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Page 39

Skies, I cannot breathe--I cannot think. Do not drop the invisibility. Darin might not be able to carry you out of here. Do. Not. Drop. It.

We reach the second level, and the stairs are engulfed. Oh bleeding hells. I am a fool. I should never have come here. If I hadn't, Darin would never have followed. Now we will both die. Mother would be so ashamed of me, so angry at my recklessness. I'm sorry, Mother. I'm sorry, Father. Oh skies, I'm so sorry. This is how Elias died. At least I'll see him again in the Waiting Place. At least I will be able to bid him farewell.

Darin sees something I do not: a way through. He drags me forward, and I scream. The heat on my legs is too much.

And then we are past the worst of the flames. My brother carries me now, lifting me from my waist as my feet scrape against the ground. We burst through the burning front doors and into the night. Everything is a blur. I catch an impression of scaffolds and buckets and pumps and people, so many people.

Blackness engulfs me, and when I open my eyes again, I am propped up against the wall of a side street with Darin crouched in front of me, covered in ash and burns and sobbing in relief.

"You are so stupid, Laia!" He shoves me. I must be visible again, for he hugs me, shoves me again, and hugs me a second time. "You're the only one I have. The only one left! Did you even consider that before running into a burning building?"

"I'm sorry." My voice is hoarse, barely audible. "I thought . . . I hoped . . ." Skies, the book. I did not find the book. As the full impact of my failure washes over me, I feel sick. "The--the library?"

"It is gone, girl." Darin and I both turn as a figure materializes out of the darkness. The Jaduna's beautiful red dress is scorched now, but she still exudes a physical chilliness, winter encased in skin. Her kohl-rimmed eyes fix on me. "The efrits have done their work well."

Darin stands slowly, reaching for his scim. I drag myself to my feet beside him, leaning against the wall as dizziness makes the world tilt. The Jaduna will no doubt arrest us now. And there's no way we can outrun her. Which means somehow, I have to find the strength to fight her.

The Jaduna does not approach. She merely observes me for a moment.

"You saved my life," she says. "The efrit would have killed me. I owe you a debt."

"Please do not arrest us," I say. "Leave us be--that will be repayment enough."

I expect a retort, but she only watches me with that inscrutable gaze. "You are young to stand so deeply in the shadow." She sniffs at me. "You are like him--your friend. The one they call Musa. I have seen him in the city, whispering his stories, using the sway in his voice to create a legend. Both of you--tainted by darkness. You must come to my home, to Kotama, in the east. My people can help you."

I shake my head. "I cannot go east. Not when the Nightbringer is still a threat."

The woman shakes her head, bemused. "The Meherya?"

"You said that before," I say. "I do not know what it means."

"It is his name, Laia of Serra. His first, truest name. It defines all he has done and all he will do. His strength is in his name, and his weakness. But"--she shrugs--"that is old magic. The Nightbringer's vengeance has long been foretold. You would be wise to leave here, Laia of Serra, and go to Kotama--"

"I do not care about Kotama." I lose my temper, forgetting that I am speaking to a woman who can probably kill in a dozen ways with a twist of her hand. "I have to stop him."

"Why?" She shakes her head. "If you stop him, do you not know what will happen? The consequence, the devastation--"

"I do not know how I will stop him now, in any case."

The wind rises, and screams echo from the street beyond--the fire is in danger of spreading to the city. The Jaduna frowns and looks over her shoulder before snapping her fingers. Something small and rectangular appears in her hands. "Perhaps this will help."

She tosses it to me. It is a thick, heavy book with silver letters embossed on the side. A History of Seers and Prophets in the Martial Empire by Fifius Antonius Tullius.

"That," the Jaduna says, "is sufficient repayment of a debt. Remember my offer. If you come to Kotama, ask for D'arju. She is the finest teacher in the Bay of Tears. She will help you control the darkness, lest it grow beyond your ken."

