My brother and I exchange a glance. Tribespeople only accept new family members through marriage or the adoption of children. To be invited to join a Tribe is no small thing--and by the Zaldara, no less.
I reach for Afya's hand, stunned at her generosity, but she waves me off.
"You're practically family anyway," Afya says. "And you know me, girl. I want something in return." She turns to my brother. "Many died to save you, Darin of Serra. The time has come for you to begin forging Serric steel. I can procure you materials. Skies know the Tribes need as much help as we can get."
My brother flexes his hand as he always does when the phantom pains of his missing fingers plague him. His face goes pale, his lips thin. The demons within awaken.
I want so desperately for Darin to speak, to accept Afya's offer. It might be the only chance we have to continue fighting the Empire. But when I turn to him, he is leaving the tent, muttering about needing air.
"What news from your spies?" I say quickly to Afya, hoping to shift her attention from my brother. "The Martials have not drawn down their forces?"
"They sent another legion into the Tribal desert from Atella's Gap," Afya says. "They've arrested hundreds around Nur on false charges: graft and transporting contraband and skies know what else. Rumor is that they're planning to send the prisoners to Empire cities to be sold as slaves."
"The Tribes are protected," I say. "The treaty with Emperor Taius has held for five centuries."
"Emperor Marcus doesn't care a fig about that treaty." Afya frowns. "That's not the worst of it. In Sadh, a legionnaire killed the Kehanni of Tribe Alli."
I cannot hide my slack-jawed shock. Kehannis are the keepers of Tribal stories and history, second in rank only to the Zaldars. Killing one is a declaration of war.
"Tribe Alli attacked the closest Martial garrison in retaliation," Afya says. "It's what the Empire wanted. The commanding Mask came down like a hammer out of the hells, and now all of Tribe Alli is either dead or in prison. Tribe Siyyad and Tribe Fozi have sworn vengeance on the Empire. Their Zaldars ordered attacks on Empire villages--nearly a hundred Martials dead at last count, and not just soldiers."
She gives me a significant look. If the Tribes turn on Martial innocents--children, civilians, the elderly--the Empire will hit back hard.
"They're provoking us." Afya peers out at the sky to gauge the time. "Weakening us. We need that steel, Laia. Think on my offer." She pulls on her cloak to leave, pausing at the flap of the tent. "But think quickly. A strangeness taints the air. I can feel it in my bones. It's not just the Martials I fear."
Afya's warning plagues me all night. Not long before dawn, I give up on sleep and slip outside the tent to where my brother sits watch.
The ghosts of the Waiting Place are restive--angered, no doubt, by our presence. Their anguished cries join with the howling wind out of the north, an icy, hair-raising chorus. I pull my blanket close as I drop next to my brother.
We sit in silence, watching the treetops of the Waiting Place brighten from black to blue as the eastern sky pales. After a time, Darin speaks.
"You want to know why I won't make the weapons."
"You don't have to tell me if you don't wish to."
My brother bunches his fists and opens them, a habit he's had since we were little. The middle and ring fingers of his left, dominant hand are sheared off.
"The materials are easy enough to get," he says. The wails of the ghosts intensify, and he raises his voice.
"It's the making that's complicated. The mixture of the metals, the heat of the flame, how the steel is folded, when the edge is cooled, the way the blade is polished. I remember most of it, but . . ." He squints, as if trying to see something just out of sight. "I've forgotten so much. In Kauf Prison, in the death cells, whole weeks disappeared. I can't remember Father's face anymore, or Nan's." I can barely hear him over the ghosts. "And what if your friend Izzi died for nothing? What if Afya's family died for nothing? What if Elias swore himself to an eternity as Soul Catcher for nothing? What if I make the steel and it breaks?"
I could tell him that would never happen. But Darin always knows when I'm lying. I take my brother's left hand. It is calloused. Strong.
