Chapter no 14 – Laia

A Reaper at the Gates

The Mariner prison is spare, cold, and eerily silent. As I pace my poorly lit cell, I place a hand against the stone wall. It is so thick that

I could scream and scream and Darin, across the hall from me, might never know.

He must be going mad. I imagine him clenching and unclenching his fists, boots scraping against the floor, wondering when we will escape. If we will escape. This place might not be Kauf, but it is still a prison. And my brother’s demons will not let him forget it.

Which means I must stay levelheaded for the both of us and find a way out of here.

The night creeps by, dawn breaks, and it’s not until the late afternoon that the lock on my door clanks and three figures backlit by lamplight step into my cell. I recognize one as the captain who arrested us and a second as one of her soldiers. But it is the third woman, tall and heavily cloaked, who catches my attention.

Because she is surrounded by ghuls.

They gather like hungry crows at her feet, hissing and pawing at her. I know, instantly, that she cannot see them.

“Bring in the brother, Captain Eleiba.” The woman’s Serran is husky and musical. She could be a Kehanni with a voice like that. She looks to be around Afya’s age or perhaps a bit older, with light brown skin and thick, straight black hair pulled up in a knot. Her back is poker straight, and she walks gracefully, as if balancing a book on her head. “Sit, child,” she says, and though her voice is pleasant enough, an underlying malice raises my hackles. Are the ghuls influencing her? I did not know they had such power. They feed off sorrow and sadness and the stink of blood. Spiro Teluman spoke those words to me long ago. What sorrow plagues this woman?

Darin soon joins me, slowing when he enters, eyes wide. He sees the ghuls too. When he takes a seat on my cot beside me, I reach for his hand and squeeze. They cannot hold us. I will not let them.

The woman observes me for a long moment before smiling. “You,” she says to me, “look nothing like the Lioness. And you”—she glances at

Darin—“are her spitting image. Clever of her to keep you hidden. I expect it’s why you’re still alive.”

The ghuls slither up the woman’s cloak, hissing into her ear. Her lips curve into a sneer. “But then, my father tells me that Mirra always enjoyed her little secrets. I wonder, are you like her in other ways?

Looking always to fight instead of fix, to break instead of build, to—” “You shut it about my mother.” My face grows hot. “How dare you


“You will please address Crown Princess Nikla of Marinn as Princess or Your Highness,” Eleiba says. “And you will speak with respect for one of her station.”

This woman, infested with ghuls who are influencing her mind, will one day rule Marinn? I want to frighten the fey creatures away from her, but I cannot manage it without looking as if I’m attacking her. Mariners are less skeptical than Scholars when it comes to the fey, but something tells me she still won’t believe me if I tell her what I see.

“Don’t bother, Eleiba.” Nikla snorts. “I should have known she’d have the same lack of subtlety the Lioness did. Now, girl, let us discuss why you are here.”

“Please.” I speak through gritted teeth, knowing that my life is in Nikla’s hands. “My brother and I are here to—”

“Make Serric steel weaponry,” Nikla says. “Supply the Scholar refugees flooding the city. Instigate an uprising. Challenge the Mariners, despite all we have done for your people since the Empire uprooted them hundreds of years ago.”

I am so flabbergasted that I almost cannot speak. “No,” I sputter. “No, Princess, you have it wrong. We’re not here to make weaponry, we—”

Do I tell her of the Nightbringer? Of Shaeva? I think of the stories of fey violence whispered along the road, stories I’ve been hearing for months. The ghuls may tell her that I lie. But I must warn her. “A threat approaches, Princess. A great threat. You have no doubt heard the tales of Mariner ships sinking in calm seas, of children disappearing in the dead of night.”

Beside Nikla, Eleiba stiffens, her eyes jerking toward mine, filled with recognition. She knows! But Nikla holds up a hand. The ghuls chuckle nastily, slitted red eyes fixed on me.

“You sent your allies ahead of you to spread such lies among the Scholar population,” she says. “Tales of monsters out of legend. Yes, your little friends did your work well.”

Araj. The Skiritae. I sigh. Elias warned me that the Skiritae leader would spread word of my exploits far and wide. I hadn’t given it much thought.

“They seeded your reputation among the newly arrived Scholars, a downtrodden and easily manipulated population. And then you arrived with your brother, your mother’s legacy, and promises of Serric steel, safety, and security. All insurgents tell the same tale, girl. It just changes a bit with the telling.”

“We don’t want trouble.” My trepidation rises, but I channel my grandfather, Pop, thinking of the time he delivered twins and I panicked. It was my first delivery, and with a few words, his serenity soothed me until my hands no longer shook. “We just want to—”

“Don’t patronize me. My people have done everything for yours.” Nikla paces the small cell, the ghuls following her like a pack of loyal dogs. “We have taken them into our city and integrated them into the fabric of Mariner culture. But our generosity is not without limits. Here in Marinn, we are not sadists, like the Martials. But we do not take kindly to rabble-rousers. Know that if you do not cooperate with me, I will have Captain Eleiba put you both on the next ship down to the Tribal lands—as we did your friends.”

