Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(5)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(5)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

She juts out her chin as she lifts her head. Blood drips from her nose. Surprise fills those golden, catlike eyes, followed by a healthy dose of fear. About time.

“Watch your tone.” I keep my voice low and flat. “Or the gag goes back in.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Just your company.”

Her eyes narrow, and she finally notices the manacles attached to a chair in the corner.

“I’m working alone,” she says. “Do with me what you wish.”

“You’re a gnat.” I go back to paring my nails, stifling a smile when I see how the words irritate her. “At best, a mosquito. Don’t presume to tell me what to do. The only reason you haven’t been crushed by the Empire is that I haven’t allowed it.”

Lies, of course. She’s raided six caravans in two months, freeing hundreds of prisoners in the process. Skies know how long she’d have continued if I hadn’t received the note.

It arrived two weeks ago. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, and whoever—or whatever—delivered it avoided detection by an entire bleeding garrison of Masks.

THE RAIDS. IT IS THE GIRL.

I’ve kept the raids quiet. We already have trouble with the Tribes, who are enraged at the Martial legions deployed in their desert. In the west, the Karkaun Barbarians have conquered the Wildmen clans and now heckle our outposts near Tiborum. Meanwhile, a Karkaun warlock by the name of Grímarr has rallied his clans, and they lurk in the south, raiding our port cities.

Marcus has only recently secured the loyalty of the Illustrian Gens. If they learn that a Scholar rebel roams the countryside wreaking havoc, they’ll grow restive. If they learn it’s the same girl Marcus was supposed to have killed in the Fourth Trial, they’ll smell blood in the water.

Another Illustrian coup is the last thing I need. Especially now that Livia’s fate is tied to Marcus’s.

Once I got the note, connecting Laia to the raids was easy enough. The reports out of Kauf Prison matched the reports about the raids. A girl who appears one moment, disappears the next. A Scholar risen from the dead, wreaking vengeance on the Empire.

It was not a ghost, but a girl. A girl and one uniquely talented accomplice.

We stare at each other, she and I. Laia of Serra is all passion. Feeling. Everything she thinks is written on her face. I wonder if she understands what duty even is.

“If I’m a gnat,” she says, “then why—” Understanding flashes across her face. “You’re not here for me. But if you’re using me as bait—”

“Then it will work effectively. I know my quarry well, Laia of Serra. He’ll be here in less than a quarter hour. If I’m wrong . . .” I twirl my dirk on my fingertip. Laia pales.

“He died.” She seems to believe her own lie. “In Kauf Prison. He’s not coming.”

“Oh, he’ll come.” Skies, I hate her as I say it. He will come for her. He always will. As he never will for me.

I banish the thought—weakness, Shrike—and kneel in front of her, knife in hand, running it along the K the Commandant carved into her. The scar is old now. She might see it as a flaw against that glowing skin. But it makes her look stronger. Resilient. And I hate her for that too.

But not for much longer. For I cannot let Laia of Serra walk free. Not when bringing Marcus her head could buy his favor—and thus more life for my little sister.

I think briefly of the Cook and her interest in Laia. The Commandant’s former slave will be angry when she learns the girl is dead. But the old woman disappeared months ago. She might be dead herself.

Laia must see murder in my eyes, because her face goes ashen and she shies back. Nausea lashes through me again. My vision flashes white, and I lean into the wooden armrest of her chair, the knife tipping forward, into the skin over her heart—

“Enough, Helene.”

His voice is as harsh as one of the Commandant’s lashes. He’s come in through the back door, as I suspected he would. Helene. Of course he’d use my name.

I think of my father. You are all that holds back the darkness. I think of Livia, covering up the bruises on her throat with layer upon layer of powder so the court does not think her weak. I turn.

“Elias Veturius.” My blood goes cold when I see that, despite the fact that I set the ambush, he has managed to surprise me. For instead of coming alone, Elias has taken Dex prisoner, binding his arms and holding a knife to his throat. Dex’s masked face is frozen in a grimace of rage. Dex, you idiot. I glare at him in silent rebuke. I wonder if he even tried to fight back.

“Kill Dex if you wish,” I say. “If he was fool enough to get caught, I won’t miss him.”

The torchlight reflects briefly in Elias’s face. He looks at Mamie—at her broken body and sagging form—and his eyes sharpen in rage. My throat goes dry at the depth of his emotion as he shifts his attention back to me. I see a hundred thoughts written in the set of his jaw, in his shoulders, in the way he holds his weapon. I know his language—I’ve spoken it since the age of six. Stand firm, Shrike.

“Dex is your ally,” he says. “You’re short on those these days, I hear. I think you’ll miss him very much. Release Laia.”

I am reminded of the Third Trial. Of Demetrius’s death by his hand. Leander’s. Elias has changed. There’s a darkness to him, one that wasn’t there before.

You and me both, old friend.

I haul Laia up from the chair and slam her against the wall, putting my knife to her throat. This time, I am prepared for the wave of sick, and I grit my teeth as it washes over me.

“The difference between us, Veturius,” I say, “is that I don’t care if my ally dies. Drop your weapons. You’ll see manacles in the corner. Put them on. Sit down. Shut up. If you do, Mamie lives and I agree not to pursue your band of caravan-raiding criminals or the prisoners they freed. Refuse, and I will hunt them down and kill them myself.”

“I—I thought you were decent,” Laia whispers. “Not good but . . .” She glances down at my blade and then at Mamie. “But not this.”

That’s because you’re a fool. Elias wavers, and I dig the knife in deeper.

The door opens behind me. Harper, daggers drawn, brings a wave of cold with him. Elias ignores him, his attention fixed on me.

“Let Laia go too,” he says. “And you have a deal.”

“Elias,” Laia gasps. “No—the Waiting—” I hiss at her, and she falls silent. I don’t have time for this. The longer I waver, the more likely Elias is to think of a way to escape. I made sure he’d know Laia entered the village; I should have expected him to catch Dex. You idiot, Shrike. You underestimated him.

Laia tries to speak, but I dig my blade into her throat, purposefully drawing blood. She trembles, her breaths shallow. My head pounds. The pain stokes my rage, and the part of me born from the blood of my dead parents roars, claws unsheathed.

“I know her song, Veturius,” I say. Dex and Avitas won’t understand my meaning. But Elias will. “I can stay here all night. All day. As long as it takes. I can make her hurt.”

And heal her. I do not say it, but he sees my vicious intent. And hurt her again, and heal her. Until you are driven mad by it.

“Helene.” Elias’s rage fades, replaced by surprise. Disappointment. But he has no right to be disappointed in me. “You won’t kill us.”

He doesn’t sound quite sure. You used to know me, I think. But you don’t know me anymore. I don’t know me anymore.

“There are worse things than death,” I say. “Shall we learn about them together?”

His temper rises. Tread carefully, Blood Shrike. The Mask still lives within Elias Veturius, beneath whatever else he’s become. I can push him. But I can only push him so far.

“I’ll release Mamie.” I offer the carrot before I brandish the stick. “A gesture of good faith. Avitas will leave her someplace your Tribal friends will find her.”

It is only when Elias looks at Harper that I remember he does not know Avitas is his half brother. I consider whether the knowledge can be used against Elias but decide to hold my tongue. The secret is Harper’s, not mine. I nod to him, and my second carries Mamie from the cabin.

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