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Page 73

"They do that." Laia smiles. "You should not yet be up and about, Blood Shrike."

I wave off her fussing but sit when my sister insists.

"Did you see Elias, Laia? Did you . . . speak with him?"

Something in her face changes, a fleeting pain I know all too well. She has spoken with him then. She has seen what he's become. "He's returned to the Forest. I have not tried to find him. I wanted to make sure you were well first. And . . ."

"And you've been busy," I say. "Now that your people have chosen you as a leader."

Her reluctance is written all over her face. But instead she shrugs. "For now, perhaps."

"And the Nightbringer?"

"The Nightbringer has not been seen since the siege," she says. "It has been more than a week. I expected him to have set his brethren free by now. But . . ." She takes in my expression. The rain pours down hard now, a steady lash against the windows. "But you feel it too, don't you? Something is coming."

"Something is coming," I agree. "He wants to destroy the Scholars--and he plans on using the Martials to do it."

Laia's expression is unreadable. "And will you let your people be used?"

I do not expect the question. Livia, however, appears unsurprised, and I have the distinct feeling that she and Laia have already had this conversation.

"If you plan to take the throne back for your nephew," Laia says, "you will need allies to battle the Commandant--strong allies. You don't have the men to do it on your own."

"And if you don't want your people utterly destroyed by the jinn and the Martial army," I retort, "you will need allies too. Particularly ones who know the Martials well."

We stare at each other like two wary dogs.

"The Augur mentioned something to me about the Nightbringer a few weeks ago," I offer finally. "Before the siege on Antium. The truth of all creatures, man or jinn, lies in their name."

A spark of interest in Laia's face. "Cook told me something similar," she says. "She said that to know the Commandant's story would help destroy her. And I know someone with unique skills who can help us."

"Us?"

"Help my people, Blood Shrike." I can see how much it costs Laia to ask this of me. "And I--and my allies--will help you win back your nephew's crown. But . . ."

She cocks her head, and as I'm trying to puzzle out her look, she whips a dagger from her waist and flings it at me.

"What the bleeding hells--" I pluck the blade out of the air on instinct and turn it on her in the time it takes to blink twice. "How dare--"

"If I'm going to carry Serric steel," Laia says quite calmly, "then I'd like to learn to use it. And if I'm going to be an ally to a Martial, I would like to fight like one."

I gape at her, distantly taking note of Livia's quiet smile. Laia looks down at Zacharias and then out the window, and that shadow passes over her face again. "Though I wonder, would you teach me to use the bow, Blood Shrike?"

A memory rises from the haze of the past week: Cook's strong hands as she shot arrow after arrow into the Karkauns. I love you, Laia, she'd said. Laia's face as Cook howled at her to get me to the Augurs' cave. And older memories: Cook's fierceness when she told me she'd murder me if I hurt Laia. The way, when I healed that old woman, some distant music within her reminded me of the Scholar girl.

And suddenly, I understand. Mother.

I remember the face of my own mother as she went to her death. Strength, my girl, she'd said.

Curse this world for what it does to the mothers, for what it does to the daughters. Curse it for making us strong through loss and pain, our hearts torn from our chests again and again. Curse it for forcing us to endure.

When I meet the Scholar girl's stare, I realize she's been watching me. We do not speak. But for this moment, she knows my heart. And I know hers.

"Well?" Laia of Serra offers her hand.

I take it.

LVIII: The Soul Catcher

It takes many days for the ghost to speak his pain. Listening to it chills my blood. He suffers each memory, a rush of violence and selfishness and brutality that, for the first time, he must feel in all its horror.

Most of the ghosts have passed quickly. But sometimes their sins are so great that Mauth does not let them move on. Not until they have suffered what they inflicted.

So it is with the ghost of Marcus Farrar.

Through it, his brother remains at his side, silent, patient. Having spent the past nine months tied to his twin's corporeal body, Zak has had plenty of time to suffer what he was. He waits, now, for his brother.

