Chapter no 23 – Laia

A Reaper at the Gates

When Musa and I set out from Adisa, the sun blazes high, burning away the morning mist that has rolled in off the sea. But we do not

clear the walls until early evening, as the guards are carefully watching all who leave as well as all who enter.

Musa’s disguise—that of an old man with a piebald donkey—is frighteningly effective, and the guards don’t look at him twice. Still, he waits until it is completely dark before bagging his tattersall cloak and raggedy wig. In a copse of trees, he pulls the Serric steel scims from a high pile of sticks on the donkey’s back and sends the creature off with a slap to the rump.

“My sources tell me Tribe Sulud left late last night, which means we’ll find their camp in one of the coastal villages to the south,” Musa says. I nod a response, peering over my shoulder. The shadows of the night billow and contract. Though summer is in full bloom, I shiver and move swiftly across the marshy grasses.

“Will you stop looking back like that?” Musa says, immune as ever to my magic. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I just wish we could go faster,” I say. “I feel strange. Like there’s something back there.” The Nightbringer disappeared so swiftly last night that I questioned whether he was even in Adisa. But since then, I haven’t been able to shake the sense that something watches me.

“I have mounts hidden down the road. Once we get to them, we can move more quickly.” Musa laughs at my obvious impatience. “What, you don’t want to pass the time in conversation with me?” he says. “I’m hurt.”

“I just want to get to the Kehanni,” I mumble, though this is not the only reason I chafe at the delay. Musa regards me thoughtfully, and I lengthen my stride. He doesn’t believe that I should offer to supply weapons to the Tribes, even if it means gaining information on the Nightbringer. Not when those weapons might be used to kill innocent Martial civilians in the south.

But he doesn’t stop me, though he easily could with that eerie magic of his. Instead, he accompanies me, his distaste palpable.

His disappointment gnaws at me. It is part of the reason I do not speak to him. I do not want his judgment. But there’s more to my silence.

Speaking to him would mean learning about him. Understanding him.

Maybe befriending him. I know what it is to travel with someone, to break bread and laugh and grow close to them.

And though perhaps it’s foolish, that frightens me. Because I also know the pain of losing friends. Family. Mother. Father. Lis. Nan. Pop. Izzi. Elias. Too many lost. Too much pain.

I shake off my invisibility. “It’s not as if you’ll actually answer any of my questions. Anyway, I do want to talk to you, it’s just—”

Dizziness sweeps over me. I recognize the feeling. No, not now, not when I need to get to the Kehanni. Though inside I scream with frustration, I cannot stop the vision: the dank room, the shape of a woman. Her hair is light. Her face is in shadow. And that voice again, so familiar.

A star she came Into my home

And lit it bright with glo-ry Her laughter like

A gilded song

A raincloud sparrow’s sto-ry.

I want to get closer. I want to see the face. I know the voice—I have heard it before. I search my memories. Who is she? A soft crack sounds. The singing stops.

“Oi!” I wake to Musa smacking my face, and I shove him away. “What the hells, Musa?”

“You’re the one who collapsed like some sort of swooning theater heroine,” he says crossly. “I’ve been trying to wake you for an hour. Does that happen every time you use your invisibility? Rather inconvenient.”

“Just the past few times.” I get to my feet. My head aches, but I cannot tell if it is from falling or from Musa’s slap. “It never used to happen,” I say. “And the blackouts are getting longer.”

“The more you use the magic, the more it takes from you. At least, that’s what I’ve seen.” Musa offers me his canteen and chivvies me forward. This time, he peers over his shoulder.

“What?” I say. “Did you see something back there? Is—”

“It’s after dark. Highwaymen aren’t unheard of this far from the city. Best if we reach the horses. You were complaining that I never answer

questions. Ask, and I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

I know he’s distracting me, but my curiosity is piqued. I have not spoken with anyone about my magic. I wanted to talk to Darin, but didn’t want to burden him. The only one who might understand is the Blood Shrike, with her powers of healing. I scowl at the thought of having a discussion with her about it. “How does your magic take from you?”

Musa is quiet for a long time as we walk, the night growing deeper around us. The stars are a streak of silver light above, illuminating the road almost as well as a full moon.

“The magic makes me seek control when there is none to be found,” he says. “It is the magic of manipulation—of speaking—of getting lesser creatures to bend to my will. It’s why I was so good with my father’s bees. But when I rely too much on it, it makes me into my worst self. A tyrant.”

“These creatures you can manipulate,” I say. “Do they include ghuls?”

“I’d not sully my mind by communicating with those little brutes.”

A chitter comes from somewhere near Musa’s feet, and I spot a flash of iridescence, like torchlight on water. It disappears, and Musa lifts his hands, which I could have sworn were empty a moment ago. Now he holds a scroll.

