A torch against the nigh.., p.7
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.7

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

  "You must be exhausted," he murmurs.

  "I'm all right. Heavy as you are, dragging you on and off this horse was ten times easier than dealing with the Commandant."

  His chuckle is weak, but still, something inside me relaxes at the sound of it. He angles the horse north and kicks it into a canter until the trail ahead rises.

  "We're close," he says. "We'll head for the rocks just north of the Roost--lots of places for you to hide while I go in for the Tellis."

  I frown at him over my shoulder. "Elias, you could black out at any moment."

  "I can fight off the seizures. I only need a few minutes in the market," he says. "It's right in the heart of the Roost. Has everything. Should be able to find an apothecary."

  He grimaces, his arms going rigid. "Go away," he mutters--though clearly not at me. When I look askance at him, he pretends he's fine and starts asking me about the last few days.

  But as the horse climbs the rocky terrain north of the Roost, Elias's body jerks, as if yanked by a puppeteer, and he pitches wildly to the left.

  I grab the reins, thanking the skies that I've roped him on so that he can't fall. I wrap my arm around him awkwardly, twisting in the saddle, trying to keep him steady so he doesn't frighten the horse.

  "It's all right." My voice shakes. I can barely hold him, but I channel Pop's unflappable healer's calm as the convulsions grow worse. "We'll get the extract, and everything will be fine." His pulse skitters frantically, and I lay a hand against his heart, fearing it will burst. It cannot take much more of this.

  "Laia." He can barely speak, and his eyes are wild and unfocused. "I have to get it. Don't go in there alone. Too dangerous. I'll do it myself. You'll get hurt--I always--hurt--"

  He slumps over, his breath shallow. He's out. Who knows for how long this time? Panic rises like bile in my throat, but I force it down.

  It does not matter that the Roost is dangerous. I must go in. Elias will not make it if I don't find a way to get the Tellis. Not with his pulse so irregular, not after four days of seizures.

  "You can't die." I shake him. "Do you hear me? You can't die, or Darin dies too."

  The horse's hooves slip on the rocks, and it rears, nearly ripping the reins from my hands and throwing Elias. I dismount and croon at the beast, trying to temper my impatience, coaxing it along as the thick mist gives way to a wretched, bone-chilling drizzle.

  I can barely see my own hand in front of my face. But I take heart from it. If I cannot see where I'm going, the raiders cannot see who is approaching. Still, I tread carefully, feeling the press of danger from every side. From the sparse dirt trail I've followed, I can see the Roost well enough to make out that it is not one rock but two, riven in half as if by a great ax. A narrow valley runs through the center, and torchlight flickers within. That must be the market.

  East of the Roost yawns a no-man's-land where thin fingers of rock rise up out of plunging chasms, punching higher and higher until the rocks meld together to form the first low ridgelines of the Serran Mountain Range.

  I search the gullies and ravines of the land around me until I spot a cave large enough to hide both Elias and the horse.

  By the time I've tethered the beast to a knob of jutting rock and dragged Elias off its back, I'm panting. The rain has soaked him through, but there's no time to change him into dry clothes now. I tuck a cloak around him carefully, then rifle through his pack for coins, feeling like a thief.

  When I find them, I give his hand a squeeze and pull out one of his kerchiefs to tie about my face as he did in Serra, inhaling the scent of spice and rain.

  Then I pull up my hood and slip out of the cave, hoping he'll still be alive when I return.

  If I return.

  *

  The market at the heart of the Roost teems with Tribesmen, Martials, Mariners, even the wild-eyed Barbarians that harass the Empire's borders. Southern traders move in and out of the crowd, their bright, cheerful clothing at odds with the weapons strapped across their backs, chests, and legs.

  I don't see a single Scholar. Not even slaves. But I do see plenty of people acting as shifty as I feel, and so I slump down and slip into the masses, making sure the hilt of my knife is clearly visible.

  Within seconds of joining the crowd, someone grabs my arm. Without looking, I lash out with the knife, hear a grunt, and wrench away. I pull my hood lower and hunch, the way I did at Blackcliff. That's all this place is. Another Blackcliff. Just smellier and with thieves and highwaymen, in addition to murderers.

