Chapter no 48 – Laia

A Reaper at the Gates

Cook does not speak to me for a long time after I wake. Her face tells me what happened to the children I was trying to help. Still, I ask.

“The blast killed them,” she says. “It was quick.” Her golden skin is pale, but her hunched shoulders and shaking hands tell me of her rage. “Nearly killed you too.”

I sit up. “Where are we?”

“The old Scholar’s District,” she says. “In the slaves’ quarters. It’s farther from the chaos than the Mariner Embassy, though not by much.” She dabs a wound on my face with a warm cloth, careful not to let her skin touch mine. “The skies must love you, girl. That blast threw you thirty feet into a pile of feed.”

My head aches, and I struggle to remember. The skies must love you.

No. Not the skies. I knew that voice. I knew well the feel of that arm, strange and warped and too hot.

Why would the Nightbringer throw me out of the way of the blast? Why, when he knows what I am trying to do? I had no plan in my head in the moment of the blast—nothing but trying to get the children out. Am I playing into his hands somehow?

Or was it something else?

“Your heroics cost us.” Cook stirs a pot of some sort of acrid tea over a cook fire. “Do you know what day it is?”

I open my mouth to respond, but Cook cuts me off.

“It’s the day of the Grain Moon,” she says. “We lost our chance to get to the Blood Shrike. By tomorrow, the city will be breached. The Martials are stretched too thin, and there’s no relief in sight.”

She takes a sniff of the tea and adds something else to it. “Girl,” she says, “you trained with your”—she takes a deep breath—“grandfather,” she spits out, “in healing?”

“For a year and a half or so.”

She nods thoughtfully. “As did I,” she said. “Before I ran away like a damned fool. When did he take you to meet Nelle, the apothecary?”

“Uh . . .” I am bewildered that she knows about Nelle, until I remember, yet again, that of course she would know Nelle. Pop trained

my mother from when she turned twelve until she was sixteen, when she left home to join the Resistance.

“It was at the beginning of my training,” I say. “Maybe three months in.” Nelle showed me how to make dozens of poultices and teas from basic ingredients. Most of the remedies were things that only a woman needs—for moon cycles and to prevent the getting of child.

She nods. “That’s what I thought.” She pours the foul tea into a waiting gourd and corks it. I think she is going to give it to me, but instead she stands. “Change the dressing on your wounds,” she says. “You’ll find everything you need there. Stay inside. I’ll be back.”

While she’s gone, I change the dressings, but I can’t stop thinking about the blast, the Nightbringer throwing me out of the way, the brother and sister who died. Skies, they were so young. That little girl couldn’t have been older than ten and her little brother—Najaam—no more than seven. I promised my parents I’d keep him safe.

“I am sorry,” I whisper.

I could have saved them if I had moved faster, if I had not taken the route I did. How many other Scholar children have been ordered to stay in the city? How many others have no way out? How many are expected to die along with their Martial overlords if the Karkauns take Antium?

Musa’s voice rings in my head. We need you as a voice for the Scholars. We need you as our scim and shield.

Though Cook told me not to, I leave the crumbling little shack in which we’ve taken shelter and walk outside, wincing from the way the movement pulls at the gash on my face.

The house I am in faces a large square. There are heaps of rubble on either side and more dilapidated cottages beyond them. Across the square, dozens of Scholars remove the bricks of a still-smoking shack, trying to get to those trapped inside.

Boots thud beyond the square, their rhythmic tattoo growing louder.

Quick as lightning, word spreads. The Scholars disappear into their houses as the patrol marches into the square. The house I am in is set back, but still, I make my way up the stairs, dagger in hand. I crouch beside a window to watch the patrol’s progress, waiting for the screams of the Scholars.

I hear only a few, from those the Martials have found and dragged out, whipping them into a line to no doubt save Martial lives from the Karkauns’ destruction.

When the Martials are gone, the remaining Scholars emerge again, back at the rubble of the ruined house. I am wondering how they

communicated so quickly when the stairwell creaks. “Girl,” Cook rasps, “are you here?”

When I get down the stairs, she jerks her head to the north. “Come with me,” she says. “And don’t ask questions.” She no longer holds the gourd of tea, and I want to know what she has done with it. But I hold my tongue. As we head through the square, Cook does not spare a glance for the Scholars.

“Cook.” I run to catch up with her. It’s as if she knows what I am planning to ask. “These people. We could help them. Get them out of here.”

