I make my way, room by room, to the top of the building, stopping in a high rotunda that overlooks the city and the river.
When I touch the walls, images appear again. This time, though, they are of the city itself. Strips of orange and yellow and green silk flutter in the windows. Jewel-like flowers grow in overflowing boxes. The trill and hum of voices tell of a happier time.
People clad in smoky black robes walk the city. One woman has dark skin and tight curls, like Dex's. Another has pale skin and fine hair, like the Blood Shrike's. Some are scim-thin, and others are heavier, like Mamie was before the Empire got its hands on her. Each, in their own way, walks with a grace that I only ever saw in Shaeva.
But they do not walk alone. All are surrounded by ghosts.
I spot a man with auburn hair and a face so beautiful I can't even be irritated by it. He is surrounded by ghost children, love suffusing every bit of him as he speaks with them.
I can't hear what he says, but I can understand his intent. He offers the ghosts love. Not judgment or anger or questions. One by one, the spirits drift into the river at ease. At peace.
Is this, then, the secret of what Shaeva did? I've only to offer the spirits love and they'll move on? It can't be. It's antithetical to everything she said about quelling my emotions.
The ghosts here are calm, far more serene than they were when Shaeva lived. I do not sense the frantic pain that suffuses the Waiting Place as I know it. There are also far fewer of them. Little groups of them follow the black-robed figures obediently.
Instead of a lone Soul Catcher, there are dozens. No, hundreds.
Other figures drift from the buildings, human in form but made of deep black-and-red flame, glorious and free. Here and there I spot children switching from human to flame and back with the rapidity of a hummingbird's wings.
When the Soul Catchers and their ghosts pass, the jinn move aside, inclining their heads. The children watch from afar, mouths agog. They whisper, and their body language reminds me of how Martial children act when a Mask passes by. Fear. Awe. Envy.
And yet the Soul Catchers are not isolated. They speak to each other. One woman smiles when a flame child comes running toward her, transforming into a human just before the jinn scoops him up. They have family. Partners. Children.
An image of Laia and me in a house, making a life together, flashes through my mind. Could it be possible?
The city ripples. A frisson of sorts, a portent made manifest in the shiver in the air. The jinn turn to the rim of their valley, where a row of flags fly, green with a purple quill and an open book: the sigil of the Scholar Empire, before it fell.
The images come swiftly. A young human king arrives with his retinue. The auburn-haired jinn welcomes him, a brown-skinned jinn woman at his side and two flame children fidgeting behind them. The jinn wears a crown with discomfort, as if he's not used to it.
I finally recognize him. The hair is different, as is the build, but something about his manner is familiar. This is the King of No Name. The Nightbringer.
Flanking the king and his queen are two flame-formed jinn bodyguards armed with black-diamond sickles. Despite their nonhuman physiques, I recognize the one who stands by the children. Shaeva. She watches the visiting Scholar king with fascination. He notices.
The images speed up. The Scholar king wheedles, then cajoles, then demands the secrets of the jinn. The Nightbringer rejects him, but the Scholar king refuses to give up.
Shaeva meets the Scholar in his guest quarters. Over weeks, he befriends her. Laughs with her. Listens to her, scheming even as she falls desperately in love with him.
A sense of foreboding grows, thick as mud. The Nightbringer haunts the streets of his own city when everyone's sleeping, sensing a threat. When his wife speaks to him, he smiles. When his children play with him, he laughs. Their fears are quelled. His only grow.
Shaeva finds the Scholar king in a clearing beyond the city. His manner reminds me of someone, but the knowledge wavers at the edges of my mind before slipping away. Shaeva and the Scholar argue. He calms her anger. Makes promises. Even at the distance of a thousand years, I know he'll break those promises.
Three moons rise and set. Then the Scholars attack, tearing into the Forest of Dusk with steel and fire.
The jinn cast them back easily, but with bewilderment--they do not understand this. They know the humans want their power. But why, when we keep the balance? Why, when we take the spirits of your dead and move them on so that you are not haunted by them?
Ghosts fill the city. But the jinn must fight, so there are not enough Soul Catchers to move the spirits on. Forced to wait and suffer, the spirits cry out, their wails an eerily prescient dirge. The jinn king meets with the efrit lords as the Scholars press the attack. His flame children are sent far away with hundreds of others, howling tearful goodbyes to their parents.
