A Reaper at the Gates – Sabaa Tahir

You love too much, my king. My queen spoke the words often across the centuries we spent together. At first, with a smile. But in later years, with a furrowed brow. Her gaze settled on our children as they tore about the palace, their bodies flickering from flame to flesh, tiny cyclones of impossible beauty. “I fear for you, Meherya.” Her voice trembled. “I fear what you will do if harm comes to those whom you love.” “No harm shall befall you. I vow it.” I spoke with the passion and folly of youth, though I was not, of course, young. Even then. That day, the breezes off the river ruffled her midnight hair and sunlight poured like liquid gold through the sheer curtains of the windows. It lit our children umber as they trailed scorch marks and laughter across the stone floor. Her fears held her captive.

I reached for her hands. “I would destroy any who dared hurt you,” I said. “Meherya, no.” I have wondered in the years since then if she already feared what I would become. “Swear you would never. You are our Meherya. Your heart is made to love. To give. Not to take. That is why you are king of the jinn.

Swear it.” I swore two vows that day: to protect, always. To love, always. Within a year, I had broken both. The Star hangs from the wall of the cavern far from human eyes. It is a four-pointed diamond, with a narrow gap at its apex. Thin striations spiderweb across it, a reminder of the day the Scholars shattered it after imprisoning my people. The metal gleams with impatience, potent as the glare of a jungle beast closing in on prey. Such vast power within this weapon—enough to destroy an ancient city, an ancient people. Enough to imprison the jinn for a thousand years.

Enough to set them free. As if sensing the armlet clinging to my wrist, the Star rattles, yearning toward the missing piece. A wrench shudders through me as I offer the armlet up, and it oozes away like a silver eel to join with the Star. The gap shrinks. The four points of the Star flare, lighting the far reaches of the speckled granite cavern, eliciting a wave of angry hisses from the creatures around me. Then the glow fades, leaving only pallid moonlight. Ghuls swish at my ankles. Master. Master. Beyond them, the Wraith Lord awaits my orders, along with the efrit kings and queens—of wind and sea, sand and cave, air and snow.

As they watch, silent and wary, I consider the parchment in my hands. It is as unobtrusive as sand. The words within are not. At my summons, the Wraith Lord approaches. He submits reluctantly, cowed by my magic, straining always to be free of me. But I have need of him yet. The wraiths are disparate scraps of lost souls, joined by ancient sorcery and undetectable when they wish to be. Even by the Empire’s famed Masks. As I offer him the parchment, I hear her. My queen’s voice is a whisper, gentle as a candle on a chill night.

Once you do this, you can never come back. All hope for you is lost, Meherya. Consider. I do as she asks. I consider. Then I remember she is dead and gone and has been for a millennium. Her presence is a delusion. Her voice is my weakness. I proffer the scroll to the Wraith Lord. “See that it finds Blood Shrike Helene Aquilla,” I tell him.

“And no other.” He bows, and the efrits sail forward. I order the efrits of air away; I have a separate task for them. The rest kneel. “Long ago, you gave the Scholars knowledge that led to the destruction of my people and the fey world.” A jolt of memory ripples through their ranks. “I offer you redemption. Go to our new allies in the south. Help them understand what they can call forth from the dark places. The Grain Moon will rise six months hence.

See it done well before then. And you”—the ghuls press close—“glut yourselves. Do not fail me.” When they have all left me, I contemplate the Star and think of the treacherous jinn girl who helped bring it into being. Perhaps to a human, the weapon would shine with promise. I feel only hatred. A face drifts to the forefront of my mind. Laia of Serra. I recall the heat of her skin beneath my hands, how her wrists crossed behind my neck. The way she closed her eyes and the golden hollow of her throat.

She felt like the threshold of my old home when the rushes were fresh-changed. She felt safe. You loved her, my queen says. And then you hurt her. My betrayal of the Scholar girl should not linger. I deceived hundreds before her. Yet unease grips me. Something inexplicable occurred after Laia of Serra gifted me her armlet— after she realized that the boy she called Keenan was naught but a fabrication. Like all humans, she glimpsed in my eyes the darkest moments of her life. But when I looked into her soul, something —someone—peered back: my queen, gazing at me across the centuries.

I saw her horror. Her sadness at what I had become. I saw her pain at what our children and our people suffered at the hands of the Scholars. I think of my queen with every betrayal. Going back a thousand years, to each human found, manipulated, and loved until they freely gave me their piece of the Star with love in their hearts. Again and again and again. But never had I seen her in the gaze of another. Never had I felt the sharp blade of her disappointment so keenly. Once more. Only once more.

