“I could do this all night,” he says, and I start, because his voice is devoid of emotion. The voice of a Mask.
“Let the girl go,” someone snarls from the trees, “and be on your way.”
Elias glances over his shoulder at me, one eyebrow cocked.
“A friend of yours?”
I shake my head. “I don’t have any—”
A figure steps out of the trees—dressed in black, heavily hooded, an arrow nocked in his bow. In the heavy mist, I cannot make out his face. But something about him is familiar.
“If you’re here for the bounty—” Elias begins, but the archer cuts him off.
“I’m not,” he snaps. “I’m here for her.”
“Well, you can’t have her,” Elias says. “You can keep wasting arrows, or we can fight.” Fast as a whip, Elias flips one of his scims around and offers it to the man with such blatant and insulting arrogance that I grimace. If our attacker was angry before, he’ll be furious now.
The man drops his bow, staring at us for a second before shaking his head.
“She was right,” he says, his voice hollow. “He didn’t take you. You went willingly.”
Oh skies, I know him now. Of course I know him. He pushes his hood back, hair pouring out like flame.
While I attempt to work out how—and why—the redhead from the Moon Festival has tracked us all the way through the mountains, another figure trudges out from the woods, her blonde hair pulled back in a messy braid, face and eyepatch smudged with dirt. She was already slender when living with the Commandant, but now she looks like she’s on the edge of starvation.
“Elias.” She greets me with a wan smile. “You’re looking … ah … lean?” Her brow furrows as she takes in my poison-altered appearance.
Laia pushes past me, a shriek bursting from her throat. She flings one arm around Red, another around the Commandant’s former slave, and takes them down in a heap, laughing and crying at the same time.
“Skies, Keenan, Izzi! You’re all right—you’re alive!”
“Alive, yes.” Izzi throws Red a look. “I don’t know about all right. Your friend here set a wicked pace.”
Red doesn’t respond to her, his gaze fixed on me.
“Elias.” Laia catches the glare and stands, clearing her throat. “You know Izzi. And this is Keenan, a—a friend.” She says friend like she’s not sure if it’s an accurate description. “Keenan, this is—”
“I know who he is.” Red cuts her off, and I suppress the urge to punch him for doing so. Knocking out her friend within five minutes of meeting him, Elias—bad way to keep the peace.
“What I want to understand,” Red goes on, “is how in the skies you ended up with him. How could you—”
“Why don’t we sit down.” Izzi raises her voice and drops next to the fire. I sit beside her, keeping one eye on Keenan, who has taken Laia aside and now speaks to her urgently. I watch his lips; he’s telling her that he’s coming with her to Kauf.
It’s a terrible idea. And one that I’ll have to shoot down. Because if getting Laia and myself safely to Kauf is nearly impossible, hiding four people is insanity.
“Tell me you have something to eat, Elias,” Izzi says under her breath. “Maybe Keenan can live on obsession, but I haven’t had a proper meal in weeks.”
I offer her the remains of my hare. “Sorry, there isn’t much left,” I say. “I can catch you another.” I keep my attention on Keenan, half drawing my scim as he gets more and more worked up.
“He’s not going to hurt her,” Izzi says. “You can relax.”
“How do you know?”
“You should have seen him when he found out she’d left with you.” Izzi takes a bite of the hare and shudders. “I thought he was going to murder someone—me, actually. Laia gave me her berth on a barge and told me Keenan would find me after two weeks. But he got to me a day after I left Serra. Maybe he had a hunch. I don’t know. He calmed down eventually, but I don’t think he’s even slept since then. Once, he hid me in a safe house in a village and was gone all day looking for information, for anything that could lead us to you. All he could think about was getting to her.”
So he’s infatuated. Wonderful. I want to ask more questions, like whether Izzi thinks Laia feels the same. But I hold my tongue. Whatever lies between Laia and Keenan cannot matter to me.
As I hunt through my pack for more food for Izzi, Laia takes a seat by the fire. Keenan follows. He looks thunderously angry, which I take to be a good sign. Hopefully Laia told him that we’re fine and that he can go back to being a rebel.
“Keenan will come with us,” Laia says. Damn it. “And Izzi—”
“—is coming too,” the Scholar girl says. “It’s what a friend would do, Laia. Besides, it’s not as if I have anyplace else to go.”
“I don’t know if this is the best idea.” I temper my words—just because Keenan is getting hotheaded doesn’t mean I have to act like an idiot. “Getting four people to Kauf—”
Keenan snorts. Unsurprisingly, his fist is clenched on his bow, the desire to put an arrow through my throat written all over his face. “Laia and I don’t need you. You wanted freedom from the Empire, right? So take it. Get out of the Empire. Leave.”