The images follow the children into the Forest.
Oh no. No. I want to pull my hand from the wall, to stop the images. Danger closes in on the little ones. The crack of a twig, a shadow flitting among the trees. And all the while these waist-high flame children scurry through the Forest. They are unknowing, illuminating the trunks and leaves and grasses with brilliance, some deep fey magic that lends beauty to all that they touch. Their whispers sound like bells, and they move like cheery, brave little campfires on a freezing night.
A sudden silence descends. You're walking into an ambush! Protect them, you fools! I want to scream at the guards. Humans pour from the trees, armed with swords gleaming with summer rain.
The flame children cluster together, terrified. As they join, their fire burns brighter.
And then their flames go out.
I don't want to see anymore. I know the tale. Shaeva gave the Scholar king the Star. He and his coven of magic-users locked away the jinn.
Do you see now, Elias Veturius? the jinn ask.
"We destroyed you," I say.
You destroyed yourselves. For a thousand years you've had only one Soul Catcher. Shaeva, at least, was jinn. Her magic was innate. Still, the ghosts built up--you saw her struggle. But you have no magic. How can a talentless mortal do that which a jinn could not? The ghosts press against the borders like rainwater presses against a dam. And you will never move the ghosts swiftly enough to stop the dam from bursting. You will fail.
For once, the jinn play no tricks. They do not need to. The truth in their words is terrifying enough.
XXVIII: The Blood Shrike
Night is thick on Navium when I jerk out of sleep.
"The beach." I don't realize I've spoken the words aloud until I hear the creak of armor. Avitas, keeping watch in a chair near my door, shudders awake, scim in hand.
"Some guard you make." I snort. "You were fast asleep."
"My apologies, Shrike," he says stiffly. "I have no excuse--"
I roll my eyes. "That was a joke." I swing my legs out of the bed and search around for my breeches. Avitas reddens and faces the wall, drumming his fingers on his dagger's hil
"Don't tell me you've not seen a naked soldier before, Captain."
A long pause, then a chuckle, low and husky. It makes me feel . . . strange. Like he's about to tell me a secret. Like I would lean in closer to hear it. "Not one like you, Blood Shrike."
Now my skin feels hot, and I open my mouth, trying to think of a retort. Nothing. Skies, I'm relieved he can't see me over here, red as a tomato and gaping like a fish. Don't act the fool, Shrike. I lace my pants, throw on a tunic, and grab my armor, pushing away my embarrassment. At Blackcliff, I saw Dex, Faris, Elias--all of my friends--stripped down to absolutely nothing, and I didn't bat an eyelid. I'm not about to humiliate myself with blushes over this.
"I have to get to the beach." I yank on my bracers, wincing at the twinge in my stomach. "I have to see if . . ." I don't want to say it or even think it, in case I'm utterly deluded.
"Would you care to explain that first?" Harper nods to my stomach. Right. He saw me heal myself. He heard what the Nightbringer said.
"I would not."
"Silvius--the physician--came to check on you at Dex's request. I didn't let him in. Told him Dex exaggerated the seriousness of your wound. And he mentioned that a group of children in the Aquilla infirmary saw miraculous improvement in a very short span of time." Harper pauses, and when I say nothing, he sighs in exasperation. "I'm your second, Shrike, but I don't know your secrets. And so I cannot protect you when others try to ferret them out."
"I don't need protection."
"You are second-in-command of the Empire," he says. "If you didn't need protection, it would be because no one saw you as a threat. Needing protection is not a weakness. Refusing to trust your allies is." Harper's voice rarely rises above the familiar monotone of a Mask. Now it cracks like a whip, and I gaze at him in surprise.
Shut it, and get out. I don't have time for this. I only just stop myself from saying it. Because he's not wrong.
"You'll want to sit down for this," I say. When I finish telling him of the magic--the efrit, healing Elias and then Laia, and all that came after--he looks thoughtful. I expect him to ask questions, to delve deeper, to push for more.
"No one will know of it," he says. "Until you're ready. Now--you mentioned the beach."
I am surprised that he moved on so quickly. But I am thankful too. "I heard a story when I was young," I say. "About the Nightbringer--a jinn whose people were imprisoned by the Scholars. Who has lived for a thousand years fueled by the desire to wreak vengeance on them."