  The place stinks of liquor and animal dung, and beneath that, the acrid bite of ghas, a hallucinogen outlawed in the Empire. Ramshackle dwellings squat along the defile, most tucked into the natural cracks in the rock, with canvas tarps as roofs and walls. Goats and chickens are nearly as abundant as the people.

  The dwellings might be humble, but the goods within are anything but. A group of men a few yards from me haggle over a tray of sparkling, egg-sized rubies and sapphires. Some stalls are filled with slab after slab of crumbling, sticky ghas, while others have firepowder barrels packed together in a dangerously haphazard fashion.

  An arrow zings by my ear, and I've bolted ten steps before I realize it isn't intended for me. A group of fur-clad Barbarians stand beside an arms dealer, testing out bows by casually firing arrows every which way. A fight breaks out and I try to shove past, but a crowd gathers, and it's impossible to move. At this rate, I'll never find an apothecary.

  "--sixty-thousand-mark bounty, they say. Never heard of a mark that big--"

  "Emperor doesn't want to look a fool. Veturius was his first execution, and he botched it. Who's the girl with him? Why would he travel with a Scholar?"

  "Maybe he's joining the revolution. Scholars know the secret of Serric steel, I hear. Spiro Teluman himself taught a Scholar lad. Maybe Veturius is as sick of the Empire as Teluman is."

  Bleeding skies. I make myself walk on, though I desperately wish to keep listening. How did the information about Teluman and Darin get out? And what does it mean for my brother?

  That he might have less time than you think. Move.

  The drums have clearly carried my and Elias's descriptions far. I move swiftly now, scanning the myriad stalls for an apothecary. The longer I linger, the more danger we are in. The bounty on our heads is massive enough that I doubt there's a soul in this place who hasn't heard about it.

  Finally, in an alley off the main thoroughfare, I spot a shack with a mortar and pestle carved into the door. As I turn toward it, I pass a group of Tribesmen sharing steaming cups of tea beneath a tarp with a pair of Mariners.

  "--like monsters out of the hells." One of the Tribesmen, a thin-lipped, scar-faced man, speaks in a low voice. "Didn't matter how much we fought. Kept coming back. Wraiths. Bleeding wraiths."

  I nearly halt in my tracks, but continue on slowly at the last moment. So others have seen the fey creatures too. My curiosity gets the better of me, and I lean down to fiddle with my bootlaces, straining to hear the conversation.

  "Another Ayanese frigate went down a week ago off Isle South," one of the Mariners says. She takes a sip of tea and shivers. "Thought it was corsairs, but the only survivor raved about sea efrits. I wouldn't have believed him, but now . . ."

  "And ghuls here in the Roost," the scar-faced Tribesman says. "I'm not the only one who's seen them--"

  I glance over, unable to help myself, and as if I've drawn him with my gaze, the Tribesman flicks his eyes toward me and away. Then he jerks them back again.

  I step right into a puddle and slip. My hood falls from my head. Damn it. I scramble to my feet, yanking the hood over my eyes and glancing over my shoulder as I do. The Tribesman still watches, dark eyes narrowed.

  Get out of here, Laia! I hurry away, turning down one alley and then another before chancing a look over my shoulder. No Tribesman. I sigh in relief.

  The rain thickens, and I circle back to the apothecary. I peek out of the alley I'm in to see if the Tribesman and his
friends are still at the tea stall. But they appear to have left. Before they can return--and before anyone else sees me--I duck into the shop.

  The smell of herbs washes over me, tinged by something dark and bitter. The roof is so low I nearly hit my head. Traditional Tribal lamps hang from the ceiling, their intricate floral glow in sharp contrast to the earthy darkness of the shop.

  "Epkah kesiah meda karun?"

  A Tribal child of about ten years addresses me from behind the counter. Herbs hang in bunches over her head. The vials that line the walls behind her gleam. I eye them, searching for anything familiar. The girl clears her throat.

  "Epkah Keeya Necheya?"

  For all I know, she could be telling me I reek like a horse. But I do not have time to puzzle it out, so I pitch my voice low and hope she understands me.

  "Tellis."

  The girl nods and rummages through a drawer or two before shaking her head, coming around the counter, and scanning the shelves. She scratches her chin, holds up a finger to me as if to tell me to wait, and slips through a back door. I glimpse a windowed storage room before the door swings shut.

