“Are you all right?” Keenan dips his head toward me. He takes a lock of hair flying across my face and tucks it behind my ear. His fingers linger at my nape, and my breath catches. “After …”
I look away, cold again, and reach for my armlet. “Was it worth it, Keenan? Skies, Elias’s mother, his brother, dozens of members of his Tribe.” I sigh. “Will it even matter? What if we can’t save Darin? Or if …” He’s dead.
“Family is worthy dying for, killing for. Fighting for them is all that keeps us going when everything else is gone.” He nods at my armlet. There’s a sad longing in his face. “You touch it when you need strength,” he says. “Because that’s what family gives us.”
I drop my hand from the armlet. “I don’t even know I’m doing it sometimes,” I say. “It’s silly.”
“It’s how you hold on to them. Nothing silly about that.” He tips his neck back and looks up at the moon. “I don’t have anything from my family. I wish I did.”
“Some days I don’t remember Lis’s face,” I say. “Just that she had light hair like Mother.”
“She had your mother’s temperament too.” Keenan smiles. “Lis was four years older than me. Skies, she was bossy. She tricked me into doing her chores all the time …”
The night is suddenly less lonely with memories of my long-dead sister dancing around me. On my other side, Izzi and Gibran lean toward each other, my friend giggling delightedly at something the Tribal boy says. Riz and Vana reach for their ouds. Their strumming is soon accompanied by Zehr’s singing. The song is in Sadhese, but I think they must be remembering those they have loved and lost, because after only a few notes, it raises a lump in my throat.
Without thinking, I search the dark for Elias. He sits slightly away from the fire, his cloak pulled tight around him. His attention is fixed on me.
Afya clears her throat pointedly and then jerks her head at Elias. Talk to him.
I glance back at him, and that heady rush I always experience when I look into his eyes rolls through me.
“I’ll be right back,” I say to Keenan. I put down my mug and pull my cloak close. As I do, Elias rises in one smooth motion and moves away from the fire. He disappears so swiftly that I don’t even see which direction he’s gone in the darkness beyond the circle of wagons. His message is clear: Leave me alone.
I pause, feeling like a fool. A moment later, Izzi appears beside me.
“Talk to him,” she says. “He needs it. He just doesn’t know it. And you do too.”
“He’s angry,” I whisper.
My friend takes my hand and squeezes. “He’s hurt,” she says. “And that’s something you understand.”
I walk out past the wagons, scanning the desert until I spot the shine of one of his bracers near the base of the plateau. When I’m still a few feet away from him, I hear him sigh and turn toward me. His face, blank with a sort of bland politeness, is lit by the moon.
Just get it over with, Laia.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “For what happened. I—I don’t know if it’s right to trade the suffering of Tribe Saif for Darin’s life. Especially when it doesn’t even guarantee that Darin will live.” I was planning a few demure and carefully chosen words of sympathy, but now that I’ve started talking, I can’t seem to stop. “Thank you for what your family sacrificed. All I want is for nothing like that to happen again. But—but I can’t guarantee it, and it makes me feel ill, because I know how it feels to lose family. Anyway, I’m sorry—”
Skies. Now I’m just babbling.
I take a breath. Words seem suddenly trite and useless, so I step forward and grab Elias’s hands, remembering Pop. Touch heals, Laia. I hold fast to him, trying to put everything I feel into that touch. I hope your Tribe is all right. I hope they survive the Martials. I’m truly, truly sorry. It’s not enough. But it’s all I have.
After a moment, Elias lets out a breath and leans his forehead against mine.
“Tell me what you told me that night in my room at Blackcliff,” he murmurs. “What your Nan used to say to you.”
“As long as there is life”—I can hear Nan’s warm voice as I say it—“there is hope.”
Elias lifts his head and looks down at me, the coolness in his eyes replaced by that raw, unquenchable fire. I forget to breathe.
“Don’t you forget it,” he says. “Ever.”
I nod. The minutes pass, and neither of us pull away, instead finding solace in the coolness of the night and the quiet company of the stars.
I enter the Waiting Place the moment I fall asleep. My breath clouds in front of my face, and I find myself lying on my back atop a thick carpet of fallen leaves. I stare at the web of tree branches above, their foliage the vibrant red of autumn, even in the half light.
“Like blood.” I recognize Tristas’s voice immediately and scramble to my feet to find him leaning against one of the trees, glaring at me. I haven’t seen him since the first time I entered the Waiting Place weeks ago. I’d hoped he’d moved on.
“Like my blood.” He stares up at the canopy, a bitter smile on his face. “You know. The blood that poured out of me when Dex stabbed me.”
“I’m sorry, Tristas.” I might as well be a simpleminded sheep bleating the words. But the rage in his eyes is so unnatural that I would say anything to ease it.