A torch against the nigh.., p.14
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.14

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

  Then I realize what her presence here means. And what Afya has done. I release Mamie and advance on the Tribeswoman, my rage building at the smug look on her face.

  "How dare you bring Tribe Saif into this?"

  "How dare you endanger Tribe Nur by foisting your favor upon me?"

  "You're a smuggler. Getting us north doesn't endanger your Tribe. Not if you're careful."

  "You're a fugitive of the Empire. If my Tribe is caught helping you, the Martials will destroy us." Afya's smile is gone now, and she is the shrewd woman who recognized me at the Moon Festival, the ruthless leader who has brought a once-forgotten Tribe to glory with remarkable swiftness.

  "You put me in an impossible situation, Elias Veturius. I'm returning the favor. Besides, while I might be able to safely smuggle you north, I cannot get you out of a city with a full Martial cordon around it. Kehanni Rila has offered to help."

  Of course she has. Mamie would do anything for me if she thought I needed aid. But I won't see anyone else I care about hurt because of me.

  I find that my face is inches from Afya's. I glare into her dark, steely eyes, my skin hot with wrath. At Mamie's hand on my arm, I step back. "Tribe Saif is not helping us." I wheel on Mamie. "Because that would be idiotic and dangerous."

  "Afya Jan." Mamie uses the Sadhese term of endearment. "I would speak with my impertinent son alone. Why not prepare your other guests?"

  Afya gives Mamie a respectful half bow--aware, at least, of my adoptive mother's stature among her people--before gesturing Gibran, Izzi, Laia, and Keenan out of the tent. Laia looks back at me, brow furrowed, before disappearing with Afya.

  When I turn to Mamie Rila, she's eyeing Laia and grinning.

  "Good hips," Mamie says. "You'll have many children. But can she make you laugh?" Mamie waggles her eyebrows. "I know plenty of girls in the Tribe who--"

  "Mamie." I recognize an attempt at distraction when I see it. "You shouldn't be here. You need to get back to the wagons as soon as you can. Were you followed? If--"

  "Shush." Mamie waves me quiet and settles onto one of Afya's divans, patting the seat next to her. When I don't join her, her nostrils flare. "You might be bigger than you were, Ilyaas, but you are still my son, and when I tell you to sit, you sit.

  "Skies, boy." She pinches my arm when I comply. "What have you been eating? Grass?" She shakes her head, her tone serious now. "What happened to you in Serra these last weeks, my love? The things I've heard . . ."

  I've locked the Trials deep within. I have not spoken of them since the night I spent with Laia in my quarters at Blackcliff.

  "It doesn't matter--" I begin.

  "It has changed you, Ilyaas. It does matter."

  Her round face is filled with love. It will be filled with horror if she knows what I did. This will hurt her far more than the Martials ever could.

  "Always so afraid of the darkness within." Mamie takes my hands. "Don't you see? So long as you fight the darkness, you stand in the light."

  It's not that simple, I want to shout. I'm not the boy I was. I'm something else. Something that will sicken you.

  "Do you think I don't know what they teach you at that school?" Mamie asks. "You must believe I am a fool. Tell me. Unburden yourself."

  "I don't want to hurt you. I don't want anyone else hurt because of me."

  "Children are born to break their mothers' hearts, my boy. Tell me."

  My mind orders me to stay silent, but my heart screams to be heard. She is asking, after all. She wants to know. And I want to tell her. I want her to know what I am.

  So I speak.

  *

  When I finish, Mamie is quiet. The only thing I haven't told her is the true nature of the Commandant's poison.

  "What a fool I was," Mamie whispers, "to think that when your mother left you to die, you would be spared from the Martials' evil."

  But my mother didn't leave me to die, did she? I learned the truth from the Commandant the night before I was to be executed: She had not abandoned me to the vultures. Keris Veturia held me, fed me, and then carried me to Mamie's tent after I was born. It was my mother's last--her only--kindness to me.

  I nearly say as much to Mamie, but the sorrow on her face stops me. It doesn't make a difference now anyway.

  "Ah, my boy." Mamie sighs, and I'm certain I've put more lines on her face. "My Elias--"

  "Ilyaas," I say. "For you, I'm Ilyaas."

