Chapter no 53 – Laia

A Reaper at the Gates

Cook finds me beside the stables moments after Elias disappears. I stare after him, disbelieving. He is not the Elias I left even two

weeks ago, the Elias who brought me back from the Nightbringer’s hell, who told me that we would find a way.

But then I remember what he said: If I seem different, remember that I love you. No matter what happens to me.

What in the skies happened to him? What was it inside me that lashed out at him? I think of what the Nightbringer said to me in Adisa: You know not the darkness that lies within your own heart.

Deal with Elias later, Laia. My mind reels. The city has fallen. I have failed. And the Scholar slaves—they are trapped here. Antium is surrounded on three sides. Only the north end, built against Mount Videnns, is not overrun with Karkauns.

That is where Cook and I entered the city, and that is how we will escape. That is how we will help the Scholars escape.

Because I know this feeling sweeping through me far too well, the feeling that all my effort, all I have worked for, means nothing. That everything and everyone is a lie. That all is cruel and unforgiving and that there is no justice.

I have survived this feeling before, and I will survive it again. In this fiery hellscape of a world, this mess of blood and madness, justice exists only for those who take it. I’ll be damned if I’m not one of them.

“Girl.” Cook appears from the streets. “What has happened?”

“Is the Mariner Embassy still clear?” I ask her as we head away from the sounds of fighting. “Have the Karkauns taken that district, or can we escape that way?”

“We can escape.”

“Good,” I say. “We’re getting as many Scholars out as we can—do you understand? I’m going to send them to you at the embassy. I need you to tell them where to go.”

“The Karkauns have broken through to the city’s second level.

They’ll be at the embassy in a matter of hours, and then what will you do? Escape with me now. The Scholars will find their own way out.”

“They will not,” I say. “Because there is no way out. We’re surrounded on three sides. They don’t know there are escape routes.”

“Let someone else do this.”

“There is no one else! There is only us.”

This is a stupid idea,” Cook says, “that’s going to get us both killed.”

“I have never asked anything of you.” I grab her hands, and she flinches, but I hold tight to her. “I never had the opportunity. I am asking you to do this for me. Please. I’ll send them to the embassy. You lead them out.”

I do not wait for her response. I turn and run, knowing that she will not say no—not after what I just said to her.

The Scholar’s District is in a panic, with people packing and searching for relatives and trying to fathom how they will escape the city. I stop one of the girls I see running across the main square. She looks a few years younger than me.

“Where is everyone going?” I ask her.

“No one knows where to go!” she wails. “I can’t find my mother, and the Martials are all gone—they must have started evacuating the city, but no one told us.”

“My name is Laia of Serra,” I say. “The Karkauns have broken through. They will be here soon, but I’m going to help you leave. Do you know where the Mariner Embassy is?”

She nods, and I heave a sigh of relief. “Tell everyone, every Scholar you see, to go to the Mariner Embassy. A scar-faced woman will take you out of the city. Tell them to go now, to leave their things and run.”

The girl nods rapidly and runs away. I grab another Scholar, a man Darin’s age, and give him the same message. Whoever will stop, whoever will listen, I tell them to go to the embassy. To find the scar-faced woman. I see recognition in the eyes of a few when I tell them my name, but the sounds of fighting draw closer, and no one is stupid enough to ask questions. The message spreads, and soon the Scholars are fleeing the square en masse.

I hope to the skies everyone in the district gets the message, then I plunge into the city. The girl was right—the only Martials I see are soldiers, all of whom are running toward the fighting. I think of the wagon trains I saw leaving when Cook and I were approaching Antium. The wealthiest of the Martials left here weeks ago. They gave up on their capital and left the soldiers and the Plebeians and the Scholars to die.

I spot a group of Scholars clearing rubble under the direction of two Martials who aren’t paying attention because they are listening to drum messages. They discuss the messages in low, urgent tones, as aware of the sounds of nearby fighting as I am. I use the Martials’ distraction to sneak up to the Scholars.

“We can’t simply run.” A woman glances at the Martials fearfully. “They’ll come after us.”

“You must,” I say. “If you don’t run from them now, you’ll be running from the Karkauns, but by then, you’ll have nowhere to go.”

Another woman in the group hears, drops her pick, and breaks away, and that is all the other Scholars need. Three score of them scatter, the adults grabbing the few children, all disappearing in a dozen directions before the Martials can even understand what is happening.

I urge the Scholars on and stop to warn any others I see, asking them to pass on the message. By the time I reach the Foreign District, I see hundreds of Scholars streaming toward the embassy.

A fight spills into the streets in front of me. A group of Martial auxes battles a much larger force of Karkauns. Though the Barbarian steel breaks on the auxes’ scims, the Martials are hard-pressed, overwhelmed by sheer numbers. If this is happening all over the city, then the Barbarians will be in control of Antium by nightfall.

I skirt around the battle, and when I get to the embassy, Scholars spill out the doors. Cook’s grumpy, raspy voice is instantly recognizable as she orders everyone down the steps and into the tunnels.

“About bleeding time!” Cook says when she sees me. “Get down there. A few of these slaves know the way out. Follow—” Cook sees my face and groans when she realizes that I have no plans to leave—at least not until everyone is through.

Even as she speaks, more Scholars arrive. I see Martials now too, most of whom are Plebeians, judging by their clothing. They are drawn by the crowd, assuming rightly that there is a reason so many Scholars flock here.

“Bleeding hells, girl,” Cook says. “Do you see what you’ve done?”

I gesture the Martials in. “I’m not going to tell a mother with a crying child she can’t escape through here,” I snap. “I don’t care if she’s Martial or not. Are you?”

“Damn you, girl,” Cook snarls. “You’re just like your f-f-f-fath—” She presses her mouth closed and turns away in frustration. “Move, you bleeding sloths!” She unleashes her wrath on the Scholars closest to her. “There are hundreds behind you who want to live as badly as you do!”

Urged on by Cook’s threats, the Scholars slowly make their way through the tunnels, and the embassy begins to empty—but not swiftly enough. The Karkauns are closing in, pouring through the streets. The Martials are overcome.

As I watch, I see an aux squad go down, blood and viscera spraying the air red. And despite the fact that I know the Empire’s evils firsthand, my eyes grow hot. I will never understand the savagery of war, even when it is my foes being destroyed.

“Time to go, girl.” Cook appears at my shoulder and shoves me down the steps to the cellar. I do not protest. No doubt there are Scholars still left in the city. But I have done what I can.

“Help me with this.” She bars the cellar door, her hands steady. Above, glass breaks, followed by the harsh barks of the Karkauns.

Cook fiddles with something in the door, eventually pulling out what looks like a very long candle wick. Moments later, it is sparking.

“Take cover!” We run to the door that leads to the tunnel, pulling it shut just as the ground begins shuddering. The tunnels groan, and for long moments, I worry that stones above us will collapse. But when the dust clears, the passageway has held, and I turn to Cook.

“Explosives? How?”

“The Mariners had a stockpile,” Cook says. “Musa’s little friends showed me. Well, girl, that’s it. Tunnel’s sealed. Now what?”

“Now,” I say, “we get the hells out of this city.”

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