My queen speaks. Do not do this. Please. I crush her voice. I crush her memory. I think I will not hear her again. E II: Laia verything about this raid feels wrong. Darin and I both know it, even if neither of us is willing to say it. Though my brother does not speak much these days. The ghost wagons we track finally roll to a stop outside a Martial village.

I rise from the snowheavy bushes where we’ve taken cover and nod to Darin. He grabs my hand and squeezes. Be safe. I reach for my invisibility, a power awoken within me recently, and one that I’m still settling into. My breath wreathes up in white clouds, like a snake undulating to some unknowable song. Elsewhere in the Empire, spring has scattered its blossoms. But this close to Antium, the capital, winter still whips its chill fingers across our faces. Midnight passes, and the few lamps that burn in the village sputter in the rising wind. When I am through the perimeter of the prisoner caravan, I pitch my voice low and hoot like a snowy owl, common enough in this part of the Empire. As I prowl toward the ghost wagons, my skin prickles.

I whirl, my instinct rearing in warning. The nearby ridgeline is empty, and the Martial auxiliary soldiers on guard do not so much as twitch. Nothing appears amiss. You’re just jumpy, Laia. Like always. From our camp on the outskirts of the Waiting Place, twenty miles from here, Darin and I have planned and carried out six raids on Empire prisoner caravans. My brother has not forged a single scrap of Serric steel. I have not responded to the letters from Araj, the Scholar leader who escaped Kauf Prison with us. But together with Afya Ara-Nur and her men, we have helped to free more than four hundred Scholars and Tribesmen over the past two months. Still, that does not guarantee success with this caravan.

For this caravan is different. Beyond the perimeter, familiar black-clad figures move in on the camp from the trees. Afya and her men, responding to my signal, preparing to attack. Their presence gives me heart. The Tribeswoman who helped me free Darin from Kauf is the only reason we know of these ghost wagons —and the prisoner they transport. The lock picks are blades of ice in my hand. Six wagons sit in a half circle, with two supply carts sheltered between them. Most of the soldiers busy themselves with the horses and campfires. Snow gusts down in flurries, stinging my face as I get to the first wagon and begin working the lock. The pins within are enigmas to my freezing, clumsy hands.

Faster, Laia. The wagon is silent, as if empty. But I know better. Soon, the whimper of a child breaks the quiet. It is quickly shushed. The prisoners have learned that silence is the only way to avoid suffering. “Where the burning hells is everybody?” a voice bellows near my ear. I nearly drop my picks. A legionnaire strides past, and a tendril of panic unfurls down my spine. I do not dare to breathe.

What if he sees me? What if my invisibility falters? It has happened before, when I am under attack, or in a large crowd. “Wake up the innkeeper.” The legionnaire turns to the aux hastening toward him. “Tell him to roll out a keg and prepare rooms.” “Inn’s empty, sir. Village looks abandoned.” Martials do not abandon villages, even in the dead of winter. Not unless a plague has come through. But Afya would have heard if that were the case. Their reasons for leaving are not your concern, Laia.

Get the locks open. The aux and the legionnaire stalk off toward the inn. The moment they are out of sight, I get my picks in the lock. But the metal groans, stiff with rime. Come on! Without Elias Veturius to get through half the locks, I have to work twice as fast. I have no time to think of my friend, and yet I cannot quell my worry. His presence during the raids has kept us from being caught. He said he would be here. What in the skies could have happened to Elias? He’s never let me down. Not when it comes to the raids, anyway.

Did Shaeva learn that he snuck Darin and me back across the Waiting Place from the cottage in the Free Lands? Is she punishing him? I know little of the Soul Catcher—she is shy, and I assumed she did not like me. Some days, when Elias emerges from the Waiting Place to visit me and Darin, I feel the jinn woman watching us and I sense no rancor. Only sadness. But skies know, I’m no judge of hidden malice. If it were any other caravan—any other prisoner we were attempting to break out—I would not have risked Darin, or the Tribespeople, or myself. But we owe it to Mamie Rila and the rest of the Saif prisoners to try to free them. Elias’s Tribal mother sacrificed her body, freedom, and Tribe so I could save Darin. I cannot fail her. Elias is not here. You’re alone.

