Before she protests, I kneel and draw a rough map of the mountains and their surrounds in the dirt. “It’s about two weeks to the Tribal lands. A bit longer if we’re delayed. In three weeks, the Fall Gathering begins in Nur. Every Tribe will be there—buying, selling, trading, arranging marriages, celebrating births. When it’s over, more than two hundred caravans will make their way out of the city. And each caravan is made up of hundreds of people.”
Understanding dawns in Laia’s eyes. “We leave with them.”
I nod. “Thousands of horses, wagons, and Tribesmen head out at once. In case anyone does track us to Nur, they’ll lose our trail. Some of those caravans will head north. We find one willing to shelter us. We hide among them and make our way to Kauf before the winter snows. A Tribal trader and his sister.”
“Sister?” She crosses her arms. “We look nothing alike.”
“Or wife, if you prefer.” I raise an eyebrow at her, unable to resist. A blush rises in her cheeks and blooms down her neck. I wonder if it goes any lower. Stop, Elias.
“How will we convince a Tribe not to turn us in for the bounty?”
I finger the wooden coin in my pocket, the favor owed me by a clever Tribeswoman named Afya Ara-Nur. “Leave that to me.”
Laia considers what I’ve said and finally nods her agreement. I stand and listen, feeling out the land around us. It’s too dark to continue on—we need a place to camp for the night. We pick our way up the terraces and into the dark forest beyond until I find a good spot: a clearing beneath a rock overhang, bordered by old-growth pines, their pitted trunks overgrown with moss. As I clear the rock and twigs from the dry earth beneath the overhang, I feel Laia’s hand on my shoulder.
“I need to tell you something,” she says, and when I look into her face I lose my breath for a second. “When I went into the Roost,” she goes on, “I was afraid that the poison would …” She shakes her head, and her words rush out. “I’m glad you’re all right. And I know you’re risking so much to do this for me. Thank you.”
“Laia—” You kept me alive. You kept yourself alive. You’re as brave as your mother. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.
Perhaps I’d follow the words by easing her toward me, running a finger along the golden line of her collarbone and up her long neck. Gathering her hair into a knot and pulling her close slowly, so, so slowly—
Pain lances through my arm. A reminder. You destroy all those who get close to you.
I could hide the truth from Laia. Finish the mission before my time is up and disappear. But the Resistance kept secrets from her. Her brother kept his work with Spiro from her. The identity of her parents’ killer was hidden from her.
Her life has been nothing but secrets. She deserves the truth.
“You should sit down.” I pull away from her. “I have to tell you something too.” She is quiet as I speak, as I lay bare what the Commandant has done, as I tell her about the Waiting Place and the Soul Catcher.
When I finish, Laia’s hands shake, and I can barely hear her voice.
“You—you’re going to die? No. No.” She wipes her face and takes a deep breath. “There must be something, some cure, some way—”
“There isn’t.” I keep my voice matter-of-fact. “I’m certain. I have a few months, though. As many as six, I hope.”
“I have never hated anyone the way I hate the Commandant. Never.” She bites her lip. “You said she let us go. Is this why? She wanted you to die slowly?”
“I think she wanted to guarantee my death,” I say. “But for now, I’m more useful to her alive than dead. No idea why.”
“Elias.” Laia huddles into her cloak. After considering for a moment, I move closer to her, and we lean into each other’s warmth. “I can’t ask you to spend the last few months of your life on a mad dash to Kauf Prison. You should find your Tribal family …”
You hurt people, the Soul Catcher said. So many people: the men who died in the Third Trial either by my hand or because of my orders; Helene, left to Marcus’s predations; Grandfather, fleeing from his home and into exile because of me; even Laia, forced to face the butchering block in the Fourth Trial.
“I can’t help the people I’ve hurt,” I say. “I can’t change what I did to them.” I lean toward her. I need her to understand that I mean every word of what I say. “Your brother is the only Scholar on this continent who knows how to make Serric steel. I don’t know if Spiro Teluman will meet Darin in the Free Lands. I don’t even know if Teluman is alive. But I do know that if I can get Darin out of prison, if saving his life means that he can give the Empire’s foes a chance to fight for their freedom, then perhaps I’ll make up for some of the evil I’ve brought into the world. His life—and all the lives he could save—to make up for those that I’ve taken.”
“What if he’s dead, Elias?”
“You said you heard men in the Roost talking about him? About his connection to Teluman?” She tells me again what they said, and I consider. “The Martials will need to make sure Darin hasn’t shared his blacksmithing knowledge and that if he has, that knowledge doesn’t spread. They’ll keep him alive for questioning.” Though I don’t know if he’ll survive the interrogations. Especially when I consider the Warden of Kauf and the twisted ways he gets answers out of his prisoners.