A torch against the nigh.., p.12
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.12
 

         Part #2 of An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir

  Long wagon trains snake their way toward the city for the Fall Gathering. Miles of desert stretch past the oasis, littered with striated plateaus that rise into the sky like enormous rock sentinels. A wind races along the desert floor and up through the foothills, bringing with it the scents of oil and horse and roasting meat.

  The air nips at us--autumn has come early to the mountains. But it might as well be the depths of a Serran summer, the way Elias sweats. This morning, he quietly told me that the Tellis extract ran out yesterday. His gold skin, so hale before, is worryingly pale.

  Keenan, who has been frowning at Elias since the moment we set out, falls into stride with him now.

  "Are you going to tell us how we're going to find a caravan that will take us to Kauf?"

  Elias looks at the rebel askance but doesn't respond.

  "Tribesmen aren't exactly known for being accepting to outsiders," Keenan presses. "Though your adopted family is Tribal, right? I hope you're not planning to seek their aid. The Martials will be watching them."

  Elias's expression transforms from what do you want to go away.

  "No, I don't plan on seeing my family while I'm in Nur. As for getting north, I have a . . . friend who owes me a favor."

  "A friend," Keenan says. "Who--"

  "Don't take offense, Red," Elias says, "but I don't know you. So you'll forgive me if I don't trust you."

  "I know the feeling." Keenan clenches his jaw. "I only wanted to suggest that instead of using Nur, we use Resistance safe houses. We could bypass Nur and the Martial soldiers who no doubt patrol it."

  "With the Scholar revolt, rebels are probably being rounded up and interrogated. Unless you're the only fighter who knew about the safe houses, they're compromised."

  Elias speeds his gait, and Keenan drops back, taking a position far enough behind me that I think it best to leave him be. I catch up with Izzi, and she leans toward me.

  "They've avoided ripping each other's faces off," she says. "That's a start, right?"

  I choke back a laugh. "How long until they kill each other, d'you think? And who strikes first?"

  "Two days before all-out war," Izzi says. "My money's on Keenan striking first. He's got a temper, that one. But Elias will win, being a Mask and all. Though"--she tilts her head--"he doesn't look so good, Laia."

  Izzi always sees more than anyone gives her credit for. I'm certain she'll notice me dancing around the question, so I try to keep my response simple.

  "We should reach Nur tonight," I say. "Once he rests, he'll be fine."

  But by late afternoon, a powerful wind blows in from the east, and our progress slows as we enter the foothills. By the time we reach the stretch of dunes that lead to Nur, the moon is high, the galaxy a blaze of silver above. But we are all exhausted from fighting the wind. Izzi's walk has deteriorated to a stumble, and both Keenan and I pant in tiredness. Even Elias struggles, stopping short enough times that I begin to worry for him.

  "I don't like this wind," he says. "The desert sandstorms don't start until late fall. But the weather since Serra has been odd--rain instead of sun, fog instead of clear skies." We exchange a glance. I wonder if he's thinking what I am: that it feels as if something doesn't want us to reach Nur . . . or Kauf or Darin.

  The oil lamps of Nur glow like a beacon only a few miles to the east, and we head straight for them. But a mile or so into the dunes, a deep hum thrums out across the sands, echoing in our bones.

  "What in the skies is that?" I ask.

  "The sand is shifting," Elias says. "A lot of it. A sandstorm is coming. Quickly now!"

  The sands swirl restlessly, rising in taunting clouds before gusting away. After another half mile, the wind grows so frenzied that we can hardly make out the lights of Nur.

  "This is insane!" Keenan shouts. "We should turn back for the foothills. Find shelter for the night."

  "Elias." I raise my voice over the wind. "How much would that delay us?"

  "If we wait, we miss the gathering. We need those crowds if we want to pass unnoticed." And he needs the Tellis. We cannot predict the Soul Catcher. If Elias starts convulsing again and loses consciousness, who knows how long that creature will keep him in the Waiting Place? Hours if he's lucky. Days if he's not.

  A shudder rolls through Elias, sudden and violent, and his body jerks--too sharply for anyone with eyes to miss it. I am beside him instantly.

  "Stay with me, Elias," I whisper into his ear. "The Soul Catcher's trying to call you back. Don't let her."

  Elias grits his teeth, and the convulsion passes. I'm well aware of Izzi's bewildered look, Keenan's suspicion.

