I lunge for her, desperate to make her help me, but she spins out of my grasp and darts down the bluff, disappearing within seconds into the trees.
“Shaeva, damn it!” I start after her, swearing when I realize how futile it is.
“Aren’t you dead yet?” Tristas emerges from the trees as the Soul Catcher disappears. “How much longer are you planning to cling to your miserable existence?”
I should ask you the same. But I do not, for instead of the malice I’ve come to expect from Tristas’s ghost, his shoulders slump, as if an invisible boulder rests on his back. Distracted as I am, I order myself to turn my full attention to my friend. He looks drawn and desperately unhappy.
“I’ll be here soon enough,” I say. “I have until Rathana. That’s six days away.”
“Rathana.” Tristas wrinkles his forehead in thought. “I remember last year. Aelia proposed to me that night. I sang all the way home, and you and Hel gagged me so the Centurions wouldn’t hear. Faris and Leander teased me for weeks.”
“They were just jealous that you’d met a girl who truly loved you.”
“You defended me,” Tristas says. Behind him, the Forest is still, as if the Waiting Place holds its breath. “You always did.”
I shrug and look away. “That doesn’t undo the evil I’ve done.”
“Never said it did.” Tristas’s ire returns. “But you’re not the judge, are you? It’s my life you took. It’s my choice whether I wish to forgive you or not.”
I open my mouth, about to tell him that he shouldn’t forgive me. Instead I think of Izzi’s reprimand. You always think everyone is your responsibility … We’re our own people, and we deserve to make our own decisions.
“You’re right.” Hells, it’s hard to say. Harder to make myself believe. But as I speak, the anger clears from Tristas’s eyes. “All your choices have been taken from you. Except this one. I’m sorry.”
Tristas cocks his head. “Was that so hard?” He walks to the edge of the bluff and peers down at the River Dusk. “You said I didn’t have to do it alone.”
“You don’t have to do it alone.”
“I could say the same to you.” Tristas puts a hand on my shoulder. “I forgive you, Elias. Forgive yourself. You still have time left among the living. Don’t waste it.”
He turns and leaps off the bluff in a perfect dive, his body fading. The only sign of his passing is a slight ripple in the river.
I could say the same to you. The words kindle a flame within me, and the thought that first flickered to life with Izzi’s words now grows into a blaze.
Afya’s strident assertion sounds in my head: You shouldn’t just leave, Elias. You should ask Laia what she wants. Laia’s angry pleadings: You close yourself up. You shut me out because you don’t want me to get close. What about what I want?
Sometimes, Izzi had said, loneliness is a choice.
The Waiting Place fades. When cold seeps into my bones, I know I am back in Kauf.
I also know exactly how I can get Darin out of this damned place. But I can’t do it alone. I wait—planning, plotting—and when Tas enters my cell the morning after I learn the truth about Keenan, I am ready.
The boy keeps his head down, shuffling toward me as timid as a mouse. His skinny legs are marked with a fresh whipping. A dirty bandage encircles his frail wrist.
“Tas,” I whisper. The boy’s dark eyes snap up. “I’m getting out of here,” I say. “I’m taking the Artist with me. And you too, if you wish. But I need help.”
Tas bends over his crate of bandages and ointments, his hands shaking as he changes a poultice on my knee. For the first time since I’ve met him, his eyes shine.
“What do you need me to do, Elias Veturius?”
I do not recall hauling myself back up Kauf’s outer wall or making my way to the boathouse. I only know that it takes longer than it should because of the anger and disbelief clouding my sight. When I arrive within the cavernous structure, dazed by what I’ve just learned about the Commandant, the Warden awaits me.
This time, he’s not alone. I sense his men lurking in the corners of the boathouse. Glints of silver catch the blue torchlight—Masks, with arrows pointed at me.
Avitas stands beside our boat, one wary eye turned toward the old man. His clenched jaw is the only sign that he’s upset. His anger calms me—at least I am not alone in my frustration. As I approach, Avitas meets my gaze and nods curtly. The Warden has filled him in.
“Don’t help the Commandant, Warden,” I say without preamble. “Don’t give her the influence she wants.”
“You surprise me,” the Warden says. “Are you so loyal to Marcus that you would reject Keris Veturia as Empress? It’s foolish to do so. The transition would not be seamless, but in time the populace would accept her. She did, after all, crush the Scholar revolution.”
“If the Commandant was meant to be Empress,” I say, “the Augurs would have chosen her instead of Marcus. She does not know how to negotiate, Warden. The second she takes power, she’ll punish every Gens who has ever crossed her, and the Empire will fall to civil war, as it nearly did just weeks ago. Besides, she wants to kill you. She said as much in front of me.”
“I am well aware of Keris Veturia’s dislike,” he says. “Irrational, when one considers that we serve the same master, but she is, I believe, threatened by my presence.” The Warden shrugs. “Whether I aid her or not makes no difference. She will still launch the coup. And it is very possible that it will succeed.”