I unravel her braid. She takes my other hand and puts it on her hip, and I trace the curve with a light touch that makes her close her eyes.
"Why is it like this?" she asks. "Why must we be apart? I miss what we should have been, Elias. Is that possible--"
Her hand drops to my chest, to the shredded remains of my shirt, torn in the battle with the ghosts.
"What the skies happened to you?" She looks me over with a healer's concern. "And why do you smell like smoke?"
Self-examination again. Her questions are my own subconscious, holding me accountable for my mistakes.
"Efrits burned down Shaeva's--my--house. Part of a jinn trick to torment me."
"No." She pales. "Why? The Nightbringer?"
"Perhaps. He must have sent the efrits, and the jinn in the grove told them when it was safe to enter the Forest." I shake my head. "I'm nothing like Shaeva, Laia. I'm not getting the ghosts through fast enough. Three of them escaped and did terrible things. I can't control the jinn. And I can't stop the ghosts' suffering."
"It is my fault." Laia slumps. "If I hadn't trusted him--given him the armlet--he wouldn't have gone after her. Shaeva should never have died."
It's such a Laia thing to say that I stare at her, perplexed. This is a dream, is it not? And the Blood Shrike . . . I hope that was a dream.
I expect Laia to say something I would think. Instead, she continues to berate herself. "I ask myself every day why I did not see him for what he was--"
"No." I brush away the tears from her black eyelashes. "Don't blame yourself." My voice is low, scratchy--why have I forgotten how to talk? "Please, it's not--"
She lifts her face, and my desire for her pools low and sudden. I can't stop myself from pulling her body to mine. She gasps softly and rises. Her lips against mine are urgent. She doesn't know when she'll kiss me again. The same frantic need courses through me.
My mind shouts at me that this is too real. But no ghosts trouble us. I want her. She wants me. And we have wanted each other for so long.
She pulls away from the kiss, and I'm certain I will wake up, that this skies-given time with her, devoid of ghosts railing at us or Mauth pulling at me, is about to end. But she only shoves away the remnants of my shirt before running her nails gently across my skin, sighing with pleasure or want or both.
I can't bear her lips away from mine, so I dip down again, but on my way I'm distracted by her shoulder. I find myself kissing it, then nipping at her neck, a primal part of me deeply satisfied by the moan I elicit from her, by the way her body relaxes into mine.
As her breath heaves, more ragged with every kiss on her throat, I feel her twine her leg around mine--yes--and I drop my hands to lift her up. The bed is too far, but there's a wall, and when I pin her against it, she rakes her hand across my back, murmuring, "Yes, Elias, yes," until I am shaking with need.
"The things," I whisper in her ear, "that I want to do to you . . ."
"Tell me." Her tongue flicks across my ear, and I forget to breathe. "Show me."
When she wraps her legs around my waist, when I feel the heat of her against me, it undoes me, and I flip her onto her back on the bed and drop down over her. She draws circles on my chest and then moves her hand lower . . . lower. I curse in Sadhese and capture her wrist.
"Me first," I say, tracing the indent of her stomach and, spurred on by her sighs, dropping my hand further, moving in time with her body until she arches her back, her arms trembling against my neck. As we both start to rid ourselves of clothes, our eyes meet.
She smiles at me, a sweet smile, unsure and hopeful and bemused. I know that smile. I think about it all the time.
But it is not a smile a dream could ever re-create. And this feeling within me--my desire. Hers. They are also not emotions a dream could ever simulate.
Could this be real? Could I have windwalked here somehow?
Who bleeding cares? You're here now.
But I hear something--whispers--the same whispers I heard when I was with the Blood Shrike. The jinn.
A warning flares down my spine. This isn't a dream. Laia is here, in this inn. I am here. And if I'm here, then it's the jinn who have done it. How the bleeding hells did they move me? How did they know where Laia was? And why have they brought me here?
I pull my hands away to sit up, and she growls in disappointment. "You're right," I say. "I--I am here. This is real. But it shouldn't be."