  The rebel steps closer. "Laia, what's--"

  "We keep going." I raise my voice so he and Izzi can hear. "A delay now could mean a difference of weeks later if the snows come early or the northern passes are closed."

  "Here." Elias pulls a stack of kerchiefs from his pack and hands them to me. As I dole them out, he cuts a length of rope into ten-foot sections. Another shudder ripples across his shoulders, and he clenches his teeth, battling against it. Don't give in. I give him a pointed look as Izzi huddles closer. Now is not the time. He binds Izzi to himself and is about to bind me to Izzi when she shakes her head.

  "Laia on your other side." Her gaze flits to Keenan so swiftly that I'm not sure I even saw it. I wonder if she heard Keenan imploring me to leave with him last night.

  My body shakes with the effort of standing in one spot. The winds scream around us, as violent as a chorus of funeral shrieks. The sound makes me think of the wraiths in the desert outside Serra, and I wonder if fey creatures haunt this desert too.

  "Keep the rope taut"--Elias's hands brush mine, and his skin is fevered--"or I won't know if we've been separated." Fear stabs at me, but he drops his face close to mine.

  "Don't be afraid. I grew up in this desert. I'll get us to Nur."

  We move east, our heads bowed against the onslaught of the storm. The dust blots out the stars, and the dunes shift beneath us so fast that we're staggering, fighting for every step. There's sand in my teeth, my eyes, my nose--I can't breathe.

  The rope between Elias and me tightens as he pulls me onward. On his other side, Izzi curves her reedlike body against the wind, clutching her scarf to her face. A scream echoes, and I falter--Izzi? Just the wind.

  Then Keenan, who I thought was behind me, jerks on the rope from my left. The force of it pulls me down, and my body sinks into deep, soft sand. I fight to get back to my feet, but the wind is like a great, pressing fist.

  I yank hard on the rope that I know connects me to Elias. He must realize I've fallen. Any second, I'll feel his hands pulling me closer, lifting me to my feet. I scream his name into the storm, my voice useless against its rage. The rope jerks between us once.

  Then it goes horribly slack, and when I pull it in, there is nothing at the end of it.

  XVI: Elias

  One second, I am using every ounce of strength I have to battle the winds and pull Laia and Izzi forward.

  The next, the rope between Laia and me falls limp. I pull it in, staggered when it ends after only three feet. No Laia.

  I lunge back toward where I hope she'll be. Nothing. Ten hells. I tied the knots too quickly--one of them must have come undone. Doesn't matter, my mind howls. Find her!

  The wind screams, and I remember the sand efrits I fought during the Trials. A manlike shape rears in front of me, its eyes glowing with unrestrained malice. I stagger back in surprise--where the hells did it come from--then reach into my memory. Efrit, efrit of the sand, a song is more than he can stand. The old rhyme comes back to me, and I sing it out. Work, work, please work. The eyes narrow, and for a second, I think the rhyme is useless. Then the eyes fade.

  But Laia--and Keenan--are still out here, defenseless. We should have waited out the sandstorm. The damned rebel was right. If Laia is buried in the sands--if she dies out here because I needed that accursed Tellis . . .

  She fell just before we were separat
ed. I drop to my knees and sweep out with my arms. I catch a scrap of cloth, then a patch of warm skin. Relief washes over me, and I pull. It's her--I can tell from the shape and weight of her body. I draw her close and catch a flash of her face beneath the scarf, terrified as she wraps her arms around me.

  "I've got you," I say, though I don't think she hears me. On one side, I feel Izzi jostle me, and then a flare of red hair--Keenan, still roped to Laia, bent over as he coughs the sand from his lungs.

  I refasten the rope, my hands shaking. In my head, I hear Izzi telling me to bind Laia to myself. The knots were tight. The rope was whole and unblemished. It shouldn't have come undone.

  Forget that now. Move.

  Soon, the ground hardens from treacherous sand to the dry cobbles of the oasis. I graze a tree with my shoulders, and light flickers dimly through the sand. At my side, Izzi falls, clawing at her good eye. I lift her into my arms and push forward. Her body shakes as she coughs uncontrollably.

  One light turns to two and then a dozen--a street. My arms shake, and I nearly drop Izzi. Not yet!