The day finally comes when Mauth is satisfied with Marcus's suffering. The twins walk beside me quietly, one on each side. They are empty of anger, of pain, of loneliness. They are ready to pass on.

We approach the river, and I turn to the brothers. I sift through their minds dispassionately and find a memory that is joyful--in this case, a day they spent together on the rooftops of Silas before they were taken for Blackcliff. Their father bought them a kite. The winds were fair, and they flew it high.

I give the brothers that memory so that they might slip into the river without troubling me further. I take their darkness--that which Blackcliff found within them and nurtured--and Mauth consumes it. Where it goes, I do not know. I suspect, however, that it might have something to do with that seething sea I saw when I spoke to Mauth, and the creatures lurking within it.

When I look back at the twins, they are boys once more, untainted by the world. And when they step into the river, they do it together, small hands clasped.

The days go swiftly now, and with Mauth joined fully to me, I cycle through the ghosts, dividing my attention between many at a time as easily as if I am made of water and not flesh. The jinn chafe at Mauth's power, but though they hiss and whisper at me still, I can usually silence them with a thought, and they trouble me no more.

At least for now.

When I have been back in the Waiting Place more than a week, I suddenly feel an outsider's presence far to the north, near Delphinium. It takes me only a moment to realize who it is.

Leave it, Mauth says in my head. You know she will bring you no joy.

"I would like to tell her why I left." I have let go of her. But sometimes old images drift to the shores of my mind, leaving me restless. "Perhaps if I do, she will cease to haunt me."

I feel Mauth sigh, but he speaks no more, and in a half hour I can see her through the trees, pacing back and forth. She is alone.

"Laia."

She turns, and at the sight of her, something in me twists. An old memory

. A kiss. A dream. Her hair like silk between my fingers, her body rising beneath my hands.

Behind me, the ghosts whisper, and in the ocean tide of their song, the memory of Laia fades away. I draw on another memory--that of a man who once wore a silver mask and who felt nothing when he did. In my mind, I put on the mask again.

"It is not your time yet, Laia of Serra," I say. "You are not welcome here."

"I thought--" She shudders. "Are you all right? You just left."

"You must go."

"What happened to you?" Laia whispers. "You said we would be together. You said we would find a way. But then . . ." She shakes her head. "Why?"

"Thousands across the Empire died not because of the Karkauns but because of the ghosts. Because the ghosts possessed whomever they could and made them do terrible things. Do you know how they escaped?"

"Did--did Mauth--"

"I failed to hold the borders. I failed to uphold my duty to the Waiting Place. I put everything else first--strangers, friends, family, you. Because of that, the borders fell."

"You didn't know. There was no one to teach you." She takes a deep breath, her hands pressed together. "Do not do this, Elias. Do not leave me. I know you're in there. Please--come back to me. I need you. The Blood Shrike needs you. The Tribes need you."

I walk to her, take her hands, look down into her face. Whatever I want to feel is dulled now by the steady, soothing presence of Mauth, the thrum of ghosts in the Waiting Place.

"Your eyes." She runs a finger across my brows. "They're like hers."

"Like Shaeva's," I say. As they should be.

"No," Laia says. "Like the Commandant's."

The words trouble me. But that too will fade. In time.

"Elias is who I was," I say. "The Soul Catcher--the Banu al-Mauth--the Chosen of Death--that is who I am. But do not despair. We are, all of us, just visitors in each other's lives. You will forget my visit soon enough." I reach down and kiss her on the forehead. "Be well, Laia of Serra."

When I turn away, she sobs, a soul-deep cry of wounded betrayal.

"Take this." Her voice is wretched, her face streaming tears. She tears a wooden armlet from her bicep and shoves it into my hands. "I don't want it." She turns away then, makes for the horse waiting nearby. Moments later, I am alone.

The wood is still warm from her body. When I touch it, some part of me calls out in rage from behind a shut door, demanding to be set free. But a second later, I shake my head, frowning. The feeling fades. I think to cast the armlet to the grass. I do not need it, and neither does the girl.

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