  A minute passes. Another. Come on. I've been away from Elias for at least an hour, and it will take me another half hour to get back to him. And that's if this girl even has the Tellis. What if he has another seizure? What if he shouts or yells and gives away his location to someone happening by?

  The door opens, and the girl is back, this time with a squat jar of amber liquid: Tellis extract. From behind the counter, she painstakingly pulls out another, smaller vial and looks at me expectantly.

  I hold up both hands once, twice. "Twenty drachms." That should be enough to last Elias a while. The child measures out the liquid with excruciating slowness, her eyes darting up at me every few seconds.

  When she's finally sealed the vial with wax, I reach out to take it, but she jerks it away, wiggling four fingers at me. I drop four silvers into her hands. She shakes her head.

  "Zaver!" She takes out a gold mark from a pouch and waves it in the air.

  "Four marks?" I burst out. "You might as well ask for the bleeding moon!" The girl just juts out her chin. I don't have time to haggle, so I dig the money out and slam it down, holding out my hand for the Tellis.

  She hesitates, her eyes darting to the front door.

  I draw my dagger with one hand and grab the vial with the other, shoving out of the shack with teeth bared. But the only movement in the dark lane is from a goat gnawing on some garbage. The beast bleats at me before turning back to his feast.

  Still, I am uneasy. The Tribal girl was acting strange. I bolt, staying away from the main thoroughfare and sticking to the muddy, poorly lit back alleys of the market. I hurry to the western edge of the Roost, so focused on looking back that I don't see the dark, lean figure in front of me until I've run right into him.

  "Pardon me," a silky voice says. The stink of ghas and tea leaves overpowers me. "I didn't see you there."

  My skin goes cold at the familiarity of the voice. The Tribesman. The one with the scar. His eyes lock with mine and narrow. "And what's a gold-eyed Scholar girl doing in Raider's Roost? Running from something, perhaps?" Skies. He did recognize me.

  I dart to his right, but he blocks me.

  "Out of my way." I flash my knife at him. He laughs and puts one hand on my shoulder, neatly disarming me with the other.

  "You'll put out your own eye, little tigress." He spins my dagger in one hand. "I am Shikaat, of Tribe Gula. And you are . . . ?"

  "None of your business." I try to yank away from him, but his hand is like a vise.

  "I just want to chat. Walk with me." He tightens the hand on my shoulder.

  "Get off me." I kick at his ankle, and he winces and releases me. But when I dart toward the entrance to a side alley, he snatches my arm, and then grabs my other wrist, shoving up my sleeves.

  "Slaves' cuffs." He runs a finger along the still-chafed skin of my wrists. "Recently removed. Interesting. Would you care to hear my theory?"

  He leans close, black eyes sparkling, as if he's sharing a joke. "I think there are very few Scholar girls with golden eyes wandering the wilderness, little tigress. Your injuries tell me you've seen battle. You smell of soot--perhaps from the fires in Serra? And the medicine--well, that's most interesting of all."

  Our exchange has drawn curious glances--more than curious. A Mariner and a Martial, both wearing leather armor that marks them as bounty hunters, watch with interest. One approaches, but the Tribesman marches me down the alley away from them. He barks a word into the shadows. A moment later, two men materialize--his toadies, no doubt--and turn to head off the bounty hunters.

  "You're the Scholar girl the Martials are hunting." Shikaat glances between the stalls, into the dark places where threats might lurk. "The one traveling with Elias Veturius. And there's something wrong with him, otherwise you wouldn't be here alone, so desperate for Tellis extract that you'd pay twenty times what you should for it."

  "How in the skies did you know?"

  "Not many Scholars around here," he says. "When one shows up, we notice."

  Damn it. The girl in the apothecary must have tipped him off.

  "Now." His smile is all teeth. "You're going to lead me to your unfortunate friend, or I'll stick a knife in your gut and drop you down a crevasse to die slowly."

  Behind us, the bounty hunters argue heatedly with Shikaat's men.

  "He knows where Elias Veturius is!" I shout at the hunters. They reach for their weapons, and other heads in the market swing up.

  The Tribesman sighs, giving me an almost rueful look. The second he turns his attention from me to the bounty hunters, I kick his ankle and twist free.

