“Aelia’s getting better,” Tristas says. “Traitorous girl. I thought she’d mourn for at least a few months. Instead, I visit her to find that she’s eating again. Eating.” He paces, and his face darkens into an uglier, more violent version of the Tristas I knew. He hisses under his breath.
Ten hells. This is so far from who Tristas was in life that I wonder if he’s possessed. Can a ghost be possessed? Isn’t it ghosts that usually do the possessing?
For a moment, I’m angry at him. You’re dead. Aelia’s not. But the feeling passes quickly. Tristas will never see his fiancée again. Never hold his children or laugh with his friends. All he has now are memories and bitterness.
“Aelia loves you.” When Tristas spins toward me, his face twisted in rage, I hold up my hands. “And you love her. Do you truly want her to starve herself to death? Would you want to see her here, knowing that it was your death that did it?”
The wildness in his eyes dims. I think of the old Tristas, the Tristas from life. That’s the Tristas I need to appeal to. But I don’t have the chance. As if he knows what I wish, he whirls and disappears into the trees.
“You can soothe the dead.” The Soul Catcher speaks from above me, and I look up to find her sitting upon one of the trees, cradled like a child in its enormous, gnarled branches. A wreath of red leaves encircles her head like a crown, and her black eyes shine darkly.
“He ran away,” I say. “I wouldn’t call that soothing.”
“He spoke to you.” The Soul Catcher drops down, the carpet of leaves muffling the sound of her landing. “Most spirits hate the living.”
“Why do you keep bringing me back here?” I look down at her. “Is it just for your amusement?”
She frowns. “I didn’t bring you this time, Elias,” she says. “You brought yourself. Your death approaches swiftly. Perhaps your mind seeks to understand better what is to come.”
“I still have time,” I say. “Four—maybe five months, if I’m lucky.”
The Soul Catcher looks at me pityingly. “I cannot see the future the way some can.” She curls her lip, and I sense she’s speaking of the Augurs. “But my power is not insignificant. I sought your fate in the stars the night I first brought you here, Elias. You will not live past Rathana.”
Rathana—The Night—began as a Tribal holiday but has spread throughout the Empire. For Martials, it’s a day of revelry. For the Tribes, it’s a day to honor one’s ancestors.
“That’s two months away.” My mouth is dry, and even here, in the spirit world where all is dulled, dread grips me. “We’ll have just made it to Kauf by then—if we’re lucky.”
The Soul Catcher shrugs. “I know not the small tempests of your human world. If you are so distraught with your fate, make the best use of the time you do have. Go.” She flicks her hand, and I feel that jerk in my navel, as if I’m being pulled through a tunnel by a great hook.
I wake beside the dimly glowing embers of the fire, where I bedded down for the night. Riz paces outside the circle of wagons. Everyone else sleeps—Gibran and Keenan by the fire, like me, and Laia and Izzi in Gibran’s wagon.
Two months. How do I get to Kauf and free Darin with so little time? I could urge Afya to go faster, but that would only lead to us getting there a few days earlier than planned, if that.
The watch changes. Keenan takes Riz’s place. My eyes fall on a cold-box hanging from the bottom of Afya’s wagon, where she had me pack the goat I butchered earlier.
If it’s going to die anyway, might as well be useful. Laia’s words.
The same applies to me, I realize.
Kauf is more than a thousand miles away. By wagon, it will take two months, true enough. The Empire’s couriers, on the other hand, regularly make the journey in two weeks.
I won’t have access to fresh horses every dozen miles, the way the couriers do. I cannot use the main roads. I’ll need to hide or fight at a moment’s notice. I’ll need to hunt or steal everything I consume.
Even knowing all of that, if I head to Kauf alone, I can make it in half the time that it would take the wagons. I don’t wish to leave Laia—I will feel the absence of her voice, her face, every day. I already know it. But if I can make it to the prison in a month, I’ll have enough time before Rathana to break Darin out. The Tellis extract will keep the seizures at bay until the wagons get close to the prison. I will see Laia again.
I rise, coil my bedroll, and make for Afya’s wagon. When I knock on the back door, it takes her only a moment to answer, despite it being the dead of night.
She holds up a lamp, raising her eyebrows when she sees me.
“I usually prefer to get to know my midnight visitors a bit better before I invite them into my wagon, Elias,” she says. “But for you …”
“That’s not why I’m here,” I say. “I need a horse, some parchment, and your discretion.”
“Escaping while you still can?” She gestures me inside. “I’m glad you’ve come to your senses.”
“I’m getting Darin out alone.” I step in the wagon and drop my voice. “Faster and safer for everyone that way.”
“Fool. How will you sneak north without my wagons? Have you forgotten that you’re the Empire’s most wanted criminal?”
“I’m a Mask, Afya. I’ll manage.” I narrow my eyes at the Tribeswoman. “Your vow to me still stands. You will get them to Kauf.”