A torch against the nigh.., p.15
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.15
 

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

  I already see Mamie's Kehanni magic working on the crowd. She tells of a child beloved by the Tribe, a child of the Tribe, as if Elias's Martial blood is incidental. She tells of his youth and of the night he was taken.

  For a moment, I too find myself riveted. My curiosity transforms into wariness when Mamie turns to the Trials. She tells of the Augurs and their predictions. She speaks of the violence the Empire perpetrated upon Elias's mind and body. The crowd listens, their emotions rising and falling with Mamie's--shock, sympathy, disgust, terror.

  Anger.

  And that is when I finally understand what Mamie Rila is doing.

  She is starting a riot.

  XX: Laia

  Mamie's powerful voice echoes across the theater, mesmerizing all who hear it. Though I cannot understand Sadhese, the movements of her body and her hands--along with the way Elias's face pales--tell me that this tale is about him.

  We have found seats about halfway up the terraces of the storytellers' theater. I sit between Elias and Afya amid a crowd of men and women from Tribe Nur. Keenan and Izzi wait with Gibran a dozen or so yards away. I catch Keenan craning his neck, trying to make sure I'm all right, and I wave to him. His dark eyes drift to Elias and back to me before Izzi whispers something to him and he looks away.

  In the green-and-gold clothes Afya gave all of us, we are, at a distance, indistinguishable from the other members of the Tribe. I retreat further into my hood, thankful for the rising winds. Nearly everyone has their hoods up or cloth over their faces to protect themselves from the choking dust.

  We can't take you directly to the wagons, Afya said as we joined her Tribe in walking to the theater. There are soldiers patrolling the depot--and they're stopping everyone. So Mamie's going to create a little distraction.

  As Mamie's story takes a surprising turn, the crowd gasps, and Elias looks pained. To have one's life story told to so many would be strange enough, but a story with so much suffering, so much death? I take his hand, and he tenses, as if to pull away, but then relaxes.

  "Don't listen," I say. "Look at me instead."

  Reluctantly, he lifts his eyes. The intensity of his pale gaze makes my heart stutter, but I don't let myself look away. There's a loneliness to him that makes me ache. He's dying. He knows it. Perhaps life does not get more lonely than that.

  Right now, all I want is for that loneliness to fade--even if it's for a moment. So I do what Darin used to when he wanted to cheer me up, and I make an absurd face.

  Elias stares at me in surprise before cracking a grin that lights him up--and then he makes a ridiculous face of his own. I snicker and am about to challenge him when I spot Keenan watching us, his eyes flat with suppressed fury.

  Elias follows my gaze. "I don't think he likes me."

  "He doesn't like anyone at first," I say. "When he met me, he threatened to kill me and stuff me in a crypt."

  "Charming."

  "He changed. Quite a lot, actually. I would have thought it impossible, but--" I wince as Afya elbows me.

  "It's beginning."

  Elias's smile fades as, around us, the Tribesmen begin to whisper. He eyes the Martials stationed at the theater exits nearest us. Most have hands on their weapons, and they watch the crowd dubiously, as if it will rise up and devour them.

  Mamie's gestures grow expansive and violent. The crowd bristles and seems to expand, pushing against the walls of the theater. Tension fills the air, spreads, an invisible flame that transforms all who come into contact with it. In seconds, whispers become angry mutters.

  Afya smiles.

  Mamie points to the crowd, the conviction in her voice raising goose bumps on my arms.

  "Kisaneh kithiya ke jeehani deka?"

  Elias leans toward me, his words quiet in my ear. "Who has suffered the tyranny of the Empire?" he translates.

  "Hama!"

  "We have."

  "Kisaneh bichaya ke gima baza?"

  "Who has seen children torn from their parents' arms?"

  "Hama!"

  A few rows down from us, a man rises and gestures at a knot of Martials I didn't notice. One of them has pale skin and a crown of blonde braids: Helene Aquilla. The man bellows something at them.

  "Charra! Herrisada!"

  Across the bowl, a Tribeswoman stands and shouts those same words. Another woman rises to her feet at the base of the theater. She is soon joined by a deep voice yards away from us.

  Suddenly, the two words echo back and forth from every mouth, and the crowd transforms from spellbound to violent as quick as a pitch-soaked torch catching flame.