  The hulking shadow of a rounded Tribal wagon looms out of the darkness, and I fight my way toward it. I hope to the skies that it's empty, mostly because I don't think I have the energy to knock anyone senseless right now.

  I wrench the door open, undo the knot binding me to Izzi, and push her inside. Keenan bounds up after her, and I half lift, half shove Laia in last. I swiftly untie the rope between us, but as I untangle the knot, I notice that the rope has no frayed ends. The place where it broke apart is smooth.

  As if it were cut.

  Izzi? No, she was next to me. And Laia wouldn't do it. Keenan? Was he that desperate to get Laia away from me? My vision fades, and I wag my head. When I look back at the rope, it's as frayed as an aging trawler's hawser.

  Hallucinations. Get to an apothecary, Elias. Now.

  "Tend to Izzi," I shout at Laia. "Wash out her eye--she's sand blind. I'll bring something from the apothecary to help."

  I slam the wagon door shut and turn back into the storm. A tremor takes me. I can almost hear the Soul Catcher. Come back, Elias.

  The thick-walled buildings of Nur block enough of the sand that I can make out the street signs. I move carefully, keeping an eye out for soldiers. Tribesmen aren't crazy enough to be out in such a storm, but Martials will patrol no matter what the weather.

  As I turn a corner, I notice a poster on one of the walls. When I get closer, I curse.

  BY ORDER OF HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY

  EMPEROR MARCUS FARRAR

  WANTED ALIVE:

  ELIAS VETURIUS

  MURDERER, RESISTANCE COLLABORATOR,

  TRAITOR TO THE EMPIRE

  REWARD: 60,000 MARKS

  LAST SEEN:

  TRAVELING EAST THROUGH THE EMPIRE

  IN THE COMPANY OF LAIA OF SERRA,

  RESISTANCE REBEL AND SPY

  I tear the sign down, crumple it, and release it into the wind--only to see another a few feet away--and another. I step back. The entire bleeding wall is papered with them, as is the wall at my back. They're everywhere.

  Get the Tellis.

  I stumble away like a Fiver after his first kill. It takes twenty minutes to find an apothecary, an agonizingly clumsy five minutes to pick the lock on the door. I light a lamp with shaking hands and thank the skies when I see that this particular apothecary has alphabetized his remedies. I'm panting like a water-starved animal by the time I find the Tellis extract, but as soon as I gulp it down, relief sweeps through me.

  As does clarity. Everything rushes in--the storm, Izzi's sand blindness, the wagon where I left the others. And the posters. Bleeding hells, the "wanted" posters. My face, Laia's face, everywhere. If there were dozens on one wall, then who knows how many there are throughout the city?

  Their existence means one thing: The Empire suspects we're here. So the Martial presence in Nur will be far greater than what I expected. Damn it all to the hells.

  By now Laia will be frantic, but she and the others will have to wait. I swipe the apothecary's entire stock of Tellis, along with an unguent that will ease Izzi's eye pain. In minutes I am back in Nur's sand-scoured streets, recalling the time I spent here as a Fiver, spying on the Tribesmen and reporting my findings at the Martial garrison.

  I take to the roofs to get to the garrison, wincing against the onslaught of the storm. It is still powerful enough to keep sane people inside but not nearly as bad as when we arrived in the city.

  The Martial stronghold, built of black stone, is horribly out of place among the sand-colored structures of Nur. As I approach, I slink along the edges of a rooftop balcony across the street from it.

  It's clear from the blazing lights and the soldiers entering and leaving that the building is packed. And not just with auxes and legionnaires. In the hour that I spend watching, I count at least a dozen Masks, including one wearing pure black armor.

  The Black Guard. Those are Helene's men, now that she's Blood Shrike. What are they doing here?

  Another black-armored Mask emerges from the garrison. He is huge with pale, messy hair. Faris. I'd recognize that cowlick anywhere.

  He calls out to a legionnaire saddling a horse.

  "--runners to every single Tribe," I overhear. "Anyone who shelters him is dead. Make that very clear, soldier."

  Another Black Guard emerges. The skin of his hands and chin is darker, but I can make out nothing more than that from here. "We need a cordon around Tribe Saif," he says to Faris. "In case he seeks them out."

  Faris shakes his head. "That's the last place El--Veturius would go. He wouldn't put them at risk."

