Elias wheels as if he’s going to strike me and yanks my face toward his. To an outsider, it would just appear as if a slaver is disciplining his property. His voice is soft, audible only to me.

“Look at me.” I meet his gaze. The Commandant’s eyes. No. Elias’s. “I’m not her.” He takes my chin, and while it must look threatening to those watching, his hand is light as a breeze. “I won’t hurt you. But you can’t let the fear take you.”

I drop my head and breathe deeply. The Mask watches us now, his whole body still. We are a few yards from him. A few feet. I peek out at him through my hair. His attention passes quickly over Keenan, Izzi, and me. Then it lands on Elias.

He stares. Skies. My body threatens to freeze again, but I make myself move.

Elias nods at the Mask perfunctorily, unconcerned, and walks on. The Mask is behind us, but I still sense him watching, poised to strike.

Then I hear the boots marching away, and when I look back, he’s moved on. I release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Safe. You’re safe.

For now.

It’s only as we approach an encampment on the southeast side of Nur that Elias finally seems to relax.

“Head down, Laia,” Elias whispers. “We’re here.”

The encampment is enormous. Balconied, sand-colored houses line its edges, and in the space before them sits a city of gold-and-green tents. The market is the size of any in Serra—perhaps even larger. All the stalls have the same emerald draping patterned with glinting fall leaves. Skies knows how much such brocade costs. Whatever Tribe this is, it is powerful.

Tribal men in green robes encircle the camp, funneling those entering through a makeshift gate made of two wagons. None approach until we enter the domicile area, swarming with men tending cook fires, women preparing goods, children chasing chickens and each other. Elias approaches the largest of the tents, bristling when two guards stop us.

“Slavers trade at night,” one of them says in accented Serran. “Return later.”

“Afya Ara-Nur is expecting me,” Elias growls, and at the sound of the name I start, thinking back to weeks ago, to the small, dark-eyed woman in Spiro’s shop—the same woman who danced so gracefully with Elias on the night of the Moon Festival. This is who he trusts to take us north? I remember what Spiro said. One of the most dangerous women in the Empire.

“She sees no slavers in the day.” The other Tribesman is emphatic. “At night only.”

“If you don’t let me in to see her,” Elias says, “I’m happy to inform the Masks that Tribe Nur is backing out of trade agreements.”

The Tribesmen exchange an uneasy glance and one disappears into the tent. I want to warn Elias about Afya, about what Spiro said. But the other guard watches us so carefully that I cannot do it without him seeing.

After only a minute, the Tribesman waves us into the tent. Elias turns to me, as if he’s adjusting my manacles, but instead he palms me the key. He strides through the tent flaps as if he owns the encampment. Izzi, Keenan, and I hurry to follow.

The inside of the tent is strewn with handwoven rugs. A dozen colored lamps cast geometric patterns over silk-encased pillows. Afya Ara-Nur, exquisite and dark-skinned, with black-and-red braids spilling down her shoulders, sits behind a rough-hewn desk. It is heavy and out of place amid the dazzling wealth around her. Her fingers click the beads of a counting frame, and she inks her findings into a book in front of her. A bored-looking boy about Izzi’s age, and with Afya’s same sharp beauty, sits beside her.

“I only allowed you inside, slaver,” Afya says without looking at us, “so I could personally tell you that if you ever step foot in my camp again, I’ll gut you myself.”

“I’m hurt, Afya,” Elias says as something small spins from his hand and into Afya’s lap. “You’re not nearly as friendly as the first time we met.” Elias’s voice is smooth, suggestive, and my face heats.

Afya snatches the coin. Her jaw drops when Elias removes his face scarf.

“Gibran—” she says to the boy, but quick as flame, Elias draws his scims from across his back and steps forward. He has a blade at each of their throats, his eyes calm and terrifyingly flat.

“You owe me a favor, Afya Ara-Nur,” he says. “I’m here to collect.”

The boy—Gibran—looks uncertainly at Afya.

“Let Gibran sit outside.” Afya’s tone is reasonable, even gentle. But her hands curl into fists atop her desk. “He has nothing to do with this.”

“We need a witness from your Tribe when you grant my favor,” Elias says. “Gibran will do nicely.” Afya opens her mouth but says nothing, apparently flabbergasted, and Elias goes on. “You’re honor bound to hear my request, Afya Ara-Nur. And honor bound to grant it.”

“Honor be damned—”

“Fascinating,” Elias says. “How would your council of elders feel about that? The only Zaldara in the Tribal lands—the youngest ever chosen—casting away her honor like bad grain.” He nods at the elaborate geometric tattoo peeking out of her sleeve—an indication of her rank, no doubt. “A half hour in a tavern this morning told me all I needed to know about Tribe Nur, Afya. Your position isn’t secure.” Afya’s lips thin to a hard line. Elias has hit a nerve.

“The elders would understand that it was for the good of the Tribe.”

“No,” Elias says. “They’d say you’re not fit to lead if you make errors in judgment that threaten the Tribe. Errors like giving a favor coin to a Martial.”