Musa offers no explanation as we leave the palace, the only sign of his frustration the swift clip of his stride.
“Excuse me.” I poke him in the ribs as he winds through streets unfamiliar to me. “Your Highness—”
“Not now,” he grinds out. As much as I want to question him, we have a bigger problem, which is how the hells we’re going to get rid of Captain Eleiba. The Mariner spoke briefly to the king before escorting us from the throne room and hasn’t been more than a foot away from us since. When Musa enters a neighborhood where the houses are densely packed, I prepare to pull on my invisibility, expecting him to attack our chaperone. But instead, he just stops in an alley. “Well?” he says.
Eleiba clears her throat and turns to me. “His Royal Highness King Irmand thanks you for your warning, Laia, and wishes to assure you that he does not take lightly the interference of the fey creatures in his domain. He accepts Darin of Serra’s offer for weapons and vows that he will provide shelter for the Scholars in the city until more permanent accommodations can be made. And he wishes you to have this.” Eleiba places in my hand a silver signet ring emblazoned with a trident. “Show it to any Mariner, and they are honor bound to aid you.”
Musa smiles. “I knew you’d get to him.” “But, the crown princess, she—”
“King Irmand has been ruler in Marinn for sixty years,” Eleiba says. “Princess Nikla . . . was not always as she is now. The king has no other heir, and he does not wish to undermine her by disagreeing with her outright. But he knows what is best for his people.”
All I can manage is a nod. “Good luck, Laia of Serra,” Eleiba says quietly. “Perhaps we will meet again.”
“Prepare your city.” I say it before I lose my courage. Eleiba raises perfectly arched brows, and I rush on, feeling like an idiot for giving advice to a woman twenty years older and far wiser than I am. “You’re the captain of the guard. You have power. Please do what you can. And if you have friends elsewhere in the Free Lands who can do the same, tell them.”
When she is long gone, Musa answers my unspoken question. “Nikla and I eloped ten years ago,” he says. “We were only a little older than you, but much more foolish. She had an older brother who was supposed to be king. But he died, she was named crown princess, and we grew apart.”
I wince at the perfunctory nature of his recitation, a decade of history in four sentences.
“I didn’t mention it before because there was no point. We’ve been separated for years. She took my lands, my titles, my fortune—”
Musa’s harsh laugh echoes off the hard stone of the buildings on either side of us.
“That too,” he says. “You should change and get your things. Say goodbye to Darin. I’ll meet you at the east gate with supplies and information about my contact.”
He must see that I’m about to try to offer him a word of comfort, for he melts into the dark quickly. A half hour later, I’ve gathered my hair in a fat plait and returned the dress to Musa’s quarters at the forge. Darin sits with Taure and Zella in the courtyard, stoking a low fire while the two women pack clay onto the edges of a sword.
He glances up when I appear and, spotting my packed bag, excuses himself.
“I’ll be ready in an hour,” he says after I tell him of my audience with the king. “Best tell Musa to make it two horses.”
“The Scholars need you, Darin. And now the Mariners need you too.”
Darin’s shoulders stiffen. “I agreed to make weapons for the Mariners before I realized you’d be leaving so soon. They can wait. I won’t stay behind.”
“You have to,” I say. “I must try to stop the Nightbringer. But if I fail, our people need to be able to fight. What is the point of all you suffered
—all we suffered—if we don’t even give our people a chance in battle?” “Where you go, I go,” Darin says quietly. “That was the promise we
“Is that promise worth more than the future of our people?” “You sound like Mother.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“It is a bad thing. She put the Resistance—her people—ahead of everything: her husband, her children, herself. If you knew—”
My neck prickles. “If I knew what—” He sighs. “Nothing.”
“No,” I say. “You’ve done this before. I know Mother wasn’t perfect. And I heard . . . rumors when I was out in the city. But she wasn’t what Princess Nikla made her out to be. She wasn’t a monster.”
Darin tosses his apron on an anvil and begins throwing tools in a sack, stubbornly refusing to talk about Mother. “You’ll need someone to watch your back, Laia. Afya isn’t there to do it and neither is Elias. Who better than your brother?”
“You heard Musa. He has someone who will help me.”
“Do you know who? Has he given you a name? How do you know you can trust that person?”
“I don’t, but I trust Musa.”
