Everything about this raid feels wrong. Darin and I both know it, even if neither of us is willing to say it.
Though my brother does not speak much these days.
The ghost wagons we track finally roll to a stop outside a Martial village. I rise from the snow-heavy bushes where we’ve taken cover and nod to Darin. He grabs my hand and squeezes. Be safe.
I reach for my invisibility, a power awoken within me recently, and one that I’m still settling into. My breath wreathes up in white clouds, like a snake undulating to some unknowable song. Elsewhere in the Empire, spring has scattered its blossoms. But this close to Antium, the capital, winter still whips its chill fingers across our faces.
Midnight passes, and the few lamps that burn in the village sputter in the rising wind. When I am through the perimeter of the prisoner caravan, I pitch my voice low and hoot like a snowy owl, common enough in this part of the Empire.
As I prowl toward the ghost wagons, my skin prickles. I whirl, my instinct rearing in warning. The nearby ridgeline is empty, and the Martial auxiliary soldiers on guard do not so much as twitch. Nothing appears amiss.
You’re just jumpy, Laia. Like always. From our camp on the outskirts of the Waiting Place, twenty miles from here, Darin and I have planned and carried out six raids on Empire prisoner caravans. My brother has not forged a single scrap of Serric steel. I have not responded to the letters from Araj, the Scholar leader who escaped Kauf Prison with us. But together with Afya Ara-Nur and her men, we have helped to free more than four hundred Scholars and Tribesmen over the past two months.
Still, that does not guarantee success with this caravan. For this caravan is different.
Beyond the perimeter, familiar black-clad figures move in on the camp from the trees. Afya and her men, responding to my signal, preparing to attack. Their presence gives me heart. The Tribeswoman who helped me free Darin from Kauf is the only reason we know of these ghost wagons-and the prisoner they transport.
The lock picks are blades of ice in my hand. Six wagons sit in a half circle, with two supply carts sheltered between them. Most of the soldiers busy themselves with the horses and campfires. Snow gusts down in flurries, stinging my face as I get to the first wagon and begin working the lock. The pins within are enigmas to my freezing, clumsy hands. Faster, Laia.
The wagon is silent, as if empty. But I know better. Soon, the whimper of a child breaks the quiet. It is quickly shushed. The prisoners have learned that silence is the only way to avoid suffering.
“Where the burning hells is everybody?” a voice bellows near my ear. I nearly drop my picks. A legionnaire strides past, and a tendril of panic unfurls down my spine. I do not dare to breathe. What if he sees me? What if my invisibility falters? It has happened before, when I am under attack, or in a large crowd.
“Wake up the innkeeper.” The legionnaire turns to the aux hastening toward him. “Tell him to roll out a keg and prepare rooms.”
“Inn’s empty, sir. Village looks abandoned.”
Martials do not abandon villages, even in the dead of winter. Not unless a plague has come through. But Afya would have heard if that were the case.
Their reasons for leaving are not your concern, Laia. Get the locks open.
The aux and the legionnaire stalk off toward the inn. The moment they are out of sight, I get my picks in the lock. But the metal groans, stiff with rime.
Come on! Without Elias Veturius to get through half the locks, I have to work twice as fast. I have no time to think of my friend, and yet I cannot quell my worry. His presence during the raids has kept us from being caught. He said he would be here.
What in the skies could have happened to Elias? He’s never let me down. Not when it comes to the raids, anyway. Did Shaeva learn that he snuck Darin and me back across the Waiting Place from the cottage in the Free Lands? Is she punishing him?
I know little of the Soul Catcher-she is shy, and I assumed she did not like me. Some days, when Elias emerges from the Waiting Place to visit me and Darin, I feel the jinn woman watching us and I sense no rancor. Only sadness. But skies know, I’m no judge of hidden malice.
If it were any other caravan-any other prisoner we were attempting to break out-I would not have risked Darin, or the Tribespeople, or myself.
But we owe it to Mamie Rila and the rest of the Saif prisoners to try to free them. Elias’s Tribal mother sacrificed her body, freedom, and Tribe so I could save Darin. I cannot fail her.
Elias is not here. You’re alone. Move!
The lock finally springs open, and I make for the next wagon. In the trees just yards away, Afya must be cursing at the delay. The longer I take, the more likely it is that the Martials will catch us.
When I crack the last lock, I croon a signal. Snick. Snick. Snick. Darts hurtle through the air. The Martials at the perimeter drop silently, left insensate by the rare southern poison coating the darts. A half dozen Tribesmen approach the soldiers and slit their throats.
I look away, though I still hear the tear of flesh, the rattle of a final breath. I know it must be done. Without Serric steel, Afya’s people cannot face the Martials head on, lest their blades break. But there is an efficiency to the killing that freezes my blood. I wonder if I will ever get used to it.
