The branches rustle in the wind, and the whispering of the ghosts in the trees hushes, as if they too wish to hear what Izzi will say.
“I don’t want to move on,” she whispers. “I’m afraid.”
I take her hand in mine and walk, shooting a dark look at the trees. Just because Izzi is dead doesn’t mean her thoughts should be eavesdropped upon. To my surprise, the whispers cease, as if the ghosts wish to give us our privacy.
“Are you scared that it will hurt?” I say.
She looks down at her booted feet. “I don’t have family, Elias. I only had Cook. And she’s not dead. What if there’s no one waiting for me? What if I’m alone?”
“I don’t think it’s like that,” I say. Through the trees, I see the sparkle of sun on water. “There’s no alone or together on that side. I think it’s different.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t,” I say. “But the spirits can’t move on until they’ve dealt with whatever ties them to the living world. Love or anger, fear or family. So maybe those emotions don’t exist on that side. In any case, it will be better than this place, Izzi. This place is haunted. You don’t deserve to be stuck here.”
I spy a path ahead, and my body moves to it instinctively. I think of a pale-feathered hummingbird that once hatched in Quin’s courtyard, how it would disappear in winter and return in the spring, guided home by some unknowable compass within.
But why do you know this path, Elias, when you’ve never been to this part of the Forest before?
I brush away the question. Now is not the time for it.
Izzi leans on me as the path leads down to an embankment padded with dried leaves. The trail drops suddenly, and we step down. A slow river whispers at our feet.
“Is this it?” She gazes out at the clear water. The strange, muted sun of the Waiting Place shines in her blonde hair, making it appear almost white. “Is this where I go on?”
I nod, the answer coming to me as if I’ve always known it. “I won’t leave until you’re ready,” I say. “I’ll stay with you.”
She lifts her dark eye to my face, looking a bit more like her old self again. “What becomes of you, Elias?”
I shrug. “I’m”—fine, good, alive—“alone,” I blurt out. Immediately, I feel like a fool.
Izzi tilts her head and puts a ghostly hand to my face. “Sometimes, Elias,” she says, “loneliness is a choice.” She fades at the edges, bits of her disappearing as delicately as dandelion fluff. “Tell Laia I wasn’t afraid. She was worried.”
She releases me and steps into the river. One moment she is there, the next she is not, gone before I even raise a hand in farewell. Something lightens within me at her departure, as if a bit of the guilt that plagues me has melted away.
Behind me, I sense another presence. Memories on the air: the clash of practice scims, footraces in the dunes, his laughter at the endless teasing about Aelia.
“You could let go, too.” I don’t turn. “You could be free, like her. I’ll help you. You don’t have to do it alone.”
I wait. I hope. But Tristas’s only response is silence.
The next three days are the worst in my life. If my seizures take me to the Waiting Place, I am unaware of it. All I know is pain and the Warden’s white-blue eyes as he bombards me with questions. Do tell me about your mother—such a fascinating woman. You were dear friends with the Blood Shrike. Does she feel others’ pain as keenly as you do?
Tas, his little face worried, tries to keep my wounds clean. I can help you, Elias. The Skiritae can help.
Drusius softens me up every morning for the Warden—will never let you get the best of me again, you bastard—
In whatever bits of lucidity I have left, I gather what information I can. Don’t give up, Elias. Don’t fall into the dark. I listen to the guards’ footsteps, the timbre of their voices. I learn to identify them by the little bits of shadow that pass by my door. I figure out their rotations and identify a pattern in the interrogations. Then I search for an opportunity.
None appears. Instead, Death circles, a patient vulture. I feel his crooked shadow approaching, chilling the air I breathe. Not yet.
Then one morning, footsteps thud outside my door and keys rattle. Drusius enters my cell to give me my daily beating. Right on schedule. I let my head loll and my mouth hang open. He chuckles to himself and saunters forward. When he’s inches away from me, he grabs me by my hair and makes me look at him.
“Pathetic,” he spits in my face. Swine. “I thought you were supposed to be strong. The all-mighty Elias Veturius. You’re nothi—”
Stupid man, you forgot to tighten my chains. I drive my knee up, straight between his legs. He squeaks and doubles over, and I chase the blow with a brain-jarring head butt. His eyes go glassy, and he doesn’t notice that I’ve wrapped one of my chains around his neck until his face is already turning blue.
“You,” I snarl at him when he finally passes out, “talk too damn much.”
I let him down and search his body for keys. I find them and clap my manacles on him in case he wakes up before I want him to. Then I gag him.
I peer out the slats of the door. The other Mask on duty hasn’t yet come looking for Drusius. But he will soon enough. I count the sound of that Mask’s bootsteps until I’m certain he’s well away from me. Then I slip out the door.