Elias’s tent sits at the northern end of the camp, closer to the trees than to the rest of the soldiers. But I know just by looking at it, and by listening to some voice inside me that connects me to him, that he is not there. I follow that voice south, to the edge of the jinn grove, where he stands alone, soaked to the skin, looking over the Sher Jinnaat.
I step toward him, only to hear the hiss of a blade. Cold steel meets my throat. He makes out my face and drops his scim instantly.
“Sorry.” He turns back to the city. “Jumpy.”
“Me too.” I ask him, “Is it always like this before a battle?”
“You’ve fought in a fair few yourself now,” he says.
“Not one where everything depends on me.”
“You’re not alone. You have Darin. Afya, Mamie, and the Tribes.” Elias’s gaze flashes to me. “The Blood Shrike and the Martials. Musa and the Scholars. Those who love you. Those—those who you love.”
“You forgot yourself, then,” I say. “You most of all.”
He shakes his head. “I’m here because I must be,” he says. “It is my duty. My burden to make up for my wrongs. I do not deserve your love, Laia—”
“Haven’t you learned?” I say. “You don’t get to decide if you deserve my love or not. I decide that. You are worthy of my love. You are worthy of the love Mamie has for you, and the love the Blood Shrike feels. You’ve done terrible things? So have I. We were born into war, Elias. It is all we’ve known. Your mistakes only define the rest of your life if you let them. Don’t let them.”
He regards me thoughtfully and reaches for my hand. A spark jumps between us and he hesitates, but then laces his fingers through mine.
“There’s a question I have been meaning to ask you,” I blurt out, for if I do not ask now, I never will. “But it is from before you took your vow to Mauth. I don’t know if you will remember—”
“When it comes to you, I remember everything,” he says, and my pulse quickens.
“After we escaped Nur with Afya, you left,” I say. “You said something to me before you did. I was sleeping, but—”
“How do you know I said something to you?” He turns to me, but his face is in shadow.
“What did you say?”
“I said—” But he stops short. The drizzle thickens and threatens to transform into a downpour.
“Never mind.” He raises his voice as the rain intensifies. “We should get back to camp, Laia. You need dry clothes—”
But camp is full of people and weapons and reminders that tomorrow is coming. I shake my head, and when he tugs me, I dig my heels in.
“Take me somewhere else,” I say. “You can windwalk. There must be a place we could go.”
He steps toward me slowly, deliberately. His eyes burn, sweeping across my skin with as much heat as a caress. We could windwalk with just our hands connected, but he wraps his arms around my waist, and I bury my face in the hard expanse of his chest as we fly through the dark.
I do not dwell on tomorrow or on the war or the Nightbringer. I immerse myself in the feeling of Elias’s touch. I breathe him in, that spice and rain scent that weaves itself through my dreams.
We stop abruptly, stumbling forward a few steps before he steadies us.
“This is the only other place in the forest the jinn won’t go,” he says. His cabin.
The door is not locked—for no human would come so far into the Waiting Place. Once we are inside, Elias scrapes tinder against flint, and the barest glow bursts from the fireplace. When the flame is higher, he lights four or five lamps before turning to me.
“You need dry clothes.” He opens a chest near his bed and rifles through it until he finds a soft black shirt.
I set my scythe down beside Elias’s weapons and change in the washroom, stripping my sodden clothing and toweling off. I am thankful there is no looking glass. His shirt is far too big on me, and my hair is a disaster, the dozens of pins I used to tame it this morning tangled in one big mass. It will take me ages to pull them out. I sigh, reach for Elias’s lone wooden comb, and step out.
The Soul Catcher has changed into dry fatigues and kicked off his shoes. He sits on a deerskin rug before the fire, warming his hands.
“You can sleep there.” He nods to his bed. “I’ll take the floor. At least you’ll get a good night of rest before tomorrow.”
Sleep isn’t what I had in mind, but I shrug and sit near him cross-legged. Ever so carefully, I begin to pull out my pins. The first few make me wince, so tangled that I’m worried I’ll pull out half my hair with them.
Elias looks over at me and I catch my breath. The fire tinges his brown skin a deep, beguiling gold, and his hair, dark and unruly, falls into his eyes. The cabin is chilly, but beneath his gaze, I am not. His regard does not feel like the regard of the Soul Catcher.
He shifts his attention to the pin in my hand and my ineffectual efforts to remove it.
“Let me.” He comes around and sits behind me atop a fat cushion, long legs stretched on either side.
I feel his hands in my hair, removing the pin with deft gentleness. I shiver, and he shifts closer, his chest against my back now. The scrape of his stubble on my neck is maddening, and I find myself knotting my shirt in my hands, then unknotting it. I am suddenly without words, my thoughts a jumble of desire and confusion and anger. Why are you so cruel? I want to shout at him. Why offer warmth and gentleness and your touch if you are so determined to be the Soul Catcher instead of the man I love?
But I banish those thoughts. I will not feel anger tonight. Nor fear. Only hope.
My body melts against his, and I tip my head back so it’s easier for him to reach the pins. He pulls out a particularly stubborn one, and I marvel that hands so big, hands calloused from holding scims and daggers, could so cleverly work the pins from my hair.
“Does that magic of yours extend to hair knots?” I murmur.
His deep, quiet laugh echoes through my chest. “Apparently. They seem very agreeable.”
“They must like you.”
He shifts back again, and though I want to protest the fact that I cannot feel him anymore, his legs press against mine in a way that leaves no doubt that I am not the only one whose heart now beats faster.
“That night in the desert, when I was leaving,” he says, his lips so close to my ear that I tremble, a thrill running down my body. “I did say something to you.”
He removes another pin. My shirt slides off one shoulder, and the hard muscles of his arm brush against it slowly.
“I said: You are my temple.” His voice is low and hoarse. I lean my body into his, unable to stop, desiring him with a soul-deep wanting that aches. His scent intoxicates me, and I inhale so that I might remember it always. Even as he carefully removes another pin, his hard thighs tighten against my hips. I feel him, all of him, enough to know that Soul Catcher or not, he wants me as badly as I want him.