My blood transforms to lead at the sound of the jinn and their strange, layered voice. It throbs with cunning and rage. But
beneath it flows a river of almost imperceptible sorrow, just like with the Nightbringer.
“Where is Elias?” I know they will not tell me anything of worth, but I ask anyway, hoping that some response will be better than silence.
We will tell you, they croon. But you must come to us.
“I’m not a fool.” I rest my hand on my dagger, though doing so serves no practical purpose. “I know your king, remember? You’re as slippery as he is.”
No tricks, Laia, daughter of Mirra. Unlike you, we do not fear the truth, for it is the truth that shall free us from our prison. And the truth shall free you from yours. Come to us.
Elias has never trusted the jinn. I shouldn’t either—I know this. But Elias is not here. Nor are the ghosts. And something is very wrong, otherwise he would be here. I need to get across the Forest. There is no other path to Antium—to the Blood Shrike—to the last piece of the Star.
Standing here agonizing over it isn’t going to do me any good. I make my way west, following the compass in my head, moving as swiftly as I can while it is still light out. Perhaps Elias is only away for a short time. Perhaps he will return.
Or perhaps he doesn’t know I’m here. Perhaps something has happened to him.
Or, the jinn whisper, he doesn’t care. He has greater things to worry about than you. They do not say it with malice. They simply state a fact, which makes it all the more chilling.
Our king showed you, did he not? You saw it in his eyes: Elias walking away. Elias choosing duty over you. He will not help you, Laia. But we can. If you allow us, we will show you the truth.
“Why would you help me? You know why I’m here. You know what I’m trying to do.”
The truth shall free us from our prison, the jinn say again. As it will free you from yours. Let us help you.
“Stay away from me,” I say. The jinn fall silent. Do I dare hope that they will leave me be? A wind pushes at my back, ruffling my hair and pulling at my clothes. I jump, spinning, seeking the shadows for enemies. It is just wind.
But as the night drags on, I flag. And when I can walk no more, I have no choice but to stop. A broad tree trunk serves as my shelter, and I hunker against it with my daggers in hand. The Forest is strangely peaceful, and as soon as my body makes contact with the earth, the tree, I feel calmer, like I’m in a familiar place. It is not the familiarity of a well-traveled road. It is different. Older. In my very blood.
In the darkest hour of the night, sleep claims me, and, with it, dreams.
I find myself flying over the Waiting Place, skimming the treetops, incensed and yet terrified. My people. They are imprisoning my people. All I know is that I must get to them. I must reach them, if only I can . . .
I awake to the overwhelming sense that something is wrong. The trees that surround me are not those I fell asleep beside. These trees are as wide as an Adisan avenue, and they glow an eerie red, as if on fire from within.
“Welcome to our prison, Laia of Serra.”
The Nightbringer materializes from the shadows, speaking almost tenderly. He brushes his strangely glowing hands against the tree trunks as he circles them. They whisper a word at him, a word I cannot make out, but he silences them with his touch.
“You—you brought me here?”
“My brethren brought you. Be thankful they left you intact. They longed to tear you into a thousand pieces.”
“If you could kill me, you’d have done it already,” I say. “The Star protects me.”
“Indeed, my love.”
I recoil. “Don’t you call me that. You don’t know what love is.”
His back was to me, but he turns now, immobilizing me with that eerily bright stare. “Ah, but I do.” His bitterness curdles the very air, it is so ancient. “For I was born to love. It was my calling, my purpose. Now it is my curse. I know love better than any other creature alive. Certainly better than a girl who gives her heart to whoever happens by.”
“Tell me where Elias is.”
“In such a hurry, Laia. Just like your mother. Sit with my brethren a while. They have so few visitors.”
“You know nothing of my mother and father. Tell me where Elias is.”
My gorge rises as the Nightbringer speaks again. His voice feels too close, like he is forcing an intimacy I have not granted.
