A torch against the nigh.., p.13
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.13
 

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

  Keenan hesitates, then takes my hands as I curl them into fists.

  "I'm sorry." For once, his gaze is unguarded. "You've been through the hells, and I'm sitting here making you feel worse. I won't mention it again. If this is what you want, then this is what we'll do. I'm here for you. Whatever you need."

  A sigh of relief escapes me, and I nod. He traces the K on my chest--the mark the Commandant carved into me when I was her slave. It is a pale scar now. His fingers drift up to my collarbone, my face. "I missed you," he says. "Isn't that strange? Three months ago, I'd never even met you."

  I study his strong jaw, the way his brilliant hair spills across his forehead, the muscles bunched in his arm. I sigh at his scent, lemon and woodsmoke, so familiar to me now. How did he come to mean so much to me? We hardly know each other, and yet at his proximity, my body goes still. I lean into his touch involuntarily, the warmth of his hand drawing me closer.

  The door opens, and I jump back, reaching for my dagger. But it's Elias. He glances between Keenan and me. His skin, so sickly when he left us in the wagon, is back to its usual gold hue.

  "We have a problem." He climbs into the wagon and unfolds a sheet of paper: a "wanted" poster with frighteningly accurate depictions of Elias and me.

  "How in the skies did they know?" Izzi asks. "Did they track us?"

  Elias looks down at the wagon floor, swirling the dust there with his boot. "Helene Aquilla is here." His voice is oddly neutral. "I saw her at the Martial garrison. She must have worked out where we were going. She's got a cordon around Tribe Saif, and hundreds of soldiers here to help search for us."

  I find Keenan's eyes. Just being in his presence is a risk. Maybe coming into Nur was a bad idea.

  "We need to get to your friend," I say, "so we can leave with the rest of the Tribes. How do we do it?"

  "I was going to suggest we wait for night again and then use disguises. But that's what Aquilla would expect. So we do the opposite. We hide in plain sight."

  "How are we supposed to hide a Scholar rebel, two former slaves, and a fugitive in plain sight?" Keenan asks.

  Elias reaches into his bag and pulls out a set of manacles. "I have an idea," he says. "But you're not going to like it."

  *

  "Your ideas," I hiss at Elias as I trail him through the stiflingly packed streets of Nur, "are almost as deadly as mine."

  "Quiet, slave." He nods at a squad of Martials marching lockstep through an adjacent street.

  I press my lips together, and the manacles weighing down my ankles and wrists clink. Elias was wrong. I don't just dislike this plan. I hate it.

  He wears a red slaver's shirt and holds a chain that connects to an iron collar around my neck. My hair hangs in my face, mussed and tangled. Izzi, her eye still bandaged, trails me. Three feet of chain stretch between us, and she relies on my whispered directions to keep from tripping. Keenan follows her, sweat beading on his face. I know how he feels: as if we're actually being led to auction.

  We follow Elias in an obedient row, heads down, bodies defeated, as Scholar slaves are expected to look. Memories of the Commandant flood my head: her pale eyes as she carved her initial into my chest with such sadistic care; the blows she delivered as casually as if casting pennies to beggars.

  "Keep it together." Elias glances back at me, perhaps sensing my rising panic. "We've still got to get across the city."

  Like the dozens of other slavers we've seen here in Nur, Elias leads us with a confident disdain, barking out the occasional order. He mutters at the dust in the air and looks down on the Tribesmen as if they are cockroaches.

  With a scarf covering the lower half of his face, I can see only his eyes, almost colorless in the morning light. His slaver's shirt fits more loosely than it would have a few weeks ago. The battle against the Commandant's poison has stripped him of his bulk, and he is all edges and angles now. The sharpness heightens his beauty, but it seems almost like I'm looking at his shadow instead of the real Elias.

  Nur's dusty streets are packed with people going from encampment to encampment. Chaotic as it is, there is a strange order to it. Each camp flies its own Tribal colors, with tents to the left, merchant stalls to the right, and the traditional Tribal wagons forming a perimeter.

  "Ugh, Laia," Izzi whispers from behind me. "I can smell the Martials. Steel and leather and horse. It feels like they are everywhere."

  "That's because they are," I whisper through the side of my mouth.

  Legionnaires search shops and wagons. Masks bark orders and enter houses with no warning. Our progress is slow, as Elias takes a circuitous route through the streets in an attempt to avoid the patrols. My heart is in my throat the entire time.

