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Page 21

I, on the other hand, might still find a way out of the bargain Musa insisted on. You will help me resurrect the northern Scholar's Resistance. Why has Musa not done it already? He has resources. And there must be hundreds of Scholars who would join up--especially after the Empire's genocide.

Something else is going on--something he's not telling me.

After a much-needed bath, I make my way downstairs, clad in a wool dress of deep red and soft new boots that are only a little big. The ping of steel on steel echoes in the courtyard, and two women laugh over the din. Though the courtyard houses the forge, the building I'm in has the personal touches of a house--thick rugs, a shawl thrown over a bureau, and cheerful Tribal lanterns. At the foot of the stairs, a long, wide hall leads to a drawing room. The door is ajar, and Musa's voice carries through.

"--very knowledgeable and can assist you," Musa says. "When can you start?"

A long pause. "Now. But it will take me a bit to get the formula right. There is much I don't remember." Darin sounds stronger than he has in weeks. Rest and a bath must have done him good.

"Then I'll introduce you to the smiths here. They make pots, pans, horseshoes--enough household items to justify the amount of ore and coal we'll need."

Someone clears her throat loudly behind me. The sounds of smithing have stopped, I realize, and I turn to find the silver-haired, brown-skinned Scholar woman from the courtyard. She wears a burn-scarred leather smock, and her face is wide and pretty. Beside her, a young woman who is clearly her daughter watches me with dark green eyes that sparkle in curiosity.

"Laia of Serra," the older woman says. "I am Smith Zella, and this is my daughter, Taure. It is an honor to meet the heir of the Lioness." Zella clasps my hands between her own. "Do not believe the lies the Mariners spread about your mother, child," she says. "They are threatened by you. They wish to hurt you."

"What lies?"

"We've heard all about what you did in the Empire." Taure speaks up breathlessly, and the admiration in her tone alarms me.

"It was luck, mostly. You--you mentioned my mother--"

"Not luck." Musa strolls out of the drawing room, Darin in tow. "Laia clearly has her mother's courage--and her father's sense of strategy. Zella, show Darin where he'll be making weapons, and get him what he needs. Laia, come inside, if you please. Lunch awaits."

The two smiths leave with my brother, Taure with one last reverent glance over her shoulder, and I fidget as Musa waves me into the drawing room.

"What skies-forsaken stories did you tell them about me?" I hiss at him.

"I said nothing." He piles a plate with fruit, bread, and butter and hands it to me. "Your reputation precedes you. The fact that you nobly sacrificed yourself for the good of the refugee camp helped."

My skin tingles warningly at the smugness on his face. Why, exactly, would he look so pleased about it?

"Did you plan for Darin and me to be captured?"

"I had to test you somehow, and I knew I could spring you from prison. I made sure Captain Eleiba knew you were coming into the city. Anonymously, of course. I knew if you were the leader I hoped you were, you'd never let your people suffer while you cowered. And if you weren't, I'd have dragged you out of hiding and turned you over myself."

I narrow my eyes at him. "What do you mean, 'leader'?"

"It's just a word, Laia. It won't bite. In any case, I was right--"

"How dare you make those poor people suffer! They lost their homes, their belongings. The Mariners ripped that camp apart!"

"Calm down." Musa rolls his eyes. "No one died. The Mariners are too civilized for such tactics. Captain Eleiba and I have our . . . differences. But she's an honorable woman. She has already replaced their tents. By now she will know it was me who gave up your whereabouts, of course. She'll be hopping mad about it too. But I can deal with her later. First we--"

"We?"

"First"--Musa clears his throat pointedly--"you need to eat. You're irritable. I don't like talking to irritable people."

How can he take all of this so lightly? I take a step toward him, my hands curling into fists, temper rising.

Almost immediately, a force shoves me back. It feels like a hundred sets of tiny hands. I try to squirm away, but the hands hold me tight. On instinct, I try to disappear, and I even flicker out of sight for a moment. But to my shock, Musa grabs my arm, unaffected by my magic, and I flicker back into view.

"I have my own magic, Laia of Serra," he says, and the mirth has left his face. "Yours doesn't work on me. I know what Shaeva said--you discussed it with your brother on your way here. Your answers lie in Adisa. With the Beekeeper. But beware, for he is cloaked in lies and shadow, like you. The magic is my lie, Laia, as it is yours. I can be your ally, or I can be your enemy. But either way, I will hold you to your promise to help resurrect the Resistance."