“What will you do if I do not tell you where Elias is? Leave?” “That is exactly what I’ll do,” I say, but my voice is weaker than I
wish it to be. My legs feel strange. Numb. Skies, I feel ill. I lean forward, and when my hands touch the earth, a jolt rolls through me. The word that comes to my mind is not the one I expect. Home.
“The Waiting Place sings to you. It knows you, Laia of Serra.” “Wh—why?”
The Nightbringer laughs, and it is echoed by the jinn in the grove until it feels like it is coming from all sides. “It is the source of all magic in this world. We are connected to it—through it—to each other.”
There is a lie here somewhere. I can sense it. But there is truth too, and I cannot parse the fine lines between them.
“Tell me, love.” The word sounds obscene in his mouth. “Have you had visions after using your magic?”
My blood goes cold. The woman. The cell. “You sent those visions?
And you—you’ve been watching me.”
“In truth, you shall find freedom. Let me free you, Laia of Serra.” “I don’t need your truth.” I want him out of my head, but he is as
devious and slippery as an eel. Together with his brethren, he twists around my mind, squeezing tighter and tighter. Why did I let myself sleep? Why did I let the jinn take me? Get up, Laia! Escape!
“You cannot escape the truth, Laia. You deserve to know, child. It has been kept from you for far too long. Where to begin? Perhaps where you began: with your mother.”
The air before me wavers, and I do not know if the vision is real or in my head. My mother stands before me, big with child. Me, I realize. She paces back and forth outside a cottage as Father speaks to her. The thickly forested mountains of Marinn rise in the distance.
“We must go back, Jahan,” she says. “As soon as the child is born—” “And bring him or her with us?” My father digs his hand into the
thick, unruly hair that I inherited. Laughter rings out behind him: Darin, fat-cheeked and blissfully unaware, sits with a seven-year-old Lis. My heart twists at the sight of my sister. I have not seen her face in so long. Unlike Darin, she watches everything with careful eyes, her gaze flicking back and forth between Mother and Father. She is a child whose happiness is gauged by the strange weather between her parents, sometimes sunny but more often a gale.
“We can’t expose them to that kind of danger. Mirra—”
Darkness. Smell comes to me before light. Apricot orchards and hot sands. I am in Serra. My mother appears again, in leathers this time, a bow and quiver slung across her back. Her light hair is pulled back into a topknot, her stare fierce as she knocks upon a familiar weathered door.
My father kneels behind her, holding me against one shoulder and Darin against the other. I am four years old. Darin is six. Father kisses our faces over and over and whispers to us, though I cannot hear his words.
When the door opens, Nan stands there, hands on her hips, so angry that I want to cry. Don’t be angry, I want to tell her. You will miss her later. You will regret your anger. You will wish you had welcomed her with open arms. Nan catches sight of my father, of Darin, of me. She takes a step toward us.
Darkness. And then an eerily familiar place. A dank room. A light-haired woman within—a woman I finally recognize: my mother. And the room is not a room. It is a prison cell.
“The truth will free you from your illusions, Laia of Serra,” the Nightbringer whispers. “It will free you from the burden of hope.”
“I don’t want it.” The image of my mother won’t go away. “I don’t want to be free. Just tell me where Elias is,” I beg, a prisoner in my own mind. “Let me go.”
The Nightbringer is silent. Torchlight bobs distantly, and the door to my mother’s cell opens. Mother’s bruises, her wounds, her hacked hair and emaciation, are suddenly illuminated.
“Are you ready to cooperate?” The winter in that voice is unmistakable.
“I will never cooperate with you.” My mother spits at the feet of Keris Veturia. The Commandant is younger but just as monstrous. A high-pitched scream stabs into my ears. The scream of a child. I know who it is. Skies, I know. Lis. My sister.
I writhe and scream myself to try to drown her out. I cannot see this. I cannot hear it. But the Nightbringer and his brethren hold me fast.
“She doesn’t have your strength,” Keris says to Mother. “Nor does your husband. He broke down. Begged for death. Begged for your death. No loyalty. He told me everything.”
“He—he would never.”
