"Indeed." Nikla tilts her head, and the lamplight makes her eyes as red as the ghuls'. Did the Nightbringer set the ghuls on her? Is she another of his human allies, like the Warden or the Commandant?
"I have an offer for you, Darin of Serra," Nikla goes on. "If you've any sense, you'll see that it's more than fair. You wish to make Serric steel. Very well. Make Serric steel--for the Mariner army. We will provide you what you need, as well as accommodations for you and your sister--"
"No." Darin's gaze is fixed to the floor, and he shakes his head. "I won't do it."
Won't, I note. Not can't. A spark of hope flares within. Does my brother remember how to make the steel after all? Did something on the road from the Forest of Dusk to Adisa shake loose, allowing him to recall that which Spiro had taught him?
"I won't do it." Darin stands, towering over Nikla by half a foot. Eleiba steps in front of the princess, but Darin speaks quietly, hands open at his sides. "I won't arm another group of people so that my own can live at their mercy."
"Please let us go." I kick out at the ghuls, scattering them for a moment before they congeal around Nikla again. "We don't mean you any harm, and you have greater things to worry about than two Scholars who want to stay out of trouble. The Empire has turned on the Tribes, and it might turn on Marinn too."
"The Martials have a treaty with Marinn."
"They had a treaty with the Tribes too," I say. "And yet hundreds have been killed or captured in the Tribal desert. This new emperor--you do not know him, Princess. He's . . . different. He's not someone you can work with. He's--"
"Don't talk politics to me, little girl." She doesn't see the ghul that clings to the side of her face, its mouth split in an odious smile. The sight of it nauseates me. "I was a force to be reckoned with in my father's court well before you were born." She turns to Darin. "My offer stands. Make weapons for my army, or take your chances in the Tribal lands. You have until dawn tomorrow to decide."
* * *
Darin and I don't bother discussing Nikla's offer. I know there is no chance in the hells that he would accept. The ghuls have their hooks in her--which likely means the Nightbringer has a hand in Mariner politics. The last thing the Scholars need is another group lording it over us because we do not have the weapons for a fair fight.
"You said won't." I considered long and hard before bringing up Darin's seemingly offhand comment. My brother paces the cell, antsy as a penned horse. "When Nikla asked you to make the weapons, you didn't say you can't do it. You said you won't."
"Slip of the tongue." Darin stops his pacing, his back to me, and though it stings to admit it, he's lying. Do I push him or let it go?
You've been letting it go, Laia. Letting it go means Izzi died for nothing. It means Elias was imprisoned for nothing. It means Afya's cousin died for nothing.
I try a different tack. "Do you think Spiro--"
"Could we not talk about Spiro, or weaponry, or forging?" Darin sits down beside me, shoulders slumped, as if the walls of the cell are making him smaller. He clenches and unclenches his fists. "How the hells are we going to get out of here?"
"An excellent question," a soft voice says from the door. I jump--seconds ago, it was sealed shut. "One that I might have a solution to, if you care to hear it."
A young, dark-skinned Scholar man leans against the doorframe, in full view of the guards. Except, I realize, there are no guards to see him. They have disappeared.
The man is handsome, with black hair that's half pulled up and the rangy body of a swordsman. His forearms are tattooed, though in the darkness, I cannot make out the symbols. He tosses a key up and down like a ball. There is an insouciance to him that irritates me. The glint of his eyes and his wily smile are instantly familiar.
"I know you." I take a step back, wishing I had my dagger with me. "You're our shadow."
The man drops into a mocking bow, and I am immediately distrustful. Darin bristles.
"I am Musa of Adisa," the man says. "Son of Ziad and Azmath of Adisa. Grandson of Mehr and Saira of Adisa. I am also the only friend you have in this city."
"You said you have a solution to our problem." Trusting this man would be stupid, but Darin and I need to get the hells out of here. All Nikla's talk about putting us on a ship sounded like rubbish. She will not let a man who knows the secret of Serric steel simply walk away.
"I'll get you two out of here--for a price."