  I search in vain for free Scholars, hoping that some have escaped the Empire's butchery. But the only Scholars I see are in chains. News of what's happening in the Empire is scarce, but finally amid the incomprehensible snatches of Sadhese, I hear two Mercators speaking in Serran.

  "--not even sparing the children." The Mercator trader looks over his shoulder as he speaks. "I hear the streets of Silas and Serra run red with Scholar blood."

  "Tribesmen are next," his companion, a leather-clad woman, says. "Then they'll come for Marinn."

  "They'll try," the man says. "I'd like to see those pale-eyed bastards get through the Forest--"

  Then we are past them, and their conversation fades, but I feel like retching. The streets of Silas and Serra run red with Scholar blood. Skies, how many of my old neighbors and acquaintances have died? How many of Pop's patients?

  "That's why we're doing this." Elias glances back at me, and I realize he heard the Mercators too. "It's why we need your brother. So stay focused."

  As we make our way through a particularly crowded thoroughfare, a patrol led by a Mask in black armor turns into the street just yards ahead.

  "Patrol," I hiss at Izzi. "Head down!" Immediately, she and Keenan stare at their feet. Elias's shoulders stiffen, but he ambles forward in an almost leisurely manner. A muscle in his jaw jumps.

  The Mask is young, his skin is the same golden-brown as mine. He's as lean as Elias but shorter, with green eyes that angle up like a cat's and cheekbones that jut as sharply as the hard planes of his armor.

  I've never seen him before, but it doesn't matter. He's a Mask, and as his eyes pass over me, I find that I cannot breathe. Fear pounds through me, and all I can see is the Commandant. All I can feel is the lash of her whip on my back and the cold grasp of her hand on my throat. I can't move.

  Izzi runs into my back, and Keenan into hers.

  "Go on!" Izzi says frantically. People nearby turn to watch. Why now, Laia? For skies' sake, get hold of yourself. But my body won't listen. The manacles, the collar around my neck, the sounds of the chains--they overwhelm me, and though my mind screams at me to keep moving, my body only remembers the Commandant.

  The chain attached to my collar jerks, and Elias swears at me with an insouciant brutality that is uniquely Martial. I know he is playing a part. But I cringe anyway, reacting with a terror that I thought I had buried.

  Elias wheels as if he's going to strike me and yanks my face toward his. To an outsider, it would just appear as if a slaver is disciplining his property. His voice is soft, audible only to me.

  "Look at me." I meet his gaze. The Commandant's eyes. No. Elias's. "I'm not her." He takes my chin, and while it must look threatening to those watching, his hand is light as a breeze. "I won't hurt you. But you can't let the fear take you."

  I drop my head and breathe deeply. The Mask watches us now, his whole body still. We are a few yards from him. A few feet. I peek out at him through my hair. His attention passes quickly over Keenan, Izzi, and me. Then it lands on Elias.

  He stares. Skies. My body threatens to freeze again, but I make myself move.

  Elias nods at the Mask perfunctorily, unconcerned, and walks on. The Mask is behind us, but I still sense him watching, poised to strike.

  Then I hear the bo
ots marching away, and when I look back, he's moved on. I release a breath I didn't realize I was holding. Safe. You're safe.

  For now.

  It's only as we approach an encampment on the southeast side of Nur that Elias finally seems to relax.

  "Head down, Laia," Elias whispers. "We're here."

  The encampment is enormous. Balconied, sand-colored houses line its edges, and in the space before them sits a city of gold-and-green tents. The market is the size of any in Serra--perhaps even larger. All the stalls have the same emerald draping patterned with glinting fall leaves. Skies know how much such brocade costs. Whatever Tribe this is, it is powerful.

  Tribal men in green robes encircle the camp, funneling those entering through a makeshift gate made of two wagons. None approach until we enter the domicile area, swarming with men tending cook fires, women preparing goods, children chasing chickens and each other. Elias approaches the largest of the tents, bristling when two guards stop us.

  "Slavers trade at night," one of them says in accented Serran. "Return later."

  "Afya Ara-Nur is expecting me," Elias growls, and at the sound of the name I start, thinking back to weeks ago, to the small, dark-eyed woman in Spiro's shop--the same woman who danced so gracefully with Elias on the night of the Moon Festival. This is who he trusts to take us north? I remember what Spiro said. One of the most dangerous women in the Empire.

