A Reaper at the Gates Page 2

Once more. Only once more.

My queen speaks. Do not do this. Please.

I crush her voice. I crush her memory. I think I will not hear her again.

II: Laia

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.

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