Chapter no 17 – Laia

A Reaper at the Gates

The night is deep when we arrive at Musa’s safe house, a forge that squats in Adisa’s central shipyard, just beyond the Scholar refugee

camp. At this hour, the shipyard is empty, its silent streets eerily shadowed by the skeletons of half-built vessels.

Musa does not even glance over his shoulder as he unlocks the forge’s back door, but I am uneasy, unable to shake the sense that someone— something—watches us.

Within a few hours, that feeling is gone, and the yard thunders with the shouts of builders, the pounding of hammers, and the protesting creak of wood as it is bowed and nailed into place. From my room, on the forge’s upper level, I peer down into a courtyard where a gray-haired Scholar woman stokes an already roaring fire. The cacophony surrounding this place is perfect for clandestine weapon-making. And Musa said he’d get Darin whatever supplies he needs. Which means my brother must make weapons. He is out of excuses.

I, on the other hand, might still find a way out of the bargain Musa insisted on. You will help me resurrect the northern Scholar’s Resistance. Why has Musa not done it already? He has resources. And there must be hundreds of Scholars who would join up—especially after the Empire’s genocide.

Something else is going on—something he’s not telling me.

After a much-needed bath, I make my way downstairs, clad in a wool dress of deep red and soft new boots that are only a little big. The ping of steel on steel echoes in the courtyard, and two women laugh over the din. Though the courtyard houses the forge, the building I’m in has the personal touches of a house—thick rugs, a shawl thrown over a bureau, and cheerful Tribal lanterns. At the foot of the stairs, a long, wide hall leads to a drawing room. The door is ajar, and Musa’s voice carries through.

“—very knowledgeable and can assist you,” Musa says. “When can you start?”

A long pause. “Now. But it will take me a bit to get the formula right. There is much I don’t remember.” Darin sounds stronger than he has in

weeks. Rest and a bath must have done him good.

“Then I’ll introduce you to the smiths here. They make pots, pans, horseshoes—enough household items to justify the amount of ore and coal we’ll need.”

Someone clears her throat loudly behind me. The sounds of smithing have stopped, I realize, and I turn to find the silver-haired, brown-skinned Scholar woman from the courtyard. She wears a burn-scarred leather smock, and her face is wide and pretty. Beside her, a young woman who is clearly her daughter watches me with dark green eyes that sparkle in curiosity.

“Laia of Serra,” the older woman says. “I am Smith Zella, and this is my daughter, Taure. It is an honor to meet the heir of the Lioness.” Zella clasps my hands between her own. “Do not believe the lies the Mariners spread about your mother, child,” she says. “They are threatened by you. They wish to hurt you.”

“What lies?”

“We’ve heard all about what you did in the Empire.” Taure speaks up breathlessly, and the admiration in her tone alarms me.

“It was luck, mostly. You—you mentioned my mother—”

“Not luck.” Musa strolls out of the drawing room, Darin in tow. “Laia clearly has her mother’s courage—and her father’s sense of strategy.

Zella, show Darin where he’ll be making weapons, and get him what he needs. Laia, come inside, if you please. Lunch awaits.”

The two smiths leave with my brother, Taure with one last reverent glance over her shoulder, and I fidget as Musa waves me into the drawing room.

“What skies-forsaken stories did you tell them about me?” I hiss at him.

“I said nothing.” He piles a plate with fruit, bread, and butter and hands it to me. “Your reputation precedes you. The fact that you nobly sacrificed yourself for the good of the refugee camp helped.”

My skin tingles warningly at the smugness on his face. Why, exactly, would he look so pleased about it?

“Did you plan for Darin and me to be captured?”

“I had to test you somehow, and I knew I could spring you from prison. I made sure Captain Eleiba knew you were coming into the city. Anonymously, of course. I knew if you were the leader I hoped you were, you’d never let your people suffer while you cowered. And if you weren’t, I’d have dragged you out of hiding and turned you over myself.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “What do you mean, ‘leader’?”

“It’s just a word, Laia. It won’t bite. In any case, I was right—”

“How dare you make those poor people suffer! They lost their homes, their belongings. The Mariners ripped that camp apart!”

“Calm down.” Musa rolls his eyes. “No one died. The Mariners are too civilized for such tactics. Captain Eleiba and I have our . . . differences. But she’s an honorable woman. She has already replaced their tents. By now she will know it was me who gave up your whereabouts, of course. She’ll be hopping mad about it too. But I can deal with her later. First we—”


“First”—Musa clears his throat pointedly—“you need to eat. You’re irritable. I don’t like talking to irritable people.”

How can he take all of this so lightly? I take a step toward him, my hands curling into fists, temper rising.