“For you,” he says.

I snatch the scroll from him, reading through it quickly before dropping my arm in disgust. “This doesn’t tell me anything.”

“It tells you that the Blood Shrike was injured.” He looks down at the parchment. “And that the Paters have turned against her. Her survival is quite miraculous. Interesting. I wonder—”

“I don’t care about the bleeding Blood Shrike or Martial politics,” I hiss. “I need to know whom else the Nightbringer is spending his time with.”

“You sound like an ex-lover.” Musa lifts his eyebrows, and I realize he must know about me and Keenan. About what happened between us. Embarrassment floods me. I wish now that I hadn’t opened up to him.

“Ah, Laia-aapan.” He uses the Mariner honorific for little sister and jostles me with an arm. “We’ve all made mistakes in love. Me most of all.”

Love. I sigh. Love is joy coupled with misery, elation bound to despair. It is a fire that beckons me gently and then burns when I get too close. I hate love. I yearn for it. And it drives me mad.

In any case, it is not something I want to discuss with anyone, least of all Musa.

“Among the Paters,” I say, “is there anyone with whom the Nightbringer has spent more time?”

Another crooning chitter. “My friend here says he will find out.”

I catch a glimpse of shimmering, iridescent wings, and shiver with sudden knowledge.

“Musa,” I whisper, “is that a bleeding wight?” Wights are fey, like wraiths, but smaller, swifter, and craftier. Stories say they are tricksters who enjoy luring humans to their deaths.

“My little spies. Swift as the wind. Obsessed with candied almonds— which you might have noticed when you poked around my room.” He gives me an arch look and I flush, embarrassed. “And they’re actually very sweet creatures, once you get to know them.”

“Wights”—I raise my eyebrows—“are sweet?”

“I wouldn’t cross one, no. But they’re very loyal. More loyal than most humans, anyway.”

And strangely, it is that comment, delivered almost defensively, that finally makes me less suspicious of Musa. I do not trust him—not yet. But, I realize, I like him. I did not know how much I missed having someone to talk to. With Darin, the simplest conversation sometimes feels like dancing on butterflies’ wings.

“What of my end of the bargain?” I ask. “You’re spreading my story and making me out to be some sort of . . . hero—”

“Leader, actually.”

knew a deal with him wouldn’t be as simple as recruiting Resistance fighters. “You want me to lead the Resistance?”

“If I’d told you that in the prison cell, you’d have rejected my offer.” “Because I have no wish to lead anyone. Look at what happened to

my mother. To Mazen.” Musa’s calm only incenses me further. “Why don’t you do it yourself? Why me?”

“I’m a Scholar of Adisa,” Musa says. “My family has lived here for more than two hundred years. The refugees don’t need me to speak for them. They need someone who understands their pain to plead their case before King Irmand.”

I glance at him, alarmed. “Is this what you meant when you said you wanted to work with the king? Have you forgotten that he wants to imprison Darin and me—and you?”

“That’s Nikla’s doing.” Musa shrugs off my protests. “I doubt she told her father she had you and Darin in her clutches. He’s old. Ailing.

She’s used his weakness to push the Scholars out of Adisa and into the camps. To strip land and titles from Adisan Scholars. But the princess doesn’t rule yet. While the king lives, there’s hope that he’ll listen to reason. Especially from the daughter of the Lioness, who he considered a friend.”

He catches sight of my face in the dark and chuckles. “Don’t look so worried,” he says. “You won’t go in unprepared. We’ll have one chance to plead our case before the king. The future of our people depends on how successful we are. We need support from the refugees and Adisan Scholars before then. It’s why I’ve had you meet with so many of my friends. If we have enough Scholars at our backs, King Irmand will have to listen to us.”

But gathering so many will take time—time I do not haveGuilt stabs through me. Musa has spent weeks building me up. But the moment I learn how to stop the Nightbringer, I’ll have to depart Adisa. And where does that leave him?

Alive, to fight, I tell myself firmly, instead of dead in a jinn-fueled apocalypse.

Shortly after we reach the horses, a summer storm rolls in from the ocean, drenching us in minutes. Still wary, I insist that we ride through the night.

Musa’s wights report Tribe Sulud’s location, and we finally draw to a halt outside a coastal village just as the fishing trawlers drift out to sea. The sodden fields around the village are thick with farmhands harvesting summer crops. Tribe Sulud’s wagons sit near the docks, a stone’s throw from the village’s only inn, where Musa takes rooms.

I hope the Kehanni knows something about the Nightbringer. The approach of the Grain Moon, seven weeks away, looms over me like an executioner’s ax. Please. I cast my wish to the stars, hoping the universe is listening. Please let me learn something useful.