A small form appears out of the shadows, weapon glinting. The intricate tattoos that mark her as a Zaldara, the head of her Tribe, are concealed by long, dark sleeves. I hiss at Afya Ara-Nur so she knows where I am.
“Took you long enough.” She glances around, black and red braids swinging. “Where in the ten hells is Elias? Can he disappear now too?” Elias finally told Afya of the Waiting Place, of his death in Kauf
Prison, of his resurrection and his agreement with Shaeva. That day, the Tribeswoman cursed him roundly for a fool before finding me. Forget him now, Laia, she had said. It’s damned stupid to fall for a once-dead ghost-talker, I don’t care how pretty he is.
“Elias didn’t come.”
Afya swears in Sadhese and moves toward the wagons. She explains softly to the prisoners that they must follow her men, that they must make no noise.
Shouts and the high twang of a bow echo from the village, fifty yards from where I stand. I leave Afya behind and sprint toward the houses where, in a darkened alley outside the village inn, Afya’s fighters dance away from a half dozen Empire soldiers, including the legionnaire in command. Tribal arrows and darts fly, deft counters to the Martials’ deadly blades. I dash into the fray, slamming the hilt of my dagger into an aux’s temple. I needn’t have bothered. The soldiers go down quickly.
There must be more men nearby-a hidden force. Or a Mask lurking, unseen.
“Laia.” I jump at my name. Darin’s golden skin is dark with mud to hide his presence. A hood covers the unruly, honey-colored hair that has finally grown in. Looking at him, no one would ever know he’d survived six months in Kauf Prison. But within his mind, my brother battles demons still. It is those demons that have kept him from making Serric steel.
He’s here now, I tell myself sternly. Fighting. Helping. The weapons will come when he’s ready.
“Mamie isn’t here,” he says, turning when I tap his shoulder, voice haggard with disuse. “I found her foster son, Shan. He said the soldiers took her from her wagon when the caravan stopped for the night.”
“She must be in the village,” I say. “Get the prisoners out of here. I’ll find her.”
“The village shouldn’t be empty,” Darin says. “This doesn’t feel right.
You go. I’ll look for Mamie.”
“One of you bleeding needs to find her.” Afya appears behind us. “Because I’m not going to do it, and we have to get the prisoners hidden.”
“If something goes wrong,” I say, “I can use my invisibility to slip away. I’ll meet you back at the camp as soon as I can.”
My brother raises his eyebrows, considering my words in his quiet way. When he chooses to be, he is as immovable as the mountains-just like our mother was.
“I go where you go, sis. Elias would agree. He knows-“
“If you are so chummy with Elias,” I hiss, “then tell him that the next time he commits to helping with a raid, he needs to follow through.” Darin’s mouth curves in a brief, crooked smile. Mother’s smile.
“Laia, I know you’re angry at him, but he-“
“Skies save me from the men in my life and all the things they think they know. Get out of here. Afya needs you. The prisoners need you.
Before he protests, I dart into the village. It is no more than a hundred cottages with thatched roofs that sag beneath the snow, and narrow, dim streets. The wind wails through neatly tended gardens, and I nearly trip over a broom abandoned in a lane. The villagers left this place recently, I sense, and with haste.
I tread carefully, wary of what might lurk in the shadows. The stories whispered in taverns and around Tribal campfires haunt me: wraiths tearing out the throats of Mariner sailors. Scholar families found in burned-out encampments in the Free Lands. Wights-tiny winged menaces-destroying wagons and tormenting livestock.
All of it, I’m certain, is the foul handiwork of the creature that called itself Keenan.
I pause to peek through the front window of a darkened cottage. In the stygian night, I can see nothing. As I move to the next house, my guilt circles in the ocean of my mind, scenting my weakness. You gave the Nightbringer the armlet, it hisses. You fell prey to his manipulation. He is a step closer to destroying the Scholars. When he finds the rest of the Star, he’ll set the jinn free. Then what, Laia?
But it could take the Nightbringer years to find the next piece of the Star, I reason to myself. And there might be more than one piece left.
There might be dozens.
A flicker of light ahead. I tear my thoughts from the Nightbringer and move toward a cottage along the north edge of the village. Its door stands ajar. A lamp burns within. The door is propped wide enough that I can slip through without disturbing it. Anyone planning an ambush would see nothing.
Once inside, it takes a moment for my vision to adjust. When it does, I stifle a cry. Mamie Rila sits tied to a chair, a gaunt shadow of her former self. Her dark skin hangs loosely on her frame, and her thick, curly hair has been shaved off.
I almost go to her. But some old instinct stops me, crying out from deep within my mind.
A boot thumps behind me. Startled, I whirl, and a floorboard creaks beneath my feet. I catch a telltale flash of liquid silver-Mask!-just as a hand locks around my mouth and my arms are wrenched behind my back.