I drag my gaze to his, and my breath catches at the look in his eyes. Desire to match my own, just as dark, just as heady. He holds nothing back with this look. He hides nothing.
“Tell me why you’re here.”
“You know why.” I try to turn away, but he will not let me.
“But I need you to say it. Please.”
“I’m here because it’s been months since you kissed me, but I think about that moment so often it feels like it happened yesterday,” I say. “And because when I saw you go down in the battle, I thought I’d—I’d tear apart the world if anything happened to you. And because I—”
His hands are at my hips, and he pulls me closer. My legs rise easily in the water, wrapping around his waist, and his fingers dig into my skin. He mutters something and kisses my throat, slow and careful as he follows the column of my neck to my jaw and settles finally on my mouth, where, suddenly, he is careful no longer.
But I don’t care, because I don’t want to be careful either. I bite his lip, savage, hungry, and he makes a sound low in his throat. I do not know we have reached the edge of the pool until the cold stone digs into my back and he is lifting me up, trailing kisses up my thighs, higher. In his hands, I am beautiful, sacred, beloved. Beneath his lips, I am undone.
I close my eyes and run my hands over his taut arms, his shoulders, his neck, marveling at his perfection, that impression of coiled strength. My breath quickens, and my legs, my arms, corded with muscle from years of training, quiver beneath his touch. When I slide back into the pool, trembling and impatient, he smiles, a smile that belongs to me alone.
“Helene,” he whispers against my ear.
I sigh. “Say it again.”
“Helene.” He tilts my face toward him, and as our bodies come together, as I cry out his name, my fingers digging into his back at the ache of him inside me, he says it again, and again. Until I am the Blood Shrike no longer, but simply Helene. His Helene.
Mamie Rila finds me not long after we enter Nur. The city is vastly changed from the last time I was here. The sand-colored buildings are stripped of the Tribal flags that once draped them. The only sound in the streets is the whisper of wind and the occasional bleat of a forgotten goat.
In some ways, I prefer this Nur, for the oppressive presence of the Martials is gone. They left months ago, Afya told me, after Tribe Nur attacked their barracks.
Now we have set up a base of operations not far from where I first met the Zaldara, in a courtyard hidden by trellises choked with winter-dead vines. From above, we are invisible.
As I sharpen my blades, Mamie approaches, a thick robe pulled tightly around her and a fur hood framing her face. Unlike most of the Kehannis, she has not avoided me, despite my endless pestering about the Nightbringer’s story.
“How is he?” she calls out, and I do not ask for clarification.
“He’s trying to clear out as many people as he can,” I say of Elias. “Says Keris will be here by nightfall.”
“I did not ask what he is doing, my love.” Mamie tilts her head, dark eyes seeing too much. “I asked how he is.”
“Physically, he’s recovered.” For most people, those injuries would have taken months to get over. But not Elias. “Mentally, he’s troubled. The magic should have healed him within minutes—hours at the most. The fact that it took a week is eating at him. He’s worried about Mauth.”
“If the magic is loosening its hold on his body, do you think . . .”
“It might let go of his mind?” I consider. “I do not know, Mamie. Elias’s inhumanity is his own choice. Mauth simply makes it easier for him by numbing his emotions. Mauth took away the memories of those Elias killed. Those he hurt. But now he’s being forced to do it again and he hates it. Maybe forgetting would be a blessing. He—he would be gone forever, but at least he would not feel such pain.”
“We’ll bring him back, Laia.” Mamie guides me to a nearby bench and bids me sit. “First, you must survive. And that means—”
“I have to kill the Nightbringer.”
“It means”—Mamie raises an eyebrow at my interruption—“that I owe you a story.”
I go still. She had been so adamant that she would not help me. As if sensing the direction of my thoughts, she shrugs.
“I have learned to love you these past few weeks, Laia.” She says it casually, as if it is not extraordinary to gift someone with love. “I find it hard to deny anything to those I love. Already, I have begun to seek out the tale. Though it is not easy. Many of our revered elderly do not wish to speak of the jinn. Yet I need a source to draw from. A person. A scroll. Even a fireside myth.” She draws herself up. “But I have hunted stories before and speared them. This one will be no different.”
“You say it like it’s a living thing, Mamie.”
“It’s Kehanni magic, child. A Kehanni can sense a story. Feel out its contours, its breath. I do not just speak a story, I sing it, I become it. That is what it means to be a Kehanni. All of us trained to tell stories have a bit of magic in our bones.”
The idea of Kehanni magic sparks a hundred questions in my mind. But Mamie kisses me on the cheek and leaves, clearly preoccupied with her new task.
Free for the first time in hours, I find a quiet spot on the side of the courtyard, close my eyes, and reach out to my brother.
Laia. He sounds startled. Where have you been?
“I’m in Nur,” I say. “About to try to get the scythe. I have much to do, but I need to—I need to ask you something.”
The scythe? Is the Nightbringer there?
“He’s coming,” I say. “Darin, if I fail, promise me you’ll defy him. You’ll find the scythe. You’ll fight him.”
Of course, I promise. In fact, Laia, the Blood Shrike is sending troops.
“Finally! We’ve been waiting. Where are they?”
But I do not hear Darin’s response, for Elias rides into the courtyard with a clatter and my concentration is broken. After, I think to myself. I will speak with him after.
Elias swings down from his horse and makes his way toward me. Though he still wears his black fatigues, something about him speaking Sadhese among the dun buildings of Nur makes me smile and remember the Moon Festival. He dressed as a Tribesman and danced with me, graceful as a cloud.
“Laia,” he says. “You should rest. It will be a long night.”
“Do you remember the Moon Festival?” I blurt out, and for a moment, he looks confused.
“In Serra,” I say. “It was the first time I saw you without your mask. You asked me to dance—”