  "She sees no slavers in the day." The other Tribesman is emphatic. "At night only."

  "If you don't let me in to see her," Elias says, "I'm happy to inform the Masks that Tribe Nur is backing out of trade agreements."

  The Tribesmen exchange an uneasy glance and one disappears into the tent. I want to warn Elias about Afya, about what Spiro said. But the other guard watches us so carefully that I cannot do it without him seeing.

  After only a minute, the Tribesman waves us into the tent. Elias turns to me, as if he's adjusting my manacles, but instead he palms me the key. He strides through the tent flaps as if he owns the encampment. Izzi, Keenan, and I hurry to follow.

  The inside of the tent is strewn with handwoven rugs. A dozen colored lamps cast geometric patterns over silk-encased pillows. Afya Ara-Nur, exquisite and dark-skinned, with black-and-red braids spilling down her shoulders, sits behind a rough-hewn desk. It is heavy and out of place amid the dazzling wealth around her. Her fingers click the beads of a counting frame, and she inks her findings into a book in front of her. A bored-looking boy about Izzi's age, and with Afya's same sharp beauty, sits beside her.

  "I only allowed you inside, slaver," Afya says without looking at us, "so I could personally tell you that if you ever step foot in my camp again, I'll gut you myself."

  "I'm hurt, Afya," Elias says as something small spins from his hand and into Afya's lap. "You're not nearly as friendly as the first time we met." Elias's voice is smooth, suggestive, and my face heats.

  Afya snatches the coin. Her jaw drops when Elias removes his face scarf.

  "Gibran--" she says to the boy, but quick as flame, Elias draws his scims from across his back and steps forward. He has a blade at each of their throats, his eyes calm and terrifyingly flat.

  "You owe me a favor, Afya Ara-Nur," he says. "I'm here to collect."

  The boy--Gibran--looks uncertainly at Afya.

  "Let Gibran sit outside." Afya's tone is reasonable, even gentle. But her hands curl into fists atop her desk. "He has nothing to do with this."

  "We need a witness from your Tribe when you grant my favor," Elias says. "Gibran will do nicely." Afya opens her mouth but says nothing, apparently flabbergasted, and Elias goes on. "You're honor bound to hear my request, Afya Ara-Nur. And honor bound to grant it."

  "Honor be damned--"

  "Fascinating," Elias says. "How would your council of elders feel about that? The only Zaldara in the Tribal lands--the youngest ever chosen--casting away her honor like bad grain." He nods at the elaborate geometric tattoo peeking out of her sleeve--an indication of her rank, no doubt. "A half hour in a tavern this morning told me all I needed to know about Tribe Nur, Afya. Your position isn't secure." Afya's lips thin to a hard line. Elias has hit a nerve.

  "The elders would understand that it was for the good of the Tribe."

  "No," Elias says. "They'd say you're not fit to lead if you make errors in judgment that threaten the Tribe. Errors like giving a favor coin to a Martial."

  "That favor was for the future Emperor!" Afya's anger propels her to her feet. Elias digs his blade deeper into her neck. The Tribeswoman doesn't appear to notice. "Not a traitor fugitive who, apparently, has become a slaver."

  "They're not slaves."

  I take out the key and unlock my manacles, and then Izzi's and Keenan's, to drive home Elias's point. "They're companions," he says. "They're part of my favor."

  "She won't agree," Keenan whispers to me under his breath. "She's going to sell us out to the bleeding Martials."

  I've never felt so exposed. Afya could shout a word, and within minutes there would be soldiers all over us.

  Beside me, Izzi tenses. I grab her hand and squeeze. "We have to trust Elias," I whisper, trying to reassure her as much as myself. "He knows what he's doing." All the same, I feel for my dagger, hidden beneath my cloak. If Afya does betray us, I will not go down without a fight.

  "Afya." Gibran swallows nervously, eyeing the blade at his throat. "Perhaps we should hear him out?"

  "Perhaps," Afya says through clenched teeth, "you should keep your mouth shut about things you don't understand and stick to seducing Zaldars' daughters." She turns to Elias. "Drop your blades and tell me what you want--and why. No explanation from you means no favor from me. I don't care what you threaten me with."