Almost immediately, a force shoves me back. It feels like a hundred sets of tiny hands. I try to squirm away, but the hands hold me tight. On instinct, I try to disappear, and I even flicker out of sight for a moment. But to my shock, Musa grabs my arm, unaffected by my magic, and I flicker back into view.

“I have my own magic, Laia of Serra,” he says, and the mirth has left his face. “Yours doesn’t work on me. I know what Shaeva said—you discussed it with your brother on your way here. Your answers lie in Adisa. With the Beekeeper. But beware, for he is cloaked in lies and shadow, like you. The magic is my lie, Laia, as it is yours. I can be your ally, or I can be your enemy. But either way, I will hold you to your promise to help resurrect the Resistance.”

He releases me, and I scramble away, straightening my dress, trying not to show how much his revelation has rattled me.

“It just seems as if this is a game to you,” I whisper. “I don’t have time to help you with the Resistance. I need to stop the Nightbringer. Shaeva told me to look for the Beekeeper. Here you are. But I thought


“You thought I would be a wise old man ready to tell you exactly what you must do to stop the jinn? Life is rarely so simple, Laia. But be assured that this is no game. It is the survival of our people. If you work with me, you can succeed in your mission to bring down the Nightbringer while also helping the Scholars. For instance, if we work with the king of Marinn—”

I snort. “You mean the king who has a price on my head?” I say. “The one who ordered men and women and children who have seen genocide to be put in camps outside the city instead of treated like humans? That king?”

I push my plate away, frustrated now, food half-eaten. “How can you help me? Why would Shaeva send me to you?”

“Because I can get you what you need.” Musa tips his seat back. “It’s my specialty. So tell me: What do you need?”

“I need . . .” To be a mind reader. To have fey powers beyond disappearing. To be a Mask.

“I need eyes on the Nightbringer,” I say. “And on his allies. The prophecy said he needed only one more piece to complete the Star. I need to know if he has found it or if he’s close. I need to know if he’s . . . cozying up to anyone. Gaining their trust. Their . . . their love. But . . .” Saying the words aloud makes me feel hopeless. “How am I supposed to accomplish that?”

“I have it on good authority that he’s in Navium now and has been for the past month.”

“How did you—”

“Don’t make me say it again, Laia of Serra. What do I do?” “You watch.” My relief is so keen that I’m not even irritated at

Musa’s arrogance. “You listen. How fast can you get me information on the jinn?”

Musa strokes his chin “Let’s see. It took me a week to learn that you’d broken Elias out of Blackcliff’s dungeons. Six days to learn that you’d set off a riot in Nur. Five to learn what Elias Veturius whispered in your ear the night he abandoned you in the Tribal desert for Kauf Prison. Two to learn that the Warden—”

“Wait,” I choke out. The room suddenly feels warm. I have tried not to think of Elias. But he haunts my thoughts, a ghost who is always on my mind and always out of reach. “Just wait. Go . . . go back. What did Elias whisper in my ear the night he left me for Kauf?”

“It was good.” Musa gazes off musingly. “Very dramatic. Might use it myself on some lucky girl one day.”

Skies, he is insufferable. “Do you know if Elias is all right?” I tap my fingers on the polished table, trying to check my impatience. “Do you know—”

“My spies don’t enter the Forest of Dusk,” Musa says. “Too afraid. Forget about your pretty Martial. I can get the information you need.”

“I also need to know how to stop the Nightbringer,” I say. “How to fight him. And that’s the kind of thing I can find only in books. Can you get me into the Great Library? There must be something there about the history of the jinn, about how the Scholars beat them before.”

“Ah.” Musa spears a slice of apple and pops it into his mouth, then shakes his head. “That could take some time, as I’m banned from it. I’d suggest you sneak into the library, but King Irmand has contracted Jaduna to ward off any fey creatures trying to do exactly that.”

Jaduna. I shudder. Nan told stories of the hot-tempered magic-wielders said to live in the poisoned lands west of the Empire. I’d prefer not to find out if the tales are true.

Musa nods. “Exactly,” he says. “They sniff out magic like sharks sniff out blood. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to cross one of them.”


“Fret not. We’ll think of something else. And in the meantime, you can start carrying out your part of our deal.”

“Listen.” I try to sound reasonable. I don’t think Musa will be willing to listen to this argument more than once. “You must see that I have no idea how—”

“You’re not getting out of this,” he says. “Stop trying. I do not expect you to recruit a hundred fighters tomorrow,” he says. “Or next week. Or even next month. First you have to be someone worth listening to, someone worth following. For that to happen, the Scholars in Adisa and in the camps need to know who you are and what you’ve done. And that means that for now, all I need from you is a story.”