  "Charra! Herrisada!"

  "Thieves," Elias translates, his voice flat. "Monsters."

  Tribe Nur rises to their feet around Elias and me, shouting abuse at the Martials, raising their voices to join thousands of other Tribesmen doing the same.

  I think back to the Martials tearing through the Tribal marketplace yesterday. And I understand, finally, that this explosive rage is not just about Elias. It has been present in Nur all along. Mamie just harnessed it.

  I always thought the Tribesmen were allied with the Martials, however reluctantly. Perhaps I was wrong.

  "Stay with me now." Afya rises, her eyes darting from entrance to entrance. We follow, straining to hear her voice above the baying crowd. "When first blood is shed, we head for the nearest exit. Nur's wagons wait in the depot. A dozen other Tribes will leave at the same time, and that should trigger the rest of the Tribes into leaving too."

  "How will we know when--"

  A bloodcurdling howl cracks the air. I stand on tiptoe to see that at one of the exits far below us, a Martial soldier has cut down a Tribesman who got too close. The Tribesman's blood seeps into the sands of the theater, and the shriek comes again, from an older woman kneeling over him, her body shuddering.

  Afya wastes no time. As one, Tribe Nur rushes to the closest exit. Quite suddenly, I cannot breathe. The crowd presses in close--surging, pushing, going in too many directions. I lose sight of Afya and spin toward Elias. He grabs my hand and pulls me near, but there are too many people, and we are wrenched apart. I spot a gap in the crowd and try to elbow my way toward it, but I can't penetrate the mass of bodies around me.

  Make yourself small. Tiny. Disappear. If you disappear, you can breathe. My skin prickles, and I push forward again. The Tribesmen I shove past look around, strangely bewildered. I'm able to get through them easily.

  "Elias, come on!"

  "Laia?" He swivels, staring into the crowd, pushing in the wrong direction.

  "Here, Elias!"

  He swings toward me but doesn't seem to see me, and he grabs his head. Skies--the poison again? He scrambles for his pocket and takes a swig of the Tellis.

  I push back through the Tribesmen until I am right beside him. "Elias, I'm right here," I take his arm, and he practically jumps out of his skin.

  He wags his head like he did when he was first poisoned and looks me over. "Of course you are," he says. "Afya--where's Afya?" He cuts through the crowd, trying to catch up to the Tribeswoman, whom I can't see anywhere.

  "What in the skies are you two doing?" Afya appears beside us and grabs my arm. "I've been looking all over for you. Stay with me! We have to get out of here!"

  I follow her, but Elias's attention jerks to something farther down in the bowl, and he stops short, staring over the surging crowd.

  "Afya!" he says. "Where's the Nur caravan?"

  "North section of the depot," she says. "A couple of caravans over from Tribe Saif."

  "Laia, can you stay with Afya?"

  "Of course but--"

  "She's seen me." He releases me, and as he pushes into the crowd, Aquilla's familiar silver-blonde crown braid flashes in the sun a few dozen yards away.

  "I'll distract her," Elias says. "Get to the caravan. I'll meet you there."

  "Elias, damn it--"

  But he's already gone.

  XXI: Elias

  When my eyes meet Helene's acros
s the crowd--when I see the shock roll across her silver face as she recognizes me--I don't think, nor do I question. I just move, delivering Laia into Afya's arms and then cutting through the crowd, away from them and toward Hel. I need to draw her attention from Afya and Tribe Nur. If she identifies them as the Tribe that's taken Laia and me in, a thousand riots won't stop her from eventually hunting us down.

  I'll distract her. Then I'll disappear into the crowd. I think of her face back in my quarters at Blackcliff, fighting to hold in her hurt as she met my eyes. After this, I belong to him. Remember, Elias. After this, we're enemies.

  The chaos of the riot is deafening, but within that cacophony, I witness a strange, hidden order. For all the shouting, yelling, and screaming, I see no abandoned children, no trampled bodies, no quickly deserted belongings--none of the hallmarks of true chaos.

  Mamie and Afya have this riot planned down to the minute.

  Distantly, the drums of the Martial garrison thud, calling for backup. Hel must have sent a message to the drum tower. But if she wants soldiers here to quell the riot, then she can't maintain the cordon around the city.

