“Givvve.” The thing speaks in a rasp. All I see are streamers of darkness fluttering from a vaguely human form. I gag as the stench of death wafts over me. A few feet away, Elias curses, battling more of the shadows.
“Sssilver,” the one holding me says. “Give.”
“Get off!” I land a punch to clammy skin that freezes me from fist to elbow. The shadow disappears, and I’m suddenly, ridiculously grappling with air. A second later though, a band of ice closes about my neck and squeezes.
I cannot breathe. Desperately, I kick my legs. My boot connects, the shadow releases me, and I’m left wheezing and gasping. A screech shatters the night as an unearthly head sails past, courtesy of Elias’s scim. He makes for me, but two more creatures dart out of the desert, blocking his path.
“It’s a wraith!” he bellows at me. “The head! You have to take off its head!”
“I’m not a bleeding swordsman!” The wraith appears again, and I pull Darin’s scim from across my back, halting its approach. The second it realizes I have no idea what I’m doing, it lunges and digs its fingers into my neck, drawing blood. I scream at the cold, the pain, dropping Darin’s blade as my body goes numb and useless.
A flash of steel, a chilling screech, and the shadow drops, headless. The desert falls abruptly silent but for my and Elias’s harsh breaths. He sweeps up Darin’s blade and closes the distance between us, taking in the scratches on my neck. He lifts my chin, his fingers warm.
“It’s nothing.” His own face is cut, and he does not complain, so I pull away and take Darin’s scim. Elias seems to notice it for the first time. His jaw drops. He holds it up, trying to see it in the starlight.
“Ten hells, is this a Teluman blade? How—” A patter in the desert behind him has us both reaching for our weapons. Nothing emerges from the dark, but Elias lopes toward the horse. “Let’s get out of here. You can tell me on the way.”
We race east. As we ride, I realize that, other than what I told Elias on the night the Augurs locked us in his room, he knows almost nothing about me.
That might be a good thing, the wary part of me says. The less he knows, the better.
As I consider how much to say about Darin’s blade and Spiro Teluman, Elias half turns in the saddle. His lips curve into a wry smile, like he can feel my hesitation.
“We’re in this together, Laia. Might as well give me the whole story. And”—he nods to my wounds—“we’ve fought side by side. Bad luck to lie to a comrade-in-arms.”
We’re in this together. Everything he’s done since the moment I made him vow to help me has reinforced that truth. He deserves to know what he’s fighting for. He deserves to know my truths, however strange and unexpected they are.
“My brother wasn’t an ordinary Scholar,” I begin. “And … well, I wasn’t exactly an ordinary slave …”
Fifteen miles and two hours later, Elias rides silently in front of me as the horse trudges on. He holds the reins in one hand, keeping the other on a dagger. Rain mists from low-bellied clouds, and I’ve pulled my cloak tight against the damp.
Everything there is to tell—the raid, my parents’ legacy, Spiro’s friendship, Mazen’s betrayal, the Augurs’ help—I’ve shared it all. The words liberate me. Perhaps I have become so accustomed to the burden of secrets that I do not notice its weight until I am free of it.
“Are you upset?” I finally ask.
“My mother.” His voice is low. “She killed your parents. I’m sorry. I—”
“Your mother’s crimes are not yours,” I say after a moment’s surprise. Whatever I thought he would say, this was not it. “Do not apologize for them. But …” I look out at the desert—empty, quiet. Deceptive. “Do you understand why it is so important for me to save Darin? He’s all I have. After what he did for me—and after what I did to him—leaving him—”
“You have to save him. I understand. But, Laia, he’s more than just your brother. You must know that.” Elias looks back at me, gray eyes fierce. “The Empire’s steelcraft is the only reason no one has challenged the Martials. Every weapon from Marinn down to the Southern Lands breaks against our blades. Your brother could bring down the Empire with what he knows. No wonder the Resistance wanted him. No wonder the Empire sent him to Kauf instead of killing him. They’ll want to know if he’s shared his skills with anyone.”
“They don’t know he was Spiro’s apprentice,” I say. “They think he was a spy.”
“If we can free him and get him to Marinn”—Elias stops the horse at a rain-swollen creek and motions for me to dismount—“he could make weapons for the Mariners, the Scholars, the Tribes. He could change everything.”
Elias shakes his head and slides off the horse. As his boots hit the dirt, his legs buckle. He grabs the pommel of the saddle. His face blanches white as the moon, and he puts a hand to his temple.
“Elias?” Beneath my hand, his arm trembles. He shudders, just like he did when we first left Serra. “Are you—”
“Commandant landed a nasty kick,” Elias says. “Nothing serious. Just can’t seem to get my feet.” The color returns to his face, and he plunges a hand into a saddlebag, handing me a palmful of apricots so fat they are splitting their skins. He must have taken them from the orchards.