“A—a story?”

“Yes. Your story. Get yourself a cup of tea, Laia. I think we’ll be here a while.”



I spend my days with Darin, pumping bellows and shoveling mounds of coal into a furnace, trying to make sure that the spray of sparks that

explodes with every strike of his hammer doesn’t burn down the forge. We battle across the courtyard to test his blades, most of which break. But he keeps at it, and every day he spends at the forge makes him stronger, more like his old self. It is as if lifting the hammer has reminded him of the man he was before Kauf—and the man he wants to be now.

I, meanwhile, have no purpose at all other than to wait.

“No sneaking around outside the forge.” Musa’s said it a dozen times. “The Jaduna I spoke of report to the king. If they see you, you’ll find yourself back in prison, and I don’t fancy having to rescue you again.”

If Musa has information for me, he doesn’t share it. Nor do we have any news from the outside world. With every day that goes by, I am more mistrustful. Does the Scholar man truly intend to help me? Or are his promises to aid me a ploy to get Darin to make weapons?

A week flies past. Then another. The Grain Moon is a mere eight weeks away, and I am spending my time testing blades that keep breaking. One morning, while Musa is out, I sneak into his quarters, hoping to find something—anything—about his past, the Resistance, or his information network. But all I discover is that he has a taste for candied almonds, which I find tucked away in drawers, beneath the bed, and most bizarrely, in a set of old boots.

On most evenings, Musa introduces me to other Scholars he knows and trusts. Some are refugees, like me, but many are Adisan Scholars. Every time, I have to tell my story again. Every time, Musa refuses to explain his plan for resurrecting the Resistance.

What were you thinking, Shaeva? Why did you send me to this man?

News finally arrives in the form of a scroll that appears in Musa’s hand one day, in the middle of dinner. Darin and Zella are deep in conversation, Taure is telling me the story of a girl she’s fallen for in the camps, and I’m staring daggers at Musa, who is placidly stuffing his face as if the fate of the world doesn’t hinge on his ability to get me information.

My fixed glare is the only reason I even see the scroll appear. One second, it’s not there, the next, he’s unrolling it.

“The Nightbringer,” he says, “is in Navium with the Commandant, the Paters of the city, the Blood Shrike, and her men. He hasn’t left there in weeks. There is some infighting between the Commandant and the Blood Shrike, apparently—”

I groan. “That doesn’t help me at all. I need to know whom he’s seeing. Whom he’s talking to—”

“Apparently, he’s spent a great deal of time in his chambers, recovering from sinking the Martial fleet,” Musa says. “Must take a lot of energy, murdering a few thousand souls and sending their vessels to the bottom of the sea.”

“I need more,” I say. “He has to be doing something beyond sitting in his quarters. Are there any fey creatures around him? Are they getting

stronger? How fare the Tribes?”

But Musa has nothing more to offer—not yet, anyway.

Which means I have to take matters into my own hands. I need to get out into the city. Jaduna or not, I need to at least learn what’s happening elsewhere in the Empire. After dinner, as Darin, Taure, and Zella discuss the different clays used for cooling a blade, I yawn and excuse myself.

Musa has long since retired, and I pause outside his room. Snores rumble within. Moments later, I am invisible and cutting my way west, toward Adisa’s central markets.

Though I was only in the refugee camp for moments, the difference between it and the Mariner city is stark. The camp was dingy tents and sucking mud. Adisa’s cobbled streets are lined with houses of azure and violet, more alive at night than during the day. The camp was full of young Scholars with jutting collarbones and swollen bellies. Here, I don’t see a single starving child.

What kind of king would allow this? Is there no space in this massive city for the Scholar souls freezing beyond its gates?

Maybe it’s not the king. Maybe it’s his ghul-infested daughter. The creatures flit through the market too, a seething blight lurking on the fringes of the crowds.

In the city’s center, brightly dressed Mariners haggle and joke and trade. Silk kites sail like ships overhead, and I stop to ogle clay vessels with entire books painted on their sides. An Ankanese seer from the far south rasps out fortunes, and a kohl-eyed Jaduna watches him, the gold coins strung across her forehead catching the light. Recalling Musa’s warning, I head away from the woman.

All around me, Mariners walk the streets with a surety I fear I will never possess. The freedom of this place, the ease of it—it feels like none of it is for me or my people. All this belongs to others, to those who do not abide at the crossroads of uncertainty and despair. It belongs to people so used to living free that they cannot imagine a world in which they are not.

“—do you expect? The Tribes won’t lie down and take it like the Scholars. They won’t allow their people to be enslaved.”

Two Mariner cooks argue loudly over the pop of frying pastries, and I inch closer.