  Which was, I now understand, Afya and Mamie's plan all along.

  Once the cordon around the wagons is lifted, Afya can get us safely hidden and out of the city. Our caravan will be one of hundreds leaving Nur.

  Helene entered the theater near the stage and has now pressed halfway toward me. But she is alone, an armored, silver-faced island in a roiling sea of human rage. Dex has disappeared, and the other Mask who entered the amphitheater with her--Harper--heads out one of the exits.

  The fact that she's alone doesn't deter Helene. She makes for me with a single-minded determination that is as familiar to me as my own skin. She shoves forward, her body gathering an inexorable force that propels her through the Tribesmen like a shark toward bloodied prey. But the crowd closes in. Fingers grasp at her cloak, her neck. Someone puts a hand on her shoulder, and she pivots, grabs it, and snaps it in one breath. I can almost hear her logic: It's faster to keep going than to fight them all.

  Her movement is hampered, slowed, stopped. It is only then that I hear the hiss of her scims whipping out of their scabbards. She is the Blood Shrike now, a grim-faced knight of the Empire, her blades carving a path forward in sprays of blood.

  I glance over my shoulder and catch Laia and Afya pushing through one of the gates and out of the theater. When I look back at Helene, her scims fly--but not fast enough. Multiple Tribesmen attack--dozens--too many for her to counter at once. The crowd has taken on a life of its own and does not fear her blades. I see the moment she realizes it--the moment she knows that no matter how swift she is, there are too many for her to fight.

  She meets my stare, her fury blazing. Then she drops, pulled down by those around her.

  Again, my body moves before my mind knows what I am doing. I pull a cloak off a woman in the crowd--she doesn't even notice its absence--and muscle my way through, my only thought to get to Helene, to pull her out, to keep her from being beaten or trampled to death. Why, Elias? She's your enemy now.

  The thought sickens me. She was my best friend. I can't just throw that away.

  I drop, lunge forward through robes, legs, and weaponry, and pull the cloak around Helene. One arm goes around her waist, and I use the other to cut the straps on her scims and her brace of throwing knives. Her weapons drop, and when she coughs, blood spatters her armor. I bear her weight as her legs fight to find their strength. We are through one ring of Tribesmen, then another, until we are moving quickly away from where the rioters are still howling for her blood.

  Leave her, Elias. Get her clear and leave her. Distraction complete. You're done.

  But if I leave her now, and any other Tribesmen attack while she's hardly able to walk, then I might as well not have pulled her out.

  I keep walking, holding her up until she gets her feet. She coughs and shakes, and I know that all of her instincts are ordering her to draw breath, to calm her heartbeat--to survive. Which is perhaps why she doesn't resist me until we are through one of the theater's gates and halfway down an empty, dusty alley beyond.

  She finally shoves me away and rips the cloak off. A hundred emotions flash across her face as she casts the cloak on the ground, things no one else would ever see or know but me. That alone extinguishes the days and weeks and miles dividing us. Her hands shake, and I notice the ring on her finger.

  "Blood Shrike."

  "Don't." She shakes her head. "Don't call me that. Everyone calls me that. But not you." She looks me up and down. "You--you look terrible."

  "Rough few weeks." I spot the scars on her hands and arms, the faded bruises on her face. I gave her to a Black Guard for interrogation, the Commandant said.

  And she survived, I think to myself. Now get out of here, before she kills you.

  I step back, but her arm shoots out, her hand cool on my wrist, her grip like iron. I find her pale gaze, startled at the mess of emotions laid bare there. Leave, Elias!

  I yank my arm away, and as I do, the doors in her eyes, open just a moment ago, slam shut. Her expression flattens. She reaches back for her weapons--nonexistent, since I relieved her of them. I see her soften her knees, preparing to lunge at me.

  "You are under arrest"--she leaps, and I sidestep her--"by order of the--"

  "You're not going to arrest me." I wrap an arm around her waist and try to fling her a few yards away.

  "The hells I'm not." She jabs her elbow deep into my stomach. I double over, and she spins out of my grasp. Her knee flies up toward my forehead.

  I catch it, shove it back, and stun her with an elbow to the face. "I just saved your life, Hel."

