When Elias shifts his arm, the Shrike whips her head toward him, eyes narrowing. At that moment, Harper enters.
"Wagon's ready, Shrike," he says.
"Take her." She shoves me at Avitas. "Keep a knife at her throat." Harper pulls me close, and I ease back from his blade. If I could just distract the Shrike and Avitas for a moment, enough for Elias to attack . . .
I use a trick Elias taught me when we traveled together. I kick Avitas in the soft place between his foot and leg and then drop like a hammer from a roof.
Avitas curses, the Shrike turns, and Elias shoots from his seat, free of his manacles. He dives for his blades in less time than it takes to blink. A knife whooshes through the air above my head, and Harper ducks, dragging me with him. The Blood Shrike roars, but Elias is on her, using his bulk to bowl her over. He's got her pinned, a knife at her throat, but something glimmers at her wrist. She has a blade. Skies, she's going to stab him.
"Elias!" I shout a warning when suddenly, his body goes rigid.
A gasp bursts from his throat. The knife falls from his hand, and in a second, the Shrike has wriggled out from beneath him, lips curled in a sneer.
"Laia." Elias's eyes communicate his rage. His helplessness. And then darkness fills the room. I see the swing of long dark hair, a flash of brown skin. Depthless black eyes bore into me. Shaeva.
Then she--and Elias--disappear. The earth rumbles beneath us and the wind outside rises, sounding, for a second, like the wailing of ghosts.
The Blood Shrike leaps toward where Elias stood. She finds nothing, and a moment later, her hand is around my throat, her knifepoint at my heart. She shoves me back into a seat.
"Who the hells," she whispers, "was that woman?"
The door bursts open and Dex enters, scim drawn. Before he can speak, the Shrike is bellowing at him.
"Scour the village! Veturius disappeared like a bleeding wraith!"
"He's not in the village," I say. "She took him."
"Who took him?" I cannot speak--the knife is too close--but she doesn't let me move a muscle. "Tell me!"
"Ease up on the knife, Shrike," Avitas says. The dark-haired Mask scans the room carefully, as if Elias might reappear at any moment. "And perhaps she will."
The Blood Shrike pulls the knife back by no more than a hair. Her hand is steady, but her face beneath her mask is flushed. "Talk or die."
My words stumble over each other as I try to explain--as vaguely as I can--who Shaeva is and what Elias has become. Even as I speak the words, I realize how far-fetched they sound. The Blood Shrike says nothing, but incredulity is written in every line of her body.
When I finish, she stands, her knife loose in her hand, looking out into the night. Only a few hours until dawn. "Can you get Elias back here?" she asks quietly.
I shake my head, and she kneels before me. Her face is suddenly serene, her body relaxed. When I meet her eyes, they are distant, as if her thoughts have moved on from me.
"If the Emperor knew you lived, he'd want to interrogate you himself," she says. "Unless you're a fool, you'll agree that death would be preferable. I will make it swift."
Oh skies. My feet are free, but my hands are bound. I could wriggle my right hand free if I pulled hard enough . . .
Avitas sheathes his scim and bends behind me. I feel the brush of warm skin against my wrists and wait for them to tighten as he rebinds me.
But they do not.
Instead, the rope binding my wrists falls away. Harper breathes one word, so softly that I question whether I truly heard it.
I cannot move. I meet the Blood Shrike's stare head on. I will look death in the eyes. Grief ripples across her silver features. She seems older, suddenly, than her twenty years, with the implacability of a five-body blade. All the weakness has been hammered out of her. She has seen too much blood. Too much death.
I remember when Elias told me what Marcus did to the Shrike's family. He learned it from the ghost of Hannah Aquilla, who plagued him for months before finally moving on.
As I'd listened to what happened, I'd felt sicker and sicker. I remembered another dark morning years ago. I woke up with a start that day, scared by the low, choking cries echoing through the house. I thought Pop must have brought home an animal. Some wounded creature, dying slowly and in agony.