  She shakes her head. "Ilyaas is the boy you were," she says. "Elias is the man you have become. Tell me: Why must you help this girl? Why not let her go with the rebel, while you remain here, with your family? Do you think we cannot protect you from the Martials? None in our Tribe would dare betray you. You are my son, and your uncle is the Zaldar."

  "You've heard the rumors of a Scholar who can forge Serric steel?" Mamie nods warily. "Those stories are true," I say. "The Scholar is Laia's brother. If I can break him out of Kauf, think of what it could mean for the Scholars--for Marinn, for the Tribes. Ten hells, you could finally fight the Empire--"

  The tent flap bursts open, and Afya enters, Laia trailing and heavily hooded.

  "Forgive me, Kehanni," she says. "But it's time to move. Someone told the Martials you entered the camp, and they wish to speak with you. They'll likely intercept you on the way out. I don't know if--"

  "They will ask questions and release me." Mamie Rila stands, shaking out her robes, her chin high. "I will not allow a delay." She closes on Afya until inches separate them. Afya rocks very slightly on her heels.

  "Afya Ara-Nur," Mamie says softly. "You will hold your vow. Tribe Saif has promised to do its part in assisting you. But if you betray my son for the bounty, or if any of your people do, we will consider it an act of war, and we will curse the blood of seven generations before our vengeance is spent."

  Afya's eyes widen at the depth of the threat, but she merely nods. Mamie turns to me, rises on her tiptoes, and kisses my forehead. Will I see her again? Feel the warmth of her hands, find comfort I don't deserve in the forgiveness of her eyes? I will.

  Though there won't be much to see if, in trying to save me, she incurs the Martials' wrath.

  "Don't do this, Mamie," I plead with her. "Whatever it is you're planning, don't. Think of Shan and Tribe Saif. You are their Kehanni. They can't lose you. I don't want--"

  "We had you for six years, Elias," Mamie says. "We played with you, held you, watched your first steps, and heard your first words. We loved you. And then they took you from us. They hurt you. Made you suffer. Made you kill. I don't care what your blood is. You were a boy of the Tribes--and you were taken. And we did nothing. Tribe Saif must do this. I must do this. I have waited fourteen years to do this. Neither you nor anyone else will take it from me."

  Mamie sweeps out, and as she does, Afya jerks her head toward the back of her tent. "Move," she says. "And keep your faces hidden, even from my Tribe. Only Mamie, Gibran, and I know who you are, and that's how it needs to stay until we're out of the city. You and Laia will stay with me. Gibran has already taken Keenan and Izzi."

  "Where?" I say. "Where are we going?"

  "The storytellers' stage, Veturius." Afya arches a brow at me. "The Kehanni is going to save you with a story."

  XIX: Helene

  The city of Nur feels like a damned powder keg. It's as if every Martial soldier I've released into the streets is a charge waiting to be lit.

  Despite threats to the men of public whippings and reductions in rank, they've had a dozen altercations with the Tribesmen already. No doubt more are coming.

  The Tribesmen's objection to our presence is ridiculous. They were happy enough to have Empire support in battling Barbarian pirate frigates along the coast. But come into a Tribal city looking for a criminal and it's as if we've unleashed a jinn horde upon them.

  I pace the rooftop balcony of the Martial garrison on the western side of the city, looking down at the teeming market below. Elias could be bleeding anywhere.

  If he's here
at all.

  The possibility that I'm wrong--that Elias has slipped south while I've been wasting time in Nur--offers a strange sort of relief. If he's not here, I can't catch him or kill him.

  He's here. And you must find him.

  But since arriving at the garrison at Atella's Gap, everything has gone wrong. The outpost was undermanned. I had to scrape reserve soldiers from surrounding guard posts in order to muster a force large enough to search Nur. When I arrived at the oasis, I found the force here depleted as well, with no information about where the rest of the men were sent.

  All told, I have a thousand men, mostly auxes, and a dozen Masks. It's not nearly enough to search a city swollen to a hundred thousand. It's all I can do to maintain a cordon around the oasis so no wagon leaves without a search.

  "Blood Shrike." Faris's blond head pops up from the stairwell leading into the garrison. "We've got her. She's in a cell."

  I suppress my dread as Faris and I head down a narrow flight of stairs to the dungeon. When I last saw Mamie Rila, I was a gangly, maskless fourteen-year-old. Elias and I stayed with Tribe Saif for two weeks on our way back to Blackcliff after finishing out our years as Fivers. And though, as a Fiver, I was essentially a Martial spy, Mamie'd only ever treated me with kindness.

