, treaties, trade agreements, and laws.

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