"The refugee camp." Musa urges his horse on. "They're burning the tents."
"What the hells happened?"
But Musa has no answer. The camp is in such chaos when we reach it that the Mariners, frantically evacuating the Scholars, do not notice two more faces amid the hundreds running through the narrow, ash-filled lanes. Musa disappears to speak to one of the Mariners before finding me again.
"I don't think the Mariners did this," Musa shouts over the roar of the flames. "Otherwise why would they be helping? And how could the fire have spread so quickly? One of the soldiers I spoke with said they caught wind of it only an hour ago."
We plunge into the smoke-choked streets, tearing open tents, pulling out those who are sleeping, who remained unaware, shooing children to the outskirts of the camp. We do whatever we can, however we can, with the frantic anguish of those who know that nothing will be enough. Screams rise around us from those who are trapped. From those who cannot find their family members. From those who have found their family members injured or dead.
Always us. My eyes burn from smoke; my face is wet. Always my people.
Musa and I go back again and again, carrying out those who cannot walk themselves, pulling to safety as many Scholars as we can. A Mariner soldier hands us water to drink, to give to the survivors. I freeze when she looks up. It is Captain Eleiba, her eyes red-rimmed, hands trembling. She meets my gaze but only shakes her head and turns back to her own tasks.
You'll be all right. All is well. You'll be fine. I speak nonsense to those who are burned, who cough blood from all the smoke. Of course we'll find your mother. Your daughter. Your grandson. Your sister. Lies. So many lies. I hate myself for telling them. But the truth is crueler.
Hundreds are still trapped in the camp when I notice something strange through the smoke and haze. A red glow rises from the city of Adisa. My throat is parched, burned from inhaling so much smoke, but suddenly it goes even more dry. Has the fire from the camp spread? But no--it couldn't have. Not over the massive city wall.
I back away from the refugee camp, hoping I can see better from outside it. Dread spreads slowly through my body. The same feeling I've had when something terrible has happened and I wake up having forgotten. And then I remember.
Cries rise up all around me, like ill spirits let loose. I am not the only one who has noticed the glow from Adisa.
"Musa." The Scholar man lurches back toward the camp, desperate to save even one more person. "Look--"
I pull him around to face the city. A warm wind off the ocean parts the fug of smoke over the camp for a moment. That's when we see it.
To call the fire enormous would be like calling the Commandant unkind. It is immense, an inferno that transforms the sky into a lurid nightmare. The thick cloud of smoke is illuminated by the flames, impossibly high, as if shooting from the depths of the earth to the very heavens.
"Laia." Musa's voice is weak. "It's--it's--"
But he doesn't have to say it. I knew as soon as I saw the height of the flames. No other building in Adisa is so tall.
The Great Library. The Great Library is on fire.
For two weeks, I plot how I'll seize the truth from the jinn. The mercantile in a nearby village provides most of what I need. The rest depends on the weather, which finally cooperates when an early summer storm sweeps in from the east, drenching the entirety of the Waiting Place.
I don't mind the rain. I catch a dozen buckets' worth of it. By the time I transport them to the jinn grove, the deluge has dulled the unholy glow of the trees to an ocherous red.
Once in the grove, I smile, waiting for the jinn to begin tormenting me. Come on, you devils. Watch me. Listen to my thoughts. Squirm over what's coming.
When I am past the first row of trees, the canopy grows tangled. All is silent, but the air thickens, weighing me down, as if I'm walking through water in full Martial armor. It is an effort to remove the bag of salt I have stowed away. But as I make rings of salt around the trees, the jinn stir, snarling softly from within their prisons.
I take out an ax--its steel edge freshly sharpened--and give it a few test swings. Then I dip it in the bucket of rainwater and sink it six inches into the closest jinn tree. The shriek that arises from the grove is both hair-raising and horribly satisfying.
"You're keeping secrets," I say. "I want to know them. Tell me, and I'll stop."