Musa insists we clean up—She won’t let us in her wagon if we smell of horse and sweat. By the time we emerge from the inn, a group of Tribesmen awaits us. They greet Musa as an old friend and me with a formal politeness. Without fanfare, we are led to the largest of the wagons, painted with purple fish and yellow flowers, white herons and crystalline rivers. Pendants of tarnished silver hang from the wagon’s back, and when the door swings open, they jangle merrily.

The Kehanni wears a simple robe instead of the finery of the other night, but her bearing is no less noble. The bracelets on her arms jingle, hiding the heavy, faded tattoos on her arms.

“Musa of Adisa,” she greets him. “Still getting yourself into trouble you can’t get out of?”

“Always, Kehanni.”

“Ah.” She watches him shrewdly. “So you have finally seen her for what she is.”

An old pain flashes in Musa’s eyes, and I know that they are not speaking of me. “I have hope for her yet.”

“Do not wait for her, child. Sometimes those we love are lost to us, as surely as if Death himself had claimed them. All we can do is mourn the divergence of their path. If you try to walk it, you too will fall into darkness.”

Musa opens his mouth as if to respond, but the Kehanni turns to me. “You bring questions, Laia of Serra. Do you bring payment?”

“I have Serric steel weapons,” I say. “Six blades, freshly forged.”

The Kehanni sniffs and summons one of her kinsmen. Musa catches my eye, and though he says nothing, I find myself fidgeting. I think of what Darin said. You have your own strength. It doesn’t have to be the same as the Lioness’s.

“Wait.” I place my hands on the weapons just as the Kehanni is handing them to the Tribesman. “Please,” I say. “Use them in defense. Use them to fight the soldiers. But not . . . not those who are innocent. Please.”

The Tribesman looks at the Kehanni questioningly. She murmurs something to him in Sadhese, and he steps out.

“Laia of Serra, you would tell a Tribeswoman how to defend herself?”

“No.” I twine my fingers together. “I would ask that these blades, which are a gift, not be used to shed the blood of innocents.”

“Hmph,” the Kehanni says. Then she leans over to the front of her wagon and offers me a small wooden bowl of salt. I breathe a sigh of relief and put a pinch on my tongue, the custom Afya taught me. We are under her Tribe’s protection now. None who belong to it may harm us.

“Your gift is accepted, Laia of Serra. How may I aid you?”

“I heard you spinning the old tales in Adisa. Can you tell me of the jinn? Do they have any weaknesses? Is there a way to . . .” Kill them, I nearly say, but the word is so cold. “Hurt them?”

“During the Fey-Scholar War, your ancestors murdered the jinn with steel and salt and summer rain fresh from the heavens. But you ask the wrong question, Laia of Serra. I know of you. I know you do not seek to

destroy the jinn. You seek to destroy the Nightbringer. And he is something else altogether.”

“Can it be done? Can he be killed?”

The Kehanni leans back in a pile of soft pillows and considers. The slide of her fingers against the wagon’s lacquered wood sounds like sand hissing through an hourglass.

“He is the first of his kind,” she says. “Rain will turn to steam on his skin, and steel to molten metal. As for salt, he will simply laugh to see it used against him, for he has inured himself to its effects. No, the Nightbringer cannot be killed. Not by a human, anyway. But he can be stopped.”


Rain thuds on the wooden roof of the wagon, and I’m reminded suddenly of the drums of the Empire, the way their tattoo echoed down into my bones, leaving me jittery.

“Come back tonight,” the Kehanni says. “When the moon is high.

And I will tell you.”

Musa sighs. “Kehanni, with respect—” “Tonight.”

I shake my head. “But we—”

“Our stories are not bones left on the road for any hungry animal that happens along.” The Kehanni‘s voice rises, and I flinch back. “Our stories have purpose. Souls. Our stories breathe, Laia of Serra. The stories we tell have power, of course. But the stories that go untold have just as much power, if not more. I will sing you such a story—a story that was long untold. The story of a name and its meaning. Of how that name matters more than any other single word in existence. But I must prepare myself, for such stories are dragons drawn from a deep well in a dark place. Does one summon a dragon? No. One may only invite it and hope it emerges. So. Tonight.”

The Kehanni refuses to say anything more, and soon Musa and I retreat to the inn, exhausted. He disappears into his room with a half-hearted wave.

The Tribeswoman said the Nightbringer can be stopped. Will she tell me how? I shiver in anticipation. What sort of story will she sing tonight?

A story that was long untold. The story of a name and its meaning. I open the door to my room, still wondering. But at the threshold, I freeze.

Because there is someone inside.

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