  Ten burning hells. They know I'm here. And I think I know how. A few minutes later, my suspicions are confirmed.

  "Harper." Helene's voice is steel, and I start at the sound of it. She strides out of the barracks, seemingly unaffected by the storm. Her armor gleams darkly, her pale hair a beacon in the night. Of course. If anyone could puzzle out what I'd do, where I'd go, it's her.

  I sink a little lower, certain she'll sense me--that she'll know, in her bones, I'm nearby.

  "Talk to the runners yourself. I want diplomatic men," she says to the Black Guard named Harper. "They should seek out the Tribal chiefs--the Zaldars or the Kehannis, the storytellers. Tell them not to talk to the children--the Tribes are protective of them. And for skies' sake, make sure none of them so much as think about looking at the women. I don't want a bleeding war on my hands because some idiot aux couldn't keep his hands to himself. Faris, get that cordon up around Tribe Saif. And keep a tail on Mamie Rila."

  Both Faris and Harper leave to carry out Hel's orders. I expect her to go back into the garrison, to get out of the wind. Instead she takes two steps out into the storm, one hand on her scim. Her eyes are hooded, her mouth an angry slash.

  My chest aches when I look at Helene. Will I ever stop missing her? What is she thinking? Is she remembering when she and I were here together? And why in the hells is she hunting me in the first place? She must know the Commandant poisoned me. If I'm dead anyway, what's the point of capturing me?

  I want to go down to her, to grab her in a bear hug and forget that we are enemies. I want to tell her about the Soul Catcher and the Waiting Place and how, now that I've tasted freedom, I only wish I could find a way to keep it. I want to tell her that I miss Quin and that Demetrius, Leander, and Tristas haunt my nightmares.

  I want. I want. I want.

  I wrench myself halfway across the rooftop, then leap to the next, leaving before I do something stupid. I have a mission. So does Helene. I have to want mine more than she wants hers, or Darin is dead.

  XVII: Laia

  Izzi tosses in her sleep, her breathing ragged and labored. She flings out an arm, and her hand knocks into the ornate wooden paneling of the wagon. I stroke her wrist, whispering soothing words. In the muted lamplight, she looks pale as death.

  Keenan and I sit cross-legged beside her. I've propped her head up so sh
e can breathe easier, and I've washed out her eye. She still cannot open it.

  I release a breath, remembering the violence of the storm, how small I felt against its raking claws. I thought I'd lose purchase with the earth and be flung into darkness. Against the storm's violence, I was less than a mote of dust.

  You should have waited, Laia. You should have listened to Keenan. What if the sand blindness is permanent? Izzi will lose her sight forever because of me.

  Get a hold of yourself. Elias needed the Tellis. And you need Elias if you want to get to Darin. This is a mission. You are its leader. This is the cost.

  Where is Elias? It's been ages since he left. Dawn is no more than an hour or two away. While it's still windy outside, it's not bad enough to keep people off the streets. Eventually, the owners of this wagon will return. We can't be here when they do.

  "Elias is poisoned." Keenan speaks softly. "Isn't he?"

  I try to keep my face blank, but Keenan sighs. The wind rises, rattling the wagon's high windows.

  "He needed medicine. It's why you made for Raider's Roost instead of heading straight north," he says. "Skies. How bad is it?"

  "It's bad." Izzi's voice is a rasp. "Very bad. Nightweed."

  I stare incredulously at Izzi. "You're awake! Thank the skies. But how do you know--"

  "Cook amused herself by telling me all the poisons she'd use on the Commandant if she could," Izzi said. "She was quite detailed in her description of their effects."

  "He's going to die, Laia," Keenan says. "Nightweed is a killer."

  "I know." I wish I didn't. "He knows too. It's why we had to get into Nur."

  "And you still want to do this with him?" If Keenan's brows went any higher, they'd disappear into his hairline. "Forget the fact that just being in his presence is a risk, or that his mother killed your parents, or that he's a Mask, or that his people are currently wiping ours out of existence. He's dead, Laia. Who knows if he'll even live long enough to get to Kauf? And skies, why would he want to come?"

  "He knows Darin could change everything for the Scholars," I say. "He doesn't believe in the Empire's evil any more than we do."

  Keenan scoffs. "I doubt that--"

  "Stop." The word is a whisper. I clear my throat and reach for my mother's armlet. Strength. "Please."

 
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