He releases me, and I scramble away, straightening my dress, trying not to show how much his revelation has rattled me.

"It just seems as if this is a game to you," I whisper. "I don't have time to help you with the Resistance. I need to stop the Nightbringer. Shaeva told me to look for the Beekeeper. Here you are. But I thought--"

"You thought I would be a wise old man ready to tell you exactly what you must do to stop the jinn? Life is rarely so simple, Laia. But be assured that this is no game. It is the survival of our people. If you work with me, you can succeed in your mission to bring down the Nightbringer while also helping the Scholars. For instance, if we work with the king of Marinn--"

I snort. "You mean the king who has a price on my head?" I say. "The one who ordered men and women and children who have seen genocide to be put in camps outside the city instead of treated like humans? That king?"

I push my plate away, frustrated now, food half-eaten. "How can you help me? Why would Shaeva send me to you?"

"Because I can get you what you need." Musa tips his seat back. "It's my specialty. So tell me: What do you need?"

"I need . . ." To be a mind reader. To have fey powers beyond disappearing. To be a Mask.

"I need eyes on the Nightbringer," I say. "And on his allies. The prophecy said he needed only one more piece to complete the Star. I need to know if he has found it or if he's close. I need to know if he's . . . cozying up to anyone. Gaining their trust. Their . . . their love. But . . ." Saying the words aloud makes me feel hopeless. "How am I supposed to accomplish that?"

"I have it on good authority that he's in Navium now and has been for the past month."

"How did you--"

"Don't make me say it again, Laia of Serra. What do I do?"

"You watch." My relief is so keen that I'm not even irritated at Musa's arrogance. "You listen. How fast can you get me information on the jinn?"

Musa strokes his chin "Let's see. It took me a week to learn that you'd broken Elias out of Blackcliff's dungeons. Six days to learn that you'd set off a riot in Nur. Five to learn what Elias Veturius whispered in your ear the night he abandoned you in the Tribal desert for Kauf Prison. Two to learn that the Warden--"

"Wait," I choke out. The room suddenly feels warm. I have tried not to think of Elias. But he haunts my thoughts, a ghost who is always on my mind and always out of reach. "Just wait. Go . . . go back. What did Elias whisper in my ear the night he left me for Kauf?"

"It was good." Musa gazes off musingly. "Very dramatic. Might use it myself on some lucky girl one day."

Skies, he is insufferable. "Do you know if Elias is all right?" I tap my fingers on the polished table, trying to check my impatience. "Do you know--"

"My spies don't enter the F

orest of Dusk," Musa says. "Too afraid. Forget about your pretty Martial. I can get the information you need."

"I also need to know how to stop the Nightbringer," I say. "How to fight him. And that's the kind of thing I can find only in books. Can you get me into the Great Library? There must be something there about the history of the jinn, about how the Scholars beat them before."

"Ah." Musa spears a slice of apple and pops it into his mouth, then shakes his head. "That could take some time, as I'm banned from it. I'd suggest you sneak into the library, but King Irmand has contracted Jaduna to ward off any fey creatures trying to do exactly that."

Jaduna. I shudder. Nan told stories of the hot-tempered magic-wielders said to live in the poisoned lands west of the Empire. I'd prefer not to find out if the tales are true.

Musa nods. "Exactly," he says. "They sniff out magic like sharks sniff out blood. Trust me, you wouldn't want to cross one of them."

"But--"

"Fret not. We'll think of something else. And in the meantime, you can start carrying out your part of our deal."

"Listen." I try to sound reasonable. I don't think Musa will be willing to listen to this argument more than once. "You must see that I have no idea how--"

"You're not getting out of this," he says. "Stop trying. I do not expect you to recruit a hundred fighters tomorrow," he says. "Or next week. Or even next month. First you have to be someone worth listening to, someone worth following. For that to happen, the Scholars in Adisa and in the camps need to know who you are and what you've done. And that means that for now, all I need from you is a story."

"A--a story?"

"Yes. Your story. Get yourself a cup of tea, Laia. I think we'll be here a while."

* * *

I spend my days with Darin, pumping bellows and shoveling mounds of coal into a furnace, trying to make sure that the spray of sparks that explodes with every strike of his hammer doesn't burn down the forge. We battle across the courtyard to test his blades, most of which break. But he keeps at it, and every day he spends at the forge makes him stronger, more like his old self. It is as if lifting the hammer has reminded him of the man he was before Kauf--and the man he wants to be now.

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