  And I'm about to repay her with an interrogation.

  "She entered the Nur encampment three hours ago," Faris says. "Dex nabbed her on the way out. The Fiver assigned to follow her says she visited a dozen Tribes today."

  "Get me intelligence on those Tribes," I tell Faris. "Sizes, alliances, trade routes--everything."

  "Harper is speaking to our Fiver spies now."

  Harper. I wonder what Elias would make of the Northman. Eerie as the ten hells, I imagine him saying. Less chatty too. I can hear my friend in my head--that familiar baritone that thrilled and calmed me at the same time. Would that Elias and I were here together, hunting some Mariner spy or Barbarian assassin.

  His name is Veturius, I remind myself for the thousandth time. And he is a traitor.

  In the dungeon, Dex stands with his back to the cell, his jaw tight. Since he too spent time with Tribe Saif as a Fiver, I'm surprised at the tension in his body.

  "Watch it with her," he says under his breath. "She's up to something."

  Within the cell, Mamie sits on the lone, hard bunk as if it is a throne, her back rigid, chin up, one long-fingered hand holding her robes off the floor. She rises when I enter, but I wave her back down.

  "Helene, my love--"

  "You will address the commander as Blood Shrike, Kehanni," Dex says quietly as he gives me a pointed look.

  "Kehanni," I say. "Do you know the whereabouts of Elias Veturius?"

  She looks me up and down, her disappointment obvious. This is the woman who gave me herbs to slow my moon cycle so it wasn't hell to deal with at Blackcliff. The woman who told me, without an ounce of irony, that on the day I married, she would slaughter a hundred goats in my honor and make a Kehanni's tale of my life.

  "I'd heard you were hunting him," she says. "I've seen your child spies. But I didn't believe it."

  "Answer the question."

  "How can you hunt a boy who was your closest companion only weeks ago? He is your friend, Hel--Blood Shrike. Your shield brother."

  "He is a fugitive and a criminal." I pull my hands behind my back and knot my fingers together, twisting the Blood Shrike ring round and round. "And he will face justice, like other criminals. Are you harboring him?"

  "I am not." When I don't break eye contact, she breathes in through her nostrils, hackles rising. "You have taken salt and water at my table, Blood Shrike." The muscles of her hands are rigid as she clenches the edge of the bunk. "I would not insult you with a lie."

  "But you would hide the truth. There's a difference."

  "Even if I am harboring him, what can you do about it? Fight all of Tribe Saif? You'd have to kill every last one of us."

  "One man isn't worth a Tribe."

  "But he was worth an Empire?" Mamie leans forward, her dark eyes fierce, her braids falling into her face. "He was worth your freedom?"

  How in the bleeding skies would you know that I traded my freedom for Elias's life?

  The retort hovers on my lips but retreats as my training kicks in. Weaklings try to fill silence. A Mask uses it to his advantage. I cross my arms, waiting for her to say more.

  "You gave up much for Elias." Mamie's nostrils flare, and she stands, smaller than me by a few inches but towering in her rage. "Why should I not give up my life for his? He is my son. What claim do you have on him?"

  Only fourteen years of friendship and a trampled heart.

  But that doesn't matter. Because in her anger, Mamie has given me what I need.

  For how could she know what I gave up for Elias? Even if she heard tales of the Trials, she couldn't know what I sacrificed for him.

  Not unless he told her.

  Which means she's seen him.

  "Dex, escort her upstairs." I signal to him behind her back. Follow her. He nods and escorts her out.

  I trail him and find Harper and Faris awaiting me in the garrison's Black Guard barracks.

  "That wasn't an interrogation," Faris growls. "It was a bleeding high tea. What in the hells could you have possibly gotten out of that?"

  "You're supposed to be herding Fivers, Faris, not eavesdropping."

  "Harper is a corrupting influence." Faris nods at the dark-haired man, who shrugs at my glare.

  "Elias is here," I say. "Mamie let something slip."

  "The comment about your freedom," Harper murmurs. His assertion unnerves me--I hate how he always seems to hit the nail on the head.

  "The gathering is nearly over. The Tribes will begin leaving the city after dawn breaks. If Tribe Saif is going to get him out, that's when they'll do it. And he has to get out. He won't risk staying and being spotted--not with the bounty so high."

