"Look at this, Shrike." Harper has searched Alistar's body, and he pulls out another scroll. "He must have found it in Favrus's things," Harper says. "It's in code."
"Break the code," I snap. Something is wrong--very wrong. "Find me Favrus. Alistar's death can't be a coincidence. The corporal is involved. Get messages to the northwestern garrisons. Have them send scouts to check in on the closest Karkaun clans. Find out where they are, what they are doing. I want answers by nightfall, Harper. If those bastards are planning an assault on Tiborum, the city may fall. It might already be too late. Dex . . ."
My old friend sighs, already knowing that he's about to head back on the road.
"Head north," I say. "Check the passes around the Nevennes. They might be pushing for Delphinium. They won't have enough men to hold it, but that doesn't mean they're not stupid enough to try."
"I'll send a message through the drums as soon as I know anything, Shrike."
By nightfall, we've had word from even the most far-flung of the western garrisons. The Karkauns have completely abandoned their camps in the west. Their caves are empty, their grazing animals gone, their few fields and gardens are fallow. They can't possibly be planning an attack on Tiborum.
Which means they are gathering elsewhere. But where? And to what end?
Musa offers no explanation as we leave the palace, the only sign of his frustration the swift clip of his stride.
"Excuse me." I poke him in the ribs as he winds through streets unfamiliar to me. "Your Highness--"
"Not now," he grinds out. As much as I want to question him, we have a bigger problem, which is how the hells we're going to get rid of Captain Eleiba. The Mariner spoke briefly to the king before escorting us from the throne room and hasn't been more than a foot away from us since. When Musa enters a neighborhood where the houses are densely packed, I prepare to pull on my invisibility, expecting him to attack our chaperone. But instead, he just stops in an alley. "Well?" he says.
Eleiba clears her throat and turns to me. "His Royal Highness King Irmand thanks you for your warning, Laia, and wishes to assure you that he does not take lightly the interference of the fey creatures in his domain. He accepts Darin of Serra's offer for weapons and vows that he will provide shelter for the Scholars in the city until more permanent accommodations can be made. And he wishes you to have this." Eleiba places in my hand a silver signet ring emblazoned with a trident. "Show it to any Mariner, and they are honor bound to aid you."
Musa smiles. "I knew you'd get to him."
"But, the crown princess, she--"
"King Irmand has been ruler in Marinn for sixty years," Eleiba says. "Princess Nikla . . . was not always as she is now. The king has no other heir, and he does not wish to undermine her by disagreeing with her outright. But he knows what is best for his people."
All I can manage is a nod. "Good luck, Laia of Serra," Eleiba says quietly. "Perhaps we will meet again."
"Prepare your city." I say it before I lose my courage. Eleiba raises perfectly arched brows, and I rush on, feeling like an idiot for giving advice to a woman twenty years older and far wiser than I am. "You're the captain of the guard. You have power. Please do what you can. And if you have friends elsewhere in the Free Lands who can do the same, tell them."
When she is long gone, Musa answers my unspoken question. "Nikla and I eloped ten years ago," he says. "We were only a little older than you, but much more foolish. She had an older brother who was supposed to be king. But he died, she was named crown princess, and we grew apart."
I wince at the perfunctory nature of his recitation, a decade of history in four sentences.
"I didn't mention it before because there was no point. We've been separated for years. She took my lands, my titles, my fortune--"
Musa's harsh laugh echoes off the hard stone of the buildings on either side of us.
"That too," he says. "You should change and get your things. Say goodbye to Darin. I'll meet you at the east gate with supplies and information about my contact."
He must see that I'm about to try to offer him a word of comfort, for he melts into the dark quickly. A half hour later, I've gathered my hair in a fat plait and returned the dress to Musa's quarters at the forge. Darin sits with Taure and Zella in the courtyard, stoking a low fire while the two women pack clay onto the edges of a sword.
He glances up when I appear and, spotting my packed bag, excuses himself.