Move! The lock finally springs open, and I make for the next wagon. In the trees just yards away, Afya must be cursing at the delay. The longer I take, the more likely it is that the Martials will catch us. When I crack the last lock, I croon a signal. Snick. Snick. Snick. Darts hurtle through the air. The Martials at the perimeter drop silently, left insensate by the rare southern poison coating the darts. A half dozen Tribesmen approach the soldiers and slit their throats.

I look away, though I still hear the tear of flesh, the rattle of a final breath. I know it must be done. Without Serric steel, Afya’s people cannot face the Martials head on, lest their blades break. But there is an efficiency to the killing that freezes my blood. I wonder if I will ever get used to it. A small form appears out of the shadows, weapon glinting. The intricate tattoos that mark her as a Zaldara, the head of her Tribe, are concealed by long, dark sleeves. I hiss at Afya Ara-Nur so she knows where I am. “Took you long enough.” She glances around, black and red braids swinging.

“Where in the ten hells is Elias? Can he disappear now too?” Elias finally told Afya of the Waiting Place, of his death in Kauf Prison, of his resurrection and his agreement with Shaeva. That day, the Tribeswoman cursed him roundly for a fool before finding me. Forget him now, Laia, she had said. It’s damned stupid to fall for a once-dead ghost-talker, I don’t care how pretty he is. “Elias didn’t come.” Afya swears in Sadhese and moves toward the wagons. She explains softly to the prisoners that they must follow her men, that they must make no noise. Shouts and the high twang of a bow echo from the village, fifty yards from where I stand. I leave Afya behind and sprint toward the houses where, in a darkened alley outside the village inn, Afya’s fighters dance away from a half dozen Empire soldiers, including the legionnaire in command. Tribal arrows and darts fly, deft counters to the Martials’ deadly blades.

I dash into the fray, slamming the hilt of my dagger into an aux’s temple. I needn’t have bothered. The soldiers go down quickly. Too quickly. There must be more men nearby—a hidden force. Or a Mask lurking, unseen. “Laia.” I jump at my name. Darin’s golden skin is dark with mud to hide his presence. A hood covers the unruly, honey-colored hair that has finally grown in.

Looking at him, no one would ever know he’d survived six months in Kauf Prison. But within his mind, my brother battles demons still. It is those demons that have kept him from making Serric steel. He’s here now, I tell myself sternly. Fighting. Helping. The weapons will come when he’s ready. “Mamie isn’t here,” he says, turning when I tap his shoulder, voice haggard with disuse. “I found her foster son, Shan. He said the soldiers took her from her wagon when the caravan stopped for the night.

” “She must be in the village,” I say. “Get the prisoners out of here. I’ll find her.” “The village shouldn’t be empty,” Darin says. “This doesn’t feel right. You go. I’ll look for Mamie.” “One of you bleeding needs to find her.” Afya appears behind us. “Because I’m not going to do it, and we have to get the prisoners hidden.

” “If something goes wrong,” I say, “I can use my invisibility to slip away. I’ll meet you back at the camp as soon as I can.” My brother raises his eyebrows, considering my words in his quiet way. When he chooses to be, he is as immovable as the mountains—just like our mother was. “I go where you go, sis. Elias would agree. He knows—” “If you are so chummy with Elias,” I hiss, “then tell him that the next time he commits to helping with a raid, he needs to follow through.” Darin’s mouth curves in a brief, crooked smile. Mother’s smile. “Laia, I know you’re angry at him, but he—” “Skies save me from the men in my life and all the things they think they know.

Get out of here. Afya needs you. The prisoners need you. Go.” Before he protests, I dart into the village. It is no more than a hundred cottages with thatched roofs that sag beneath the snow, and narrow, dim streets. The wind wails through neatly tended gardens, and I nearly trip over a broom abandoned in a lane. The villagers left this place recently, I sense, and with haste. I tread carefully, wary of what might lurk in the shadows. The stories whispered in taverns and around Tribal campfires haunt me: wraiths tearing out the throats of Mariner sailors.

Scholar families found in burned-out encampments in the Free Lands. Wights—tiny winged menaces—destroying wagons and tormenting livestock. All of it, I’m certain, is the foul handiwork of the creature that called itself Keenan. The Nightbringer. I pause to peek through the front window of a darkened cottage. In the stygian night, I can see nothing. As I move to the next house, my guilt circles in the ocean of my mind, scenting my weakness. You gave the Nightbringer the armlet, it hisses. You fell prey to his manipulation. He is a step closer to destroying the Scholars.

