What in the skies could have happened to Elias? He's never let me down. Not when it comes to the raids, anyway. Did Shaeva learn that he snuck Darin and me back across the Waiting Place from the cottage in the Free Lands? Is she punishing him?
I know little of the Soul Catcher--she is shy, and I assumed she did not like me. Some days, when Elias emerges from the Waiting Place to visit me and Darin, I feel the jinn woman watching us and I sense no rancor. Only sadness. But skies know, I'm no judge of hidden malice.
If it were any other caravan--any other prisoner we were attempting to break out--I would not have risked Darin, or the Tribespeople, or myself.
But we owe it to Mamie Rila and the rest of the Saif prisoners to try to free them. Elias's Tribal mother sacrificed her body, freedom, and Tribe so I could save Darin. I cannot fail her.
Elias is not here. You're alone. Move!
The lock finally springs open, and I make for the next wagon. In the trees just yards away, Afya must be cursing at the delay. The longer I take, the more likely it is that the Martials will catch us.
When I crack the last lock, I croon a signal. Snick. Snick. Snick. Darts hurtle through the air. The Martials at the perimeter drop silently, left insensate by the rare southern poison coating the darts. A half dozen Tribesmen approach the soldiers and slit their throats.
I look away, though I still hear the tear of flesh, the rattle of a final breath. I know it must be done. Without Serric steel, Afya's people cannot face the Martials head on, lest their blades break. But there is an efficiency to the killing that freezes my blood. I wonder if I will ever get used to it.
A small form appears out of the shadows, weapon glinting. The intricate tattoos that mark her as a Zaldara, the head of her Tribe, are concealed by long, dark sleeves. I hiss at Afya Ara-Nur so she knows where I am.
"Took you long enough." She glances around, black and red braids swinging. "Where in the ten hells is Elias? Can he disappear now too?"
Elias finally told Afya of the Waiting Place, of his death in Kauf Prison, of his resurrection and his agreement with Shaeva. That day, the Tribeswoman cursed him roundly for a fool before finding me. Forget him now, Laia, she had said. It's damned stupid to fall for a once-dead ghost-talker, I don't care how pretty he is.
"Elias didn't come."
Afya swears in Sadhese and moves toward the wagons. She explains softly to the prisoners that they must follow her men, that they must make no noise.
Shouts and the high twang of a bow echo from the village, fifty yards from where I stand. I leave Afya behind and sprint toward the houses where, in a darkened alley outside the village inn, Afya's fighters dance away from a half dozen Empire soldiers, including the legionnaire in command. Tribal arrows and darts fly, deft counters to the Martials' deadly blades. I dash into the fray, slamming the hilt of my dagger into an aux's temple. I needn't have bothered. The soldiers go down quickly.
There must be more men nearby--a hidden force. Or a Mask lurking, unseen.
"Laia." I jump at my name. Darin's golden skin is dark with mud to hide his presence. A hood covers the unruly, honey-colored hair that has finally grown in. Looking at him, no one would ever know he'd survived six months in Kauf Prison. But within his mind, my brother battles demons still. It is those demons that have kept him from making Serric steel.
He's here now, I tell myself sternly. Fighting. Helping. The weapons will come when he's ready.
"Mamie isn't here," he says, turning when I tap his shoulder, voice haggard with disuse. "I found her foster son, Shan. He said the soldiers took her from her wagon when the caravan stopped for the night."
"She must be in the village," I say. "Get the prisoners out of here. I'll find her."
"The village shouldn't be empty," Darin says. "This doesn't feel right. You go. I'll look for Mamie."
"One of you bleeding needs to find her." Afya appears behind us. "Because I'm not going to do it, and we have to get the prisoners hidden."
"If something goes wrong," I say, "I can use my invisibility to slip away. I'll meet you back at the camp as soon as I can."
My brother raises his eyebrows, considering my words in his quiet way. When he chooses to be, he is as immovable as the mountains--just like our mother was.
"I go where you go, sis. Elias would agree. He knows--"
"If you are so chummy with Elias," I hiss, "then tell him that the next time he commits to helping with a raid, he needs to follow through."