"I'll be ready in an hour," he says after I tell him of my audience with the king. "Best tell Musa to make it two horses."
"The Scholars need you, Darin. And now the Mariners need you too."
Darin's shoulders stiffen. "I agreed to make weapons for the Mariners before I realized you'd be leaving so soon. They can wait. I won't stay behind."
"You have to," I say. "I must try to stop the Nightbringer. But if I fail, our people need to be able to fight. What is the point of all you suffered--all we suffered--if we don't even give our people a chance in battle?"
"Where you go, I go," Darin says quietly. "That was the promise we made."
"Is that promise worth more than the future of our people?"
"You sound like Mother."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"It is a bad thing. She put the Resistance--her people--ahead of everything: her husband, her children, herself. If you knew--"
My neck prickles. "If I knew what--"
He sighs. "Nothing."
"No," I say. "You've done this before. I know Mother wasn't perfect. And I heard . . . rumors when I was out in the city. But she wasn't what Princess Nikla made her out to be. She wasn't a monster."
Darin tosses his apron on an anvil and begins throwing tools in a sack, stubbornly refusing to talk about Mother. "You'll need someone to watch your back, Laia. Afya isn't there to do it and neither is Elias. Who better than your brother?"
"You heard Musa. He has someone who will help me."
"Do you know who? Has he given you a name? How do you know you can trust that person?"
"I don't, but I trust Musa."
"Why? You barely know him, like you barely knew Keenan--excuse me, the Nightbringer. Like you barely knew Mazen--"
"I was wrong about them." My ire rises, but I quash it; he is angry because he is scared, and I know that feeling well. "But I don't think I'm wrong about Musa. He's frustrating, and he gets on my nerves, but he's been honest. And he--we both--we have the magic, Darin. There's no one else I can even talk to about it."
"You could talk to me."
"After Kauf, I was barely able to talk to you a
bout breakfast, let alone magic." I hate this. I hate fighting with him. Part of me wants to give in. Let him join me. I will be less lonely, I will feel less afraid.
Your fear doesn't matter, Laia, nor your loneliness. The Scholars' survival is what matters.
"If something happens to me," I say, "who will speak for the Scholars? Who knows the truth about the Nightbringer's plan? Who will ensure that the Mariners prepare, no matter the consequence?"
"Bleeding hells, Laia, stop." Darin never raises his voice, and I am surprised enough that I waver. "I'm coming with you. That's it."
I sigh, because I hoped it wouldn't come to this, and yet I suspected it might. My brother, stubborn as the sun. Now I know why Elias left a note all those months ago when he disappeared, instead of saying goodbye. It's not because he didn't care. It's because he cared too much.
"I'll just disappear," I say. "You won't be able to follow me."
Darin glares at me in disgusted disbelief. "You wouldn't do that."
"I would if I thought it would keep you from coming after me."
"You just expect me to be all right with this," Darin says. "To watch you leave, knowing that the only family I have left is risking herself again--"
"That's rich! What did you do, meeting with Spiro for all those months? If anyone should understand this, Darin, it's you." My anger takes hold now, the words pouring like poison from my mouth. Don't say it, Laia. Don't. But I do. I cannot stop. "The raid happened because of you. Nan and Pop died because of you. I went to Blackcliff for you. I got this"--I yank my collar back to reveal the Commandant's K--"because of you. And I traveled halfway across the bleeding world, lost one of the only true friends I've ever had, and saw the man I love get chained to some hellish underworld because of you. So don't talk to me about risking myself. Don't you bleeding dare."
I didn't know how much was locked up inside me until I began shouting it. And now my rage is full-throated and throbbing, tearing out of me.
"You stay here," I snap at him. "You make weapons. And you give us a fighting chance. You owe that to Nan and Pop and Izzi and Elias and me. Don't think I'll bleeding forget it!"
Darin's mouth hangs open, and I stride out, slamming the forge door behind me. My anger carries me away from the shipyard and up into the city, and when I am halfway to the western gate, Musa falls into step beside me.