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Page 30

The Tribesman looks at the Kehanni questioningly. She murmurs something to him in Sadhese, and he steps out.

"Laia of Serra, you would tell a Tribeswoman how to defend herself?"

"No." I twine my fingers together. "I would ask that these blades, which are a gift, not be used to shed the blood of innocents."

"Hmph," the Kehanni says. Then she leans over to the front of her wagon and offers me a small wooden bowl of salt. I breathe a sigh of relief and put a pinch on my tongue, the custom Afya taught me. We are under her Tribe's protection now. None who belong to it may harm us.

"Your gift is accepted, Laia of Serra. How may I aid you?"

"I heard you spinning the old tales in Adisa. Can you tell me of the jinn? Do they have any weaknesses? Is there a way to . . ." Kill them, I nearly say, but the word is so cold. "Hurt them?"

"During the Fey-Scholar War, your ancestors murdered the jinn with steel and salt and summer rain fresh from the heavens. But you ask the wrong question, Laia of Serra. I know of you. I know you do not seek to destroy the jinn. You seek to destroy the Nightbringer. And he is something else altogether."

"Can it be done? Can he be killed?"

The Kehanni leans back in a pile of soft pillows and considers. The slide of her fingers against the wagon's lacquered wood sounds like sand hissing through an hourglass.

"He is the first of his kind," she says. "Rain will turn to steam on his skin, and steel to molten metal. As for salt, he will simply laugh to see it used against him, for he has inured himself to its effects. No, the Nightbringer cannot be killed. Not by a human, anyway. But he can be stopped."

"How?"

Rain thuds on the wooden roof of the wagon, and I'm reminded suddenly of the drums of the Empire, the way their tattoo echoed down into my bones, leaving me jittery.

"Come back tonight," the Kehanni says. "When the moon is high. And I will tell you."

Musa sighs. "Kehanni, with respect--"

"Tonight."

I shake my head. "But we--"

"Our stories are not bones left on the road for any hungry animal that happens along." The Kehanni's voice rises, and I flinch back. "Our stories have purpose. Souls. Our stories breathe, Laia of Serra. The stories we tell have power, of course. But the stories that go untold have just as much power, if not more. I will sing you such a story--a story that was long untold. The story of a name and its meaning. Of how that name matters more than any other single word in existence. But I must prepare myself, for such stories are dragons drawn from a deep well in a dark place. Does one summon a dragon? No. One may only invite it and hope it emerges. So. Tonight."

The Kehanni refuses to say anything more, and soon Musa and I retreat to the inn, exhausted. He disappears into his room with a half-hearted wave.

The Tribeswoman said the Nightbringer can be stopped. Will she tell me how? I shiver in anticipation. What sort of story will she sing tonight?

A story that was long untold. The story of a name and its meaning. I open the door to my room, still wondering. But at the threshold, I freeze.

Because there is someone inside.

XXIV: Elias

Without the cottage to protect me, my mind is vulnerable to the jinn. But though I try to stay awake, I am, in the end, only human.

Since becoming Soul Catcher I have not dreamed. I only realize it now, when I open my eyes and find myself in a dark alley on an empty street. A flag flaps in the wind--black with crossed hammers. Marcus's sigil. I taste salt in the summer air, overlaid by something bitter. Blood. Smoke. Burnt stone.

Whispers ride the air, and I recognize the sibilant tones of the jinn. Is this one of their illusions? Is it real?

A whimper breaks the silence. A hooded figure slumps on the ground behind me. I watch for a moment before moving toward the figure. I'm wary as a pale hand emerges from a cloak, clenched tightly around a blade. But when I see the face beneath the hood, my caution disappears.

It's the Blood Shrike. Blood blooms from her hunched body, staining the cobblestones around her, merciless and inexorable.

"I'm sorry . . ." the Blood Shrike whispers when she sees me. "For what I did to Mamie. The Empire--" She coughs, and I crouch beside her, a hand on her back. She feels warm. Alive.

"Who did this to you?" Some part of me knows this is a dream, but that part fades and I'm simply in it, living it, as if it's real. The Shrike's face is drawn and white, her teeth chattering though the night is clear and warm. When I run my hands over her arms, trying to find her injury, she shudders, lifting back her cloak to show a wound in her belly. It looks bad.

Very bad.

It's a dream. Just a dream. Still, fear stabs through me. I was angry at her when I last met her, but seeing her like this transfers my rage to whoever did this to her. Plans fall into place. Where is the nearest infirmary? Get her there. No--the barracks. Which barracks?

