Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(16)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(16)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

“We know you’re sheltering them.” The Mariner who speaks is taller than me by a few inches, her scaled silver armor tight against the powerful muscles of her shoulders. Her chiseled brown face lacks the cruelty of a Mask, but she is nearly as intimidating. She tears a poster off the side of one of the tents where it’s been pinned. “Turn over Laia and Darin of Serra, and we will leave you be. Otherwise we will raze this camp and scatter its refugees to the four winds. We are generous, true. That does not make us fools.”

Beyond the soldier, dozens of Scholar children are being herded toward a makeshift holding pen. A cloud of embers explodes into the sky as, behind them, two more tents go up in flames. I shudder at the way the fire growls and vaunts, as if it is celebrating the screams rising from my people.

“It’s the prophecy,” Darin whispers. “Do you remember? The sparrows will drown, and none will know it. The Scholars must be the sparrows, Laia. The Mariners have always been called the sea people. They are the flood.”

“We cannot let it happen.” I make myself say the words. “They’re suffering because of us. This is the only home they have. And we’re taking it away from them.”

Darin immediately understands my intent. He shakes his head, taking a step back, movements jerky and panicked. “No,” he says. “We can’t. How are we supposed to find the Beekeeper if we’re in prison? Or dead? How are we supposed to—” His voice chokes off, and he shakes his head again and again.

“I know they will lock us up.” I grab him, shake him. I need to break through his terror. I need him to believe me. “But I swear to the skies that I will get us out. We cannot let the camp burn, Darin. It’s wrong. The Mariners want us. And we’re right here.”

A scream erupts from behind us. A Scholar man claws at a Mariner guard, howling as she removes a child from his grasp.

“Don’t hurt her,” he begs. “Please—please—”

Darin watches, shuddering. “You’re—you’re right.” He fights to get the words out, and I am relieved and proud and broken-hearted because I feel sick at the thought of watching my brother dragged back to a prison. “I’ll have no one else die for me. Especially not you. I’ll turn myself in. You’ll be safe—”

“Not a chance,” I say. “Never again. Where you go, I go.”

I drop my invisibility, and vertigo nearly levels me. My sight darkens to a dank room with a light-haired woman within. I cannot see her face. Who is she?

When my vision clears, only a few seconds have passed. I shake the strange images away and leave the shelter of the tents.

The Mariner soldier’s instinct is excellent. For though we are a good thirty feet from her, the moment we step into the light, her head swivels toward us. The plume and angled eye holes of her helmet make her look like an angry hawk, but her hand is light on her scim as she watches our approach.

“Laia and Darin of Serra.” She doesn’t sound surprised, and I know then that she expected to find us here—that she knew we had arrived in Adisa. “You are under arrest for conspiracy to commit crimes against the kingdom of Marinn. You will come with me.”

XII: Elias

Though the sun hasn’t yet set, the Tribal encampment is quiet when I approach. The cook fires are doused, the horses sheltered beneath a canvas tarp. The red-and-yellow-painted wagons are sealed tight against the driving late spring rain. Wan lamplight flickers within.

I move slowly, though not out of wariness. Mauth tugs at me, and it requires all my strength to ignore that summons.

A few hundred yards west of the caravan, the Duskan Sea breaks against the rocky shore, its roar nearly drowning out the mournful cries of white-headed gulls above. But my Mask’s instincts are as sharp as ever, and I sense the approach of the Kehanni of Tribe Nasur long before she appears—along with the six Nasur Tribesmen guarding her.

“Elias Veturius.” The Kehanni’s silver dreadlocks hang to her waist, and I can clearly make out the elaborate storyteller’s tattoos on her dark brown skin. “You are late.”

“I am sorry, Kehanni.” I don’t bother giving her an excuse. Kehannis are as skilled at trapping lies as they are at telling stories. “I beg your forgiveness.”

“Bah.” She sniffs. “You begged to meet with me too. I do not know why I consented. Martials took my brother’s son a week ago, after they raided our grain stores. My respect for Mamie Rila is all that keeps me from gutting you like a pig, boy.”

I’d like to see you try. “Have you heard from Mamie?”

“She is well-hidden and recovering from the horrors your ilk inflicted upon her. If you think I will tell you where she is, you are a bigger fool than I suspected. Come.”

She jerks her head toward the caravan, and I follow. I understand her rage. The Martials’ war on the Tribes is evident in every burned-out wagon littering the countryside, every ululating wail rising from Tribal villages as families mourn those taken.

The Kehanni moves quickly, and as I trail her, Mauth’s pull grows stronger, a physical wrench that makes me want to sprint back to the Waiting Place, three leagues distant. A sense of wrongness steals over me, as if I’ve forgotten something important. But I can’t tell if it is my own instinct prickling or if Mauth is manipulating my mind. More than once in the past few weeks, I’ve felt someone—or something—flitting at the edges of the Waiting Place, entering and then leaving, as if trying to gauge a reaction. Every time I’ve felt it, I’ve windwalked to the border. And every time, I’ve found nothing.

The rain has, at least, silenced the jinn. Those fiery bastards hate it. But the ghosts are troubled, forced to remain in the Waiting Place longer than they should because I cannot pass them through fast enough. Shaeva’s warning haunts me.

If you do not pass the ghosts through, it will mean your failure as Soul Catcher and the end of the human world as you understand it.

Mauth pulls at me again, but I make myself ignore it. The Kehanni and I weave our way through the wagons of the caravan until we reach one that sits apart from the rest, its black draping in sharp contrast to the elaborate decorations of the other wagons.

It is the home of a Fakir—the Tribesperson who prepares bodies for burial.

I wipe the rain from my face as the Kehanni knocks on the wooden back door. “With respect,” I say, “I need to speak to you—”

“I keep the stories of the living. The Fakira keeps the stories of the dead.”

The back door of the wagon opens almost immediately to reveal a girl of perhaps sixteen. At the sight of me, her eyes widen and she pulls at her halo of red-brown curls. She chews on her lip, freckles stark against skin that is lighter than Mamie’s but darker than mine. Deep blue tattoos wind up her arms, geometric patterns that make me think of skulls.

Something about the uncertainty of her posture reminds me of Laia, and a pang of longing flashes through me. I realize that I’ve frozen at the door, and the Kehanni shoves me into the wagon, which is lit brightly by multicolored Tribal lamps. A shelf along the back is filled with jars of fluid, and there is a faint smell of something astringent.

“This,” the Kehanni says from the door once I’m inside, “is Aubarit, our new Fakira. She is . . . learning.” The Kehanni curls her lip slightly. No wonder the Kehanni agreed to help me. She’s simply foisting me onto a girl who will likely be no help at all. “She will deal with you.”

The door slams, leaving Aubarit and me staring at each other for an awkward moment.

“You’re young,” I blurt out as I sit. “Our Saif Fakir was older than the hills.”

“Fear not, bhai.” Aubarit uses the honorific for brother, and her shaking voice reflects her anxiety. I immediately feel guilty for bringing up her age. “I have been trained in the Mysteries. You come from the Forest, Elias Veturius. From the domain of the Bani al-Mauth. Does she send you to aid us?”

Did she just say Mauth? “How do you know that name, Mauth? Do you mean Shaeva?”

“Astagha!” Aubarit squeaks the oath against the evil eye. “We do not use her name, bhai! The Bani al-Mauth is holy. The Chosen of Death. The Soul Catcher. The Guardian at the Gates. The sacred Mystery of her existence is known only to the Fakirs and their apprentices. I would not have even spoken of it, only you came from the Jaga al-Mauth.” Place of Mauth.

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