When he finds the rest of the Star, he’ll set the jinn free. Then what, Laia? But it could take the Nightbringer years to find the next piece of the Star, I reason to myself. And there might be more than one piece left. There might be dozens. A flicker of light ahead. I tear my thoughts from the Nightbringer and move toward a cottage along the north edge of the village. Its door stands ajar. A lamp burns within. The door is propped wide enough that I can slip through without disturbing it. Anyone planning an ambush would see nothing.

Once inside, it takes a moment for my vision to adjust. When it does, I stifle a cry. Mamie Rila sits tied to a chair, a gaunt shadow of her former self. Her dark skin hangs loosely on her frame, and her thick, curly hair has been shaved off. I almost go to her. But some old instinct stops me, crying out from deep within my mind. A boot thumps behind me. Startled, I whirl, and a floorboard creaks beneath my feet. I catch a telltale flash of liquid silver—Mask!—just as a hand locks around my mouth and my arms are wrenched behind my back. N III: Elias o matter how often I sneak out of the Waiting Place, it never gets easier.

As I approach the western tree line, a flash of white nearby causes my stomach to plunge. A spirit. I bite back a curse and hold still. If it spies me lurking so far from where I’m supposed to be, the entire bleeding Forest of Dusk will know what I’m up to. Ghosts, it turns out, love to gossip. The delay chafes. I’m already late—Laia was expecting me more than an hour ago, and this isn’t a raid she’ll skip just because I’m not around. Almost there. I lope through a fresh layer of snow to the border of the Waiting Place, which glimmers ahead. To a layperson, it’s invisible.

But to me and Shaeva, the glowing wall is as obvious as if it were made of stone. Though I can pass through it easily, it keeps the spirits in and curious humans out. Shaeva has spent months lecturing me about the importance of that wall. She will be vexed with me. This isn’t the first time I’ve disappeared on her when I’m supposed to be training as Soul Catcher. Though she is a jinn, Shaeva has little skill in dealing with dissembling students. I, on the other hand, spent fourteen years concocting ways to skip out on Blackcliff’s Centurions. Getting caught at Blackcliff meant a whipping from my mother, the Commandant. Shaeva usually just glowers at me. “Perhaps I too should institute whippings.

” Shaeva’s voice cuts through the air like a scim, and I nearly jump out of my skin. “Would you then appear when you are supposed to, Elias, instead of shirking your responsibilities to play hero?” “Shaeva! I was just . ah, are you . steaming?” Vapor rises in thick plumes from the jinn woman. “Someone”—she glares at me—“forgot to hang up the washing. I was out of shirts.” And since she is a jinn, her unnaturally high body heat will dry her washed laundry . after an hour or two of unpleasant dampness, I’m sure. No wonder she looks like she wants to kick me in the face. Shaeva tugs at my arm, her ever-present jinn warmth driving away the cold that has seeped into my bones.

Moments later, we are miles from the border. My head spins from the magic she uses to move us so swiftly through the Forest. At the sight of the glowing red jinn grove, I groan. I hate this place. The jinn might be locked in the trees, but they still have power within this small space, and they use it to get into my head whenever I enter. Shaeva rolls her eyes, as if dealing with a particularly irritating younger sibling. The Soul Catcher flicks her hand, and when I pull my arm away, I find I cannot walk more than a few feet. She’s put up some sort of ward. She must finally be losing her patience with me if she’s resorting to imprisonment. I try to keep my temper—and fail.

“That’s a nasty trick.” “And one you could disarm easily if you stayed still long enough for me to teach you how.” She nods to the jinn grove, where spirits wind through the trees. “The ghost of a child needs soothing, Elias. Go. Let me see what you have learned these past weeks.” “I shouldn’t be here.” I give the ward a violent if ineffectual shove. “Laia and Darin and Mamie need me.” Shaeva leans into the hollow of a tree and glances up at the snippets of star and sky visible through the bare branches.

“An hour until midnight. The raid must be under way. Laia will be in danger. Darin and Afya too. Enter the grove and help this ghost move on. If you do, I will drop the ward and you can leave. Or your friends can keep waiting.” “You’re grumpier than usual,” I say. “Did you skip breakfast?” “Stop stalling.” I mutter a curse and mentally arm myself against the jinn, imagining a barrier around my mind that they cannot penetrate with their evil whispers.