"Elias." She laughs again. "It has to be a dream, or we couldn't do this. But it is the best dream." She reaches for me again, pulling me down. "You're exactly like you. Now where were--"
She pauses, and it's as if the world has frozen. Nothing moves, not even the shadows. A moment later, the world unfreezes and Laia shudders, as if a chill has entered her very blood.
Or her mind. For when she looks at me, she is no longer Laia. Her eyes are pure white, and I jump away from her as she shoves me, her strength unnatural. A ghost? My mind screams. Skies, is she possessed?
"Go back!" Her voice has completely changed, and I recognize it as the voice that spoke out of Shaeva when I took my vow to become Soul Catcher. The voice that spoke to me in that strange in-between place when Shaeva stole me away from the raid. Mauth's voice.
Laia's whole body shifts, changing into shadow, her features faded, her body unfamiliar.
"Where is she?" I demand. "What did you do with her?"
"Go back. The jinn deceive you. They use your weakness against you. Go back."
Mauth--in Laia's shadow form--swings at me, as if trying to beat me toward the Waiting Place. I'm thrown backward by the blow.
"Stop this." I lift my hands. "Who brought me here? Was it you? Was it the jinn?"
"The jinn, you fool," says Mauth--for I won't allow myself to think of him as Laia, no matter what form he takes. "They siphon the power that you do not use. They strengthen themselves. They distract you with the lures of the human world. The more you feel, the more you fail. The more you fail, the stronger they become."
"How--how are you talking to me?" I say. "Are you possessing her? Are you hurting her?"
"Her fate is not your concern." Mauth shoves me, but I plant my feet. "Her life is not your concern."
"If you've hurt her--"
"She will not remember this--any of this," Mauth says. "Go back. Surrender to me. Forget your past. Forget your humanity. You must, do you see? Do you underst
"I cannot!" I say. "It's part of me. But I need the magic--"
"The magic will allow you to pass the ghosts through with nary a thought. It will allow you to quell the jinn. But you must leave your old self behind. You are Elias Veturius no more. You are the Soul Catcher. You are mine. I know what your heart desires. It can never be."
I try desperately to push those wishes away. So stupid. So small. A house and a bed and a garden and laughter and a future.
"Forget your dreams." Mauth's anger mounts. "Forget your heart. There is only your vow to serve me. Love cannot live here. Seek out the jinn. Find their secrets. Then you will understand."
"I'll never understand," I say. "I'll never let go of what I fought so hard to keep."
"You must, Elias. Otherwise all is lost."
Mauth spins out of Laia, a teeming cyclone of cindered shadows, and she collapses in a heap. I take one step toward her before Mauth yanks me into darkness. Seconds or minutes or hours later, I slam into the singed earth outside Shaeva's cabin. Warm summer rain falls in sheets, drenching me within seconds.
Bleeding, burning hells, it was real. I was with Laia in Marinn--and she won't even remember it. I was with the Blood Shrike in Navium. Did she survive her wound? I should have helped her. Gotten her to the barracks.
Just thinking of them ignites Mauth's wrath. I double over, hissing at the fire that tears through me.
Seek out the jinn. Find their secrets. Mauth's order rings through my head. But I sought the jinns' help once before. They used it to bedevil me so the spirits could escape.
The Commandant's words float through my mind. There is success. And there is failure. The land in between is for those too weak to live.
I need to get to the magic. And to do that, Mauth, at least, thinks I need the jinn. But this time, I won't go to those creatures as Elias Veturius. I won't even go to them as the Soul Catcher.
I'll go to them as Mask Veturius, dread Martial, soldier of the Empire. I'll go to them as the estranged, murderous son of the Bitch of Blackcliff, as the monster who killed his friends and assassinated the Empire's enemies as a child and who watched stonily as Yearlings were whipped to death before his eyes.
This time, I will not ask the jinn for help.
I will take it.
XXV: The Blood Shrike
You are Blood Shrike of the Empire. And you are meant to survive.