  "I would have gotten out of there without you--oof--" I bull rush her, and her breath huffs out when her back hits the wall. I pin her legs between my thighs to keep her from crippling me, and I put a blade to her throat before she can knock me senseless with a head butt.

  "Damn you!" She tries to twist free, and I press the blade closer. Her eyes drop to my mouth, her breath coming short and fast. She looks away with a shudder.

  "They were crushing you," I say. "You'd have been trampled."

  "That changes nothing. I have orders from Marcus to bring you to Antium for a public execution."

  Now it's my turn to snort. "Why in the ten hells haven't you assassinated him yet? You'd be doing the world a favor."

  "Oh, piss off," she spits at me. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."

  A thudding rumbles the streets beyond the alley--the rhythmic footsteps of approaching Martial soldiers. Reinforcements to quell the riot.

  Helene uses my moment of distraction to try to force her way out of my grip. I can't hold her for much longer. Not if I want to get the hell out of here without half a Martial legion on my tail. Damn it.

  "I have to leave," I say into her ear. "But I don't want to hurt you. I'm so sick of hurting people." I feel the soft flutter of her eyelashes against my cheek, the steady rise and fall of her breath against my chest.

  "Elias." She whispers my name, one word full of wanting.

  I pull back. Her eyes, blue as smoke a second ago, darken to a stormy violet. Loving you is the worst thing that's ever happened to me. She said those words to me weeks ago. Witnessing the devastation in her now and knowing that, yet again, I'm the cause makes me hate myself.

  "I'm going to let go of you," I say. "If you try to take me down, so be it. But before I do, I want to say something, because we both know I'm not long for this world, and I'd hate myself if I never told you." Confusion flashes across her face, and I barrel on before she starts asking questions. "I miss you." I hope she hears what I'm truly saying. I love you. I'm sorry. I wish I could fix it. "I'll always miss you. Even when I'm a ghost."

  I release her and take a step away. Then another. I turn my back on her, my heart clenching at the strangled sound she makes, and walk out of the alley.

  The only footsteps I hear as I leave are my own.
<
br />   *

  The depot is pure pandemonium, with Tribesman throwing children and goods into wagons, animals rearing, women shouting. A thick dust cloud rises in the air, the result of hundreds of caravans rolling into the desert at once.

  "Thank the skies!" Laia spots me the moment I appear beside Afya's high-sided wagon. "Elias, why--"

  "You idiot." Afya grabs me by the scruff of the neck and hurls me up into the wagon beside Laia with remarkable strength, considering she's more than a foot shorter than me. "What were you thinking?"

  "We couldn't risk Aquilla seeing me surrounded by members of Tribe Nur. She's a Mask, Afya. She'd have figured out who you were. Your Tribe would have been at risk."

  "You're still an idiot." Afya glares at me. "Keep your head down. And stay."

  She vaults onto the driver's bench and grabs the reins. Seconds later, the four horses pulling the wagon jerk forward, and I turn to Laia.

  "Izzi and Keenan?"

  "With Gibran." She nods to a bright green wagon a few dozen yards away. I recognize the sharp profile of Afya's little brother at the reins.

  "Are you all right?" I ask her. Laia's cheeks are flushed, and her hand is white-knuckled on the hilt of her dagger.

  "Just relieved that you're back," she says. "Did--did you talk to her? To Aquilla?"

  I'm about to answer when something occurs to me. "Tribe Saif." I scan the dust-choked depot. "Do you know if they got out? Did Mamie Rila escape the soldiers?"

  "I didn't see." She turns to Afya. "Did you--"

  The Tribeswoman fidgets, and I catch her glance. Across the depot, I see wagons draped in silver and green, as familiar as my own face. Tribe Saif's colors. Tribe Saif's wagons.

  Surrounded by Martials.

  They drag members of the Tribe out of the wagons and force them to their knees. I recognize my family. Uncle Akbi. Aunt Hira. Bleeding hells, Shan, my foster brother.

  "Afya," I say. "I have to do something. That's my Tribe." I reach for my weapons and edge to the open door between the wagon and the driver's seat. Jump. Run. Come at them from behind. Take the strongest first--

  "Stop." Afya grabs my arm in a viselike grip. "You can't save them. Not without giving yourself away."

 
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