Naturally. "What price?"
"You"--he looks at Darin--"will make weapons for the Scholars. And you"--he turns to me--"will help me resurrect the northern Scholar's Resistance."
In the long silence that follows his proclamation, I want to laugh. If our circumstances were less dire, I would have. "No thank you. I've had enough of the bleeding Resistance--and those who support it."
"I expected you to say as much," Musa says. "After the way Mazen and Keenan betrayed you." He offers a grim smile as my fists curl, and I stare at him in shock. How does he know?
"Apologies," he says. "Not Keenan. The Nightbringer. In any case, your mistrust is understandable. But you need to stop the jinn lord, no? Which means you need out of here."
Darin and I gape at him. I get my voice back first. "How do you know about the--"
"I watch. I listen." Musa taps his foot and glances down the hall. His shoulders stiffen. Voices rise and fall from beyond the door to the cellblock, sharp and hurried. "Decide," he says. "We're nearly out of time."
"No." Darin speaks for us both, and I frown. It's unlike him. "You should leave. Unless you want to get thrown in here with us."
"I'd heard you were stubborn." Musa sighs. "Listen to logic, at least. Even if you do find your way out of here, how will you find the Beekeeper while the Mariners hunt you? Especially if he doesn't want to be found?"
"How did--" I stop myself from asking. He's already told me. He watches. He listens. "You know the Beekeeper."
"I swear I'll take you to him." Musa cuts his hand, blood dripping on the floor, and I raise my eyebrows. A blood oath is no small thing. "After I get you out of here. If you agree to my terms. But we need to move. Now."
"Darin." I grab my brother's arm and drag him to a corner of the cell. "If he can take us to the Beekeeper, we'll
save weeks of time."
"I don't trust him," Darin says. "You know I want to get out of here as much as you do. More. But I won't make a promise I can't keep, and neither should you. Why does he want you to help him with the Resistance? What's in it for him? Why not do it himself?"
"I don't trust him either," I say. "But he's offering us a way out." I consider my brother. I consider his lie earlier. And though I don't want to hurt him, I know that if we ever want to get out of here, I have to.
"Pardon me," Musa says. "But we really need to--"
"Shut it," I snap at him before turning back to Darin. "You lied to me," I say. "About the weapons. No"--I raise my hand at his protest--"I'm not angry. But I don't think you understand what you're doing. You're choosing not to make the weapons. It's a selfish choice. Our people need you, Darin. And that should matter more than your desires or your pain. You saw what's happening out there to the Scholars," I say. "It's not going to stop. Even if I defeat the Nightbringer, we'll always be lesser unless we can stand up for ourselves. We need Serric steel."
"Laia, I want to make it, I do--"
"Then try," I say. "That's all I'm asking. Try. For Izzi. For Afya, who has lost a half dozen of her Tribe trying to help us. For"--my voice cracks--"for Elias. For the life he gave up for you."
Darin's blue eyes widen in surprise and hurt. His demons rise, demanding his attention. But somewhere beneath the fear, he is still the Lioness's son, and this time, the quiet courage he has had all our lives wins out.
"Where you go, sis," he says, "I go. I'll try."
In seconds, Musa--who has been shamelessly eavesdropping--gestures us into the hall. The moment Darin is out, he grabs Musa by the neck and shoves him against the wall. I hear a sound like an animal chittering, but it goes silent after Musa makes a strange slashing motion with his hand. A ghul?
"If you hurt my sister," Darin says quietly, "if you betray her, or abuse her trust or cause her pain, I swear to the skies I will kill you."
Musa chokes out an answer, and as Darin lets him down, keys clang in the door down the hall. Seconds later, it flies open and Eleiba enters, scim drawn.
"Musa!" she snarls. "I should have bleeding known. You are under arrest."
"Well, now you've done it." Musa rubs his neck where Darin grabbed him, mild irritation on his fine features. "We could have been away by now if not for your brotherly posturing." With that, he whispers something, and Eleiba falls back, cursing, as if something we cannot see attacks her.