“Stop.” He takes a wary step back. “I’m not asking on my own behalf. I’m asking because I will only hurt you, Laia. I’ve proven it over and over. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore.”
“You still think you can decide things for everyone.” My hands curl into fists. “But you cannot. And you cannot make me stop loving you, Elias Veturius. Not when I know that somewhere in there, you feel the same.”
I grab his cloak, rise up on my tiptoes, and kiss him. Hard. Angry and bruising. His nose is cold from the wind, but his lips are soft and deliciously warm. Kiss me back, you dolt, I think, and he does, but far too carefully, his desire caged. It drives me mad.
When I break away, he stares at me, dazed.
I leave him there, stammering. It is a small victory. But even those are hard to come by these days.
* * *
Night falls reluctantly, as if she does not wish to witness the horrors it will bring. When the stars finally rule the sky, the horizon brightens, glowing orange, then white.
The jinn approach.
“We’ll need more than magic to survive that, Laia.” Afya enters the courtyard. Her gaze is trained on the eerie glow of the sky, visible even through the trellises. “Are you ready?”
“Doesn’t matter if I’m ready.” As I dip the last of my arrows in salt, I remember the words I said to my mother long ago, just before I broke Elias out of Blackcliff. “It’s time.”
“Be careful.” Afya glances over her shoulder at Elias, who sends the last of the Tribespeople into the desert. “I don’t trust him to defend you.”
“I do not need defending, Afya.”
Afya nods at the flames drawing nearer. “With that on our tails, we all need defending.” She clasps my hands and leaves, heading to the edge of the courtyard, where Aubarit and Gibran hitch up the last wagon leaving the city. The air flickers around them—wind efrits who will speed them through the desert. The young Tribesman says something to the Fakira that makes her cheeks rosy. They have spent many hours together, those two, and it makes me smile.
“Not much time, Laia.” Elias speaks from beside me, though I did not see him approach. “Shall we?”
“Do not windwalk.” Rehmat’s gentle glow flares between us. “He will sense you.”
I nod, but say nothing else. My anger toward her has cooled, but she has made herself scarce these past few weeks. Whenever she has appeared, there has been a fractured aura about her, as if her focus is fixed elsewhere.
It seems to take ages to wind through the city to the abandoned Martial garrison in its center. By the time we reach the building, the jinn have reached Nur, and the screaming has begun.
I smile at the sound. For if one were to listen carefully to those screams, one might notice that there is something off about them.
“The barbarous keen yokes us to the low beasts, to the unutterable violence of the earth,” Elias mutters, and when I look at him askance, he shrugs. “Something the Warden of Kauf Prison said. For once, that evil old bastard was right.”
Indeed, a human scream is unique because of its rawness. A fey cry, however, is round and clean, without edges. A stone instead of a saw.
It is the fey who scream now, the sand efrits who are immune to fire, and who agreed to provide a distraction to cover the evacuation of the Tribespeople.
We make our way to the rooftop of the garrison. It is a broad space, scattered with patchy armor, sandbags, and a few piles of pale brick—whatever the Martials failed to take when the Tribes drove them out.
“Does this remind you of anything?”
Elias looks around, nonplussed. “Should it?”
“Last year,” I say. “When we were breaking out Scholars from Martial ghost wagons. Only difference is that now I can do this—” I raise my hand to his dark hair, pushing it back. “And Mauth won’t give you a splitting headache.”
He catches my hand, gripping it for a moment before the Soul Catcher takes hold again and he releases me.
“I wish you luck, Laia,” he says. “But I have my own mission. If you’re in trouble, I can’t help.”
“I am not expecting you to,” I say. “But if something happens to me—”
“Defeat in the mind is defeat on the—”
“You Blackcliff types and all your sayings.” I kick his boot. “Listen, for skies’ sake. If something happens, be a brother to Darin for me. Swear you will.”
“I don’t—” He takes in my scowl and nods. “I promise,” he says.
“Thank you, Soul Catcher.”
“Elias,” he says after a moment, the slightest bit of warmth entering those cold gray eyes. “From you I prefer Elias.”
Now it is my turn to be stunned. If we were not about to confront the Nightbringer, I would kiss him. Instead, all I can do is stare as he disappears over the side of the building.
Mission, Laia. Focus on the mission.
As I scurry across the rooftop, wind howls out of the south, a spine-chilling preface to the approach of the jinn and their human army.
I look up to find the entire southern horizon obscured by a towering wall of sand. The storm is ten times larger than the one the Nightbringer conjured up in this very same desert the first time Elias and I came through. And it moves fast—too fast.
When I am only halfway across the roof, it hits, propelling me backward with its force. Though I bend my head against it, the sand is so thick and the wind so strong that I can barely see. I am forced back—finding shelter between a pile of sandbags and the wall—which is no shelter at all. I crouch, coughing the sand out of my lungs, frantically pulling a kerchief over my eyes so I do not go sand blind.
My plan was to hide in a weapons shed on the other side of the wall. But I cannot possibly make it now. Not before the Nightbringer arrives.
“I can help.” Rehmat’s glow flickers as thick clouds of sand float through her. “If you let me in.”
“Will he not sense you?”
She hesitates. “Yes. But I am ready for him. And this storm, it is hurting you.” Her form shifts, as if she’s fidgeting, and her voice is so soft I almost can’t hear it. “I would not see you harmed, Laia. Whether you believe it or not, I am bonded to you, the way a fine blade is bonded to its maker.”
Like with Mamie, I feel a sudden flush of warmth at her words. But it is tempered with wariness. Rehmat is so fey. So unknowable. How can I trust her again?