The Jaduna disappears. I open the book to find a gilded image of a man in a dark robe. His face is hidden, but his hands are bleached of color and his red eyes look out from his shadowed cowl. An Augur.

Darin and I exchange a glance and then hurry away from the place before the Jaduna changes her mind.

* * *

Two hours later, my brother and I tear through Adisa's streets. I hope to the skies Musa is back at the forge, because I have no time to hunt him down in the refugee camp. Not now. Not after what I've just read.

To my relief, the forge is lit when I go tearing in, and Musa sits in the main room, Zella tending to a burn on his arm. He opens his mouth, but I do not let him speak.

"The Shrike survived an assassination attempt," I say. "Do you know how? When it happened? What the circumstances were?"

"Sit down, at least--"

"I need to know now, Musa!"

He grumbles and disappears into his room. I hear him rifling around and then returning with a stack of scrolls. I grab for one, but he smacks my hand. "These ones are in code." Long minutes pass as he reads one after another. "Ah--here. She was stabbed by one of Keris's minions," he says. "One of her men transported her to the barracks. The Nightbringer was seen leaving her quarters, and two nights later she was back to issuing orders."

I flip the book about the Augurs open to a page I've marked. "Read," I say.

"The blood of the father and the blood of the son are harbingers of darkness," Musa reads. "The King shall light the Butcher's path, and when the Butcher bows to the deepest love of all, night approaches. Only the Ghost may stand against the onslaught. Should the Lioness's heir claim the Butcher's pride, it will evanesce, and the blood of seven generations shall pass from the earth before the King may seek vengeance again. Curse the Augurs, this makes no sense."

"It does," I say, "if you know that the shrike is a type of bird known for impaling its prey on thorns before it consumes it. I read it in a book once. People call it the 'butcher bird.' That's where the name Blood Shrike comes from."

"This prophecy can't be talking about her," Musa says. "What about the other prophecy? The Butcher will break, and none wi

ll hold her."

"Maybe that part hasn't happened yet," Darin offers. "We're looking for a piece of the Star, right? Do those reports say anything about the Blood Shrike wearing jewelry? Or is there a weapon she always has near her?"

"She has--" Musa rifles through the scrolls again before cocking his head and listening. One of his wights chitters swiftly. "A ring? Yes--she has the ring of the Blood Shrike, received in the fall of last year, when she assumed the office. And she has the ring of Gens Aquilla."

"When," I ask, "did she get that ring?"

"I don't bleeding--" He cocks his head again. "Her father gave it to her," Musa says. "Before he died. The day he died."

The blood of the father. It must have gotten on the ring when he died. And of course it would be her pride because it's a symbol of her family.

"And the Nightbringer?" I say. "He's been in Navium all this time?"

I know the answer before Musa nods. "Do you see now, Musa?" I twist the armlet Elias gave me around my arm. "The Nightbringer stayed in Navium because his target was there the whole time. He never had to leave. She has it--the Blood Shrike has the last piece of the Star."

XXX: Elias

Banu al-Mauth.

As I wander the city of the jinn, a voice calls out, penetrating distantly, a hair-thin fishing line cast into an endless ocean. But I know who it is. Aubarit Ara-Nasur. The Fakira. I told her that if she needed me, she should come to the edge of the Forest and call me.

But I can't go to her. Not with all that I now know. For I understand, finally, why Mauth forbids his Soul Catchers their humanity. Humanity means emotions. Emotions mean instability. Mauth's entire purpose is to bridge the world of the living and the dead. Instability threatens that.

The knowledge brings me a strange sort of peace. I don't know how I will release my humanity. I don't know if I can. But at least I know why I should.

Mauth stirs. The magic rises up from the earth in a dark mist, fusing into a tenuous vine. I reach for it. The magic is limited, as if Mauth doesn't trust me enough to give me more.

I leave the city of jinn and am immediately confronted by a cloud of ghosts so thick I can barely see through them.

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