Oh hells. So that’s what happened to Araj and Tas and the rest of the Skiritae. Skies, I hope they are all right.

“The Tribal lands are crawling with Martials.” I try to temper my anger, but the more this woman talks, the more I want to scream. “If you send us there, we’ll be killed or enslaved.”

“Indeed.” Nikla tilts her head, and the lamplight makes her eyes as red as the ghuls’. Did the Nightbringer set the ghuls on her? Is she another of his human allies, like the Warden or the Commandant?

“I have an offer for you, Darin of Serra,” Nikla goes on. “If you’ve any sense, you’ll see that it’s more than fair. You wish to make Serric steel. Very well. Make Serric steel—for the Mariner army. We will provide you what you need, as well as accommodations for you and your sister—”

“No.” Darin’s gaze is fixed to the floor, and he shakes his head. “I won’t do it.”

Won’t, I note. Not can’t. A spark of hope flares within. Does my brother remember how to make the steel after all? Did something on the road from the Forest of Dusk to Adisa shake loose, allowing him to recall that which Spiro had taught him?


“I won’t do it.” Darin stands, towering over Nikla by half a foot.

Eleiba steps in front of the princess, but Darin speaks quietly, hands open at his sides. “I won’t arm another group of people so that my own can live at their mercy.”

“Please let us go.” I kick out at the ghuls, scattering them for a moment before they congeal around Nikla again. “We don’t mean you any harm, and you have greater things to worry about than two Scholars who want to stay out of trouble. The Empire has turned on the Tribes, and it might turn on Marinn too.”

“The Martials have a treaty with Marinn.”

“They had a treaty with the Tribes too,” I say. “And yet hundreds have been killed or captured in the Tribal desert. This new emperor— you do not know him, Princess. He’s . . . different. He’s not someone you can work with. He’s—”

“Don’t talk politics to me, little girl.” She doesn’t see the ghul that clings to the side of her face, its mouth split in an odious smile. The sight of it nauseates me. “I was a force to be reckoned with in my father’s court well before you were born.” She turns to Darin. “My offer stands.

Make weapons for my army, or take your chances in the Tribal lands. You have until dawn tomorrow to decide.”



Darin and I don’t bother discussing Nikla’s offer. I know there is no chance in the hells that he would accept. The ghuls have their hooks

in her—which likely means the Nightbringer has a hand in Mariner politics. The last thing the Scholars need is another group lording it over us because we do not have the weapons for a fair fight.

“You said won’t.” I considered long and hard before bringing up Darin’s seemingly offhand comment. My brother paces the cell, antsy as a penned horse. “When Nikla asked you to make the weapons, you didn’t say you can’t do it. You said you won’t.”

“Slip of the tongue.” Darin stops his pacing, his back to me, and though it stings to admit it, he’s lying. Do I push him or let it go?

You’ve been letting it go, Laia. Letting it go means Izzi died for nothing. It means Elias was imprisoned for nothing. It means Afya’s cousin died for nothing.

I try a different tack. “Do you think Spiro—”

“Could we not talk about Spiro, or weaponry, or forging?” Darin sits down beside me, shoulders slumped, as if the walls of the cell are making him smaller. He clenches and unclenches his fists. “How the hells are we going to get out of here?”

“An excellent question,” a soft voice says from the door. I jump— seconds ago, it was sealed shut. “One that I might have a solution to, if you care to hear it.”

A young, dark-skinned Scholar man leans against the doorframe, in full view of the guards. Except, I realize, there are no guards to see him. They have disappeared.

The man is handsome, with black hair that’s half pulled up and the rangy body of a swordsman. His forearms are tattooed, though in the darkness, I cannot make out the symbols. He tosses a key up and down like a ball. There is an insouciance to him that irritates me. The glint of his eyes and his wily smile are instantly familiar.

“I know you.” I take a step back, wishing I had my dagger with me. “You’re our shadow.”

The man drops into a mocking bow, and I am immediately distrustful.

Darin bristles.

“I am Musa of Adisa,” the man says. “Son of Ziad and Azmath of Adisa. Grandson of Mehr and Saira of Adisa. I am also the only friend you have in this city.”

“You said you have a solution to our problem.” Trusting this man would be stupid, but Darin and I need to get the hells out of here. All Nikla’s talk about putting us on a ship sounded like rubbish. She will not let a man who knows the secret of Serric steel simply walk away.

“I’ll get you two out of here—for a price.” Naturally. “What price?”

“You”—he looks at Darin—“will make weapons for the Scholars.

And you”—he turns to me—“will help me resurrect the northern Scholar’s Resistance.”

In the long silence that follows his proclamation, I want to laugh. If our circumstances were less dire, I would have. “No thank you. I’ve had enough of the bleeding Resistance—and those who support it.”

“I expected you to say as much,” Musa says. “After the way Mazen and Keenan betrayed you.” He offers a grim smile as my fists curl, and I stare at him in shock. How does he know?

“Apologies,” he says. “Not Keenan. The Nightbringer. In any case, your mistrust is understandable. But you need to stop the jinn lord, no? Which means you need out of here.”