But when I entered the main room of the house, there was Nan, rocking back and forth, Pop frantically shushing her wails, for no one could hear her mourn her daughter--my mother. No one could know. The Empire wished to crush all that the Lioness was, all that she stood for. That meant any and all connected to her.
We all went to market that day to sell Nan's jams--Pop, Darin, Nan, and I. Nan shed no tears. I only ever heard her in the dead of night, her quiet keening breaking me more than any scream could.
The Blood Shrike was also denied the right to mourn publicly. How could she? She is second-in-command of the Empire, and her family was condemned because she failed to carry out the Emperor's orders.
"I'm sorry," I whisper as she raises her dagger. I whip my fingers out--not to stop her blade, but to take her free hand. She stiffens in shock. The skin of her palm is cool, calloused. Less than a second has passed, but her surprise has kindled into anger.
The cruelest anger comes from the deepest pain. Nan used to say that. Speak, Laia.
"My parents were murdered too," I say. "My sister. In Kauf. I was younger, and I did not witness it. I could never mourn them. I wasn't allowed to. And no one ever spoke of them. But I think of them every day. I am sorry for you and what you lost. Truly."
For a moment, I see the girl who healed me. The girl who let Elias and me escape from Blackcliff. The girl who told me how to get into Kauf Prison.
And before that girl fades--as I know she will--I draw on my own power and disappear, rolling out of the chair, racing past Avitas and toward the door. Two steps and the Shrike is shouting, three and her dagger slices through the air after me, and then her scim.
Too late. By the time the scim drops, I am through the open door, past an unsuspecting Dex, and running for all I am worth, nothing but another shadow in the night.
Shaeva plunges me into a darkness so complete that I wonder if I'm in one of the hells. She holds fast to me, though I cannot see her. We are not windwalking--it feels like we are not moving at all. And yet her body thrums with the tang of magic, and when it spills over to me, my skin burns as if I've been set alight.
Gradually, my vision brightens until I find myself hovering over an ocean. The sky above rages, thick with sallow yellow clouds. I feel Shaeva beside me, but I cannot tear my gaze from the water below, which seethes with huge forms rippling just below the surface. Evil emanates from those forms, a malevolence that I feel in the deepest parts of my soul. Terror fills me like I've never felt in all my life, not even as a child in Blackcliff.
Then the fear lifts, replaced by the weight of an ancient gaze. A voice speaks in my mind:
Night draws close, Elias Veturius. Beware.
The voice is so soft that I must strain to hear every syllable. But before I can make sense of it, the ocean is gone, the dark returns, and the voice and images fade from my memory.
* * *
The knotted wood joists above my head and feather pillow below it tell me instantly where I am when I wake. Shaeva's cabin--my home. A log pops in the fire, and the scent of spiced korma fills the air. For a long moment, I relax into my bunk, secure in the peace one feels only when they are safe and warm beneath their own roof.
Laia! When I remember what happened, I sit up too quickly; my head aches something vicious. Bleeding hells.
I need to get back to the village--to Laia. I drag myself to my feet, find my scims tucked haphazardly beneath my bed, and stagger to the cottage door. Outside, a freezing wind tears through the clearing, stirring the packed snow into wild, waist-high tornadoes. The ghosts wail and cluster at the sight of me, their anguish palpable.
"Hello, little one." One of the shades drifts close, so faded I get only the barest impression of her face. "Have you seen my lovey?"
I know her. The Wisp. One of the first ghosts I met here. My voice when I speak is a rusty growl.
"Elias." Shaeva appears at the edge of the clearing, a basket of winter herbs on her wrist. The Wisp, ever shy, vanishes. "You shouldn't be up and about."
"What's wrong with me?" I demand of the Soul Catcher. "What happened?"
"You've been unconscious for a day." Shaeva ignores my obvious ire. "I reeled us here instead of windwalking. It is swifter, but more detrimental to a mortal body."