  A knock sounds on the door. Faris opens it to a Fiver dressed in Tribal clothes, his skin stained with sand.

  "Fiver Melius reporting, sir," he salutes smartly. "Lieutenant Dex Atrius sent me, Blood Shrike. The Kehanni you interrogated is heading to the storytellers' stage on the eastern edge of the city. The rest of Tribe Saif are on their way there too. Lieutenant Atrius said to come quickly--and to bring backup."

  "The farewell tale." Faris grabs my scims from the wall and hands them over. "It's the last event before the Tribes leave."

  "And thousands come out for it," Harper says. "Good place to hide a fugitive."

  "Faris, reinforce the cordon." We plunge into the packed streets outside the garrison. "Call in all the squads on patrol. No one gets out of Nur without going through a Martial checkpoint. Harper--with me."

  We make our way east, following the crowd streaming toward the storytellers' stage. Our presence among the Tribesmen is noted--and not with the reluctant tolerance I'm accustomed to. As we pass, I hear more than one insult muttered. Harper and I exchange a glance, and he signals the squads we run into until we have two dozen auxiliary troops at our backs.

  "Tell me, Blood Shrike," Harper says as we near the stage. "Do you really think you can take him?"

  "I've beaten Veturius in combat a hundred times--"

  "I don't mean can you take him down. I mean when the moment comes, will you be able to put him in chains and take him to the Emperor, knowing what will happen?"

  No. Bleeding, burning skies, no. I've asked myself the same thing a hundred times. Will I do right by the Empire? Will I do right by my people? I cannot object to Harper asking the question. But my answer comes out as a snarl anyway.

  "I suppose we'll find out, won't we?"

  Ahead, the storytellers' theater sits at the bottom of a steep, terraced bowl, and it's aglow with hundreds of oil lamps. A thoroughfare runs behind the stage, and beyond that, a vast depot filled with the wagons of those who will leave directly after the farewell tale.

  The air crackles with expectation, a sense of wa
iting that has me clutching my scim with a white-knuckled grip. What is going on?

  By the time Harper and I arrive, thousands of people pack the theater. I see immediately why Dex needed backup. The bowl has more than two dozen entrances, with Tribesmen flowing in and out freely. I deploy the auxes I've gathered to each gateway. Moments later, Dex finds me. Sweat pours down his face and blood streaks the brown skin of his forearms.

  "Mamie's got something up her sleeve," he says. "Every Tribe she met with is here. The auxes I brought with me have already gotten into a dozen fights."

  "Blood Shrike." Harper points to the stage, which is surrounded by fifty fully armed men of Tribe Saif. "Look."

  The Saif warriors shift to let a proud figure through. Mamie Rila. She takes the stage, and the crowd shushes each other. When she raises her hands, any lingering whispers are silenced--not even children make a sound. I can hear the wind blowing off the desert.

  The Commandant's presence prompted a similar silence. Mamie, however, seems to elicit it out of respect instead of fear.

  "Welcome, brothers and sisters." Mamie's voice echoes up the terraced bowl. I silently thank the Language Centurion at Blackcliff, who spent six years teaching us Sadhese.

  The Kehanni turns to the darkened desert behind her. "The sun will soon rise on a new day, and we must bid each other farewell. But I offer you a tale to take with you into the sands on your next journey. A tale kept vaulted and locked. A tale that you will all be a part of. A tale still being told."

  "Let me tell you of Ilyaas An-Saif, my son, who was stolen from Tribe Saif by the dread Martials."

  Harper, Dex, and I haven't gone unnoticed. Nor have the Martials guarding the exits. Hisses and ululations erupt from the crowd, all directed at us. Some of the auxes move as if to draw their weapons, but Dex signals a halt. Three Masks and two squads of auxes against twenty thousand Tribesmen isn't a fight. It's a death sentence.

  "What is she doing?" Dex says under his breath. "Why would she tell Elias's story?"

  "He was a quiet, gray-eyed infant," Mamie says in Sadhese, "left to die in the swelter of the Tribal desert. What travesty, to see such a beautiful, strong child abandoned by his depraved mother and exposed to the elements. I claimed him as my own, brothers and sisters, and took great pride in doing so, for he came to me in a time of great need, when my soul searched for meaning and found none. In the eyes of this child, I found solace, and in his laughter, I found joy. But it was not to last."

 
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