He shakes himself and meets my eyes. “Save him, Laia of Serra,” he says. “From all that you and the Blood Shrike have told me, I think that he is worth saving.”
The Mask watches me, and I nod at him, not understanding but relieved that he is, at least, more human and less Mask. “I’ll do my best.”
We reach the Blood Shrike’s clearing. She fastens a saddle onto her horse, and when she hears our footsteps and turns, her silver face tightens. The Mask quickly makes himself scarce.
“I know you don’t like me,” I say before she can tell me to get lost. “But I’m here for two reasons.” I open my mouth, trying to find the right words, and decide that simplest is best. “First, I need to thank you. For saving me. I should have said it before.”
“You’re welcome,” she grunts. “What do you want?”
“Why in the bleeding skies would I help you?”
“Because you’re leaving Elias behind,” I say. “You don’t want him dead. I know that. So help me save him.”
The Blood Shrike turns back to her horse, yanking a cloak from one of her saddlebags and pulling it on.
“Elias won’t die. He’s probably trying to break your brother out right now.”
“No,” I say. “Something went wrong in there.” I step closer to her. Her stare cuts like a scim. “You owe me nothing. I know that. But I heard what he said to you at Blackcliff. Don’t forget us.” The devastation in her eyes at the memory is sudden and raw, and guilt twists in my stomach.
“I won’t leave him,” I say. “Listen to that place.” Helene Aquilla looks away from me. “He deserves better than to die in there.”
“What do you want to know?”
“A few things about layout, locations, and supplies.”
She scoffs. “How in the hells are you going to get in? You can’t pose as a slave. Kauf’s guards know the faces of their Scholar slaves, and a girl who looks like you won’t be quickly forgotten. You won’t last five minutes.”
“I have a way in,” I say. “And I’m not afraid.”
A violent gust of wind sends blonde strands fluttering like birds around her silver face. As she sizes me up, her expression is unreadable. What does she feel? She is more than just a Mask—I learned that the night she brought me back from the brink of death.
“Come here,” she sighs. She kneels down and begins to draw in the snow.
I’m tempted to pile Keenan’s things outside and light a fire, but the smoke would only attract attention. Instead, I hold his bag away from myself, as if it’s diseased, and walk a few hundred yards from the cave, until I find a stream running swiftly down to the River Dusk. His pack lands with a splash in the water, and his weapons soon follow. I could do with a few more knives, but I don’t want anything that belonged to him.
When I return to the cave, I sit down, cross my legs, and decide that I will not move until I have mastered my invisibility.
I realize that each time I succeeded, Keenan was out of sight and often far away. All that self-doubt I felt when he was around—could he have planted it on purpose, to suppress my power?
Disappear! I scream the word in my mind, queen of the desolate landscape therein ordering her ragged troops to a last stand. Elias, Darin, and all the rest I must save depend on this one thing, this power, this magic that I know lives within.
A rush pours through my body, and I steady myself, looking down to see that my limbs shimmer, translucent, as they did during the raid on Afya’s caravan.
I whoop, loud enough that the echo in the cave startles me, and the invisibility falls away. Right. Work on that, Laia.
All that day, I practice, first in the cave and then out in the snow. I learn my limits: A branch I hold while invisible is also invisible. But anything living or anchored to the earth appears to float in midair.
I am so deep within my own head that at first, I don’t hear the footsteps. Someone speaks, and I spin around, scrambling for a weapon.
“Oh, calm down, girl.” I recognize the haughty tone even before she lowers her hood. Afya Ara-Nur.
“Skies, you’re jumpy,” she says. “Though I can’t say I blame you. Not when you have to listen to that racket.” She waves her hand in the general direction of the prison. “No Elias, I see. No brother either. And … no redhead?”
She raises her eyebrows, waiting for an explanation, but I just stare at her, wondering if she’s real. Her riding clothes are stained and filthy, her boots wet with snow. Her braids are tucked beneath a scarf, and it doesn’t look like she has slept in days. I could kiss her, I’m so happy to see her.
She sighs and rolls her eyes. “I made a promise, girl, all right? I vowed to Elias Veturius that I would see this through. A Tribeswoman breaking a sacred vow is foul enough. But to do it when another woman’s life is at stake? That is unforgiveable—as my little brother reminded me every hour of every day for three days straight, until I finally agreed to follow you.”
“Where is he?”
“Almost to the Tribal Lands.” She sits on a nearby rock and massages her legs. “At least, he better be. Last thing he said to me was that your friend Izzi didn’t trust the redhead.” She looks at me expectantly. “Was she right?”
“Skies,” I say. “Where do I even begin?”