“Something tells me Gibran is fine.” I smile at her. “Did you say goodbye to Elias?”
She nods. “He’s hiding something from me.” I look away. I know very well what Elias is hiding. He has confided only to me about his deal with the Soul Catcher. And if the others have noticed that he’s gone most of the night and for long stretches during the day, they’ve not seen fit to mention it.
“Best be sure he’s not hiding anything from you,” Afya continues. “Bad way to get into bed with someone.”
“Skies, Afya,” I sputter, looking behind me and hoping Elias hasn’t heard. Thankfully, he’s disappeared back into the Forest. “I’m not getting into bed with him, nor do I have any interest—”
“Don’t bother, girl.” Afya rolls her eyes. “It’s embarrassing to listen to.” She considers me for a second and then gives me a hug—swift and surprisingly warm.
“Thank you, Afya,” I say into her braids. “For everything.”
She releases me with an arched brow. “Speak of my honor far and wide, Laia of Serra,” she says. “You owe me that. And take care of that brother of yours.”
I look in through the cabin’s windows at Darin. His dark blond hair is clean and cropped short, his face youthful and handsome again. I’ve carefully tended all of his wounds, and most are now nothing but scars.
But still, he has not stirred. Perhaps he never will.
A few hours after Afya and the Scholars have disappeared over the horizon, Elias emerges from the Forest. The cabin, so quiet now that everyone has left, suddenly feels less lonely.
He knocks before entering, bringing a burst of cold in with him. Beardless now, and with his hair cropped short and some of his weight back, he looks more like his old self.
Except his eyes. They are different. More thoughtful, perhaps. The weight of the burden he has taken on still astounds me. Though he has explained to me multiple times—that he accepted it with a whole heart, wanted it, even—I still feel angry at the Soul Catcher. There must be some way out of this vow. Some way Elias can live a normal life, travel to the Southern Lands he’s always spoken of with such fondness. Some way he can visit his Tribe and be reunited with Mamie Rila.
For now, the Forest holds to him tightly. When he does emerge from the trees, it is never for long. Sometimes the ghosts even follow him out. More than once, I’ve heard the low timbre of his voice murmuring words of comfort to a wounded soul. Every now and then, he leaves the Forest frowning, his mind on some troublesome spirit. I know he’s struggled with one in particular. I think it’s a girl, but he doesn’t speak about her.
“Dead chicken for your thoughts?”
He holds up the limp animal, and I nod to the basin. “Only if you pluck it.”
I slide up onto the counter beside him as he works. “I miss Tas and Afya and Araj,” I say. “It’s so quiet without them.”
“Tas worships you,” Elias says with a grin. “I think he’s in love, actually.”
“Only because I told him stories and fed him,” I say. “If only every boy were so easy to win over.” I do not mean for the comment to sound so pointed, and I bite my lip as soon as I say it. Elias lifts a dark eyebrow and gives me a fleeting glance of curiosity before looking back down at the half-plucked chicken.
“You know he and all the other Scholars are going to talk about you in Adisa. You’re the girl who razed Blackcliff and liberated Kauf. Laia of Serra. The ember waiting to burn down the Empire.”
“It’s not like I didn’t have help,” I say. “They’ll talk about you too.” But Elias shakes his head.
“Not in the same way,” he says. “Even if they do, I’m the outsider. You’re the Lioness’s daughter. I think your people will expect much of you, Laia. Just remember, you don’t have to do everything they ask.”
I snort. “If they knew about Kee—the Nightbringer, they might change their minds about me.”
“He fooled all of us, Laia.” Elias gives the chicken a particularly violent chop. “And one day, he’ll pay.”
“Maybe he already is paying.” I think of the ocean of sadness inside the Nightbringer, the faces of all those he loved and destroyed in his quest to reconstruct the Star.
“I trusted him with my heart, and my brother, and my—my body.” I have not spoken much with Elias about what happened between Keenan and me. We never had the privacy to do so. But now, I want to get it out. “The part of him that wasn’t manipulating me—that wasn’t using the Resistance, or planning the Emperor’s death, or helping the Commandant sabotage the Trials—that part of him loved me, Elias. And some part of me, at least, loved him back. His betrayal can’t be without cost. He must feel it.”
Elias stares out the window at the swiftly darkening sky. “True enough,” he says. “From what Shaeva told me, the armlet wouldn’t pass to him unless he loved you truly. The magic isn’t one-sided.”
“So a jinn is in love with me. I far prefer the ten-year-old.” I put my hand to the place my armlet once was. Even now, weeks later, I feel the ache of its absence. “What will happen now? The Nightbringer has the armlet. How many more pieces of the Star does he need? What if he finds them and sets his brethren free? What if—”
Elias puts a finger to my lips. Does he let it linger a little longer than it needs to?