Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(4)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(4)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

“I can do this, Shaeva,” I say to her. “I swear it to you. But I told Laia I’d help her tonight. Mamie might be dead. Laia might be dead. I don’t know, because I’m not there.”

Skies, how to explain it to her? She’s been away from humanity for so long that she can’t possibly understand. Does she comprehend love? On the days when she teases me about talking in my sleep, or tells strange, funny tales because she knows I ache for Laia, it seems as if she does. But now . . .

“Mamie Rila gave up her life for mine, and by some miracle she still lives,” I say. “Don’t make me welcome her here. Don’t make me welcome Laia.”

“Loving them will only hurt you,” Shaeva says. “In the end, they will fade. You will endure. Every time you bid farewell to yet another part of your old life, a piece of you will die.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Every moment stolen with Laia is the infuriating evidence of that fact. The few kisses we’ve had, cut short because of Mauth’s oppressive disapproval. The chasm opening between us as the truth of my vow sinks in. Every time I see her she seems further away, as if I peer at her through a spyglass.

“Fool boy.” Shaeva’s voice is soft with empathy. Her black eyes lose focus, and I feel the ward drop. “I will find the ghost and pass him on. Go. And do not be careless with your life. Full-grown jinn are nearly impossible to kill, except by other jinn. When you join with Mauth, you too will become resilient to attack, and time will cease to affect you. But until then, be wary. If you die again, I cannot bring you back. And”—she kicks at the ground self-consciously—“I’ve grown used to you.”

“I won’t die.” I grip her shoulder. “And I promise I’ll do the dishes for the next month.”

She snorts her disbelief, but by then, I am moving, windwalking through the trees so rapidly I can feel the branches cutting my face. A half hour later, I hurtle past Shaeva’s and my cottage, through the borders of the Waiting Place, and into the Empire. The moment I’m clear of the trees, storm winds buffet me and my windwalking slows, the magic weakening as I leave the Forest behind.

I feel a pull at my core tugging me back. Mauth, demanding my return. The pull is almost painful, but I grit my teeth and continue on. Pain is a choice. Succumb to it and fail. Or defy it and triumph. Keris Veturia’s training, drilled into my very bones.

By the time I arrive outside the village where I was to meet Laia, midnight is long past and moonlight pushes meekly through the snow clouds. Please let the raid have gone smoothly. Please let Mamie be all right.

But the instant I enter the village, I know something is off. The caravan is empty, the wagon doors creaking in the storm. A thin layer of snow has already settled on the bodies of the soldiers guarding the caravans. Among them, I find no Mask. No Tribal casualties. The village is silent when it should be in an uproar.

Trap.

I know it instantly, as sure as I’d know my own mother’s face. Is this Keris’s work? Did she learn about Laia’s raids?

I pull my hood up, draw on a scarf, and drop into a crouch, observing the tracks in the snow. They are faint—brushed away. But I catch sight of a familiar boot print: Laia’s.

These tracks aren’t here out of carelessness. I was meant to know that Laia went into the village. And that she didn’t come out. Which means the trap wasn’t set for her.

It was set for me.

IV: The Blood Shrike

“Curse you!” I keep an iron grip around Laia of Serra, but she resists me with all her strength. She refuses to drop her invisibility, and I feel as if I’m grappling with an angry, camouflaged fish. I curse myself for not knocking her out the moment I grabbed her.

She lands a nasty kick to my ankle before elbowing me in the gut. My hold on her weakens, and she’s out of my hands. I lunge toward the sound of her boot scraping the floor, savagely satisfied at the huff of her breath leaving her lungs as I tackle her. Finally, she flickers into being, and before she can play her little disappearing trick again, I twist her hands back and truss her tighter than a festival-day goat. Still panting, I shove her into a chair.

She looks at the other occupant of the cabin—Mamie Rila, bound and barely conscious—and snarls through her gag. She kicks out like a mule, her boot connecting beneath my knee. I grimace at the pain. Don’t backhand her, Shrike.

Even as she fights, a fey part of my mind trills at the life within her. She has healed. She is strong. The fact should irk me.

But the magic I used on Laia binds us together, a tie that runs deeper than I’d like. I feel relief at her vigor, as if I’d learned that my little sister Livia is healthy.

Which she won’t be for much longer, if this plan doesn’t work. Fear lances through me, followed by a harsh stab of memory. The throne room. Emperor Marcus. My mother’s throat: cut. My sister Hannah’s throat: cut. My father’s throat: cut. All because of me.

I will not see Livia die too. I need to carry out Marcus’s orders and bring down Commandant Keris Veturia. If I don’t return to Antium from this mission with something I can use against her, Marcus will take his rage out on his empress—Livia. He has done so before.

But the Commandant appears unassailable. The low-class Plebeians and Mercator traders support her because she quelled the Scholar revolution. The most powerful families in the Empire, the Illustrians, fear her and Gens Veturia. She’s too wily to allow an assassin close, and even if I did take her out, her allies would rise up in revolt.

Which means I must first weaken her status among the Gens. I must show them that she is still human.

And to do that, I need Elias Veturius. The son who is supposed to be dead, who Keris claimed was dead, but who is, I recently learned, very much alive. Presenting him as evidence of Keris’s failure is the first step toward convincing her allies that she’s not as strong as she appears.

“The more you fight me,” I say to Laia, “the tighter your bonds will get.” I yank on the ropes. When she winces, I feel an unpleasant twinge deep within. A side effect of healing her?

It will destroy you if you’re not careful. The Nightbringer’s words about my healing magic echo in my mind. Is this what he meant? That the ties to those I healed are unbreakable?

I cannot dwell on it now. Captain Avitas Harper and Captain Dex Atrius enter the cottage we’ve requisitioned. Harper gives me a nod, but Dex’s attention flits to Mamie, his jaw tight.

“Dex,” I say. “It’s time.”

He doesn’t look away from Mamie. Unsurprising. Months ago, when we were hunting down Elias, Dex interrogated Mamie and other members of Tribe Saif on my orders. His guilt has plagued him since.

“Atrius!” I snap. Dex’s head jerks up. “Get into position.”

He shakes himself and disappears. Harper waits patiently for orders, unruffled by Laia’s muffled curses and Mamie’s moans of pain.

“Check the perimeter,” I tell him. “Make sure none of the villagers wandered back.” I didn’t spend weeks setting up this ambush so a curious Plebe could ruin it.

As Laia of Serra follows Harper’s progress out the door, I pull out a dirk and pare my nails. The girl’s dark clothes fit her closely, hugging those irritating curves in a way that makes me conscious of every awkwardly jutting bone in my body. I’ve taken her pack, along with a well-worn dagger I recognize with a jolt. It’s Elias’s. His grandfather Quin gave it to him as a sixteenth year-fall gift.

And Elias, apparently, gave it to Laia.

She hisses against the gag as her gaze darts between me and Mamie. Her defiance reminds me of Hannah. I wonder briefly if, in another life, the Scholar and I could have been friends.

“If you promise not to scream,” I tell her, “I’ll take off your gag.”

She considers before nodding once. The moment I pull off the gag, she lashes out.

“What have you done to her?” Her seat thumps as she strains toward a now unconscious Mamie Rila. “She needs medicine. What kind of monster—”

The crack that echoes through the cottage when I slap her into silence surprises even me. As does the nausea that almost doubles me over. What the skies? I grab the table for support but straighten before Laia can see.

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