“Why? You barely know him, like you barely knew Keenan—excuse me, the Nightbringer. Like you barely knew Mazen—”
“I was wrong about them.” My ire rises, but I quash it; he is angry because he is scared, and I know that feeling well. “But I don’t think I’m wrong about Musa. He’s frustrating, and he gets on my nerves, but he’s been honest. And he—we both—we have the magic, Darin. There’s no one else I can even talk to about it.”
“You could talk to me.”
“After Kauf, I was barely able to talk to you about breakfast, let alone magic.” I hate this. I hate fighting with him. Part of me wants to give in. Let him join me. I will be less lonely, I will feel less afraid.
Your fear doesn’t matter, Laia, nor your loneliness. The Scholars’ survival is what matters.
“If something happens to me,” I say, “who will speak for the Scholars? Who knows the truth about the Nightbringer’s plan? Who will ensure that the Mariners prepare, no matter the consequence?”
“Bleeding hells, Laia, stop.” Darin never raises his voice, and I am surprised enough that I waver. “I’m coming with you. That’s it.”
I sigh, because I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, and yet I suspected it might. My brother, stubborn as the sun. Now I know why Elias left a note all those months ago when he disappeared, instead of saying goodbye. It’s not because he didn’t care. It’s because he cared too much.
“I’ll just disappear,” I say. “You won’t be able to follow me.” Darin glares at me in disgusted disbelief. “You wouldn’t do that.” “I would if I thought it would keep you from coming after me.”
“You just expect me to be all right with this,” Darin says. “To watch you leave, knowing that the only family I have left is risking herself again—”
“That’s rich! What did you do, meeting with Spiro for all those months? If anyone should understand this, Darin, it’s you.” My anger takes hold now, the words pouring like poison from my mouth. Don’t say it, Laia. Don’t. But I do. I cannot stop. “The raid happened because of you. Nan and Pop died because of you. I went to Blackcliff for you. I got this”—I yank my collar back to reveal the Commandant’s K—“because of you. And I traveled halfway across the bleeding world, lost one of the only true friends I’ve ever had, and saw the man I love get chained to some hellish underworld because of you. So don’t talk to me about risking myself. Don’t you bleeding dare.”
I didn’t know how much was locked up inside me until I began shouting it. And now my rage is full-throated and throbbing, tearing out of me.
“You stay here,” I snap at him. “You make weapons. And you give us a fighting chance. You owe that to Nan and Pop and Izzi and Elias and me. Don’t think I’ll bleeding forget it!”
Darin’s mouth hangs open, and I stride out, slamming the forge door behind me. My anger carries me away from the shipyard and up into the city, and when I am halfway to the western gate, Musa falls into step beside me.
“Spectacular fight.” He jogs to catch up with me, stealthy as a wraith. “Do you think you should apologize before you leave? You were a bit harsh.”
“Is there anything you don’t eavesdrop on?”
“I can’t help it if the wights are gossips.” He shrugs. “Though I was gratified to hear that you finally admitted how you feel about Elias out loud. You never talk about him, you know.”
My face heats. “Elias is none of your business.”
“As long as he doesn’t stop you from keeping your promise, aapan,” Musa says, “I agree. I’ll walk you to your horse. There are maps and supplies in the saddlebags. I marked a route straight west, through the mountains. Should get you to the Forest of Dusk in a bit more than three weeks. My contact will meet you on the other side and take you to Antium.”
We come to the west gate just as a nearby belltower chimes midnight. In tune with the last bell tolling, there is a low hiss. A dagger leaving its sheath. As I reach for my own weapon, something zings past my ear.
An angry chitter erupts near me, and small hands shove at me. I drop, dragging Musa down as an arrow flies overhead. Another arrow shoots
out of the darkness, but it too misses its mark, dropping in midair— courtesy of Musa’s wights.
“Nikla!” Musa snarls. “Show yourself!”
The shadows shift, and the crown princess steps out of the darkness.
She glares at us balefully, her face barely visible beneath the ghuls swarming all over her.
“I should have known that traitor Eleiba would let you go,” she hisses. “She will pay.”
More footsteps approach—Nikla’s soldiers, closing in on Musa and me. Ever so slowly, Musa puts himself between me and Nikla. “Listen to reason, please. We both know—”
“Don’t you speak to me!” the princess growls at Musa, and the ghuls cluck happily at her pain. “You had your chance.”
“When I rush her,” Musa whispers, barely audible, “run.”
I’m just processing what he says when he’s past me and heading straight for Nikla. Immediately, silver-armored bodyguards step out of the shadows and attack Musa so swiftly that he is now nothing but a blur.
