“Don’t.” She shakes her head. “Don’t call me that. Everyone calls me that. But not you.” She looks me up and down. “You—you look terrible.”
“Rough few weeks.” I spot the scars on her hands and arms, the faded bruises on her face. I gave her to a Black Guard for interrogation, the Commandant said.
And she survived, I think to myself. Now get out of here, before she kills you.
I step back, but her arm shoots out, her hand cool on my wrist, her grip like iron. I find her pale gaze, startled at the mess of emotions laid bare there. Leave, Elias!
I yank my arm away, and as I do, the doors in her eyes, open just a moment ago, slam shut. Her expression flattens. She reaches back for her weapons—nonexistent, since I relieved her of them. I see her soften her knees, preparing to lunge at me.
“You are under arrest”—she leaps, and I sidestep her—“by order of the—”
“You’re not going to arrest me.” I wrap an arm around her waist and try to fling her a few yards away.
“The hells I’m not.” She jabs her elbow deep into my stomach. I double over, and she spins out of my grasp. Her knee flies up toward my forehead.
I catch it, shove it back, and stun her with an elbow to the face. “I just saved your life, Hel.”
“I would have gotten out of there without you—oof—” I bull rush her, and her breath huffs out when her back hits the wall. I pin her legs between my thighs to keep her from crippling me, and I put a blade to her throat before she can knock me senseless with a head butt.
“Damn you!” She tries to twist free, and I press the blade closer. Her eyes drop to my mouth, her breath coming short and fast. She looks away with a shudder.
“They were crushing you,” I say. “You’d have been trampled.”
“That changes nothing. I have orders from Marcus to bring you to Antium for a public execution.”
Now it’s my turn to snort. “Why in the ten hells haven’t you assassinated him yet? You’d be doing the world a favor.”
“Oh, piss off,” she spits at me. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
A thudding rumbles the streets beyond the alley—the rhythmic footsteps of approaching Martial soldiers. Reinforcements to quell the riot.
Helene uses my moment of distraction to try to force her way out of my grip. I can’t hold her for much longer. Not if I want to get the hell out of here without half a Martial legion on my tail. Damn it.
“I have to leave,” I say into her ear. “But I don’t want to hurt you. I’m so sick of hurting people.” I feel the soft flutter of her eyelashes against my cheek, the steady rise and fall of her breath against my chest.
“Elias.” She whispers my name, one word full of wanting.
I pull back. Her eyes, blue as smoke a second ago, darken to a stormy violet. Loving you is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. She said those words to me weeks ago. Witnessing the devastation in her now and knowing that, yet again, I’m the cause makes me hate myself.
“I’m going to let go of you,” I say. “If you try to take me down, so be it. But before I do, I want to say something, because we both know I’m not long for this world, and I’d hate myself if I never told you.” Confusion flashes across her face, and I barrel on before she starts asking questions. “I miss you.” I hope she hears what I’m truly saying. I love you. I’m sorry. I wish I could fix it. “I’ll always miss you. Even when I’m a ghost.”
I release her and take a step away. Then another. I turn my back on her, my heart clenching at the strangled sound she makes, and walk out of the alley.
The only footsteps I hear as I leave are my own.
The depot is pure pandemonium, with Tribesman throwing children and goods into wagons, animals rearing, women shouting. A thick dust cloud rises in the air, the result of hundreds of caravans rolling into the desert at once.
“Thank the skies!” Laia spots me the moment I appear beside Afya’s high-sided wagon. “Elias, why—”
“You idiot.” Afya grabs me by the scruff of the neck and hurls me up into the wagon beside Laia with remarkable strength, considering she’s more than a foot shorter than me. “What were you thinking?”
“We couldn’t risk Aquilla seeing me surrounded by members of Tribe Nur. She’s a Mask, Afya. She’d have figured out who you were. Your Tribe would have been at risk.”
“You’re still an idiot.” Afya glares at me. “Keep your head down. And stay.”
She vaults onto the driver’s bench and grabs the reins. Seconds later, the four horses pulling the wagon jerk forward, and I turn to Laia.
“Izzi and Keenan?”
“With Gibran.” She nods to a bright green wagon a few dozen yards away. I recognize the sharp profile of Afya’s little brother at the reins.
“Are you all right?” I ask her. Laia’s cheeks are flushed, and her hand is white-knuckled on the hilt of her dagger.
“Just relieved that you’re back,” she says. “Did—did you talk to her? To Aquilla?”
I’m about to answer when something occurs to me. “Tribe Saif.” I scan the dust-choked depot. “Do you know if they got out? Did Mamie Rila escape the soldiers?”
“I didn’t see.” She turns to Afya. “Did you—”