“I understand their anger,” one of them says. “But to target innocent villagers—”

Someone jostles me, and I just manage to hold on to my invisibility. The crowds here are too thick, so I leave them behind, not stopping until

I spot a group of children gathered in a doorway.

“—she burned Blackcliff to a crisp and killed a Mask—”

A few are Adisan Scholars, full-cheeked and finely dressed. Others are Mariners. All cluster around wanted signs featuring me, Darin, and— I’m surprised to see—Musa.

“—I heard she stabbed Kauf’s warden in the face—” “—I think she’ll save us from the wraiths—”

All I need from you is a story, Musa had said. It is strange to hear that story now, altered into something else entirely.

“—Uncle Musa says she’s got magic, like the Lioness—”

“—My da says Uncle Musa is a liar. He says the Lioness was a fool and a murderess—”

“—My ama says the Lioness killed children—”

My heart twists. I know their words shouldn’t bother me. They are only children. But I want to show myself anyway. She was funny and clever, I want to say. She could shoot a sparrow on a branch from a hundred paces. She only ever wanted true freedom for us—for you. She only ever wanted better.

Another child appears in the alley. “Kehanni! Kehanni!” she yells. The children race away to a nearby courtyard where a deep voice rises and trembles and swoops—a Kehanni spinning a tale. I follow them, to find the yard bursting with an audience collectively holding its breath.

The Kehanni has silver hair and a face that has seen a thousand tales.

She wears a heavily embroidered, calf-length dress over wide, mirror-hemmed pants that catch the lamplight. Her voice is throaty, and though I should move on, I find an empty spot against a wall to listen.

“The ghuls surrounded the child, drawn by his sadness.” She speaks Serran, and her accent is heavy. “And though he wished to help his ailing sister, the fey creatures whispered poison into his ears, until his heart became as twisted as the roots of an old jinn tree.”

As the Kehanni sings her story, I realize there is truth within this tale

—a history of sorts. Hadn’t I just witnessed exactly what she described, only with Princess Nikla?

The Kehannis’ stories, I realize, have as much history in them as any book in the Great Library. More, perhaps, for there is no skepticism in the old tales that might occlude the truth. The more I consider it, the more excited I get. Elias learned to destroy efrits from a song Mamie Rila sang him. What if the stories could help me understand the Nightbringer? What if they could tell me how to stop him? My

excitement has me moving away from the wall, toward the Kehanni. Finally, I have a chance to learn something useful about the jinn.

Laia . . .

The whisper brushes against my ear and I jump, jostling the man next to me, who yelps, looking about for whoever bumped him.

Quick as I can, I weave my way through the still-rapt audience and out of the courtyard. Something is watching me. I feel it. And whatever it is, I don’t want it making trouble among those listening to the Kehanni.

I shove back through the crowded market, looking over my shoulder repeatedly. Black scraps of shadow flit just out of my vision. Ghuls? Or something worse? I speed my gait, exiting the market and entering a quiet side street. I look back once more.

The past shall burn, and none will slow it.

I recognize the whisper, the way it grates like rotted claws across my mind. Nightbringer! I am too frightened even to cry out. All I can do is stand there, useless.

I spin, trying to pick him out of the shadows.

“Show yourself.” My voice is barely above a whisper. “Show yourself, you monster.”

You dare to judge me, Laia of Serra? How can you, when you know not the darkness that lives within your own heart?

“I’m not afraid of you.”

The words are a lie, and he chuckles in response. I blink—an instant of darkness, nothing at all—and when I open my eyes, I sense I am alone again. The Nightbringer is gone.

By the time I return to the forge, my body trembles. The place is dark

—everyone has turned in. But I don’t drop my invisibility until I’m alone in my room.

The moment I do, my vision goes black. I am standing in a room—a cell, I realize. I can just make out a woman in the darkness. She is singing.

A star she came Into my home

And lit it bright with glo-ry

The song floats all around me, though the words grow muffled. A strange sound splits the song, like the branch of a tree breaking. When I open my eyes, the vision is gone, as is the singing. The house is quiet, other than Darin murmuring in his sleep from next door.

What in the skies was that?

Is it the magic affecting me? Or the Nightbringer? Is this him—is he toying with my mind? I sit up quickly, glancing about my darkened room. Elias’s armlet is warm in my hand. I imagine his voice. The shadows are just shadows, Laia. The Nightbringer can’t hurt you.

But he can. He has. He’ll do so again.

I retreat to my bed, refusing to release the armlet, trying to keep Elias’s soothing baritone in my mind. But I keep seeing the Nightbringer’s face. Hearing his voice. And sleep does not come.

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