With each step into the grove, I sense them watching. Listening. A moment later, laughter echoes in my head. It is layered—voice upon voice, mockery upon mockery. The jinn. You cannot help the ghosts, fool mortal. And you cannot help Laia of Serra. She shall die a slow, painful death. The jinns’ malice spears through my carefully constructed defenses. The creatures plumb my darkest thoughts, parading images of a dead, broken Laia before me until I cannot tell where the jinn grove ends and their twisted visions begin.

I close my eyes. Not real. I open them to find Helene slain at the base of the nearest tree. Darin lies beside her. Beyond him, Mamie Rila. Shan, my foster brother. I am reminded of the battlefield of death from the First Trial so long ago—and yet this is worse because I thought I left violence and suffering behind me. I recall Shaeva’s lessons. In the grove, the jinn have the power to control your mind. To exploit your weaknesses.

I try to shake the jinn away, but they hold fast, their whispers snaking into me. At my side, Shaeva stiffens. Hail, traitor. They slip into formal speech when they speak to the Soul Catcher. Thy doom is upon thee. The air reeks of it. Shaeva’s jaw tightens, and immediately I wish for a weapon to shut them up. She has enough on her mind without them taunting her. But the Soul Catcher simply lifts a hand to the nearest jinn tree. Though I cannot see her deploy the magic of the Waiting Place, she must have, because the jinn fall silent.

“You need to try harder.” She turns on me. “The jinn want you to dwell on petty concerns.” “The fates of Laia and Darin and Mamie aren’t petty.” “Their lives are nothing against the sweep of time,” Shaeva says. “I will not be here forever, Elias. You must learn to pass the ghosts through more swiftly. There are too many.” At my mulish expression, she sighs. “Tell me, what do you do when a ghost refuses to leave the Waiting Place until their loved ones die?” “Ah .

well . ” Shaeva groans, the look on her face reminding me of Helene’s expression when I didn’t show up to class on time. “What about when you have hundreds of ghosts screaming to be heard all at once?” Shaeva says. “What do you do with a spirit who did horrific things in life but who feels no remorse? Do you know why there are so few ghosts from the Tribes? Do you know what will happen if you do not move the ghosts fast enough?” “Now that you mention it,” I say, my curiosity piqued, “what will happen if—” “If you do not pass the ghosts through, it will mean your failure as Soul Catcher and the end of the human world as you understand it. Hope to the skies that you never see that day.” She sits down heavily, sinking her head into her hands, and after a moment, I drop beside her, my chest lurching unpleasantly at her distress. This is not like when the Centurions were angry with me. I didn’t bleeding care what they thought. But I want to do well for Shaeva. We have spent months together, she and I—carrying out the duties of Soul Catcher mostly, but also debating Martial military history, bickering good-naturedly about chores, and sharing notes on hunting and combat.

I think of her as a wiser, much older sister. I don’t want to disappoint her. “Let go of the human world, Elias. Until you do, you cannot draw upon the magic of the Waiting Place.” “I windwalk all the time.” Shaeva has taught me the trick of speeding through the trees in the blink of an eye, though she is faster than I. “Windwalking is physical magic, simple to master.” Shaeva sighs. “When you took your vow, the magic of the Waiting Place entered your blood. Mauth entered your blood.” Mauth. I suppress a shudder. The name is still strange on my lips. I did not know that the magic even had a name when it first spoke to me through Shaeva, months ago, demanding my vow as Soul Catcher. “Mauth is the source of all the world’s fey power, Elias. The jinn, the efrits, the ghuls. Even your friend Helene’s healing. He is the source of your power as Soul Catcher.” He. As if the magic is alive. “He will aid you in passing on the ghosts if you let him. Mauth’s true power is here”—the Soul Catcher gently taps my heart, then my temple— “and here. But until you forge a soul-deep bond with the magic, you cannot be a true Soul Catcher.” “Easy for you to say. You’re jinn. The magic is part of you. It doesn’t come easily to me. Instead it yanks at me if I stray too far from the trees, like I’m a wayward hound. And if I touch Laia, bleeding hells—” The pain is excruciating enough that thinking of it makes me grimace. See, traitor, how foolish it was to trust this mortal bit of flesh with the souls of the dead? At the intrusion of her jinn kin, Shaeva slams a shock wave of magic into their grove that is so powerful even I feel it. “Hundreds of ghosts wait to pass, and more come every day.” Sweat rolls down Shaeva’s temple, as if she’s fighting a battle I cannot see. “I am much disturbed.” She speaks softly and glances into the trees behind her. “I fear the Nightbringer works against us, stealthily and with malice. But I cannot fathom his plan, and it worries me.”

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