“We could.” She sounds utterly unsurprised at my suggestion. “And then you could watch as the Nightbringer takes the ring from the Shrike, sets his accursed subjects free, and destroys our world.”

“I am the one who has to get the ring,” I say. “Not you. You could rally the Scholars, show them the way out of here. You said yourself that the Karkauns will overrun the city. What do you think will happen to these people when they do?”

As I speak, we slink past a group of Scholars putting out a fire alongside Martial auxes. They are children—teenagers dragging buckets of water when they should be getting the hells out of here.

“That’s not our problem,” Cook hisses, and grabs me, pulling me away before the aux soldiers see us and press us into service. “I have other things to do while you get the ring.”

What other things?”

“Retribution!” Cook says. “That bitch of a Commandant is here, and by the skies, I’ll—”

“You’d trade vengeance on Keris Veturia for thousands of lives?” “Getting rid of her would save thousands more. I have waited years

for this. And now, finally—”

“I don’t bleeding care,” I say to her. “Whatever your vengeance is, whether it works or not, it is not as important as the Scholar children who will die if there is no one to help them. Please—”

“We’re not gods, girl. We can’t save everyone. The Scholars have survived this long. They’ll survive a bit longer. The mission is all that matters. Come now. There’s little time.” She nods to a building ahead. “That’s the Black Guard barracks. The Shrike will be arriving within the hour. When that happens, you’ll know what to do.”

“What—that’s it? How am I supposed to get in? How do I—”

“You need a plan that the Nightbringer can’t pick out of your head,” she rasps. “I’ve just given you one. There’s a stack of clean uniforms in a

basket outside the gates. Take it in and up to the laundry closet on the second floor. Watch the hallway from that closet. When the time comes, you’ll know what to do. And if the Shrike threatens you, tell her I sent you. Go.”

“You—why would I—do you know her?” “Move, girl!”

I take two steps, then turn back. “Cook.” I look in the direction of the Scholar neightborhood. “Please, just tell them—”

“I’ll be waiting here for your return.” Cook grabs my daggers from me, including the one Elias gave me, ignoring my protests as she glances about furtively. “Hurry up, or you’ll get us both killed.”

Uneasy without my blades, I go around to the front of the barracks. What does Cook have planned for me? How will I know what to do? I spot the basket of clean laundry and balance it against my hip. Taking a deep breath, I pass through the front gates and across the cobblestone courtyard.

The ground rumbles, and across the street, a projectile slams into a building, leveling it in seconds. The two legionnaires who guard the barracks entrance take cover, as do I. When it’s clear no more missiles are coming this way, I make for the door, hoping the legionnaires will be too distracted to notice me. No such luck.

“You there.” One of them holds out a hand. “We need to search the basket.”

Oh skies.

“No idea why we even need uniforms,” the other legionnaire says. “We’re all dead anyway.”

“Shut it, Eddius.” The legionnaire finishes searching the basket and waves me on. “Go on, girl.”

The central room of the barracks is lined with cots, perhaps for men to sleep on while taking shifts at the wall. But they all stand empty. No one in the entire damned city is sleeping through this.

Though it’s clear the barracks are almost entirely abandoned, I skirt the cots carefully and skulk up the stairs, unnerved by the silence of the place. At the top of the stairs, a long hallway stretches into darkness. The doors are shut, but from behind one, clothing rustles and someone gasps in pain. I keep walking and get to a laundry closet. The cries continue.

Someone must be injured.

After half an hour, the cries transform into screams. It is definitely a woman, and for a moment I wonder, is it the Shrike? Has Cook injured her? Am I supposed to go into the room and take the ring while she lies

dying? I creep out of the laundry closet and inch down the hall toward the cries. A male speaks, and it sounds like he’s trying to soothe the woman.

Another scream. This time I cock my head. It doesn’t sound like someone who is injured. In fact, it sounds like—

“Where is she?” The woman wails, and a door in the hallway slams open. I bolt back into the laundry closet just after catching a glimpse of a woman pacing the room. At first, I think she is the Blood Shrike. But she has no mask, and she is very pregnant.

In that moment, I understand the sounds that came from the room. I understand why Cook asked me if I’d met Nelle. Nelle taught me remedies for moon-cycle pain and ways to prevent pregnancy—but she also showed me tricks for relieving pain during childbirth and afterward. I had to learn them because delivering babies was one of the very first things Pop taught me, one of the main things he did as a healer.

And I understand, finally, how I am going to get the ring from the Blood Shrike.

L: Elias

You'll Also Like