I cannot just let Nikla’s men take him. Skies know what they will do. But if I hurt any of these Mariners, it might turn King Irmand against us. I flip my dagger around to the hilt, but a hand grabs me and yanks me back.
“Go, little sister,” Darin says, a staff in his hands. Taure, Zella, and a group of Scholars from the refugee camp are at his back. “We’ll make sure no one dies. Get out of here. Save us.”
“Musa—and you—if they arrest you—”
“We’ll be fine,” Darin says. “You were right. We have to be ready. But we don’t have a chance if you don’t go. Ride fast, Laia. Stop him. I’m with you, here.” He taps my heart. “Go.”
And like that day long ago in Serra, with my brother’s voice ringing in my ears, I flee.
For the first three days on the road, I hardly stop, expecting at any moment for Nikla and her men to find me. Every possible outcome
plagues my mind, an ever-changing play of nightmares: The Mariners overcome Darin and Musa and Zella and Taure. The king sends soldiers to drag me back. The Scholars are left to starve—or worse, they are driven from Adisa, refugees yet again.
But four mornings after I leave, I am woken before dawn by a quiet chitter beside my ear. I so associate the sound with Musa that I expect to see him when I open my eyes. Instead, a scroll sits on my chest, with only one word printed on it.
After that, I stop looking over my shoulder and start looking ahead. True to Eleiba’s word, whenever I stop at a courier station and show the king’s ring, I receive a fresh mount and supplies, no questions asked. The help couldn’t come at a better time, for I am gripped by desperation.
Every day brings me closer to the Grain Moon—and to the Nightbringer’s victory. Every day makes it more likely that he will find a way to trick the Blood Shrike into giving him the ring, which he’ll use to set his wrathful kindred free.
As I ride, I parse out the remaining bits of Shaeva’s prophecy. The line about the Butcher worries me, but not as much as the Dead will rise, and none can survive.
The dead are Elias’s domain. If they rise, does that mean they will escape the Waiting Place? What happens if they do? And what of the end of the prophecy? It makes little sense—all but The Ghost will fall, her flesh will wither. The meaning there is disturbingly clear: I’m going to die.
But then again, just because it’s a prophecy doesn’t mean it’s written in stone.
I encounter many other travelers, but the king’s sigil on my saddle and cloak keeps the questions at bay, and I do not invite conversation. After a week cutting through the mountains and ten days winding down into gentle, rolling farmland, the Forest of Dusk appears on the horizon, a blue line of fuzz beneath flocculent clouds. This far from the major cities there are no courier stations, and the farms and villages are far apart. But I do not feel lonely—a sense of anticipation builds.
Soon, I will be reunited with Elias.
I recall what I blurted out during my argument with Darin: the man I love.
I thought I loved Keenan, but that love was born out of desperation and loneliness, out of a need to see myself, my struggles, in someone else.
What I feel for Elias is different, a flame I hold close to my heart when I feel my strength flagging. Sometimes, deep in the night as I travel, I picture a future with him. But I dare not look at it too closely. How can I, when it can never be?
I wonder what he has become in the months we’ve been apart. Has he changed? Is he eating? Taking care of himself? Skies, I hope he has not grown a beard. I hated his beard.
The Forest transforms from a furred, distant line to a wall of knotted trunks that I know well. Even beneath the noontime shine of a summer sun, the Waiting Place feels ominous.
I leave my horse to graze, and as I draw near the tree line, a wind rises and the gnarled Forest canopy sways. The leaves sing in whispers, a gentle sound.
“Elias?” The silence is uncanny—no ghosts wail or cry out. Anxiety gnaws at me. What if Elias cannot pass the ghosts through? What if something has happened to him?
The stillness of the Forest makes me think of a predator stalking in tall grasses, watching its oblivious prey. But as the sun dips west, a familiar darkness rises in me, urging me toward the trees. I felt this darkness with the Nightbringer, long ago, when I sought to get answers out of him. I felt it again after Shaeva died, when I thought the jinn would hurt Elias.
It does not feel evil, this darkness. It feels like part of me.
I step into the trees, tense, blade in hand. Nothing happens. The Forest is quiet, but birds still sing, and small creatures still move through the underbrush. No ghosts approach. I move in deeper, allowing that darkness to pull me onward.
When I am far into the trees, the shadows grow thick. A voice calls out to me.
No—not one voice. Many, speaking as one.
Welcome to the Waiting Place, Laia of Serra, the voices purr.
Welcome to our home, and our prison. Come closer, won’t you?