Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(17)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(17)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

“Shaev . . . ah, the Bani al-Mauth.” I suddenly find it hard to speak. “She’s . . . dead. I’m her replacement. She was training me when—”

Aubarit drops so fast, I think her heart has failed.

“Banu al-Mauth, forgive me.” I note the alteration of the title to reflect a male instead of a female—which is when I realize that she has not had some sort of fainting fit. She is kneeling. “I did not know.”

“No need for that.” I pull her to her feet, embarrassed at her awe. “I’m struggling to pass the ghosts on,” I say. “I need to use the magic at the heart of the Waiting Place, but I don’t know how. The ghosts are building up. Every day there are more.”

Aubarit blanches, and her knuckles pale as she clasps her hands together. “This—this cannot be, Banu al-Mauth. You must pass them on. If you do not—”

“What happens?” I lean forward. “You spoke of Mysteries—how did you learn them? Are they written down? Scrolls? Books?”

The Fakira taps her head. “To write down the Mysteries is to rob them of their power. Only the Fakirs and Fakiras learn them, for we are with the dead as they leave the world of the living. We wash them and commune with their spirits so they move easily through the Jaga al-Mauth and to the other side. The Soul Catcher does not see them—she—you—are not meant to.”

Have you ever wondered why there are so few ghosts from the Tribes? Shaeva’s words.

“Do your Mysteries say anything of the Waiting Place’s magic?”

“No, Banu al-Mauth,” Aubarit says. “Though . . .” Her voice drops and takes on the cadence of a long-memorized chant. “If thou seekest the truth in the trees, the Forest will show thee its sly memory.”

“A memory?” I frown—Shaeva said nothing of this. “The trees have seen much, no doubt. But the magic I have doesn’t allow me to speak with them.”

Aubarit shakes her head. “The Mysteries are rarely literal. Forest could mean the trees—or it could be referring to something else entirely.”

Metaphorical talking trees won’t help me. “What of the Bani al-Mauth?” I ask. “Did you ever meet her? Did she speak to you of the magic or how she did her work?”

“I met her once, when Grandfather chose me as his apprentice. She gave me her benediction. I thought . . . I thought she sent you to help us.”

“Help you?” I say sharply. “With the Martials?”

“No, with—” She swallows back the words. “Do not concern yourself with such trifles, Banu al-Mauth. You must move the spirits, and to do that you must remove yourself from the world, not waste your time helping strangers.”

“Tell me what’s going on,” I say. “I can decide whether it concerns me or not.”

Aubarit wrings her hands in indecision, but when I chuff expectantly, she speaks, her voice low. “Our Fakirs and Fakiras,” she says, “they’re dying. A few were killed in Martial attacks. But others . . .” She shakes her head. “My grandfather was found in a pond just a few feet deep. His lungs were filled with water—but he knew how to swim.”

“His heart might have failed.”

“He was strong as a bull and not yet in his sixth decade. That’s only part of it, Banu al-Mauth. I struggled to reach his spirit. You must understand, I have been training as a Fakira since I could speak. I have never fought to commune with a spirit. This time, it felt as if something was blocking me. When I succeeded, Grandfather’s ghost was deeply troubled—it would not speak to me. Something is wrong. I’ve not heard from the other Fakirs—everyone is so concerned with the Martials. But this—this is bigger than that. And I do not know what to do.”

A sharp tug nearly pulls me to my feet. I sense impatience on the other end. Perhaps Mauth doesn’t wish me to learn this information. Perhaps the magic wants me to remain ignorant.

“Get word out to your Fakirs,” I say. “Their wagons should no longer be set apart from the rest of the caravan, by order of the Banu al-Mauth, who has expressed concern for their safety. And tell them to have their wagons repainted to match the others in the Tribe. It will make it more difficult for your enemies to find you—” I stop short. The pull at my core is strong enough that I feel like I might be sick. But I press on, because no one else is going to help Aubarit or the Fakirs.

“Ask the other Fakirs if they are also finding it hard to commune with the spirits,” I say. “And find out if it’s ever happened before.”

“The other Fakirs don’t listen to me.”

“You are new to your power.” I need to go, but I cannot just leave her here, doubting herself, doubting her worth. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have it. Think of the way your Kehanni wears her strength, like it’s her own skin. That’s who you must be. For your people.”

Mauth pulls me yet again, forcefully enough that, against my will, I stand. “I have to return to the Waiting Place,” I say. “If you need me, come to the border of the Forest. I’ll know you’re there. But do not try to enter.”

Moments later, I’m back out in the heavy rain. Lightning cracks over the Waiting Place, and I feel it hit within my domain: north, near the cabin, and closer, near the river. The awareness feels innate, like knowing I’ve gotten a cut or bite.

As I windwalk home, I turn Aubarit’s words over in my head. Shaeva never told me the Fakirs were so deeply connected to her work. She never mentioned that they knew of her existence, let alone that they had built an entire mythology around her. All I knew about the Fakirs was what most Tribespeople know about them—that they handle the dead and that they are to be revered, albeit with more fear than one would revere a Zaldar or a Kehanni.

Maybe if I’d bleeding paid attention, I’d have noticed a connection. The Tribes have always been deeply wary of the Forest. Afya hates being near it, and Tribe Saif never came within fifty leagues of it when I was a child.

As I near the Waiting Place, Mauth’s pull, which by now should have weakened, gets stronger. Does he simply want me to come back? Does he want something more?

The border is finally before me, and the moment I pass through, I am blasted by the howls of the ghosts. Their rage has peaked—transformed into something violent and deranged. How in the ten hells did they get so riled up in the hour that I was gone?

They press close to the border with a strange, single-minded focus. At first, I think that they are all pushing at something close to the wall. A dead animal? A dead body?

But as I shove past them, shuddering at the chills rippling through my body, I realize that they aren’t pressing at something near the wall. They are pushing at the wall itself.

They are trying to get out.

XIII: The Blood Shrike

The southern sky is stained black with smoke when the riverboat finally begins the approach to Navium. The rain that has drenched us for the past two weeks lingers on the horizon, taunting us, refusing to provide any relief. The Empire’s greatest port city burns, and my people burn with it.

Avitas joins me on the wide prow while Dex barks orders at the captain to move faster. Thunder echoes—Navium’s drums issuing coded orders with a frenzy one only ever hears during an attack.

Harper’s silver face is tight, his mouth drawn down in what is almost a frown. He’s spent hours on the road teaching me to close my mind against intrusion, which meant a great deal of time staring into each other’s faces. I’ve gotten to know his well. Whatever news he’s about to deliver, it’s bad.

“Grímarr and his forces attacked at dawn three weeks ago,” he says. “Our spies say the Karkauns have been hit by a famine in the south. Tens of thousands dead. They’ve been raiding the southern coast for months now, but we had outdated information on the fleet they’d amassed. They showed up with more than three hundred ships and struck the merchant harbor first. Of the two hundred fifty merchant vessels at port, two hundred forty-three were destroyed.”

That’s a blow the Mercator Gens won’t soon forget. “Countermeasures?”

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