Darin's mouth curves in a brief, crooked smile. Mother's smile. "Laia, I know you're angry at him, but he--"
"Skies save me from the men in my life and all the things they think they know. Get out of here. Afya needs you. The prisoners need you. Go."
Before he protests, I dart into the village. It is no more than a hundred cottages with thatched roofs that sag beneath the snow, and narrow, dim streets. The wind wails through neatly tended gardens, and I nearly trip over a broom abandoned in a lane. The villagers left this place recently, I sense, and with haste.
I tread carefully, wary of what might lurk in the shadows. The stories whispered in taverns and around Tribal campfires haunt me: wraiths tearing out the throats of Mariner sailors. Scholar families found in burned-out encampments in the Free Lands. Wights--tiny winged menaces--destroying wagons and tormenting livestock.
All of it, I'm certain, is the foul handiwork of the creature that called itself Keenan.
I pause to peek through the front window of a darkened cottage. In the stygian night, I can see nothing. As I move to the next house, my guilt circles in the ocean of my mind, scenting my weakness. You gave the Nightbringer the armlet, it hisses. You fell prey to his manipulation. He is a step closer to destroying the Scholars. When he finds the rest of the Star, he'll set the jinn free. Then what, Laia?
But it could take the Nightbringer years to find the next piece of the Star, I reason to myself. And there might be more than one piece left. There might be dozens.
A flicker of light ahead. I tear my thoughts from the Nightbringer and move toward a cottage along the north edge of the village. Its door stands ajar. A lamp burns within. The door is propped wide enough that I can slip through without disturbing it. Anyone planning an ambush would see nothing.
Once inside, it takes a moment for my vision to adjust. When it does, I stifle a cry. Mamie Rila sits tied to a chair, a gaunt shadow of her former self. Her dark skin hangs loosely on her frame, and her thick, curly hair has been shaved off.
I almost go to her. But some old instinct stops me, crying out from deep within my mind.
A boot thumps behind me. Startled, I whirl, and a floorboard creaks beneath my feet. I catch a telltale flash of liquid silver--Mask!--just as a hand locks around my mouth and my arms are wrenched behind my back.
No matter how often I sneak out of the Waiting Place, it never gets easier. As I approach the western tree line, a flash of white nearby causes my stomach to plunge. A spirit. I bite back a curse and hold still. If it spies me lurking so far from where I'm supposed to be, the entire bleeding Forest of Dusk will know what I'm up to. Ghosts, it turns out, love to gossip.
The delay chafes. I'm already late--Laia was expecting me more than an hour ago, and this isn't a raid she'll skip just because I'm not around.
Almost there. I lope through a fresh layer of snow to the border of the Waiting Place, which glimmers ahead. To a layperson, it's invisible. But to me and Shaeva, the glowing wall is as obvious as if it were made of stone. Though I can pass through it easily, it keeps the spirits in and curious humans out. Shaeva has spent months lecturing me about the importance of that wall.
She will be vexed with me. This isn't the first time I've disappeared on her when I'm supposed to be training as Soul Catcher. Though she is a jinn, Shaeva has little skill in dealing with dissembling students. I, on the other hand, spent fourteen years concocting ways to skip out on Blackclif
f's Centurions. Getting caught at Blackcliff meant a whipping from my mother, the Commandant. Shaeva usually just glowers at me.
"Perhaps I too should institute whippings." Shaeva's voice cuts through the air like a scim, and I nearly jump out of my skin. "Would you then appear when you are supposed to, Elias, instead of shirking your responsibilities to play hero?"
"Shaeva! I was just . . . ah, are you . . . steaming?" Vapor rises in thick plumes from the jinn woman.
"Someone"--she glares at me--"forgot to hang up the washing. I was out of shirts."
And since she is a jinn, her unnaturally high body heat will dry her washed laundry . . . after an hour or two of unpleasant dampness, I'm sure. No wonder she looks like she wants to kick me in the face.
Shaeva tugs at my arm, her ever-present jinn warmth driving away the cold that has seeped into my bones. Moments later, we are miles from the border. My head spins from the magic she uses to move us so swiftly through the Forest.
At the sight of the glowing red jinn grove, I groan. I hate this place. The jinn might be locked in the trees, but they still have power within this small space, and they use it to get into my head whenever I enter.