Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(15)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(15)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

“Still there.” Darin chances a look behind us. “Lurking like a bleeding wraith.”

The circles beneath my brother’s eyes make his irises look almost black. His cheekbones jut out, as they did when I first rescued him from Kauf. Since our shadow appeared, Darin has slept little. But even before that, nightmares of Kauf and the Warden plagued him. Sometimes I wish the Warden back to life, just so I could kill him myself. Strange how monsters can reach from beyond the grave, as potent in death as they were in life.

“We’ll lose him at the city gates.” I try to sound convincing. “And lie low when we get in. Find a cheap inn to stay at where no one will look at us twice. And then,” I add, “we can ask around for the Beekeeper.”

Under the guise of adjusting my hood, I glance back quickly at our shadow. He’s close now, and beneath the scarf that hides his face, his red, sickle mouth curves into a smile. A weapon flashes in his hand.

I spin back around. We wind down from the foothills, and Adisa’s gold-flecked wall comes into view, a marvel of white granite that glows orange under the fading, blood-streaked sky. Along the eastern wall, a mass of gray tents blooms out for nearly a mile: the Scholar refugee camp. In the bay to the north, sea ice floats in fat chunks, its briny smell slicing through the dirt and grime of the road.

Clouds sit low on the horizon, and an estival wind blows in from the south, scattering them. As they part, a near-collective gasp ripples through the travelers. For in the center of Adisa, a spire of stone and glass soars into the sky, pinioning the heavens. It twists like the horn of some mythical creature, impossibly balanced and glowing white. I have only ever heard it described, but the descriptions do it no justice. The Great Library of Adisa.

An unwelcome memory surfaces. Red hair, brown eyes, and a mouth that lied, lied, lied. Keenan—the Nightbringer—telling me that he too wanted to see the Great Library.

She tasted sweet, boy. Like dew and a clear dawn. My skin crawls thinking of the filth he spat in the Waiting Place.

“Look.” I nod to the throngs gathered outside the city gates, pushing to enter before they close at nightfall. “We can lose him there. Especially if I disappear.”

When we are closer to the city, I drop in front of Darin, as if adjusting a bootlace. Then I pull on my invisibility.

“I’m right next to you,” I whisper when I stand, and Darin nods, weaving quickly now through the crowd, using his sharp elbows to muscle forward. The closer we get to the gate, the slower it goes. Finally, as the sun dips into the west, we stand before the massive wooden entrance, carved with whales and eels, octopuses and mermaids. Beyond, a cobbled street curves up and disappears into a warren of brightly painted buildings, lamps winking in their windows. I think of my mother, who came to Adisa when she was only a few years older than me. Did it look the same? Did she share the awe I feel now?

“Your guarantor, sir?”

One of the dozens of Mariner guards fixes his attention on Darin, and despite the seething crowds, he is coolly polite. Darin shakes his head in confusion. “My guarantor?”

“Who are you staying with in the city? What family or guild?”

“We’re staying at an inn,” Darin says. “We can pay—”

“Gold can be stolen. I require names: the inn where you plan to procure rooms and your guarantor, who can vouch for your quality. Once you provide names, you will wait in a holding area while your information is verified, after which you may enter Adisa.”

Darin looks uncertain. We do not know anyone in Adisa. Since leaving Elias, we have tried several times to get in touch with Araj, the Skiritae leader who escaped Kauf with us, but have heard nothing back from him.

Darin nods at the soldier’s explanation, as if we have any idea what we will do instead. “And if I don’t have a guarantor?”

“You’ll find the entrance to the Scholar refugee camp east of here.” The soldier, who until now had kept his attention on the pressing crowd behind us, finally looks at Darin. The man’s eyes narrow.

“Say—”

“Time to go,” I hiss to my brother, and he mumbles something to the soldier before quickly shoving back into the crowd.

“He can’t have known my face,” Darin says. “I’ve never met him before.”

“Maybe all Scholars look alike to him,” I say, but the explanation rings hollow to me. More than once, we turn to see if the soldier follows. I slow down only when I spot him at the gate, speaking with another group of Scholars. Our shadow also appears to have lost us, and we head east, making our way to one of a dozen long lines that lead into the refugee camp.

Nan told me stories of what Mother did when she led the northern Resistance here in Adisa, more than twenty-five years ago. The Mariner King Irmand worked with her to protect the Scholars. To give them work and homes and a permanent place in Mariner society.

Things have clearly gone to pot since then.

Even from outside the boundaries of the camp, its gloom is pervasive. Bands of children wander through the tents ahead, most far too young to be left unaccompanied. A few dogs slink through the muddy roadways, occasionally sniffing at the open sewers.

Why is it always us? All of these people—so many children—hunted and abused and tormented. Families stolen, lives shattered. They come all this way to be rejected yet again, sent outside the city walls to sleep in flimsy tents, to fight over paltry scraps of food, to starve and freeze and suffer more.

And we are expected to be thankful. To be happy. So many are—I know it. Happy to be safe. To be alive. But it’s not enough—not to me.

As we get closer to the entrance, the camp comes into clearer view. White parchment flutters from the cloth walls. I squint at it, but it’s not until we’re nearing the front of the line that I finally make out what’s on it.

My own face. Darin’s. Staring out sullenly beneath damning words:

BY PERSONAL DECREE OF KING IRMAND OF MARINN

WANTED:

LAIA AND DARIN OF SERRA

FOR: INCITEMENT OF REBELLION, AGITATION, AND CONSPIRING AGAINST THE CROWN

REWARD: 10,000 MARKS

It looks like the posters from the Commandant’s office at Blackcliff. Like the one from Nur, when the Blood Shrike was hunting Elias and me and offering a massive reward.

“What in the skies,” I whisper, “did we do to King Irmand to offend him so? Could the Martials be behind it?”

“They don’t bleeding know we’re here!”

“They have spies, just like everyone else,” I say. “Look back, like you see someone you recognize, and then walk—”

A commotion at the back of the line ripples toward us as a squad of Mariner troops marches toward the camp from Adisa. Darin hunches down, taking refuge deeper in his hood. Shouts ring out ahead of us, and light flares sharply, followed quickly by a plume of black smoke. Fire. The shouts quickly turn to cries of rage and fear.

My mind seizes; my thoughts go to Serra, to the night the soldiers took Darin. The pounding at our door and the silver of the Mask’s face. Nan’s and Pop’s blood on the floor and Darin screaming at me. Laia! Run!

Voices around me rise in terror. Scholars in the camp flee. Groups of children cluster, making themselves small, hoping they are not noticed. Blue-and-gold-clad Mariner soldiers weave through the tents, tearing them apart as they search for something.

No—someone.

The Scholars around us scatter, running every which way, driven by a fear that’s been hammered into our bones. Always us! Our dignity shredded, our families annihilated, our children torn from their parents. Our blood soaking the dirt. What sin was so great that Scholars must pay, with every generation, with the only thing we have left: our lives?

Darin, calm just a moment ago, is motionless beside me, looking as terror-stricken as I feel. I grab his hand. I cannot fall apart now—not when he needs me to hold it together.

“Let’s go.” I pull him away, but there are soldiers herding those in the lines back toward the camp. Close by, I spy a dark space between two refugee tents. “Quick, Darin—”

A voice cries out behind us. “They’re not here!” A Scholar woman who is naught but skin and bones tries to shake off a Mariner soldier. “I’ve told you—”

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