  Elias ignores the first order. "I want you to personally escort my companions and me safely out of Nur and to Kauf Prison before the winter snows and, once there, aid us in our attempt to break Laia's brother, Darin, out of the prison."

  What in the skies? Just days ago, he told Keenan we didn't need anyone else. Now he's trying to pull in Afya? Even if we did reach the prison intact, she'd turn us over the second we arrived, and we'd disappear into Kauf forever.

  "That's about three hundred favors in one, you bastard."

  "A favor coin is whatever can be requested in a breath."

  "I know what a bleeding favor coin is." Afya drums her fingers on her desk and turns to me, as if noticing me for the first time.

  "Spiro Teluman's little friend," she says. "I know who your brother is, girl. Spiro told me--and a few others too, from the way the rumors have spread. Everyone whispers of the Scholar who knows the secrets of Serric steel."

  "Spiro started the rumors?"

  Afya sighs and speaks slowly, as if dealing with a small, irritating child. "Spiro wanted the Empire to believe your brother passed his knowledge to other Scholars. Until the Martials get names from Darin, they'll keep him alive. Besides, Spiro always was one for foolish tales of heroism. He's probably hoping that this stirs up the Scholars--gives them a bit of backbone."

  "Even your ally is helping us," Elias says. "More reason for you to do the same."

  "My ally has disappeared," Afya says. "No one's seen him for weeks. I'm certain the Martials have him--and I have no wish to share the same fate." She lifts her chin to Elias. "If I reject your offer?"

  "You didn't get to where you are by breaking promises." Elias drops his scims. "Grant my favor, Afya. Fighting it is a waste of time."

  "I cannot decide this alone," Afya says. "I need to speak with some of my Tribe. We'd need at least a few others with us, for appearances' sake."

  "In that case, your brother stays here," Elias says. "As does the coin."

  Gibran opens his mouth to protest, but Afya just shakes her head. "Get them food and drink, brother." She sniffs. "And baths. Don't take your eyes off them." She glides past us and through the tent flaps, saying something in Sadhese to the guards outside, and we are left to wait.

  XVIII: Elias

>   Hours later, with evening deepening into night, Afya finally pushes through the tent flaps. Gibran, his feet up on his sister's desk as he flirts shamelessly with both Izzi and Laia, jumps up when she enters, like a soldier frightened of a superior officer's censure.

  Afya eyes Izzi and Laia, scrubbed clean and clad in flowing green Tribal dresses. They sit close to each other in a corner, Izzi's head on Laia's shoulder as they whisper back and forth. The blonde girl's bandage is gone, but she blinks gingerly, her eye still red from the scouring it got in the storm. Keenan and I wear the dark pants and sleeveless hooded vests common in the Tribal lands, and Afya nods approvingly.

  "At least you don't look--or smell--like Barbarians anymore. You have been given food? Drink?"

  "We got everything we needed, thank you," I say. Other than the one thing we need most, of course, which is the reassurance that she won't turn us over to the Martials. You're her guest, Elias. Don't irritate her. "Well," I amend, "almost everything."

  Afya's smile is a flash of light, blinding as the sun glinting off a cheaply gilded Tribal wagon.

  "I grant your favor, Elias Veturius," she says. "I will escort you safely to Kauf Prison before the winter snows and, once there, aid you in your attempt to break Laia's brother Darin out of the prison in any way you require."

  I eye her warily. "But . . ."

  "But"--Afya's mouth hardens--"I won't put the burden on my Tribe alone.

  "Enter," she calls in Sadhese, and another figure comes through the tent flaps. She is dark-skinned and plump, with full cheeks and long-lashed black eyes.

  She speaks, her voice a song. "We bid farewell, but 'twas not true, for when I think your name--"

  I know the poem well. She sang it sometimes when I was a boy and couldn't sleep.

  "--you stand with me in memory," I say, "until I see you again."

  The woman opens her hands outward, a tentative offering. "Ilyaas," she whispers. "My son. It has been too long."

  For the first six years of my life, after Keris Veturia abandoned me in Mamie Rila's tent, the Kehanni raised me as her own son. My adoptive mother looks exactly as she did the last time I saw her, six and a half years ago, when I was a Fiver. Though she is shorter than me, her embrace is like a warm blanket, and I fall into it, a boy again, safe in the Kehanni's arms.

 
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