My chest aches when I look at Helene. Will I ever stop missing her? What is she thinking? Is she remembering when she and I were here together? And why in the hells is she hunting me in the first place? She must know the Commandant poisoned me. If I’m dead anyway, what’s the point of capturing me?
I want to go down to her, to grab her in a bear hug and forget that we are enemies. I want to tell her about Soul Catcher and the Waiting Place and how, now that I’ve tasted freedom, I only wish I could find a way to keep it. I want to tell her that I miss Quin and that Demetrius, Leander, and Tristas haunt my nightmares.
I want. I want. I want.
I wrench myself halfway across the rooftop, then leap to the next, leaving before I do something stupid. I have a mission. So does Helene. I have to want mine more than she wants hers, or Darin is dead.
Izzi tosses in her sleep, her breathing ragged and labored. She flings out an arm, and her hand knocks into the ornate wooden paneling of the wagon. I stroke her wrist, whispering soothing words. In the muted lamplight, she looks pale as death.
Keenan and I sit cross-legged beside her. I’ve propped her head up so she can breathe easier, and I’ve washed out her eye. She still cannot open it.
I release a breath, remembering the violence of the storm, how small I felt against its raking claws. I thought I’d lose purchase with the earth and be flung into darkness. Against the storm’s violence, I was less than a mote of dust.
You should have waited, Laia. You should have listened to Keenan. What if the sand blindness is permanent? Izzi will lose her sight forever because of me.
Get a hold of yourself. Elias needed the Tellis. And you need Elias if you want to get to Darin. This is a mission. You are its leader. This is the cost.
Where is Elias? It’s been ages since he left. Dawn is no more than an hour or two away. While it’s still windy outside, it’s not bad enough to keep people off the streets. Eventually, the owners of this wagon will return. We can’t be here when they do.
“Elias is poisoned.” Keenan speaks softly. “Isn’t he?”
I try to keep my face blank, but Keenan sighs. The wind rises, rattling the wagon’s high windows.
“He needed medicine. It’s why you made for Raider’s Roost instead of heading straight north,” he says. “Skies. How bad is it?”
“It’s bad.” Izzi’s voice is a rasp. “Very bad. Nightweed.”
I stare incredulously at Izzi. “You’re awake! Thank the skies. But how do you know—”
“Cook amused herself by telling me all the poisons she’d use on the Commandant if she could,” Izzi said. “She was quite detailed in her description of their effects.”
“He’s going to die, Laia,” Keenan says. “Nightweed is a killer.”
“I know.” I wish I didn’t. “He knows too. It’s why we had to get into Nur.”
“And you still want to do this with him?” If Keenan’s brows went any higher, they’d disappear into his hairline. “Forget the fact that just being in his presence is a risk, or that his mother killed your parents, or that he’s a Mask, or that his people are currently wiping ours out of existence. He’s dead, Laia. Who knows if he’ll even live long enough to get to Kauf? And skies, why would he want to come?”
“He knows Darin could change everything for the Scholars,” I say. “He doesn’t believe in the Empire’s evil any more than we do.”
Keenan scoffs. “I doubt that—”
“Stop.” The word is a whisper. I clear my throat and reach for my mother’s armlet. Strength. “Please.”
Keenan hesitates, then takes my hands as I curl them into fists.
“I’m sorry.” For once, his gaze is unguarded. “You’ve been through the hells, and I’m sitting here making you feel worse. I won’t mention it again. If this is what you want, then this is what we’ll do. I’m here for you. Whatever you need.”
A sigh of relief escapes me, and I nod. He traces the K on my chest—the mark the Commandant carved into me when I was her slave. It is a pale scar now. His fingers drift up to my collarbone, my face. “I missed you,” he says. “Isn’t that strange? Three months ago, I’d never even met you.”
I study his strong jaw, the way his brilliant hair spills across his forehead, the muscles bunched in his arm. I sigh at his scent, lemon and woodsmoke, so familiar to me now. How did he come to mean so much to me? We hardly know each other, and yet at his proximity, my body goes still. I lean into his touch involuntarily, the warmth of his hand drawing me closer.
The door opens, and I jump back, reaching for my dagger. But it’s Elias. He glances between Keenan and me. His skin, so sickly when he left us in the wagon, is back to its usual gold hue.
“We have a problem.” He climbs into the wagon and unfolds a sheet of paper: a “wanted” poster with frighteningly accurate depictions of Elias and me.
“How in the skies did they know?” Izzi asks. “Did they track us?”
Elias looks down at the wagon floor, swirling the dust there with his boot. “Helene Aquilla is here.” His voice is oddly neutral. “I saw her at the Martial garrison. She must have worked out where we were going. She’s got a cordon around Tribe Saif, and hundreds of soldiers here to help search for us.”
I find Keenan’s eyes. Just being in his presence is a risk. Maybe coming into Nur was a bad idea.