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Page 38

The shouts of the men of our fleet fill me with fierce joy. We won. We won. The Karkauns are gone. Quin will destroy those who remain. The Plebeians backed me. And the Commandant is imprisoned. The full extent of her treachery will soon be revealed.

I arrive back at the Black Guard barracks, armor bloodied, war hammer slung across my back. The Plebeians within give way, a cheer rising at the sight of me, Harper, and my men.

"Blood SHRIKE. Blood SHRIKE."

The chants propel me up the stairs to my quarters, where a missive waits, sealed with Emperor Marcus's sigil. I already know what it is: a pardon for Quin Veturius, reinstatement as Pater of his Gens, and a new posting for him--as Navium's fleet admiral. I requested it days ago, via secret drum message. Marcus, after much convincing from Livia, granted it.

"Blood SHRIKE. Blood SHRIKE."

Someone knocks on my door, and Avitas opens it to an ashen-faced Dex. My body turns to lead at his expression.

"Shrike." His voice is choked. "A drum message just came in from Antium. You're to leave all unfinished matters and return immediately to the capital. The Empress--your sister--has been poisoned."

XXIX: Laia

The past shall burn, and none will slow it.

The Nightbringer told me what was coming. He might as well have screamed his plans into my face. And I was too much of a fool to see it.

"No--Laia--stop!" I barely hear the voice over the roar of flames in the refugee camp. I push through the crowds of gobsmacked Mariners and Scholars, up toward the city. I could still make it to the library. I could still find the book on the Augurs. Only the upper levels of the library burn. Perhaps the lower levels have survived--

"What the hells are you doing?" Musa spins me around, face streaked with ashes and tears. "The Mariners have left the refugee camp. They're heading to the library to try to save it. The Scholars need help, Laia!"

"Get Darin!" I shout. "And Zella and Taure. I must get to the library, Musa."

"Aapan, there are still Scholars who--"

"When will you understand? The Resistance doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is stopping him. Because if we don't, he sets the jinn free, and everyone dies--including all those we've saved."

His answer is lost in the panic all around us. I turn and run, throwing on my invisibility and cutting through the Mariners pushing past the front gate. Hundreds of Adisa's residents pour into the streets, many watching the library burn, stunned, others hoping to help. Fire brigade wagons scream through the streets, and soldiers unroll great snakelike hoses to pump water in from the sea.

I fly past all of them, thanking the skies for my invisibility. By the time I reach the Great Library itself, blue-robed librarians stream from the front entrances, carrying books and scrolls and artifacts, pushing carts filled with priceless tomes. Many try to return, but the blaze spreads, and their countrymen hold them back.

But there is no one to stop me, and I squeeze past the bottleneck of Mariners who are escaping through the front doors. The lower levels of the library are a sort of controlled chaos. A Mariner man stands atop a desk, bellowing orders at a small army of men and women. They obey as quickly and efficiently as if he were a Mask threatening whippings.

I gaze up. Even the first level of this place is absolutely massive, a labyrinth with a dozen hallways branching every which way. What are the chances that a book on Augur prophecies would be on this floor?

Think, Laia! The Mariners have been entrusted with the world's knowledge for centuries because they're careful and organized. Which means there must be a map around here somewhere. I find it carved into a plaque on the wall beside the head librarian. The library has more than twenty levels and so many types of books that my head spins. But just when I begin to despair, I spot Martial History--level 3.

The stairs are emptier than the lower level--the librarians are not stupid enough to go to the upper floors. As I pass the second level, smoke fills the stairwell and flames crackle distantly. But the path is clear, and it isn't until I get to the third floor that I understand the extent of the fire.

This level is half-engulfed. But though the smoke is thick and the fire hungry, the shelves to my right are untouched. I pull my shirt over my face, my eyes already streaming, and hurry toward them, grabbing a book off the nearest shelf. Ankanese Seers and the Lie of Foresight. I move to the next shelf, which has a thousand books about the Southern Lands, and then to the next, which is all about the Tribes. Scholar History. Scholar Conquest. Lacertian Martials.

I'm getting closer. But so is the fire. When I glance over my shoulder, I can no longer see the stairwell. The flames move faster than they should, and faces twist within them. Wind efrits! They use their power to fan the flames hotter, faster--to spread them. I crouch low. Invisible though I might be, I do not know if they can see through my magic, like ghuls can. If they spot me, I am done for.