Keris enters the cell. “How little we know of people until we watch them break. Until we strip them down to their smallest, weakest selves. I learned that lesson long ago, Mirra of Serra. And so I will teach you. I will lay you bare. And I don’t even have to touch you to do it.”
Another scream, this one deeper—a man’s voice.
“They ask about you,” the Commandant says. “They wonder why you let them suffer. One way or another, Mirra, you will give me the names of your supporters in Serra.” There is an unholy joy in Keris’s eyes. “I will bleed your family until you do.”
As she walks away, my mother roars at her, throwing herself against the door of her cell. Shadows move across the floor. A day passes, another. All the while, my mother listens to the sounds of Lis and Father suffering. I listen. She grows more crazed. She tries to break out. She tries to trick the guards. She tries to murder them. Nothing works.
The cell door opens, and the Kauf guards drag my father in. I scarcely recognize him. He is unconscious as they toss him in a corner. Lis is next, and I cannot look at what Keris has done to her. She was just a child, only twelve. Skies, Mother, how did you stand it? How did you not go utterly mad?
My sister shivers and curls up in the corner. Her silence, the slackness of her jaw, the emptiness in her blue eyes—they will haunt me until the day I die.
Mother takes Lis in her arms. Lis doesn’t react. Their bodies sway together as Mother rocks her.
A star she came Into my home
And lit it bright with glo-ry
Lis closes her eyes. My mother curls around her, her hands moving toward my sister’s face, caressing it. There are no tears in Mother’s eyes. There is nothing at all.
Her laughter like A gilded song
A raincloud sparrow’s sto-ry
My mother puts one of her hands on top of Lis’s head, shorn now, and another on her chin.
And when she sleeps It’s like the sun
Has faded, gone so cold, see.
A crack sounds, softer than in my visions. It is a small noise, like the breaking of a bird’s wing. Lis slips lifeless to the floor, her neck broken
by our mother’s hand.
I think I scream. I think that sound, that shriek, is me. In this world?
In some other? I cannot get out. I cannot escape this place. I cannot escape what I see.
“Mirra?” my father whispers. “Lis . . . where is . . .”
“Sleeping, my love.” Mother’s voice is calm, distant. She crawls to my father, pulling his head into her lap. “She’s sleeping now.”
“I—I tried, but I don’t know how much longer—”
“Do not fear, my love. Neither of you will suffer anymore.”
When she breaks my father’s neck, it is louder. The quiet that follows sinks into my bones. It is the death of hope, sudden and unheralded.
Still, the Lioness does not cry.
The Commandant enters, looks between the bodies. “You’re strong, Mirra,” she says, and there is something like admiration in her pale eyes. “Stronger than my mother was. I would have let your child live, you know.”
My mother’s head jerks up. Despair suffuses every inch of her. “It wouldn’t have been a life,” she whispers.
“Perhaps,” Keris says. “But can you be sure?”
Time shifts again. The Commandant holds coals in a gloved hand as she approaches my mother, who is tied to a table.
Far back in my mind, a memory surfaces. Ever been tied to a table while hot coals burned into your throat? Cook said those words to me long ago, in a kitchen at Blackcliff. Why did Cook say those words to me?
Time speeds. Mother’s hair goes from blonde to pure snow white.
The Commandant carves scars into her face—horrible, disfiguring scars
—until it is no longer the face of my mother, no longer the face of the Lioness but instead the face of—
Ever had your face carved up with a dull knife while a Mask poured salt water into your wounds?
No. I do not believe it. Cook must have experienced the same thing as my mother. Perhaps it was the Commandant’s particular way of getting rebel fighters to talk. Cook is an old woman, and my mother wouldn’t be
—she would still be relatively young.
But Cook never acted like an old woman, did she? She was strong.
The scars are the same. The hair.
And her eyes. I never looked closely at Cook’s eyes. But I remember them now: deep set and dark blue—darker still for the shadows that lurked within.
But it cannot be. It cannot.
“It is true, Laia,” the Nightbringer says, and my very soul shudders, for I know he tells no lies. “Your mother lives. You know her. And now, you are free.”