You fool. Cut open the trees and we will simply burst forth.
"Lies." I slip into the voice of a Mask, as if I were interrogating a prisoner. "If your freedom was that simple, you'd have gotten your efrit friends to break you out long ago."
I dip the ax in the rainwater again and, on inspiration, scoop up some of the salt to rub on it. At my second strike, the jinn scream so loudly that the ghosts clustered nearby streak away. When I lift the ax for a third time, the jinn speak.
Stop. Please. Come closer.
"If you're tricking me--"
If you want our secrets, you must take them. Come closer.
I move deeper into the grove, the ax clutched tightly. Mud slimes my boots.
Every step grows more difficult, but I drag myself forward until I can't move at all.
How does it feel to be trapped, Soul Catcher?
Quite suddenly, I cannot speak or see or feel anything beyond the steady thud of my heart. I fight against the darkness, the silence. I cast myself against the walls of this prison like a moth caught in a jar. In my panic, I reach for Mauth. But the magic doesn't respond.
How does it feel to be chained?
"What the hells," I rasp, "are you doing to me?"
Look, Elias Veturius. You wanted our secrets. They are before you.
Suddenly, I am free of their grasp. The trees ahead thin out as the land curves to a rise. I stagger toward it and find myself looking down a slope at a shallow valley nestled in a bend of the fast-rushing River Dusk.
And in that valley are dozens--no, hundreds of stone structures. It's a city I've never seen. A city Shaeva never mentioned. A city that has never made itself known to me on the strange internal map I have of the Waiting Place. It looks--and feels in my mind--like empty space.
"What is this place?" I ask.
A bird sails down into the valley through the thick sheets of rain, some small, squirming creature caught in its claws. The treetops sway in the wind, heaving like a restless sea.
Home. The jinn speak without rancor, for once. This is home.
Mauth nudges me forward, and I make my way through tall, soaked summer grasses down into the city, dagger at the ready.
It is unlike any city I've ever seen, the streets curved in concentric half circles around a building on the banks of the River Dusk. The streets, the buildings--everything is made of the same strange black stone. The color is so pure that I reach out more than once to touch it, awestruck by its depth.
I soon sheathe my dagger. I've been in enough graveyards to know what they feel like. There isn't a soul in the place. There aren't even ghosts.
Though I want to explore every single street, I'm drawn to the large building on the riverbank. It's bigger than the Emperor's palace in Antium and a hundred times more beautiful. Stone blocks sit upon one another with such perfect symmetry that I know no human cut them.
I see no columns or domes or ornate patterns. The structures in the Empire or Marinn or the Tribal deserts reflect their people. Those cities laugh and cry and shout and snarl. This city is one note, the purest note ever sung, held until my heart wants to break at the sound.
A low set of stairs leads to the main building. At my touch, the two massive doors at the top of the stairs open as easily as if their hinges were oiled this morning. Within, three dozen blue-fire torches sputter to life.
Which is when I realize that the walls, which appeared to be a deep black stone, are something else entirely. They reflect the flame like water reflects sunlight, transforming the entire room to a gentle s
apphire blue. Though the massive windows are open to the elements, the thunder of the storm outside is muted to a murmur.
I cannot make heads or tails of what this place is. Its size makes me think it was used for gatherings. Yet there is only one low bench in the center of the room.
Mauth tugs me up a staircase, through a series of antechambers, and into another room with a huge window. It is filled with the scents of the river and the rain. Torches paint the room white.
I lift my hand to touch the wall. When I do, it comes alive, filled with misty images. I yank my hand back, and the images fade.
Gingerly, I touch it again. At first, I cannot understand the pictures. Animals play. Leaves dance on the wind. Tree hollows transform into kindly faces. The images remind me of Mamie Rila--of what her voice is like when she sings a tale. Which is when I understand: These are children's stories. Children lived here. But not human children.
Home, the jinn said. Jinn children.