  I dart beneath tarps, upsetting a basket of goods and nearly knocking an old Mariner woman onto her back. For a moment, I'm out of Shikaat's sight. A wall of rock rises ahead of me, and a row of tents sits to my right. To my left, a pyramid of crates leans precariously up against the side of a fur cart.

  I rip a fur off the top of the stack and dive beneath the cart, covering myself and pulling my feet out of sight just before Shikaat bursts into the alley. Silence as he scans the area. Then footsteps coming closer . . . closer . . .

  Disappear, Laia. I shrink back into the darkness, grabbing hold of my armlet for strength. You can't see me. You see only shadows, only darkness.

  Shikaat kicks aside the crates, letting in a sliver of light beneath the cart. I hear him bend, hear his breathing as he peers under it.

  I'm nothing, nothing but a pile of furs, nothing important. You don't see me. You don't see anything.

  "Jitan!" He shouts to his men. "Imir!"

  The swift footsteps of two men approach, and a moment later, lamplight chases away the darkness beneath the cart. Shikaat rips the fur free, and I find myself staring into his triumphant face.

  Except his triumph turns to bewilderment almost immediately. He gazes at the fur and then back at me. He holds up the lamp, illuminating me clearly.

  But he doesn't look at me. Almost as if he can't see me. As if I'm invisible.

  Which is impossible.

  The second I think it, he blinks and grabs me.

  "You disappeared," he whispers. "And now you're here. Did you magick me?" He shakes me hard, rattling my teeth in my head. "How did you do it?"

  "Piss off!" I claw at him, but he holds me at arm's distance.

  "You were gone!" he hisses. "And then you reappeared before my eyes."

  "You're insane!" I bite at his hand, and he drags me close, forcing my face toward him, glaring down into my eyes. "You've been smoking too much ghas!"

  "Say it again," he says.

  "You're insane. I was there the whole time."

  He shakes his head, as if he can tell I'm not lying but still doesn't believe me. When he releases my face, I try to twist away--to no avail.

  "Enough," he says as his henchmen bind my hands in front of me. "Take me to the Mask, or you die."

 
"I want a cut." An idea blossoms in my head. "Ten thousand marks. And we go alone--I don't want your men following us."

  "No cut," he says. "My men stay at my side."

  "Then find him yourself! Stick a knife in me like you promised, and go."

  I hold his eyes, the way Nan used to when Tribal traders offered too low a price for her jams and she threatened to walk away. My heart thunders like the hooves of a horse.

  "Five hundred marks," the Tribesman says. As I open my mouth to protest, he holds up a hand. "And safe passage to the Tribal lands. It's a good deal, girl. Take it."

  "Your men?"

  "They stay." He considers me. "At a distance."

  The problem with greedy people, Pop once said to me, is that they think everyone else is as greedy as they are. Shikaat is no different.

  "Give me your word as a Tribesman that you won't double-cross me." Even I know how valuable such a vow is. "I don't trust you otherwise."

  "You have my word." He shoves me forward, and I stumble, just catching myself from falling. Swine! I bite my lip to keep from saying it.

  Let him think he's cowed me. Let him think he's won. Soon, he'll realize his mistake: He vowed to play fair.

  But I didn't.

  X: Elias

  The second that consciousness seeps into my mind, I know better than to open my eyes.

  My hands and feet are bound with rope, and I lie on my side. My mouth tastes strange, like iron and herbs. Everything aches, but my mind feels more lucid than it has in days. Rain patters on rocks just a few feet away. I'm in a cave.

  But the air feels wrong. I hear breathing, quick and nervous, and smell the wool robes and cured leather of Tribal traders.

  "You can't kill him!" Laia is in front of me, her knee pressing into my forehead, her voice so close that I can feel her breath on my face. "The Martials want him back alive. To--to face the Emperor."

  Someone kneeling at the crown of my head curses in Sadhese. Cold steel digs into my throat.

  "Jitan--the message. Is the bounty only given if he's brought back alive?"

  "I don't bleeding remember!" This voice comes from closer to my feet.

  "If you're going to kill him, then at least wait a few days." Laia's voice has a cold practicality to it, but the tension beneath is as taut as the string of an oud. "In this weather his body would decompose fast. It will take at least five days to get him back to Serra. If the Martials can't identify him, then neither of us gets any money."

 
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