“You,” I say. “The—the first time I saw you. You’re beautiful, but there are lots of beautiful girls, and—” Find the words. Make yourself stay. “That’s not why you stood out. You’re like me …”
“Stay with me, Elias. Stay here.”
My mouth won’t work. The blackness creeping at the edge of my vision draws closer.
“I can’t stay …”
“Try, Elias. Try!”
Her voice fades. The world goes dark.
This time, I find myself sitting on the Forest floor, warmth from a fire driving the chill from my bones. The Soul Catcher sits across from me, patiently feeding logs to the blaze.
“The wails of the dead don’t bother you,” she says.
“I’ll answer your questions if you answer mine,” I retort. When she nods, I continue.
“It doesn’t sound like wailing to me. More like whispers.” I expect a response from her, but there is none. “My turn. These seizures—they shouldn’t be knocking me out for hours at a time. Are you doing this? Are you keeping me here?”
“I told you: I’ve been watching you. I wanted a chance to speak.”
“Let me go back.”
“Soon,” she says. “You have more questions?”
My frustration rises, and I want to shout at her—but I need answers. “What did you mean when you said I was dead? I know I’m not. I’m alive.”
“Not for much longer.”
“Can you see the future, like the Augurs?”
Her head comes up, and the feral snarl on her lips is unquestionably inhuman.
“Do not invoke those creatures here,” she says. “This is a sacred world, a place the dead come to find peace. The Augurs are anathema to death.” She settles back. “I’m the Soul Catcher, Elias. I deal with the dead. And death has claimed you—there.” She taps my arm, exactly where the Commandant’s star cut me.
“The poison won’t kill me,” I say. “And if Laia and I get the Tellis extract, neither will the seizures.”
“Laia. The Scholar girl. Another ember waiting to burn the world down,” she says. “Will you hurt her too?”
The Soul Catcher shakes her head. “You grow close to her. Don’t you see what you are doing? The Commandant poisoned you. You, in turn, are a poison. You will poison Laia’s joy, her hope, her life, like you have poisoned all the rest. If you care for her, then do not let her care for you. Like the poison that rages within you, you have no antidote.”
“I’m not going to die.”
“Willpower alone cannot change one’s fate. Think on it, Elias, and you will see.” Her smile is sad as she pokes the fire. “Perhaps I will call you here again. I have many questions …”
I slam back into the real world with a harshness that makes my teeth ache. The night is cloaked in mist. I must have blacked out for hours. Our horse trots ahead steadily, but I feel its legs tremble. We’ll need to stop soon.
Laia rides on, oblivious to the fact that I’ve woken. My mind isn’t nearly as clear as it was in the Waiting Place, but I remember the Soul Catcher’s words. Think on it, Elias, and you will see.
I sift through the poisons I know, cursing myself for not paying closer attention to the Blackcliff Centurion who instructed us on toxins.
Nightweed. Barely mentioned because it is illegal in the Empire, even for Masks. It was outlawed a century ago, after it was used to assassinate an Emperor. Always deadly, though in higher doses, it kills swiftly. In lower doses, the only symptoms are severe seizures.
Three to six months of seizures, I remember. Then death. There is no cure. No antidote.
Finally, I understand why the Commandant let us escape from Serra, why she didn’t bother slitting my throat. She didn’t have to.
Because she’d already killed me.
“Six broken ribs, twenty-eight lacerations, thirteen fractures, four torn tendons, and bruised kidneys.”
Morning sun pours through the windows of my childhood bedroom, glinting off my mother’s silver-blonde hair as she relays the physician’s assessment. I watch her in the ornate silver mirror in front of us—a gift she gave me when I was a girl. Its unmottled surface is the specialty of a city far to the south, an island of glassblowers my father once visited.
I shouldn’t be here. I should be in the Black Guard barracks preparing for my audience with Emperor Marcus Farrar, to take place in less than an hour. Instead, I sit amid the silken rugs and lavender drapes of Villa Aquilla, with my mother and sisters tending to me instead of a military medic. You were in interrogation for five days and they’ve been worried sick, Father insisted. They want to see you. I didn’t have the energy to refuse him.
“Thirteen fractures is nothing.” My voice is a rasp. I tried not to scream during the interrogation. My throat is raw with the times I failed. Mother stitches a wound, and I hide a wince as she ties it off.
“She’s right, Mother.” Livia, who at eighteen is the youngest Aquilla, gives me a dark smile. “Could have been worse. They could have cut her hair.”
I snort—it hurts too much to laugh, and even Mother smiles as she dabs ointment onto one of my wounds. Only Hannah remains expressionless.
I glance at her, and she looks away, jaw clenched. She’s never learned to quench her hatred for me, my middle sister. Though after the first time I pulled a scim on her, she at least learned to hide it.