Darin and I gape at him. I get my voice back first. “How do you know about the—”

“I watch. I listen.” Musa taps his foot and glances down the hall. His shoulders stiffen. Voices rise and fall from beyond the door to the cellblock, sharp and hurried. “Decide,” he says. “We’re nearly out of time.”

“No.” Darin speaks for us both, and I frown. It’s unlike him. “You should leave. Unless you want to get thrown in here with us.”

“I’d heard you were stubborn.” Musa sighs. “Listen to logic, at least.

Even if you do find your way out of here, how will you find the Beekeeper while the Mariners hunt you? Especially if he doesn’t want to be found?”

“How did—” I stop myself from asking. He’s already told me. He watches. He listens. “You know the Beekeeper.”

“I swear I’ll take you to him.” Musa cuts his hand, blood dripping on the floor, and I raise my eyebrows. A blood oath is no small thing. “After I get you out of here. If you agree to my terms. But we need to move.


“Darin.” I grab my brother’s arm and drag him to a corner of the cell. “If he can take us to the Beekeeper, we’ll save weeks of time.”

“I don’t trust him,” Darin says. “You know I want to get out of here as much as you do. More. But I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, and neither should you. Why does he want you to help him with the Resistance? What’s in it for him? Why not do it himself?”

“I don’t trust him either,” I say. “But he’s offering us a way out.” I consider my brother. I consider his lie earlier. And though I don’t want to hurt him, I know that if we ever want to get out of here, I have to.

“Pardon me,” Musa says. “But we really need to—”

“Shut it,” I snap at him before turning back to Darin. “You lied to me,” I say. “About the weapons. No”—I raise my hand at his protest

—“I’m not angry. But I don’t think you understand what you’re doing. You’re choosing not to make the weapons. It’s a selfish choice. Our people need you, Darin. And that should matter more than your desires or your pain. You saw what’s happening out there to the Scholars,” I say. “It’s not going to stop. Even if I defeat the Nightbringer, we’ll always be lesser unless we can stand up for ourselves. We need Serric steel.”

“Laia, I want to make it, I do—”

“Then try,” I say. “That’s all I’m asking. Try. For Izzi. For Afya, who has lost a half dozen of her Tribe trying to help us. For”—my voice cracks—“for Elias. For the life he gave up for you.”

Darin’s blue eyes widen in surprise and hurt. His demons rise, demanding his attention. But somewhere beneath the fear, he is still the Lioness’s son, and this time, the quiet courage he has had all our lives wins out.

“Where you go, sis,” he says, “I go. I’ll try.”

In seconds, Musa—who has been shamelessly eavesdropping— gestures us into the hall. The moment Darin is out, he grabs Musa by the neck and shoves him against the wall. I hear a sound like an animal chittering, but it goes silent after Musa makes a strange slashing motion with his hand. A ghul?

“If you hurt my sister,” Darin says quietly, “if you betray her, or abuse her trust or cause her pain, I swear to the skies I will kill you.”

Musa chokes out an answer, and as Darin lets him down, keys clang in the door down the hall. Seconds later, it flies open and Eleiba enters, scim drawn.

“Musa!” she snarls. “I should have bleeding known. You are under arrest.”

“Well, now you’ve done it.” Musa rubs his neck where Darin grabbed him, mild irritation on his fine features. “We could have been away by now if not for your brotherly posturing.” With that, he whispers something, and Eleiba falls back, cursing, as if something we cannot see attacks her.

Musa looks between Darin and me with arched brows. “Any other threats? Discussions you wish to waste my time with? None? Good. Then let’s get the bleeding hells out of here.”



Dawn approaches by the time Musa, Darin, and I emerge from a tailor’s shop and out into Adisa. My head spins from the strange,

interconnected series of tunnels, passageways, and alleys Musa took to get us here. But we are out. We are free.

“Not bad timing,” Musa says. “If we hurry, we can get to a safe house before—”

“Wait.” I grab him by the shoulder. “We’re not going anywhere with you.” Beside me, Darin nods vehemently. “Not until you tell us who you are. Why did Captain Eleiba know you? What in the skies attacked her? I heard a noise. It sounded like a ghulSince Princess Nikla was crawling with them, you understand why I am concerned.”

Musa easily extricates himself from my grip, straightening his shirt, which I notice is quite finely made, for a Scholar.

“She wasn’t always like that,” he says. “Nik—the princess, I mean. But that doesn’t matter now. Dawn isn’t far away. We really don’t have time—”

“Stop making excuses,” I snarl. “And start explaining.”

Musa groans in irritation. “If I answer one question,” he says, “will you stop being so annoying and let me get you to a safe house?”

I consider, glancing at Darin, who gives me a noncommittal shrug. Now that Musa’s gotten us out, I only need one bit of information from him. Once I get it, I can become invisible and knock him out, and Darin and I can disappear.

“Fine,” I say. “Who’s the Beekeeper, and how can I find him?”

“Ah, Laia of Serra.” His white teeth shine like those of a smug horse. He offers me his arm, and under the brightening sky, I finally get a closer look at his tattoos—dozens of them, big and small, all clustered around a hive.


“It’s me, of course,” Musa says. “Don’t tell me you hadn’t guessed.”

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