Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(8)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(8)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

Shaeva pauses. “I’ll give you a few hours,” she finally says. “After that, no more distractions. You have much to learn, Elias. And I do not know how much time I have to teach you. The moment you took the vow to become Soul Catcher, my power began to fade.”

“I know.” I nudge her with my boot, smiling in an attempt to dispel the tension between us. “Every time you don’t feel like doing the dishes, you remind me.” I mimic her sober voice. “Elias, my power fades . . . so make sure you sweep the front steps, and bring in firewood, and—”

She chuckles. “As if you even know how to swee—sweep—”

Her smile vanishes. Frantic lines form around her mouth, and her hands clench and unclench, like she’s desperate for weapons she doesn’t possess.

The snow around us slows its swirling. The wind goes soft, as if cowed, and then ceases completely. The shadows in the trees deepen, so black they seem like a portal to another world.

“Shaeva? What the hells is happening?”

The Soul Catcher shudders, riven with dread. “Go inside the cabin, Elias.”

“Whatever’s going on, we face it tog—”

She digs her fingers into my shoulders. “There is so much you do not yet know, and if you fail, the world will fall. This is but the beginning. Remember: Sleep in the cottage. They cannot hurt you there. And seek the Tribes, Elias. Long have they been my allies. Ask about the stories of the dea—” Her voice chokes off as her back arches.

“Bleeding hells! Shaeva—”

“The moon sets on the archer and the shield maiden!” Her voice changes, multiplies. It is a child’s voice and an old woman’s layered over her own, as if all the versions that Shaeva was and ever could be are speaking at once.

“The executioner has arisen. The traitor walks free. Beware! The Reaper approaches, flames in his wake, and he shall set this world alight. And so shall the great wrong be set right.”

She flings her hand up to the sky, to constellations hidden behind thick snow clouds.

“Shaeva.” I shake her shoulders insistently. Get her inside! The cottage always soothes her. It’s her only sanctuary in this skies-forsaken place. But when I try to pick her up, she throws me off. “Shaeva, don’t be so damned stubborn—”

“Remember all that I say before the end,” she whispers. “That is why he has come. That is what he wants from me. Swear it.”

“I—I swear—”

She lifts her hands to my face. For once, her fingers are cold. “Soon you will learn the cost of your vow, my brother. I hope you do not think too ill of me.”

She falls to her knees, knocking over the basket of herbs. The green and yellow leaves spill out, the bright color incongruous against the ashen snow. The clearing is quiet. Even the ghosts have gone silent.

That can’t be right. The thickest concentration of ghosts is always around the cabin. But the spirits are gone. Every last one.

In the Forest to the west, where moments ago the shadows were only shadows, something stirs. The darkness moves, twisting as if in agony, until it writhes into a hooded figure cloaked in robes of purest night. From beneath the cowl, two tiny suns stare out at me.

I have never seen him before. I have only heard him described. But I know him. Bleeding, burning hells, I know him.

The Nightbringer.

VII: The Blood Shrike

A row of severed heads greets Dex, Avitas, and me as we pass beneath Antium’s iron-studded main gate. Scholars, mostly, but I spot Martials too. The streets are lined with dirty piles of slush, and a blanket of clouds lies thick over the city, depositing more snow.

I ride past the grisly display, and Harper follows, but Dex stares at the heads, hands tight on his reins. His silence is unnerving. The interrogation of Tribe Saif still haunts him.

“Get to the barracks, Dex,” I say. “I want reports on all active missions on my desk by midnight.” My attention falls on two women loitering outside a nearby guard post. Courtesans. “And go distract yourself after. Get your mind off the raid.”

“I do not frequent brothels,” Dex says quietly as he follows my gaze to the women. “Even if I did, it’s not that easy for me, Shrike. And you know it.”

I shoot Avitas Harper a glare. Go away. When he’s out of earshot I turn to Dex. “Madam Heera’s in Mandias Square. The House of Forgetting. Heera is discreet. She treats her women—and men—well.” At Dex’s hesitation, I lose my patience. “You’re letting your guilt eat at you, and it cost us in the village,” I say. That raid was meant to get us something to use against Keris. We failed. Marcus won’t be pleased. And it’s my sister who will suffer that displeasure.

“When I am dispirited,” I go on, “I visit Heera’s. It helps. Go or don’t. Doesn’t matter to me. But stop being woeful and useless. I don’t have the patience for it.”

Dex leaves, and Harper nudges his horse over. “You frequent Heera’s?” There’s something more than mere curiosity in his voice.

“Reading lips again?”

“Only yours, Shrike.” Harper’s green eyes drop to my mouth so quickly I almost miss it. “Forgive my question. I assumed you had volunteers to meet your . . . needs. The previous Shrike’s second-in-command did sometimes procure courtesans for him, if you need me to—”

My cheeks grow warm at the image that conveys. “Stop talking, Harper,” I say. “While you’re behind.”

We gallop ahead toward the palace, its pearlescent sheen a bare-faced lie that hides the oppressiveness within. The outer gates are bustling at this hour, Illustrian courtiers and Mercator hangers-on all jockeying to get into the throne room to obtain the Emperor’s favor.

“An attack on Marinn would go a long way in—”

“—fleet is already engaged—”

“—Veturia will crush them—”

I suppress a sigh at the never-ending machinations of the Paters. It drove my father to distraction, the way they schemed. When they see me, they fall silent. I take grim pleasure in their discomfort.

Harper and I cut through the courtiers quickly. The men in their long, fur-edged cloaks back away from the slush kicked up by my mount. The women, sparkling in court finery, watch surreptitiously. No one meets my gaze.

Swine. Not one of them offered a word of remembrance in honor of my family after Marcus executed them. Not even privately.

My mother, father, and sister died as traitors, and nothing can change that. Marcus wanted me to feel shame, but I do not. My father gave his life trying to save the Empire, and one day that fact will be known. But now it is as if my family never existed. As if their lives were mere hallucinations.

The only people who have dared to mention my parents to me are Livia, a Scholar hag I haven’t seen in weeks, and a Scholar girl whose head should be in a sack at my waist right now.

I hear the buzz of voices in the throne room long before I see its double doors. As I enter, every soldier salutes. They’ve learned, by now, what happens to those who don’t.

Marcus sits rigid on his throne, big hands fisted on the armrests, masked face emotionless. His blood-red cape pools onto the floor, reflecting luridly off his silver-and-copper armor. The weapons at his side are razor-sharp, to the chagrin of the older Illustrian Paters, who appear soft beside their emperor.

The Commandant is not here. But Livia is, her face as impassive as a Mask’s as she perches on her own throne beside Marcus. I hate that she is forced to sit here, but still, relief rushes through me; at least she’s alive. She is resplendent in a lavender gown heavy with gold embroidery.

My sister’s back is straight, her face powdered to hide the bruise on her cheek. Her ladies-in-waiting—yellow-eyed cousins of Marcus—cluster a few feet away. They are Plebeians, plucked from their village by my sister as a gesture of goodwill toward Marcus and his family. And I suspect that, like me, they find court insufferable.

Marcus fixes his attention on me, despite the obviously distressed Mariner ambassador standing before him. As I approach, the Emperor’s shoulders twitch.

“You don’t need to warn me, damn you,” he mutters. The ambassador furrows his brow, and I realize that Marcus isn’t responding to the man. He’s talking to himself. At the Mariner’s confusion, the Emperor beckons him near.

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