The day Mother gave me her armlet, I was five. Nan’s curtains were drawn. I could not see the moon. Pop must have been there. Darin,
Lis, and Father too. But I remember Mother’s crooked smile most clearly. Her lapis eyes and long fingers. I sat in her lap trying to tuck my cold feet into her warm shirt. You’re not Laia, she’d said. You’re an efrit of the north trying to turn me into an icicle.
Someone called out to her. Time to go. She whispered to me to keep the armlet safe. Then she wrapped her arms around me, and though she squeezed too tightly, I did not care. I wanted to pull her into me. I wanted to keep her.
We will see each other again. She kissed my hands, my forehead. I swear it.
The courtyard gate creaked as she slipped through it. She smiled back at me and Darin, huddled between our grandparents. Then she stepped into the night, and the darkness swallowed her up.
I reel from what the Nightbringer showed me, from the crawling feeling of him and his kin all over my mind. I hold the armlet Elias gave me
and I do not let go. I’m free of the jinn now.
As I stumble away from the Forest, as the voices of the ghosts peak, I move more swiftly. The Dead will rise, and none can survive. Shaeva’s prophecy rings in my mind. Something has gone terribly wrong within the Waiting Place, and I need to get as far away as possible.
I run, trying to remember again what I am meant to do, trying to get the Nightbringer’s voice out of my head.
Musa marked a village on my map. I must get there, meet his contact, and get to Antium. But before then, I need to pull the shards of my mind off the ground and put them back together. I cannot change what is done.
I can only move forward and hope to the skies that before I meet Cook again, I’ve made my peace with what she did to Father and Lis. With what she endured. With what she sacrificed for the Resistance.
I make my way northwest. A pair of hills rises a few miles ahead, with a dip in the middle that should shelter the village of Myrtium.
Musa’s contact is meant to await me there. Since it’s Martial territory, I should use my magic to become invisible. But I cannot bear the thought of more visions, of seeing more pain and suffering.
I cannot bear the thought of seeing her. I think of Darin. Did he know about what Mother did? Is that why he tensed up every time I spoke of her? I wish to the skies that he was here now.
Rattled though I may be, I have the wits to wait until dark before I creep toward the village proper. The summer night is warm, the only noise a gentle breeze blowing in off a nearby creek. I feel louder than a horse with bells on as I slink along the walls.
The inn is the central building in the village, and I watch for a long time before getting closer. Musa told me little of his contact, for fear that the knowledge could be extracted by our enemies if I am caught. But I know that he is not a Martial and that he will be waiting within the inn, by the fire. I am to cloak myself, whisper to him that I’ve arrived, and then follow his instructions. He will take me to the Mariner Embassy in Antium, where I’ll get maps of the palace and the city, information about the Blood Shrike and where she will be—everything I’ll need to get in, get the ring, and get the hells out.
Gold light spills out into the streets from the inn’s wide, rounded windows, and the taproom is full, with agitated conversation drifting out in bits.
“If the Shrike can’t stop them—”
“How the bleeding hells is she supposed to stop them with only—” “—city will never be taken, those pigs don’t know how to fight—”
I keep to the shadows, trying to see into the inn from across the street.
It is impossible. I must get closer.
The inn has a series of smaller side windows, and the alleys around it are quiet, so I skitter across the square, hoping no one sees me, and climb onto a crate, peeking through one of the windows. It offers a decent view of the room, but so far, everyone here is a Martial.
I peer past the barkeep, through the thicket of serving maids pouring out drinks and lads delivering plates of food. The long bar is crowded with villagers, all of whom seem to be talking at once. How the hells am
I supposed to find him in this mess? I’ll have to cloak myself in invisibility. I have no choice.
I nearly jump out of my skin. When the hooded figure appears behind me, when her voice rasps a greeting, all I can think is that the Nightbringer has somehow followed me here, to this tiny village. That he is playing more tricks on my mind.
But the figure steps forward and lowers her hood to reveal moon-white hair that never belonged on her and midnight-blue eyes too shadowed to be familiar and violently scarred skin that I never noticed was unwrinkled until now. Her fingers are stained a deep, strange titian. Her diminutive height disorients me. All these years, I thought she was tall.
I reach out a hand to touch her and she shies away. How can this be real? How can I be staring into Mother’s face, after so long?
But of course, it is real. And the Nightbringer somehow knew she would be waiting—why else torment me with her true identity? He could have shown me who she was weeks ago, any time I used my invisibility. But he didn’t. Because he knew this is when it would hit me the hardest.
Part of me wants to run to her, feel her hands on my skin, hold them in my own. I wish Darin were here. I wish Izzi were here.
But the part of me that thinks Mother is stifled to silence by the darker part of me that screams Liar! I want to shout and curse at her and ask her every question that has plagued me since the moment I learned who she is. Understanding dawns on her face.
“Who told you?” Her cold eyes are unfamiliar. “Can’t have been Musa. He doesn’t know. No one does—except Keris, of course.”
“The Nightbringer,” I whisper. “The Nightbringer told me who you are.”
“Who I was.” She draws up her hood and turns to the darkness. “Come. We’ll talk on the way.”
Marrow-deep panic grips me when she turns from me. Don’t leave! I want to follow her. And at the same time, I never want to see her again.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I say, “until you tell me what the hells happened to you. Why didn’t you say anything at Blackcliff? You slaved for Keris for years. How could you—”
She clenches and unclenches her fists. Just like Darin when he is upset.
I dip my head but she will not meet my stare. Her face twitches, her mouth curving into a grimace. “Listen to me, girl,” she says. “We have to go. You have a mission, do you not? Don’t bleeding forget it.”
“The mission. The mission. How can you—” I throw up my hands and walk past her. “I’ll make my own way. I don’t need you. I don’t—”
But after only a few steps, I turn back. I cannot leave her. I missed her for so many years. I have longed for her from the age of five, when she was taken from me.
“We’ve a long road ahead.” Nothing about how she speaks sounds like the mother I knew. This is not the woman who called me Cricket, or tickled me until I couldn’t breathe, or promised me she’d teach me how to shoot a bow as well as she did. Whoever she is now, she is Mirra of Serra no longer.
“There will be plenty of time for you to scream at me on the way. I’d welcome it.” Her scarred mouth lifts in a sneer. “But we cannot delay.
The Blood Shrike is in Antium, and Antium is where we must go. But if we don’t hurry, we’ll never get inside.”
“No,” I whisper to her. “We settle this first. This is more important, and in any case, you must have a dozen ways of sneaking in—”
“I do,” Cook says. “But there are tens of thousands of Karkauns marching on the capital, and all the sneaking in the world won’t do us a whit of good if they surround the city before we get there.”