"There's only one way we can find out, Darin," I say. "But we won't do it until--"
I'm interrupted by a particularly shrill cry from the Forest. The tops of the trees ripple, and the earth groans. Slips of white gather amid the trunks closest to us, their cries peaking.
"What's gotten into them?" Darin winces at the sound. Usually, ignoring the ghosts is easy enough for us. But right now, even I want to clap my hands over my ears.
Which is when I realize that the ghosts' cries are not without meaning. There are words buried beneath their pain. One word, specifically.
Laia. Laia. Laia.
My brother hears it too. He reaches for his scim, but his voice is calm, like it used to be before Kauf. "Remember what Elias said. You can't trust them. They're howling to rattle us."
"Listen to them," I whisper. "Listen, Darin."
Your fault, Laia. The ghosts press up against the unseen border of the Waiting Place, their forms blending into one another to form a thick, choking mist. He's close now.
"Who?" I move toward the trees, ignoring my brother's protests. I've never entered the Forest without Elias by my side. I do not know if I can. "Do you speak of Elias? Is he all right?"
Death approaches. Because of you.
My dagger is suddenly slippery in my grasp. "Explain yourselves!" I call out.
My feet carry me close enough to the tree line that I can see the path Elias takes when he meets us here. I've never been to Elias and Shaeva's cabin, but he's told me that it sits at the end of this trail, no more than a league beyond the tree line. Our camp is here because of that path--it's the fastest way for Elias to reach us.
"There's something wrong in there," I say to Darin. "Something's happened--"
"It's just ghosts being ghosts, Laia," Darin says. "They want to lure you in and drive you crazy."
"But you and I have never been driven mad by the ghosts, have we?" At that, my brother falls silent. Neither of us knows why the Waiting Place doesn't set us on edge as badly as it does others, like the Tribes or Martials, all of whom give it a wide berth.
"Have you ever seen so many spirits this close to the border, Darin?" The ghosts appear to multiply by the second. "It cannot be just to torment me. Something has happened to El
ias. Something is wrong." I feel a pull that I cannot explain, a compulsion to move toward the Forest of Dusk.
I hurry to the tent and gather my things. "You don't have to come with me."
Darin's already grabbing his pack. "Where you go, I go," he says. "But that's a big forest. He could be anywhere in there."
"He's not far." That strange instinct pulls at me, a hook in my belly. "I am certain of it." When we reach the trees, I expect resistance. But all I find are ghosts packed so densely that I can barely see through them.
He's here. He's come. Because of you. Because of what you did.
I force myself to ignore the spirits and follow the scanty trail. After a time, the ghosts thin out. When I look back, a palpable fear ripples through their ranks.
Darin and I exchange a glance. What in the skies would a ghost fear?
With every step, it is harder to breathe. This is not my first time in the Waiting Place. When Darin and I began the caravan raids a few months ago, Elias windwalked us across from Marinn. The Forest was never welcoming--but nor was it so oppressive.
Fear lashes at me, and I move faster. The trees are smaller here, and through the open patches, a clearing appears, along with the sloped gray roof of a cottage.
Darin grabs my arm, his finger on his lips, and pulls me to the ground. We inch forward with painstaking care. Ahead of us, a woman pleads. Another voice curses in a familiar baritone. Relief pours through me. Elias.
The relief is short-lived. The woman's voice goes quiet. The trees shudder violently, and a blur of dark hair and brown skin shoots into view. Shaeva. She locks her fingers into my shoulder and drags me to my feet.
"Your answers lie in Adisa." I wince and try to squirm away, but she holds me with a jinn's strength. "With the Beekeeper. But beware, for he is cloaked in lies and shadow, like you. Find him at your peril, child, for you will lose much, even as you save us all--"
Her body is jerked away, dragged as if by an invisible hand back to the clearing. My heart thunders. Oh no, skies no--
"Laia of Serra." I would recognize that ophidian hiss anywhere. It is the sea awakening and the earth shuddering away from itself. "Always appearing where you are not wanted."