The dull gilt of another book catches my eye because of its title: Always Victorious: The Life and Conquests of General Quin Veturius.

Elias's grandfather. I glance up and can just make out the plaque: Martial History. I scan the titles quickly. Everything on this shelf appears to be about generals and emperors, and I snarl in frustration. Would that Musa and I had gotten back to the city faster! Even one hour would have made all the difference. Even ten minutes.

I'm close. So close.

"You there!"

A red-gowned woman appears behind me, deep scarlett tattoos winding up her arms. The silver and gold coins woven into her brown hair and strung across her forehead glow orange. My invisibility obviously doesn't work on her, because her pale, kohl-rimmed eyes fix on me. A Jaduna.

"You are Laia of Serra." Her eyes widen in surprise when she gets a closer look at me, and I take a step back. She must have seen my face on the proclamations that Princess Nikla plastered all over Adisa.

"Leave here, girl. Quickly--the stairs are still clear."

"I have to find a book on the Augurs, on their prophecies--"

"You won't be alive to read it if you stay." She grabs my arm, and her touch immediately cools my skin. Magic! I notice then that the air around her is chilly and clear of smoke. The fire doesn't trouble her, despite the fact that I can barely breathe.

"Please." I gasp for air and sink lower as the smoke thickens. "Help me. I need those prophecies. The Nightbringer--"

The Jaduna does not appear to be listening. She yanks me forcibly toward the stairs, but I dig my heels in.

"Stop!" I try to wrench my arm away. "The Nightbringer wants to set the jinn free."

I babble, desperate for her aid. But she pulls me on, employing her magic, dragging me to safety with inexorable force.

"We Jaduna have no quarrel with the jinn," she says. "Or the Meherya. His plans do not concern us."

"Everyone believes that nothing concerns them until the monsters are knocking on their doors!" She winces at my shriek, but I do not care. "Until they are burning down your homes and destroying your lives and killing your families!"

"My responsibility is the Great Library, and that means getting you--and anyone else who is in danger--out."

"Who the skies do you think is to blame for burning this place down? Isn't that your responsibility?" As I say it, the smoke parts and something white barrels toward us with a precision that suggests a malicious consciousness. Efrit!

"Watch out!" I tackle the Jaduna onto her back, cringing as the wind efrit passes so close that the skin on my neck stings. The Jaduna rolls out from under me, tracking the efrit with cold fury. She crooks her fingers, rises and streaks toward the creature like a comet, her gown turning ice-white as she cuts through the flames and disappears. Immediately, I turn back to the shelf, but I cannot see it through the smoke. Gagging, I drop all the way to my hands and knees and crawl forward.

Laia. Is the whisper in my head? Or is it real? Someone in a dark robe kneels before me, peering down with bright eyes. It's not really the Nightbringer. If it were, I wouldn't be a

ble to hold my invisibility. It's a projection of some sort, or ghuls playing tricks on me. But that does not lessen my disgust--or my fear.

You'll die here, choking on smoke, the Nightbringer says. Dead like your family. Dead for no reason at all, beyond your own foolishness. I did warn you . . .

"Laia!"

The image of the Nightbringer dissipates. The voice calling me is familiar--and real. Darin. What the hells is he doing here? Immediately, I spin about, scrabbling toward his voice as he calls my name again. I find him at the top of the stairs, half of which are now engulfed in flame. Bleeding fool!

I dare not drop my invisibility for fear of blacking out again, but when I am close, I call out and grab his arm.

"I'm here! Go, Darin, go back! I have to find something!"

But my brother latches on to me and drags me down the stairs. "We both have to go!" he shouts. "The second level is gone!"

"I have to--"

"You have to live if you want to stop him!" Darin's eyes blaze. He uses all his force, and the third level is now a wall of fire behind me.

We barrel down the stairs, weaving through blazing hunks of fallen masonry and an inferno of burning embers. I flinch as they land on my brother's bare arms, but he ignores them, pulling me down, down, down. A huge beam groans, and Darin only just lunges out of the way as it lands on the stairs with a thunderous crash. We are forced to go back up a few steps, and I inhale a lungful of smoke. My chest burns with pain, and I double over, unable to stop coughing.

"Put your arm around me, Laia," Darin shouts. "I can't see you!"

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