"Spectacular fight." He jogs to catch up with me, stealthy as a wraith. "Do you think you should apologize before you leave? You were a bit harsh."
"Is there anything you don't eavesdrop on?"
"I can't help it if the wights are gossips." He shrugs. "Though I was gratified to hear that you finally admitted how you feel about Elias out loud. You never talk about him, you know."
My face heats. "Elias is none of your business."
"As long as he doesn't stop you from keeping your promise, aapan," Musa says, "I agree. I'll walk you to your horse. There are maps and supplies in the saddlebags. I marked a route straight west, through the mountains. Should get you to the Forest of Dusk in a bit more than three weeks. My contact will meet you on the other side and take you to Antium."
We come to the west gate just as a nearby belltower chimes midnight. In tune with the last bell tolling, there is a low hiss. A dagger leaving its sheath. As I reach for my own weapon, something zings past my ear.
An angry chitter erupts near me, and small hands shove at me. I drop, dragging Musa down as an arrow flies overhead. Another arrow shoots out of the darkness, but it too misses its mark, dropping in midair--courtesy of Musa's wights.
"Nikla!" Musa snarls. "Show yourself!"
The shadows shift, and the crown princess steps out of the darkness. She glares at us balefully, her face barely visible beneath the ghuls swarming all over her.
"I should have known that traitor Eleiba would let you go," she hisses. "She will pay."
More footsteps approach--Nikla's soldiers, closing in on Musa and me. Ever so slowly, Musa puts himself between me and Nikla. "Listen to reason, please. We both know--"
"Don't you speak to me!" the princess growls at Musa, and the ghuls cluck happily at her pain. "You had your chance."
"When I rush her," Musa whispers, barely audible, "run."
I'm just processing what he says when he's past me and heading straight for Nikla. Immediately, silver-armored bodyguards step out of the shadows and attack Musa so swiftly that he is now nothing but a blur.
I cannot just let Nikla's men take him. Skies know what they will do. But if I hurt any of these Mariners, it might turn King Irmand against us. I flip my dagger around to the hilt, but a hand grabs me and yanks me back.
"Go, little sister," Darin says, a staff in his hands. Taure, Zella, and a group of Scholars from the refugee camp are at his back. "We'll make sure no one dies. Get out of here. Save us."
"Musa--and you--if they arrest you--"
"We'll be fine," Darin says. "You were right. We have to be ready. But we don't have a chance if you don't go. Ride fast, Laia. Stop him. I'm with you, here." He taps my heart. "Go."
And like that day long ago in Serra, with my brother's voice ringing in my ears, I flee.
* * *
For the first three days on the road, I hardly stop, expecting at any moment for Nikla and her men to find me. Every possible outcome plagues my mind, an ever-changing play of nightmares: The Mariners overcome Darin and Musa and Zella and Taure. The king sends soldiers to drag me back. The Scholars are left to starve--or worse, they are driven from Adisa, refugees yet again.
But four mornings after I leave, I am woken before dawn by a quiet chitter beside my ear. I so associate the sound with Musa that I expect to see him when I open my eyes. Instead, a scroll sits on my chest, with only one word printed on it.
After that, I stop looking over my shoulder and start looking ahead. True to Eleiba's word, whenever I stop at a courier station and show the king's ring, I receive a fresh mount and supplies, no questions asked. The help couldn't come at a better time, for I am gripped by desperation. Every day brings me closer to the Grain Moon--and to the Nightbringer's victory. Every day makes it more likely that he will find a way to trick the Blood Shrike into giving him the ring, which he'll use to set his wrathful kindred free.
As I ride, I parse out the remaining bits of Shaeva's prophecy. The line about the Butcher worries me, but not as much as the Dead will rise, and none can survive.
The dead are Elias's domain. If they rise, does that mean they will escape the Waiting Place? What happens if they do? And what of the end of the prophecy? It makes little sense--all but The Ghost will fall, her flesh will wither. The meaning there is disturbingly clear: I'm going to die.
But then again, just because it's a prophecy doesn't mean it's written in stone.
I encounter many other travelers, but the king's sigil on my saddle and cloak keeps the questions at bay, and I do not invite conversation. After a week cutting through the mountains and ten days winding down into gentle, rolling farmland, the Forest of Dusk appears on the horizon, a blue line of fuzz beneath flocculent clouds. This far from the major cities there are no courier stations, and the farms and villages are far apart. But I do not feel lonely--a sense of anticipation builds.
Soon, I will be reunited with Elias.
I recall what I blurted out during my argument with Darin: the man I love.
I thought I loved Keenan, but that love was born out of desperation and loneliness, out of a need to see myself, my struggles, in someone else.
What I feel for Elias is different, a flame I hold close to my heart when I feel my strength flagging. Sometimes, deep in the night as I travel, I picture a future with him. But I dare not look at it too closely. How can I, when it can never be?
I wonder what he has become in the months we've been apart. Has he changed? Is he eating? Taking care of himself? Skies, I hope he has not grown a beard. I hated his beard.
The Forest transforms from a furred, distant line to a wall of knotted trunks that I know well. Even beneath the noontime shine of a summer sun, the Waiting Place feels ominous.
I leave my horse to graze, and as I draw near the tree line, a wind rises and the gnarled Forest canopy sways. The leaves sing in whispers, a gentle sound.
"Elias?" The silence is uncanny--no ghosts wail or cry out. Anxiety gnaws at me. What if Elias cannot pass the ghosts through? What if something has happened to him?
The stillness of the Forest makes me think of a predator stalking in tall grasses, watching its oblivious prey. But as the sun dips west, a familiar darkness rises in me, urging me toward the trees. I felt this darkness with the Nightbringer, long ago, when I sought to get answers out of him. I felt it again after Shaeva died, when I thought the jinn would hurt Elias.
It does not feel evil, this darkness. It feels like part of me.
I step into the trees, tense, blade in hand. Nothing happens. The Forest is quiet, but birds still sing, and small creatures still move through the underbrush. No ghosts approach. I move in deeper, allowing that darkness to pull me onward.
When I am far into the trees, the shadows grow thick. A voice calls out to me.
No--not one voice. Many, speaking as one.
Welcome to the Waiting Place, Laia of Serra, the voices purr. Welcome to our home, and our prison. Come closer, won't you?
The Masks don't notice the darts until my first victim is facedown in his rice. They are complacent--their scouts have told them that the Tribespeople will be an easy conquest, and so they posted no guards, too confident in their own skill.
Which is formidable. But it's not enough.
The first Mask to spot me knocks the two darts I send at him out of the air and rushes me, blades appearing in his hands like magic.
But a darkness stirs within me--magic of my own. Though I am far from the Waiting Place, I have just enough physical magic to spin into a windwalk until I am behind him and I can stick him with another dart. Two of the Masks leap toward me, weapons flying, while the third--the commander--lunges for the door to raise the alarm.
I windwalk in front of him, using the infinitesimal moment of his surprise to jam a blade into his throat. Don't think, just move, Elias. Blood spurts all over my hands, making it exceedingly difficult not to dwell on the violence of my actions, but the other
Masks approach, and this man's body makes an adequate shield, jerking as the blades of his comrades glance off his armor. I shove him at one of the remaining Masks and take on the other, ducking as he throws a punch and only just avoiding his knee as he tries to nail me in the jaw with it.