But I can't do any of that, for this is a dream.

"Are you here to welcome me to--what did she call it--the Waiting Place?"

"You're not dead," I say. "And you're not going to die. Do you hear me?" A powerful memory hits me--the first Trial, Marcus attacking her, the Shrike's too-light body against mine as I carried her down the mountain.

"You're going to live. You're going to find whoever did this to you. You're going to make them pay. Get up. Get to safety." Urgency grips me. I must say these words to her. I feel that knowledge in my bones. Her pupils dilate; her body straightens.

"You are Blood Shrike of the Empire," I say. "And you are meant to survive. Get up."

When she finds my eyes, her own are glassy. I catch my breath, for they are so real--the shape, the emotions, the color of them, like the violet heart of a quiet sea. The way her face changes beneath her mask, the stiffness of her jaw as she grits her teeth.

But then she fades, as does the city. Silence descends. Darkness. When I open my eyes again, I expect to be back in the Waiting Place. But this time, I'm in a room I've never seen. The smooth wood floor is swept clean and strewn with mirrored cushions. There is a faint, familiar fragrance in the air, and my heart thuds faster, my body recognizing the scent before my mind does.

The door opens and Laia enters. Her dark hair has fallen loose from her braid, and she chews on her lip as she always does when she's deep in thought. The faint glow of a torch seeps in from the hallway behind her, lighting her face a soft gold-brown. Purple half-moons shadow her eyes.

The ocean thunders distantly, the creak of fishing boats a strange countermelody to that roar.

I step toward her, gripped by a soul-deep longing for her to be real. I want to hear her speak my name. I want to dip my hands into the cool shade of her hair, to take solace in her gaze.

She freezes when she sees me, her mouth falling into an O. "You--you're here. How--"

"It's a dream," I say. "I'm in the Waiting Place. I fell asleep."

"A dream?" She shakes her head. "No, Elias. You're real. I was just downstairs talking to Musa--"

Who the bleeding hells is Musa?

"Jealous?" She laughs, and immediately I want to hear her laugh again. "Now I know this isn't a dream. Dream Elias would know that he never needs to be jealous."

"I'm not--" I consider. "Never mind. I am jealous. Tell me he's old, at least? Or grouchy? Or maybe a bit stupid?"

"He's young. And handsome. And smart."

I snort. "He's probably rubbish in be--" Laia smacks me on the arm. "Battle," I say quickly. "I was going to say battle."

"He doesn't hold a candle to you." Laia shakes her head. "I must be more exhausted than I thought--but I--I could have sworn I was awake. I feel awake. Did you windwalk here? How could you, if you were sleeping?"

"I wish it weren't a dream," I say. "I do. But it has to be, otherwise I couldn't--"

I reach out my hand, and for a moment it hovers near hers. I take it, for once not dreading the interference of the ghosts, and she squeezes. Her palm fits perfectly against mine, and I lift her hand and b

rush my lips across her fingers.

"I couldn't do this." I speak softly. "The ghosts--the Waiting Place--they wouldn't let me."

"Then tell me, dream Elias," she murmurs. "What did you say to me? The night you left me in the Tribal desert. The night you left me the note. What did you say?"

"I said--" I shake my head. Mamie Rila used to say that dreams are the bits of ourselves we can't face in the day, coming to visit at night. If I had never left Laia that night . . . if Keenan had never gotten the chance to betray her . . . if I'd not been caught by the Warden . . . if I'd never vowed to stay in the Waiting Place . . .

Then I wouldn't be stuck there. For eternity.

This dream version of Laia questions me because I question myself. Part of me knows I should pay attention to those questions. That they are a weakness I should crush.

But most of me just wants to revel in the fact that I am seeing Laia and I wasn't sure I ever would again.

"I miss you." She pushes back a curl, and I can't take my eyes off the skin of her wrist, disappearing into a bell-shaped sleeve, or the hollow in her neck, or the shape of her legs, long and perfectly curved in riding breeches. It's a dream, Elias, I remind myself sternly, trying to ignore how badly I want to feel those legs wrapped around me. Of course her legs look incredible and perfect and I wish we could--

When she puts her hand to my face, I savor the whorls in her fingertips, the gentle scrape of her nails. I look down into her eyes, golden and endless and full of all the desire I feel. I don't want this to disappear. I don't want to wake up to ghosts howling and jinn plotting.

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